The Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that was 28th in scoring just six months ago and seemingly poised to miss the postseason are now one victory away from winning the Stanley Cup. They eliminated their annual roadblock in the New York Rangers, the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals and last season’s Eastern Conference Champion the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Now, if things hold up, they’ll essentially blow by the overwhelming favorites among most analysts in San Jose. How did it get to this point?
Penguins’ general manager Jim Rutherford deserves much of the credit in Pittsburgh. A large amount of folks were expecting the Penguins to blow up their core and start from scratch. At least, that’s what many believed to be the only answer with this team. Rutherford didn’t see it that way and began rebuilding on the fly. He made some very impressive roster moves throughout the past calendar year but maybe most importantly, he learned.
He learned what a modern-day Champion looks like.
In a way, Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman can be credited with pioneering this movement. The Blackhawks have been the class of the NHL since winning the Cup in 2009-10. What was the big change in mindset that led us to this point? Bowman realized something very important.
Speed Kills in the Stanley Cup Playoffs
Everyone reading this has heard a large, physical team described as “built for the playoffs” at least a thousand times. It relates to a traditional way of thinking which says playoff teams need size, physicality, grit and character. GM’s around the league have chased veterans or role players to provide leadership and snarl at every trade deadline, mortgaging the future of their respective club to bring in a rental seen as the guy to put them over the hump.
Unfortunately for them, it usually doesn’t work.
The other mindset as it relates to this approach is that size and physicality will wear down the opponent over a long series. A team built on speed and skill will eventually regress as they can’t stand up to the punishment that comes with battling for the Stanley Cup.
Again, another theory easily dismissed by simply looking at those that have advanced deep into the playoffs in recent seasons. San Jose, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and New York are all built primarily around speed and skill.
What most haven’t accounted for, which is mind-boggling, is that constant pressure and relentless speed is more grueling to deal with. The Penguins’ uptempo system and fiery forecheck has worn down every group of blue-liners they’ve faced, and their opponents aren’t shy about admitting it.
It’s becoming the new norm, which started in Chicago, saw some tweaking in Tampa Bay and looks to be perfected in Pittsburgh. After watching the Blackhawks and Lightning battle in the Final last season Rutherford was clear in saying the Penguins needed to be faster. They sure succeeded.
Who will be next to convert?
The Role of Analytics
There are those out there that believe analytics aren’t playing a role in the decision-making processes for teams like Pittsburgh.
I wonder what — if any — role analytics has played in #Penguins surge. I doubt that it's anything more than speedy skating, forechecking.
— Stan Fischler (@StanFischler) June 1, 2016
However, while the plan was obviously to get faster and more skilled, the hiring of Sam Ventura and the few times Rutherford mentioned analytics to the media proves the Penguins are onboard with utilizing data to help with personnel decisions. They unloaded Brandon Sutter, a frequent target of the analytics crowd, including myself, in order to shed salary and took a chance on Nick Bonino. Bonino’s underlying numbers fit the mold of what they wanted.
I’d say it worked out.
When the Penguins signed Eric Fehr as a free agent shortly after the Bonino acquisition and even Matt Cullen, who signed in August, they grabbed versatile players that boasted tremendous possession stats. A far cry from the days of searching out players like Maxim Lapierre to anchor their bottom-six.
Speed and an ability to contribute offensively are all the rage for Stanley Cup Contenders. Enforcers and gritty forwards who pose little threat are becoming less and less useful. The Penguins aren’t the originators of this mindset but they’ve done a fantastic job at making it fit this group.
Now, they just need one more win.