Marc-Andre Fleury, My Favorite Goaltender

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I heard about Marc-Andre Fleury before I saw him. Literally, I heard thousands of fans chanting his name before I had seen him play.

In October 2003, I was driving back to my home at the time, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which sits atop a hill about three city blocks from the former site of Mellon Arena. I was listening to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ radio broadcast of a preseason game versus the Los Angeles Kings.

People from Pittsburgh will be able to visualize: I was coming from I-579N, getting off at the Sixth Street exit and heading toward Fifth Avenue. You come off the exit ramp, drive around a bend to a traffic light, and you’re staring straight at the parking lot where the Civic Arena used to be.

I’m listening to the radio broadcast of the game, and the Pens were predictably losing 2-0 to the Los Angeles Kings, but the 2003 Penguins losing wasn’t newsworthy. The story was that the Penguins’ not-yet-19-year old goaltender was making his NHL debut.

I’ll get to back to what this meant to the franchise in a moment, but this is why this game will forever be seared into my brain:

During a Hockey game, fans make a number of very distinct sounds when certain plays happen. Even a diminished home crowd such as the one that watched this October 2003 preseason game makes these noises.

If the home team almost scores -especially if they whiff on an empty net, or the puck trickles through the away team’s crease – the sound the crowd makes is more of an “OHHH!”, as if to say “Dammit, we were so close,” or “Aw, shit”.

When the home team’s goaltender makes a great save, the home crowd makes more of an “AHHH!” sound. It’s nervous relief combined with wonder.

I stopped at the red light in front of the Civic Arena, about to turn right to go toward Duquesne, and I’m listening to the game. I swear to God, the “AHHH!” noises coming from inside the Civic/Mellon Arena were louder than the radio broadcast in my car. I could hear the crowd as clear as day appreciating the franchise’s newest teenage savior.

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There probably weren’t 5,000 people in the arena for that preseason game, which the Pens would go on to lose 3-0. Marc made 46 saves behind one of the worst rosters in contemporary NHL history. Here’s CBC’s recap of the game, if you didn’t click on the link above:

Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury did everything in his NHL debut — except get the win.

The 18-year-old netminder stopped 46 shots, including a penalty shot, in a 3-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Friday night at the Igloo.

Eric Belanger, Trent Klatt and Zigmund Palffy scored for the Kings, who were coming off a 3-2 loss to Detroit on Thursday night. Palffy and Klatt added assists in the win.

Cristobal Huet had a much easier time in the other goal, making 11 saves for his second career shutout.

Fleury, the first overall pick in June’s NHL entry draft, was spectacular between the pipes for the Pens, but was saddled with the burden of seven Kings power plays.

And that’s been much of Marc’s story in Pittsburgh: he has often played exceptionally-well behind an atrocious or indifferent defense, and his efforts would largely be forgotten or underappreciated.

A lot of people who jumped on the Penguins’ bandwagon in 2013 or whenever have no idea what Marc has meant to the franchise. He was Hope at a time in which the franchise had none, with the team having recently parted out players like Alex Kovalev and Marty Straka while the specter of Relocation loomed large.

The 2003-04 season was the lowest point in 20 years for the Penguins, dating back to the season before Mario was drafted, and prior to Sid Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury was the light at the end of the tunnel signalling a better future.

I’m here to educate all of the newer and fair-weather fans: the franchise has been blessed to have drafted Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s been everything Penguins fans could have reasonably expected and more.

I’m not a naive fan. I recognize that Marc’s time in Pittsburgh is quickly coming to an end. The fourteen years since the team took him out of Cape Breton have flown by, and like Marc himself, I wish there was a way to keep him in Pittsburgh for the duration of his playing career. But the writing appears to be on the wall, for as I write this Matt Murray is set to start his 6th consecutive game for the team and has seemingly cemented his place as the team’s starting goaltender moving forward.

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But there are so many fans, both educated and otherwise, who can’t wait to see the team cut ties with Marc Fleury, as though he’s some albatross. Penguins fans and NHL trade-deadline junkies alike can’t come up with enough circle-jerk scenarios that land Flower on a Western Conference pretender in exchange for a top-flight defenseman or winger and a cascade of Cap Space.

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I’ll tell these groups two things right now: there isn’t a player that the Penguins are going to get back who is going to be more-impactful than Marc. And the Penguins absolutely cannot get back a better human being or teammate.

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 Marc has watched Matt Murray, correctly or incorrectly, wrestle his job from him. And by all accounts, he has been as positive and supportive as one could reasonably expect.

Is Marc pleased that some snot-nosed 21-year old punk has taken his position as the team’s top goaltender, just as the franchise for which he’s toiled under is experiencing a rebirth under Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan? Fuck no. Marc is very highly-competitive, even by the standards of a professional athlete. But I’ll get back to all of this at the end of the article.

I want to write a bit about all of the misconceptions related to Marc Fleury, as I feel he’s taken a disproportionate amount of criticism for the team’s underwhelming playoff performances between 2010 and 2016. 

Let’s start with the one-the-nose stuff, since Flower’s critics tend to be obtuse and thicker than wet cement:

The Penguins were still the underdog when they played the Detroit Red Wings for a second time in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final. Advanced stats geeks will tell you that the 2007-2009 Red Wings were a generational possession juggernaut.

The Red Wings took a 2-0 lead in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final. Flower defiantly told the assembled media in Detroit following Game 2 that the series was nowhere near over. Then Pittsburgh, with Flower in goal, beat Detroit four out of five times. To cap it off, Marc made one of the best saves in Stanley Cup Final history:

That’s Marc making a dead-to-rights save on Nick Lidstrom – Detroit’s Best Player, Captain, and Reigning Norris Trophy Winner – in the waning seconds of a Game 7.

For all the praise someone like Patrick Roy gets for being a Money Goaltender, I challenge anyone to come up with a more-clutch scenario. The opponent’s best player has the puck on his stick, with a point-blank opportunity in the final seconds of Game 7 of a hotly-contested, rematch Cup Final. If I wrote that as Fiction, it would be derided as being too unrealistic.

And that’s not to denigrate Patrick Roy. He was great. But Marc Fleury has also been great. Lots of great goaltenders – Hank Lundqvist, Braden Holtby, and Carey Price, to name a few – can go their entire careers without winning or even appearing in a Cup Final. 

It sometimes seems like endless bouquets, probably rightfully so, are thrown at certain goalies for their excellence in the regular season. Lundqvist is a key example. But when their teams fall short in the postseason, the shortcomings are perceived to be those of the team rather than a fantastic goaltender’s inability to win in a clutch situation.

Marc has won a Cup, appeared in another, and positioned his team to win a third. The guy has flat-out won a ton of games, playoff and regular-season alike. And that’s a big reason why he’s my favorite.

Marc is no different than any other NHL starting goaltender, except that maybe his highs are higher and his lows are lower. Unfortunately, his ten-bell robberies don’t earn him any more credit than routine stops from the outside, and that has been the basis of his criticism.

Every goaltender lets in bad goals, and admittedly Marc probably lets in as many as any NHL goaltender. These are the best players in the world competing against each other, and sometimes someone is going to the shorter end of the stick. But Marc also makes saves that no one else can. Like this one. And this one. And all of these.

In 2017, Marc Fleury is maybe too athletic for his position. Contemporary Goaltending has become extremely economical and positional, and in this regard many NHL goalies (including Matt Murray) are better than Marc. The modern NHL is a league in which five players help clog shooting lanes, with the goaltender minimizing movement. Marc has matured a great deal in this regard and become a better positional goaltender, but this is and never was his forte.

In fact, had he come into the League five years earlier, I suspect Flower would be viewed much-more favorably by casual fans and the at-large media. As an example, Marty Brodeur won the 2004 Vezina Trophy with a Save Percentage of .917, which would be a decent or even below-average  year for Flower. Meanwhile in 2016, the three Vezina finalists had Save Percentages of .922, .930, and .933, respectively.

This again isn’t to denigrate Marty Brodeur, but to point out how expectations and the position have fundamentally changed. 2004 Vezina Winner and nailed-on Hall of Famer Marty Brodeur would be a statistically below-average starting goaltender in 2017. Marc has not only kept up but improved greatly as a goaltender, and still the expectations for excellence have surpassed his statistical performance.

But Marc has been very good, and it seems like most people look to poke holes in his overall performance rather than celebrate his accomplishments.

To wit, much of the national media likes to cherry-pick Marc’s worst moments, such as his ill-conceived forays out of his net and the 2012 playoff flame-out against the Philadelphia Flyers. They haven’t watched him game-in, game-out every year like I have, and the outside perception is that he’s this head-case that has single-handily prevented the Crosby-era Penguins from ringing off a fistful of consecutive Cup runs.

Winning One Stanley Cup Championship, or even appearing in one Cup Final, is unfathomably difficult. But it’s the annual expectation of the Pittsburgh Penguins management, ownership, and fan base, not to mention intrigued outsiders. And that expectation has created a negative misconception relative to what Marc Fleury has helped his teams accomplish.

On the other hand, Marc gets relatively-little credit for reinventing his game at the onset of the 2014 season, and carrying his team through the dying days of Disco Dan Bylsma and the regrettable Mike Johnston era.

I’ll take a moment to specifically address the 2012 playoff series against Philadelphia:

I had just moved to Wilmington, NC from Pittsburgh, and I didn’t have a ton going on in my life socially at the time. So I watched every minute of that series like a hawk, and Marc inarguably let in some bad goals. But that was a team-wide collapse for which Marc has taken undue criticism.

The Penguins coach, Dan Bylsma, let the Flyers drag his high-flying skill squad into the mud. The Flyers were able to dictate the tone of the series, getting the Penguins away from the dominant, record-setting 5-on-5 possession game they had played for most of the season and turning the series into a penalty-filled Special Teams battle. Credit to Philadelphia for taking the wheel, but shame on Dan Bylsma for not getting a handle on his team or adjusting his tactics in any way.

As I write this, Dan Bylsma, who I like and respect, is struggling to keep his team competitive in Buffalo. He would kill to have Marc Fleury playing goal for him.

A number of Penguins’ players – notably Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, Aaron Asham, James Neal, and the basically-useless Craig Adams –  lost their damned minds during that 2012 series, taking a ton of unnecessary penalties and putting their goaltender in a position to fail. If you read the Box Scores from the series, it reads a lot more like a team that emotionally-collapsed rather than a goaltender who self-immolated.

The defense didn’t do great work, it should go without saying. Kris Letang didn’t help matters by spending the bulk of the series in the Penalty Box and forcing Matt Niskanen to pick up his slack. Paul Martin was injured for half of the series and diminished when he was available. Deryk Engelland played to his capabilities, but he absolutely should not have been in the top-6 of a team with Cup aspirations.

And since we’re talking about it, let’s re-examine Ray Shero’s role in orchestrating this nightmare scenario. He girded up his fourth line with the likes of Adams, Asham, and Joe Vitale, a collective possession black-hole at the NHL level. His absurd strategy of having Sid/Geno/Staal/Neal account for 80% of the scoring looks worse with each passing day. He took a Pittsburgh Penguins “soul” and wrapped a Philadelphia Flyers shell around it, and a consequence was the 2012 series loss to the Flyers.

I like Ray Shero, and I supported him for a long time. But as I write this, he currently has his New Jersey Devils team dead-last in the Eastern Conference. I would argue that the nucleus of Sid, Geno, Jordan Staal, and Flower won in-spite of Ray’s roster-building as much as they benefited from it.

