Mega Roundtable Part II: Why Are the Penguins So Good This Season?
The boys are back to discuss Bylsma’s new systems, playoff meltdowns and the state of the locker room.
Photo by Dave DiCello
Once again, our crew:
Sean Conboy, Pittsburgh Magazine’s digital overlord and contributor to SI.com and Wired.
Rob Rossi, reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Russian bias.
Sean Gentille, National NHL writer for The Sporting News. Supplied beers with expense account.
Chris Mueller, co-host of 93.7 The Fan’s afternoon program. Stupifies drive-time Yinzers with big words.
Brian Metzer, NHL.com/Beaver County Times contributing writer. Penguins Live Radio host. Show-off.
Derek Rocco, co-founder of the hilarious Pensblog. Lives in his own home, thank you very much.
Mike Colligan, NHL analyst at Forbes/The Hockey Writers. Could break down your life in 30 seconds.
Jesse Marshall, co-owner of Faceoff-Factor.com. Honk if you’re CORSI.
Conboy: Now that we’ve solved the Letang crisis, let’s move on to Penguins fans’ second favorite topic: systems! This was the talk of the town after the playoff collapse. “Bylsma’s system was exploited, blah blah blah.” So the Penguins brought in a new assistant — Very Serious Man Jacques Martin — and a new system. What’s different?
Marshall: There's a specific way to beat the Penguins. It's called convergence. Teams simply pack it in, run a 2-3 trap at the blueline, and let their goalie field easy scoring chances by placing five jerseys right in front of him. Take away the slot that James Neal covets. Take away the goal line plays that the Penguins love to establish. Just wait for the Penguins to turn the puck over and head off the other way with an odd-man break.
Conboy: And turn the puck over they did! Here’s a stat: In the 2013 Eastern Finals, the Bruins turned over the puck 21 times. The Penguins turned it over 36 times. Enter Jacques Martin.
Marshall: Right. So this strategy was actually written by Martin when he was coach of Montreal in 2010. He knew his Canadiens weren't going to skate end to end with the Penguins in the playoffs. His strategy worked: Ride your red hot goalie and, quite literally, stop trying to score.
Conboy: I’m having déjà vu.
Marshall: Yep. Boston’s four-game march to the Cup Finals last year employed this same strategy. And while I may not have access to the brain of Ray Shero and his staff, something tells me the hire of Jacques Martin was in the vein of, “if you can't beat em’, hire em.” He wrote the book on convergence as a route to beating Pittsburgh, so he certainly knows where the holes within that approach may be.
Rossi: The narrative on Martin is mostly misunderstood. Martin was not hired for Letang. He was hired for Crosby and Malkin. They wanted somebody to teach transition offense. Bylsma wanted Martin (it was Bylsma’s suggestion) because he planned to adopt a defensive system that would generate turnovers in the neutral zone. He needed a defensive system that would not stagnate his offense, because you can’t ask Crosby and Malkin to sacrifice points during the grueling regular season where points are their reward.
So, how to prepare for playoffs, where games are tighter? Adopt the lock. Helps limit chances, changes offensive attack. Their review of tape against Boston showed they were limited in terms of chances. They never possessed the puck. Those games were played in the neutral zone. Martin has a specific role: Get the scorers to buy in to the system so that come playoffs, this is all natural, this way of transitional offense as opposed to the stretch pass then possess.
Conboy: Stretch pass! Drink!
Marshall: To Rossi’s point, you can’t beat these teams by playing firewagon hockey. You need to be a bit more cerebral in your approach. If you want a taste of how the Penguins have adjusted their game, look back at game 12 against the Carolina Hurricanes. Chris Kunitz scored a beauty of a goal simply off of an odd-man rush because he returned Brooks Orpik's breakout pass right to him rather than try to make an ill-advised dump that the Hurricanes would have easily corralled. It opened up the entire neutral zone and allowed Crosby to snag a puck and go full steam ahead on the Canes defense.
Conboy: So they’re basically trying to play playoff hockey in the regular season.
Marshall: Pretty much. We’re seeing forwards reverse the flow of play in the neutral zone to take the defense off guard. We’re seeing forwards start the breakout over again when they’re faced with situations they don’t feel are fruitful in regards to offensive zone entry. Sometimes you have to go backwards to move forwards, and a lot of the things the Penguins are doing right now, specific to the breakout, are things you’d expect from a team that was facing a wall of defenders night in and night out, like in the playoffs.
Rocco: I like Martin’s breakout so much better. It has been coming to the surface a lot more, especially in the last 10 games. In those games, the top two lines have accounted for 87 percent of the offense. Really makes guys like Joe Vitale look even worse though, because they can’t make the same skill plays that Kunitz can.
Rossi: Malkin likes it, too. More of what he knew from Russian youth. So far, I’ve heard no complaints from Crosby either.
