You make your own luck, or so the saying goes. Pittsburgh Penguins forward Brandon Tanev was signed just a few days after the Penguins traded star winger Phil Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes, but any comparison between the two players ends there.
The Penguins directly acquired forward Alex Galchenyuk as part of the Kessel deal, but GM Jim Rutherford used the cap savings to sign Tanev on July 1. So, the Kessel trade analysis should also include Tanev and his performance, even if they play entirely opposite types of games.
In just seven games this season, Tanev has drawn seven penalties, which leads the NHL. In 82 games last season, Kessel drew three. Tanev has already absorbed 22 hits and dished 29. Last season, Opponents hit Kessel only 52 times, and he returned the favor only 12 times. Kessel also scored 82 points, which is a level Tanev will unlikely achieve, but Tanev is helping the Penguins goal differential. (All stats from NaturalStatTrick.com)
Tanev scored the shorthanded game-winner with a fluky bounce for the 3-2 OT win against Colorado Wednesday night, but hard work creates luck.
As the Penguins’ identity makeover begins to take shape even without half of their top-nine forwards who are missing time due to injury, the Penguins relentless puck pursuit, physicality, and speed have been evident.
While Kessel feasted on power-play opportunities, Tanev is creating them.
“I think it’s just playing physical and trying to make defenders as uncomfortable as you can. Put them in spots they don’t want to be in and hope for the best,” Tanev said of his penalty drawing prowess. “…you want to play that type of game. In your face and hard, and you’re able to draw penalties in those situations.”
It may be harsh, but opponents were not uncomfortable against the Penguins for most of last season. The goal has been to become tough to play against. This season, the Penguins lead the NHL in hits per game (34.3). They led the NHL in hits per game last season, too (28.8), but this season the hits appear to be more impactful, or more specifically, they are harder hits.
Penguins 40-goal scoring winger Jake Guentzel also blocked a pair of heavy shots Wednesday night. Just as freewheeling, undisciplined play can be contagious, so too can hard-nosed desperate play.
“Anytime you have such a gifted goal scorer that’s willing to play physical, and you saw (Wednesday night) a couple of huge blocked shots. He’s back out there and scores a huge goal for us,” Tanev said. “That’s great for the team, and you want that type of player who is able to put the puck in the net but at the same time do the dirty work.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins are playing a team game, which is something they talked about last season, but it usually ended there. Drawing penalties isn’t usually the art of diving like team owner Mario Lemieux was angrily accused of by fallen opponents, or waiting for simple mistakes from the other team. The “how” Tanev and the Penguins are drawing penalties is as important as the resulting power plays.
“He’s always around the puck, and he skates really well. The other team always has to draw (Tanev) down,” said fellow high energy grinder Patric Hornqvist. “He’s a great player to have on your team. I used to hate to play against him because he always comes in with speed, and it feels like you’re on the wrong side of him.”
As Hornqvist said, that is a good combination for drawing penalties, but it also creates opportunities for the Penguins to change the game, both in the immediate and the big picture. The Penguins’ power play has not slipped without Kessel. In fact, it may be a little better. The team has maintained the approximate 25% conversion ratio which means drawing more penalties leads to more goals.
Those penalties also force opponents to spend energy defending.
“(Tanev) came up big for us (Wednesday). He’s been really good, like all of the other guys,” Hornqvist said.
Like all of the other guys is a key phrase. The Penguins occasionally suffered from carrying too many passengers. After a couple of clunkers in the first couple of games this season, the Penguins are not experiencing that fate. They have energy, speed, and aggression, even if they have more talent on the IR list than on the ice.
It’s part of forging a new Pittsburgh Penguins identity. And those power-play opportunities are a nice little reward along the way.