The Pittsburgh Penguins 2013-2014 season will always be remembered as the year that cost Ray Shero his GM job in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins were once again a quality team in the regular season but were unable to find tangible results in the playoffs.
The Penguins were what many people in the metrics community considered a paper tiger. This belief stemmed from the Penguins lack of bottom 6 forward depth. The Penguins had one of the worst bottom 6 forward groupings in the NHL (as highlighted by Tyler Dellow) let alone amongst playoff contenders. Throw in the 529 man games lost to injury and you could see why the Penguins weren’t considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Over the course of the regular season the Penguins went from a top 5 Fenclose team earlier in the season all the way to the bottom half of the league (16th overall 50.2%).
While the bottom 6 forward grouping did not do the Penguins any favors I believe it was the injuries to Paul Martin and Kris Letang that can be directly traced to the Penguins decline in the possession department.
Paul Martin and Kris Letang played only 22 regular season games together in addition to the 13 playoff games the Penguins played this year.
After looking through the numbers I found a significant difference in the Penguins possession numbers with Martin and Letang both in the lineup, compared to when they were both out of the lineup.
There is noticeable difference between the Penguins puck possession with both Martin and Letang in the lineup as opposed to without both. With both players in the lineup the Penguins had 468 Fenclose for and only 397 against. Without both players in the lineup the Penguins had 1120 Fenclose for and 1179 against. This is a significant difference. When you add in the 13 playoff games the Penguins played with both Martin and Letang in the lineup the Penguins season Fenclose% jumps to 55.1%. At the time of elimination the Penguins were the top Fenclose team in the playoffs (56.7%).
From November 25 to January 20 the Penguins did not play any games that included both Martin and Letang in the lineup. As you can see from the chart below there is a positive correlation between their absence and the Penguins dropping puck possession.
Paul Martin and Kris Letang did not play in the same lineup from January 27 to April 9. This coincides with the other drastic dip on the chart. When Martin and Letang returned together, the possession starts to dramatically climb back up.
Kris Letang and Paul Martin are both very skilled puck movers, they are the kind of players that set the table for their forwards to find success. In the absence Martin and Letang guys like Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Deryk Engelland, and Robert Bortuzzo were asked to pick up the slack. That grouping of players does not have the skill necessary to offset the loss of Martin and Letang.
An area of concern moving forward should be the quality of production that Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi brought to the Penguins, especially considering their cap implications.
Here are the possession numbers for the Penguins when both are in the lineup compared to if one or both are missing from the lineup
When both Scuderi and Orpik were in the lineup the Penguins were a below average Fenclose team. They had a Fenclose for of 941 and a Fenclose against of 1002 (48.4%). When the Penguins were missing Scuderi or Orpik from the lineup they had a Fenclose for of 647 and a Fenclose against of 574 (53.0%). This is not money well spent on the backend.
Ray Shero went all in on puck moving defensemen as his drafting strategy, however he underutilized his investment. The next Penguins GM can still reap the benefits of the puck moving defensemen he has drafted. Moving forward the Penguins can take advantage of entry level contracts from players like Olli Maatta, Simon Despres, Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington, and Brian Dumoulin. This group has a legitimate chance at improving the quality of the Penguins defense. Pittsburgh needs to embrace the youth movement on defense and part ways with the unsuccessful grit and character mold they hitched their wagons to with Scuderi, Orpik, Bortuzzo, and Engelland. The money saved by using young effective NHL players will free up money to solve the Penguins woeful bottom 6 forward grouping.
The Penguins aren’t that far off from being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender again. They have a legitimate top defense pairing with Martin and Letang and have the ability to fill out their defense corp. with young talent that will more than likely be an upgrade over the current group. This young group also has a better chance of replicating what Martin and Letang bring to the game if they happen to lose significant time to injury again.
Pittsburgh is already the proud owners of some of the harder to get pieces that make a team successful in the modern era, it is up to the next GM to fill in the depth that makes a team championship caliber.