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Penguins Changes: How NHL Semi-Finals Should Affect Pens Thinking

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Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders NY playoffs

The phrase “copycat league” is used, abused, and has reached cliche status. It’s akin to saying, “it’s tough to win in this league.” As if there’s a league where wins come easy. But the roster construction of the final four teams in the NHL playoffs can and should send a clear message to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It’s a message the Penguins new hockey ops managers, president of hockey operations Brian Burke and general manager Ron Hextall, already know, but now they have loud and clear confirmation. The message is more affirmation than a revelation: Size and toughness, beyond grittiness, are required.

It’s no longer optional to have big players with some ill-intent who use their size in the dirty areas. They are now 100% necessary.

In addition to speed, skill, and a structured system, teams need a few big bodies—preferably big bodies who also have offensive talent, skating ability and a willingness to follow instructions.

The New York Islanders are a heavy team with a little bit of talent, a bit of speed, and lots of structure. The Vegas Golden Knights are a thundering herd with speed, snarl, and structure. Montreal has lots of structure and size to fulfill its structure.

Stick tap to 93-7 the Fan’s Andrew Filliponi for looking this up. Quick research shows the Pittsburgh Penguins are the second lightest team in the NHL. Vegas, Tampa Bay, and the New York Islanders are the first, second, and third heaviest teams, respectively.

If one person calls you a horse, ignore it. If two people call you a horse, consider it. If three people call you a horse, buy a saddle.

One heavy team is a coincidence. When the top three heavy teams are still playing, it’s a trend with which the Pittsburgh Penguins must deal.

The Montreal Canadiens are the seventh heaviest team in the NHL.

“(Physicality) is something to think about right now as the standard (for obstruction penalties) has gone up, in terms of what is and what isn’t a penalty since the playoffs started,” Penguins GM Ron Hextall said in his media availability after the Penguins season. “And it’s something that you can’t just ignore. But I think the biggest thing in the playoffs is you’ve got to have a team that’s willing to play through it…”

Of course, the Tampa Bay Lightning checks all of the boxes. They are fast, skilled, and don’t sleep on their size, too. Blake Coleman, Patrick Maroon, and Barclay Goodrow dot their bottom-six. They are three players who enjoy inflicting bruises on their opponents and chipping in a few goals.

They are also three players for whom the Pittsburgh Penguins would not have an answer, just as the Penguins have struggled to answer the New York Islanders’ fourth line with Matt Martin, Casey Czikas, and Cal Clutterbuck, who were probably the Islanders’ best line against the Penguins in the Round One series.

If the Islanders’ fourth line wasn’t the best, then it was the second line led by Brock Nelson–another big body with talent. Nelson rolls at 6-foot-4, 212 pounds. Goodrow is 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. Maroon checks in at a svelte 6-foot-3, 225 pounds of jam.

The Penguins have 6-foot-3 Jeff Carter, who knows how to use his size, but Carter is not a physical player. The most physical Penguins forwards are Brandon Tanev, who fits the mold but is small at just 180-pounds, and Jason Zucker, 5-foot-11 and 192 pounds, is also slight in the context of physical players.

In other words, yes, the Penguins have grit. They lack size. And adding a bit of snarl wouldn’t hurt, either.

Each of the four remaining teams possesses those qualities. From the Washington Capitals, St. Louis Blues, and Tampa Bay Lightning, each Stanley Cup winner since the 2017 Penguins has possessed size, weight, and toughness.

More specifically, those Capitals, Islanders, and Montreal Canadiens also eliminated the Penguins along the way. Those teams physically asserted themselves to varying degrees, frustrated the Penguins by limiting offensive options, won net-front battles, and beat the Penguins.

Though we stand by any assertion that the Penguins outplayed the New York Islanders in 2021, even with solid goaltending, could the Penguins have beaten the Islanders, Bruins, Montreal, AND Vegas/Tampa Bay in succession?

Would there have been anything left of the Penguins by the semi-finals?

The fast, talented teams with the top NHL scorers all lost; the bigger and more physical teams with defensive structure (and goaltending) are still playing. In addition to losing the goaltending battle in a significant way, if the Penguins won a few more net-front battles–as defenseman Marcus Pettersson alluded in his locker clean-out day interview–the series could have been different, too.

With some irony, the Penguins need some jam and physicality on their blue line, and Pettersson’s spot is a prime place to start.

Yes, Hextall’s stated goal is to add some beef, but based on the playoffs’ progression, it’s no longer optional or an “if,” but “how much.”

Now that the big teams can skate, too, they lessen the Penguins’ biggest advantage. At the same time, the Penguins’ size deficiency simultaneously enhances their opponent’s advantages (good gosh, I’ve been writing that sentence every summer since 2018 and taking piles of criticism for it. I suspect it is less controversial now).

