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Pittsburgh Penguins: Five Small Changes That Will Pay Big Dividends

Pittsburgh Penguins make five small changes that add up.

Originally published at: thehockeybrain

I used to think Ray Shero's management style could be summed up as having a sort of military precision. Turns out the guy is a guerrilla, complete with face paint and camouflage. We've been waiting for the twenty-one gun salute and he's been sneaking around behind us the whole while.

While the fan response to their earlier-than-expected ouster from the Eastern Conference Final seemed to fall squarely in between "blow it up" and "stay the course", it looked like the Pens were going to plaster themselves with status quo tattoos, hunch down and try it one more time.

Giving head coach Dan Bylsma a contract extension within days of the Boston-Pittsburgh series' sad end was like a signal flag that said "we are not worried" and a slew of re-signings and extensions followed that cemented their roster into place with fine-print glue. Bylsma immediately  endorsed beleaguered goal tender Marc Andre Fleury as his go-to guy and the fans sat around in various states of shock, frustration, confusion and anger.

I wrote an article a while back on Marc Andre Fleury where I twisted all over the place to compare Ray Shero's management tactics with Sun Tzu's The Art of War and then another where I made some predictions on what we would see from the Pens in the upcoming season.

But while we've all been scratching our heads and wondering why they didn't "do anything", they have been, in fact, doing a lot. It's like paint daubs - one or two here are there are indistinct little marks. It's not until you put them all together that an actual picture emerges.

The Five Little Things

In a classic case of the sum is greater than the parts, the Penguins have done five little things that add up to five very big things.

1. Removing Murray, Morrow and Iginla

2. Adding Matt D'Agostini

3. Adding Harry Zolnierczyk

4. Adding Jacques Martin as an Assistant Coach

5. Removing goalie coach Gilles Meloche

What does this all add up to?

They've Gotten Younger

With the release of the Free Agent Rentals Douglas Murray, Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow and the additions of 26 year old Matt D'Agostini and 25 year old Harry Zolnierczyk the Pens got a lot younger. Last year they were the oldest team in the league at an average age of 29.56. From this year's roster-as-it-sits they're at an average age of 28.19 which brings them down four spots. More significantly the average age on their offense comes down from 30.9 to 28.1. League average in 2012-2013 was 27.31

Quant Hockey Average Age of NHL Teams

Average age of NHL teams, 2012-2013 season: Quant Hockey

Doesn't seem like much, I know, but the average decline in production is very sharp from age 27 onwards. There's no easy way to apply the data usefully across the board for the Pens' roster, but those two years of average age could translate into a meaningful number of goals scored.

Points per game average by Age

Points per game average by age. Screen shot from Arctic Ice Hockey.

Direct Gain:  Better production from their top six either directly (individually) or as line units.

They've Gotten Faster

One of the interesting things about the Penguins, noticed most obviously in their series against the Islanders, is that they were, as a whole, fairly slow, especially for a "run and gun" style of offense which relies on both speed and quickness.

Bringing in D'Agostini who is known for his speed and, if reports are accurate, moving Simon Despres, Matt Niskanen and Beau Bennett up to full time roster spots will make the Pens a lot faster. Again, if you subtract the relative speed handicap that Murray, Iginla and Morrow all brought with them, add in the three names above, it's a major shift in speed in both the top and bottom end.

To put it home: speed was what the Blackhawks used to get around the Boston Bruins' trappish style. Without speed you cannot do either of the two things that work best against tight defensive teams (which are long N-S passes and dump and chase).

The speed factor is likely to pay the biggest dividend in the 2013-2014 season.

Direct Gain: More fluid lines who can all move at the same speed, longer periods of puck possession, ability to adapt to opposition defensive tactics more readily, reduced time in the neutral zone. In short, a better ability to "play their game". It is useful to note that last season the Penguins suffered a rather drastic drop in puck possession numbers and ranking - going from top 2 to bottom 15.

