There’s enough data in hockey to spin it around enough to present just about whatever picture you want to see. It’s summer, but the models never stop modeling and we have two outlooks about the Penguins to look into today. One is very optimistic. The other is a cold blast of water.
Might as well start off with the good: according to Dom Luszczyszyn at The Athletic, the Penguins are the third most improved team in the NHL based off additions and subtractions from this off-season.
Breakouts, declines, coaching, and luck all play a significant role in determining how good an NHL team will be.— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) July 19, 2023
But, it’s worth taking a close look at what’s changed.
From most value added to least, here’s how each team has changed this offseason.https://t.co/zmfzuFpSlQ
Dom wrote, in very brief part:
In: Reilly Smith, Ryan Graves, Noel Acciari, Lars Eller, Matt Nieto
Out: Jason Zucker, Dmitry Kulikov, Brian Dumoulin, Nick Bonino, Ryan Poehling, Josh Archibald
The key with Dubas is that while his moves may not have much pizzazz, they do usually help the bottom line. There are five key swaps here and in each case, it’s a matter of replacing a lesser player with a better player.
The total goal differential of the changes was estimated to be +12.1, the third highest in the league. Luszczyszyn pointed out that simply dropping Kulikov was good for a +3.4 goal swing as addition by subtraction.
And that’s where it starts to smell funny. Kulikov only played six games with Pittsburgh last season. He was only on the ice for three 5v5 goals against. Is his departure actually improving the team dramatically? On paper and in theory, perhaps, but Kulikov’s overall impact was so limited in the big scheme of things it feels off to celebrate a big upgrade in dropping him.
That aside, Kyle Dubas and the Pens will definitely take what they can get from positive changes elsewhere. Unlike removing a very part-time piece in Kulikov, getting Graves in for what was becoming a floundering Dumoulin should be a massive difference and actual legitimate positive change. Likewise, Pittsburgh will be hoping that improved defensive players in the bottom-six translate to cutting down on the high number (71) of 5v5 goals the Pens conceded last year when neither Sidney Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin were on the ice.
With that rosy outlook, how about a cold dose of an unfavorable model output, courtesy of JFresh Hockey.
ew ew ew cmon what why please why would you do this to me pic.twitter.com/62GA9reUKK— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 19, 2023
Before freaking out or diving into why the Penguins look off or anyone else looks in wrong spots (Islanders certainly do), it’s important to remember that any modeling or prediction is usually off at least 9-12 points on average for every team. That’s a lot of variability to be built in and realize that even the best outlooks are going to have to slide significantly to be accurate.
With that disclaimer out of the way, this outlook does offer the challenges and potential difficulties the Pens will face. The path to the playoffs could become very difficult with many figuring that Carolina and now New Jersey are untouchable as the top tier of the division. Add in the two excellent Russian goalies on the two New York teams and another old dog in the hunt like Washington and that’s too many teams fighting over too few spots now that the middle of the Atlantic division is on the upswing.
Last year the Pens finished with 91 points, but they also got 164 total games and great seasons out of Crosby and Malkin. Realistically and based on age, there’s only one way that impact and availability can go in 2023-24 compared to 2022-23. If Pittsburgh’s free agent changes didn’t freshen up the third line enough or prove to be too offensively weak, finishing around 90 again isn’t the season many are hoping for, but might not be ensured to be any better.
That said, ideally the model is too sour on the Pens at this point and too sweet on a team like the Islanders, and after corrections are made and the real life results take place their positions flip.