Conboy: Smooth sailing so far in the regular season, but let’s rewind for a second. When the Eastern Finals ended, many Penguins fans and experts alike threw Bylsma under the bus. They said his strategy was inflexible and he was outcoached. But to play devil’s advocate … the Penguins have two of the best players in the world on the same team. They scored zero goals in four games. Systems? Really?
Rossi: This Penguins team isn't hard to figure. They are built with their best players to dominate in the playoffs, and the NHL has decided recently to let its officiating turn the playoffs into tackle football with each advancing round. These Penguins’ superstars do not handle themselves well emotionally. So, basically, the playoffs become their Pandoras box.
Conboy: This is a concern I’ve heard from other sources around the league. Basically, the book on beating the Penguins is well-known in 29 NHL locker rooms: Simply piss them off.
Marshall: If you’re a guy like Malkin or Crosby, a lack of space to creating scoring chances, a staunch, boring defense, and a few guys in your face all night long is enough to make anyone angry. Factor in having little to no clear cut, prime scoring chances, and you’ll be breaking your stick over the goalpost.
Conboy: Or shoving the opposing goalie.
Colligan: The “Meltdown Penguins” narrative is overblown. Crosby’s shove of Tuukka Rask was very calculated and an attempt to wake up a team that was struggling to score goals.
Rocco: Yeah, I’m not sure if I subscribe to the notion that the Penguins are easy to get off their game and that is why they have lost the last few years. Let’s take the big two guys: Crosby and Malkin. These guys have delivered in pressure situations on every level of their careers. Juniors, World Championships and the Stanley Cup playoffs.
I’d like to cite two pieces of evidence to the court. The first is this CBC opening to Game 5 of the Chicago vs. Detroit series last year. In this video, we see how Jonathan Toews melts down in Game 4. The point being that even leaders like Toews aren’t immune to massive meltdowns in the playoffs. Chicago came back and won.
The second piece of evidence is when Mario melted down in Game 4 against the Capitals in ’96. By the way, could you imagine if this happens modern day?
Conboy: It’s about secondary leadership. Chicago came back against Detroit (and Boston) because of guys like Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw and Brent Seabrook. When Toews and Kane were smothered, those guys went through the grinder. Who’s going to be that guy for the Penguins, that guy like Shaw who’s missing half his damn face when he hoists the Cup? Sutter? Jokinen? Gibbons?
Metzer: Almost every personnel loss since the 2009 Stanley Cup win were all leadership/glue guys. Maybe not the most talented players on the team, but they were the “other” voices in the room — the guys who kept things loose and the ones who could prop up guys like Sid and Geno if they noticed them going through a tough time. I felt it was time for Max Talbot to move on when he did, but that’s a personality that hasn’t been replaced.
Conboy: You know who was an underrated loss on and off the ice? Sergei Gonchar.
Metzer: Huge blow. The guy used to force Geno to order at restaurants and to come out of his shell. It’s not surprising that Malkin has sort of regressed in terms of his media interaction with the absence of Gonchar over the past couple years. Though he is breaking out of that this season. In fact, he just photobombed me the other day while I was taking a selfie.
Rossi: The Penguins have never replaced Sergei Gonchar. He has become a huge part of my book about Evgeni Malkin, and without giving too much away, the interviews with Malkin and Crosby will clearly show how much he meant to both of them. Malkin rejects the father/brother analogy, and even more the mentor tag. Crosby rejects the influence in the dressing room. But what they both say about Gonchar is that he was a calming presence on the ice; that he was the smartest player on the team, but respectful of others, including coaches; that he was trusted to play in all situations, and most often played well in those; that they felt he would do the right thing with the puck on the power play; that he was never too tired for an extended shift; that he held himself accountable first, and thusly others followed his lead.
Rocco: That’s what I worry about. Gonchar, Cooke, Staal, Talbot and Guerin could all absorb something like Crosby getting kicked out of a game in the playoffs (or getting hurt and missing a period like in Game 7 against Detroit). That’s what the Pens are missing. If Malkin or Crosby go nuts in the playoffs, it’s like the rest of team gets tight. Who steps up this year if that happens? Anyone? Larry Gibbons or whatever his name is?
Conboy: There was one guy in that mold, and he’s likely done for the year: Pascal Dupuis. A man who could booby-trap Sidney Crosby’s hotel toilet and still have his respect. That’s a real problem. Brooks Orpik is a name you hear a lot, but I’m dubious.
Rocco: I will say this right now, up front. I don’t think Brooks Orpik is the leader everyone wants him to be. I think he’d rather blame Malkin or Crosby than step up for them. I think you are right in saying this could be a problem down the line when things get tight in the playoffs. I think that is why we saw the trades for Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla last season, but neither one wanted that role. Leaders like Guerin and Gonchar don’t grow on trees, and any trade you make is a guess.