They've Gotten Tougher

Bringing in Harry Zolnierczyk and adding Depres and Niskanen (and/or possibly Bortuzzo) to the roster increased the tough factor by an exponential degree. Zolnierczyk, of course, is the big piece; he is as close to an enforcer as you are likely to  find in today's NHL. He also is noted for his speed so if he is needed to be on-ice with one of the top two lines, he will be able to keep up to the play even if he cannot add much to it, offensively.

Direct Gain: It is better to "be tough" than "act tough" which is what the Pens did against the Bruins. Players who are not usually noted for throwing their weight around were doing so and the result was a loss of flow and a bad use of assets. Instead of skating around them and using their superior passing skills, the Pens tried to out-hit the Bruins. Added to the decreased age, the faster skaters, this added toughness gives the Pens their most balanced roster since the last Stanley Cup. Bonus gain is, of course, the ability to defend Crosby and Malkin a little better from the dirty play that often comes their way.

They've Gotten More Defensive and Flexible

First, they brought back Rob Scuderi who is amongst the most responsible defensemen in the league. Between he and Orpik they will have a solid stay-at-home partner for their more offensive minded, puck moving defenders such as Despres and Letang on the top two lines.

Second, they hired Jacques Martin to assist Dan Bylsma. While Martin is often called a "defense-first" coach, in fact he has done very well with fast, offensive teams (see his record in Ottawa). He is noted for insisting on defensive responsibility from all players, especially forwards, and for an ability to adjust his team's play to deal with opponents who bring a tight, defensive game.

Direct Gain: We are likely to see more "200 foot" games or, at least, more "200 foot" play from all forwards, a better ability to make in-game adjustments and an increased intensity on the blue line. In short: better defensive play.

They're Actually Addressing the Goaltending Problem

By removing Gilles Meloche, whether it was his "fault" or not, as the goaltending coach is the counterpoint to their denials that they have any sort of problem with Marc Andre Fleury. Clearly they see the problem and they are going to attempt to address it directly.

Direct Gain: Either Marc Andre Fleury will get better or he will get gone. This seems to be his last chance, if all the signs are pointing accurately. They're fine for this year if they don't overplay Vokoun - if MAF has another play-off meltdown then Vokoun can handle the net and they can deal with Fleury in the off-season.

Ray Shero is out there somewhere saying, "You are learning, Grasshopper."


Previously: Why Teemu Selanne Could Go Jetting Back To Winnipeg

Why Teemu Selanne Could Go Jetting Back to Winnipeg

Teemu Selanne back to the Winnipeg Jets?

Originally published on thehockeybrain

My first encounter with Teemu Selänne came in an elevator in 1992. Newly arrived in Winnipeg and still unsure about his English skills, he nodded politely and then proceeded to do what most people in elevators do. Stare at the buttons as if they were the most interesting things in the whole wide world.

We were headed to see the same person that day and we spent a few minutes in comfortable chairs outside an office with double doors, smiling politely whenever we made accidental eye contact. I knew who he was, everyone in Winnipeg knew who he was, even if he had only been in town a few days.

He was called in first and gave me a quick, apologetic look with a little shrug as he stood up. I watched him walk inside, wondering if he could save the Jets. By the time Teemu arrived the Jets were already in dire financial straits and in the socialistic environment of Manitoba all you had to do to inspire a heated debate was talk about the government subsidies of the team. In the days before salary cap and revenue sharing, the Jets' small market handicap was a noose that kept getting tighter each year.

"He's cute, huh?" the elderly, perfectly groomed secretary sitting behind the large oak desk said.

I nodded and chuckled, "Yeah, he is."

And he was. Young Selänne was just like older Selänne – charming, good looking, polite, friendly, humble. When Keith Tkachuk, the captain of the Jets at the time, walked into a room the air all but went out, so "there" was his personality. Selänne would usually be found on the periphery, his hands stuffed deep into his pockets, looking around, smiling at anyone who was looking back. In the early days, Selänne was just another prospect rookie, albeit one from whom great things might be expected. Tkachuk was the king of the hockey mountain.

