One step back can lead to two steps forward. The frustration which gripped the Pittsburgh Penguins last season was born of different agendas and different motivation levels. It’s been a devolution since the Penguins last Stanley Cup victory in 2017. One by one, important and seemingly irreplaceable role players needed to be replaced. Everyone said the right things publicly, but actions spoke louder than words. The fizz in the Penguins soda had gone flat.
Even the Beatles broke up.
The 2019-20 Penguins are less talented but genuinely seem enthusiastic about the changes. Earlier this week, Penguins forward Jared McCann spoke with PHN about team chemistry and hits significance. Thursday night, Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz talked about the positive effects of the Penguins changes but went much further. His comments were easy to draw inferences if you’ve been following the stories about locker room discord which have dripped out this summer.
“I think that’s the best way to describe it — new energy. New Feel in here. A lot of speed in here and they’re creating a lot for us,” defenseman Justin Schultz said Thursday night.
New energy is what the Penguins were sorely lacking last season. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford openly wondered if his team was “stale,” last November. Then he traded core piece Carl Hagelin to LA for Tanner Pearson. This summer, the word complacent was been used.
At the start of training camp, Penguins starting goalie Matt Murray cited the NHL trend for teams which goes against the grain of Pittsburgh Penguins culture but stands true nonetheless, “It’s not about who has the most skill anymore.”
PHN has not asked that specific question if it has been addition by subtraction. Cmon, no one would go on record with such inflammatory silliness; this is not the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
At a minimum, the Penguins new faces which include Alex Galchenyuk and the absence of Phil Kessel, are giving the Penguins new looks and new opportunities to remake their power play. Last season, the Penguins dead legged efforts with the man advantage led to a league-high 15 shorthanded goals against. The Penguins now have fresh options which will allow them to insert new wrinkles, such as a pair of righthanded defensemen on the points, or inserting Galchenyuk or Jake Guentzel onto the top unit.
“When you look at some of the personnel we have, with some of the new guys, it’s going to give us an opportunity to show some different looks,” Sullivan said. Later he concluded, “I think we’ve got a lot of opportunities to explore different looks and see what comes out of it. But it certainly it gives our overall power play philosophy an opportunity to evolve.”
As penalty kill units adjust to one Penguins scheme, they are no longer bound by personnel or ego to continue. The Penguins practiced several different formations and looks this week.
But sometimes words are words. There were plenty of reassuring words and the right words last season, even as we heard rumblings of the internal anger. Actions speak louder. The general feeling in the Penguins locker room does not have the stress or angst of last season.
Perhaps the Penguins needed an extra-long offseason to cleanse the room. Months were needed to air out the stink left behind by a team which crumbled and folded when challenged in Round One.
As McCann put it, “These are the guys you play hockey for.”
Evgeni Malkin, who was at the center of some of the internal turmoil, is off to a good start. He and new linemate Galchenyuk are reading each other well. The pair have been able to play with the puck, create or find space, and distribute it to the other well.
A Malkin at full throttle immediately improves the Penguins.
The first chapter is being written for the Penguins 2019-20 season. It has a much snappier tone than the final chapters of the last book. As guys joke and rib each other across the room. Other guys hang out in their locker stall just to talk with the guys around them. Laughter is again echoing.
The Penguins may or may not be better than last season. That benchmark will be decided when opponents send their best with malice and the Penguins must respond. However, one thing is abundantly clear, the team appears happy to play hockey for each other, again.