Rossi: The loss of Dupuis is huge. HUGE. It’s because of the roles he filled on the ice for a team that already was terribly top heavy because of the lower cap. Losing a top-line winger that also killed penalties is a big, significant blow. As for losing Dupuis in the room — well, sorry, that just isn’t something I buy. Yes, he is well liked and even better respected. But so what? That doesn’t win hockey games in May and June. Playing well does.
Conboy: So you’re saying that Bill Guerin didn’t make a difference in 2009? Not sure I agree. I think his personality was essential to bringing out the best in Malkin and Crosby, who take the game way too seriously for their own good at times.
Rossi: The story everybody hears is how he joined the team in Florida after the trade, busted Crosby's chops, and that won over everybody. You know what really won over everybody? His play in that first game. Brother went to the net, sharply moved the puck and showed that shot of his — reputable, but not often seen that season — still existed. He fed Crosby beautifully for a breakaway in that first game, and that was what sold everybody on Guerin. The way he played in that first game is what allowed a room full of kids to buy into his act. See what I’m getting at? It’s about how leaders handle themselves on the ice.
Rossi: He was timid, unaggressive and unproductive. The Penguins lost, and now Iginla talks about how he wishes he had been more like his normal self in the dressing room. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. He needed to be more like himself on the ice. The Penguins' players saw that he wasn't, so they tuned him out. They listened to Guerin because he was playing well.
Mueller: Did anyone ever think that instead of questioning what Guerin and Gonchar meant to this team and its star personnel, emotionally and mentally, in the grind that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, perhaps it’s time to point the finger at those star players and say, “You’re closer to 30 than 20, you’re both almost 10-year veterans, SO GROW UP AND LEAD ON YOUR OWN.” Because I’d like to say that. I get it. Some players are more vocal in the locker room than others. Dupuis was probably the closest thing to Guerin. Guess what? Crosby is the best player on the planet. He's also the one most analogous to melba toast, at least publicly. Perhaps he should try, you know, leading in the locker room.
Rossi: The losses in the playoffs have had nothing to do with lack of leadership. If they fall behind 3-1 in a series and rally to win because Crosby and Malkin go off for three straight games, do we really think it’s going to be because New Guy From The Trade Deadline stood up and said something? Malkin stands and voices his opinion all the time. Really. So does Craig Adams. Face it: They’ve lost since winning the Cup in 2009 because their best players have not been their best players in the series that ended Penguins’ playoff runs. Crosby. Malkin. Letang. Fleury. That’s it. That’s what matters for the playoffs.
Metzer: Speaking of Fleury, who has been excellent this season, one thing keeps bothering me. Look at these home/road splits. Everyone says it’s a team thing, but these numbers just do not compute.
HOME: 16-2-0 — 1.91 GAA — .935 save percentage
ROAD: 9-8-1 — 2.65 GAA — .895 save percentage*
*Keep in mind these numbers contain two of his three shutouts!
Conboy: Well, we know Fleury sought help from a sports psychologist in the offseason (which is extremely common in world football and golf). The core of sports psychology is about routines, visualization and getting into your comfort zone. I’d imagine that’s a hell of a lot harder to do in a foreign environment.
Colligan: Statistically, the sample size is way too small to mean anything.
Mueller: I’ve long been a Malkin defender and remain one. If a utopian world existed and he and Crosby played their A+ games every night I would take Malkin. I think he’s the most talented hockey player alive. But Jesus. Enough is enough. At some point you need to take a look in the mirror and realize that the reason most players take runs at you is that they know you’re better than they are. Use that knowledge as power. Play your game. Don’t take liberties. Beat them on the ice. Be the asshole WWF heel that’s too good to even bother swinging back.
Conboy: We’ve come full circle. Now Geno needs to be more like a Russian stereotype. Ron Cook’s world just got turned upside down.
Colligan: I feel the same way about leadership as I do about linemates. There comes a point when you can’t keep bringing in veteran band-aids to cover up flaws. If Malkin can’t motivate himself, he needs to struggle for a while and learn. If Crosby, as captain, doesn’t have control of the room, then he needs to figure that out on his own. Shero and the Penguins have committed enormous amounts of money to these players under the expectation that they'll make enormous contributions on and off the ice.
Marshall: Virtually every night the Penguins play, we sit and watch in awe of what Sidney Crosby does on the ice. He’s the best player in the world, but it seems like we only talk about him that way in one facet; as Sidney Crosby the player. His captaincy, dare I say, is undermined by virtually everyone in this city in a very unintentional fashion.
Conboy: I’ll end on this, the most sincere thing a hockey player has ever said to me. Sidney Crosby, at the start of the 2010 season: “Nobody, outside of probably this locker room, can really understand just how hard it is to win a Stanley Cup.”