How the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup

The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup yesterday by following a very simple model that teams should be looking to replicate:

     1)    Finish last in a year where there are two generational talents in the draft where the lottery system guarantees you one of them.

     2)    Win a 30-team lottery the following year and draft the greatest player of his generation.

     3)    Surround these two cornerstone pieces with players who are not absolutely terrible.

     4)    Don’t be super unlucky in the playoffs and get league average goaltending.

     5)    Win the Stanley Cup.

Okay, so maybe it’s not that easy to build a team like the Penguins did. The franchise was lucky to acquire top 2 picks in back-to-back years and permanently situate Crosby and Malkin into their top two center positions. After hitting big in the draft on 3rd round pick Kris Letang, the had a #1C, a #2C (who is truly a #1), a #1D, and a reliable goaltender. There was no reason to believe that this team, who had won a Stanley Cup in 2009, would see many failures in the near future.

Unfortunately, Pittsburgh forgot to follow rule #3 and #4, as seen above. Despite finishing with a top 2 record in the East in all but one season from 2010 to 2015, and making the playoffs every year, the Penguins did not win a single game past the 2nd round. With a very mediocre start to the season that saw the team sitting 5th last in the East by Christmas, it appeared the team was destined to realize a similar fate. With Crosby and Malkin approaching the wrong side of 30, it felt as if 1 cup for a team with two future Hall of Fame players would be a disappointment.

Clearly this did not happen. The Pens, under rookie head coach Mike Sullivan midseason, won the Stanley Cup (a very eerie Deja vu moment for the franchise, considering their cup in 2009 was won by a rookie coach hired after a poor start). It was a well-deserved victory for the Penguins, arguably the best team in hockey after the new year.

So what changed? It wasn’t a newly-inspired confidence in their teammates or a commitment by Crosby to be the best player he can be. It’s actually very tangible and quantifiable. The Pittsburgh Penguins added legitimate depth at the forward position, received consistent goaltending, and had enough good luck to lead a very deserving team to victory.

As Always all stats courtesy of &

Actual Forward Depth

When the Penguins acquired Phil Kessel during 2015’s free agent frenzy, Travis Hughes of SB Nation sent out a tweet alluding to the fact that the Penguins’ roster will be Malkin, Crosby, Kessel, Letang, and Fleury, and then a bunch of random individuals surrounding them. This is a funny comment that, whether it intended to or not, accurately portrayed the Penguins’ roster construction over the last 6 years.

Every year, the Penguins would enter the season with the big question being, “Will the Penguins finally find Crosby that elite winger he needs?” While the focus was continually on finding Crosby his perfect sidekick, he was already consistently producing 100 points per season (or on pace for such if he was injured). Crosby could play beside anyone and still be scoring at the highest rates in the league.

Where the focus should have been directed to was on the roster construction of the bottom 6. Contrary to popular belief, two players cannot play the entire 60 minutes of a game. At some point, players on the 3rd and 4th line have to jump over the boards and be of worth. Either they need to find a way to score, prevent their opponents from scoring, or even be net neutral and just not be considered a liability to their team. Pittsburgh’s problem for the last 6 years was that the team’s bottom 6 impact was so poor that it created an imbalanced roster.

Below is a table describing the Penguins’ forward corps in their playoff runs and the individual impact of these players:

Year # of PIT F w/ > 20 min TOI # of PIT F > 1.00 P/60 # of PIT F w/ > 9 min/game 5v5
2010 14 10 11
2011 12 8 10
2012 11 8 9
2013 15 11 12
2014 13 7 8
2015 11 4 9
2016 12 12 12

From 2010 until 2015, a similar pattern occurred season after season. The 4th line would play less than 9 minutes of even strength hockey per night and the bottom 6 would struggle to score. Of the Penguins’ forwards to play more than 20 minutes in the postseason, each year saw as few as 3 or as many as 6 players fail to reach a scoring pace of 1 point per 60 minutes. In the years where the bottom 6 actually did produce, their possession impact was abysmal and were defensive liabilities.

In 2016, the Penguins resolved their serious depth problem. Jim Rutherford did a truly excellent job at finding undervalued pieces and finding a spot for them on his team. Beyond the free agent acquisitions of Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr, Rutherford went to a fairly inactive trade market and brought in offensive depth. Hornqvist, Kessel, Hagelin, and Bonino were all Rutherford acquisitions and among the most important players in the team’s cup run.

