The Penguins’ success can’t be modeled

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The 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins relied on a devastating combination of greatness and luck to become the first team in 20 years to win back-to-back Stanley Cups.

In a lot of ways this latest championship was pretty improbable given the obstacles and adversity they had to overcome along the way.

They had nobody playing the role of a No. 1 or No. 2 defenseman and had to travel a daunting path through two of the four best teams in the NHL before even reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. What made it even more incredible was the fact they spent most of the first-two rounds getting outshot, outchanced and outplayed, leaving heavily on their goaltending to get them through.

Given the copycat nature of professional sports it’s probably worth looking at just how the Penguins reached this point because there is no doubt that the NHL’s 30 general managers outside of Pittsburgh are breaking this title run down to see if there is anyway they can apply it to their teams. We saw in the aftermath of their 2016 championship when “speed” and “play fast” were the buzzwords thrown around the NHL in the offseason.

The reality is this: What the Penguins did this postseason can not be duplicated.

It is not unfair to say that the Penguins experienced a good deal of luck along the way to their latest championship. Because they did.

Every team that wins a title needs a little bit of luck to get there, and most teams that get outshot to the degree the Penguins did in the first three rounds don’t typically get through them unscathed.

The Penguins were just the 15th team over the past 30 years to reach the Stanley Cup Final while getting outshot through the first three rounds of the playoffs (they were outshot by 46 shots).

They were only the fifth team in that group to actually end up winning the Stanley Cup.

There is an element of good fortune there, and it comes largely from the play of their goaltenders — Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury — playing brilliantly and keeping them in a lot of games. With anything less than greatness from that spot the Penguins’ playoff run probably ends in the first or second round. A hot goaltender carrying a team deep into the playoffs isn’t anything shocking. It happens.

But luck wasn’t the only key ingredient to this run.

There was also an element of greatness to it when it comes to their offense and ability to put the puck in the net.

They did it in a rather unconventional way, and in a change from what we saw from them last season they were a puck possession monster that steamrolled over every opponent and averaged 35 shots on goal per game.

This postseason the Penguins managed just 28.7 shots on goal per game, a number that was not only the lowest for any Stanley Cup champion over the past 11 years, but they were the only champion during that stretch that did not average at least 30.5 shots on goal per game. They were nearly two shots per game behind every other recent champion. That is not an insignificant number.

They had the third-lowest shot volume of any team in the playoffs this year.

But because they converted on 10.8 percent of their shots they still managed to average more than three goals per game.

For most teams a 10.8 shooting percentage would be an unsustainable number that would be almost certain to regress.

The Penguins are not most teams.

The Penguins are able to make it work because they have the best collection of forwards in hockey led by a pair of generational talents in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, an elite goal-scorer in Phil Kessel, and a group of complementary players that help form four lines that are all capable of scoring.

This is what elite talent does and it is not something to just easily write off.

Whenever a team has a shooting percentage that sticks out significantly above the league average — as the Penguins were this postseason —  there is a rush to paint it as unsustainable. But the Penguins’ shooting percentage this postseason was almost perfectly in line with what they have done during every year of the Crosby-Malkin era. The lone exception was the year-and-a-half Mike Johnston was their coach.

The Penguins don’t always need to generate a ton of shots to score. They don’t always need to dominate the possession game.  They would almost certainly prefer to play that way. They probably don’t want to have to rely on counterattacking and great goaltending to win. But given the makeup of their roster this postseason on defense they almost had no choice but to play that way. And it worked.

It would not work for just about any other team in the league because nobody else has the type of high end talent the Penguins have.

The key to duplicating what the Penguins did this postseason would be finding another Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel to go with a collection of young, cheap complementary forwards (Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary) all hitting the NHL at the same time. That is, quite simply, not likely to happen.

The Penguins’ Stanley Cup win this season was not a sign that teams don’t need a No. 1 defenseman to win.

It shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that shot metrics don’t matter.

It also shouldn’t be completely written off as a lucky team that just got hot at the right time.

It simply shows the Penguins, through some good fortune in a couple of draft lotteries more than a decade ago, a blockbuster trade, and some shrewd drafting and developing built a collection of forwards that is unmatched anywhere else in the NHL, playing in front of two No. 1 goalies.

It was a unique roster, and it worked for them.

It will almost certainly not work for anyone else because there is not another Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin walking through the door for the same team at the same time.

Sidney Crosby at 30

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

Much like with Lebron James, Sidney Crosby is at the point in his career where the question is no longer “Will he be one of the all-time greats?” After back-to-back Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe wins, the discussion is shifting to where he ranks among the best of all-time.

And, like, with Lebron, there are a number of factors – including era, which is probably an even tougher nut to crack in hockey – that can twist and turn the debate.

Mere moments after Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins repeated as champs, Mike Sullivan made the case for number 87’s greatness.

” … You know, he’s arguably the best player of his generation, and he’s a guy that just knows how to win,” Sullivan said. “And so he’s done it in all different venues, whether it be the NHL and Stanley Cups to the World Cup to the Olympics. And he’s a player that — and I believe this, what separates him from others is his work ethic and his willingness to do what it takes to be the very best.”

It’s mind-blowing to consider the very real possibility that Crosby will be viewed as the best player to skate for the Penguins, edging Evgeni Malkin, Jaromir Jagr, and even Mario Lemieux.

It’s also mind-blowing that he just turned 30 on Aug. 7.

When it comes to the Mario vs. Sid debate that may eventually pick up steam, Crosby has some advantages. He matched “The Magnificent One” by getting those back-to-back titles and playoff MVP nods, while he already has three Stanley Cup rings to Lemieux’s two (and four Stanley Cup Final appearances to two).

