Fast & Fearless: What the Chicago Blackhawks Can Learn from the Pittsburgh Penguins
Trade season is upon us, and while there will undoubtedly be countless silly trades during the off-season this summer, it’s worth paying special attention to one really, really bad one from yesterday.
I’ll admit, I’m biased. I’m a Penguins fan, and I haven’t stopped grinning since June 12th. Of course it’s amazing to win a Stanley Cup period, and it’s incredible to see it happen back to back. However, as a staunch Crosby defender, my biggest secret is that I’m most pleased that I never have to hear another word about certain Blackhawks players having more Stanley Cup wins than him, and therefore being objectively better in some way. We’re done with that conversation, and it’s wonderful.
However, now that I too know what it feels like to see my team win the Stanley Cup three times in seven years, I think it’s worth offering a bit of advice to the Blackhawks in the wake of yesterday’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad trade. Here goes:
The past is the past. If you want to add another cup to the shelf, focus on developing your future, not reverting to old methods. Build by adding speed and skill, not size, and don’t be afraid of what you can learn from veterans.
First, let’s focus on tangibles. According to James Mirtle’s statistics, the 2016–2017 Penguins were ranked 20th in average height at approximately 6 feet and 27th in average weight at 197.4 pounds at the start of the season. More than half of the team is under 200 pounds. Additionally, they were the 2nd-oldest team with an average age of 28.4 years.
By the start of the postseason, the team had only gotten lighter. Mid-season additions like forward Jake Guentzel, listed at 5’11” and 180 pounds, and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, listed at 5’11” and 191 pounds, pulled down the average weight by a full four pounds to 193.4. Had it been the start of the season, they would have ranked dead last behind the Canucks, who’d started out the year with an average weight of 194.9 pounds. Factoring in the weight loss that comes from such a long playoff stretch, the Penguins were easily the lightest team in the league for most of the season.
In terms of age, the Penguins started the season with an average age of 28.4 years. Despite the additions of seasoned veterans Ron Hainsey, 35, and Mark Streit, 39, the Penguins’ average age actually dropped throughout the season to 28.32, which would’ve only bumped them to 3rd place in the opening rankings. It’s the same duo from before, Guentzel and Ruhwedel, who at 22 and 26 respectively were significant in pulling down the average age upon their addition to the roster after the season had been well under way.
Interestingly, at the start of the 2015–16 season, the San Jose Sharks had only ranked 11th in average age at 27.8. However, by the time they squared off against the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final, it had increased to 28.38, matching the Penguins’ start-of-season average age that had ranked 4th in the league. Because neither team made any significant roster changes during the following summer, they were already two of the oldest teams in the league during the 2016 playoffs; the Sharks and the Penguins would later be ranked as the oldest and second-oldest teams respectively at the start of the 2016–17 season.
On the other hand, the Blackhawks were ranked 28th in average height, 29th in average weight, and 7th in average age at the start of the season. They were also 29th in average weight in 2015, when they won their third cup of the salary cap era. Of course, nothing about hockey statistics and analytics is simple, but there seems to be a pattern that suggests that in recent years, lighter teams have been pretty successful.
Frankly, the Blackhawks should be focusing on piecing together offensive lines that can get pucks to the net. That should mean finding Toews wingers that work. He’s already said he’s tired of the frequent line changes, but it’s clear by now he’s probably not going to have another season where he generates more than 70 points, so get him some linemen who can get pucks deep. Mirtle later reported that the Blackhawks were the oldest NHL team this season at the trade deadline, so might I suggest some cheap, young wingers?
Take Crosby for example: this season he scored 44 goals, his second-highest career total that won him this year’s “Rocket” Richard trophy, so his ability to score goals isn’t debatable. However, he also registered 45 assists, many of which were with his top three linesmen: Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust. Often, any given combination of Crosby and two of the aforementioned players is known as the “Sid and the Kids” line, with good reason — the trio are 22, 24 and 24 years old respectively and are three of the lightest at 180, 176 and 192 pounds. Guentzel and Rust are 5’11”, and Sheary is the shortest on the team at 5’8”. The point is, they’re small. They’re also young, fast, plenty skilled and have been really successful in building chemistry with Crosby as their center. Furthermore, they’re all AHL alumni who were given a chance by a coaching team that believed their minor league development staff has the ability to refine raw talent into what the Penguins needed.
One of the most comparable players on the Blackhawks was Artemi Panarin, a 25-year-old left winger who was plucked from the KHL and played on a line with center Artem Anisimov and right winger Patrick Kane. Panarin scored 74 points this season — 31 goals and 43 assists — and at only 5’11” and 175 pounds was the lightest player on the team, and arguably the most successful after Kane, who registered 89 points this season.
