One of the things I've been thinking about lately is how the Penguins' possession numbers (at the team level) changed so dramatically over the last two years. Up until the start of the lockout-shortened season, the Penguins had always been an elite possession club under Bylsma. But each of the last two years saw the Penguins finish the season in the middle of the pack in terms of Fenwick Close.
A big (and generally correct) reason for the Penguins' drop in possession was their not-so-good bottom six this year. The drop in the salary cap and the lack of forward prospects in our system certainly contributed to icing a less than optimal set of bottom six forwards. But I think a bigger reason for the team's middling possession numbers this year was the endless injuries to Paul Martin and Kris Letang. Those two are undeniably our best puck-movers: when healthy this year, Martin and Letang led Pittsburgh defensemen in time on ice per game. So their value to this team cannot be overstated.
Since Extra Skater has the game-by-game data available, I went through and calculated the Penguins' CF% and FF% in score-close situations in four types of games this year: (1) games both Martin and Letang played in; (2) games just Martin played in; (3) games just Letang played in; and (4) games neither Martin nor Letang played in. For those who are interested in the game totals, the Penguins played 22 games with both Martin and Letang, 17 games with just Martin, 15 games with just Letang, and 28 games with neither defenseman. The chart with the data is below (please click all images to enlarge).
The difference with and without Martin and Letang is clear as day. When they both played, the team had a 51.5% CF% close and a 54% FF% close. That Fenwick percentage is stellar; had the team finished the year with a 54% Fenwick Close, they would have ranked fifth in the league. Things get worse--but still good--with just Martin in the lineup, as the team sports an identical 52.6% CF% and FF%. It was surprising to me how far the Pens dropped even with Letang in the lineup, as both the team's CF% and FF% in those games was below 50%. This is additional evidence, in my opinion, that Paul Martin (or an equivalent player) is key to Letang's continued success.
Nevertheless, the team with just Letang is much better than the possession dumpster fire that was the Penguins with both Martin and Letang out of the lineup. During that time, the team sported an awful 46.9% CF% and an even worse 45.9% FF%. That Fenwick Close over the whole season would have placed the Penguins at 26th in the league.
The enormous disparity in the Penguins' possession rates with Martin and Letang in and out of the lineup makes me think that they're much more important to controlling play than whoever we dress in the bottom six. To see if this was true, I went back and tallied up who our bottom six forwards were in those 22 games where both Martin and Letang played. If we were dressing a good bottom six in those games--say, Gibbons, Bennett, Stempniak, Goc, etc--then maybe Martin and Letang weren't driving the bus as much.
|Number of Games with Martin and Letang|
It looks like the usual suspects were in our bottom six for these games. Glass, Adams, Sutter, and Vitale were present in most of these games. The rest of the group is equally uninspiring: D'Agostini, Pyatt, Sill, Jeffrey and Kobasew were all in for a number of these games as well. There's no doubt that these forwards were not good, but somehow just having Martin and Letang in the lineup meant that the team was still able to put up great possession numbers.
We can also see this by looking at the WOWY numbers for a collection of these bottom six forwards. The charts below look at those forwards who spent 50 or more 5v5 minutes with either Letang or Martin this year.
Most of these guys do better with Martin and Letang on the ice. For Paul Martin, only Kobasew, Megna, and Sutter do better when they're away from him, and Kobasew and Megna didn't even spend that much time with him. Most of his minutes with the bottom six were eaten up by Sutter, Glass and Adams. For Letang, only Megna and Sutter again are doing better away from him. It's mildly amazing to witness how much better Glass, Vitale, and Adams are in terms of puck possession when they're with one of either Martin or Letang.
I also don't think it's unusual for this to be the case. There are a number of teams that have 1 or 2 defensemen who seem to make everyone better, and who are needed for their team to put up elite possession numbers. This is true for Vlasic in San Jose, Andy Greene in New Jersey, Mark Giordano in Calgary, and Anton Stralman in New York, among others. The point is that if you take any one of these guys away, things get ugly very fast for those teams, and it becomes much tougher for the forwards (bottom six and top six alike) to control possession.
To preempt any confusion, I want to be clear: Pittsburgh's bottom six depth could, and should, have been better this year. But when you look at this team with and without Martin and Letang, we get two radically different pictures. Given the more than eight percent swing in FF% when you compare the Penguins with both Letang and Martin in the lineup to when they have neither, it's clear that those two are immensely important. Even our suspect depth could hold serve in the games where those two dressed.
To come back to what got me thinking about this, I think the Penguins' average possession numbers this year had much less to do with our bottom six players and far more to do with the injuries to Martin and Letang. This is reassuring and also makes sense; Bylsma ran an aggressive possession system while he was here, and I haven't seen anything to suggest that he consciously got away from that as the year wore on. The Penguins likely would have put up good to great possession numbers had they not been struck with the awful fortune that kept Letang and Martin out for long stretches at a time.
It's encouraging that Johnston will emphasize a system that is oriented to puck possession. But the most important thing in making that work seems to be having your best defensemen healthy and dressed for all of your games. Without them, controlling play is very, very difficult.