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Kris Letang, PDO, and the difference between being unlucky and bad

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Kris Letang has had what the stats say is “bad luck”. Bigger context of his play shows why goalies aren’t making saves for him.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Boston Bruins Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Among the many problems the Pittsburgh Penguins have so far in the 2017-18 season, PDO is probably #1.

For those not fluent in the fancy stats, PDO has a dictionary definition of:

PDO, called SPSV% by the NHL, is the sum of a team's shooting percentage and its save percentage. PDO is usually measured at even strength, and based on the theory that most teams will ultimately regress toward a sum of 100, is often viewed as a proxy for how lucky a team is.

Basically, it measures luck. Over a long period of time, you would expect a normal team to have their shooting and saves balance out at even strength.

This season, however, the Penguins have been abysmal and last in the league in PDO as they’ve been dead last in shooting percentage and 30/31 in save percentage.

As we posted a couple weeks ago from a chart by Sean Tierney:

Almost off the charts, “unlucky”! How does that happen?

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One instance where this just plain bad luck was on display was just last game against the Ducks. Take your favorite player and mine Sidney Crosby. Leader of the whole league in goals last season. Best player of his generation. He scores this goal 11 out of 10 times:

Except, he didn’t score. Kind of the story of the Penguins on offense- they’re sitting 10th in the NHL with 322 high danger scoring chances, per Natural Stat Trick. Yet they only have 23 high danger chance goals, far and away last in the league. Pittsburgh is shooting just 5.09% at 5v5, which again is 31st best in a league of 31 teams.

To this, you can chalk up a lot of bad luck. The Pens have some of the most skilled offensive players in the world between Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel, but for some reason they are getting chances, but not converting them. In time, this can and should and probably will fix itself. Keep getting those looks (like the highlight above) and eventually the rewards will come. This is very logical, and though frustrating for players and fans alike to suffer through, is just one of those things that takes patience.

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There is another piece of the PDO puzzle, and that’s the shooting percentage against. Pittsburgh is currently at 90.52% at save% at 5v5, which is again last in the league.

Let’s stop for a second and highlight how incredible it is that an NHL team is last place in both aspects of PDO in shooting AND saves. And this isn’t just any team, it’s the back-to-back champions. Remarkable and not in the good way.

Still, unlike the above shooting percentage, it can be argued pretty easily that the goals against are of the Pens own doing.

Take Kris Letang. Despite the injuries he’s finished in the top-10 of Norris voting 5 times in his career. One of the best players of the last decade by any measure.

This year, not so much. He’s been on the ice at 5v5 for 14 goals for and 38 goals against, with an on-ice save % of .878. This means Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry have let him down, right? Well, that’s what it looks like on paper and from a 10,000 foot view and if you’re not watching the games.

If you were watching the games, you would have a little added context as to why Letang has a low on-ice save percentage. It’s not because of luck or poor goaltending, it’s because of Letang’s own miscues like this:

And, he knows it:

Other reasons Letang’s save % is in the dumpster? More mistakes like making a bad pass behind his net like this:

And it’s not bad luck when things like this happen, which getting skated defensively has happened more to him this season than previous years:

A bad puck management decision in the offensive zone that leads to a breakaway against? Not bad luck, bad play.

And here’s a Letang mistake that results in a high danger chance against the Jarry actually bails him out on:

This could be a little bad luck with a turnover in the defensive zone, but it’s compounded by an extreme slowness to pickup anyone defensively too.

Poor defensive coverage on the wrong side of the net where there’s no one around isn’t bad luck, it’s putting the goalie in a bad spot.

Without eviscerating Letang too much more, the point has been made. It’s not “bad luck” as to why he has a dreadful save percentage while on the ice. It’s mostly his own poor play, decision making and frankly effort level defending at times. That’s a tough criticism but a fair one at this point. Letang currently ranks 3rd in the whole league with 55 giveaways not an area one wants to be among the league leaders at. Some of that is unavoidable for as much as he handles the puck and attempts to make riskier plays, which isn’t all bad, yet as the highlights above drive home the risk hasn’t been worth the reward this season

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So what’s the takeaway?

Ideally, the shooting comes around. Take the Crosby chance above- that player with the puck in that spot, that’s a goal more often than not. It’s just seemed that somehow all season long it hasn’t been going in. Still an equation as simple as it is true is that chances + skill = goals. Sooner or later it will happen, it’s just frustrating to endure not knowing when luck will even out.

The more troubling issue is the defending. Pittsburgh players have been terrible all year with puck mangement decisions (not just Letang, though he is the poster boy). Their effort defending, at times, has been lackadaisical. As a result, the goals against are piling up. This isn’t really a goaltending issue, despite a low save percentage, it’s more of a team hemorrhaging too many quality chances against issue.

Can that be fixed? For that, there’s no simple answer or easy way to resolve what’s emerged as a big issue. As cliche as it sounds, it just needs to be worked through as well and hopefully addressed on a day-to-day basis of focus to stay engaged and consistently make better decisions with the puck. Granted, way easier said than done, but that’s the mission at hand.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been “unlucky” but there’s no doubt they can make some of their own luck go a little further with better efforts. If they want to get back into the playoff chase, now is the time.