If you’re like us, Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts is like Christmas that comes weekly. But perhaps the most entertaining of all 31 Thoughts is the one that comes right after the Trade Deadline, where he details all of the stuff that nearly happened, fell through, or was just speculation.
The Penguins, understandably, popped up a few times yesterday.
First, the Carl Hagelin thing. From Friedman:
18. In the days leading up to Carl Hagelin’s trade to Washington, Pittsburgh tried to re-acquire the winger. Before the trade was submitted for Central Registry approval, someone noticed that the Penguins were ineligible to do it. They traded him to Los Angeles on Nov. 28 and retained salary. A team can not bring back any such player for one year after the initial move.
There’s just so, so, so much wrong and irritating about this, right? It’s damn near so reprehensible that it deserves its own exhibit in the Natural History Museum. Between trying to get back a guy you traded away earlier this season and flat out not knowing that you couldn’t get him back because you retained part of his salary is so far beyond inexcusable that if excusable was the Sun, this little nugget of information would be 2018 VG18. Just a little space humor for ya!
I guess give GMJR credit for trying to fix a mistake he feels he made, but man, maybe don’t make the mistake in the first place? Because when all is said and done, the end of this trade tree has a direct line between Hagelin and Gudbranson that got funneled through Tanner Pearson.
That’s a look so bad it’d get voted off Project Runway in episode 1.
Speaking of Gudbranson, he also popped up in 31 Thoughts. Back to Elliotte:
17. Days before Pittsburgh acquired Erik Gudbranson, the Penguins had a nasty game with San Jose where Sidney Crosby ended up fighting Haley — a tough customer. According to The Athletic’s Josh Yohe, a Penguins player saw Evander Kane look at their bench and say, “Who on this team is going to do anything about it?” Gudbranson badly needed a fresh start, and, if anyone can breathe new energy into his career, Sergei Gonchar is a great bet. But you have to believe Gudbranson ended up in Pittsburgh (and Adam McQuaid in Columbus) with Washington in mind.
Again, not a great look. We know Gudbranson is a replacement-level defenseman and has been for his entire 8 year career. Sometimes, you just have to accept that’s the type of player he is and avoid it at all costs.
Bad players don’t just become magically good because they pull on a Penguins sweater. That’s not how this works. Believing that is the most arrogant and shortsighted thing on Planet Earth.
Our friends over at Pensburgh had a really good take on the matter:
It’s totally easy to believe Pittsburgh took a reactionary stance following the San Jose game (which as mentioned above saw the Pens get pushed around in a low-key almost line brawl) and the Philly game where Brian Dumoulin got hurt on a questionable hit and Kris Letang got hurt in the ensuing scrum. Easy to see how at surface level the GM would think “well, now I need to add defense depth AND I need a guy who is a tough customer to help back the team up”.
While that adds up, it’s still disappointing from Rutherford. What happened to 2016 and Mike Sullivan’s “just play” motto? Remember when Ben Lovejoy gave a fired up interview on NBC where he was ready to run through a brick wall in Game 4 in the Washington series? The video appears to have been take off the internet but Lovejoy said:
“Since Christmas teams have been trying to combat our speed by punching us in the mouth. We’ve been taking it, and we’re going to keep on taking it and force them to turn with our speed.”
The Pens attitude – from the way the manager has built the team – has clearly shifted. In 2016 there would be no room in the lineup for a defenseman that doesn’t skate, defend or provide any offense, and one with terrible metrics.
But now in 2019, instead of trying to win on the ice and just play, the Pens are more interested by Rutherford’s own admission at his press conference to add toughness, even at the expense of not being a skilled (or good) hockey player.
The large, glaring point here is that Gudbranson was perhaps allegedly brought in to punch
people Tom Wilson (who is decidedly not a person) and that’s it. He certainly wasn’t brought in to do anything remotely close to playing hockey.
The funny thing is, you had a tough customer on the back end in Jamie Oleksiak, a guy that could actually play hockey too, and you traded him for peanuts.