No longer was the team’s bottom 6 a liability. Rather, it was a strength. Every player on the team finished the playoffs with a P/60 of 1.15 or higher. Their ‘3rd line’ of Hagelin, Bonino, and Kessel all finished in the top 5 in playoff scoring for the team. Every single forward averaged over 9 minutes of ice at even strength and 11 minutes in all situations, resulting in a more manageable minute distribution that leads to long-term success.

In fact, the Pens’ bottom 6 can’t even be labelled as such: Their 3rd line resembled characteristics of the standard top 6 line and their 4th line emulated the archetypical 3rd line. The old-school approach to building an offense is to have 2 scoring lines, 1 checking/defensive line, and 1 line to provide energy and eat up a couple minutes. Thanks to Rutherford’s acquisitions and Sullivan’s insistence on using Kessel on the ‘3rd line’, the team rolled 3 lines consistently that were threats to score.

Doing so made it nearly impossible for opposing teams to survive the Penguins’ relentless attack and this was seen in the Cup Final against San Jose. The Sharks would use Vlasic and Braun against the Crosby line and then Burns and Martin against the Malkin line (or vice versa). This makes sense to use the two best defensive pairings against two of the best players in the world. Unfortunately, this meant Polak and Dillon, a 3rd pairing who is used to playing third lines, faced the ‘third line’ of Kessel, Bonino, and Hagelin. That is a 2nd line on almost every team and even a 1st line on a select few.

In past years, players like Craig Adams or Joe Vitale were in the starting lineup and created a weakness for the Penguins in the few minutes they played. This year, the most unlikely of heroes made meaningful offensive contributions. Bryan Rust scored both goals in a game 7 against Tampa. Conor Sheary scored an overtime winner in the Cup Final. Matt Cullen, even with only 6 points, felt like he was creating a chance every time he stepped on to the ice. The depth of the Penguins transformed from a glaring weakness into an obvious strength and really helped the team maximize their potential in the playoffs.

Competent Playoff Goaltending

Below is a table showing the cup winner’s team save percentage at even strength, followed by the team save percentage at 5v5 for the Penguins:

Year Cup Winner Team 5v5 sv% Pittsburgh Team 5v5 sv%
2010 Chicago 91.98% 90.64%
2011 Boston 94.99% 91.24%
2012 Los Angeles 94.42% 88.46%
2013 Chicago 93.36% 91.49%
2014 Los Angeles 91.84% 93.26%
2015 Chicago 93.36% 93.58% (only 5 games)

Contrary to popular belief, good goaltenders don’t win Stanley Cups for teams. Rather, good goaltending wins. This may seem counterintuitive, but the best goaltenders of this generation (Lundqvist, Schneider, Price) have never won cups. However, good goaltending is required in the playoffs. This means that the goaltender can be somewhat inconsistent like Quick, or even the fairly unknown like Niemi. They have to be good when it matters: the 20-25 games the team plays in April, May, and June.

From 2010 until 2015, the Penguins only got 2 goaltending performances from Marc-Andre Fleury that are needed to win a Stanley Cup, with one being only over 5 games, and both being on two of the weaker iterations of the team in that span. And in 2014 when the Penguins had a 0.932 5v5 save percentage they lost because they played an even better goaltender (Lundqvist in the Rangers’ 4 wins against Pittsburgh sported save percentages of .944, .969, .972, and .973. Madness).

This is not to say that Fleury is a bad goaltender. In fact I think Fleury is actually a pretty competent and reliable goalie year in and out. From 2010-11 to 2015-16, Fleury has only posted a save percentage below league average (.915) once (and it was only a .913). He is not a top 10 goalie, but he’s not a liability. On a great team, he is more than acceptable as a primary goaltending option.

What isn’t acceptable is posting save percentages below 0.915 in the 4 playoff rounds following their 2009 Cup victory. The only time the team received reliable goaltending in that span was when Vokoun stepped into the 2013 playoffs to defeat the Senators. Unfortunately, after two sub-.900 performances to begin the 3rd round against the Bruins, the team scored 1 goal over 2 games and the Pens were swept by the Bruins.

In 2015-16, with Fleury injured, Matt Murray came in to be the team’s boy wonder in shining armour. He did not play like 2011 Tim Thomas or 2012 Jon Quick (who both put up save percentages greater than .940 in the playoffs, only two of 13 goalies to do that in playoff history). Matt Murray was, for all intents and purposes, ‘solid’. He led the Pens to a 0.921 5v5 sv%, which was all the team needed. He dealt with some inconsistent performances, but never left his team out to dry in more than 2 games in a series. In his victories, he only finished with a save percentage lower than .920 once. When the team is as deep and talented as the Penguins, that is all that is needed. He didn’t post a .905 or .885, but rather a commendable save percentage that prevented goaltending from being an area of weakness.


