Penguins Forward Depth: Was It An Issue?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

An in-depth analysis of whether the Penguins' bottom six forwards were really holding the team back in the playoffs.

As the corpse of the 2014 Penguins continues to rot, fans and journalists alike have offered countless theories for why the Penguins lost in the playoffs this year. One of the most common explanations is that the Penguins were severely lacking in good forwards. Sportswriters claimed that the Penguins "lack[ed] depth to truly contend," and that the team was doomed due to roster construction, not coaching. The team owners even suggested that they weren't happy with the pipeline of forwards coming up through the AHL over the past couple of years.

My focus in writing this article is to see if the Penguins' depth was a problem, and whether it was a driving factor in their playoff exit this year. I want to be clear up front: I think Pittsburgh's depth could, and should, have been better this year. I'm not happy with our lack of success at drafting forwards, and I would rather the team not have had to use Craig Adams and Joe Vitale in the playoffs. But every team wants more depth; despite all of Chicago's success, they'd love to get someone who can ensure that Michal Handzus is a healthy scratch. So looking at depth in the abstract isn't really helpful.

Instead, depth in today's NHL is all relative. For example, one might think a team has drafting problems if only 8% of the players it drafts become NHL regulars, but that looks a whole lot better if the best drafting-team in the league only has a 10% success rate. So to figure out if depth was an issue, I'm going to look at both goals and possession stats for the Penguins forwards in this post-season and compare them to two of the deepest teams in the league: Boston and Chicago.

Methodology

I looked at even strength play from the Penguins, Bruins, and Blackhawks forwards through the first two rounds of the playoffs this year. The first thing I did was compile a list of each team's 12 most frequently used forwards so that I could divide them into a top six and a bottom six. This was easy for the top 8 or 9 players, but it got a bit murky toward the bottom because all three of these teams were using 4th line players interchangeably (moving them in and out of the lineup pretty often). Below is the list I came up with, and each forward's 5v5 time on ice per game is in parentheses next to his name (please click all images to enlarge them):

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The bottom six forwards are your "depth" forwards. For Pittsburgh, I didn't include Jayson Megna or Tanner Glass. Megna only dressed in two games, and Glass only dressed in eight. Brian Gibbons also dressed in only eight games, but he had more 5v5 ice time per game than Glass. For Boston, I didn't include Matt Fraser or Jordan Caron. Fraser only dressed in four games, and while Caron actually played in one more game than Florek, Florek saw three more minutes of 5v5 ice time per game than Caron. Since his usage was far more significant, I decided to use him. Finally, for Chicago, I didn't include Peter Regin, Joakim Nordstrom, or Jeremy Morin. Both Morin and Regin only dressed for two games, so they were easy to exclude. Nordstrom only played in seven games, whereas Bollig played in nine, so I included the latter in my final list.

I neatly divided the top and bottom six by ice time. This is how it should be done when talking about forward depth--coaches juggle their lines and move players in and out of the lineup far too frequently to try and use line combinations as a means of delineating between the top and bottom six players. All "top six" means is the six forwards who saw the most ice time at even strength.

For both Pittsburgh and Chicago, there was a big gap in ice time between the sixth and seventh forward. That gap was bigger than the gap between the first and second forward, the second and third forward, and so on. That natural break reinforced the accuracy of the top six/bottom six separation. Boston, on the other hand, was more evenly spread out. Based on ice time alone, Soderberg would be in the top six and Reilly Smith would be in the bottom six. However, because their difference in ice time was so small (only six seconds), I kept Smith in the top group because he skated mostly with Bergeron and Marchand. As I note below, this switch doesn't alter the conclusion.

Goals

I added up the number of even strength goals scored by the top and bottom six forwards for each team. Since both Chicago and Boston played 12 games in the first two rounds while the Penguins played 13, I used a rate stat (goals per game). The chart below contains the data.

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There's a clear separation among the top six units. Chicago's top forwards were scoring at a pretty high rate while Boston's top unit struggled to pot even one 5v5 goal per game. As I hinted above, switching Soderberg for Smith doesn't change things; instead of Boston's top six scoring 12 goals and their bottom six scoring four, you'd get 11 goals from the top six and five from the third and fourth lines.

The more important--and surprising--thing from that graph is that the bottom six units for all three teams were tightly grouped around 0.4 even strength goals per game. The total goal numbers were pretty close as well: Pittsburgh had five bottom six goals in 13 games; Chicago had five bottom six goals in 12 games; and Boston had four bottom six goals in 12 games. A big part of the depth narrative is that Pittsburgh supposedly didn't have a collection of depth forwards who could reliably score. But if that's true, how come no one says the same thing about the depth units from Boston and Chicago? Though the numbers were nearly identical, the story goes that the Penguins lost because their lower-tier forwards were trash, while Chicago's depth has the Hawks on their way to a Stanley Cup and Boston simply fell victim to a streak of bad luck.

Narratives, man.

And it's not like Pittsburgh's top goal-scorers shoulder an abnormal proportion of the scoring load. For each team, the top six scores at a much higher rate than the bottom six. The graphs below highlight the proportion of even strength goals scored through the first two rounds of this year's playoffs.

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Nearly identical proportions across each team. I have been guilty of describing the Penguins as "top-heavy" in a pejorative sense, but now I don't think that's a fair characterization. If anything, this is a reminder that all NHL teams give a disproportionate share of minutes to their top six forwards, and those forwards do the overwhelming majority of goal scoring at even strength. If the Penguins had a depth issue when it came to scoring goals in the playoffs this year, then Boston and Chicago were in the same boat.

