If you’ve ever wondered if the Pittsburgh Penguins coaches and players discuss ways to avoid injury, they do. The annual injury parade began early this season as both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had off-season surgeries. Bryan Rust and Mark Friedman missed time with in-season injuries, too.
Add the COVID protocol stays for (in order) Zach Aston-Reese, Jake Guentzel, Jeff Carter, and Kris Letang, and the Penguins have added virus to injury.
What the Penguins haven’t added is insult to injury. Despite a lineup that includes two players not in the NHL last season (Brian Boyle, Drew O’Connor) and one player who has been a bubble player never more than an inch from the press box for most of his seven years (Evan Rodrigues), the Penguins have three wins in five games.
On Saturday, their 7-1 disposal of the Toronto Maple Leafs touched off shockwaves and consternation in the hockey capital.
It was yet another demonstration of the Penguins’ culture and organizational depth, which consistently finds ways to win without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang or any other multiples of their top players.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan gets some satisfaction from the wins but pumped the brakes on getting too excited.
“When our team plays well, and they play hard, and they play together as a group, there’s a certain level of commitment, and there’s accountability to one another. It’s a rewarding experience for everyone involved,” Sullivan said. “But we also understand that we’ve only played a handful of games, and there’s there’s a lot of hockey left to be played, and we just have to make sure that we stay in the moment, and we try to get better each and every day, and we learn from some of the mistakes that we make…”
If you’re into parsing language, Sullivan’s first sentence was probably the answer to “how” the Pittsburgh Penguins play well and are sometimes more successful, without their best players. Those buzz words “commitment” and “accountability” adorn the walls of the Penguins locker room, too (or at least they used to. The pandemic has kept us out of there for 18 months).
Saturday, rookie Drew O’Connor played at center–a position he’s uncomfortable with and still learning–and scored two goals. Brian Boyle scored. Mike Matheson and Jason Zucker lit the lamp. So, too, did offensive juggernauts Evan Rodrigues and Marcus Pettersson.
Down the stretch in 2018-19, the Penguins were unstoppable without Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin. To begin 2019-20, Evgeni Malkin carried the team without Sidney Crosby. Then Crosby picked up the slack without Malkin.
And this season, the team is picking up the loose rope without all three core players, Crosby, Malkin, and Letang.
“And so the reality is there’s lots of room for us to improve and to get better. We’re going to look at those areas, and we’re going to push one another to try to get there,” the Penguins coach said. “So I think that’s an important aspect of our coaching staff’s message at this particular time of year. And it’s very early in the season. There’s a lot of hockey to be played.”
In the words of Han Solo (before Disney Wars slaughtered the franchise)–great kid, don’t get cocky.
Can the Pittsburgh Penguins avoid Injuries?
PHN hit Sullivan with a two-parter on Monday. And yes, if you’re like us and wonder if they talk about how to avoid injuries–they do.
“Every season, we look at the injuries that our team endures, and we look at the types of injuries–soft tissue, broken bones, whatever it may be. We look at are there any of those that were better controlled by us being proactive in a number of different ways, and we go through that process every season,” Sullivan said. “And I don’t think we’re different for that matter than any team or sports science department. We’re always looking at those areas and trying and trying to find ways to be proactive so that we could potentially mitigate some of these injuries.”
One could only wonder how many more injuries they would endure if they didn’t talk about ways to be proactive. The Penguins certainly don’t block as many shots as they used to.
Last season, the Penguins were 26th in the league with an 11.86 blocks-per-game average. In 2018-19, the team was ninth in the league with nearly 15 blocks per game (and that team had Phil Kessel), according to StatMuse.com.
Personnel changes and changes in philosophy have decreased the Penguins’ shot-blocking rate, at least in the regular season.
However, bad luck has remained.
“But, you know, sometimes they’re unavoidable,” Sullivan concluded.