Just in case Hextall was hedging his bet with size and physicality, the NHL message from the playoffs should arrive loud and clear: MORE. A LOT MORE.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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RG_at_GBP
RG_at_GBP
4 months ago

It’s an interesting conundrum – figuring out how much to beef up the lineup. The wildcard is the inconsistency of NHL officiating in the regular season versus the post-season. Were the lighter and quicker Penguins of ’16 and ’17 impacted (positively or negatively) by how the officials were making interference calls? (Data need.) What happens if the NHL decides to bring consistency to penalty calls made in the post-season? (OK – stop laughing.) I see the need for balance given the current state, but I sure do prefer to see a fast-paced game with much less interference happening, and that… Read more »

Michael Pizzulli
Michael Pizzulli
4 months ago
Reply to  RG_at_GBP

As much as people do not want to hear it, reffing is an issue. Is it the reason the pens lost? Absolutely not. However, islanders tiptoed the interference line wayyyy too much, especially with Scott Mayfield and Pelech. I agree, how much to beef up the lineup is a great question, but there is no doubt the pens need it. Get Oleksiak back… Oleksiak>Pettersson … also, see if pens can get an Adam Lowry and someone else in that third line tough guy role

Katz
Katz
4 months ago

GMJR recognized this after the Pgh victory over Washington in 2017 . He acted at the draft that summer. The question which needs answered is what happened and why, did this team need to lose the next year in the 2nd Round to Washington? Who saw a serious void in this lineup and was not surprised at 3 subsequent 1st Round exits. Why did the Pgh hockey writers not ask hard questions? Are the Pgh hockey writers part of the problem in so wanting access as to fail to do their collective jobs and ask critical questions with follow ups… Read more »

Last edited 4 months ago by Katz
dweth2
dweth2
4 months ago
Reply to  Katz

Come on, hockey writers are the problem……Washington changed because they listened to the “hockey writers”. Stop!

Katz
Katz
4 months ago
Reply to  dweth2

The point is the writers don’t want to ruffle feathers. They fear losing access. You listen to the questions on Zoom? Please cite me a critical analysis column asking hard questions because I have not seen such a column . You think a deep dive into the horrible costs from both acquiring Reaves snd then trading him for Brassard do not need some sunshine? I also think he could have made the difference in the 2nd Round loss to Washington but that’s an alternative reality. There is a story to be told of what went down between Rutherford snd Sullivan… Read more »

Rich
Rich
4 months ago

I think structure is most important aspect and you tweak accordingly, plus goaltending. Dont lose the fact that 3 out of 4 teams have excellent goalies. Need to get a goalie, a heavier defenseman that can play PK. Most importantly, you need some guys in the top 6 that can provide space and go to the net. Also, the gameis predicated by officials. Depends on what and how they are calling games and comes down from the league. DOES ESPN Want that?

Last edited 4 months ago by Rich Filardi
Cal
Cal
4 months ago

Wow….been saying it since Wash beat them out 3 years ago. Need to get bigger and tougher. At times there seems to be a bias against physicality.

Last edited 4 months ago by Cal
J.T. Nelson
J.T. Nelson
4 months ago

Better goaltending and the Pens might still be playing hockey. Generally, I like this team and their game. But they are definitely too soff. They lack a big net front power forward. They also lack at least one punishing defenseman. I’m not talking goons, but bigger, hard nosed defenseman who can cactually box out and lay a big hit on opposing forwards. Hextall and Burke don’t have to blow it up. They can hopefully make a few tweaks this summer and add some skilled toughness at a couple key positions, and sure up the Goaltending. The Carter acquisition worked out… Read more »

Steve
Steve
4 months ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

You would have been disappoint had he spelled it with a “T”.

Eric
Eric
4 months ago
Reply to  J.T. Nelson

Yes and no! No doubt that our goaltending let us down however we still scored two goals are less than everyone of our losses! If you have watched any of the other series right now scoring a garbage goal in the blue paint is of prime importance! Goals scored through the transition or on 2on 1 break are few and far between in the playoffs! Limited time in space. Having a big body they can skate through the crease and not be boxed out easily has been a desperate need of the Penguins last several years. Blake Coleman, Cedric paquette,… Read more »

J.T. Nelson
J.T. Nelson
4 months ago
Reply to  Eric

Hence my statement about net front, power forward type player. Shot volume means little if they are perimeter shots or from 30 feet out. They have got to get a big body in front of the net to screen the goalie and score the dirty goals. Scratch and claw style hockey in the playoffs requires it. How much do the Pens miss Horny right now?!

Frank
Frank
4 months ago

I appreciate the value of yakking about hockey on here but . . . I think the size/grit/truculent/heavy/etc angle has pretty much been beaten as flat as verbally possible. The Pens theory of how to win hockey games is pretty much over. You might as well hold out for the return of Beta machines. Speed and skill is just not going to do it. Although I see they announced another signing this past week that included the dreaded Penguin mantra . “diminutive but skilled.” It was great while it lasted but the shelf life has expired. So let’s see what… Read more »

William Maloni
William Maloni
4 months ago

In order to “get,” you have to “give.”

We love our team but are we ready, as fans, to give up Geno, Guentzel and/or Rusty?

Show of hands?

Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  William Maloni

Geno isnt going anywhere.

Peter Hoffman
Peter Hoffman
4 months ago
Reply to  William Maloni

Yes

Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  William Maloni

Geno isn’t going anywhere.

Eric
Eric
4 months ago
Reply to  William Maloni

Unfortunately the big Russian turnover machine is not going anywhere. Jake Guentzel and Brian rust.

kingpuck
kingpuck
4 months ago

great perspective and I’ve said this for 2 years now. Don’t care that I am right….just hope its addressed.

Mason hood
Mason hood
4 months ago

Don’t know if you saw Sullivan’s news conference but he emphasized that penguins don’t need to up their size. If that doesn’t point to a clueless coach, I don’t know anymore. Penguins cup winning teams had guys with size that could wrestle their way & still make smart plays. Those include, Ian Cole, Bonino, Kunitz, Kuhnachl, Maatta, Sundqvist, Rowney, Hornqvist, heck even Rev Lovejoy. These plays could lay hits, block shots, make physical play to disrupt the other teams rhythm in both the offensive and defensive zone and make clever little plays to get out of a jam or extend… Read more »

Peter Hoffman
Peter Hoffman
4 months ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

Then he is wrong.

Peter Hoffman
Peter Hoffman
4 months ago

Wow! Dan, I have called you out a few times this year but this article couldn’t be more spot on. I 100% agree with every word.
Interesting about Pens being the second lightest. The eye test has shown that we simply get pushed around in the playoffs. The Pens are built for regular season hockey and they are very successful, but right now they don’t have the beef to compete for the cup.

Rick Buker
Rick Buker
4 months ago

I write for a Penguins blog and have saying the same thing now for several years dating back to the initial Derrick Brassard trade. At the time we were on a 16-4-1 tear and were just torturing teams. With Ryan Reaves up front and Jamie Oleksiak and Ian Cole on the back-end, we had just about the perfect blend of skill and muscle. Then Rutherford parted with Reaves and Cole in the Brassard deal, and things have pretty much gone to h-e-double-hockey-sticks since. As good as our team was this year, and lack of requisite size aside, I really liked… Read more »

Cal
Cal
4 months ago
Reply to  Rick Buker

Absolutely 100 % agree Rick (or other Rick).

Bob Babin
Bob Babin
4 months ago

Very good article Dan,your right.IF the Pens would have made it to the final round,the tank would have been on empty.Just another example of how the Stanley Cup is the toughest championship to win of the four major sports

Mark L Barnhill
Mark L Barnhill
4 months ago

As Napoleon once said “quantity has a quality all its own”. In this case the quantity is meat on the hoof, the quality is then being able to take a player like Jake Guentzle and push him off the puck at will as the Islanders did during the whole series.

trackback

[…] The phrase “copycat league” is used, abused, and has reached cliche status. It’s akin to saying, “it’s tough to win in this league.” As if there’s a league where wins come easy. But the roster construction of the final four teams in the NHL playoffs can and should send a clear message to the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Pittsburgh Hockey Now) […]

Brian
Brian
4 months ago

The heavy teams were going to increase their speed just enough to a point they could catch up to the speed ones and then force them to play their style. And the league helped them by reverting to near 90’s level obstruction enforcement

Nan
Nan
4 months ago
Reply to  Brian

Officiating in the playoffs is horrendous..There should ,not be a160 from regular season.That is not fair play to any team. It’s asinine.There needs to be a happy medium.The interference is out of hand in the playoffs. They want parity.That is not the way to get it. A penalty is a penalty.And then to call a light tap on the arm is ridiculous Gives the officials a way out of not being held accountable.Fans don’t want to see overkill of smothering checking of the stars.Why pay them big dollars to allow this in the playoffs.Fans pay to see skill and speed… Read more »

Vittorio
Vittorio
4 months ago

Don’t be stupid Penguins. It’s a freaking trap if you go down this route. The moment the Pens do this other teams will change there model to negate size and toughness. Take note Pens fans, the leagues Commish is nothing more than the NHL version of a corrupt politician. Bettman wants more teams to play like the Devils did in 90’s, is that what you as pens really want? Cause if thats what you want your no better than Bettman himself.

trackback

[…] The Pittsburgh Penguins and every NHL team should be studying the Islanders-Lightning series closer if they want to compete for the Stanley Cup. (Pittsburgh Hockey Now) […]

Oh Come On
Oh Come On
4 months ago

Love these articles. I would think it would be hard to trade Peterson. He’s undersized, unless he’s part of a package. To me he is a good player.He seems to hustle and not back down. Where do you find big, strong, players who can skate? Do you scout the European Leagues in addition to the NHL? No doubt the Pens need to get some size and strength, but you don’t want a mannequin out their either.

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[…] Penguins Changes: How NHL Semi-Finals Should Affect Pens Thinking […]

Ujn Hunter
4 months ago

Montreal? Big? What?

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[…] Penguins Changes: How NHL Semi-Finals Should Affect Pens Thinking – (Pittsburgh Hockey Now) […]

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