Since Ray Shero was fired, I’ve come to realize that there seems to be a somewhat dangerous idea floating around Pittsburgh. I was reading Puck Daddy’s piece on the affair and came across this interesting nugget from Seth Rorabaugh, who writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
From a tactical standpoint, several portions of the system the team played overwhelmed or confused current and former players, particularly on defense. Ben Lovejoy was a middling borderline NHL defenseman with the Penguins. After being traded to the Ducks early in the 2012-13 season, he became a top-four defenseman for head coach Bruce Boudreau who by his own admission, likes “to keep things simple.”
I then went over to Dejan Kovacevic’s interview with the Pens’ owners and found something similar:
(Pens owner Ron) Burkle: Yes. And Ray made a strong argument for what he wanted to do, for the continuity he wanted, for extending the contracts, all the stuff you know about. I think the piece that was added, really by Mario, and that was embraced by Ray was to bring the other coach in and change the ability to adapt to situations. And if you look back at that today, in some ways, I wish we hadn’t made that bet. Because that’s another year. So if we’re disappointed, it’s that we lost a year to the change that we should have made already.
It’s hard when you look in the first round at a guy playing pretty well for the other team, and we got a fourth-round draft pick for him.
DK: Mark Letestu.
Burkle: Yes. So we’ve got to take a look at different ways to do this.
DK: You could say that about Ben Lovejoy, I suppose, and others, too.
Burkle: On and on and on. So we haven’t given those younger guys a chance. We haven’t gotten that right mix on the ice.
Wait, Ben Lovejoy is no longer a middling borderline NHL defenceman? I am skeptical. He’s gotten second pairing minutes in Anaheim this year, that much is true. He’s also done fairly poorly with them – he posted a Corsi% of 48.2%, which is a lousy number for a second pairing defenceman on a team that aspires to win a Stanley Cup. He posted a Corsi% of 50.8% in 2012-13 with Anaheim but that wasn’t really in top four minutes. There’s a funny wrinkle in Anaheim, in that they seem to be getting a greater share of the shots than their Corsi% would suggest but it’s a team-wide thing, not a Lovejoy specific thing, so I’m hardpressed to give him any credit for that.
Why, then, is there this belief in Pittsburgh that Lovejoy’s the one who got away? My guess is that his +21 in a top four role on a team that finished second in the NHL is what has people fooled. Of course, if you look at his underlying numbers, the source of most of that +21 becomes clear: Lovejoy had a .942 save percentage when he was on the ice. I put together a graph of defencemen who had on-ice save percentages of .935 or better in one year along with their on-ice save percentage the following year:
I would bet that, come this time next year, people in Pittsburgh aren’t talking about Ben Lovejoy as an example of Shero’s mistakes.
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As I was fiddling around with another year’s data from the NHL, I noticed something far more interesting about Pittsburgh than their decision to send Ben Lovejoy to Anaheim for a fifth round pick. They’ve become really, really bad after they lose a neutral zone faceoff.
I look at 5v5 neutral faceoff losses by focusing on the 29 seconds after a neutral zone faceoff occurs. Here’s what Pittsburgh’s done for the seven years for which I have data. At the bottom, I’ve summarized Bylsma’s first three full years with his last two seasons.
That’s, uh, quite the change over the last two years. Those are both amongst the worst two seasons I’ve ever seen teams post. My database has 210 team-seasons. Here are the bottom twenty:
It’s kind of weird how a team that was above average went completely off a cliff like this. We can visualize the problem a little bit by looking at how many shot attempts for/against they generate/allow as the seconds pass from the faceoff loss.
You can see that the problem lies more in generating shots than it does in giving them up. The volume of shots allowed is about 12%; the volume of shots generated is down more than 30%. We know that the Pens have suffered a bit from a loss of depth, so I took a look at how Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin did.
They’re both down by a lot, although not as much as the Pens as a whole. You can draw an inference that the problem is more acute when they’re not on the ice but that it’s a team wide problem.
What does all of this mean? Well, I see two potential issues. The first is the ever possible tactical change. I don’t watch the Pens that much and I’m not interested enough in them to deal with the hassle of going through video but when you see something like this that affects the entire team, it seems like a pretty good guess. Perhaps people who follow the Pens more closely than me have some ideas.
The other potential issue is personnel change. I’m skeptical that it’s this because Pittsburgh’s defence corps was reasonably stable from 2011-12 to 2012-13 and we still saw a big decline. The bottom six getting worse shouldn’t affect Crosby and Malkin. I’d lean towards a tactical change that’s backfired.
One other point that’s always worth keeping in mind when we talk about this stuff: what’s it worth? Well, by my math, if the Pens had played NZ faceoff losses from 2012-14 at the same Corsi% as they did from 2009-12, they’d have gained a half a point of Corsi. That doesn’t sound like a ton but it’s probably worth a win or so in the standings. It’s an edge worth pursuing if you’re the Penguins.Email Tyler Dellow at email@example.com