Sunday, 15 April 2012
04/15/12 From The Outhouse To The Penthouse
The Pittsburgh Penguins may be down 3-0 in their series against the Flyers, but no one can argue with how far they have come. After finishing one point out of 30th in 2005-06 the Pens improved by 25 wins the following year and ended up 5th in the East. And they aren't the only team to make major gains in one season. Below is a brief examination of one of the recent examples of a team that has made the transition, and more importantly: why. Could the Oilers follow suit?
2005-06 and 2006-07 Pittsburgh Penguins
The 2005-06 Penguins are barely recognizable when compared to what we know today. Their leading scorer was Sidney Crosby with 102 points in 81 games, but next was Sergei Gonchar with 58 points in 75 games. Evgeni Malkin had yet to leave Russia, and Jordan Staal was as yet undrafted by Pittsburgh.
The Penguins were unremarkable in scoring in 2005-06, finishing 18th in the NHL. Malkin and Staal added 62 goals and 127 points in 2006-07, and with Crosby's help Pittsburgh rocketed up to 3rd in the NHL in goals per game at 3.26.
Interestingly, the Penguins were 6th on the powerplay in 2005-06, and finished 29th. In 2006-07 they finished 5th with the man advantage and made the playoffs.
After being atrocious defensively in 2005-06, the Penguins improved from 30th to 14th in goals against per game in 2006-07, which is the really interesting area. Major contributors to the defense (Orpik, Scuderi, Gonchar, Whitney, Melichar) were all returnees from the previous season in which the Penguins finished 29th. Letang played just 7 games for them that year. The team went from 27th in shots against with 33.2 per game to 22nd with 30.9. Improvement, certainly, but not leaps and bounds.
The big difference in goals against is the goaltending.
In 2005-06 Pittsburgh used four goalies, and none of them - including Marc-Andre Fleury - had a save percentage on the positive side of .900. Combined, the four goalies faced 2716 shots and stopped 2413 of them (0.888 Sv%). Fleury's 0.898 Sv% was best on the team, and he made 50 appearances that year.
In 2006-07 Pittsburgh used two goalies, and both were above .900 in Sv%. Fleury's was 0.906, and Jocelyn Thibault had a 0.909 Sv%. In all, they faced 2526 shots (190 less than the year before) and stopped 2290 of them (a 0.906 Sv%). Those numbers still might not be good enough on a less offensively gifted team, but in Pittsburgh they were plenty in the regular season.
Pittsburgh's penalty killing went from 29th in 2005-06 (78.8%) to 17th (82.1%), which reduced the overall goals against by a whopping 38 goals. At even strength the Penguins reduced their goals against by 16 - from 155 to 139 season over season.
In total, Pittsburgh improved by 70 goals against in 2006-07 (from 310 to 240), and they scored 24 more goals in total (from 243 to 267).
Sidney Crosby, Ryan Whitney and Marc-Andre Fleury were all part of the team that finished in second last, but they were also key reasons that the Penguins turned it around. The defense was not massively overhauled, and the team actually got younger with Malkin and Staal replacing veterans like Palffy, Lemieux and LeClair. Despite their biggest additions coming up front, the real improvements were in the defensive department.
Edmonton finished 20th in goals per game and 23rd in goals against per game, so there's work to be done in both areas. Like Pittsburgh, if the Oilers had even average goaltending over the length of a full season (that is, if they got it from Khabibulin or got rid of Khabibulin), they would be much improved in goals against. The Penguins also prove that it's not unprecedented to have a good powerplay and finish at the bottom of the league, but the Oilers have the advantage of a slighty above-average penalty kill going into next season.
The Oilers don't have three number-one centers like the Penguins (arguably) do, but a player like Yakupov will help tip the scales offensively. More maturity from a player like Jeff Petry and another possible addition on the back end will make the comparison to the Penguins one that's not incredibly far off. Devan Dubnyk is as good or better than what Fleury was in 2006-07, and Fleury's career stats (.909 Sv% and 2.68 GAA) compare well with Dubnyk (0.910 Sv%, 2.85 GAA). Although the sample size is smaller with Dubnyk, he has played on some pretty terrible Oilers teams and the Oilers didn't have to use a first overall pick on him like Pittsburgh did with Fleury.
For the most part, the Penguins showed some signs of life in 2005-06, but still managed to finish at the bottom of the league. The Oilers are in a similar position. Adding Yakupov and [Dear God, please] getting healthy seasons from Hall and Nugent-Hopkins will be extemely impactful, just as Staal and Malkin were for the Pens. There's still no Sergei Gonchar in Edmonton, but if this off season is successful there will be some facsimile. That is one of the most glaring differences at this point.
The Oilers don't have Sidney Crosby either, but neither do 29 other teams; and most teams don't have an assortment of talent up front that can compare to Pittsburgh or Edmonton. The Oilers aren't the Penguins, but the Penguins are proof that things can turn around in a hurry in the NHL.