Getzlaf, Perry and Penner: who’s driving the bus?

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Much has been made of the phenomenal success of the “PPG” Line’s return.  It had been over 7 years since this trio last played together, and their reunion has been an unrivaled success, each member of the triumvirate piling up the points whilst leading the Anaheim Ducks to great heights.  But who among them is most critical to their fortunes?

The team is enjoying a fantastic year, sitting at second in the entire league with a 21-7-5 record, so many fans understandably aren’t in the least bit worried as to who is “driving the bus”, just so long as someone is!

It pays to be thorough, however, and by examining how these three play together, and how they play apart from each other, we might be able to see who is most crucial to their success – an important thing to know when discussing team chemistry, injury call-ups and lineup changes.

Scouting Reports

Let’s first discuss why they might work so well as a trio with regards to how their individual playing styles complement each other.

Courtesy of The Hockey News, here are their brief scouting reports:

Ryan Getzlaf:

His playmaking is first-rate, and he also owns a big shot. A complete package, he plays a well-rounded game. Can play the point on power plays. Powerful, he uses his size effectively down the middle. Is not afraid to play a physical brand of hockey. He’s a true leader.

The first ingredient for the success of any NHL team is an elite first line center, and that is precisely what Getzlaf has been for around 7 seasons now.  A pass-first kind of guy, but with an excellent shot himself, and — unusually for a center — a power forward type game, not to mention excellent defensive instincts, and you have yourself possibly the most desirable combination of traits possible.

Getzlaf has topped the point-per-game mark in five of the previous six seasons, irrefutable proof of his elite status in the NHL.

Corey Perry:

Has excellent offensive instincts, a solid frame, agitating qualities and big-time scoring acumen. Is especially good at puck possession in the slot and in tight quarters. Has a long reach and an uncanny way of sliding by defenders. Plays well in the clutch, too.

Perry, like Getzlaf, possesses the size so desired by fans and teams alike, and makes good use of it, though relies more on his lethal goalscoring ability to make an impact.  He has the skill and the shot to capitalise on his running-mate’s elite passing talent – since 2007, he is 5th in the entire league in total goals scored (210, in 469 games), and of course winning the Hart and Rocket Richard Trophies as well as a 1st NHL All-Star Team selection in 2010/11.

Size,skill and shot wrapped in a package that infuriates opposition from LA to NY, and combine that with nigh on a decade of playing time alongside Getzlaf – it’s no wonder these two combine regularly to create magic on the ice.

Dustin Penner:

Is one of the biggest physical specimens in the game, but also possesses good hockey sense. Plays his best while standing in front of the net. Can score goals in bunches.

A hulking winger – bigger even than Getzlaf – better known for his skill than his physical play, Penner has nonetheless proved himself as a very good NHL player.  Whilst he is much-maligned for his apparent lack of emotion on the ice, make no mistake – the gentle giant is a difference maker in this league.  He might not post elite scoring numbers, but he has three 20+ goal seasons and one 30+ goal season to his name – indicating a guy who can run with the big guns, particularly when used as a net front presence to block out the sun – all the while maintaining a reputation as a very, very good two-way player.

“Enigmatic”

The last couple of years spent in LA haven’t been particularly productive for the big man, but then it hasn’t been for most Kings’ forwards.  Penner has the kind of skill associated with players of much smaller stature, and a willingness to go to the tough areas of the ice (contrary to popular narrative), and also has significant history with Perry and Getzlaf, so a successful reunion perhaps should have been expected.

It makes complete sense to consider Penner the odd-man-out.  After all, he doesn’t have the elite scoring history of either of the other two, has attracted considerably more criticism throughout his career, and is coming off an abysmal stretch with the Ducks’ rivals to the North (sans his second Stanley Cup win).

And yet, during his tenure with Edmonton, he was consistently one of the team’s best forwards.

Whilst he was the subject of many a frustrated Oiler fan’s ire in that time, he was in fact highly effective at tilting the ice in his team’s favour, driving possession and dragging along some pretty dire players with him – the likes of Sam Gagner and Gilbert Brule rarely looked better than they did with Penner.

Counting Numbers

Let’s look at the pure statistics.