The last draft pick of deposed General Manager John Ferguson, Teemu Selänne was the hot topic around water coolers all over the coldest city on earth. He was fast, some said. He was going to be really good, others said. He was not going to be tough enough, a few remarked. No one could agree what he might mean for the team, but like all hockey towns all over North America, the discussion of hockey matters in late August and early September when the rink lights started coming on and players started returning from their summer places, was lively and pervasive. Everyone had an opinion.

Not since Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk, "Duckie" to the faithful, was selected first overall in 1981, had Winnipeg gone into a season with so much hope. Not only did they have Selänne, yet to earn his nickname of the "Finnish Flash" but they had young Russian Alexei Zhamnov who, one Jets' employee used to tell me in a conspiratorial whisper, was "even better" than Selänne.

Selänne's first NHL goal came against Jeff Hackett of the San Jose Sharks on October 8, 1992. The rest, as they say, is history. Much has been written about Selänne's time in Winnipeg, about his record breaking rookie season, about his legendary "shoot the glove" moment when he broke Mike Bossy's 25 year old rookie record of 53 goals, about his winning ways, on and off the ice.

What cannot be described, despite some very impressive attempts, is what Teemu Selänne meant to Winnipeg hockey fans. They suffered through the eighties when meeting Edmonton in the play-offs always meant certain expulsion, hearing endless news coverage about the financial woes of the team, never quite making it to the "top level" of the NHL, always "building". Selänne brought a "contender-ness" to the team that the fans inhaled like it was a wonder drug.

He was, in every sense of the word, a hero. The word is thrown around a lot and it has lost some of its meaning in this era of a billion words a day being uploaded to the internet, but Selänne was the real thing. Likewise, the word "epic" is used to describe everything from a single game to a playoff series, but what happened in Winnipeg really was epic. Teemu Selänne was as close to a rock-star as could possibly have happened in a conservative city where the Mennonite mentality is still strong and the political climate was decidedly socialist.

People lined up to get autographs. Girls screamed whenever his name was mentioned. He became "Teemu" and was on the sports page every day – and not just in the local papers. He put Winnipeg back on the hockey map and people were as proud of his accomplishments as if they had been their own. His personality could not have been a better fit, he was remarkably free of bravado or self-promotion, he made self-deprecating remarks and handed credit to his teammates whenever possible.

In short, he gave the city's NHL team legitimacy. Not without players who had either already earned their stripes or those who would go on to do so such as Carlyle, Domi, Numminen, Steen, Tkachuk and Zhamnov, Selänne was in a class by himself. When you not only break but shatter a twenty five year old record held by one of the greatest players who ever laced up skates, you give the fans something unique and special. The bathed in the glow that surrounded him. He was theirs.

No player since then has quite so dramatically arrived on the scene, not even Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby. He was a smirk-inducing counterpoint to Eric Lindros. In hearts, if not in minds, people thought Selänne could save the Jets.

Fast forwarding through his second season (93-94) where he suffered a torn Achilles tendon and played only 51 games (54 points) and his third season (94-95) which was shortened by the lockout and he played 45 games (48 points), we arrive at the dark season.

Everyone knew, someplace in their hearts, that it was coming. It had begun to seem inevitable. The NHL lockout, in some ways a payback for the ten day strike the players staged on April Fools's day, 1992, was devastating to the small market teams and caused, in some fashion, the death of the Quebec Nordique, the Winnipeg Jets (1.0) and the Hartford Whalers. Gary Bettman, fairly new in his job, was the most hated man in Canada.

The 95-96 season which dawned amid much controversy with the then owner, Barry Shenkarow, attempting to find funding to build a new arena without which, he kept warning, the team could not survive. The old barn really had only 10,000 good seats although it was rated for a little over 15,000 – which was still not enough to keep an NHL team in the black through those times. The rumors that the team might be lost gained a new urgency and the "loudest arena on earth" got a little quieter.