Marc certainly played his part in the Penguins’ 2012 playoff loss. Eight goals against in back-to-back games is horrid. But that was a team-wide collapse, barring a few exceptions (Malkin, Niskanen, Jordan Staal) that Marc has taken disproportionate blame for.

You can watch this preposterous series compilation and form your own opinion. But I think a lot of people, including his coach and general manager, scapegoated Marc pretty unfairly.

Marc got yanked again after Game 4 of the 2013 Eastern Quarterfinals, as the organizational slant was to blame Flower for being psychologically-frail rather than look at Bylsma’s inability to adjust his tactics or Shero’s decision to disrupt chemistry and over-stuff the roster with aging, plodding veterans like Doug Murray and Brenden Morrow (note: the Jarome Iginla trade was still a great one).

With Marc mostly watching from the bench, I unfortunately have to remind Penguins fans that the team got absolutely taken to the wood-shed by the Boston Bruins, getting shut-out in the 2013 Eastern Final. If that’s not an indictment of the coach’s inability to adapt, rather than a goaltender who barely played, then I don’t know what is.

Those two playoff series are the basis upon which the national media has built much of their Marc Fleury narrative. The narrative seems to be that Marc Fleury is a playoff choker and a mental case, but the truth is that he owns two Cup Rings and has won nine playoff series behind an often-porous defense and frequently over-matched coaches in Bylsma and Johnston.

The national media rarely mentions that Flower nearly stole a 2013 series against Tampa Bay – Sid and Geno were both out with injuries, Mark Letestu centered the 1st line, and James Neal had one goal in 20-odd games for Pittsburgh – or that his composure prevented the Columbus Blue Jackets from upsetting the 2014 team in the 1st round.

Most national pundits acknowledge that the Penguins lost to a greatly-superior Rangers team in the 2015 Eastern Quarterfinal, but Flower receives little credit for keeping the punchless Penguins in the series. The Penguins – the damn Pittsburgh Penguins, they of the myriad all-star forwards and scoring titles – meekly bowed out after one win and four 2-1 losses. Marc put up a .927 Save Percentage, and while Hank Lundqvist outplayed him, barely, the Penguins didn’t put enough pucks past Lundqvist for it to merit discussion.

Mike Johnston and his Junior Hockey systems nearly drained the life from the franchise, but Marc Fleury’s steady play allowed the team to maintain a modicum of respect. Marc put up a .921 Save Percentage in 2014-15, holding the fort while Johnston’s inane system and the team’s lack of puck-moving defensemen crippled the offense.

Smarter fans and followers will remember that the Penguins almost missed the playoffs in 2014, and needing a win on the last day of the season, Marc put up a Shutout in Buffalo behind five defensemen.

Something very similar happened in 2015-16, in which Marc put up a .920 Save Percentage for the season and banked much-needed victories until the Mike Johnston era mercifully came to an end. The 2015-16 Penguins simply do not win the Stanley Cup without Marc’s regular-season performance. This fact frequently gets swept aside by critics of Marc and proponents of Matt Murray.

If I really thought about it, I could come up with dozens upon dozens of games in which Flower was a standout for the franchise. Like I wrote at the top of the article, I’ve seen the bulk of them as they unfolded live, and frankly Fleury has had too many stellar performances to remember. But I’ll include some more of those at a later date.

The advanced stats crowd – for whom my contempt grows by the day – loves to cite statistics such as “Expected Goals Against/60” as their argument for why Marc Fleury isn’t a quality NHL netminder. I would take such statistics much more seriously if the geeks espousing them had ever played a meaningful hockey game, but more often than not that’s not the case.

The statistic that supporters of Marc such as myself will cite is Wins, a statistic in which Marc currently sits 17th in the history of the NHL and could easily jump to 13th with more routine work. If he starts three or four more years for a playoff-caliber team, Marc could crack the top-5 of all-time.

Flower’s detractors take a basic, dense stance on this matter, which is that the gaudy Wins total is a result of the teams in front him while the inconsistent individual stats are solely Marc’s fault. These detractors are typically the nerds who want to distill Hockey down to a something you can completely interpret with algorithms and spreadsheets. These detractors usually want to suggest that the juggernaut Penguins of the last decade would have won all of those games with any jamoke beer-league goaltender backstopping them.

But Hockey People – the real, knowledgeable ones, like Pens GM Jim Rutherford – will tell you that you win and lose as a team, and that certain attributes can’t be quantified. I’ll argue all day that the Penguins’ fast-and-loose style of play – combined with Marc’s baptism-by-fire behind the atrocious 2003-04 and 2005-06 Penguins – have suppressed his personal statistics to a large degree. If you throw out his first several years in the League, Marc’s career Goals Against and Save Percentage look a lot better.

Marc-Andre Fleury has always been the ultimate teammate, and that more than his personal statistics will be his legacy in Pitttsburgh. That and the two large pieces of silver hardware for which he is directly responsible. 

When someone like Steve Yzerman or Jonathan Toews sacrifices his personal statistics for the good of the team, it’s seen as commendable or even noble. And that’s what Marc Fleury has done for the bulk of his career: he’s put his team in front of himself, and I challenge anyone to argue otherwise.

Not to keep picking on Jonathan Toews, but if Joel Quenneville reduced his playing time to ten minutes a night – or even made him a regular healthy scratch – I wonder if he would accept a role reduction as gracefully as Flower has. Some are going to fail to see my comparison, but it’s apt.

It’s a team sport, and Wins are the ultimate statistic. It’s about time that Marc was applauded for his huge Win totals, rather than seen as a replaceable cog on the Crosby-era Penguins teams. Maybe after he’s playing and climbing the All-Time Wins list for another NHL team, people – Pittsburghers, especially – will have a greater appreciation for how fantastic his career has been.

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I think the biggest thing working against Marc Fleury the player is that he’s a normal, happy human being. He understands that Hockey is just a game, and he likes to have fun. He has a better overall perspective on Life and the sport’s place within it, and it ends up undercutting him in a way as a competitor.

A lot of hockey players aren’t like this. I’m not like this. Sid Crosby isn’t like this, and Matt Murray isn’t like this. 

Based on what I’ve seen from Matt Murray, he has a huge chip on his shoulder. He quietly fumes, smoldering and never lacking for motivation. And I like that in a player, too. I think what fuels Matt Murray is being overlooked as a fourth-round pick and a relative afterthought. He’s spent his entire career taking jobs from pedigree guys like Marc Fleury, a former 1st Overall and foundation piece of the team. Again, full credit to Matt Murray for creating an opportunity for himself. I’m very glad he’s a Pittsburgh Penguin. 

I also can’t deny the evidence – the eye-test, as well as some of the advanced and traditional statistics – many of which indicate that the team plays significantly better in front of Matt Murray than Marc Fleury. I sometimes scream at the Pens’ defensemen for the apathy they appear to show, watching mouths agape after firing a perfect one-time pass in the slot to an opposing forward for an easy goal.

For whatever reason, the team often plays to the tune of Ringling Brothers music when Marc is in net, yet they look like a sure-fire bet to repeat as 2017 Cup Champs in front of Matt Murray. I can’t fully explain it, but it’s certainly there. I don’t begrudge Matt Murray for taking the ball and running with it, and I think Mike Sullivan has handled a very difficult situation as well as he possibly could. But circumstances are forcing Jim Rutherford to make a very hard decision.

It’s possible, if not probable, that Marc-Andre will be traded by the time you read this. As I write this, the NHL Trade Deadline is looming, and the rumor mill is churning loudly. The situation is becoming untenable, as Flower is (understandably) antsy to play and Murray is entrenching himself into the team’s fabric. If a reasonable trade scenario presents itself, Jim Rutherford will probably pull the trigger. And Marc-Andre Fleury’s 14 years with the team will end overnight.

I have a dream scenario in which the Penguins repeat as Cup Champs in 2017, and Marc plays a pivotal role. And I don’t want that for me. I want that for Marc, because he’s been the ultimate good soldier. Short of that, I hope Marc gets dealt to a Western Conference contender, and I hope he has a chance to prove to both Penguins and NHL fans once-and-for-all that he’s an elite, generational NHL goaltender.

Time will tell. But whatever team employs Marc-Andre in the future will have a first-rate human being in their fold, and a dynamite goalie to boot. It’s disheartening that it’s not likely to be Pittsburgh.

This has been a long article, but Marc’s had a long career as a Pittsburgh Penguin, and too many people need to know how terrific he’s been for the organization on multiple levels. For his humor, his selflessness, his uniqueness, and his massive contributions to revitalizing the Pittsburgh Penguins, Marc-Andre Fleury, the Flower, is my favorite goaltender, wherever he happens to play.

 

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Pascal Dupuis, a Great Pittsburgh Penguin, Will Be Badly Missed

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December 8th, 2015 was a Bad Day for Hockey. It will be remembered as the day that Pascal Dupuis, as determined and relentless an athlete as the NHL has seen in recent years, was forced to end his professional hockey career due to complications from his blood clot disorder.

What I initially wrote on Twitter after hearing the news was that Pascal Dupuis will be remembered as an all-time great Pittsburgh Penguin, which perhaps seemed like hyperbole. But in retrospect, consider a few points:

  • Sidney Crosby is likely going to remembered as the preeminent player of his generation, and Pascal Dupuis (along with Chris Kunitz) is likely to be remembered as one of his signature linemates.

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Duper isn’t Jari Kurri, and he would tell you as much. But he wasn’t a Robbie Brown or a Warren Young or an Andy Hilbert. Duper had the ability to elevate the best player of a generation, and he was a big part of both a dominant Pittsburgh Penguins club and for a time, a member of the best line in hockey.

Penguins fans often like to sweep the success the 2009-2014 Penguins had under the rug, as though the Playoff flame-outs completely invalidated the record-setting Regular Seasons. Sidney Crosby put up a few of the best Regular Seasons of the modern era, in large part due to the play of Duper:

His loss as an on-ice talent can’t be understated. He was an integral part of the team’s chemistry.

  • Pascal Dupuis was one of the most adaptable players in the NHL

People who have followed the NHL for a long time will vaguely remember Pascal Dupuis as an effective, hard-working utility forward for the Jacques Lemaire-Minnesota Wild teams, perhaps from the Wild’s miracle run in 2003, and maybe as an underused cog on a few mediocre New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers teams.

ST. PAUL, MN - NOVEMBER 23: Pascal Dupuis #11 of the Minnesota Wild looks to pass the puck against the Edmonton Oilers against on November 23, 2005 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. ( Photo by David Sherman/Getty Images)

ST. PAUL, MN – NOVEMBER 23: Pascal Dupuis #11 of the Minnesota Wild looks to pass the puck against the Edmonton Oilers against on November 23, 2005 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. ( Photo by David Sherman/Getty Images)

I don’t mean any of that to slight Dupuis, but to point out how he continued to grow and improve as a player well into his 30s. It’s easy to argue that he was a better NHL player after his 30th birthday than he was prior.

Most Penguins fans became cognizant of Duper when he came aboard with Marian Hossa at the 2008 NHL Trade Deadline. At the time, fans were mostly divided into one of two camps: elated that the team acquired Hossa, or enraged that the team had to sacrifice Colby Armstrong and to a lesser extent Erik Christiansen. At the time, no one was overly distraught or impressed that Dupuis changed teams again.

