The Pittsburgh Penguins Have Ushered in a New Era of Hockey
The Pittsburgh Penguins built a hockey team while ignoring many of the perceived requirements for doing so. As a result, they won the Stanley Cup. It's time for the Rangers, and everyone else, to join them.
The analytics debate should have been ended a long time ago. There has been more than enough, clear evidence for multiple years now that analytics in hockey are like your local weather report; not right every time, but enough of the time that you better take it very seriously.
The debate should have been over after Detroit and Pittsburgh dominated towards the end of the 2000s while leading the league in possession. It should have been over after the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks alternated Stanley Cups while dominating in possession. Some have just outright ignored the reality, which is one thing. More curious to me is a seemingly much larger group who accept the value of analytics in a general sense, but selectively, arbitrarily choose when it applies or doesn't. Instead clinging to the comfort of things that they have grown up believing to be true. "Analytics have their place, but..." is usually the qualifier before resorting to a common narrative. Sure, the Los Angeles were a good possession team, but also important is that they had big defensemen and hit a lot. The Blackhawks had Corsi, but they also had a gritty fourth line and lots of experienced players who "know what it takes." I've seen plenty of otherwise reasonable people defend the Canucks' acquisition of Eric Gudbranson or the Rangers' usage of Tanner Glass with quips about intangibles, character, toughness, and so on.
The 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins have won the Stanley Cup, and they did so while laughing in the face of those supposed requirements. Gone were "character" players like Rob Scuderi, Brandon Sutter, and Craig Adams. Instead, the new feature was to be Phil Kessel, who was more or less chaperoned out of Toronto by a media base that did everything in its power to portray him as a coach killer who "takes shifts off" and "can't be relied on." Kessel not only came up big for the Penguins, producing 22 points in 24 playoff games, but very obviously became the focal point of inspiration in the locker room. Add that alongside the usual xenophobia that Russians like Malkin face as well as plenty of other accusations regarding the team's compete level and character - even Sidney Crosby was accused of being a coach killer - and there are really only two scenarios at play here. Either the Penguins do have poor character, and it didn't make a damn difference, or we are collectively incapable of accurately defining and evaluating what good character and similar "intangibles" actually look like.
After multiple failed postseasons in which Crosby and Malkin took the brunt of the blame, General Manager Jim Rutherford instead looked in a different area and radically altered the team's depth. The bottom-six was completely overhauled, and slow, physical players like Max Lapierre and Steve Downie were replaced with speed and skill. The one exception being the addition of Eric Fehr, who is truly a solid player who happens to have some sandpaper, as opposed to a grit warrior who touches the puck once in a while. "Character veterans" were replaced largely with inexperienced youth. The exception being Matt Cullen - again on a bargain contract - who is another good player. His experience was an added bonus rather than the explicit justification of his employment. The team's fight leader was Scott Wilson, with two the entire season, and he didn't even dress during the postseason. The Penguins as a whole had nine fights the entire season. Even in goal, Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan mostly resisted the temptation to stick the experienced cup winner, Marc-Andre Fleury, in net instead of a rookie with 13 career regular season games.
By every traditional measure, Pittsburgh's lineup was "soft." It didn't matter. All the hitting and grinding and punching the Rangers, Capitals, and Sharks attempted to throw at the Penguins was futile. For the Penguins, "energy" and "hard to play against" meant quick skating, a stubborn refusal to relinquish control of the puck, and a number of contributions on the scoresheet. They didn't "set a tone" by hitting and fighting. They did so by cycling the puck for long shifts from the very start and putting a tired opposition on its heels. It's not that Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, and Evgeni Malkin changed from 2012 until now. It's that the likes of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl finally provided them a supporting cast.
When discussing good defensive defensemen, the conversation usually points towards, big, imposing players who clear out the crease and block shots. Shea Weber, Adam McQuaid, and Dan Girardi are examples of ones who get praised for their defense despite the statistics indicating they are actually not nearly as good at shutting down the opposition as advertised. The Penguins were completely devoid of those kinds of players. The team finished 22nd in the NHL in blocked shots. The heavyweight on the blue line was 6'1, 219-pound Ian Cole. The Penguins, who were able to suffocate opposing offenses and hold them to just 2.29 goals-per-game in the playoffs, built a defense centered around fast, mobile skaters and quick puck movement. The best defense is not letting the other team have settled possession in the offensive end. Pittsburgh's defense was able to win puck races in the corners and make successful first passes. They were able to carry the puck through the neutral zone and keep pucks in the offensive zone. They kept good gaps on transition rushes.
Not only did the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in convincing fashion, but they did so while torching pretty much every narrative that has been romanticized as a counter-argument to analytical thinking.The NHL is a copycat league, which is fine. But what the Rangers (and every other team) should take away from the Penguins is not what the build of their team is, but rather what it is not. They didn't prioritize reputations and warm, fuzzy feelings over ability. They didn't attempt to shoehorn physical but unproductive players into the lineup out of the misguided sentiment of being unable to survive without it. They had no fear of adding Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley, thereby reinforcing their defensive strength as a puck possessing team. They didn't hand out luxurious contracts and thereby eat allot precious cap space to depth players. I would also be remiss to not mention that last summer they hired Sam Ventura, the co-founder of advanced stat database War-on-Ice, to advise them.
There's no minimum requirement for experience, or size, or grit. Of course those aspects do matter. At the end of the day, however, Pittsburgh didn't worry about filling quotas, and they were far better for it. In the case of the Rangers, the penchant for sacrificing talent and production in favor of players who fit an erroneous, preconceived notion of what a team MUST have - Jarret Stoll, Tanner Glass, Dan Girardi, etc. - has to stop. It's time to embrace a new meaning of what it means to have a balanced, complete roster.