Activated C Sidney Crosby from the IR (Nov. 21, 2011)
It was never supposed to be like this. In a better world, the hockey community would not have been celebrating so vociferously around 7:30 EST PM on Monday evening. Sidney Crosby scoring with a backhand shot off a rush would have made the highlight reel, and we would have looked at the goal as one of many in a great race for the Rocket Richard trophy brewing between Sid the Kid and Phil the Thrill. But this is the world we live in and this goal (and the rest of his game) was that much more meaningful.
In this world, Crosby opened the 2011 calendar year getting hit in the head by David Steckel, then with the Washington Capitals, while playing in the showcase NHL Winter Classic. Four days later, the pride of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia received another blow to the head, this time from Lightning youngster, Victor Hedman. The effects from the compound blows were too much even for this generational talent, and the former first overall draft pick missed the rest of the regular season (41 games), the Penguins' truncated playoff run (seven games) and the first 20 games of the 2011-12 season.
While Crosby was away, the NHL cracked down on headshots, installing Brendan Shanahan as it new chief disciplinarian, a new Sherriff with a new mandate to bring transparency to the way supplemental punishment is doled out by the league. Just under one month after Crosby was shelved, the second superstar center on the Penguins went down to his own injury, as Evgeni Malkin tore both the ACL and MCL in his right knee. Jordan Staal, who only made his season debut in the ill-fated Winter Classic, was now the de facto first-line pivot. Going into the New Year's Day game at Heinz Field, the Penguins' record stood at 25-11-3, giving them 53 points in 39 games (1.36 points per game)included in that stretch was a 12-game winning streak that overlapped with a 25-game point streak from Crosby himself. The Penguins split the two headshot games and finished the season going 23-13-5, 51 points in 41 games (1.24 points per game).
As NHL's second season began, the higher-seeded Penguins bowed out in the first round in seven games to the upstart Tampa Bay Lighting, as Dwayne Roloson and friends (including the pesky Hedman) held the Pens to a mere 14 goals in seven games, less than two goals per game when taking into account their 3-2 double overtime victory in Game 4. The offensive firepower was less impressive still when noting that one of their goals was an empty netter potted by Chris Kunitz in the series opener.
After that disappointing finish, the Penguins, still without Crosby and without Malkin for seven of their first 20 games of 2011-12, opened the new season on an 11-6-3 clip, 25 points in 20 games (1.25 points per game). Even though the Penguins are largely thought of as a team led by their immense strength up the middle, in 61 games without Crosby and with only minimal Malkin presence, they have played at a pace that would give them 102.5 points over a full season, a pace only bested by eight teams across the entire league last year. Their pace from early last year would have seen them rack up 111.5 points over a full season, which would have given them the number one seed in the Eastern Conference last season.
So how did they do it? One interesting anomaly from the second half of last season was their record in the shootout. The Pittsburgh club won an amazing seven out of nine in the skills competition after Crosby went down, including a run of four consecutive games decided in their favor in the shootout in late March. This anomaly was pointed out in the Hockey Prospectus annual, which also reminded us that in a points system that was more traditional (no shootout, one point for ties and none for overtime losses), the Penguins would have only tallied 41 points after the loss of Crosby, compared to 50 prior, a much starker drop off in teamwide success.
Before this season began, VUKOTA projected 96 points for the Penguins, expecting 70 games from Crosby and 60 from Malkin with secondary offensive help from such unheralded players as Tyler Kennedy and Chris Kunitz, in addition to Jordan Staal, deadline acquisition James Neal and blueliner Kris Letang supplementing the lost production from the convalescing big duo.
Focusing on the present season, with the return of Crosby subject to daily speculation and rumor-mongering, the Penguins' early point compiling should, by rights, have fallen well short of VUKOTA's projected pace. The system, expecting 70 games on the season from Sidney, assumes that pace as a flat trend, with the 2007 Hart Trophy winner missing one game out of every eight, instead of ten in a rownot to mention 20. Even with that anomaly from the projections, the Penguins could have been expected to have amassed around 23 points leading into Monday's game. Their actual 25 points is not far from that pace, but, again, this was done with far less presence than expected from Malkin (expected GVT of 2.3 in 20 games) and absolutely nothing from Crosby (assuming he would miss the first 12 games of the year to play his projected 70, there was an expected GVT of 2.1).