When the announcement was made on August 15th, 1995 that the Jets had been sold to Richard Burke and Steven Gluckstern , a day most Winnipeggers will remember in that "where were you when" way, local television, radio and newspaper coverage was like a thick blanket of doom. Despite many efforts, including concerts, rallies, a last minute consortium attempt to buy the team and people chaining themselves to the gates of the Winnipeg Arena, it was not to be undone.

As Jonathon Gatehouse of McLeans wrote, "A bigger, or more indifferent, city might have been able to shrug it off. But Winnipeg wasn't just hurt by the loss of the Jets, it was scarred."

The remainder of the season unfolded like a funeral cortege with game tickets being impossible to find, fans gathering in every possible corner of every possible coffee house to heap their anger on Bettman, the NHL, the "damn Americans", the "damn government" and anything else they could think to hate.

For many Jets fans, there was a lemonade-from-lemons attitude and you could hear things like, "But we still have Selänne. We are going to go out, it is certain, but we are going to go out with style."

But no. Adding injury to insult, Selanne was traded on February 7, 1996 by the new owners of the team. To Anaheim. No one even knew where that was, then.  Summing up the Winnipeg fan reactions is easy: "They got our team, did they have to steal our hero away from us, too?"

You cannot imagine the devastation unless you were living in Winnipeg and were a Jets fan. My daughter cried, my son threw things around his room for two hours, my neighbour made a sign for his front lawn, I wrote millions of words and then deleted them just so I could write them again. Angry words.

The remaining games played out like a rehearsal for your own last dance, with strains of The Last Post for background music.  It was, in a word, cruel. You kicked the ice on the sidewalk, frozen in place from November until March, and wondered why they could have hockey in California. California! One sponsor gave out "A Season to Remember" t-shirts but no amount of t-shirts, face paint, cheering or dancing in the aisles was going to change the reality; it moved inexorably along, each game bringing everyone closer to the moment they couldn't imagine facing.

According to reports, Selänne was angry at Brian Burke, one of the original owners of the Coyotes, for being told his future with the team was safe and then being summarily traded. He could not have been any angrier than were the fans, robbed of their chance to say a proper good-bye, robbed of their ability to thank the man who had brought so much to the city.

When Selänne came back for his first game against the new Winnipeg Jets on December 17, 2011, he was treated like a returning war hero. From standing ovations, video tributes, media coverage the likes of which is usually reserved for royalty to a strange sort of divided loyalty even as the game progressed. Fans were cheering when he scored ... against them. Booing vigorously for his team-mates only heightened the strangeness of the dichotomy going on inside the arena. It was clearly a crowd who had not forgotten him and who suffered from that emotional trauma peculiar to those who never got to say good-bye or properly grieve a loss.

For them, it was simple: Teemu Selänne was home.

When the Jets regrouped and started playing again in Winnipeg, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that Selänne had, indeed, been asked to return to the city where it all started.

From the Free Press: "Winnipeg called my agent and asked if they could even make an offer," Selanne said today. "But I told Don Baizley, my agent, earlier that the biggest question for me (then) was if I can play, not where I can play."

It was disappointing but understandable. Teemu Selänne is a class act. He was a member of a team and loyal to that team. They had always expressed, in clear terms, their ongoing willingness to welcome him back every season while he went through his usual "decide over the summer" phase. They were ever unequivocal about their own loyalty to him.

The fans accepted that – how could they not? But there are many who still have a glimmer of hope that one day Teemu Selänne will come back home, for real, don a Winnipeg Jets jersey and give them all one final, proper "season to remember". A good-bye year to bookend his hello year.

Interestingly, two things have recently happened that have buoyed hope amongst the Winnipeg faithful. 

The first, as reported by the NHL and elsewhere, concerned an equivocation of his welcome back in Anaheim as the Ducks general manager Bob Murray told NHL.com he would welcome Selänne's return to the Ducks if the likely Hall of Fame member is "100 percent sure he wants to play". That "if" reads a little like a soft-shoe. Not quite a "take back" but a qualifier that, when added to the information below, definitely presents a picture different from the unconditional welcomes of previous years.   

