2009 was the last time the Penguins have gone as far as they have right now. And while ultimately this season will only be seen as successful as 2009 if the Penguins manage to win one more game, your evaluation of the team shouldn't change. This is a very good team playing very good hockey, and they have been playing good hockey for half a year now.
The issue with evaluating a team like this is that success in the playoffs can be deceiving. It's easy to assume a blueprint was found, and then overvalue aspects of the team. Some of the worst contracts in the league have been given out by GMs, who at that moment still were euphoric from a recent Cup win.
A recent example of misjudging the reason behind success would be Team USA for the upcoming World Cup. Dean Lombardi and others tasked to build the team decided to go with Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Justin Abdelkader, and Jack Johnson, instead of players like Phil Kessel, Tyler Johnson, or Justin Faulk. The reason? Because they were inspired by the 1996 US World Cup team.
NHL.com: You talk a lot about that 1996 World Cup team and what they accomplished and what you would like to emulate. You have been around those guys your whole life. Is there a piece of DNA and you just say that is what they have, that is what we need?
Lombardi: I've been around those guys since they were 17. Boy, I firmly belief what I said again. Don't forget, they were the children of [the] 1980 [team]. They were in that age group where it really propelled them. [Keith] Tkachuk said that is why he wanted to play hockey after that. It's an interesting way of phrasing that and it is a good character, of DNA. The competitiveness of that group just remains with me. There was a competitiveness and a toughness to them. They weren't prepared to play underdog anymore. I remember Tkachuk at a World Junior tournament stand up to [Canada's Eric] Lindros as an 18-year-old. That was unheard of. If you watch that [World Cup] series closely or get [Paul Holmgren] talking about that series, he was on the bench (as an assistant coach), that was an absolute war. That was a man's game. That's what resonates with me, just how hard ... when I say "hard," it got a little dirty, but that was just hard. I just think so many of those players had that, even the talented ones. You look at [Mike] Modano, he was an American kid that went to go play in Prince Albert and be a top player; you talk about breaking barriers. How tough do you have to be to do that instead of taking maybe a much easier route than going up to Western Canada to learn your trade? Even Brian Leetch, as good as he was, you could not intimidate him. He just kept playing. You go right down that roster, there was a mental toughness that, and I like your term, DNA, that maybe I should use that in the future, but that is what they needed to have to be such a good group.
"It was not a miracle," Guerin said. "We were the best team. Say what you want, but we beat everybody and we deserved it."
Many players of that team are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame, or in the US Hockey Hall of Fame. The 1996 team was skilled and tough, and it's as if Lombardi forgot the skilled part when he approached building the 2016 World Cup team. It will require a miracle if Lombardi's vision ends in a gold medal.
After back-to-back trips to the Final in 2008 and 2009, many assumed the Penguins had found that elusive blueprint for success. But it took them the better part of a decade to return after their last trip. There are a myriad of reasons for that. Injuries, lack of depth, goaltending, just plain bad luck. In the end, Ray Shero likely also had a faulty blueprint for the way he build the Penguins. A blueprint that was based on the 2009 Cup win.
Comparing the 2009 and 2016 Penguins
"We have four lines; maybe in 2009 we had two lines," Malkin said. "Now we're a different team, a different coach and we use all four lines like the same time."
In 2009, the skill of Crosby and Malkin shone bright enough that the dullness of some parts of the roster was seemingly easy to miss.
That year, the Penguins scored 79 goals in the playoffs. Malkin was on the ice for 41 of those goals, and Crosby for 40. None of the other Penguins players came close to that. Since 2005, only 2 other players were on the ice for 40 or more goals that their team scored during the playoffs:
Duncan Keith, 2014-2015 and 2009-2010, 46 and 41 goals
- Chris Pronger, 2005-2006 and 2009-2010, 44 and 43 goals
The difference is that Keith and Pronger played between 600 and 700 minutes during those runs. Crosby and Malkin played around 500 minutes.
To contrast the above numbers: during this run, the Penguins have scored 68 goals so far. If they had scored at their 2009 pace of 3.29 goals per game, they would have 72 goals by now. So their offensive results are very close. This year, no forward has been on the ice for more than 28 goals (Phil Kessel - Sidney Crosby is second with 27). The offense has been much more spread out.
Data from war-on-ice.com, Corsica.hockey, NHL.com
Stats are from all situations.
The Penguins gave big minutes to d-men that didn't produce in 2009. The minutes were spread somewhat evenly between Gonchar, Letang, Eaton, Gill, Orpik and Scuderi - most of them played around 20 minutes a game, with Gonchar getting a few more. But there is a clear distinction between those who produced offense, and those who didn't. Gonchar and Letang excelled, Orpik, Hill, and Scuderi didn't.
In 2016, there is a big difference in how many minutes the d-men play. The Penguins never let Letang leave the ice, but even Daley and Dumoulin would be second and third in minutes per game on the 2009 team. But this time, the Penguins d-men are closely together when it comes their individual production. The Penguins get production out of pretty much everyone.
