The Hockey Prospectus 2010-11 annual will be out either by the end of this week or the beginning of next week. In the book you will find team essays, VUKOTA player profiles, and essays on hockey sabermetrics, prospects and injuries. The following excerpts come from the chapter on the Pittsburgh Penguins, which can be fully read here.
Were the 2009-10 Pittsburgh Penguins a Stanley Cup-caliber team or were we all fooled by a hot start?
"Many fans and pundits alike considered the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin led Penguins a favorite to repeat. But would there be a championship hangover?
The immediate answer seemed to be a resounding “No”. The Penguins started the 2009-10 regular season campaign on fire, just as they’d finished the previous season. Pittsburgh hit marks of 7-1-0 on October 17th, 11-2-0 on October 30th and 25-10-1 on December 19th in a blitz through the first two and a half months of their schedule, all but cementing their near-invincibility in our minds.
That start fooled many observers, though, all the way through the regular season and all the way to their eventual playoff exit. From December 19th onwards, the Penguins went 22-18-6—22 wins versus 24 losses—and 7-6 in the playoffs. Counting overtime losses as losses, that’s a below “.500 record” of 29- 30 over the course of nearly five months. Yes, they were defending Stanley Cup champions with two of the greatest talents in the sport, and yes, the standings at the end of the season showed 101 points, but if you kept your eye on the puck, this was clearly no juggernaut. The mediocre incarnation of the Penguins that reached the playoffs was a team of vastly different quality than the red hot team that entered the 2008-09 postseason, though it wasn’t commonly recognized. Incidentally, the Devils’ concurrent decline in performance throughout the second half of the season helped keep up the smoke screen that the division co-leaders were both performing well, when in fact, both were underperforming significantly."
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin begin to go in different directions:
"If the Penguins as a whole were not playing as well, it wasn’t due to the play of captain Sidney Crosby. With a strong work ethic and commitment towards improvement, Crosby transformed himself into an elite goal scorer, with his 51 goals good enough to capture a share of the Maurice Richard Trophy with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos; Crosby’s previous high had been 39 goals. Further, Sid greatly improved his faceoff percentage and shootout percentages. Overall, his season ranked third in GVT, marginally behind Ryan Miller and Alex Ovechkin.
Then, there was Evgeni Malkin, the previous season’s Art Ross Trophy winner for most regular season points and Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP. Though missing a handful of games to injury, his 77 point, -6 campaign was clearly a big step backwards compared to the 113 points and -16 of 2008-09- There’s your Stanley Cup hangover. Among the multiple theories for Malkin’s downturn in production were fatigue, poor work ethic and even the absence of his loveable parents, who seemed everpresent fixtures during the 2008-09 Stanley Cup run. Even a replay of the Mario Lemieux-Jaromir Jagr dynamic has been suggested. Going forward, it will be interesting to see what kind of NHL career Malkin makes for himself. Perhaps the worst Penguin defensively, one area where Geno needs to improve greatly is in his own end of the ice."
The Power Play Woes Hurt This Team:
"The team deficiency of note in 2009-10 was the continued sub-par performance on the man advantage— not a characteristic of the early years of the Crosby and Malkin Penguins—which was puzzling given a team boasting the all-world talents of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, along with the power play wiz ardry of Sergei Gonchar. At some point, coaching has to take the hit for finishing at 17.2% (20th in NHL) in 2008-09 and 17.2% (19th in NHL) in 2009-10, but that criticism has not yet come around to Bylsma much, either for scheme or choice of complementary personnel. With Gonchar and Crosby clearly as top notch performers, the deficiencies came from the supporting cast, particularly Chris Kunitz, Jordan Staal and Kris Letang."
Inconsistency at the Goaltending Position:
"The final issue for the Penguins—in what would be a painful seven game exit to old friend Hal Gill and the eighth-seeded Canadiens—is one that had been nicely whitewashed in the 2008-09 Stanley Cup run: the inconsistent and ultimately, overrated play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The first overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, the perception about Fleury, all along, has been that he’s a superior netminder. Unfortunately, the cache of being first overall draft pick, the long term contract, the acrobatic saves, the 2007-08 Finals’ appearance and the 2008-09 championship all contribute to MAF’s cult of personality. But take a look at the numbers, though, and you’ll see that only Fleury’s 2007-08 can be considered exceptional. Though that regular season sample only included 35 games, his .921 regular season save percentage and his .933 postseason save percentage were clearly exceptional. Place it against the body of work, though: his four other regular season save percentages have fluctuated between a terrible .898 and a mediocre .912 while his three other postseason save percentages have varied between a hideous .880 and a below average .908—and the latter was in the Stanley Cup winning campaign, mind you. In Pittsburgh’s 13 postseason games in 2009-10, Fleury recorded a save percentage of below .903 or less in eight contests. But with five big years left on his contract, we’re not sure if Shero could move MAF even if he wanted to."
What To Expect from the 2010-11 Pittsburgh Penguins:
"Clearly, Pittsburgh has the talent to improve upon their second half play from 2009-10 and to be one of the handful of Stanley Cup contenders from the Eastern Conference in 2010-11. Much depends on Paul Martin’s filling in for the offensive presence of Sergei Gonchar, and on bounceback performances from Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Alex Goligoski. The wild card is Tangradi—it will be interesting to see who is on what line by the time the playoffs begin; Penguins’ fans can only hope that Tangradi finds a lasting chemistry with either Crosby or Malkin. If Pittsburgh should falter in the first half of the season, Bylsma’s continued tenure with the Pens may very well be in doubt."
To read the entirety of the Hockey Prospectus 2010-11 annual's Pittsburgh Penguins chapter, click here.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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