The second concerned an enigmatic statement Selänne himself made to the Finnish newspaper Iltalehti that he has three options. Those options, according to Selänne, are to (1) return to the Ducks in Anaheim or (2) play for another NHL team, or (3) retire. This is also a change from his previous statements that if he was coming back to play, it would definitely be in Anaheim.

The fact that Murray qualified his welcome is very interesting. The fact that Selänne himself has gone from stating, as he has done in the past few years, that he was not deciding "where", only "if", to offering up the option of a different team is very interesting. That there is an upcoming Olympic games is very interesting. It could well point to, if not the actuality, certainly the reasonable possibility that Selänne might join the Jets for his final NHL campaign.

Is that Karma knocking?

The What Ifs

If the Ducks are less than completely enthusiastic for his return, he would find a team that would welcome him as no one has been welcomed since Bobby Hull signed his million dollar contract on Portage and Main. With Anaheim's cap situation close to "tight", Selänne's return at anything close to his last year's salary of just over $4 million, could pose a problem they might prefer not to encounter.

I think it will hinge on the Sochi Olympics.

If Selänne decides to play for Finland in the upcoming Sochi Olympics, which would set his existing Olympic records into stone, he will want to stay in hockey shape and the best way to do that is to play.

If he wants to play out his last year in a fairy-tale fashion, bring the circle to a close and reward himself and Winnipeg for the platform from which he stepped into the NHL, then he will sign with the Jets.

If he did, and I might not put money on that, but I would not bet against it, either, it might well prove to be the most compelling human interest story the NHL has ever had. In a world where "epic" is overused and "heroes" are too often given the title, Selänne could give Winnipeg, and himself, a truly "epic" last season and emerge the sort of hero that would give some credibility back to the word. It would be an "all's well that ends well" ending for the ages.

And he's JUST the sort of guy that would do that, I think.

We could all pull out those old "Season to Remember" t-shirts.

It would be EPIC. EPIC, I tell you.

For more articles and features please visit: TheHockeyBrain

Ten Things To Do While Waiting for the Hockey Season to Start

Cant wait for the new hockey season? Heres ten things to keep you busy.

TEN

Visit How Many Days Until Hockey obsessively. Or at least once a day. Maybe some weird time-warp event will happen and it will magically reduce the number of days to something more manageable than the current 52. It's fun and makes you feel better, knowing that someone is keeping track of it.

NINE

Watch the "Greatest Moment in Hockey History" one more time. Come on, you know you want to. If it doesn't give you shivers, you're not a real hockey fan. 




EIGHT

Go read these hockey jokes. "Reckless Driver" is awesome.

SEVEN

Go read Brian McFarlane's site

The guy has some incredibly good hockey stories to tell. From his front page: "As you might know, I've spent a long time living, reporting and researching the history of hockey and  there's nothing I love more than telling a good hockey story, sharing an interesting bit of hockey history and enjoying the human drama and humor by recounting the best of hockey with other people who love the game.  I hope you enjoy hearing the stories as much as I did collecting them.  I'll post something new, fairly frequently here so I hope you'll visit me often.


SIX

Check out the Hockey Shirt Shop. Just run your mouse over the t-shirt designs and they show up on the model. If you're really starting to get hockey-sick you could start designing hockey t-shirts.

FIVE

Go check out the "Greatest Photos in Hockey History" It includes, as a special bonus, a free subscription to Bobby Orr's Flying Lessons and a front row seat to Rocket Richard's famous glare.

FOUR

Watch last year's Best Bloopers.

 


Or the Best Fights




Or the Best Saves




Or the Best Goals



THREE

Go take the hockey quiz at McLeans.

TWO

Check out the new hockey books coming out or read reviews of books already published at Hockey Book Reviews. If you're getting quite desperate buy or download one.

ONE

Buy a case or two of beer. Learn how to play the drinking game "Hockey". When you're done, head over to Twitter and watch all the other poor souls like us who are also waiting for hockey to start. Is it too soon to get that trending?


 

Visit  Hockey[on.the]Brain for more hockey articles and features.

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