  • Getzlaf: 31 games, 16-22-38, +15
  • Perry: 34 games, 21-15-36, +13
  • Penner: 27 games, 9-14-23, +19

Getzlaf is clearly the runaway winner here, currently sitting at 3rd in the entire league in points, whilst on-pace for a career year in every single offensive category. Perry isn’t far behind, occupying 2nd place in the NHL in goals scored, and on-pace for his second 50-goal season.  Penner clearly looks like the tag-along-tom, sitting well back in points – though with several fewer games played – but he is still on pace for his best offensive season, and leads the entire league in plus-minus (if you put stock in such a number).

How have they achieved such numbers?

Past vs Present

The first place to look is shot totals and shooting percentages.  It is a well-established theory that players, whilst they may experience dips and peaks in their percentages, generally maintain a fairly consistent rate over the course of their careers, and any jump in shooting success will likely be followed by a return to career average levels.  Shot totals also remain relatively steady, perhaps seeing gradual rises over the course of a career as a player better adapts to the league, but without seeing any massive leaps (with the odd exception, such as David Perron with EDM this season).

  • Getzlaf: 82 shots (on pace for 216 per 82GP, career avg. 187 per 82GP), 19.5% (career avg. 12.3%)
  • Perry: 126 shots (on pace for 304 per 82GP, career avg. 244 per 82GP), 16.7% (career avg. 12.5%)
  • Penner: 63 shots (on pace for 191 per 82GP, career avg. 178 per 82GP), 14.3% (career avg. 10.6%)

Those well-versed in shooting percentages will immediately recognise that these percentages are well-above league average (approximately 10-11% for a forward).  Getzlaf is experiencing the biggest jump, over 7%, scoring at a rate that very, very few forwards are capable of, and even less are capable of maintaining such a pace.  If he were scoring at his usual career-rate, he would have around 10 goals right now – still a very respectable total.

He is also combining that with a significant jump in his shot rates – if he continues at his current pace, he’ll have taken almost 30 more shots than his career average.  It might not sound like much, but it would result in at least an extra 5 goals were he to continue at that 19.5% success rate.  Increases in shot rates can come from a number of things, and system adjustments shouldn’t be counted out.  The Ducks do seem to be enjoying more confidence in their offensive game than in seasons past, despite their powerplay troubles.

Either way, Getzlaf is creating more chances and scoring on a greater percentage of those chances than usual, combining for one hell of a season.  It is stating the obvious, but what benefits Getzlaf, will benefit his linemates.

Perry and Penner are also seeing jumps in their percentages. Perry’s is similar to that seen in 2010/11 when he surprised everybody by finishing the season on a scorching hot tear, leading the league in goals thanks largely to a career high 17.2% shooting success rate.  His career average, like Getzlaf, is slightly above league average anyway, but he’s always been a pretty high-volume shooter, averaging close to 300 shots per season for four straight years until last year.  His shot rate has increased massively over last year (239 shots per 82) and his career average, but it seems last season was a mini-aberration.

So it appears that Perry isn’t doing much different in terms of creating scoring chances, only that he is converting on more of them than can reasonably be expected.  He does have a history of goal-scoring, so this season isn’t quite so out-of-the-blue as Getzlaf’s.

Penner, meanwhile, is experiencing more of a resurgence in his goal scoring numbers, as opposed to an unsustainable surge.  His career averages look a lot more respectable when you move his Kings’ totals, numbers which defensemen expect as opposed to forwards.  Prior to his two full seasons in LA, he averaged 188 shots per season and had a 12.6% shooting success rate.  His shooting percentage is a bit above that average, of course, but not unreasonably so and Penner has hit the 14-15% mark three times previously (if you discount the LA-portion of his 2010/11 season), so again it’s not entirely unreasonable.

During his time in LA, his awful totals resulted from an awful combination of lack of playing time — his last two seasons in Edmonton, he averaged over 18 minutes per game, but in LA that dropped to 14 minutes and then 12 minutes, and that’ll effect anyone’s game — and historically bad shooting luck, that for a good player like Penner in the middle of his career was almost bound to revert to normal levels at some point.

His assist totals are of course well above his career average, and that likely is the result of playing on a line with two of the league’s most dangerous players.  Getzlaf and Perry aren’t Gretzky and Kurri, however – a pylon couldn’t score 20-40-60 with them, you have to be able to keep up to enjoy the success.

