Coming out of the NHL All-Star break we can see the teams with a realistic shot at winning the Stanley Cup. Any list of Cup contenders starts with the consensus Cup favorite Tampa Bay Lightning. Then there are trendy picks like the scorching-hot Boston Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights. After that, the field appears to be more wide open than ever before. Sadly for the rest of the league, I dug a little deeper and realized something inevitable. The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to win their 3rd straight Stanley Cup. They currently sit 5th in the east, with a 51.7% Corsi and +1 goal differential. That may not sound like the dominate Penguins of the past, but there are 3 reasons why this team will be in a familiar position in June.
1) Matt Murray Will Comeback
First up is the inevitable comeback of the Penguin’s star goalie Matt Murray. The first half of his season has been a roller coaster for the 23-year-old. He struggled through injury plus some personal issues, which really shows when we look down to his results.
This graph shows us Murray’s goals saved above average per 100 shots faced. This begins by weighing every shot a goalie faces for how dangerous it is (expected goals). Then compares what that goalie has saved to an average one given the same shots. This helps us see how weird this season has been. His rookie season was fantastic, saving 0.82 goals above average per 100 shots. Then he followed that up with a Vezina like Sophomore season-saving 1.55 goals above average. Finally, there’s this year, where Murray has fallen below average for the first time costing the Penguins 0.48 goals per 100 shots.
Combine all 3 years and we get a good estimation of Matt Murray’s true talent. His long-term talent is probably comparable to his rookie season, which was good enough to win a Cup with. Don’t expect Murray to be bad forever, he will eventually start playing up to his talent. When he does this, watch the Penguin’s wins pile on. Transitioning up ice, we can see Murray isn’t the only one due for some regression.
2) The Penguins Shooters Are Victims of Variance Too
Using the same expected goals formula as above we can evaluate how lucky/unlucky shooters have been. This is done by comparing players actual goals to their expected goals. Way more goals than expected is considered lucky, with the inverse being unlucky. Normally expected goals assumes each shooter is league average. Of course, this can be problematic when looking at a team oozing offensive talent like the Penguins because they consistently outperform offensive averages. To combat this I added each players shooting history to their expected goals. With this, let’s look at how the Penguins snipers have been doing this year relative to their actual shooting talent.
One quick glance to see who’s been unlucky, and oh LITERALLY EVERYONE IMPORTANT. The best defenseman, Kris Letang, is due for some bounces to go his way. Then there is the supporting cast from the wing. Luckily Phil Kessel and Conor Sheary don’t have it too bad, I guess somebody has to score. But after that Carl Hagelin, Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist, and Jake Guentzel are all due for some bounces. Up the middle, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have followed suit.
Malkin has been the Penguins most lethal even strength scorer this year with 11 goals but should have about 14. Expect Malkin to get even better. Then there is Crosby, the unluckiest of them all. He has 20 points in his last 10 games, and that’s just the beginning. Even with the recent hot stretch, Crosby has underperformed his true talent by 7 goals this year! Stop me if this sounds too familiar, but Sid looks poised to shake off his “down year” and run red-hot down the stretch leading the Penguins into the playoffs.
All together (including the skaters not on the visual), the Penguins shooters have underperformed their true talent by about 23.6 goals! The fact this team is in the playoffs despite variance robbing their shooting talent of 20+ goals is insane. Add that to the roughly 12 goals Matt Murry’s off stretch has cost them, and suddenly we might be looking at the best team in the NHL. This bad luck is not going to last forever, and when it bounces back the Penguins are going to obliterate teams down the stretch with Crosby leading the charge. This should scare all 30 other NHL teams, but it’s not even the worst part.
3) They Are Getting Better
The rest of the league should be worried that the Penguins shooters and goalie are probably going to regress upward. What should scare them, even more, is this team is only getting better. Once we look down to the numbers, it’s easy to see the positive trend.
The blue bar represents the Penguins Corsi For percentage each month. This is the percentage of shot attempts in their favor. Then there are simple goals for percentage in orange. The goals have been tanked because of the poor shooting and goaltending results mentioned above, so let’s focus on the teams Corsi, which is the best predictor of future success.
Not only is this teams record lower than it should be from a shaky start, but so is their shot rates. Starting in October, the Stanley Cup hangover was obvious. The Penguins couldn’t keep their heads above water, controlling only 47% of the shots. They quickly remembered how to swim, and every month since then the Penguins possession has improved. This upward trend has gotten the Penguins to the point where they controlled 55% of shots in January. These results are directly comparable to the 2015-16 Penguin’s after Mike Sullivan took over. The fact this trend could continue, and they might get even better than the past Penguins, plus the upcoming shooting percentage correction is going to make this team a force to be reckoned with. And hey, even if their results stagnate after January, their 2015-16 season ended pretty well.
Unimaginably bad luck and a poor start have plagued the Penguins this year. Because of this, their only 5th in the east, with good but not great shot metrics, and people are sleeping on them. But they are outshooting opponents by a wider and wider margin each month, Sidney Crosby and the offense are going to catch fire, and Matt Murray will start making saves. All of this is coming together just in time for a dominant stretch run leading to a third straight Stanley Cup.