Try his experiment: Go to NHL.com, look at the standings, check out the records in the Eastern Conference, take a peek at goal differential. Which teams should run away with the conference come playoff time? The answer is blatant: The Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins.
Pittsburgh has the East’s most wins with 43 and the Bruins are just one behind. Boston is same ole same ole with their deep, puck possessing club led by the NHL’s best defensive forward Patrice Bergeron and best defenseman Zdeno Chara. That along with elite goaltending puts them in prime position to be right back on the door step of the Cup again. The Penguins have many more question marks, the biggest is whether they can turn around their fading puck possession statistics.
(chart via extraskater.com)
A quick look at the rolling Fenwick Close scores shows Pittsburgh has slowly been fading from a blazing start. While they been able to maintain winning ways in the regular season, the playoffs are an entirely different animal. Power play success can be unpredictable in the post-season and rarely carries a team deep – in fact, the Blackhawks only scored on 11.4% of their man-advantage situations during the ’12-’13 playoffs, the Kings a mere 12.8% the year before and Boston 11.4% in ’10-’11.
By comparison, the Blackhawks controlled 54.9% of the shot attempts in 23 playoff games. Only Montreal – in a five-game series loss – did better at 55.3%. Two seasons ago, the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils both had 54.1% Fenwick Close during their playoff runs. Controlling the five-on-five play during a single series does not mean a team will come out ahead – there are too many factors like hot goaltending or luck – but winning the even-strength possession battle is paramount to making playing deep into the spring months.
Which brings us back to the Pens. They have quite possibly the best top six in the NHL, but have had a great deal of trouble getting anything from their bottom six forwards. The player usage chart tells the story:
Chart via HockeyAbstract.com
But general manager Ray Shero pulled off two sneaky-good moves at the deadline by trading for Calgary forward Lee Stempniak and Florida’s Marcel Goc. They will help in both even-strength scoring and puck possession.
Over the past three seasons, Stempniak has posted EV scoring rates of 1.70 points/60 minutes, 2.08/60 and 1.14/60. Comparatively, several players the Penguins asked to play fairly significant bottom six roles at different points in the year Craig Adams (0.83/60), Chuck Kobasew (0.39/60) and Taylor Pyatt (0.28/60) contributed far less to the Penguins than Stempniak to Calgary. The gap is even wider for the former first-round pick Goc, who has a 1.54 points per 60 minutes scoring rate.
If the difference in scoring potential wasn’t stark enough between the two full-time NHL’ers and the band aids, the puck possession figures make it even more evident that the Penguins pushed the right buttons.
Stempniak on ice +/- in shot attempts vs. teammates (aka Relative Corsi)
11-12: +4.9% Relative Corsi
Both players have the ability to play difficult minutes. Stempniak has not seen more than 50% of the offensive zone faceoffs in any of the last three seasons and Goc has been under 42% in two of the last three years. Since the Penguins’ two deadline acquisitions can handle defensive zone minutes and still contribute to the team’s puck possession, they have the ability to take pressure off the top six to handle tough minutes.
Forward Tanner Glass has been asked to take on a good deal of defensive zone minutes with a 37.8% offensive zone start percentage, but has been blasted in terms of puck possession with a -10.6% Relative Corsi. Craig Adams (-8.3% Rel Corsi), Harry Zolnierczyk (-8.4%) and Joe Vitale (-5.2%) have all struggled to keep the puck moving the Pens’ way when they are asked to face defensive minutes.
The benefits of Stempniak and Goc will fluctuate depending on their role. We have, thus far, assumed they will play third-line type minutes and help keep poor possession players off the ice and away from difficult minutes. But if injury strikes, head coach Dan Bylsma could pop either to a higher line a la Jussi Jokinen and still see scoring and possession success. Stempniak played the majority of his time this season with Calgary top-sixers Matt Stajan and Mikael Backlund. Goc spent a solid number of minutes with second-line types Tomas Kopecky and Tomas Fleischmann.
Stempniak has started out in the best position possible, playing aside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. That may continue if it works or see him drop to a different line as the playoffs go along. Goc has played the fourth-line type role with Adams and Glass.
Shero’s trades lacked the sex appeal of dealing for Ryan Kesler, Matt Moulson or Thomas Vanek, but considering the cost was two mid-round draft picks (rather than sacrificing significant pieces) the Pens came out with two quality players. Will that make them a match for the Bruins? That is still a tough sell considering Boston is the Eastern Conference’s best possession team and sports a roster with only two sub-50% Corsi forwards (with over 500 minutes played) in Gregory Campbell and Dan Paille.
Boston won’t be the only Fenwick Monster the Penguins will attempt to conquer from the East. The new home of future Hall of Fame scorer Martin St. Louis, the New York Rangers sport the NHL’s fifth best Fenwick Close and the second best in the East. If not for an absurdly low 5.8% 5-on-5 shooting percentage, the Rangers would likely be in the same Win-Loss range as Pittsburgh.
What nobody else in the East has is the talent of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Even with a bad bottom six, the two superstars dragged the Penguins to the top of the conference. Now that they have more depth and flexible forwards, the Pens are a much better contender today than they were before the deadline.
Matthew Coller is Managing Editor of Hockey Prospectus. He is the long-time host of Hockey Prospectus Radio, producer of the Howard Simon Show on Buffalo’s WGR550 and their Rochester Amerks reporter, and a multi-sport play-by-play announcer.
Follow Matthew on Twitter at @matthewWGR.