The drill that head coach Mike Sullivan had his Pittsburgh Penguins perform was simple enough and only slight wrinkle on a standard breakout play. Sullivan wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel or create fire, but the Penguins talented blue line has underproduced points for a few seasons running. It’s time they produced more.
And it appears the Penguins are hoping their defensemen lead the way.
Last August, the Montreal Canadiens burned the Penguins in the NHL postseason. Montreal used their defensemen for maximum effect to add offense and keep offensive pressure on the Penguins whenever possible, while the Penguins defensemen were largely off the score sheet.
The Penguins blueliners were painfully quiet, actually.
“It’s something we’ve talked about. Our numbers were not great last year from our defense joining the rush and being productive,” Kris Letang admitted. “It’s something we’ll encourage. I think we have the personnel to do it.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins lurch towards mobile blueliners over the past few years has been noticeable, with one exception (blogosphere trigger warning) Jack Johnson.
In fact, in the past 24 months, the Pittsburgh Penguins have added Marcus Pettersson, 25, John Marino, 23, and perhaps the fastest defenseman in the NHL, 26-year-old Mike Matheson.
Johnson is gone, as is underperforming defenseman Justin Schultz, whose 51-point outburst in 2017-18 was not a harbinger of things to come. Injuries and slumps suppressed Schultz to under 30 points in each of the last three seasons. He left via free agency and will skate for the Washington Capitals this season.
Marino supplanted Schultz in the Penguins’ top-four last season and will be firmly ensconced beside Marcus Petterson this season.
Marino’s swift skating style and smooth play garnered him a brand new six-year contract, though Marino’s hopes for improvement dovetail with the Penguins’ hopes.
“When you first come in as a rookie, your first instinct is you don’t want to mess up. You want to play it safe, make the right play,” Marino said on Sunday. “(What I’d like to improve) is maybe be a little more aggressive on the rush. Little things like that.”
Marino’s speed was evident in the training camp drill as he sped ahead of the play beside the Penguins wingers Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker into the offensive zone.
The Penguins have significant speed on the blueline, and it appears they are willing to use it. Or, at least they will attempt to use it against the newly formed East Division, which itself is full of offensively talented blueliners.
“(We have) guys who love to skate and join the rush,” Letang continued. “That was something we definitely worked on today.”
Last season, Letang had a somewhat down season on the scoreboard. He tallied 44 points (15g, 29a) in 61 games. Marino was a rookie standout with 26 points (6g, 20a) in 56 games. Marcus Pettersson also cracked the 20-point mark for the second consecutive season.
The Penguins also added help.
Todd Reirden is Back with the Pittsburgh Penguins
Reirden was promoted to head coach of the Washington Capitals after several seasons as an assistant to head coach Barry Trotz. However, the marriage was short-lived, and Reirden lasted just two seasons as the bench boss.
Fortunately, the Penguins had an opening created when they cleaned house around head coach Mike Sullivan. Reirden was part of the Penguins coaching staff in 2010 when Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin were youngsters one year removed from celebrating their first Stanley Cup win.
By all accounts, Reirden and especially Letang bonded. And the reunion has Letang excited. The pair will work together on defense and the power play, which stumbled last season.
“He’s a good listener. He likes to sit down with guys and brainstorm ideas,” Letang said. “I think it’s going to be different. A lot of looks and putting guys in situations where they can be successful. He’s not afraid of trying things.”
The Penguins power play suffered a steep drop from their franchise-record 26% conversion rate in 2018-19. Last season, the Penguins man advantage converted an acceptable 19.9%, but a large chunk of those power-play goals was amassed on a short mid-season hot streak. They finished 16th of 31 teams.
Otherwise, the Penguins were ice cold. Reirden was brought in to help the power play but also add some offense to the sagging blue.
“Me and Todd have a special relationship. He’s a coach and a man who took me under his wing,” Letang praised. “(Reirden) spent countless hours working on my game. Obviously, at that age, I was learning so many things. It was fun (today) working with him. He has the same excitement…”
The Penguins are not a favorite in the East Division, and every game will be a four-point game as the Penguins will play only division opponents in a 56-game schedule.
That means every game and every goal is important. Don’t be surprised if you see Letang or Marino lead the way on the Penguins rush.
Just don’t yell that Kris Letang wants to play offense, not defense. The Pittsburgh Penguins need both.