And at the time, I think even Ray Shero might have viewed Duper as a throw-in, or a warm NHL body to replace Army or Crusher on one of the lower lines. I don’t think even Ray Shero could have foreseen how critical Duper would become to the Penguins’ sustained success, or the kind of leader he would develop into. Ray Shero couldn’t have known the kind of human being he was acquiring.

When the Pens won the Cup in June 2009, Duper dutifully served on the 4th line, and was at times the odd man out when Dan Bylsma put the lineup together. By the beginning of the 2010 season, he was a staple on the best line in the NHL. In his seven years with the organization, he’s played every spot in the lineup, and been beyond reliable or serviceable. He’s been integral.

When he tore his ACL in 2013-14, the Pittsburgh fanbase collectively screamed. But Duper got up and skated off the ice under his own power, and swore he’d be back better than ever. And he kept his word:

Penguins’ fans all have players they like and loathe on any given roster, but the entire fanbase cheered when Duper scored that first one against Anaheim. He’s universally adored in a way that no other player on the roster, including Sid and Geno, can claim.

It was heart-wrenching when Duper was forced to take off the duration of the 2014-15 season due to Blood Clot issues. He wrote two magnificent pieces for The Players Tribune, which can be found here and here.

In the first piece, In My Blood, Duper vehemently rejects the idea that his medical condition is going to rob him of the final moment of his NHL career:

I’m 35. I know I don’t have much time left. But I’m getting out of that press box prison. I don’t care if it takes six months or a year or two years. I will get healthy. I will play in the National Hockey League again.

It’s such a Hockey Player mentality. Indignity and rage in the face of adversity. Will where other people Will Not. It’s something born and bred into a Hockey Player that a shot to the back of the head or the mouth or a blood disorder can’t suppress. You can’t coach Courage out of a Hockey Player, and Pascal Dupuis is a textbook example of Courage in Motion.

In the second piece, Why I’m Coming Back, Duper outlays the reasons why he can’t walk away from the NHL despite the health concerns:

Of course, if I’m being completely honest, that’s not the only reason. People have told me I wasn’t good enough my entire life. Not good enough for Juniors. Not good enough for the NHL. Not good enough to play on Sidney Crosby’s wing. Even now, I’m sure there’s plenty of people who have left me for dead. They clearly do not know me. My goal is not to just come back and lace them up for one more season and be a good locker room guy. I want to be an impact player on the ice. I want to be counted on.

Pascal Dupuis doesn’t know any other way than fighting his way back from adversity, working his fingers to the bone until he’s achieved his goals. It’s so admirable from a human perspective that we couldn’t help but get behind the guy. Which is a main reason why:

  • Pascal Dupuis is absolutely beloved in the Locker Room and the community

I have a friend who works in a grocery store in the Pittsburgh area. She would send me high-lather text messages every time Duper stopped in for French cheese or Chorizo sausage. She would gush over how approachable and friendly Duper was to everyone, even though he had $3.75 million reasons to hold himself above the community riff-raff.

The reason Pittsburgh latched onto Dupuis was that he never took the opportunity to separate himself from the community. Even as he rose from a relative-unknown to Sidney Crosby’s preferred linemate, he continued to conduct himself as a normal guy who loved his family. You could see, or maybe have seen, Duper trolling around Home Depot on a nice little Saturday.

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This commitment to normalcy is what he made Duper so revered not only in the community, but also the Pens’ locker room.

I am not going to look up the Pens’ Win-Loss record with Duper available versus unavailable. I’ll leave that for one of the more stats-heavy blogs to cover. But as a dedicated Pens’ fan, I can tell you the team tended to play lifelessly when Duper was unavailable, but sprang to life when he reentered the lineup.

The most recent example was when the team found out he had returned safe-and-sound from the hospital during their 2-1 win against Edmonton in November.

Pascal Dupuis has been the heartbeat for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It remains to be seen how the team will adjust, knowing his return won’t be imminent.

I’m obviously not inside the Pens’ locker room, but the impression I get is that most of the core players are very tightly-wound. What Duper seems to do is keep everyone loose with a good-natured rib here and there.  His antics and wit kept the Penguins’ galaxy of stars grounded in reality:

The only other player I’ve seen as adored by his teammates as Duper is Mario Lemieux. For as respected as players like Ron Francis and Sergei Gonchar were, or even as well-liked as players like Marty Straka, Max Talbot, and Colby Armstrong were, I can’t recall a member of the team since Mario that was beloved – repeat, beloved – like Dupuis. This is largely because:

  • Pascal Dupuis will be remembered as absolutely selfless

In announcing his retirement – official in all terms but contractual – all Duper would talk about was how the decision was about his family and how he would look to help the team even without being able to play. Like the freaking Giving Tree, on the day of his unofficial retirement, Duper stood there and talked about ways in which he would still look to contribute to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

He didn’t say a thing about his playing career or accomplishments, or really about how retiring from a sport he clearly loves was affecting him personally. He talked about what he could do to help a team he no longer plays for.

If that’s not someone dedicated to the organization, then no one is. If that doesn’t set the bar for being a team-first guy, then I can’t imagine what would.

Finally:

  • Pascal Dupuis leaves as a Stanley Cup Champion

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For all the absurd expectations placed on the Pittsburgh Penguins, it needs to be repeated that winning a single Stanley Cup Championship is a phenomenal achievement. At present, there are 30 teams investing millions upon millions of dollars and countless man-hours into achieving this goal. With Dupuis, the Penguins won one Cup, fought for another, and remained in the conversation for the duration of his Penguins career.

Pittsburgh has been in the NHL since 1967, and appeared in four Stanley Cup finals. That’s almost fifty years. Cup appearances don’t happen every year, and Dupuis was aboard for two of them. That’s noteworthy in-and-of itself.

As we move further away from Duper’s run with the team, his contributions are going to seem more and more important. It will stun us how often he’s been on the ice for a critical goal or been part of an outstanding Penalty Kill throughout his time with the team. There’s going to be a gaping hole in the lineup when the team takes the ice against Colorado on Wednesday the 9th.

The term is over-used, but he really has been the straw that stirs the drink for the modern-era Pittsburgh teams. Duper, as much as any other player the team has acquired, has been the missing piece that elevated the team from also-ran to perennial Stanley Cup threat. His presence was always noted, and was equally felt when he was forcibly removed from the lineup. As the shock subsides, a hollow feeling sets in as the team moves forward.

His decision to leave on his own terms should have unconditional support. Both the Penguins and the NHL community at-large are only grateful that Duper has decided to leave the game before something tragic occurred. It’s evident from everything Duper has done and said that his wife and four children come before Hockey, no matter how much he loved playing. It’s a good day for Duper and his family, as his wife and children no longer have to worry about Daddy/Pere being hospitalized on a nightly basis.

But December 8th, 2015 is still a fucking Sad Day for Hockey. The NHL lost one of the good guys today, and the Penguins lost one of the cornerstones of a very successful era. I hope he remains a very visible presence around the team, but I assure you he will be badly missed as a player.

Jack

 

 

 

Opinion: Pittsburgh Penguins 2015 Trade Deadline Preview

JimRutherford3

(UPDATE: 2/21/15 – this article required an immediate update following the Pens 4-2 win against St. Louis. It may be amended further as developments occur.)

Having gotten a much better and lengthier look at the “Grim” Jim Rutherford/Mike Johnston iteration of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the time has come to take a hard look as the team’s needs approaching the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline. I’ll give a brief evaluation of the job Rutherford and Johnston have done to date, and also take a more-objective look at the Ray Shero/Dan Bylsma teams that represented the organization so well from 2009-2014.

On the 2014-15 Pittsburgh Penguins

gold

With more than half of the 2014-15 NHL season played, I think it’s fair to give some initial impressions of the Jim Rutherford/Mike Johnston version of the Pittsburgh Penguins, as well as to cite some of the way in which the 2015 team compares to teams from the Shero/Bylsma regime.

First, to get this out of the way: I am not in the habit of criticizing Mario Lemieux, ever, but Ray Shero and especially Dan Bylsma deserved better treatment on the way out the door. While I agree with Mario and Ron Burkle that a change in direction was needed from an organizational perspective, leaving Disco and his staff dangling in the wind for weeks while a successor to Ray Shero was appointed wasn’t a class move.

In any event, the front office was reorganized, with Penguins “organizational” guys Jason Botterill, Billy Guerin, and Tom Fitzgerald named Associate and Assistant General Managers, respectively, under Grim. Former Portland Winterhawks czar Mike Johnston was eventually named Head Coach, and Pens great Rick Tocchet was named to his staff along with veteran NHL assistant Gary Agnew.

Under the mandate of Mario and Ron Burkle, Grim sought to bring in more grit and character. The results have been decidedly mixed, as the Pens have basically been a .500 hockey team since Christmas following a white-hot start. The Power Play, which once clicked at rates nearing 40%, is 0-for-20 as I type this on February 21st.

(UPDATE: the Pens converted 2.5 Power Play against St. Louis, with a Sid Crosby Power Play goal being called off because officials lost sight of the puck. Crosby assisted on a clean Power Play goal to Patric Hornqvist, and Brandon Sutter scored on the tail end of a Power Play.With the win, the team is now 11-11-5 since December 22nd.)

The Penguins are seemingly further away from their goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final than they were one year ago. While the team still looks like a powerhouse on paper, the depth issues – particularly in the bottom-six forwards and on the second defensive pair – have not been resolved.

It’s also obvious to opponents that if they contain Sid Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, no one on the lower half of the roster is going to be consistently able to produce in their stead. When the Pens’ Power Play went cold, the inability of the 3rd and 4th lines to contribute at 5-on-5 became a much more glaring issue, one that new GM Grim may not be able to entirely rectify by the 2015 Trade Deadline.

These are my impressions on the 2015 Pittsburgh Penguins, written about 10 days before the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline:

On Ray Shero and Jim Rutherford

sherodiscousa

Due to the ugly nature of their respective dismissals, many of “Showtime” Ray Shero and “Disco” Dan Bylsma’s collective accomplishments have been swept under the rug. While I am in the camp that believes an organizational change was necessary following the 2014 NHL season, I am also of the opinion that both Bylsma and Shero deserved better for all of the great things they achieved.

Also, I wanted to get my thoughts out before one or both men are hired by another organization, which I think is imminent. I think Dan Bylsma is the next NHL coach to be hired, and in fact would be working now if he so wished. I fully expect Ray Shero to be given the keys to another NHL team this summer prior to the 2015 Entry Draft.

In writing this article, I am omitting the Michel Therrien (2006-2009) years, as Ray Shero inherited Therrien and a complete view including the Shero/Therrien years would exceed the scope of this article. The Penguins’ job was obviously Ray Shero’s first as General Manager, and due to a number of considerations – including the coach, financial situation, staff, and team he inherited – Shero’s first three years with Therrien merit a separate discussion.

But the short version is this: no Pittsburgh Penguins team under Showtime and Disco saw such inconsistent levels of success as the 2015 Pens have under Grim/Mike Johnston. Under Disco/Showtime, a three-game losing streak came about as often as the Lunar Eclipse.

2012 NHL Entry Draft - Rounds 2-7

For a long period of time, Ray Shero was seemingly beyond reproach. He won the Manager of the Year award following the 2013 season, so it’s not as though he lost touch at the end of his tenure. It’s also ridiculous to argue that he did not do everything within his power to load his team up at the Trade Deadline every year, often at the expense of organizational depth.

Not that much might have been done with the draft pics Showtime traded away, as the Penguins continued to have the same problems developing non-first round talent under Shero as they did under Craig Patrick. But Ray Shero made sure his juggernaut Penguins’ teams from 2008-2013 had every conceivable advantage from a roster perspective.

