Pittsburgh Penguins: The Fall of The ‘HBK’ Line

When a team loses a player of Evgeni Malkin’s stature late in the season, it usually doesn’t bode well for their postseason run. In the case of the Pittsburgh Penguins, though, it might have turned into the best thing that could have happened for their Stanley Cup run.

Through Malkin’s injury, it brought about the creation of the ‘HBK’ line, consisting of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel. The trio played lights out, so much that even once Malkin returned, Head Coach Mike Sullivan decided to keep the line intact. With their name matching WWE wrestler Bret Michaels, the HBK line scored some of the biggest goals during the playoffs, including the playoff, series clincher against the Washington Capitals.

This year has been a vast contrast to their postseason run, as the trio as struggled to capture their magic from then.

They haven’t been kept together all season, as the Penguins has shuffled the lines around as needed, sometimes bringing the band back together to try and spark the team.

What they have gotten instead has been one of the worst 5v5 lines in all of hockey, not the offensive spark they have hoped for. Individually they have enjoyed ok starts to the season, Kessel enjoying the best by averaging a point-per-game currently (39 points in 39 games). Neither Hagelin or Bonino are on pace to top 40 points this season, but the two have only reached that total three times collectively their entire careers. If they were to get hot, it could easily push them past that total, however.

So what has gone wrong with a line that clicked instantly, and continued to do so throughout the playoffs? A look at some of their numbers this season and where it might have gone wrong, and if there is hope they could snap out of it given the proper time together.

Puck Possession


2015-2016 2016-2017 2016-17 Rank
Corsi-For% 60.44% 43.88% 2nd Worst
Fenwick-For% 61.38% 45.65% 2nd Worst
Shots-For% 65.28% 45.18% 4th Worst

*All stats from Corsica.Hockey, based on 5v5 play. Rank is based on all line combos who have played at least 140 minutes together.

Quite the fall from a year ago for the HBK line when it comes to their possession. More or less these numbers tell you the same thing, the only difference is Corsi tracks all shot attempts, Fenwick all unblocked shot attempts and Shots-For is all that make it to the net.

No matter how you look at it, though, when the HBK line has played together this year, they have been on the short end of the possession stick, by a vast margin.

Under Sullivan, the Penguins’ have been looking to attack to the opposition’s net as often as possible. Having the HBK line together has done the exact opposite of that.

Defensive Play, Shot Suppression


2015-2016 2016-2017 2016-17 Rank
Shots-Against per 60 20.72 37.98 2nd Most
xGA/60 2.06 3.66 Highest
GA/60 1.24 2.50 14th Highest
SCA/60 6.22 13.77 2nd Most


Last year the HBK line spent most of their time in the offensive zone, limiting the opponent’s chances by keeping them out of the defensive area altogether. But to see this kind of decrease is a little shocking.

The scoring chances against have more than doubled, and only one line has allowed more than they have. Expected goals against (xGA/60) measures how many goals they should give up, based on shot quality (shot type, distance, etc.). Based on the shots that they do give up, they should be allowing the most GA/60.

If there is a win in this, is that they don’t allow that many goal. They still rank in the top quarter (14th out of 51 lines) in goals against, but have saved themselves some by allowing just 2.50 GA/60.

Offensive Production


2015-2016 2016-2017 2016-17 Rank
Shooting% 12.77% 2.67% Worst
xGF/60 3.31 2.55 31st
GF/60 4.97 0.83 Worst
SCF/60 12.43 10.02 20th
SF/60 38.96 31.30 24th


Maybe the two biggest stats here that displays just how far they have fallen – their GF/60 and Shooting% are the worst marks among the 51 lines that played 140 minutes together. After scoring nearly five goals per 60 minutes, they don’t even average a single goal this season.

Shooting% counts the rate of all shots on goal, not just the forwards, so this counts the defensemen as well. The scoring chances didn’t take nearly the drop the rest of the categories have done, and the xGF/60 being that much higher than their actual number speaks to a possible uptick in offensive output.

Bonus Hockey! Offensive Surge Approaching?


2015-2016 2016-2017 2016-17 Rank
Shot Rate 59.68 69.28 3rd Highest
Corsi-Rate 113.14 116 21st
Total Scoring Chances 18.65 23.79 2nd
GF Differential 1.56 -1.72 Lowest


Shot and Corsi rate is the total amount per 60 minutes both for and against. The higher the number, the more ‘action’ and fast the ‘pace’ of play is. As you can see, and as you probably have expected, the HBK line has produced some of the highest volumes of action in the league while they are on the ice.

Despite the struggles, they have seen an increase in each of these numbers, as well as total scoring chances per 60 from a year ago. Take that into account with their Goals For differential (GF/60-xGF/60) and you have to expect, if the Penguins decide to play them together more, things to head back more towards how they performed last year.

GF differential is how much better – or worse – the GF/60 is than the xGF/60. A negative number states that they are scoring less than expected, a positive is when they are scoring more than expected.

The Penguins have been rolling with Bonino and Kessel together on a line, but with Hagelin on Malkin’s left wing. Sullivan hasn’t been shy about juggling the lines when the team needs a boost, and with their success last year, it is hard to believe we have seen the last of ‘HBK’.

If that does happen, it will be a question if we will see more of the same, struggling, line or if they will get back to last year’s success that was a main driving force towards the Penguins’ march to the Stanley Cup.

Either way, it has been interesting to watch how quickly a line that showed so much chemistry last year, turn around and struggle as much as they have this season.


2 thoughts on “Pittsburgh Penguins: The Fall of The ‘HBK’ Line

  1. I would bet that if you looked at who the defense pairing is backing them up it would not be the top pairing like it was last year during the end of the regular season. There’s a big difference between having Letang passing you the puck and Ian Cole.


    1. Thanks for reading, and taking the time to comment.

      That is true. But Looking Nick Bonino’s numbers the last 2 months of the season, he played almost as much with Kris Letang than he did with Ian Cole. The difference was about 10 minutes. This year is a little bit more of a difference in the favor of Cole, BUT Letang has missed 12 games this season. If he hadn’t it probably would be the same as last year. It accounts for some of the struggles, not all of it.


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