We’ve seen this part before. At various times following success, the Pittsburgh Penguins go heavy on talent and not so heavy on actually being heavy. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan prizes being tough to play against, but his team is taking a different shape.
Can this Penguins team be tough to play against?
In full humbled disclosure, PHN began the story expecting to write about the dangers of the Penguins’ lack of jam in their lineup. Bit a quick chat with the NHL’s all-time winningest coach and Hockey Hall of Fame member Scotty Bowman quickly changed the column’s tone.
And our cover photo with Kasperi Kapanen fighting Jared McCann was also intentional. Those were the two players Bowman specifically referenced.
Tough to play against takes several forms. It does not necessarily mean the more physical of the two teams on the ice. Being tough to play against can also be the 2016 Penguins who bedeviled their opponents with constant, unrelenting, suffocating pressure. Being tough to play against can be a combination of grit and pressure to “pushback.”
But as constituted, are these Penguins any of those?
“Today, you don’t need to get muscle,” all-time winningest Scotty Bowman told PHN. “They got Kapanen. He’s a pretty tough kid. … And they have Jared McCann.”
Bowman’s instant recognition was the Penguins have some players who can bring sandpaper with speed and relentless pressure, despite the lack of Pittsburgh Penguins who can physically bruise opponents.
This is a sensitive subject for Penguins fans. When the toughness topic is broached, Penguins fans retreat to traditional mores that fighting doesn’t matter, or being tough doesn’t score goals.
The rest of the Metro Division is following suit. The New York Islanders have not yet solidified the toughest fourth line in hockey, and their roster is gritty, not as “tough” as it was.
The Washington Capitals were the leaders among teams who tried to bully the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins out of the barn. Now, not even Washington has the resources to “hurt” the Penguins. T.J. Oshie has been a thorn against the Penguins, and Washington still employs a do-it-all thumper named Tom Wilson, but their lineup isn’t the bullying type.
Even the notoriously tough Columbus Blue Jackets went a different direction with the acquisitions of Max Domi and Mikku Koivu. Brandon Dubinsky is no longer around to tie a stick around Sidney Crosby’s head.
The Penguins absolutely lacked pushback last season, but that was a mental construct far more than physical makeup. After the humbled Penguins four-game loss to the Montreal Canadiens, the worst team in the NHL postseason, GM Jim Rutherford assured there would be changes.
However, as part of those changes, the Penguins sacrificed one of their toughest players, winger Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist was the epitome of tough to play against and dished as many bruises as took in front of the opponents’ net.
The Penguins will not be in danger of being shoved off the ice by the Eastern Conference’s best teams, except the Boston Bruins. Nor will the potential COVID-19 realignment to the Central Division present the Penguins with teams who can physically punish them.
“(Mark) Jankowski, he’s a big center, too. They’ll be fine (in that regard),” Bowman assured.
The test of the Penguins will be finding that fighting spirit, which was sorely missing at the end of last season. The Penguins sputtered through late February and early March. Then took a figurative dirt nap against the Montreal Canadiens with a jaw-dropping snoozer in the clinching Game 4.
In addition to McCann and Kapanen, Bryan Rust is another speedster with grit. So too is Sidney Crosby, who is one of the toughest players in the league.
So, if the NHL can pull this suddenly endangered season out of the fire, training camp would start in a matter of a few weeks. Teams may not be able to bully the Penguins because of the Penguins’ speed and sandpaper, but will the Penguins have enough pushback when teams turn the tables?
Hopefully, the NHL and NHLPA, pull this suddenly endangered season out of the fire, and we get to find out.