As Manager of the Penguins, Showtime had a unique challenge, in that he was given a nucleus of players that most other managers would kill for. Showtime’s challenge, which is now Grim’s challenge, was to properly surround his all-world core with the right complementary players.

We could argue how well Showtime did in this regard, but it’s moot as Mario and Ron Burkle ultimately decided Showtime wasn’t bringing in the right kind of complementary players. I don’t have a great feel for what Jim Rutherford prefers, but I know for a fact that Ray Shero preferred rough guys tinged with a bit of skill.

To wit, here are his primary acquisitions during the Crosby/Malkin era:

2007: Gary Roberts, Georges Laraque

2008: Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis, Hal Gill

2009: Billy Guerin, Chris Kunitz, Craig Adams

2010: Alex Ponikarosky, Jordan Leopold (swing, miss)

2011: James Neal, Alex Kovalev, Matty Niskanen

2012: Cal O’Reilly (rah?)

2013: Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Doug Murray

Showtime obviously thought “sandpaper” first, then looked for guys skilled enough to play with the likes of Sid, Geno, et al. I recall him somewhat begrudgingly re-acquiring Kovy, but Mario obviously vouched for him.

Love it or hate it, Ray Shero had a vision for how he wanted the Pittsburgh Penguins to look. I certainly didn’t always agree with his moves, at least initially, but it was hard to knock the overall results.

Moving on, eight months after his hiring, I have no idea what Grim looks for in a player. He hit a Home Run with the trade for David Perron, but I always have to temper my enthusiasm for his work by recalling the horrible contracts he handed out to Eric Staal, Alex Semin, and Cam Ward, among others.

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Of course, Grim also signed Flower to a very good-looking extension earlier in the year, and he did acquire the likes of DP and Horny. The Christian Ehrhoff signing has not quite worked out as planned, but there is still time for that particular move to pay off. The low-cost signings of Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, and Marcel Goc worked to various degrees, but none of them were disastrous additions.

Heading into the 2015 Trade Deadline, Grim realizes as most do that the 2015 Pens are not a Cup-level team as currently constructed. The interesting part will be to see if Grim decides the roster needs a band-aid or major surgery.

On Dan Bylsma and Mike Johnston

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In Spring 2009, after almost three years on the job, Ray Shero removed Michel Therrien as Head Coach and brought promising coach prospect Dan Bylsma up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Many at the time, myself included, thought the move was a stop-gap until a more noteworthy candidate could be found.

History has of course proven this line of thinking wrong, as Dan Bylsma – moving forward referred to as “Disco” or “Coach Disco” – went on to have tremendous success as Head Coach of the Penguins. In addition to winning the 2009 Stanley Cup, Disco is the Franchise leader in Wins and the 2011 Jack Adams Winner. He holds a career Winning Percentage of .653, meaning his Penguins’ teams won over 6.5 of every 10 games played. Most organizations would kill for success of that magnitude.

The reason this article is coming out now is that the 2014-15 Penguins are currently as a crossroads, as the team is woefully inconsistent compared to most of the Bylsma-era Penguins teams. As an example, the current Pens squad finished 5-4-3 in January. The preceding months, though more successful, are similarly-uneven.

Here is the team’s Win/Loss record so far n February. Notice the wild swings on the scoreboard:

Sun Feb 1, 2015 Predators Penguins 2:00 PM FINAL NSH (4) – PIT (0)   Recap
Wed Feb 4, 2015 Penguins Oilers 8:00 PM FINAL PIT (2) – EDM (0)   Recap
Fri Feb 6, 2015 Penguins Flames 9:00 PM FINAL PIT (4) – CGY (0)   Recap
Sat Feb 7, 2015 Penguins Canucks 10:00 PM FINAL PIT (0) – VAN (5)   Recap
Wed Feb 11, 2015 Red Wings Penguins 8:00 PM FINAL DET (1) – PIT (4)   Recap
Thu Feb 12, 2015 Penguins Senators 7:30 PM FINAL PIT (5) – OTT (4) SO   Recap
Sun Feb 15, 2015 Penguins Blackhawks 12:30 PM FINAL PIT (1) – CHI (2) SO   Recap
Tue Feb 17, 2015 Capitals Penguins 7:00 PM FINAL WSH (3) – PIT (1)   Recap
Thu Feb 19, 2015 Blue Jackets Penguins 7:00 PM FINAL CBJ (2) – PIT (1)

As I type this, the Pens overall record is 32-17-9 33-17-9. While that’s certainly not bad, it certainly doesn’t include a historic 14-game winning streak. Hell, not even a 12-game winning streak.

It’s hard for me to use the injury situation on the 2015 Pens as an excuse, considering Coach Disco guided to the 2014 team to yet-another Division title despite handily leading the NHL in Man Games Lost in 2014. Dan Bylsma has a remarkable ability to churn out wins regardless of the roster he’s given every night, and that’s about as much praise as you can heap on a coach.

While I like a lot of what Mike Johnston has implemented – more on this in a moment – it’s hard to overlook the accomplishments and gross numbers the 2009-2014 Penguins achieved.

Mike Johnston, Rick Tocchet

Meanwhile, most had no idea about what to expect from Mike Johnston. My early impression was that he knew enough to let his big dogs off the leash, and that he simplified the systems – particularly Disco’s elaborate stretch-pass breakout in such a way that the team’s defensemen because much more effective. And not that it was entirely his doing, but Marc-Andre Fleury has never been better. Some credit needs to be given to Johnston for helping insulate Flower and indirectly getting his play up to Vezina-caliber.

The early returns were impressive. In 2014, the Pens’ Power Play looked like an unstoppable juggernaut, with Chris Kunitz and newcomer Patric Hornqvist making life miserable for every goaltender in the League. The Penalty Kill, which has become an annual point of pride for the Pens, had it’s now-standard spot among the Top-1o in the NHL. The Pens looked like a dominant contender for the Cup.

However, since the calendar flipped to 2015, the offense – both 5-on-5 and on the Power Play – has been touch-and-go, at best. While there have been positives – notably the play of Flower, the pairing of Kris Letang/Paul Martin, and newly-acquired David Perron – the team is precipitously-close to backsliding.

Particularly distressing is the team’s abysmal record against Divisional rivals, spotlighted by a couple beatings courtesy of the New York teams and Washington, any of whom the Penguins could see in the first round of the playoffs.

Pittsburgh currently sits 4th in the Metrosexual Metropolitan Division due to the team’s strong start. As noted above, the team has been inconsistent at best since the New Year. The season is not lost, but as Sid Crosby said following the team’s 2-1 loss to Columbus on February 19th, “it’s time to get going.”

My take is that the coaching is not an issue. Mike Johnston is encountering the same problem that Dan Bylsma ran into with the 2014 version of the team, minus the horrendous man-games lost situation: the roster needs a number of foundational repairs. Until these issues are addressed, Scottie Bowman and Toe Blake could co-coach the team to similar results.

This is where we will see if Grim Rutherford was the right replacement for Ray Shero. While Showtime and his staff had their shortcomings – notably in Drafting and in finding the appropriate players to surround the Pens’ nucleus with – it can never be said that did not do everything at the Trade Deadline to arm his teams for deep playoff runs.

Grim has now been on the job long enough to see that the changes needed to make the Pens a true Cup contender are significant. Ray Shero knew that the 2014 Penguins team was one that was bereft of depth, as he pushed many of his chips in at the 2013 Deadline. The 2014 Pens – Tanner Glass and Joe Vitale and Deryk Engellend, oh my – were paper-thin, and the 2015 version is not significantly deeper.

It’s simply too much to ask five or six superstar players to carry a squad, a fact that was obscured by the great job Dan Bylsma did at wringing victories out of Penguins teams filled with replacement-level talents. If the current Penguins team wants to go anywhere in the postseason, a fairly-massive retooling of the roster’s bottom-half is likely needed, before another year of Sid and Geno’s prime is wasted.

Pressing Needs

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Pittsburgh Penguins

I’ve beaten this into the ground so much both guys probably think it’s personal, but Brandon Sutter and Craig Adams need to replaced in their respective roles.

My new soulmate Ryan Wilson of Hockey Buzz has written much about how these two players in particular are crippling the team from an analytic perspective. Sutter routinely gets out-shot and fails to drive play or make his teammates better, while Adams is an offensive cipher who does much of the same.

In defense of both men, as well as occasional whipping-boy Rob Scuderi, I watched all three beast their way through an extended 5-on-3 kill versus Columbus. Craig Adams is absolutely fearless, and will put his face in front of a Shea Weber slapshot if he thinks it will help the team. Sutter is an effective Penalty Killer, has noticeably improved on face-offs, and at times has the appearance of being a contributor offensively. The point is that both players, as well as Scuderi, have positive points and usefulness at the NHL level.

However, both Adams and Sutter are seemingly bulletproof in regard to demotion or healthy-scratching, and it’s hitting the Penguins in the standings. By contrast, the coaching staff seems intent on making an example out of Beau Bennett, despite the fact that he routinely drives possession and generates shots while consistently being saddled with Brandon Sutter.

I’m not alone in this opinion. This article from Pens Labyrinth touches upon many of the same points I’m making about the construction of the bottom-half of the roster. The lack of punch from the lower-lines allows teams – particularly shrewd Divisional opponents – to almost laughably stack their best defenders against Sid and Geno. Teams that see the Pens frequently know that the 3rd/4th lines are not going to make them pay on the scoreboard, so they put their best defensive forwards and top-pairings out against Sid and Geno every single shift.

The result has been the sudden disappearance of the team’s offense. Again, Ryan Wilson of Hockey Buzz has a number of great posts explaining in lay-terms exactly what’s happening in the Pens’ bottom-six, and how it’s impacting the team overall. The Pens are more-than-adequate in Goal Prevention – much thanks to Flower and Tanger/Snake – but the power outage is costing the team points, most recently against Chicago and Columbus on February 15th and 19th.

Picking on Sutter and Adams may seem unfounded, but those two best represent the fundamental problem with the Penguins since 2012: relying on the top-two lines and the Power Play to generate 90% of the offense in a flawed strategy in the modern NHL, especially as the playoffs near and games become tighter. A successful team needs a host of players who can potentially produce at 5-on-5.

Concerning Brandon Sutter specifically, a Cap team with Cup aspirations such as Pittsburgh can’t afford to pay a replacement-level center $3.3 against the Cap and play him 16-18 minutes per night. Pittsburgh simply needs better production and more-consistent play-driving from that position and salary slot. This needs to be remedied if Pittsburgh wants to go anywhere in the playoffs.

I am slightly-more on the fence about Craig Adams. This article from Pens Initiative, for example, argues against most of the points I am making about Adams, and as noted, you can do worse than having a fearless beast such as he for protecting late-game leads. I’m biased in that I’m personally fond of him. You can obviously win a Cup with Craig Adams on your team.

But he needs to be extremely well-protected at 5-on-5, which he won’t be with Zach Sill and Max Lapierre as his linemates. I’ll get to those two in a minute, but it has to be asked if his overall level of play is still acceptable for a 4th line RW on a playoff team.

(UPDATE 2/23/15: the Pens, finally and mercifully, scratched Craig Adams against Florida. The Pens won the game 5-1. The flawed logic that has kept Adams in the lineup past his expiration date – his small salary, his past contributions, and his obvious usefulness as a defensive forward – is finally being rethought.