As the table below shows, including all players prominent enough to be projected by VUKOTA, the Penguins were expected to produce just over 33 GVT over their first 20 games. While not all players contributed equally in the results, the Penguins have exceeded expected production by nearly 20%, with 39.6 GVT thus far.
Player production vs. VUKOTA, Pittsburgh Penguins to date
Player GP GVT eGP eGVT GP GVT GP+ GVT+
Fleury 49.7 7.8 12.1 1.9 14.3 7.1 2.2 5.2
Staal 64.1 7.3 15.6 1.8 18.0 5.9 2.4 4.1
Dupuis 71.6 6.2 17.5 1.5 20.0 5.0 2.5 3.5
Neal 70.7 7.3 17.2 1.8 20.0 5.1 2.8 3.3
Cooke 64.9 4.8 15.8 1.2 20.0 3.2 4.2 2.0
Letang 79.3 11.6 19.3 2.8 18.0 4.2 -1.3 1.4
Niskanen 58.2 1.8 14.2 0.4 19.0 1.8 4.8 1.4
Park 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 17.0 1.3 17.0 1.3
Orpik 60.1 4.4 14.7 1.1 12.0 2.3 -2.7 1.2
Malkin 60.4 9.5 14.7 2.3 13.0 3.3 -1.7 1.0
Engelland 52.6 1.9 12.8 0.5 20.0 1.4 7.2 0.9
Vitale 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 20.0 0.5 20.0 0.5
Kunitz 63.6 6.5 15.5 1.6 20.0 1.9 4.5 0.3
Craig 25.4 0.7 6.2 0.2 0.0 0.0 -6.2 -0.2
Picard 48.5 2.9 11.8 0.7 6.0 0.5 -5.8 -0.2
Adams 64.0 1.5 15.6 0.4 20.0 0.1 4.4 -0.3
N. Johnson* 26.0 1.5 6.3 0.4 0.0 0.0 -6.3 -0.4
Tangradi 31.9 0.8 7.8 0.2 2.0 -0.2 -5.8 -0.4
Kennedy 69.8 7.7 17.0 1.9 9.0 1.3 -8.0 -0.6
Michalek 64.1 5.1 15.6 1.2 10.0 0.3 -5.6 -0.9
Jeffrey 36.9 3.1 9.0 0.8 6.0 -0.2 -3.0 -1.0
Asham 54.2 2.3 13.2 0.6 19.0 -0.4 5.8 -0.1
Lovejoy 52.2 5.2 12.7 1.3 13.0 0.1 0.3 -1.2
Martin 66.1 5.8 16.1 1.4 20.0 0.0 3.9 -1.4
Sullivan 58.2 4.2 14.2 1.0 20.0 -0.5 5.80 -1.5
Letestu** 58.5 3.7 14.3 0.9 11.0 -1.4 -3.3 -2.3
B. Johnson 23.8 3.7 5.8 0.9 6.1 -3.0 0.3 -3.9
Crosby 70.0 18.5 17.1 4.5 0.0 0.0 -17.1 -4.5
Totals 1444.8 135.8 352.4 33.1 373.4 39.6 21.0 6.5
*Projections were for time with Pittsburgh, although Johnson was lost to Minnesota
in a preseason waiver claim
**Projections were for time with Pittsburgh, and actual stats were for time with team
before being traded to Columbus
As the far right column indicates, the Penguins have produced nearly 6.5 GVT beyond expectations thus far into the season. Once Crosby's expected 4.5 GVT are removed, the remaining players have already produced 11 GVT beyond expectations, over 0.5 additional GVT per game. It may be folly to expect players such as James Neal, Marc-Andre Fleury, Pascal Dupuis, and Matt Cooke to continue at their current high levels, but a healthy and productive Sidney Crosby*, some resurgence from Steve Sullivan and Tyler Kennedy up front, improved defensive play from Zbynek Michalek, Paul Martin, and Ben Lovejoy and at least replacement level performance from backup goaltender Brent Johnson, should counteract those dropoffs.
*He certainly looked healthy on Monday, didn't he?
The Penguins are already the top team in the East. There is no reason why we should not be able to make that same claim in April.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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