The offseason changes have created some optimism with at least one person. Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan veered from his typical lines of high expectations and playing the right way to express optimism for his new group which finally opens the 2019-20 Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena.
It’s been nearly six months since meaningful hockey was played in Pittsburgh. That’s the longest drought of the decade and longest in 13 years.
“I sense a different attitude, a different mindset right now surrounding this team which is encouraging,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “When you go through some of the experiences we’ve been through and don’t live up to your own expectations if forces everyone involved to do a little soul searching and figure out how to get back on the right track.”
Without rehashing bad memories, the Penguins lasted just four games in the playoffs and were dispersed for the summer in mid-April. Sullivan specifically put distance between last season and this season. He said it was over and the lessons heeded.
“This is a team thing. We all have to take ownership of it and it starts with the head coach, and I think everyone has done that,”; said Sullivan. “I feel good about this group. I’m excited to work with them.”
One of those soul searchers was center Evgeni Malkin. After a disappointing season with some internal turmoil, Malkin has shown an edge during his preparations. He also sounds as much like a kid on the first day of school.
“I hope it is (a good season). I have everything, new skates, new sticks this year and I hope it works,” Malkin joked. “I’m excited. I feel amazing.”
Malkin said he tried a lot of new stuff including skates this summer, and spent a couple of weeks power skating, too. New linemate Alex Galchenyuk went to Russia and the pair also worked out there, too. Though Malkin hasn’t set any individual goals.
“I try to score every game, but I know I can’t score 82 goals. There more that is possible, the better for me,” Malkin said. “I’ve not scored in a long time and I hope to score (Thursday).”
One unsaid and unspoken point that has become accepted without belaboring is the different roster makeup. The Pittsburgh Penguins are without Phil Kessel who brought elite offensive skill but also some baggage. The Penguins no longer have that skill. It has been replaced with the relentless energy of players like free-agent signee Brandon Tanev.
Of course, the Penguins still have the big three. Sidney Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang, who comprise one of, if not the most, talented cores in the league. Crosby was a Hart Trophy finalist and Letang received second-place votes for the Norris Trophy.
“We’ve got a great core of players that are an accomplished group. They understand what it takes to win,” Sullivan said before he got to the heart of the matter. “We feel like some of the additions we brought in, we think we’ve improved certain areas of our overall team game and that is going to help us have success.”
When Sullivan references certain areas of the team game, he is referring to the Penguins’ defensive commitment, among other things. The Penguins will be tougher to play against, as they will not just be more physical but there will be less self-inflicted errors. Efforts should not be lacking on this team.
“And so now the challenge is for all of us to come together and take ownership of our own part and help this team win.”
The new attitude Penguins will have a more blue-collar flare than they have had in a long time. Speed and tenacity will need to replace raw ability. It’s far too early to tell if the team has elected to buy into Sullivan’s process yet, but players who must grind for their paychecks tend to listen more and speak less.
It will be a new attitude, and a new Pittsburgh Penguins.