On-Ice Usage

Using Rob Vollman’s Player Usage Charts, we can see in what situations the trio have been used, and how they are performing possession-wise under those conditions.

Image courtesy of hockeyabstract.com.

Image courtesy of hockeyabstract.com.

The x-axis refers to the amount of time spent starting a shift in the offensive zone, whilst the y-axis refers to the Quality of Competition (Relative Corsi).  The size of each players’ bubble is determined by their TOI per game, while the colour of the bubbles is decided by each players’ Relative Corsi (the bluer the bubble, the more said player drove play in a positive manner).

Getzlaf, Perry and Penner are grouped relatively close together, all playing slightly above average competition.  Getzlaf is taking on the heavy lifting with regards to zone-starts, beginning more shifts in his own-zone than any other Anaheim forward.  To put up the kind of numbers he does whilst playing in these circumstances is very impressive.

All three are holding their own here, outplaying their competition by a good margin (relative to when they are not on the ice), particularly Perry who, as noted in his scouting report above, is a very good possession player.

Could Perry be the secret ingredient here, his skill at maintaining possession of the puck and creating scoring chances enabling the trio to dominate?

With Or Without You

Finally, we can take a look at something known as “WOWYs”.  Short for “With Or Without You”, these utilise time on ice numbers to determine how much time each player has spent on the ice with each of his team-mates, and how well they perform both with them, and without them, all during 5v5 play.

See the tables below (click to enlarge):

Data compiled by Chris Hext via stats.hockeyanalysis.com.

Data compiled by Chris Hext via stats.hockeyanalysis.com.

The results are very interesting indeed.

  • Corey Perry is the class of the group in terms of puck possession and driving play.  In fact, he actually performs better when not playing with these two players; in essence, they are dragging down his possession game.
  • Getzlaf really, really struggles with puck possession when not playing with Perry – 35% CorsiFor would be near the bottom of the league.
  • It absolutely HAS to be noted at this juncture that the amount of time Perry and Getzlaf have spent apart on the ice at 5v5 amounts to very little time at all, and thus we run into sample size issues.  It is extremely doubtful that Getzlaf is one of the worst possession players in the league when apart from Perry, but certainly it does appear that Perry is the stronger of the two at this skill.
  • Penner’s line-mates both appear to play a better possession game when not with him.  However, by looking at the Goals For and Goals Against columns, we can see that every player actually sees their 5v5 goal differential worsen when not playing with Penner, and by a significant amount.
  • Now, Penner certainly isn’t solely responsible for preventing goals against and generating goals for.  Extraskater.com tells us that Penner is experiencing an otherworldly 107.9 PDO, created thanks to a sky-high on-ice shooting percentage (courtesy of Perry and Getzlaf primarily) and great goaltending when he’s on the ice.  This combination is essentially an extreme case of luck, and will likely revert to the mean sooner rather than later; Getzlaf is also experiencing the same effects, Perry not so much.
  • None of this should be mistaken for stating that Perry and Getzlaf are dragging along a dead-weight in Penner.  Of course he isn’t as talented as them, we already established that fact, but there can be no arguing that he’s doing his job very well as of this time.

Conclusion

It would appear, despite Getzlaf’s superior counting numbers, that Perry may in fact be the one who is really pushing the river, so to speak.  He is a scoring-chance machine, and even though he is experiencing a hot-streak, it is not to the same extent as Getzlaf, and hence far closer to “normality” for Perry.

This doesn’t mean we discount Getzlaf or Penner’s contributions, or say that their success is all a result of “riding Perry’s coat-tails”; it means that although Perry may be the primary driver of scoring chances, the three of them are enjoying a great deal of chemistry thanks to complimentary skill-sets and familiarity with each other’s games, a true rarity in today’s game.

Penner may be the “spare part” in this conversation, but he’s an exceptional spare part at that.

“Advanced” Stats like Corsi and PDO obviously aren’t the only measuring stick for players; it would be foolish to discount the way different players complement each other on the ice, and while the stats may indicate Perry is the (marginally) superior player, at least in terms of driving possession, over a larger amount of time without Getzlaf I sincerely doubt he would have the same level of success.

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