Yesterday, Panarin was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Brandon Saad. Saad was drafted 43rd overall in 2011 by the Blackhawks themselves, with whom he won the Stanley Cup twice, and he was sent to Columbus quickly after his second win in a big trade package. Also a left winger, he scored 53 points this season, registering 24 goals and 29 assists.
This particular trade demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what would best suit the Blackhawks moving forward.
Panarin and Saad have a lot in common: they’re both 25-year-old left wingers who are making $6 million per year, according to CapFriendly.com. Their previous teams exited in the same round of the playoffs this year, and now they can both say they’ve been traded by the Blackhawks at least once. Their biggest notable difference, besides the 21-point differential in this last season, is that Saad, at 6'1" and 202 pounds, is bigger. Bigger = tougher, and tougher = grittier, and as is often the case in the NHL, grittier = good.
…But is it really?
Let’s ignore the intangibles like grit for a moment. The only reason this particular move makes sense in an objective sense might be that according to CapFriendly.com, Panarin’s contract, which he’d just signed in December 2016, has his cap hit at $6 million per year for the next two years. When that’s up, he’s going to cost even more, and the Blackhawks are deep in cap hell. While Saad’s cap hit is also $6 million, his contract goes through the 2020–21 season, so the Hawks can avoid having to up his salary for a few more years (provided they hold on to him long enough this time).
However, this is not an objective pick — this is Stan Bowman panicking, scrambling to revert the Blackhawks back to the team that won the Stanley Cup three times in seven seasons. It’s clear that Bowman’s world was rocked by the Hawks’ early exit from this year’s playoffs after being swept in round one by the Predators. Despite Bowman claiming that his trade decisions aren’t based on just one round of the playoffs, broadcaster Mike Kelly reported the following:
(For what it’s worth, the Hawks also traded Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona yesterday for Connor Murphy. Both are about the same height and weight, but Murphy is paid a little less and is younger, so it seems like an okay deal. However, I will say that Murphy’s assist totals over the years are much lower than Hjalmarsson’s, and his penalty minutes are markedly higher, which definitely reflects the shift away from skill toward #grit.)
While certainly few people predicted that the Blackhawks would get swept by the Predators in round one of this year’s playoffs (for the record, I picked the Preds in six), it’s surprising to see Bowman scrambling for grit like this, not just because Saad isn’t that much bigger than Panarin. Trading one of their most successful players of the past season to get back someone they traded away with a worse record, for the same amount of money, rings of sentimental panicking and just doesn’t make sense. It would be a real shame for the Blackhawks if Bowman’s decision to stick with what’s worked in the past prevents the team from moving forward. Could there be any other reason?
Of course there is.
Oof. There’s a reason team captains aren’t GMs.
Remember the earlier mention of Toews’ lackluster points totals in recent years? Apparently Crosby’s mind-boggling numbers have spoiled me, because Toews’s 68 points in 2013–14 and 66 points in 2014–15 with Saad at his side must’ve looked pretty good to Bowman — or at least compared to the 58 he put up without him for the last two years in a row. Must’ve been appealing enough to him to convince him to trade an up-and-coming fan favorite who’s generating a ton of points just to get a better performance from the Blackhawks captain. Toews is paid $10.5 million per year on an 8-year contract; the idea that he can’t be successful without certain wingers should be embarrassing. Crosby’s three rotating wingers are all former AHLers who made a total of $2,041,667 this year, and though Sheary is due to sign a new contract this summer, that’s still shockingly affordable. More so, it suggests a flexibility on Crosby’s part to work to build a strong partnership with whichever wingers he’s paired with, rather than whining about it and wheedling his GM.
This deal never came to pass because Oshie signed a new contract with the Capitals later that same day, and the Blackhawks should count their blessings. They cannot afford any more expensive wingers when they’re funneling $21 million into two players and are expected to be the only team over the $75 million salary cap next season.
The reason the Penguins have been so successful is their forward-thinking commitment to excellent development. Advanced statistics shows this, but more importantly, simple statistics do as well. Younger, lighter (and cheaper!) players placed alongside exceptionally talented veterans is what gets you back-to-back wins. There will undoubtedly be players who were key figures in the Penguins’ winning playoff runs who don’t return next season, but with prospects like Zach Aston-Reese, Filip Gustavsson and Daniel Sprong in the developmental pipeline in Wilkes-Barre and Wheeling, the team has little reason to worry it’ll perform well next year.
The same can’t be said for the Blackhawks, who aren’t going find success by buying back its cup winners from years gone by for the same price. Yes, get Toews wingers that will suit him, but it can’t be at any cost. If Toews is the leader he’s said to be, he’ll have to find a way to perform better with wingers that are not just affordable but fast and light enough to generate their own points. It’s their best chance to break through the brick-wall defense of teams like the Predators who would be more than happy to knock them out of the playoffs again next season.
(…That being said, if I’m entirely wrong and the Hawks win the 2018 Stanley Cup, I’ll be the first to suggest that the Penguins give Max Talbot a call.)