Every team that wins the Stanley Cup needs to have luck. Whether it be that the goaltenders over perform, shooting percentages spike, or injuries play a factor, winning teams need to possess good luck or avoid bad luck. Below is a list of Cup champions and their PDO (save percentage + shooting percentage):

Year Cup Winner Team PDO Pittsburgh Team PDO
2010 Chicago 100.73 97.38
2011 Boston 104.73 97.56
2012 Los Angeles 102.18 100.46
2013 Chicago 100.83 100.07
2014 Los Angeles 100.76 100.25
2015 Chicago 101.27 99.13

As the table shows, not every team needs to be Boston in 2011 and be the luckiest team in the world. Rather, it is about avoiding bad luck. No cup winner has posted a PDO lower than 100 from 2010 to 2015, shooting percentages haven’t dipped, and the best players haven’t gotten injured.

If Pittsburgh didn’t have any bad luck in their ‘Cup Drought’ they would have had no luck at all. Their abysmal PDO totals in the 2010 and 2011 playoffs paled in comparison to facing Rask & Lundqvist in 2013 and 2014, who both completely stonewalled the Pittsburgh attack. The team also dealt with more injuries to star players than any other contender. Crosby and Malkin both missed the entire 2011 playoffs, and Letang missed the 2015 playoffs. There wasn’t one year in this timespan where the Penguins caught a break.

The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t get lucky in this cup run. Their PDO of 99.74 is the lowest of any cup champion since 2010 and their shooting percentage was 7.5%, about league average. This team did not fall into a cup win by any means.

However, the Penguins caught some very small breaks that they hadn’t in their past cup runs. Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby were not completely unstoppable, despite being two of the best goalies in the world. Ben Bishop and Steven Stamkos missed almost all of the Conference Final. The Pens went 4-3 in overtime games and 8-4 in one goal games. The Penguins also didn’t experience much bad luck on their own team. Only one player, Trevor Daley, lost significant time to injury. Matt Murray was fairly good throughout, and no star players were disappointing.

These are not characteristics of a lucky team. Rather, these are characteristics of a team that actually experienced neutral luck – not benefitting from a wide variety of good bounces but rather not being affected by all that prevented them from winning cups in the past.

The Start of a Dynasty?

The Penguins finished the 2016 playoffs averaging 34.71 shots per 60 minutes of even strength play. Only two teams since 2008 have averaged higher in the playoffs that have advanced past the first round: Detroit in 2008 (Cup winners) and Detroit in 2011 (lost in the 2nd round). Their offensive attack was absolutely relentless and would create situations where their opposition would go almost an entire period without registering a legitimate scoring chance. The Pens’ focus on speed and possession is a style of play that the rest of the league is attempting to replicate, meaning that their gameplan will likely not only be effective but needed to succeed in the near future.

The Penguins have a legitimate blueprint for winning multiple cups. The team’s core is locked up long-term, Matt Murray appears to be the team’s goaltender of the future, and defencemen such as Dumoulin and Pouliot are still on the right side of 25 and will certainly improve. The team also has forward prospects such as Daniel Sprong in the system who will be impact players on cheap contracts. They also own the rights to former 1st round pick Tyler Biggs and maybe that will work, too. Maybe Mike Sullivan is a wizard.

Yet again, the Penguins will always be blessed with an advantage that 0 teams in the NHL have. They have Sidney Crosby on the first line, and Evgeni Malkin on the second line, the two players with the highest point per game averages in the post-lockout era. They followed rules #1 and 2 of the true Pittsburgh Model. This year, they filled the rest of the roster out with good players (and some of which were very, very good) and had consistent goaltending. For the first time since 2009, they followed rules #3 and 4. Consequently, they won the Stanley Cup.

If the Penguins continue to fill holes in the roster with inexpensive, talented players, receive consistent goaltending, and employ a coach like Sullivan that promotes offensive creativity, this team will probably win another Stanley Cup. We talk about teams like Chicago and Los Angeles as the potential dynasty franchises of this era of hockey. If they continue to follow every step of the model above, there is a great chance that Pittsburgh joins that conversation, if they haven’t already.


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