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Friday, February 20, 2015

The Band-Aid's Coming Off by @BrianK_PI

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been blessed with the number of generational talents that have come throw the organization over the years. Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr helped lead the team to two Stanley Cup titles in the early 90s, while Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby won a Stanley Cup and led the Pens to another Stanley Cup Final earlier in their careers. In fact, those four have combined to win an astounding 15 combined Art Ross Trophies during the previous 26 seasons. Jagr currently ranks 5th all time in points scored; Lemieux 8th in far fewer games. Crosby and Malkin are likely to find themselves high up on the career list as well.

Possibly the only downside to having two players of that caliber is that they can cover up a lot of the warts on a team when things aren't going well, and that's certainly happened in Pittsburgh over the past few seasons. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been one of the most successful, and high scoring, teams in the regular season lately, but that's been thanks to the beyond elite play of their top two centers. They've carried the team, but unfortunately they can only carry them so far.

From their first Stanley Cup final season in 2007-08 to the present, the Pens as a team have outscored their opponents. The team has always had a better GF% at even strength with Crosby, Malkin, or both on the ice, but up until the 2011-12 season the rest of the lineup was capable of keeping things close. In fact, even the 2011-12 season is a bit of an aberration as to the true potential of the team as Sidney Crosby appeared in only 22 games, forcing players to play up in the lineup. However, the past three seasons have been much different.

The Penguins have only scored 44.8% of the even strength goals with neither Crosby nor Malkin on the ice over the past three season. That number skyrockets to 60.3% with at least one of the two on the ice. Their success has helped mask the problem, or at least the extent of the problem, but the recent power play outages, along with Sidney Crosby putting up the worst points/60 of his career and Evgeni Malkin the third worst, has shone a glaring spotlight on just how bad things have been.

This isn't to say those players are a problem. I'm not saying Crosby or Malkin have been a problem this season. Let me say it again in capital letters and bold font so I'm not misunderstood: I'M NOT SAYING THERE IS A PROBLEM WITH SIDNEY CROSBY OR EVGENI MALKIN'S PRODUCTION THIS YEAR. Crosby is 24th in the league among players with at least 500 minutes played this season with 2.40 pts/60; Malkin is 26th with 2.33. They're 7th and 15th in total points. They're still playing at an elite level, but it goes to show how bad the depth has been when those two playing at anything less than a rarefied, career year type level leads to the issues plaguing the team now.

From the 2011-12 season through last year Crosby ranked first in points/60 with 3.29; Malkin was second with 2.84. The next closest player after that was Taylor Hall with 2.63. The difference between first place Crosby and 3rd place Hall was as large as the difference between Hall and 60th place. Production like that has gone a long way towards vaulting the Penguins to the top of the standings, and even with team depth beginning to improve this season the drop to "merely" elite has been a factor, of several, in the team going through it's roughest patch in years.

Tracking the team's possession over the past 8 years is even more telling than looking at the scoring. From 2007-08 through 2011-12 the Penguins were able to post a similar Corsi For with Crosby and Malkin off the ice as they were able to with them on the ice. In fact, the depth even posted a better CF% in the year they won the Cup than the stars did. While the team as a whole had worse possession numbers during the SCF years, the difference is mostly systematic as Dan Bylsma's free flowing approach helped the team drive possession much more than Therrien's defensive-orientated system. It was Bylsma opening things up that has been credited as helping the Pens vault from 10th in the East to Stanley Cup champions, and things have remained that way since.

Things changed in a major way following the lockout, both scoring and possession-wise, and it's a fairly straightforward explanation: Brandon Sutter has come nowhere capable of filling Jordan Staal's shoes, and he's continued to do so as the bottom 6 has bled talent and replaced them with the likes of Tanner Glass, Joe Vitale, and Zach Sill. Believe it or not, the Penguins have been a negative possession team since the lockout - their 49.8 CF% puts them just 19th in the entire league over that time frame, though they're 8th with a 54.1 GF%. That's just not good enough to compete in today's league as the best teams will exploit that lack of depth, as we've seen in the playoffs and so far this season. Give Ray Shero credit for something - his pursuit of Ryan Kesler using an overvalued Sutter as a main trade chip shows he recognized the issue and was trying to fix it.

But the biggest problem is that the team isn't graduating young, cost controlled forwards who can provide good depth while also remained cost controlled with their RFA status. In fact, here's a list of Penguins forwards drafted by the team who have played at least 10 games this season: Crosby, Malkin, Beau Bennett, Bryan Rust. It's been a combined drafting and development failure in Pittsburgh, and it's hard to draw the line of where blame deserves to be placed. While mobile, puck moving defensemen are a very valuable commodity, it was short sighted of Ray Shero to spend so many top picks on the blue line while focusing on forward mostly later on in the draft. It isn't all bad, as Olli Maatta, Simon Despres, and Derrick Pouliot have all had good NHL showings so far, while Scott Harrington still has great potential to contribute. This drafting strategy wouldn't have been as problematic if the team had been capable of developing the forwards they did draft. Even if just one or two of those later picks had turned into a useful player the team would be in a much different position today. But they've been forced to bring in costlier veterans, and to top things off both Shero and Rutherford have done a less than stellar job of targeting bottom six talent.

As the years have gone by without a Stanley Cup, the talk has turned to not wasting Crosby and Malkin's prime, but the team has been doing that for years. Despite playing at a level far and beyond the rest of the league, Crosby and Malkin have only been able to drag along a half-full roster so far. Bad drafting, bad player development, a bad eye for bottom six talent and poor cap management have created a roster that drags down the star players instead of complementing them. It's not enough to just get the generational talents, especially in a salary cap world - the lineup needs to be strong throughout, and that hasn't been the case in Pittsburgh.

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