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Team Chemistry Matters in the NHL

The last 18 months or so have been interesting for NHL fans. Hockey is always an entertaining sport, and playoff seeding seems to always come down to the wire. It’s not very often that a fan base collectively goes through a statistical revolution though.

Regardless of how you feel about enhanced stats, we can all mostly agree on two things.

  1. They help us understand the game in new and important ways
  2. They are here to stay

There’s an important third point that no one seems to agree on, and it’s the pillar that makes the statistical approach such a divisive one. The numbers movement seeks to strip emotion and preconceived notions out of the game. Often times, this has a positive effect. For instance, we all can finally talk about why plus-minus is a dumb stat or why dumping the puck in is not an effective strategy.

Some—not all, but some—proponents of numbers based analysis would like to ignore the psychology of a team or locker room, but we’ve seen this season that this isn’t a good way to run a hockey team. No GM is out there making choices based solely on possession metrics, but it’s tough to deny their impact on the way we evaluate players and games.

Consider the case of Shawn Thornton.

eyeroll

Yeah, yeah. We know. (GIF courtesy of giphy.com)

This is the kind of player that the stats movement has been bad for. Thornton is a fourth line forward that is on a roster to stick up for his teammates and to be a veteran leader. Over the last few seasons we’ve seen successful franchises move away from the idea that the top two lines should be talent and the bottom two lines should be shutdown.

Things were never really that cut and dry in the first place (most professional coaches utilize players in pairs, not trios), but in general NHL teams are icing fewer players like Thornton. Call it a sign of the times. Call it a dying breed. Call it whatever you want, but Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon probably sees something quite different in Thornton.

The 37-year-old was the victim of a cap crunch in Boston. The Bruins couldn’t afford to keep Thornton around for $1 million-plus, so he landed with the Florida Panthers this offseason. That didn’t end the cap casualties for the B’s either. They were unable to sign veteran Jarome Iginla to a new deal and had to trade away defenseman Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders.

That was the cost of locking up a number of players to make up the core, but Boston has struggled with urgency and competitiveness at times this season. That didn’t happen with guys like Thornton, Iginla and Boychuk in the room.

It took almost 82 games, but the Bruins finally appear to have come up with an on-ice replacement for the “Merlot Line.” They are still struggling to replace Boychuk, both on and off the ice.

Some pundits may mock the idea of #leadership and #grit, but it’s missing in Boston. The Bruins aren’t the only team that has struggled following a locker room shakeup this season either.

At 42-26-11, the Pittsburgh Penguins appear to be doing just fine out on the ice, but they too have labored to find an identity following a flurry of offseason moves.

The usual suspects are sill in place in Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Marc-Andre Fleury lead the charge when healthy, but the supporting cast has been changed dramatically and quickly. David Perron was added to the top-six via trade, Steve Downie was signed as a free agent and James Neal was moved to the Nashville Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Christian Ehrhoff was also added to the mix on a one-year deal after the Buffalo Sabres bought him out.

Tack on the firing of Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero and that’s a ton of change for one franchise to endure. The Penguins started off 2014-15 hot, but have fallen off badly down the stretch. They are now 3-6-1 in their last 10 and have an outside chance of missing the playoffs all together.

The odds are still in their favor, but the Pens didn’t totally change the landscape of the team simply to sneak into the playoffs while on a cold streak. All along it’s been Stanley Cup or bust in Pittsburgh, but you wouldn’t know it if you watched the team play. They’ve lost their last three contests by a combined score of 13-5, and those three losses came against non-playoff teams that were playing for pride.

Something the Penguins don’t seem to be doing at this point. Following Pittsburgh’s 5-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh scribe Dejan Kovacevic wrote the following at his (excellent) website, DKonPittsburghSports.com:

They’re legitimately gifted enough to beat some of the league’s elite teams and, at the same time, legitimately unfocused enough to lose focus, lose three two-goal leads in the past six games and lose … well, possibly their whole season before long.

Who will change this?

That is ultimately the defining question for the Penguins. Who will change this? Kovacevic and the rest of Pittsburgh’s faithful aren’t feeling too much better after dropping a contest to the Philadelphia Flyers today, and a sense of panic seems to be setting in with three games remaining in the regular season.

The following is trite but true: if you have to give speeches at this time of the year, then you’re in trouble.

It’s why the L.A. Kings recalled Mike Richards for the home stretch and why Tallon didn’t hesitate to add Thornton when he had the chance. Ditto for the Jaromir Jagr trade. Being able to look down the way and see a guy that has been there before makes a team play more at ease. There’s no number that can prove that and there’s no graphs or charts to back it up.

Unless you count the NHL standings. There’s plenty of evidence to chew on there.

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