The Penguins face one of their toughest tests on the road this evening as they head to Minnesota to battle the Wild.
The Wild are perhaps the best team in hockey so far this season. They don’t lead their division and they currently only rank 7th in the Western Conference, but they are 7-3 and their underlying numbers looks pretty great.
The Wild are now a possession based team. Previously the Wild were one of the most boring and wretched teams to watch. They actively chose to play dump and chase hockey . The results spoke for themselves.
Over the past few years Chuck Fletcher has done a pretty decent job of acquiring skilled players who are more capable of a possession based attack. He also has had some of his players more interested in how data can help the team. Here is Zach Parise talking to Michael Russo of the Minnesota Star Tribune
“I read a study this summer that showed shots generated off carrying the puck in as opposed to dumping it in, and it’s like 4-to-1. It’s not even close. I just found it so interesting because everyone’s like, ‘Forecheck, forecheck, forecheck.’ I get it, but you dump the puck, you have to get it back. All you’re doing is giving the puck away. I mean, it’s so hard to get it, why would you give it away?
I just got kind of, not brainwashed, but my last couple years in New Jersey we were so adamant about dumping the puck in. But you lose a lot of your creativity and you lose a lot of good touches. I mean, if a ‘D’s in your face, you’ve got no other options and you have to.
But dump it just to dump it, I’m not a believer anymore in getting rid of the puck when it’s so hard to get. That’s the way we played in New Jersey. We always had a plan: Forwards dumped it in, we knew where it was going and that’s how we got it back. But the more I thought about it, possession is just so much better than dumping it in. Dumping it should be, I don’t want to say your last option, but your second or third option.”
Judging by how Minnesota has played so far this season it appears that Parise’s attitude about holding onto the puck has been contagious.
The Wild are the best possession team so far this season. To come to that conclusion I have used Score-Adjusted Fenwick. Eric Tlusky provides the why on that
Early in the season, Score-Adjusted Fenwick does a substantially better job of predicting how many points a team will earn in the remainder of the season. Later in the season the difference gets small -- both because the sample size for Fenwick Tied gets large enough that much of the noise is washed out and because the randomness of the small number of games remaining becomes increasingly difficult for any measure to predict.
Fenwick is our best inherent measure of a team's ability to get more scoring chances than their opponents, but analysts typically limit their sample size to situations where score effects will have limited or no impact. Instead, we can make very simple adjustments and include all situations, which more than doubles our sample size.
This gives us a good sample size with a good metric, resulting in better predictions earlier in the season.
Currently Minnesota is #1 in the NHL in Score-Adjusted Fenwick at a remarkable 58.62%. Pittsburgh comes in at a very good 55.47%, good for third overall in the league. Pittsburgh is coached by Mike Johnston, a man who has also stressed the importance of zone entries and not giving the puck away. Coincidence? I think not.
Making Minnesota an even scarier team than they are sitting at 7-3 overall is the fact that their power play has been a disgrace. The Penguins are the best in the league at a staggering 41.9% while the Wild are the complete opposite. They are 29th overall at a paltry 6.4%. They are 2 for 31 on the man advantage this year, only Buffalo is worse (1 for 42, 2.4%). When Minnesota’s power play starts to show signs of life, and it will because they are talented, they will be quite a force to be reckoned with.
If you want to try and find one potential wart with Minnesota it is that they are currently shooting 10.98% as a team. That isn’t going to continue, it will eventually drop down. It is very rare for a team to shoot over 10% for an entire season.
One of the more underrated players in the NHL is Jason Pominville. He plays in all game situations and does so quite well. He also has quite the one-timer, I expect to see that on the power play this evening. He's the type of forward that would fit in great on Pittsburgh. At the time the Penguins didn't have cap space nor the motivation to move the assets that Minnesota did to acquire him.
Mikko Koivu only has 3 points in 10 games. He is a much better player than that. He will eventually start to produce more tangible offense.
Sidney Crosby (18) has a two point lead in the scoring race over Jakub Voracek (16)
Evgeni Malkin will look to make it 11 straight games with a point to start the season.
Something’s gotta give on the goaltender front.
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