Valuing the Process Over the Results: Playoffs Be Damned Edition by @wutendeskind

This season was a departure from recent seasons for many reasons, including, perhaps most notably, that the Penguins spent the last week of the regular season competing for a playoff spot.  



Over the last couple of years, the feeling of end-of-season panic has become unfamiliar to the Penguins and their fans. Whether you think it’s a good thing for the team (character building? No expectations? A good underdog narrative?), or you’d rather be back in the playoffs without all the stress, not knowing whether the Penguins will close the season with a bang or a whimper affords us an interesting perspective: think of what you want to see the team do for next year, without letting a playoff run (short or long, positive or negative) cloud your assessment. If we let the playoff results make decisions for us, we overvalue a statistically small sample of games.

So, let's do it. Value the process--how you get to the post season--over the results. What are the areas you’d like to see the Pens address this summer, whether their season ends in April or June? 

Here are the five things I think the Penguins should address during the off-season, regardless of how far they go in the playoffs:

1. Re-Sign Winnik

Though he’s only been with the Penguins since the lead up to the trade deadline, Winnik has been perhaps the team’s most valuable addition. In a pinch, he looked good on Crosby’s line, and he’s taken the third line from a possession black hole to a one that gives the Pens a hope of offense. With a caveat for small sample size, in their 70 minutes together so far this season, he’s taken Sutter from a sub-50% corsi player to a 57.1% CF% when they’re on-ice together. While that kind of dominance might not be sustainable for Winnik and Sutter, the fact that Crosby’s own corsi for percentage also increased in his 110 minutes with Winnik indicates that Winnik can play in multiple roles on the team and can be a possession driver.

Winnik hasn’t been a huge points producer for the Penguins, but he’s put the team in a position to score more often based on possession of the puck. This season, he comes with a $1.3 million AAV. If the Penguins can get him for good value, they should not hesitate to retain his services.

Plus, the Penguins could use more cute dogs for their Pens and Paws calendar.


2. Power Play
Rick Tocchet cannot coach the power play anymore. Bye.


3. Pay Depth Players What They’re Worth

The latest salary cap projections are out, and the numbers aren’t good. @NYP_Brooksie reported that the salary cap next year is set to fall to $68.2 million from $69 million if the players don’t take the 5% cap escalator option available to them.  In March, players were split as to whether or not they would support this action.

With a cap crunch, spending money wisely, for maximum value, is the only way to field a competitive roster. That means that this summer there can be no Nick Spalings. There should be no Brandon Sutters. There can be no Beau Bennett trades. Young, cost-controlled forwards and defensemen are critical to what is the oldest roster in the NHL, in addition to a smart way to remain under the salary cap.

The Penguins, whose end-of-season cap crunch forced them to play shorthanded on defense 5 of the last 7 games of the season, cannot overpay for mediocrity. Last summer’s trend of one-year deals for depth players is a good start, one I hope the Penguins continue this summer at the same time as they evaluate the current players on their roster and find a way to move unfavorable deals without sacrificing good deals in the process (Despres for Lovejoy, anyone?).


4. The Rob Scuderi Contract

To reiterate: the Pittsburgh Penguins must pay depth players what they are worth. Unfortunately, whoever is making decisions for the Penguins next year can’t do anything about the fact that Rob Scuderi is only halfway through an ill-advised 4-year contract, and with the cap potentially falling, it may seem like the Penguins can’t afford to have any dead weight on the books at all. But removing Rob Scuderi’s contract, even for a cap penalty, may prove to be addition by subtraction.

With a cap hit of approximately $590,000 in 2015-2016, Scott Harrington’s addition to the roster, plus the $1.29 million cap penalty that the Penguins would incur for the Scuderi buyout, is still less than what the Penguins would pay Rob Scuderi to play for them next year. In this scenario, the Penguins would save $1.495 million toward the cap, and the only gamble they are taking is that Scott Harrington can be as good as Rob Scuderi. $1.495 is enough to pay a good value UFA forward, like the Penguins did this year with Blake Comeau (and Steve Downie). This is a gamble I take every time.


5. Take Time With a Wounded Hand ('cause it likes to heal)

Taking time with injuries is a lesson that is not unique to the Penguins. Poor medical culture, which values playing through injury and sacrificing the player’s body for the good of the team, is endemic in the league. But the most injured team in the NHL over the past few season (when weighted for quality of man games lost) must be particularly attentive to this issue.

Yes, the Penguins have seen a number of unfortunate health issues befall their players. There is no way they could have prevented thyroid cancer, for example. But could re-injury of a torn labrum have been prevented if the player hadn’t been allowed to return early? Is short-term benefit worth long-term risk? The Penguins have been gambling on the short term for years now, and it hasn’t paid off. 

For now, the player is generally going to want to play. Culture, engrained beliefs about leaving it all on the ice, cannot change overnight. This is why a medical and training staff exists. They must shut players down, even if that’s not what the player wants to hear. David Perron, who previously lost a year of his career to post-concussion syndrome, is a good example of this. He took a headfirst fall into the boards against Buffalo, remained on the ice, and was allowed by the training staff to head back to the bench. Perron, despite his history, did not make the best decision for his own health when the Penguins’ season was on the line. As fans, it’s tempting to call this dedication, commitment, and perseverance from an important player; at the same time, this is why it's critical that trainers and doctors be put in the position to show that they know better than both players and fans. They must err on the side of caution: trust the process of healing, rely on injury and concussion protocols, and be able to tell a player they're not ready to return. 

In the long-term, caution with injury will maximize the value the Penguins get on their business investments. On the human side, caution with injuries helps ensure that Perron and others have healthier lives when they step away from the rink.


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