The nearly unprecedented bad luck and injury streak which has beset the Pittsburgh Penguins is fortunately only part of the story which has defined the first 40 games of the 2019-20 season. It’s easy to focus on the injuries and the Penguins response, but what hasn’t gotten enough attention is the organizational shift led by head coach Mike Sullivan.
For those frequent visitors who are part of the Pittsburgh Hockey Now community, we’ve pointed out the philosophical shift or advocated for it for well over 18 months. The Columbus Blue Jackets finally put their franchise on the NHL map when they delivered players who fit with head coach John Tortorella’s hard-nosed, intense style. The New York Islanders burst through three decades of irrelevancy by surrounding coach Barry Trotz with a team willing to submit to his system.
And after a couple of years of failure, the Pittsburgh Penguins and GM Jim Rutherford made a point to deliver like-minded and compatible players to Sullivan. (You can read one of the more controversial columns I’ve written, which was published back in May 2018).
Sullivan almost always speaks well or speaks of the positives of his players, even ones who placed themselves ahead of the team. Sullivan’s satisfaction with his team and the effort is patently obvious. He speaks glowingly about their work ethic and their willingness to adapt to new or changing roles. ‘
From Brandon Tanev and Jared McCann to Bryan Rust and Teddy Blueger, the Penguins have speed, determined and coachable players.
Whether they have enough talent to maintain their first-half success will be another matter. But there isn’t a question if the team will follow Sullivan, who after four years on the job has increased his influence on his players at a time when most coaches are losing it.
Sullivan has been on his toes in the last several games, but especially Thursday night against the San Jose Sharks. The tactical adjustments were swift and significant. The team mentality was consistent. The Penguins didn’t leave their system for individual effort, which had been a hallmark of their failure in years past.
There are few fan bases that cannibalize their players like the Pittsburgh Penguins universe. Actually, there are no fan bases including Toronto and Montreal which have such a significant segment of the supportive public which consistently hate their star players.
Defenseman Kris Letang made a couple of mistakes on Thursday night, though I wondered if the officials should have evened the calls in OT with a trip and a dive call, especially after missing a few blatantly obvious calls, including a broken stick penalty on Brent Burns. I don’t know if it was visible on TV, but Evgeni Malkin stood in the middle of the San Jose zone with this hands high in the air for at least five seconds demanding a call.
Letang hasn’t been as good since returning from injury in December. Losing Brian Dumoulin who has developed a telekinetic power to read Letang’s freelancing plays doesn’t help, either.
But the hate flowed then escalated. It went from disappointment to anger to personal attacks.
The defenseman is one of the best in the NHL, is recognized by his peers and opponents as such, his results also place him in that elite category. For the record, Letang’s turnover rates are in line with the rest of the high-minute, offensive defensemen around the league including Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.
Those aren’t defenses of the player. Those are simple statements of fact for context (…but I’m sure I’ll get at least a half-dozen accusations of defending the player, which will then devolve into a Jack Johnson attack).
Does he make some high-profile mistakes? Yep. And sometimes those mistakes have high impact results. But ever wonder why coaches always use him in those situations?
To make a football analogy, Letang reminds me a little bit of Brett Farve. He makes a lot of things happen, and sometimes those things are bad but when you add up all of the “things”, the positive side of the ledger always wins.
Casey DeSmith-Tristan Jarry-Matt Murray
Yes, I think it’s odd, too. On Friday, the Penguins recalled goalie Casey DeSmith presumably for one game to presumably backup Matt Murray in Montreal on Saturday because they left Tristan Jarry at home to save Jarry for the early game on Sunday.
It’s all entirely plausible. Nothing to see here.
But let’s dissect it and wonder aloud, together.
The starting goalie usually gets the first game of the back-to-backs. So, why is the Penguins presumed starter getting the second game? Shouldn’t the Penguins have left Murray at home?
If DeSmith starts on Saturday, the internet just might run wild with trade rumors and speculation. And I can’t say I’d blame you. If DeSmith plays, it has the setup of a “showcase” written all over it. The Penguins could easily say DeSmith has earned a start for his hard work and Murray hasn’t played much recently, or that Murray is still working with goalie coach Mike Buckley on a few things, or Murray was under the weather.
All would be perfectly plausible. But like you, my antennae are up, too.
The Penguins just lost their top winger to a season-ending injury. They apparently passed on a no-risk gamble, Ilya Kovalchuk, and the Penguins watched Montreal acquire left-side defenseman and top-four worthy Marco Scandella for a fourth-rounder.
It’s not at all crazy to wonder what Penguins GM Jim Rutherford might be planning.
Or…the Pittsburgh Penguins simply wanted Jarry to start on Sunday. But that’s a lot less fun to think about.
UPDATE: The Penguins announced later Saturday morning that DeSmith would not be in Montreal due to a lost passport. ECHL goalie Emil Larmi was recalled instead.