One of the hallmarks of the team under Dan Bylsma has been its ability to dominate possession throughout a game. In Bylsma's first full season with the team, it was second in the league in terms of possession. The following year they were fifth in the league and then back to second overall last year. But this year, with only seven games to play, the Penguins barely control the majority of the play at even strength and sit at 12th in the league in possession. This is an oddity for Dan Bylsma's team, and in looking at their performance over the last few years, we want to know: what happened?
Before I even begin to discuss this, I would like to say that anyone who is skeptical of using possession metrics to evaluate a team should read this wonderful article by Eric T. The article includes all of the relevant links to the work done by analysts to statistically show that possession is the best future predictor of success.
With that caveat aside, there are two reasons why the Penguins possession metrics this year might not be an accurate representation of the team's talent. The first reason is sample size. We usually have the luxury of evaluating a team's possession metrics over the course of an 82-game season. This provides us with a sample of thousands of shots that help eliminate some of the noise and provide us with an accurate measure of a team's true possession talent. But with fewer games played (and consequently less shots taken), the power of the current possession numbers to predict future success is dampened. It is entirely possible that if the Penguins could play 41 more games, they would play more to their level in the past and get back into the 53%-55% range of possession that they occupied the last few years.
The second reason the possession numbers might be misleading this year is injuries. The Penguins have had to weather extended absences this season from many of their key players. Long-term injuries to Paul Martin, Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal hurt the Penguins' ability to possess the puck for extended periods of time. The result is that instead of indicating the team's true talent, the average possession numbers for this year might just highlight that the team has been the victim of some serious injuries.
While I think there is some merit to these concerns, there is a deeper explanation for the difference in possession this year. This explanation revolves around Jordan Staal. Specifically, the Penguins' loss of Jordan Staal and the inability to replace him with another elite forward (admittedly tough to do) explains why the Penguins do not dominate possession as much. First, lets look at some team numbers. During the 2009, 2010, and 2011 seasons, the Hurricanes were a bad possession team, failing to control the majority of play. In contrast, as I mentioned above, the Penguins during this time were possession monsters. But now the situation is reversed. This year (their first year with Jordan Staal), the Hurricanes control the majority of play and sit at 10th in the league in terms of possession. This is a radical change from their performance in years past. Even at a team level, then, Jordan Staal's presence is having a huge impact.
But paring down this analysis to the individual level reveals similar answers. Jordan Staal's top linemates this year have been Jeff Skinner, Patrick Dwyer, Jay Harrison, Justin Faulk, and Tim Gleason. Before Jordan Staal came to town, only Jeff Skinner had a positive Corsi ON last year (and it was barely positive), while Harrison, Dwyer, Faulk, and Gleason had negative possession numbers. This year? Harrison, Skinner, and Dwyer are positive possession players (and positive by a long shot), while Gleason is only barely negative (Faulk has a Corsi ON of 0.00, which is a big improvement from last year's campaign). And of course, Jordan Staal himself is leading the charge with a Corsi ON of nearly 11. This illustrates how critical Jordan Staal is to maintaining possession.
We can see the same story by looking at the Penguins' numbers. Staal's top linemates on the Pens last year were Dupuis, Cooke, Kennedy, Orpik, and Martin. Last year, all of those players were highly positive possession players (meaning they controlled the majority of play). This year? Dupuis is still positive because he's seen so much ice time with the Wizard of Croz, and Kennedy's numbers are positive as well, though they have fallen down quite a bit. But Cooke, Martin, and Orpik all saw their numbers plunge because they don't get to play with Jordan Staal anymore. Staal's replacement, Brandon Sutter, has been really bad in terms of possession: he is dead last on the Penguins this year, and is 341/374 among forwards this year who have played 20 games or more. Bylsma, though, hasn't shied away from using Sutter in a manner similar to how he used Jordan Staal. Sutter sees the toughest competition on the team this year and he has the toughest zone start. Both of these facts mitigate his terrible possession numbers to some extent, but it can't cover up the fact that he's not Jordan Staal. If this situation persists (which I think it will), Bylsma might have to give Crosby even tougher minutes and stop sheltering Malkin as if this is his first year in the league.
In writing this article, it became clearer to me as I did more research that I was wrong about something I said last year. When I learned that Shero offered Jordan Staal a ten year, $60 million dollar contract, I thought he had lost his marbles. There was no way, in my mind, that Staal was worth that much, and I was happy to see him go. But I was wrong. The analysis above illustrates just how valuable Jordan Staal is. He is an elite forward who can skate brutal minutes against top competition and come out on top. Just look at last year's numbers across the league. Out of the 368 forwards who played at least 40 games last year, Jordan Staal was tenth in quality of competition. Only 7 of the top 20 players in quality of competition last year had a positive Corsi ON, and Jordan Staal was one of those extremely talented seven.
I'll admit that I sometimes got frustrated while Staal played for the Pens that he couldn't put up 70 or 80 points a season. This clouded my judgment and convinced me he wasn't as valuable as Shero thought. But I couldn't have been farther from the truth. The Penguins really miss Jordan Staal, and if they want to stay competitive over the next 15 years, they'll need to find a way to make up for the fact that they lost one of the best hockey players in the world.