The Penguins have been a difficult team to figure out so far this year. After spending much of the season performing well against bad teams and poorly against really good ones, within the last week alone the team has gotten crushed 5-0 by an average Vancouver team, laid a 4-1 beating on a very good Detroit team, then nearly gave away a 5-4 OT win against a bad Ottawa team. They've been up and down, and the effort at times as been woefully inconsistent.
Things haven't been much better in the division for the Pens either, as they've surprising gone just 7-9-4 within the Metropolitan Division, including just 2-6-2 against the three other teams poised to make the playoffs: the Islanders, Rangers, and Capitals. Making matters worse, the Penguins have been outscored 39-19 against those three teams, with the two wins coming early on in the year. The Metro hasn't been kind to Pittsburgh this year, and even taking injuries into account they haven't been able to keep up with the top teams in their division.
In years past this might not have been as big of an issue, but the new playoff format harkens back to the old Patrick Division days and forces a team to get past their division rivals. The Penguins could win the division and face an Atlantic Division team in the first round, but it's assured that they'll need to beat at least one of those three teams, and quite possibly two, to be able to continue on for the Stanley Cup. With that in mind, after the jump I'll look to compare how these teams have performed this season, and where they all stack up in relation to each other.
The four teams are posting fairly similar numbers on a team level, though there are a few statistics that jump out. The Penguins are clearly in a class of their own when it comes to penalty killing, as the other three have posted a mediocre (or far worse) kill percentage on the season. Interestingly enough the Islanders manage to lead the division while posting the league's worst PK%, and ranking only 22nd in goals allowed per game. It certainly helps that the Islanders have taken the 5th fewest minor penalties in the league so far, and fortunately for them, and unfortunately for Pittsburgh, playoff hockey will bring fewer power play opportunities, negating an elite unit and somewhat hiding a poor one.
A closer way to break down the teams is by looking how the individual lines, defensive pairings, and top goaltenders stack up against each other. This was a bit of a subjective process, and line combinations in themselves are fluid and apt to change, but I attempted to use TOI, recent line combinations, frequent linemates via With or Without You (WOWY) breakdowns, and positional usage to try creating what lines might be likely at the start of the postseason, barring injury. I've then plotted a player's points per 60 minutes five on five production against their five on five Corsi For %. The top right of the graph indicates a player with good scoring production and possession numbers; the bottom left are players who are poor in both categories.
|1st Line Comparison (click to enlarge)|
The four teams have gotten similar production from their top line players. The only real outlier from the cluster is Rick Nash, who has by far the best production yet is the only top line player to have negative possession numbers. His 103.9 PDO on the season indicates that his scoring is likely to come back to the pack some, though his previous seasons in New York suggest that his possession numbers could possibly increase, as his CF% his first two seasons for the Rangers (54.8%) and relative CF% (+3.1%) indicate that he's been a very solid possession player in recent years.
Tom Wilson has been the most common forward to play with both Ovechkin and Backstrom, though it's likely the Capitals make a strong push to acquire a winger at the deadline to fill out the 1st line. They were rumored to be heavily involved in the Evander Kane talks, and as the position has been somewhat of a revolving door I'd expect them to address it. Kunitz-Crosby-Perron would seem to be a sure bet to stick together given how productive they've been. Perron in particular should see his placement on the graph above shift positively as the bulk of those numbers comes from Edmonton. So far with Crosby Perron's recorded a 2.18 pts/60 while the duo has combined for a 57.7 CF%.
|2nd Line Comparison (click to enlarge)|
The second lines start to show some separation, and it's not surprising that a line centered by Evgeni Malkin can standout among the others. Pittsburgh and the NY Islanders are clearly the better possession groups, though the Pittsburgh trio is clearly more productive from a scoring standpoint. The Capitals see a similar trend as the first line when comparing the Metro teams: their scoring rates are on the lower end, but the second line has borderline breakeven possession. The Rangers had a high scoring first line, and their second line is also putting up scoring rates near a first line pace. However, they're clearly at a possession disadvantage when compared to the other teams, and the possession numbers the other three have in their top six could lead to matchup problems.