The question isn’t “Can we win with Craig Adams on the 4th line?”, because the answer is of course. The question is “Can we upgrade the 4th line?”, and the answer is that Steve Downie provides an immediate overall upgrade on Adams, if all 13 forwards currently on the roster are available for use.)

Steve Downie, when he plays hockey and doesn’t get into the sideshow stuff, is an effective lower-line player, which his advanced metrics will bear out:

Dashboard 1

Both the analytical data and the eyeball test confirm that Steve Downie is an uneven player at the NHL level, in that there are somethings he does that almost justify his inclusion on a scoring line. While there are a few things Craig Adams does very, very well, he’s also replacement-level in a number of critical areas.

By contrast, Steve Downie is quite firmly a top-9 forward at the NHL, with a very underrated ability to both get shots on net and to convert on a good percentage of those shots. The HERO chart above also shows that he has picked up Assists at a high rate over the last few years. Both the common and advanced statistics say to me that he’s more than capable of playing with Top-6 talent, and for that reason alone I consider him to be a building-block within the lineup.

Repeat: all of this applies when Steve Downie concentrates on playing hockey and not taking obnoxious retaliatory penalties. If the coaching staff – meaning Rick Tocchet – is unable to corral him here in late February, then it’s probably a good idea to move he and his $1 million cap hit out of a comparable-but-different type of player, as Grim did in moving Marcel Goc for Max Lapierre.

(Check out the terrific work Dom Galimimi does at http://ownthepuck.blogspot.ca/ or follow him @mimicohero).

Downie has seemingly become a bit of a scapegoat, even being healthy-scratched recently, but he’s not the main problem. I think in an ideal world, Downie would be on the 4th line with the option to move-up as needed. He’s certainly a net-front asset on a second Power-Play unit, not to mention a gritty worker on the boards on the Offensive Zone.

(UPDATE 2/21/15: Downie was again scratched for the game on 2/21 against St. Louis, while it will apparently take a minor miracle to push Adams to the press box. If Mike Johnston has moved on from Downie, that’s fine, but a replacement for Adams should still be pursued.)

New York Rangers v Pittsburgh Penguins

Beau Bennett gets picked apart for reasons I don’t fully understand. I guess the perspective is that he maybe has to play top-6 to help a team, and that he underwhelmed in his audition on Geno’s wing in January. But I think unless he’s traded as part of a package to get reinvent the bottom half of the roster, he just needs more time to develop and consistently-better opportunity.

This is a personal preference, but I would never sit a player with clear offensive upside like Bennett. He was among the most-prolific players against Chicago on February 15th, firing nine shots on net and making the play on Nick Spaling’s goal. He’s more than salvageable, even as a future top-six option.

Speaking of Spaling, over time one can see why Grim was so keen to acquire him along with Horny. Spaling makes at least one or two nice plays per game, such as the bump pass as to Geno on this Bennett goal. I’ve heard Spaling called “vanilla”, but I think “subtle” is a better description. As advertised, Nick Spaling does a little bit of everything well, and he’s playable almost anywhere in the lineup. As with Downie, you like him on your 3rd line but you’d love it if he was on your 4th.

Significantly upgrading the 3rd line, and by consequence the 4th line, is probably the most-pressing need for Pittsburgh. Upgrading the third-line center position, and ideally pushing Downie and Spaling down to the 4th line with Lapierre or someone comparable, is probably the best-case scenario.

Zach Sill has out-kicked his coverage and worked his way into the NHL, but I don’t believe a Cup team can have a player with two points in 50+ NHL games as one of their regular forwards, especially if he’s skating opposite Craig Adams. I think you can justify one or the other, but not both.

Frankly, the Top-6/Power Play needs more support from the Bottom-6 forwards both as shorthanded threats against and especially at 5-on-5. Zack Sill is tough and a very heavy hitter, but he’s a player you like better as a depth option than an uncontested regular.

Max Lapierre is obviously new to the team and I don’t have an informed opinion about him, but I was bullish on Marcel Goc.

Marcel Goc got a bad rep for being soft and poorly producing – which landed him as a healthy scratch under Johnston – but he was also skating with Adams and Sill the majority of the time. He may not hit as hard as Max Lapierre, but he was an underutilized asset in Pittsburgh. St. Louis is hosting Pittsburgh tonight, so I may amend this section after viewing the teams head-to-head.

(UPDATE 2/21/15 – I made a point of watching Max Lapierre like a hawk, and while he was obviously revved up to be playing his former team in St. Louis, I saw a lot him running around and not playing his position strongly. I didn’t see him generate much of anything offensively.

Meanwhile, Marcel Goc was mostly invisible, save for a nice shorthanded chance following a bit of lackadaisical play from Geno. In other words, basically the same we saw in 50+ games in Pittsburgh. I guess when you’re talking 4th line centers, there needs to be a limit to your expectations.

Again, this is a stylistic preference, but I would want all four of my forward lines to at least attempt to put a few pucks in the net. The current 4th line seems to be out there to just eat up time while Sid and Geno rest, which is fine, but you would like to a few more scoring chances from them.)

The Top-6 forward lines are not perfect, but between Sid/Geno/Kuni/Horny/Comeau/DP, Johnston can roll two quality units in some fashion. Against St. Louis on 2/21, Kuni skated with Geno and Comeau, and had one of his better games of the season. Horny looked much better skating with Sid than he has with Geno. Blake Comeau is looking like the UFA Signing of the Year. On the whole, the Top-6 is the least of the Penguins’ concerns, just after Marc Fleury.

Unfortunately, many nights the Top-6 is being beaten into powder because they are not better-protected by the Bottom-6 on the stat sheet. The Pens’ most-pressing need is a forward or two who can pose an offensive threat regularly from the Bottom-6, and ideally a Centerman who pushes down or replaces Brandon Sutter.

As for the defense, while not a pressing need per se, the Pens would probably like to acquire someone to skate with Christian Ehrhoff on the second pairing and thus reduce the pressure on the kids. As Grim recently noted, he’s probably not going to be able to upgrade talent-wise on the likes of Derrick Pouliot and Robert Bortuzzo, so barring something crazy the Pens may be better off going with the available personnel.

Having said that, if the team can upgrade on Defense without giving away someone like Scotty Harrington or Brian Dumoulin, it’s worth pursuing.

2015 Trade Wish List

staal

(UPDATE: I must be high, because this was reported by a legitimate source.)

(UPDATE 2/23/15: Ronnie Francis went to his newsboy and had him proclaim that the Canes weren’t moving Jordan Staal. I am one that never says never, so despite this proclamation I’ll continue to monitor the situation closely.)

Almost since the moment he was dealt, I’ve asked for a return of Jordan Staal to Pittsburgh. I think re-acquiring Staal or a comparable player – such as Ray Shero tried to do last year with Ryan Kesler – would fix much of what’s wrong the Penguins.

What Ray Shero realized after he was forced to deal Jordan Staal was that this Penguins team – meaning the Crosby-Malkin Penguins – need another dominant centerman to succeed. Not necessarily Jordan Staal or Ryan Kesler, but someone in that mold: an exceptional two-way player who can easily slide up to Sid or Geno’s line if needed.

The last time I’ll mention it, but poor Dan Bylsma tried to deploy Brandon Sutter in the same way he used Jordan Staal to poor results, forcing him to use Sid Crosby an unnecessary amount in the defensive zone. Sutter struggled mightily in 2013 and 2014 with inconsistent and poor linemates, but at some point we need to stop ignoring the data and making excuses for his substandard shot metrics. He’s a 4th-line center at the NHL level, and paying or playing him like a borderline top-6 guy does not change that fact.

To optimize the usage of Sid and Geno, this Penguins team needs a 3rd line center who can approximate their level of play. Not all-world play necessarily, but at a high enough level to keep teams honest and give Sid and Geno a little room to operate.

Based on the top-heaviness of the team’s payroll, you need to have Sid and Geno unfettered and in the offensive zone as much as possible, so as to maximize their production. To accomplish this, you need a 3rd line that can drive play out of the Pens’ defensive-zone as well as provide a threat on the opposite end. The Pens almost require a player such as Staal or Kesler to get to where they want to be.

So barring some insane scenario in which Carolina goes for a full rebuild, and Ronnie Francis blatantly colludes with Grim to put Jordan Staal back into a Pittsburgh uniform, what are the Pens’ other options?

colorado-avalanche-center-ryan-oreilly

Ryan O’Reilly, AKA Factor, has been involved in trade rumors for several seasons. Like Staal and Kesler, Factor is basically a top-6 guy who rotates between third-line center and scoring-line winger based on need.

Factor makes $5 million against the Cap this year and next. That seems prohibitive, until you realize Sutter makes $3.3 million against over the same term. A creative deal is workable from the Cap perspective.

The Pens of course have a number of elite defensive prospects, which Colorado lacks. I am of the belief that a package of Sutter/Bennett/Dumoulin or Harrington/Pick is enough to get a conversation started.

The Penguins’ goal is to win the Cup. Making a somewhat short-sighted move – such as buying parts of two seasons of Ryan O’Reilly – is the sort of move Grim Rutherford was charged with making. If the Pens can’t resign him in two years, then too bad. The goal is to win now, while Sid and Geno are still at the height of their powers.

While we’re trading with Colorado, let’s talk about repatriating Max Talbot:

talbo2

Max Talbot is still absolutely beloved in Pittsburgh and in the locker room. Quite simply, Talbo has more value to Pittsburgh than to any other team, even if he provides the same fundamental play as someone like Max Lapierre.

With two years left at $1.8 million per season, Talbo’s contract is no longer the albatross it was when he signed with Philadelphia in 2011. Talbo is someone who, in a number of ways, can help Pittsburgh win NOW.

If Pittsburgh is looking for a gritty character guy for the bottom-six who can chip in offensively, why is Grim not blowing up Joe Sakic’s phone every day trying to bring back Talbo? Again, he has more value to Pittsburgh than to the rest of the League, so while someone as smart as Joe Sakic recognizes that, in the end it’s haggling over a 4th line player. I think a deal for Talbo is entirely within the realm of reason.

Chicago Blackhawks v Toronto Maple Leafs

The mainstream media has been all over Daniel Winnik to Pittsburgh, but I think ultimately some other team is going to outbid the Pens. Frankly, while Winnik would be helpful, I don’t think he will cure what ails the team, especially if the swap is ostensibly Beau Bennett for Winnik. I’ve read in multiple places that the team “likes the idea of Winnik with Sutter and Spaling.” This is disconcerting for all the reasons written above.

berg

The more-interesting pickup for me would be Sean Bergenheim of Florida, who has been repeatedly healthy-scratched. While he obviously has a wart or two in his game if Florida coach Gerard Gallant refuses to play him, his advanced metrics (to say nothing of his playoff pedigree) all seem to indicate that he would be a big help:

Dashboard 1(1)

The advanced stats seem to indicate that Bergenheim has been very effective in the limited minutes he’s been allowed to play. As with Beau Bennett or Marcel Goc, this may be the case of “the eyeball test” obscuring the truth, in that Bergenheim is much more effective than he appears to be.

I’m thinking something like Bryan Rust + 3rd Round Pick gets the Bergenheim deal done. I realize there are Cap issues at play and that Pittsburgh may not be able to add him until Deadline Day, but there are always options – some of which include moving out Brandon Sutter in a separate deal and asking Florida to retain a bit of Bergy’s salary.

