Pittsburgh Penguins Thriving Under New Regime


New Pittsburgh Penguins general manager, Jim Rutherford, sat stoically in his box over the ice at Mellon Arena opening night as he watched his new-look Penguins start the season by taking down the Anaheim Ducks in convincing fashion by a score of 6-4. Despite his surface calmness, inside, Rutherford had to be bubbling over with self-satisfaction. The tilt with Western Conference power, Anaheim, was his first opportunity to showcase to a skeptical fan base the players he acquired in the off season, and they did not disappoint.  In fact, their performances had to have exceeded even Rutherford’s best hopes with newcomers Patric Hornquist and Blake Comeau each contributing a goal.

Since then, the Pittsburgh Penguins have won two of their last three games, establishing an overall mark of 3-1. Pittsburgh Penguins fans, frustrated and disappointed by their team’s recent string of post season failures which culminated in the firing of both head coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero, have to be delighted with what they have seen thus far from the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

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It is plainly evident that new head coach, Mike Johnston, has put his imprint on the team, establishing a style of play that places particular emphasis on puck possession – especially among his bottom six forwards. Coach Johnston and GM, Jim Rutherford, both strong advocates of the use of analytics to help guide strategic and tactical decision-making, discovered that the 2013-2014 Penguins suffered from a considerable disparity in puck possession when their third and fourth lines were in the game. Rutherford addressed this problem in the off season when he secured the services of forwards Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, and Nick Spaling. He also recognized that long-time minor leaguer, Zach Sill, because of his relentless style of play, would be able to carve out a valuable niche for himself on the revamped roster.

Sep 22, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Nick Spaling (13) skates during the pre-game before playing the Detroit Red Wings at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Acknowledging that the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top line of Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, and Chris Kunitz have been lights out thus far, (8 goals and 16 points) and that no team in the league is anywhere close to matching the success of the team’s power play, (47%) it can still be argued that it is the play of the third and fourth lines that have made the biggest impact on the team’s early success. Through four games, although no player on the fourth line has scored a goal, no goals have been scored against them. This means that when Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been on the pine catching their breath, the guys on the ice have been effectively neutralizing and wearing down Pittsburgh Penguins opponents.

The fourth line, centered by Nick Spaling and flanked by Zach Sill and Craig Adams, has been every bit as impressive as the team’s top two lines. They have been absolutely smothering, using tenacity, skill, and brute force to confine play to the offensive zone.  By shift’s end, exhausted opponents are left trapped in their own zone to face a fresh wave of Pittsburgh Penguins attackers as they come streaking in like a pack of hungry hyenas.

For his part, head coach, Mike Johnston, has done an excellent job thus far of effectively utilizing the material provided to him by Jim Rutherford. He has constructed four highly productive lines that mesh well throughout the course of a hockey game. He has also brought the same up-tempo, high-possession system of play that helped guide the Portland Winterhawks to a combined 231-114 record during his time there. Under Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh Penguins were known for pushing the pace, drawing their opponents into a wide open, “run and gun” style that allowed star players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to sprint out of the defensive zone, fast-break style.

Nov 27, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (left) congratulates center Evgeni Malkin (71) after Malkin scored a game winning shootout goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the CONSOL Energy Center.The Penguins won 6-5 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This system generally worked well for the Pittsburgh Penguins during the regular season where their considerable skill advantage enabled them to overwhelm opponents. This style, however, did not successfully translate to playoff hockey, where higher caliber opponents who could more closely match the Penguins’ skill, were consistently able to take away time and space, force turnovers and generally bogging down the offense. Although Mike Johnston’s Penguins also play a fast-paced, attacking style, they do it with short, controlled passes with all five players taking responsibility for carrying the puck safely out of the defensive zone.

Absent now are the excessive attempts at stretch passes that more often than not, in years past, lead to turnovers. It is quite obvious that the current Penguins make a concerted effort to keep the initiative by maintaining control of the puck. Last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins boasted the league’s best regular season power play, converting at a rate of about 23%. Two weeks into this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins again find themselves atop the league in that category, but it is Mike Johnston’s hope that this year’s power play success is one that can carry over into the playoffs. In fact, he and his coaching staff have made several structural modifications to ensure that it does.

In Johnston’s scheme, four of the five members of the power play unit share responsibility for breaking out of the defensive zone. The focus, as always, is puck possession, sometimes requiring players to patiently make passes in retreat until the puck can be skated out or until an opportunity for a stretch pass to the fifth power play member, positioned deep in the neutral zone, presents itself. Commitment to this scheme has allowed the Penguins to enjoy a very high rate of success at entering the offensive zone.

Once in the offensive zone, Mike Johnston employs a 1-3-1 or diamond setup. Kris Letang runs the point, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are on the wings, and Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist are positioned in the low and middle slot. Posting Kunitz and Hornqvist in this way allows them to provide a crease presence that has added a welcome dimension to the Pens power play. 

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Pittsburgh Penguins snipers have always been dangerous from the perimeter and from behind the net, but in recent seasons, they haven’t had a player in position to pressure the opposing goaltender in front of the net, screening his vision and working for deflections. The fact that Hornqvist is right handed and Kunitz is left handed also expands the options for a forehand feed into the middle from either wing position. With this added component in place, the Pittsburgh Penguins power play is more deadly than ever, and should be better equipped to deal with the league’s elite goaltenders going forward.

Unfortunately, the new coaching staff doesn’t as of yet have an answer for the limp glove, shaky fundamentals, and questionable decision-making of goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury. That aside, all of the components seem to be in place for a tremendous regular season. But, that really isn’t anything new for this franchise.  Even so, Pittsburgh Penguins fans have seen a lot to like in this young season.  There is real reason for optimism,  cautious optimism.  As Pens fans, we all know the hockey season that matters starts in April.