Crosby already has an iconic moment to his name. Along with Paul Henderson’s goal and “Gretzky to Lemieux,” Crosby’s golden goal in the 2010 Winter Olympics will endear him to Canadian hockey fans for ages.

This list of accolades is honestly dizzying:

But, again, things get tougher when you try to really drill down to Crosby vs. The Greats. Most obviously since he’s far from done right now.

Circling back to the debate that might divide Penguins fans in particular, Crosby might also edge Lemieux if you correct for our modern era, which is so tough on scoring. NHL.com’s Rob Vollman explains Crosby’s place among the most impressive runs before 30:

From this perspective, Crosby is no longer in a block of a dozen players but in more select company. He ranks third at age 30 with an era-adjusted 998 points (377 goals, 622 assists), well ahead of Lemieux, who is in fourth with 899 points (365 goals, 534 assists). Gretzky is in first with 1,479 points (495 goals, 984 assists) in 896 games, followed by Jagr with 1,018 points (414 goals, 604 assists) in 858 games. (Adding to the distinction of being in the top four with Gretzky, Jagr and Lemieux: Those are the only three players to win the Art Ross Trophy as the League’s top scorer in the 21 seasons from 1980-81 to 2000-01.)  

Interesting. (This quick document has a bit more to chew on.)

Vollman also makes the point that even the all-timers tend to stop locking down the biggest awards once they turn 30. There’s an obvious barrier in Connor McDavid (just check the Hart Trophy odds) and possibly some other bright young players, so for all we know, most of our peak memories of Crosby may already be in the past.

That said, much like Lemieux, injuries have limited some of the stats Crosby’s been able to put up.

Crosby’s concussion history could conceivably prompt him to retire agonizingly early, but what if he instead gets better luck? We’ve seen cases, such as Patrice Bergeron, in which such issues become less of a concern over time. For all we know, Crosby might defy expectations and actually play until he’s 40.

(Hey, he already emulates Jaromir Jagr in being an inanely good puck protector.)

It’s been a special run already for Crosby, who’s already a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame. At this point, it’s about padding that resume.

Though, to Crosby’s credit, it’s still probably all about winning.

Sabres sign Zemgus Girgensons: two years, $3.2M

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The Buffalo Sabres basically wrapped up their mandatory summer moves by signing RFA Zemgus Girgensons to a two-year, $3.2 million contract on Thursday.

That translates to a cap hit of $1.6M per year; the team confirmed those terms.

The 23-year-old was selected 14th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft by the Sabres. He went two picks after the Sabres selected Mikhail Grigorenko, whose claim to fame is being part of the package that helped them nab Ryan O'Reilly. (Feel free to cringe at who went next, though hindsight seems especially convenient considering how long it takes to get to some of the whoppers.)

In Girgensons’ case, it’s still been a work in progress. His best years actually came early, particularly a sophomore season where he posted career-highs in goals (15) and points (30) despite being limited to 61 games. He enjoyed significantly higher ice time (19:05 per game) during that 2014-15, then came right back down.

If nothing else, Girgensons already has ample NHL experience, as he’s already played in 277 regular-season games.

Buffalo has about $7 million in cap space left, according to Cap Friendly, so there’s theoretically room to make more moves. Girgensons was their last remaining loose end of note, however.

Devils’ Zajac out 4-6 months after pectoral surgery

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As much as the New Jersey Devils have made gains in trading for Taylor Hall and Marcus Johansson, they’ll still need some familiar faces to fight their way out of the cellar.

It looks almost certain* that they’ll begin the 2017-18 season without one common fixture, as the Devils announced that Travis Zajac will miss about four-to-six months after undergoing surgery on his left pectoral muscle.

The injury occurred during Zajac’s off-season training; the Devils didn’t share exactly how that occurred, though.

Zajac, 32, has generally been quite sturdy for the Devils. He played in 80 games in 2016-17, collecting 45 points. He also appeared in 80 games in 2013-14 while playing 74 in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. He also played all 82 games for four straight seasons early in his career, so this must be frustrating for the veteran center.

* – Yes, four-to-six months would mean missing a significant chunk of the regular season … but sometimes hockey players make downright shocking recoveries. Just saying.

Lightning join effort to move Confederate monument

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The Tampa Bay Lightning joined the Rays and Buccaneers in releasing a joint statement regarding their efforts to help move Confederate monument Memoria in Aeterna from downtown Tampa following last weekend’s awful events in Charlottesville, Va.

This effort gained steam as Hillsborough County government officials announced that $150K in private funds would be needed to make the change, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The Go Fund Me drive is currently over $50K as of this writing. If funding goes through, the monument would reportedly move from downtown Tampa Bay to a family cemetery.

Here’s that joint statement:

As Shutdown Corner’s Jay Busbee reports, it’s likely that former NFL head coach Tony Dungy brought wider attention to the matter, challenging sports teams to contribute while donating $5K himself.

The Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith reports that Lightning forward J.T. Brown has personally donated $1,500. The donation was inspired in part by the birth of his daughter Lily.

“How would I explain why someone doesn’t like her?” Brown said, via Smith. “Or why is this going on in the world?”

This is what the monument looks like:

This isn’t the only case of NHL teams being connected to those tragic events, as the Detroit Red Wings and NHL announced that they may pursue legal action after the Red Wings’ logo was used by white nationalists during the weekend.

Busbee has more on the Tampa Bay monument situation here.