On defense, as Grim has pointed out, who’s available that’s going to be an upgrade on Derrick Pouliot or Scotty Harrington? This is not the time of year when higher-end top-4 defensemen are available.

bigz

Having said that, “Big Z” Zbenyk Michalek is available as Phoenix blows up their team. Big Z was a bad fit for Dan Bylsma’s system, but he might look right at home baby-sitting on the second pairing while Christian Ehrhoff or even Derrick Pouliot go freelance.

By the way, if Grim and the Pens are raiding Phoenix:

bod

You probably aren’t familiar with him, but as someone obsessed with Hockey, I have always looked at Phoenix left winger Mikkel Boedker as someone who would excel with Sid or Geno. He skates at roughly 1,000 miles-per-hour and at times almost looks like a younger Marian Gaborik:

He has been an inconsistent producer, and does not seem to be part of Phoenix’s long-term plan. I am of the belief that with a proven passer – let’s call him Evgeni Malkin – Boedker could be a consistent 25-30 goal threat. If I were Grim Rutherford, I would enjoy a fine meal of plain toast and water, and then kick the tires on both Big Z and Bod, just to see what Phoenix GM Don Maloney was looking for in return.

And finally:

jagr

We have to at least talk about this, right?

Assuming the Pens could negotiate a palatable price with Devils GM/Ruler of Hell Lou Lamoriello, where would Jaromir Jagr fit on this team? Would he fit?

Let’s talk for a minute about who Jaromir Jagr is in 2015:

Jaromir Jagr had a late career epiphany in which he decided he wanted to be remembered as an insanely-hard worker who just loves the sport rather than the petulant diva he was prior to his KHL exile in 2008. He is certainly outspoken, but he is not the disruptive locker room cancer he may have been in 2000, 2004, or even 2008.

Here is a snapshot of Jaromir Jagr the player in 2015:

Dashboard 1(2)

In 2015, you’re not getting an elite level of goalscoring from Jaromir Jagr, and that’s fine. He doesn’t skate around people like he used to, and he’s never been much for hitting or shot-blocking.

But even at age 43, Jagr retains his exceptional ability for puck protection, evidenced by his Corsi Against per 60 and his Corsi %. In non-geek, once Jagr gets the puck, most of the time he isn’t giving it back to the other team. His setup skills and Hockey IQ obviously remain razor sharp, and the guy still looks strong as a bull in the offensive zone. He would certainly be a very interesting addition to any team’s Power Play mix.

Jagr is (probably) not going to come here and play on the 3rd line, where as I’ve exhaustively pointed out above the Pens need the most help. He’s also not going to switch to left wing under any circumstances, so you’re talking about a situation in which:

A) Chris Kunitz is traded or moved to Geno’s line, David Perron is moved to his preferred left wing, and Jagr skates on Sid’s line, or

B) Patric Hornqvist is traded in the interest of freeing up Cap Space, and Jagr somehow ends up skating with Geno and Blake Comeau

While I happen to think he would fit fairly well with DP and Sid, I think we both have a better chance of seeing 40 unicorns trampling a litter of leprechauns than seeing Jagr on Sid’s wing. Stranger things have happened, but still.

Trading Horny would be an incredibly-bold move, but if it’s been determined that Sid wants to play with Kuni and Perron and Horny isn’t a great fit for Geno, I suppose it’s within the realm of possibility. I think it’s obvious Horny was acquired to skate with Sid, but that does not seem to be the plan now that David Perron is aboard.

(UPDATE: Johnston had Horny with Sid/DP against St. Louis, and it worked well. I will update again after the Florida game.)

Trading Chris Kunitz and forcing Horny onto a line with Sid and DP would be very hard for the organization to do, but it’s beginning to look like Kuni or Horny are going to eventually need to be sacrificed to the Salary Cap gods in the name of greater forward depth. I like Chris Kunitz a ton, but he’s 35 and has two years remaining at $3.8 million against the Cap. It needs to at least be discussed.

In any event, it would take some creativity to get Jaromir Jagr onto this roster. But I’ve seen both Alex Kovalev and Jarome Iginla skate for the Pens in recent years, so it’s clear that madness can and will ensue on Deadline Day.

(UPDATE: the notoriously-picky Jagr has often preferred to play with less-talented centers, as Jagr is basically a center who plays right wing. If his ego could tolerate it, I have heard of worse ideas for injecting life into the Bottom-6 than acquiring Jagr and putting him with Brandon Sutter. Jagr’s ability to drive and maintain puck possession might even offset Sutter’s inability to do so, especially if Beau Bennett or Nick Spaling were on the opposite wing, and you would always have the option to move Jagr up. Food for thought.)

In closing, I’ve driven a basic point into the ground, which is that the Pens need to overhaul their bottom-six if they expect to get out of the first round of the playoffs. Adding two legitimate third-line players – and possibly a right-shot defenseman to pair with Christian Ehrhoff – should be Grim Rutherford’s focus for the next 10 days. Pens fans will be watching eagerly to see how things unfold.

Jack

Building a Better Hockey Player: Applying Advanced Stats

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(UPDATE: this started as an Advanced Stats article, and while it certainly is, it also turned into a Pittsburgh Penguins article by the end. That may or may not please you. You’re Welcome.)

“Are you the future, or are you the past?”

Powerman 5000, Supernova Goes Pop

The recent rage in the NHL, a topic that has overtaken even the Concussion epidemic, is the topic of Advanced Statistics. As you read this, there is a war being waged between Hockey’s old guard and the next generation of professional hockey executives, as the decision makers at Hockey’s highest levels strive to reconcile traditional player evaluation with progressive Shot-Based Metrics.

The game has evolved. Hockey has never been more sophisticated from a specialization standpoint. The NHL in particular, due to its implementation of a Salary Cap, has become a Value-Conscious Model. Economists will know what this means, but to casual readers, it means that every NHL team is trying to get the most bang for their buck from every roster spot.

For players fighting to break into the NHL, it means that they can no longer be deficient in critical areas of the game. For example, a stay-at-home defenseman can no longer be a substandard skater. If he is, the player in question poses a high risk of being replaced on the roster, as NHL executives are striving to squeeze as much Productivity and Versatility from every asset (i.e. player) as possible.

For people evaluating potential NHL talent, it means that teams can no longer take major risks on flawed or incomplete players.  To better gauge Asset Value – meaning the on-ice worth of a given player – teams have turned to Shot Metrics such as Corsi and Fenwick as a means of better evaluating players. This is a concept that has gained traction in other sports, most notably Baseball, where the economic landscape between the Have and Have Nots is greatly skewed.

Your head may be spinning, as you may just be a Hockey Player who wants to maximize her or his potential. In order for you to reach your ceiling as a player, it will aid you tremendously to understand how modern players are being evaluated. You do not have to like Advanced Statistics, but you should definitely know what they are, and how they are used to evaluate a given player’s effectiveness. Knowing the logic behind Advanced Hockey Statistics can make you a much-more effective player, if you apply Advaned Statistics principles properly.

Overview of Advanced Hockey Statistics

As with Bill James and Baseball Statistics (covered at length in both the book and the film Moneyball), much of the current Shot-Based and Possession-Based statistical work is attributed to a former NHL Goaltender and current Goaltender Coach named Jim Corsi. A great synopsis of Jim Corsi can be read in this article from The Hockey News, but the takeaway is that Jim Corsi’s name is most-frequently associated with the current grouping of Advanced Statistics in Hockey.

But unlike Baseball, in Hockey there are certain things that simply cannot be qualified or quantified, at least not yet. The statistical breakdown of Hockey is currently in it’s infancy, and we have yet to find a proper way to qualify intangibles such as Hockey Sense and Hustle, or to properly qualify the impact of a player who plays a physically-dominant game. What we know right now is how to qualify players who Drive Possession, which we we quantify through the use of statistics such as Corsi, Fenwick, and PDO.

Almost all players can agree that Possessing the Puck is a great thing. When your team has it, the other team is not scoring against you, and your team’s chances of scoring are rapidly rising. Not Possessing the Puck means that the other team has it, which means that your team’s chances of being scored against have risen dramatically. Thus, controlling the puck is much like being on Offense in Football, in that every second that your team dictates play is a second in which the other team has a very limited chance of scoring against you.

Several successful organizations – traditionally the Detroit Red Wings, and more recently the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks – have enjoyed outstanding Regular Season success by putting an emphasis on Possessing the Puck.

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The Red Wings have traditionally been a Puck Possession machine largely because they had one the NHL’s All-Time Great Players, Nicklas Lidstrom, controlling the tempo of play for many years. To this day, the entire organization is filled with skilled players who help the team maintain possession rather than enforcers, grinders, and hitters. The term “Red Wings Model” is frequently used in NHL circles to describe the organization’s style of play.

This style has been emulated by many organizations, most notably Boston and San Jose. It starts with Centermen who are dominant in the Face-Off circle (Pavel Datsyuk, Joe Thornton, Patrice Bergeron, Joe Pavelski, etc), progresses to Defensemen who excel at making Zone Exits and Zone Entries while maintaining Possession of the Puck, and includes Wingers who are typically Possession Drivers such as Hank Zetterberg, Brad Marchand, and Logan Couture.

The Red Wings were one of the first teams to identify the value of Positive-Possession Players in the modern era. Whereas the traditional model was to fill the lower lines and 3rd defensive pairing with Enforcers, Grinders, and Shot Blockers, the Red Wings traditionally have dedicated almost all of their roster spots to possession-driving players.

rafalski

For example, they identified an undervalued possession-driver such as Brian Rafalski, who was regularly criticized for his lack of size and physicality in the defensive zone. Rafalski, despite his small stature, was a member of three Stanley Cup-Winning teams and a huge asset. When the Red Wings signed him in 2006, many in the NHL community were still reluctant to identify players by their ability to move and hold onto the puck, instead choosing to evaluate players by more-quantifiable markers like Height and Weight.

Prior to this, the Red Wings made great use of players such as Igor Larionov, Slava Kozlov, Larry Murphy, Slava Fetisov, and Paul Coffey, all of whom were dismissed as too soft, too old, or too apathetic defensively. However, all of these players possess a great skill which we Hockey evaluators have come to recognize as the ability to acquire, move, and maintain possession of the puck.

The Red Wings were never alone in this regard, but they were at the forefront of the modern movement. The Sharks and Bruins have copied the model to a certain extent, but they are far from being the only NHL teams that recognize the value of players who can drive and maintain Puck Possession.

Corsi/Fenwick/PDO

The Advanced Statistic Corsi, as described in the article on Jim Corsi above, describes as “action” that a Goaltender must adjust to. Shots on Goals (SOG), Blocked Shots, and failed/missed Shot Attempts all qualify as Corsi Events. Over time, these events are predictive of a given player or team’s success, in that a skewed advantage or disadvantage in Corsi will lead to Goals For or Goals Against over a long-enough timeline.

The simplest way I can explain Corsi to the casual Hockey fan is to describe it as “Shot Attempts Plus/Minus.”

Meanwhile, the Advanced Stat Fenwick is a straight count of Shots on Goals for and against, omitting Blocked and Missed Shots. In calculating the Fenwick number, Blocked Shots are omitted because this is Shot Blocking is in many cases a refined skill, and adept Shot Blockers can impact the predictive nature of Possession-Based stats. Corsi has not been proven to be a superior predictor to Fenwick, but Corsi has seemed to gain a bit more prominence in the mainstream community.