Blake Comeau certainly seems to have cemented his spot on the 2nd line with his strong play since coming back from injury picking up right where he left off earlier in the season. Though Hornqvist's five on five scoring production has dropped since coming to Pittsburgh, he's a solid 2nd line player that can cause problems in front of the net.
|3rd Line Comparison (click to enlarge)|
The bottom six has been a problem for the Penguins, and it begins to show when looking at the 3rd lines. The NY Islanders have had impressive depth from their forward group, as they both great scoring production and strong possession from their 3rd line. The NY Rangers and Washington each do a decent job driving possession, though Washington again sees their scoring production towards the back end of the lines. The Penguins, who had the most productive top six of the four teams, now have arguably the worst third line. Brandon Sutter has been bad this season and dragged down the players around him. Both his scoring rate and his possession are well below what you'd like to see from your third line center. Steve Downie has had a nice scoring touch, as has Nick Spaling, though it stands to reason that Spaling will see both his possession and scoring numbers suffer as he moves down from the top six.
|4th Line Comparison (click to enlarge)|
Taking a look at the 4th lines, the first thing that sticks out is how awful Tanner Glass is. The second thing is that the Islanders, Rangers, and Capitals have received fairly similar scoring and possession (minus Glass), while the Penguins are clearly a step behind. Lapierre and Sill are both posting 45% or lower CF% numbers, while Sill and Adams are both scoring at below a replacement level player. Depth is a crucial part to going deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs; the team's lack of a competent bottom six hurt them last year and it's shaping up to be a problem again this season.
|1st Pair Comparison (click to enlarge)|
While the Capitals' forwards were producing relatively low in comparison to the other three teams, they still rank 9th in the league in five on five scoring, and that's due to the contributions they receive from their defensemen. John Carlson is scoring at a much higher rate than the other 7 defensemen, though Boychuk, Leddy, and Letang are all driving possession at a very high level while adding good production on the scoresheet. Quite possibly the best work by a GM so far this season occurred when Garth Snow managed to pick up Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk in separate cap dumps from the Blackhawks and Bruins shortly before the start of the season. Those two have come in and given the Islanders the type of top end defensive talent they've been looking for, and it's really made their season so far.
The Rangers haven't had as much success with their top pairing, as Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are both well under 50% in possession and are scoring at the low rate to boot. A look at their dCorsi/60 numbers show that McDonagh (-4.21) and Girardi (-8.28) have been in over their heads so far this season based on what the Rangers have asked them to do.
|2nd Pair Comparison (click to enlarge)|
For the most part, the four teams are getting similar scoring and possession from their defensemen. However, Marc Staal finds himself as the lone player among these eight defensemen with negative possession numbers, and he's also has the lowest points/60 production as well. He also has a negative dCorsi (-2.26), though the Rangers do have the luxury of covering up some of the warts by playing Henrik Lundqvist, when healthy, between the pipes. Olli Maatta's injury situation muddies up the Pens' top 4 defensemen, as there's some uncertainty about the fourth spot with Letang, Martin, and Ehrhoff. Jim Rutherford has stated that he'd like to acquire another defensemen in a trade, and Simon Despres has gotten a chance to take on a larger role due to injury. The coaching staff seemed to prefer to pair him with Rob Scuderi with a healthy roster, but which ever route they go it would be a mistake for the team to try hiding either Scuderi or Bortuzzo with Letang, Martin, or Ehrhoff - they'll noticeably drag down one of the team's better defenders and likely cause both the bottom two pairs to perform below what the team could ice.
|3rd Pair Comparison|
Mike Green might be relegated to playing third line minutes at even strength, but it's certainly helped his scoring touch as he's posting the second highest pts/60 of his career. Both the Capitals and the Rangers are pairing an offensive defenseman with a stay at home type. The Islanders compliment their deep group of forwards with a deep group of defensemen. Their blue line is full of good possession players who can add some scoring. The Penguins see similar depth issues on defense as they do at forward. The loss of Maatta for the year certainly hurts as it forces Bortuzzo into the lineup, but the big issue is having (and playing) Rob Scuderi.
|Goalie Comparison (click to enlarge)|
Marc-Andre Fleury was named to the All-Star game as a replacement player this season, but that hardly sets him apart from fellow 2015 All-Star Jaroslav Halak, 2011-12 Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist, and Washington goalie Brayden Holtby. That being said, his numbers so far this year rival those of the other three goaltenders. Fleury has always been good on the penalty kill, and his play so far this season is a big reason why the Pens currently rank 3rd in the league. Lundqvist is definitely the most talented goalie of the four, but if Fleury can continue to play at his current level he certainly will help the team's chances to make a deep playoff run.
The Metropolitan Division should be closely fought as the teams battle to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. Based on how close the division has been, and the Penguins' record against the other three teams, for the first time in years Pittsburgh won't be an overwhelming favorite to go deep in the postseason. And maybe that's a good thing. The weight of expectations seem to have taken their toll at times in year's past, and the neither ofthe two SCF teams were expected to do as well as they did. And this year's team does suffer from some of the same flaws as the past couple of years - the top of the lineup stacks up very well against the Islanders, Rangers, and Capitals, but the depth falls off quickly and the bottom of the lineup is clearly a step behind. It's shaping up to be a very interesting opening two rounds to the playoffs. It won't be a shock if the Penguins make it out of the Metro alive, but it wouldn't be surprising either if they lost in the first round. But that's why they play the games.