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Confirmation bias, the Penguins’ ‘best’ hockey of the season, and a cautionary tale

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We need to talk about some things.

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Every time I watch the Columbus Blue Jackets this postseason there is always one thought that takes over my mind when Artemi Panarin is on the ice.

“I can not believe the Chicago Blackhawks traded this guy.”

But they did!

They not only traded him, they essentially traded him in a straight up deal to re-acquire Brandon Saad, a pretty good but obviously inferior talent to the player they gave up.

When the Blackhawks traded Panarin they were in a position that should not be unfamiliar to Pittsburgh Penguins fans. They were two years removed from winning a third Stanley Cup in a relatively short period of time and had just been swept out of the first round just one year after losing earlier than they expected or had hoped. Looking back at the articles and commentary that were written from a Blackhawks’ perspective at the time of trade, a lot of familiar talking points kept coming up as to why the trade made sense for the Blackhawks after such a dismal postseason performance.

The biggest ones revolved around Saad being a better “two-way player” (this was the big one), being slightly younger, and having a better contract (they had the same salary cap hit, but Saad was signed for longer and had more long-term contract certainty). It also seemed like Panarin was being viewed as a scapegoat because the team hadn’t won since he arrived and, well, the talented Russian must be the reason why.

What there wasn’t was enough of was recognition that Panarin was a legit impact-player with a higher ceiling and, even with his perceived shortcomings away from the puck, a better and more valuable player to have on your team.

On Thursday night, the Columbus Blue Jackets will play their 14th playoff game since the trade and have an opportunity to take another big step toward the Eastern Conference Final. They are also right now a serious threat to actually win the Stanley Cup this season.

The Chicago Blackhawks? Well, they have not played in a single playoff game since the trade.

There is a cautionary tale here that Pittsburgh as a whole (from the front office to the fanbase to the media that covers it all) should keep in mind when it comes to this offseason and where the team goes after a disappointing playoff exit. It is such a common sense approach that it should go without saying, but it still feels like it needs to be said anyway: Trading good players for inferior players is generally a bad idea. Panarin may not have been a part of a championship team in Chicago (he didn’t come to North America until 2015-16), but he was still an elite player that was traded for a lesser player. There is no denying the Blackhawks have been worse for it today while the Blue Jackets have been better for it.

There is a point with all of this.

In all of the recaps regarding the 2018-19 Penguins, and in all of the comments from the team itself, there is a constant talking point that keeps going back to “playing the right way,” reducing risk, and how the team seemed to have “found” something in March when Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang missed significant time due to injury. It is not terribly difficult to connect the dots here and view it as, in some small way, an argument for at least listening to trade offers on those two players. And this isn’t media or fan talk, either. That whole “found something in March” storyline literally came from the GM of the team.

This was Jim Rutherford on locker clear out day when talking about the season.

“Our team played as a team in March. We had a tough schedule. We had a lot of games. We played the game the right way, and that’s when we played at our best. We were tracking towards being a good playoff team, then we ran up against a team that was more determined and played the game the right way and we played at a higher risk. It was there. We saw it in March. And it could certainly be there in the future. But it won’t be the exact same team.”

Again, straight from the general manager’s mouth: “That’s when we played at our best.”

If you are looking to build an argument around where the team should go in the offseason, you might look at a stretch of games the GM called their best of the season where the team was also without two of its best players and go from there. If you think the problem with the team was a style of play issue because those best players have become too risky, you might be tempted to argue that it’s time for a fresh start and a fresh approach. If you are the GM of the team, and a GM that has a well established career-long tendency to trade first and ask questions later, you might even be tempted to actually go through with that fresh approach.

Confirmation bias is a real thing. If you think the team is too risky, and you see a month-long sampling of games without two specific players that play that style of game that was supposedly the team’s “best” play, it is going to be easy have a “eureka” moment and think you stumbled upon the problem.

But I have some qualms with this.

First, I am not even sure that was the Penguins’ best stretch of play during the season.

They were good, don’t get me wrong, and it was probably one of the few times during the season that there should have been some real optimism about what the team could be capable of come playoff time. But let’s be real for a second: The team played 17 games in March and won 10 of them, and only eight of them in regulation. That is good. It is not great. It is not like they dominated or were playing at a level that made them a clear Stanley Cup favorite.

It also was not even their best stretch of the season in the standings. They had a 19-game stretch from early-December to mid-January where they went 15-3-1, and yes, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang were both in the lineup for that entire stretch of games.

But sometimes it is not just results that determines when a team is at its best, sometimes it’s about the process behind the results.

I broke the entire season down into rolling 10-game segments that looked at their goal-differential, Corsi Percentage, scoring chance differential, and high-danger scoring chance differential. It is outlined in the chart here.

It breaks down like this: Early in the season goaltending crushed the Penguins when their possession and scoring chance numbers were pretty good. In the middle of the season goaltending bailed them out when their possession and scoring chance numbers were pretty bad. Late in the season the team had a strong combination of good goaltending and good possession and scoring chance numbers. The thing is, their possession and scoring chance numbers late in the season were not any better than they were earlier in the season, and in some cases were actually lower. Their best Corsi and Scoring Chance stretches came in December — not March.

The only area where they saw a significant spike late in the season was in high-danger chances, but even THAT started to regress back down to a more normal level in the final weeks of the season. And keep something important in mind: Kris Letang played in three of those games in March when their high-danger chance differential spiked, and he was arguably their best player during those three games — he was magnificent before leaving the lineup again.

The too risky player was not hurting them in those games.

The too risky style of play was not hurting them in December when they were controlling play at their highest level and winning games.

But here is the question you (“you” being you, the fan, and also “you” being the Penguins themselves) have to ask yourselves: Even if you believe that 17-game sampling in March without two top players was their “best” hockey of the season, why is that 17-game sampling more important to you than a 17-game sampling earlier in the season when the team was objectively just as good (if not better) with those players?

Why is a four-game sampling in one playoff series more important than a decade’s worth of high-level play and sustained dominance?

Why are you trying to talk yourself into something that will almost certainly make you worse in the short-term with what is probably a minimal chance of making you better in the long run?

My skepticism of an Evgeni Malkin trade actually happening put aside, there is a reason everyone in Pittsburgh is reporting the same thing, and with this much smoke there almost has to be a sliver of fire somewhere in the organization.

Losing is difficult and frustrating, and no one likes it. That is especially true when you are an organization that is used to not only winning, but also competing for championships. When those organizations lose, and lose the way the Penguins did this season, there is a tendency for them to completely lose their minds and start looking to fix problems that don’t need fixing (like trading an elite offensive player for a better “two-way player), which only makes things worse.

There is going to come a point in the next six or seven years (or less) where the Penguins are without Sidney Crosby, Malkin, and/or Letang. But you shouldn’t speed up that process because you didn’t like the way they played for 20 or so games, or because you think you saw something in 20 games when they were out of the lineup. That is a kneejerk overreaction and kneejerk overreactions are the worst way to build a professional sports team.

Tom Wilson made the Penguins front office lose their collective minds and alter the way they built their team, and it made them worse.

They can’t let 20 games in March and April send them in the same direction.

You lost. You did not play well. You need to be better. It happens.

It is not a reason to dramatically alter your team and close your window before you need to.

Sanity needs to prevail.