Finally, PDO is the sum of even-strength Shooting Percentage and Save Percentage, either for an individual player or for a team. PDO does not really pertain to the other topics being discussed in this article, but if you are interested in Advanced Hockey Stats, it’s a figure you should be familiar with.

All three of these Advanced Stats fall under the umbrella of Puck Possession Statistics. Advanced Statistics such as these are used to evaluate players in the modern game along with more-traditional stats such as Goals and Assists.

The value of Advanced Statistics is that they are predictive in nature. This can allow a shrewd economist or evaluator to project where a given player’s production may be headed, the same way as a smart broker might grab an ascending stock before it reaches maturity. In a Salary Cap League, this can be a tremendous advantage in an otherwise leveled playing field.

Consider Sid Crosby, whom most consider to be the Best Player in Hockey. Here is a snapshot of Sid’s Corsi/Fenwick numbers:

1-Crosby

These numbers simply confirm the obvious, which is that Sid is a dominant, dominant player. They also indicate that Sid is going to remain a dominant NHL player even as his physical skills decline, because he is cerebral enough to dictate play and Drive Possession even when he at less than 100%. This was most obvious in the 2014 NHL playoffs, when Sid continued to Drive Possession on a greatly-flawed Pittsburgh Penguins team while playing with one hand.

When Sid Crosby is on the ice, the Penguins consistently out-shoot their opponents by a large margin. It doesn’t matter if Sid scores or if Geno Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, etc. score, as the Pittsburgh Penguins are scoring when Sid is out there, almost irrespective of who he plays with. All of his linemates see a major jump in Relative Corsi when they play with Sid.

And really, what does Sid Crosby do? He wins Face-Offs, passes the puck with extreme intelligence (when he has the full use of both hands), holds onto the puck when no passing options are available, maintains possession of the puck in the Offensive Zone with his body positioning and skating while generating Scoring Chances, and digs the puck out of his Defensive Zone when needed. He’s a wonderful player.

Geno Malkin is very similar to Sid in this regard, although Geno still remains brutal in the Face-Off circle. He makes up for this because he has Beast Mode. To say Geno “drives possession” is a great understatement. The Penguins’ current third-line Center draws my ire for the opposite reasons, which I will explain in detail below.

In short, if a player or a team is possessing and shooting the puck, the other team is not. Over time, possessing the puck is a tremendous predictor of success, under the notion that “a Best Defense is a Good Offense.” As I will discuss below, many in the modern Hockey community are coming to understand that traditional Defense – i.e. committed or structured play within a team’s Defensive Zone – is a terrible strategy. As Hockey Scientists are coming to accept, the best defense involves keeping the puck 200 Feet away from your own goal, ideally while forcing the opposing Goaltender to make as many Saves as possible.

Interpreting Advanced Stats

A Shot on Goal (SOG) is basically a lottery ticket. When you think about it, how many factors have to happen for a Shot to get past a competent Goaltender? Putting aside all other on-rink factors (checking, getting into the Offensive Zone, sticks, unintentional traffic, and many more), you are putting the puck into the 5% or less of the net that the modern goaltender does not cover with sheer body volume.

There is a reason that Goal/Non-Goal Events are so greatly skewed in favor of Save Percentage compared to Shooting Percentage, and that is because the odds are stacked statistically in favor of Goaltenders. All the more reason to look up to Mario Lemieux.

So working under the theory that a Goal is almost an event of luck, the best way to increase Goal Production is buy more Lotto Tickets, meaning to get more Shots on Goal. As you likely know, the likelihood of a Shot on Goal actually going into the net greatly increased dependent upon where the Shot is taken from, so it behooves any goal-scorer to not only get into shooting areas, but to get into primes ones such as the House, i.e. the area between the dots right in front of the goaltender in the Offensive Zone.

So we agree that a Shot on Goal is a good thing, right? At worst, it forces the opposing Goaltender to make a save. It can also lead to a rebound (i.e. another opportunity for a SOG), or best-case scenario, it goes in.

If during a shift your line generates five Shots on Goal and you allow one Shot on Goal again, your line is dominant in Puck Possession. Over time, just by statistical happenstance, you are going to start generating Goals at a rate somewhere between 1-25% if you continue to dominate in Shots on Goals in this fashion.

If you are consistently out-shooting your opposition, you are like a very strong Possession player. Your Relative Corsi, or your Shots on Goal +/- compared to other players, is likely high. This makes you a major asset to your team, speaking in strict terms of Statistics.

Strategic Implications in the Modern Game

What the fascination with Corsi/Fenwick/PDO has done is change how shrewd evaluators gauge players. Strong underlying statistics may point toward an uptick in production, and in a Salary Cap League such as the NHL, finding undervalued assets is endemic to winning.

Most people with a reasonable understanding of the sport can appreciate the value of Corsi and other Advanced Statistics. What many people, and veterans of the sport in particular, have a hard time digesting is that time-honored components of the game such as Shot-Blocking and Hitting could in fact be Low-Value Metrics.

Put another way, here’s a story I heard about Mario Lemieux. It has a ring of truth to it, so I’ll repeat it:

Years ago, one of the Penguins’ players was in the locker room after a game bragging about the number of Hits he had, either in a single game or his Hits total for the season. Overhearing this, Mario, in his typical deadpan, asked his teammate how many of his Hits showed up on the scoreboard. The teammate got the message and promptly closed his mouth.

The story could be real or make believe, but the lesson is the same: Hits do not show on the scoreboard. More problematic with Hitting as a strategy is that it means that you are not Possessing the Puck, which is ideal for all the reasons described above.

This is not to say that Hitting is not important. I love Hitting. But Hitting for the sake of Hitting is not a good strategy for winning Hockey games.

Hits that lead to Turnovers are ideal. Hitting is simply a means to an end: separating the puck from an opposing player. If a player can take the puck away from another player without Hitting him, that’s fine, too. Pavel Datsyuk is the master of this. His nickname is “Magic” and he owns three Stanley Cup Rings.

Hitting as a strategy is like trying to win at Darts by simply throwing them harder. It’s excessive work, and most of the time, it’s channeled improperly.

Much like Hitting as a strategy is a poor idea, Shot Blocking as a strategy has become ineffective in the modern game. While teams like the 2012 Washington Capitals and 2012 New York Rangers were able to ride Shot Blocking to moderate success under Dale Hunter and John Tortorella, respectively, consider the repercussions of an NHL Coach using Shot Blocking strategically rather than as an odd play:

1) NHL Players are shooting at your players. Over time, this will leads to a litany of injuries. Are you really winning if you lose one of your best defensemen for two months due to a broken ankle via a P.K. Subban slapper?

This is a lesson John Tortorella has been slow to learn, which led to his immolation in Vancouver. Maybe taking a 100+ point team full of possession-drivers like the Sedins and Ryan Kesler and forcing the Sedins to kill penalties and block shots wasn’t the best idea, in retrospect. But I digress.

2) By definition, when you are Blocking Shots, the other team is shooting toward your goal. This means the puck is likely in your zone, which means that the chances of your team being scored on have astronomically risen while the odds of your team scoring have dramatically dropped. This is not conducive to having a higher score than the other team.

Just so you all know that I’m not only picking on John Tortorella, consider Dale Hunter, who took another 100+ point team in the Washington Capitals and made some of the NHL’s most-skilled players hide in their own zone and dump the puck in. A Goal is literally the best play you can make in Hockey, and Dale Hunter took the League’s best goal-scorer and tried turning him into Mike Ramsay. Similar fates befell Alex Semin and Mike Green, two other Possession Drivers who thrived under Bruce Boudreau but have wilted since.

Shot Blocking as a strategy is a ticking time-bomb. Irrespective of your team’s commitment to Blocking Shots, the other team is going to eventually score if you do not try to achieve possession of the puck in your own zone. Again, this ignores the likelihood that your players are going to start getting seriously hurt if you keep trying to deploy six Goaltenders, five of them without the proper protective gear.

I am not saying that Hits and Shot Blocks are bad plays. They certainly aren’t, most of the time. But using Hitting or Shot Blocking as a Strategy is poor logic. You need this kind of grit to win Hockey games, but better than relying on grit is relying on the odds. Possessing the Puck stacks the odds in your team’s favor.

The True Value of Possessing the Puck

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Meanwhile, Hockey Statisticians have made less-analytical types reconsider how valuable players who can maintain possession are.

Consider much-maligned Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green, who remains as renowned for his “inability to defend” as he is for his point-production. Things have gotten pretty bad if I, a black-and-gold bleeding Pittsburgh Penguins fan, am defending a Washington Captial, but hear me out:

I am somewhat sympathetic to Green’s plight because the criticisms levied on Mike Green are very similar to those levied on one of my all-time favorite players, Paul Coffey.

What Paul Coffey and Mike Green have in common is that when they are allowed to play to their mutual strengths – i.e. their ability to maintain Puck Possession with their skating and skill – rather than being grilled for their deficiencies in Defensive Zone Coverage, both have shown that they can help their teams pile up wins. I have to frequently remind people that Paul Coffey has appeared in seven – seven (!) – Stanley Cup Finals, and been a member of four Cup-Winning teams, to say nothing of his regular season accomplishments.

Green is no Paul Coffey, but to his credit he helped his Washington Capitals to a series of 100+ point seasons when he was healthy and permitted to play his game. Since firing Bruce Boudreau (who of course has gone on to success with the Anaheim Ducks), the Captials are now on their third coach in four seasons, while their success has been inconsistent. Green has mostly languished, as Bruce Boudreau’s successors have been more interested in what Green apparently cannot do well (defend in his own zone, clear the front of the net) rather than what he can do well (exit his own zone with Puck Possession, keep the puck from the other team, produce points).

The Capitals and their fans have repeatedly singled out Green as a trade-target, rather than a core member of their hockey club. I guess the team and its fans would rather have Green blocking shots with his face than generating goals, but when they eventually cut him loose, some other team is going to be the benefactor.

As the announcer mentions in the clip of Mike Green blocking a shot with his head, old-time Hockey guys love “guts” and “courage” and “doing whatever it takes in the Playoffs”. I’m a Hockey guy, and I love those things as well. But I also understand that statistical success in Hockey revolves around Driving Possession and Possessing the Puck. Grousers can talk about Eddie Shore and old-time Hockey all they want, but the truth is that Shot Blocking and Hitting are Beta Skills. Blocks and Hits don’t show up on the scoreboard because they are less important than Goals and Assists.

To succeed in and truly understand Hockey, you need to accept this, even if you don’t like it.

Where Corsi/Fenwick Fails

The problem with Corsi, Fenwick, and the like is that there are so many things a Hockey Player can do that cannot be quantified or qualified

Take these two NHL players for example: current Penguins forward Nick Spaling, and former Penguins forward Tyler Kennedy.

Penguins’ fans are very divided about Tyler Kennedy, as some absolutely detest his game, while others point to his above-average Shot Metrics during his time with the team.

460KennedyOlivierMorinGetty

No one benefited more from the possession-driving of Jordan Staal (see below) and Dan Bylsma’s aggressive forecheck than TK. The low-zone cycle that Kennedy, Jordan Staal, and Matt Cooke used to help the Penguins win the 2009 Stanley Cup also helped TK to rock-solid Corsi/Fenwick numbers during most of his tenure in Pittsburgh, to say nothing of an outlier 21-goal season in 2010-11.

He was an import piece on both the 2008 Cup Finalists and the 2009 Cup Champions, so TK certainly has value at the NHL level. But his on-ice struggles in the last several years show a disparity with his robust Shot Metrics numbers from 2008-2012.

