Speed. Greasy fast speed. Coach Mike Sullivan’s Pittsburgh Penguins set the standard and forced the rest of the NHL into the speed game in 2016 with four lines that outskated their opponents, were first on loose pucks, and applied demoralizing forecheck pressure. Yet by the end of the 2022-23 NHL season, Sullivan’s Penguins were a lumbering, slow also-ran.
It was a dark conclusion to the mere two-plus seasons under GM Ron Hextall that led to the end of the Hextall era.
The fastest team in the NHL had become one of the slowest, while much of the Metro Division enjoyed the ripening fruits of literally chasing the Penguins for several years. The New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, and Carolina Hurricanes became a few of the fastest teams in the league, further exacerbating the Penguins’ pace that seemed more like they left the parking brake on.
“I think (speed) is an aspect we can improve. There are lots of other areas that I think we’ve looked at — we can talk for a long time on this subject — but if I were to point to one aspect, I think that’s an area we could look to improve,” Sullivan said on June 2.
“I also think it’s feasible (to do so). We have an opportunity this offseason to try to surround our (core) group with what it needs to have success.”
As we reach the finish line of the most significant Penguins offseason in years, we can compare Sullivan’s hopes to the Penguins’ moves under president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas.
And they align perfectly.
Every move made the Penguins faster. Even the recent trio of PTOs will make them faster.
Erik Karlsson: Fast.
Noel Acciari, Vinnie Hinostroza and Matt Nieto: Fast. Actually, very fast.
The Penguins trade shipping away Jeff Petry, Mikael Granlund, and Jan Rutta. Increased speed by subtraction.
Even free agent acquisition Ryan Graves is a leap forward over Brian Dumoulin in the speed category.
The Penguins’ offseason has not been fast. An extra month of vacation time after missing the playoffs gave ownership motivation and time for the necessary upheavals.
Perhaps by a Sullivan request, whether spoken or obvious, Dubas has been deliberate and sharp in rebuilding the Pittsburgh Penguins’ identity. Not only will the stumbling Penguins lineup have a 50% turnover, but it will include the very fundamental element necessary for Sullivan’s scheme that was sorely missing last season.
PTO signings Mark Pysyk and Libor Hajek skate well. Pysyk is a legitimate upgrade over Chad Ruhwedel. This week’s third PTO signee was Austin Wagner, a blazingly fast-forward whose great strength is forechecking.
Wagner lacks NHL-quality finishing ability, but oh can he skate. The same goes for Hinostroza.
Say what you will about Dubas’s summer with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the projections with a top-heavy offense, but there has been a clear and direct effort to increase the Penguins’ tempo.
Back in June, Sullivan’s words didn’t waver. He knew what he wanted and what the team needed.
“Kyle and I have had a couple of conversations, just around the identity of the Penguins, how the Penguins have had success,” he said. “Trying to set the team up to play to their strengths.”
Dubas has assembled a gaggle of great skating depth forwards who project to be tough to play against as they get to the forecheck or hound puck carriers with an endlessly annoying backcheck.
Every Penguins move has made them faster. In totality, they are now set up to skate with New Jersey and maybe even outskate Carolina and New York.
How the Penguins got so far afield from their identity no longer matters. With every move, Dubas has pushed to supply Sullivan with what he needs. It seems as obvious as it has been easy, and after a few months of waiting, even training camp seems to be fast approaching.