**Update: Based on Hooks' comment and some questions on twitter, I just wanted to briefly note that looking at goals for and goals against (GF%) doesn't change the picture. For the Penguins, only two bottom six forwards had a GF% at 5v5 below 50%. For Boston and Chicago, three of their bottom six forwards each had a GF% below 50%.

Possession

I pulled the possession stats from extra skater for individual players. All possession numbers are based on fenwick (FF%) in score-close situations. Below is a chart with the top six and bottom six numbers for Boston, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. But I didn't label them as such on the graph. As you read this, I'd like you to guess which team is Team A, B, and C. Don't go to extra skater right now. Just guess.

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I'd say that based on the common perception of each team, one would guess as follows: Team A is Boston because they've got some real strong depth in the bottom six; Team B is Pittsburgh because they've got very little depth on the bottom two lines; and Team C is Chicago because they're just so well built that they can roll four lines and crush everyone.

If those were your guesses, you were wrong on two of them. Team A is Boston. Their powerful possession numbers in the bottom six were driven almost entirely by Soderberg and Eriksson (and switching Smith for Soderberg changes those numbers by less than 1%). Most of Boston's struggles in the top six were due to the Lucic-Krejci-Iginla line.

By now you've probably realized that Team B is Chicago and Team C is Pittsburgh. To me, this is startling. Given all of the noise made about Pittsburgh's lack of depth, one would have thought that the bottom six group flirting with a 45% FF would be the supposedly thin unit that Pittsburgh ices. But not so. Indeed, when you pull up the extra skater dashboard, you'll see that only three Pittsburgh forwards had a CF% below 50%, and all three of those forwards had an offensive zone start percentage below 47%.

For those who want to see the graphs separated, here is the FF% for the top six:

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And here is the graph for the bottom six:

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It's amazing to me that despite the destabilizing injuries to the Penguins and the constant reference to their lack of forward depth, they were still able to put up some incredible possession numbers against some good teams in the playoffs. And what's equally amazing is that people talk about the Hawks' depth as a good thing despite their bottom six being pretty close to hot garbage so far in these playoffs.

What do we take from this?

Like I said in the beginning, I think that depth was an issue for the Penguins, but I was unsure how significant it was, especially when measured against the deepest teams in the league. The data above suggests that any supposed lack of talent in Pittsburgh's bottom six was not a meaningful cause of their playoff exit. And that's a serious proposition that cuts against nearly all of the stories being told right now.

How can this be? Some people might claim that I was wrong to just focus on the playoffs. Yes, depth was a big issue for the Penguins during the regular season. Tyler Dellow made this point months ago. But part of the Penguins' depth issues during the regular season were due to injuries, and when they were healthy for the first time in the playoffs, they passed the FF% test with flying colors. And more importantly, no one's losing any sleep right now trying to explain what happened in the regular season because everyone is too busy trying to figure out how the Penguins again lost to a lower-seeded team while Chicago is three wins away from the Stanley Cup Final. That's why I looked at the playoff numbers for this year.

And no one can complain that I'm an insufferable nerd who doesn't watch the games because the goals tell the same story. The Penguins were getting the same scoring from their bottom six forwards as Chicago and Boston were getting from theirs.

Now I don't want to miss the forest for the trees. If the Penguins had been more successful at drafting, could they have had better players than Craig Adams and Joe Vitale? Absolutely. The rest of their bottom six group (Sutter, Goc, Bennett, Gibbons) were fine. But remember that Chicago and Boston were also dressing plugs. Neither Shawn Thornton nor Gregory Campbell scored a goal in these playoffs, and both were getting outshot while they were on the ice. Chicago has dressed Versteeg, Bollig and Handzus despite that group only scoring two goals, and despite only one of them having a CF% north of 40% (yes, 40--not 50--percent). If the Penguins had guys putting up numbers like that we'd be screaming about drafting failures. But since they're on Chicago, they're character guys that you need to win.

Which leads me to the main point I've drawn from this: I think we're overrating depth. So many people have talked about Toews' goalless droughts in the playoffs last year and how Chicago's "depth" was able to overcome that. But Chicago's depth wasn't named Brandon Saad, Michael Frolik, or Marcus Kruger; it was named Patrick Kane, Bryan Bickell, and Patrick Sharp. Here are the 5v5 goals scored by Chicago forwards during last year's Cup run:

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Captain Clutch is highlighted in yellow. It's obvious enough from this chart that Chicago won because of their star players, not their depth. If we group Toews, Kane, Hossa, Bickell, and Sharp ("stars") together, and compare the percentage of the team's goals they scored to the rest of the forwards, we get this:

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It's nice that Dave Bolland scored three even strength goals in 18 games, but only Toronto was dumb enough to believe he was instrumental in the Hawks' Cup run last year. Chicago didn't win because of Dave Bolland; Chicago won because of their stars.

***

There are a number of reasons why the Penguins lost to the Rangers while the Blackhawks are still playing hockey. It's tough to identify one as the most significant. But if you care what I think, the biggest difference is probably goaltending. Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, Crawford faced 377 shots in 12 games while Fleury faced 378 shots in 13 games. Crawford had a .931 save percentage; Fleury had a .915. That equates to a difference of six goals against, or roughly two wins. Considering the Penguins only needed one more to advance, that's big.

But the thing I keep coming back to is that we've been overrating depth. Depth is important, but it's become romanticized. Sure, the Penguins could have had better fourth liners, but that's also true for Chicago and Boston. Based on goals and possession, the Penguins' bottom six did just fine in the playoffs this year. Management, however, thought otherwise, and fired Ray Shero late last week. Shero's drafting record is not good, but his group of role players outperformed Chicago's when it mattered most this post-season. Hopefully the recent course of events don't turn out to be a mistake that we end up regretting in the future.

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