The Penguins end their bye week against Detroit tomorrow and they’ve got quite a challenge ahead. They likely need about 48 points from their final 38 games to reach the playoffs, which means they have to play at a level that dwarfs the one at which they’ve been playing for more than three months now.
However, easier said than done. Here are three key areas where improvements are necessary if the two-time defending champs are going to get a chance to defend their championships.
Play Without the Puck
We’re not talking here exclusively about being in good defensive position, although obviously, that is a pretty good idea. The Penguins have enough of the puck to sit fourth in the NHL in shots per game, a rounding error from being No. 1, where they spent a good portion of the first half of the season.
They need to be more aggressive – proactive, not reactive – in getting it back quickly.
Over the previous two seasons, Mike Sullivan’s teams were very good at using an aggressive backcheck to win pucks, often doing so before those pucks even left the offensive zone. It’s not easy and requires not only reading plays but lots of skating, but it served them very well as a tactic that helped realize one of their important goals – playing more of the game outside their defensive zone.
This piece of their game has been either absent or much more ineffective this season. Broadly speaking, opponents have been reaching the neutral zone much more easily, which means they have more time, more space and more speed. That also has to lead to more odd-man breaks against, but it also means that dump-ins become more effective and leave the Pittsburgh defense with less time to get to pucks and make quick decisions with them.
One of the reasons their championship teams exited their defensive zone so effectively was because they accomplished it via a series of 20-25 foot passes that gave them 1) possession coming out of the zone, 2) speed through the neutral zone and 3) more options besides dump-ins at the opposing blue line.
This is largely a function of how willing and able the forwards are to come back, which is easier when you’re already heading that way on the backcheck (see above). Look, it can’t happen all the time when a team that is as skilled and aggressive as the Penguins takes chances, because sometimes those gambles don’t work and the forwards wind up watching counter-attacks from behind the play. But it needs to happen more often.
When it comes to exiting the zone, this team tends simply throw pucks up the boards in the defensive zone or look repeatedly for stretch passes. That hasn’t worked. This defense, like most defenses, needs an extra second to make decisions, then options once they have that extra second. It’s not easy to play this way. But it can be so simple and effective.
And yes, skating it out of your own zone is great, too. Easier said than done but an area where Kris Letang can obviously have a bigger impact.
Stick with a Lineup!
The best teams have mostly defined roles for their players, and the Penguins as currently constructed don’t have enough of this up front. This is more of a Jim Rutherford challenge than a Sullivan challenge.
Is Jake Guentzel a center or a left winger? He’s a better winger and the Penguins know this, which is why they’re still likely shopping for a No. 3 center.
Is Carl Hagelin a second liner or a third liner? His numbers leave little doubt, but he has moved back and forth between these assignments all season.
Is Conor Sheary top-line worthy? Should he be down on the second line or the third line? He’s played all three, and he’s moved from right wing to left wing. Same goes for Bryan Rust when healthy; he’s played on the first, second and third lines and played both wings. Heck, even Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist have taken brief spells at left wing.
Outside of the movement necessitated by injuries, all this variety has been a product of Sullivan searching for combinations that could be consistent and productive. But the length of this experimentation only proves that the personnel isn’t quite right and may help explain why Rust and Sheary have been so streaky offensively, and Guentzel is joining them.
Not every winger can be moved from one side to the other, either, as is illustrated every time Kessel and Hornqvist take a spin at left wing. Being “able to play with anybody” can be good when you’re hit with injuries, but it’s not something you want to demonstrate so often.
Hockey players are creatures of habit and routine, and when possible would like to operate in the same environment. Part of the blame here lies with them for not providing consistency, but the time is coming for the GM to try a different approach. Waiting to see whether Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon can earn the right to stay where they are – which would help things – makes some sense.
But time is not something the Penguins have a lot of right now.