The funnier thing is that if you wanted someone whose only discernible skill is punching people in the face, that same Michael Haley was on waivers before getting into it with 87 in that San Jose game and GMJR could’ve claimed Haley himself if a face-puncher was what they desired. Considering the non-existen risk of bringing on a guy like Haley who makes $825k against the cap and whose contract expires at the end of this season, it seems like a no-brainer.
Instead, Gudbranson’s $4M per season contract doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season. Yikes.
The second best part of that “article” above is that shot at Malkin for being a -19 the last 3 months. First of all, Malkin is on pace for 85 points this season, which is objectively good, and has scored 4 goals in his last 5 games, which is also objectively good. Secondly, of all Penguins skaters that Malkin has shared the ice with this season, Jack Johnson’s 325 shared minutes is second most behind Phil Kessel and 73.5 minutes more than third-most Olli Maatta. Malkin+Johnson together own a 47.06% share of the goals scored, meaning they’ve been on the ice for more goals against than goals for. Move Malkin away from Johnson and Malkin’s share of goals jumps up to 52.08%. Johnson, when he’s away from Malkin, sees his share of goals drop to 37.78%. If plus/minus is your thing, that’s more of a damning indictment against Johnson than it is Malkin, but go off, king.
But regardless of your feelings on plus/minus (it’s not a particularly good evaluation of a player), let’s consider some things for a minute:
Plus/minus is the measurement of even-strength goals for and shorthanded goals for minus even-strength goals against and shorthanded goals against. On the ice for an even-strength or shorthanded goal for your team? That’s +1. On the ice for an even-strength or shorthanded goal against? That’s a -1. Pretty simple math stuff.
Now, we can all agree that goals are prevented and allowed by goaltenders, right? Shots can be suppressed or persuaded into being taken from lower percentage areas of the ice by defensemen/players in front of the goaltenders, but ultimately, goaltenders are the difference between pucks going in and pucks staying out.
Over the last three months, what Penguins goaltender has come back to life and is stopping the puck at a higher rate than he was in October and November? If you answered Matt Murray, you’d be correct (read about his resurgence here and here). Understanding the goaltenders’ impact on goals scored will be important here shortly.
But perhaps the best part of that “article” is that, aside from Johnson’s change in fortune with respect to shots not beating the Penguins goaltenders as much over the last 3 months, Johnson has actually been worse over the last three months in the shot-based and scoring chance-based data sets.
Note: the yellow cells indicate where his numbers have been better. All numbers via Natural Stat Trick and are at 5v5.
You’ll notice that his share of on-ice goals for is the only category where he’s made significant improvement from his first two months. He’s been marginally better with his share of high danger scoring chances, but being on the ice for more HD scoring chances against than HD scoring chances for is still inherently bad, even with that slight uptick.
Side note: Johnson has actually been on the ice for more high danger chances against per 60 minutes of ice time over the last 3 months (12.15) compared to his first two months (11.79). The Pens are just generating slightly more now (10.53 now vs. 9.9 then). In fact, per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, Johnson has been on the ice for more shot attempts against, unblocked shot attempts against, shots on goal against, and scoring chances against as well over the last 3 months compared to his first two months. “Defensive specialists” that have been “playing well over the last 3 months” do not allow more of everything across the board.
The two biggest things that stand out in the table above, though, are Johnson’s on-ice shooting percentage and on-ice save percentage. That slight uptick in on-ice shooting percentage means that the Penguins are scoring goals at a slightly higher rate at 5v5 over the last 3 months. On the flip side, when Johnson is on the ice, the Penguins goaltenders are stopping nearly 94% of the shots they’re facing, versus the abysmal 87.38% in the first two months.
It’s worth noting that Jack Johnson is not a goaltender. Johnson does not save shots. He’s supposed to help prevent shots, but hasn’t done a particularly good job at doing that lately either.
But if shots are going into your opponents’ nets more frequently at 5v5 (i.e. opposing goalies are not making saves) and shots are going into your net far less frequently at 5v5 (i.e. your goalie is making saves), then it’s pretty easy to understand why Johnson’s plus/minus has drastically increased. It has everything to do with Matt Murray rounding back into form.
Jack Johnson just happens to be on the ice when Matt Murray is stopping goals now.