To visualize the difference between 2009 and 2016 even better, here is a shape overlaid representing each year.
No d-man in 2016 is as productive as Gonchar and Letang were in 2009. And the only 2009 d-man, who is overlapped by the 2016 shape, is Mark Eaton.
Compare the shapes from this chart to the above one from the defense. In both cases, the 2016 shape is almost vertical, with the 2009 shape having a big spread along the production x-axis. For 2016, it means that their production is closer together, with the difference coming in ice time.
Overlapped forwards from 2009: Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, Max Talbot, Ruslan Fedotenko, Tyler Kennedy.
The Penguins were very top-heavy in their 2009, leaning on the production of Crosby, Malkin, Gonchar and Letang. They gave big minutes to players in "defensive" roles (Staal, Scuderi, Orpik, Gill) who didn't produce much with those minutes.
In 2016, the Penguins are getting production from every spot on their roster. They have two players being leaned on to play a lot of minutes against the other top lines: Crosby and Letang. But those two don't produce very differently than the rest of the roster. A stark contrast to the 2009 team.
To put both years into some perspective, a look at the 2014 forwards (black) compared to 2009 and 2016.
In 2014, the Penguins lost in in the second round to the Rangers. Again, the Penguins leaned on Crosby and Malkin. This time, they didn't get much support, and couldn't carry the team on their own. Tanner Glass, Craig Adams, Joe Vitale - their forward group had quite a few players not giving them any production in addition to not being given a lot of minutes.
One player, whose consistency stands out in the above chart, is Chris Kunitz. His minutes varied in 2009, 2014, and 2016, but his production always has been around 2 P60. In fact, in the 8 playoff years he had with the Penguins, only once has he provided the Penguins with less: 2011, where he had 0.6 P60.
Dangers Of Misjudgement
The above charts only look at ice time and production, and don't go deeper into the Hows and Whys behind that production. Some players got lucky, some didn't. Some got a boost from the players they played with, some got dragged down. With so many players on the 2016 team being young and unproven, it's also harder to put their current production into perspective.
A look back at 2009 shows a few examples of where there could have been issues in evaluating the players. In general, a Cup win often is like looking through rose-colored glasses: positive performances look even better, and negative performances don't matter as much.
One negative performance was Dupuis. Dupuis' lack of production and ice time in 2009 was an outlier compared to his other seasons. He had been a productive forward for the Penguins until he retired recently.
Scuderi's lack of production in 2009 isn't an outlier - he never produced a lot, and he isn't looked at to provide offense. Thanks to others providing that offense in his place, his teams' successes, first in Pittsburgh, then in L.A, led to him being overvalued.
"The Penguins went deep into the playoffs when they had Scuderi, and he made defensive plays that people remember as important. Without him, the Penguins didn't go as far into the playoffs, and instead the Kings had him, and they went deep into the playoffs." Maybe similar arguments led to the Penguins bringing him back on a contract in 2013, that more and more people now see as one of the worst in the league. And the Penguins weren't the only team to be swayed by nostalgia. The Kings recently traded for Scuderi and mostly played him in a top pairing role with Doughty.
Craig Adams wasn't an effective 5v5 player in 2009. Teams can survive giving a roster spot to players like him - sometimes they overperform (Adams had his best playoff production in his career in 2009), and sometimes other players can overcome the lack of production from these players. But it's never an ideal situation to give roster spots to players with low ceiling, especially in today's NHL. And it gets worse if it's more than one player with similar qualities (for example Tanner Glass). If those players don't produce a lot of offense, their other qualities should be assets that help others to produce offense. Marcus Kruger is one example. He can play tough minutes to free up others.
Being carried by Crosby and Malkin, a defense that mostly gives a lot of minutes to d-men who don't produce a lot of offense, some bottom six players who don't produce that much. Many of the years that followed showed a similar roster construction, though the balance was different at times.
The Penguins aren't the only team who had players that fit those descriptions on the roster. In fact, many other NHL teams did and still do. It's hard to build a team that doesn't have a weak spot somewhere due to the cap. With the Penguins, their top players hid a lot of flaws in the past - more than other top players are capable of.
The 2016 team deviates from that 2009 blueprint in a lot of ways. They get production from pretty much everyone. Of course they still have their weaknesses. For example: ideally Letang wouldn't be needed to play almost 30 minutes (even if he is capable to do exactly that). Or that Crosby and Malkin could have better wingers than they do. But the teams they faced also had weaknesses, and so far, the Penguins have come out ahead.
If the Penguins win, it will be important to try and not make any rash decisions while their judgement is clouded with the Cup win. While not a lot of contracts are up after this season, a lower cap next season may force their hand. Luckily, the young players contributing to the Penguins are under contract for a few years, so the Penguins can take their time to see if their play in the 2016 playoffs was a sign of things to come, or a performance of a lifetime. If it was, it will be a performance we will likely all remember.