The problem is that while Tyler Kennedy – and he’s a guy I view with rose-colored glasses – is that he seemed to hurt the team in a number of other areas despite consistently out-shooting the competition. TK liked to gun the puck from low-percentage areas, and while they say that no Shot on Goal is a bad play, TK was frequently criticized for his marginal shot selection. By choosing to shoot with such frequency and indiscretion, he regularly took more-opportune Scoring Chances from his more-talented linemates (primarily Jordan Staal and Matt Cooke). I could argue that playing with Tyler Kennedy dragged down Jordan Staal’s offensive production fairly significantly during their four years together.

Additionally – and not to hammer him, because I like Tyler Kennedy – but TK was not especially good in his own zone and was not used on the Penalty Kill with any regularity. He is generally tenacious on the forecheck, but his lack of NHL size limited how much damage he could do physically. He is gritty, but he was not putting a physical pounding on opposing defensemen most of the time.

Tyler Kennedy did not bring tremendous value because he was not a very Diversified Asset. It seems that he needed to be placed in a very specific situation to succeed. Despite his solid Corsi/Fenwick numbers, he was basically shoe-horned into the 3rd line Right Wing slot. Attempts to move him up the lineup or away from Jordan Staal were largely unsuccessful, and the evidence (particularly his struggles after Staal was traded) seem to indicate that his strong Possession Numbers were largely due to being picked up by Staal being a Possession monster.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, as noted in this article by Pensburgh, is newly-signed Penguin Nick Spaling:

spaling

Spaling is the opposite of Kennedy in that he looks far less impressive when viewed solely from the Advanced Statistics perspective. In fact, Spaling may be the poster boy for the new “Undervalued Assets” in the NHL market, as NHL Managers are starting to pay players with mediocre point totals who are Possession-Drivers.

This is the book on Nick Spaling: Plays all three forward positions. Hustles, hits. Smart Penalty Killing instincts. Playable in a complementary Top-6 role. Good skater, good hands, gradually worked his way up the lineup in Nashville. Greatly improved in the Face-Off Circle. Grit. Character.

Unlike Tyler Kennedy, who it seems needs optimal circumstances to succeed at the NHL level, Nick Spaling seems to be an NHL Swiss-army knife. Based on all reports, he is extremely versatile, and the definition of a Diversified Asset. This is his 2013-14 Season Review from On the Forecheck, a Nashville Predators blog. Despite mediocre Advanced Stats, the On the Forecheck guys gushed about him because he does a lot of things that help Hockey Teams win games.

These things that cannot currently be qualified or quantified – good instincts, two-way responsibility, versatility – have become the new undervalued asset. As more Advanced Stats people enter NHL front offices – such as Kyle Dubas in Toronto or my favorite, Tyler Dellow in Edmonton – players who Drive Possession or who possess strong Shot Metrics are going to start getting paid more. Meanwhile, the market may undervalue players who, like Spaling, thrive on an atypically high Shot Percentage, but also do a great number of intangible things that benefit his hockey club.

Corsi/Fenwick fail because NHL Hockey is not Strat-O-Matic. Advanced Hockey Statistics are useful and certainly shouldn’t be neglected, but they do paint an incomplete picture.

The Practical Application of Advanced Statistics

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(UPDATE: Literally as I finished typing this article, Brandon Sutter re-signed with the Penguins for two years at $3.3 million per year. It’s a slight overpay, but it’s not the obnoxious overpay I was anticipating. Maybe Mike Johnston and better linemates can extract a little more on-ice value out of Sutter.)

At the potential risk of having him get mad at me on Twitter again, I am going to use Pittsburgh Penguins Center Brandon Sutter as my illustration of the value of Advanced Statistics.

As I write this, Brandon Sutter is in the middle of a contract negotiation with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is a Restricted Free Agent, which means that the team controls his contractual rights. In situations such as this, players have traditionally accepted team-friendly contracts

The current negotiation seems to be tricky because of the disparity between Sutter’s perceived value and his actual on-ice value at the National Hockey League level. While his reputation and the eyeball test seem to indicate that Brandon Sutter is a critical part of the team moving forward, the hard data seems to indicate otherwise.

People tend to disagree with me about Brandon Sutter’s value at the NHL level. I do not think he is a bad player – in fact, I think he’s a sure-fire NHL Top-9 Forward – but I also take issue with some of the figures that were being thrown around prior to Sutter signing his two-year deal at $3.3 million per year. Even at the AAV of $3,3 million, I think Sutter is overpaid relative to what he provides as the Penguins 3rd-line center.

My main issue is that Brandon Sutter compares pretty directly to someone like Mark Letestu, who the Penguins once traded for a low-round draft pick. Brandon Sutter was brought into Pittsburgh with the expectation that he would help keep pressure off of Sid Crosby and Geno Malkin, ideally by taking a healthy portion of the Defensive Zone starts and turning the possession tide in a fashion similar to Jordan Staal.

This never came to pass, as Sutter and his linemates repeatedly got trapped in their own zone over the course of the 2013 and 2013/14 seasons. This led to Dan Bylsma, in desperation, deploying Sid Crosby as a de-facto checking line center in many situations. Everyone else seems to have forgotten, but at one point Sutter was demoted to the Penguins 4th line due to ineffectiveness.

Sutter’s difficulties in Driving Possession were covered in an article called, “Brandon Sutter is Not Very Good,” and I came to many of the same conclusions independently. It’s not that he’s a bad player, but is he the right player for Pittsburgh under the Crosby-Malkin model?

I suspect Ray Shero would not have tried so hard to trade Sutter as part of a package for Ryan Kesler if he thought Sutter was giving the Penguins what they needed to be successful. Alas, Jim Rutherford is now Penguins’ GM, Ryan Kesler was traded to Anaheim, and Sutter now has a two-year deal, so this line of thought irrelevant.

Again, I have nothing personal against Brandon Sutter. In fact, I bet he’s a swell guy. But Sutter was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft with the expectation that he would provide a reasonable facsimile of Jordan Staal, whom the team was basically forced to trade to Carolina after he rejected a 10-Year, $58 Million-Dollar extension from the team. Not only has he compared poorly to Jordan Staal, but statistically he’s compared marginally to other NHL third-line centers throughout the League.

The reality is that Brandon Sutter is seemingly not able to approximate what Jordan Staal provides at the NHL level. Jordan Staal is a possession monster, who in a checking-line role was able to elevate borderline NHL players such as Tyler Kennedy by driving possession out of the Penguins’ defensive zone and maintaining possession in the opponent’s offensive zone. Much of the Penguins success from 2008-2012 is directly attributable to what Jordan Staal provided. Since trading Staal, the team has receded from “Elite” to “Top Quartile“.

In 2013, then-Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma tried to deploy Brandon Sutter in a similar fashion to Jordan Staal, which meant tons of starts in the Penguins’ defensive zone. This method allowed Bylsma to give Penguins Center Sid Crosby and Geno Malkin much more-favorable Zone Starts, leading to better Scoring Chances/Possession for the Penguins as a whole. Unfortunately, and I say this with no personal malice toward him, Brandon Sutter seemingly cannot do what Jordan Staal can do, which is make Chicken Salad out of Chicken Shit.

This post from Pensburgh touches upon all of the points I would make. I like this excerpt in particular:

The Penguins percentages are skewed a bit by how good Crosby and Malkin are. When anyone but those two are on the ice, the numbers are bound to drop. While putting this all together and discussing with Sean Gentille of The Sporting News, he was quick and accurate to point that out to me, but nonetheless, it’s almost comical how bad the Penguins percentage is.

A combined percentage of -25.9% for Sutter, Pyatt, and Glass practically forces Crosby and Malkin to carry the game, especially considering that the Penguins 4th line is nearly as bad.

Exactly. What Jordan Staal did, aside from being a freaking possession monster in his own right, was allow Sid and Geno to receive favorable Zone Starts. He single-handily took a ton of pressure off the Crosby/Malkin lines. Because Brandon Sutter seemingly cannot approximate what Jordan Staal can at the NHL level, poor Dan Bylsma was forced to bury Sid Crosby – World’s Finest Hockey Player – in the Defensive Zone to compensate. Making Sid Crosby do Defensive Zone Face-Off work is the epitome of misusing a Player Asset.

You probably think I hate Brandon Sutter and have some huge man-crush on Jordan Staal. Untrue. What’s true is that the Penguins repeatedly dangled Sutter’s name in an attempt to find a possession-driving Center for the 3rd Line, most notably Ryan Kesler. What’s also true is that in 2013 and 2014, Brandon Sutter got hammered if he started in the Defensive Zone. He could not dig the team out of trouble, which is what the Penguins desperately needed from the lower lines under the Bylsma model.

But don’t take my assessment of Sutter as Gospel. Here’s an article from The Oilrig breaking down Sutter. The money quote:

Possession wise, he isn’t much better. He posted a 42.9% Corsi For this past season, and posted a 42.4% mark in 2013. That’s not very good, and he was playing on one of the best team’s in the NHL. Now, circumstance does play a role here, as Sutter was playing a shut-down role to a degree and was playing with some pretty bad teammates. Still, this is not a pretty picture.

We all agree Brandon Sutter was saddled with weak or inconsistent linemates (such as the abominable Tanner Glass) for most of 2013-14, but as I write this he is holding the team up over contractual demands. If he is incapable of consistently driving possession or elevating weaker teammates, why is the team blowing up their salary structure to accommodate him?

(UPDATE: At $3.3, the team did not blow up it’s Cap Salary structure. I was anticipating some obnoxious contract in the $4.5-$5 million-dollar range. Grim Rutherford’s pimp hand remains strong.)

It’s clear that Jordan Staal is more of an NHL difference-maker than Brandon Sutter. I am not crucifying Brandon Sutter because he’s not Jordan Staal. I am stating the Pittsburgh Penguins were so successful from 2008-2012 because they had three Centers who not only drove possession, but did so dominantly. Brandon Sutter may be much more successful when he has possession-driving wingers, but he clearly needs much more support than Jordan Staal did. This is a major consideration on a Cap-Crunched team such as Pittsburgh.

While I always note that I have utmost respect for almost all NHL players, I had to use someone as an example to illustrate my point. The Penguins and their fans were pulling their collective hair out because they seemingly couldn’t find the Salary Cap dollars to re-sign Brandon Sutter. Meanwhile, I am wondering what all the fuss is about.

My take is that Sutter had 26 points in 81 games for a top-10 NHL team last year, and posted poor Advanced Stats. Honestly, I think that Marcel Goc is a much more-viable, cost-effective option for the Penguins as the 3rd line Centerman, but what do I know. I’m just some stats guy that doesn’t understand the game and has never, ever, ever, ever led a league in scoring.

This is a case in which Advanced Statistics play a large role. In the cases of both Jordan Staal and Brandon Sutter, their primary statistics (Goals, Points, etc) are muted because as 3rd Line Centers, they receive or received unfavorable Zone Starts and limited playing time. The value of lower-line players is that they can optimize the production of higher-line players. This is something I strongly believe Jordan Staal did that Brandon Sutter has not, to date. Advanced Statistics in many ways confirm this.

Conclusion

You don’t need to be a statistical analyst like I am to be good at Hockey, but understanding the value of Advanced Metrics certainly won’t hurt you. If you want to be an outstanding player, you need to appreciate that we are learning more about the game every day, and that modern hockey evaluators have come to appreciate how valuable players who can drive and maintain Puck Possession are.

Jack