The Pens are playing faster and more aggressive than they have in a long time. And if you think it’s because guys like Carl Hagelin can almost skate fast enough to melt ice, you’d be mistaken.
Yes, the additions of Rust, Hagelin, Kessel, Sheary and even Cullen have increased the pace the Penguins play at to an almost frenetic level. But, that isn’t the reason they’re spending more time in the offensive zone than a frat boy on spring break. No, the Penguins are now a possession monster because they’ve fully embraced the importance of “the puck moving defensemen”
That’s right, I’m talking about players who worry more about whether the pass they’re about to make is on the tape of their teammates stick than throwing a clearing attempt off the boards just so they can change pairings or regroup for the next oncoming rush.
Let’s agree to be honest about that last assessment because that’s all the latter mentality does for a team. It simply gives them a few seconds to reset or change d-parings. That puck that bounced off the glass is simply gobbled up by the opposing team and used to restart their neutral zone transition game. And, no one represented these set of circumstances better or more annoyingly often as the former penguin we all knew and lo….well, knew named Rob Scuderi.
Back in late September there was an article written by Josh Yohe, in which he quoted Scuderi as stating:
“Yes, there’s a lot of young talent on this blue line, no question. And that’s great. That’s all part of it. But I’ve never heard of a team out there that’s decided to go with six offensive defensemen.”
“I know what I can bring to a hockey team. I know, offensively, I don’t have the talent these other guys do. But, you know what? I can support the play just like anybody else. I can shoot the puck and create some opportunities for our forwards.”
Well, Rob had never heard of that type of team because he wasn’t around long enough to hear about the current version of the Penguins. And, as society has grown and adapted over time so has hockey, even in the last 10 years. To just “shoot the puck” from the point and “create chances for the forwards” is an oversimplification of a reality that is almost nonexistent. Shot blocking has become part of hockey dogma, so movement along the blue lines and patience to move around people when they overcommit has not only become very useful but very necessary.
That’s what the d-core that existed in training camp, outside of #58, was unwilling to embrace or incapable of doing. Because in today’s NHL, a player who simply slaps a puck towards the net without any creativity or thought process of what his other options are, or could be, is as antiquated as the stereotypical enforcer. The amusing or ironic piece to the transformation is that the guy who ultimately embodies the current Penguins ability to maintain possession and help the forwards is the guy Scuderi was traded for. Talk about karma?!
Trevor Daley isn’t just the anti-Scuderi, he’s the type of skating top 4 defensemen that the Penguins have only had one or two of for years going back to the year after Sergei Gonchar left in free agency. Daley is unique because his best attribute isn’t his ability to jump up into the play, as many of us have noticed by the recent goals he’s scored. The key has been his ability to keep the play alive in the offensive zone!
Fortunately, it seems as though other defensemen not named Kris Letang have also decided to follow suit as well, including Daley’s defensive partner Brian Dumoulin. And, what a breath of fresh air that has been considering he was one of the larger question marks at the beginning of the season.
Add in the recent acquisition of Justin Schultz and the Penguins have finally opened themselves up to the idea that all defensemen have to do more than just maintain a good gap and defend.
If I didn’t know better I’d think the organization had an actual epiphany and thought: “wait a minute…..maybe we’ve been going about this all wrong. Maybe…..the idea isn’t so much to carry possession into the offensive zone. (insert involuntary exhausted sigh regarding Mike Johnston here) Maybe…..the idea is to use all the defensemen to start the rush and then maintain possession in the offensive zone so the forwards can get open!!!!”
Now, take into account the speed of forwards mentioned earlier and the Penguins suddenly have a team of players whose thought process can be simplified to 2 things:
1.) Win race
2.) Get puck
Possession issue solved!
Why it took them so long to fully embrace this style of play I’ll never know. It’s not like Sidney Crosby makes a habit of practicing and working out to increase the speed of EVERYTHING HE DOES!!
To be fair though, the desire to have “a good mix” of defensemen always made sense before. Especially when the Penguins had previously drafted a core player like Brooks Orpik, who in his prime could do almost everything well. How else was a team with elite level talent supposed to compete with the Bruins and Flyers and Rangers of the world?
Except, they didn’t compete with and beat them because they were tougher or more defensively sound. They beat them because beyond the Gonchars, the 28yr old Orpiks, and the young Kris Letangs of the world, they also had guys like Ryan Whitney, and Alex Goligoski and Philippe Boucher. All of these puck movers knew how to help the forwards out rather than simply clearing the puck, laying a check, and getting frustrated when offense didn’t materialize.
As for the people that want to strategically throw advanced stats at me. Hold on, I’ve seen the possession graphs for teams who have won the Stanley Cup in the last 10 years. And, yes the pens were average at possession back in 08-09. So the conclusion is that the Penguins won that cup in 09 mostly on sheer talent and momentum. Alright, I’ll buy that. But the fact that there was more puck moving depth in the defensive group can’t be overlooked. I still maintain that you can’t consistently take advantage of forward talent without offensive defensemen. That is the one thing that has never changed.
It was true with Bobby Orr in the 60’s to 70’s, Dennis Potvin in the 70’s to 80’s, Paul Coffey and Ray Bourque in the 80’s to 90’s and is still true to this day. The difference is today a team needs more than one or two.
In fact, if you really want to question my thought process, go through the teams that are true threats to make a run in this years playoffs and tell me how many of those teams aren’t overly dependent on puck moving d-men to push their style of play?
I’ll save you the trouble, all of them are. Even the team that Scuderi landed with..again. Because if anyone isn’t overly familiar with the Kings, they have a fairly talented puck mover named Drew Doughty. It doesn’t stop with him though, he just gets the majority of the notoriety. They also have Jake Muzzin AND Alec Martinez.
But the strength that the Penguins have over all those teams is speed. And, it can now be capitalized on because of the changes that have occurred within their d-corps.
It’s exciting because the Penguins are playing to the strength of their captain and the strength of their team. And this version of the penguins might embody Mike Lang’s “get in the fast lane grandma” phrase more so than any other we’ve ever seen.
So, for a bit of amusing perspective, I’ll leave all of you with a quote from a commercial icon that is being retired. “Find what it is in life you don’t do well, and don’t do that thing”
The Penguins aren’t built to play a plodding style of game, but they have realized their strength and decided to only focus on what they do well:
Churn and burn.