While the hockey world prepares the Pittsburgh Penguins obituary because they lost star defenseman Kris Letang, opponents should take heed: The Penguins are still capable of winning the Stanley Cup. While some may espouse a similar belief, this is the column that will explain the “how.”
(*This story was originally published on April 10, 2017).
Defensive depth, flexible coaching married more to winning than the system, and a group of forwards who can dominate the puck, are the tangibles that set the Penguins apart from their competition. The intangibles are summed up in a word with has left head coach Mike Sullivan’s lips thousands of times: Resilience.
Like a hard-headed boxer who refuses to fall, the Penguins have managed a winning record without Letang this season, 24-10-5. Without stars Evgeni Malkin and Letang, and without top-four defensemen Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta for most of the second half of the season, the Penguins soldiered onward to the second-best record in the NHL with 111 points.
How: Strategy Without Kris Letang
The Penguins coaching will set this Stanley Cup defense apart from their previous quest, in 2010. That same flexibility will be necessary, as the Penguins will not be able to play the high pressure-high risk game for 60 minutes. They simply don’t have enough superior skaters on the blue line to make that happen.
A simple neutral zone trap and counter-attack will be occasionally necessary for the Penguins to slow the play when the other team seizes momentum. When the ice ist tilted, the Penguins will not be able to outskate opponents easily. So, squeezing the life from the game will be a way to protect their depleted corps and allow the game to reset.
Saturday, the Penguins occasionally employed a 1-2-2 trap against Toronto, though the Penguins make-shift roster executed it about as well as you would expect a patch-work roster to execute any system: Poorly. The full roster should be just fine.
An occasional neutral zone trap will also be a way to slow down the Columbus Blue Jackets forecheck, which features forwards looking to paint the glass with the faces of Penguins defensemen.
Further, without Kris Letang carrying the puck out of the defensive zone, the Penguins will also need more breakout plays in which the forwards play a central role. Crosby, Malkin, and zippy footed forwards like Phil Kessel will have to play 200 feet and be prepared to carry the puck through the neutral zone.
In addition to strategic changes, the Penguins will also need several players to pick up the slack left by Letang’s absence.
The Penguins needed well more than the average number of chances to score each goal, last season. The Penguins must progress towards the average in the playoffs. Scoring chances will be harder to create without Letang, which means each is more valuable. Wasted opportunities will also be costlier.
Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel have received praise for their offensive production. However, each could be more efficient. They need to convert a higher percentage of chances because they will not get the same volume, in the playoffs.
Also, Kessel must score. In fact, Kessel may well determine if Phil Kessel is again a Stanley Cup Champion. No scores from Phil, no Cup for Phil. That simple.
It is paramount: Goaltending. Matt Murray will not have the luxury to allow leaky goals or be average. Not this time. The Penguins were better than each team they played, including Washington and Tampa Bay, in the 2016 playoffs.
Murray wasn’t consistently good in the Eastern Conference Final, and it pushed the series with Tampa Bay to seven games. Murray also struggled recently before rebounding with a couple of strong performances, down the stretch.
Goaltending is a six-man position. Teams that are playing well make their goalies look good, and struggling teams tend to make their goalies look bad. Without Letang, the Penguins goalie will see more high-grade chances against. For most of the season, Murray was far more insulated from those Grade-A chances than the veteran he displaced, Marc-Andre Fleury (You can see the charts at HockeyViz.com. For those who don’t believe the team played differently—take a look.
Murray has earned a length of the leash, however, not unlimited. Fleury has outplayed Murray since March 1, and the coaches have noticed, even as Sullivan believes Murray’s calm presence is a factor in the improved play.
Against Toronto, the Penguins paired Schultz with Brian Dumoulin on the top pairing and Ian Cole with Daley on the second pairing. The Penguins coaches took a gamble with Schultz on the top pair. The chemistry between Schultz and Cole can’t be overlooked. Each makes the other a better player. When the playoffs begin, the pairings should look something like this:
Last year, right side defensemen Kris Letang, Daley, and Schultz paired with stay-at-home defenders for a perfect balance of offense and covered backside. The speed of the right-side defenders allowed them to take more offensive chances, as well.
Without Letang, only Daley truly has superior speed.
Schultz has continued to provide offensive production this season, but expanded minutes with high-pressure tactics haven’t always been his friend. Mistakes are magnified in the playoffs. As a 5-6 defenseman, this season Schultz was a new player who bore little resemblance to the Schultz of last season. He added layers to his game and was a significantly better defender, which promoted his healthy offensive game.
In a Top Four role, however, Schultz will need to be protected against the better teams in the playoffs.
While both Olli Maatta and Ron Hainsey are superior defensemen to Mark Streit, whose play has trailed off, Streit’s offensive ability on the right side means he provides more balance than injecting Maatta or Hainsey in the sixth slot.
The idea of using seven defensemen also seems unbalanced. To do so would cripple the Penguins fourth line, which has been too good to abandon. Eight minutes of Maatta or Streit would not provide more value than the 10 minutes of a player like Josh Archibald, Tom Kuhnhackl, or Scott Wilson.
Letang played only 41 games this season. Four separate injuries kept him off the ice, but the gilded Penguins lineup did not suffer as it once did. The Penguins, as they have done in the Sullivan era, displayed roster depth and psychological toughness.
Last season, how many thought the Penguins could win a Stanley Cup with a one-armed Evgeni Malkin and a rookie goalie? (I did predict they would win, but you get the point).
The Penguins will again try to drink from Mrs. Lord Stanley’s chalice in June. Even without Kris Letang, they have the necessary tools, tangible and intangible.