The sharp exchange last Thursday between a reporter and Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford was as insightful to the Penguins expanded philosophy as it was confrontational to current perceptions. The Penguins have issues to correct and things to fix, but speed isn’t necessarily one of them. Nor is the defense, though all jobs on a team which was swept out of Round One can be upgraded.
The Penguins defense isn’t as fast as it was three years ago. As a group, it’s bigger, tougher, and also has a little less offensive flare. But perceptions of some are the defense was not very good. Others claim the Penguins defense was responsible for the rough seasons of Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, which is a mangling of analytics to deny two players who admitted poor seasons if there ever was.
More than a few think the Penguins team has lost a step but a side by side comparison shows the Penguins speed is equal. The reality is the game has changed.
“Have you been going to the games? Do you think Bjugstad and McCann can skate?” Rutherford snapped to a question about moving from the speed concept.
It’s the truth, even if not popularly accepted. Directly comparing to the 2016 team, is not Bryan Rust as fast as…Bryan Rust? Jared McCann is similar in speed to Carl Hagelin and Nick Bjugstad can cover far more ground than Nick Bonino.
But the defense, right? One commenter on Pittsburgh Hockey Now referred to Rutherford as an idiot if he didn’t know it was the defensemen who were the problem.
“I think our defense is probably the best now that it’s been since I’ve been here, as a group,” Rutherford answered. “You always like mobile defensemen, guys who can move the puck. We have at least one guy in each pairing that can move the puck and now we’ve got guys who can have some pushback.”
Those guys who can pushback are specifically Johnson and Gudbranson. Dumoulin is not a softy, though his forte is proper positioning more than brute strength near the cage. Gudbranson can stand between the Penguins star players and repeated harassment and Johnson was one of the most prolific hitters and shot blockers in the NHL this season.
For any criticisms of Johnson’s offense, it’s hard to credibly argue that Murray’s crease was not significantly cleaner, especially as Johnson gained his Penguins bearings in the second half of the season and was able to get on the right side of the puck (and stopped dumping crease crashers over his goalie).
And therein lies Rutherford’s contention. And the truth. The 2016 defense was good with Daley but it was thin and not physical. Teams ran over the Penguins goalies, especially the Washington Capitals. Sullivan and the Penguins goalies (Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury) often spoke of the traffic and the difficulty of physical contact.
By 2017, the Penguins had enough and didn’t think surviving the continued beating was sustainable, so they tried tougher forwards like Ryan Reaves. That didn’t work out. So this season, they added rugged defensemen.
“At one time you asked if we had guys who had enough pushback and now you’re asking if we have enough guys with speed. If you find those guys, they’re $15 million a year and there aren’t any.”
After Rutherford’s statement, headlines flew fast and furious. Social media and the blogosphere went nuts. But Rutherford wasn’t far off, or even wrong.
An illustrative example: Remember 2009-10. In head coach Dan Bylsma’s first full season, the Penguins attempted to revolution the game with a speed defense. Gone was Hal Gill, a big, slow-footed defenseman who was “bad at hockey,” and Rob Scuderi who in 2009 was slow but a capable defensive defenseman who then won two more Stanley Cups with the LA Kings.
One year later, Mark Eaton who was the Penguins last defensive defenseman was also gone. The Penguins went heavy on the mobile route but that group, head coach and GM Ray Shero didn’t contend for another Stanley Cup. The Montreal Canadiens featuring Gill in a prime shutdown role upset the Penguins in 2010.
Sorry to bring up bad memories, but you know what they say about those who don’t learn from history.
Somewhere to the speed and mobility side of the spectrum lays the perfect defense. What so many on the outside are forgetting is the evolution of the league combined with the adjustments made to counter the Penguins. It takes some ugliness to sprinkled into the defense to do some of the dirty work which is necessary. The 2016 opponents weren’t ready for the speed and the Penguins advantage was enormous. That will no longer be possible and the Penguins adjusted.
Defensemen Kris Letang and Justin Schultz made a few high-profile mistakes against the New York Islanders. Those mistakes were magnified by the Penguins lack of offense, pushback, and inability to contain the New York pushback.
But overall, the Penguins blue liners have ingredients they haven’t had perhaps ever before. In addition to the high-end talent, they now have defensemen able to hit back and while they may not have the same wheels as the 2016 club, they’re competent skaters. Rutherford also watched his team shut down opponents for the final six weeks of the regular season.
And oh by the way, Jack Johnson’s advanced analytics continually increased throughout the season. From the Stadium Series game on Feb. 23 until the end of the regular season, Johnson posted positives in the critical categories of scoring chances and goals-for. Even his Corsi was near even.