Pittsburgh Penguins: Person Most Responsible for Team’s Success

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 20: Sidney Crosby
PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 20: Sidney Crosby /

It’s common to debate why one team has success and another does not. Players, coaches, managers, and even training staff may contribute in significant ways. However, some teams achieve high percentages of wins and championships even with changing personnel. Let’s think about why that might be, and who is the secret to the Pittsburgh Penguins current run of success.

Players Play the Game

The most obvious first point to make here is that Pittsburgh Penguins players are the ones playing the game. You will hear that mantra from humble coaches and knowledgeable fans alike – and it’s true. I have never played professional sports, but I have played and coached enough amateur hockey to tell you one simple fact. Nothing tilts the ice in your favor more than having better players than the other teams.  Rocket science. However, I will also add that when teams are closely matched in talent, then coaching makes a difference.

Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins /

Pittsburgh Penguins

Ever since the Penguins acquired the current crop of elite talent (87, 71, 58, etc.) they have mostly been a winning team. That success is a good measure of overall talent, assuming the coaching is not extremely good or bad. If you look at the Pens win/loss over the last decade (during the regular season) you will see what I mean. Except for exceptional circumstances they routinely finished the regular season near the top.

I should state the obvious here – it’s unlikely the Penguins would have their most recent three Stanley Cup Championships without the likes of Crosby and Malkin. But just having those players doesn’t guarantee anything – we have to dig a bit deeper.

Coaching For Success

Now a team loaded with talent still must win. Bad coaching can do a lot to nullify great talent. Misusing players, or even worse, losing the confidence and loyalty of players can wreck any team. Conversely, great coaching can get players to over-produce. I believe that in professional sports, bad coaches do not stay employed. The ones that have been around for many years are pretty good.

The key aspect of coaching is that your coaching style and philosophy fit the players you have. To a lesser extent it also should fit the expectations of the fans. When the fit is bad, it becomes apparent pretty quickly. When the fit is good, the team almost never under-performs.

Managing for Success

So now we have a nice talent-laden team, a pretty solid coaching staff, seemingly in sync with our players. Is that enough to get you to the Cup? Not quite. When you get deep in the playoffs, you face other teams that have better players and better coaching than the rest of the league. The edge in those match-ups comes down to some intangibles like confidence, adaptability, persistence, determination, etc.

Those qualities are found in players and coaches when you look for them. Who does the looking? The General Manager and his staff. Regularly successful teams almost always have a front office that finds new ways to identify and obtain “quality” players. Defining what “quality” means is a critical part of that job description. For example, in a salary cap league, finding players who perform statistically high for their salary might be key.

It is no secret that the Penguins have had some top-notch managers in recent times. They have worked to help the Penguins identify a consistent playing style. Then they worked to provide players that fit that style and play well together. But still, there are lots of talented front office types…

Own the Success

Almost every successful entity in the history of human endeavors has a single person at the top. This is because certain rare individuals are gifted with talent to lead, the wisdom to make good decisions, and ability to attract and keep top talent around him/her. At the very core of the Penguins modern-era success is the man. I should say, The Man. The one who always has been behind the greatest achievements in Penguins history is Mario Lemieux. Many will say he doesn’t play anymore, or coach or even manage. But he still does one thing Magnificently. He leads.

Don’t believe me? Consider the back-to-back champs. Not the Stanley Cup champs – the highest regular season scoring champs – the Washington Capitals. No, I’m not trolling the Caps fans, but there is no denying one simple fact.

Ever since Lemieux has been a part of the Penguins, they have out performed the Caps when it matters most. The Caps have had great players (anyone remember the Crosby vs. Ovechkin debates?), and great coaches, and even very good front office management. What they haven’t had is the kind of ownership leadership that we enjoy in Pittsburgh. When you have to refuse to sell tickets to callers from certain area codes, there’s a problem. Time and again current and former Pens players rave about “the organization.”

Wanna know why? Look at the Man at the Top.