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The Trap

It looks like there is a narrative developing among some Pens fans that this team simply can't beat the trap, and that Pittsburgh's loss to the Islanders was the template the league was searching for on how to beat the Penguins. People like Seth at Empty Netters, and both SlayerGhaleon and RLM140 here at Pensburgh, have been the few that I've seen so far question the Penguins' ability to beat the trap. As a note, I only cite these individuals because I don't want people to think I'm imagining this.

After the jump, I'll try to show why I think this narrative is inaccurate, and why the Penguins have been more unlucky than uncoordinated the last five games.

First, I'd like to clear something up about the trap. The trap is a hockey system that is designed to make passing through the neutral zone very difficult. The theory is that by making it difficult for teams to get through the neutral zone, the trapping team will not allow the opponent to set up in the offensive zone, and thus they won't give up many chances. This is the critical point about the trap: it is only effective if it prevents the opponent from setting up in the offensive zone. Any hockey system which allows the opposing team to get a lot of shots and chances is a bad hockey system, since teams that out shoot and out chance their opponents will win more in the long run. A good way to see if the trap has been working against the Penguins is to see how well the Penguins have possessed the puck over the last five games. If they've been out possessed, then they've struggled against the trap, and vice versa. 

The Penguins are 1-2-2 over their last five games, and this stretch started with the shootout loss to the Islanders. This is the period over which it's claimed the team has fallen victim to the trap. I'm going to ignore the 8-1 win over the Bolts and look at the Penguins' performance over their four most recent losses. Here is the relevant data (NYIWSHMTLMIN):


There are two things I'd like to note from this table. The first is the Penguins' overall shooting percentage during this four game set. The Penguins have scored three goals on 129 total shots, which gives them a 2.3% shooting percentage. Obviously the Penguins aren't this bad; no team in this league is. When a team is shooting this low, it's because they're getting unlucky. The puck will start going in again at a higher rate and the Penguins will get their goals for. It's also encouraging that the Penguins have maintained a high number of shots per game, and not let their bad luck discourage them from putting shots on goal. 

Secondly, the Penguins have not succumbed to the trap. They have continued to out possess the opposition over this stretch of time, as they've had a positive Corsi every game so far, and a positive Fenwick in all but one of the games (and keep in mind, the last two games were played without our best player). After looking at this chart, it's obvious what has been going on: the trap has not worked against the Penguins. If it was working, the Penguins would be out possessed by the opposition. But the fact that the Penguins have gotten all of these shots over this time is indicative of the fact that they've been able to gain the offensive zone and possess the puck in the offensive zone. In other words, they've been able to do what the trap is supposed to prevent. 

Some might say that stats are misleading, and that possession doesn't mean anything since the Penguins are taking a lot of bad shots. But this isn't an acceptable explanation because it's not true. There are plenty of articles and research that have demonstrated Corsi and shot differential are great predictors of future success. The best teams over the last three years (and all Stanley Cup winning teams) were at the top in terms of out shooting the opposition at even strength. JLikens at Objective NHL has done research here and here which demonstrates the utility of Corsi and Fenwick, and Derek Zona at Copper and Blue reported that teams which out shot the opposition over the last 21 years have had a much better winning percentage than their opposition. Finally, Gabriel Desjardins has also written at length on the usefulness of Corsi and Fenwick as predictors for future success

Scoring chances, Corsi, and Fenwick are the best statistics we have right now to measure how well a team is playing. Unfortunately, there's no database that records the scoring chances for NHL teams. Since that's the case, Corsi and Fenwick are the next best options, and these measurements aren't deficient: there are mountains of data that illustrate these statistics are great measurements for evaluating how the team is playing. While the Penguins haven't been blowing away the competition (other than in the Islanders game), they've still managed to out possess the opposition, even without their best player for some of this time. This article isn't meant to excuse the performance of Staal, Malkin, Letang and others; that group of players can certainly be better. However, there is no evidence that the Penguins are getting owned by the trap. It just isn't true.