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Pittsburgh Penguins: Will Sticking To Their Guns Spur a Hockey Revival of Sorts

Looks Like the Pens are Going to Hold Fast to the Dream

According to the Urban Dictionary a Stanley Cup Hangover is when "the team that just won the Stanley cup has a rough start to the following season. Sometimes it lasts the whole season, but most of the time, such as with the Boston Bruins in 2011-2012, they get their game on in November and December".

One wonders what a Sweep Hangover looks like. And whether the Pittsburgh Penguins will have one. And maybe, more importantly, will the term "Sweep Hangover" show up next year in the Urban Dictionary.

Before the sweep, according to a poll in the LA Times which was the most objective ready source I could find, 57% of participants felt the Penguins would win their series. I bet had the question been "Will the Pens get Swept?" the results would have looked more like NO at 99% and MAYBE at 1% and YES at 0%. That's a small sampling of non-experts, but if you want to see what the experts were predicting, a quick trip over to NHL.com tells the same story, only with more emphasis on the Penguins being more likely than any other team to proceed to the finals and actually win the Cup. So this tells us that both the layman and the expert agree that the potential was there, the pieces seemingly in place. Naturally, as fans, we have converted "could" into "should" and in our minds the failure is less a missed opportunity than a squandered one.

Therefore it makes sense that when, in early June, immediately following the Eastern Conference Final, the National Post published an article by Will Graves of the Associated Press in which the following Dan Bylsma quotation appeared, "You feel like with the expectations that we have on ourselves, that the team has for this group, no question you're going to look at this as a missed opportunity" we all reacted similarly.

That was where the part of the rational mind that rails against soft-talk says to itself, "Yeah, no shit, Sherlock." Most of us reading were hoping Bylsma's internal dialogue, which, of course, can't be spoken to the press, was actually closer to the one in our own heads which goes something like, "We were so sucky that the word sucky needs to be redefined."  When you get beat that badly you have to say "sucky" (or some other more eloquent synonym) somewhere or I tune out. It made John Tortoella look like a breath of fresh air.

You get why, of course. Team morale and public relations and fan retention and so on. But it still reads like pablum pressed into words to those of us who had converted "could" into "should" back when the Pens were running away from the pack at breakneck speed.

Even Jarome Iginla, ever the cautious spokesperson, said, "Obviously we're a very good team, we went cold at the wrong time." In our minds, we scoffed and scowled. We wanted someone to say the words. We said things like "if by 'cold' he meant 'really terrible and sucky' then, yeah". We said, "Good teams may go cold when the heat is on, but great teams get warmer. Very good teams, to nit pick, should at least stay the same temperature." We said a lot of things.

Confusion and disappointment can lead to anger quicker than you can say "confusion and disappointment can lead to anger".

Graves went on to say:

"... that could lead to significant changes on the ice and on the bench.

Bylsma insisted before Game 4 that he didn't feel as though he was coaching for his job. But the sweep by the Bruins — the first time Pittsburgh had gone out so meekly in 34 years — leaves him just 3-4 in post-season series since leading Pittsburgh to the Cup four months after he inherited the job.

Each of the previous three springs, there were reasonable excuses. A mild Cup hangover in 2010. Injuries to Malkin and Crosby in '11. A wild and emotional first-round loss to Philadelphia last spring that played like an anomaly."

Of course, now we know two things. One, the Flyers thing was not an anomaly. Even though it talks, walks and looks like one. And two, that no such changes, significant or otherwise, have or will occur. The same coach, the same basic line-up, minus some grit and energy in the form of departed Cooke, Morrow and Kennedy and the addition of some ... we're not sure yet ... in D'Agostini and some blue line support in Scuderi. Hardly a "shake up". 

No one can debate the relative merits of re-signing Evgeni Malkin, which the Pens did immediately following their ouster from the playoffs, or (if to a lesser degree in the debatable department) the re-signing of puck-moving Kris Letang a short while later, or even the quick extensions for the rest of the expiring contracts of the core team that followed with Kunitz, Dupuis and Adams. But the fans and the hockey world at large are wondering what is roaming around in the collective brainpan of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. I am not, evidence to the contrary aside, the only hockey fan obsessed with this very question.

The Fan Advisory Board Speaks

When the Conference Final was on the books, and all the crying still not done, another poll appeared over at Sabre Noise which posed a series of questions relating to what specifically the Penguins should address in the wake of their ECF disaster. Interestingly, most people voted to get rid of the goaltender and shore up the defense, despite the fact that the loss to the Bruins had nothing to do with a weak goaltender or a suspect defense (except in the way that the defense relates to the transition game, but that's mud in the water).

It's hard to hate on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, despite it being their job to score goals and the losses being, fundamentally, failure to score losses. They're so good, and we all know it, that it must be someone else's fault. Damn it. No argument that Marc Andre Fleury is a weak link, but he wasn't the weak link in the ECF, he was the bench warmer. Vokoun was as close to a superstar between the pipes as anyone could have wished for. The poll tells us, if nothing else, that it's a good thing the Pens are not run by the Fan Advisory Board.


There are a lot of theories, naturally. From "well, what CAN they do with so many keeper players taking so much of their cap space" to my own which is something like, "they bought the race horse and they're going to give it one more race to prove itself and in the meanwhile they are going to act like they love the racehorse, right down to its funky little hooves".

And there are a lot of suggestions for a solution. From, "get a new damn goaltender" to "fire the damn coach" to "get rid of [insert your favourite scapegoat Penguin player here]" to my own which is something closer to "make the damn coach learn to adjust" because it is starting to look like this is a one trick pony masquerading as a race horse. Sure, it has all the breeding one could ask for, and it runs fine in the low end stakes races. Beats everyone on the practice track. Looks amazing on paper. But when the strains of "My Old Kentucky Home" start coming over the loudspeakers it forgets it's a racehorse and acts like that pony I mentioned earlier. And if, in racing, the Derby is what separates the ponies from the horses, the Stanley Cup playoffs is what separates the "very good" teams from the "great" teams.

And we arrive at the very same place again, because this IS a great team. Everyone agrees. It's a bona fide head shaker. It's full of great players. It has a coach accepted as being "really good", if not great.

Buy or Sell

Around the same time, the folks over at NBC's Pro Hockey Talk posited a more simple and encompassing question. It had the largest response of readers with nearly 1700 of them splitting the vote very nearly down the middle. In fact, it reads a little more like a political referendum than a hockey poll. It's likely an extraordinarily good representation of the powers that be in the Pittsburgh organization. Of the little gears in Ray Shero's mind. Let's say they made a list over there and wrote down all the pros and cons of either option, gave them weights and measures, added them up on a pocket calculator and did the division. And the numbers came out exactly like the ones in the poll. I'd almost bet on it.

If the Pens were a stock, it was down to the "buy or sell" moment. The Pens organization decided to buy. They have the insider information we don't and they're buying. That alone would make me rethink that call I was about to place to my stockbroker.

Anyone would, naturally, take the course of least resistance if there is no clearly superior option. People are people and whether they wear $2,000 suits and run hockey teams or log onto the internet on their beat-off laptops from their mother's basements, they will almost always choose to stay on the same road when they arrive at an intersection and both options look to be the same length and have the same number of potholes. It doesn't even matter, in this context, whether the people making the vote (or the list) know more or are smarter - this is the measured response of the base human instinct that responds to what is perceived as a disaster.

Anyhow, speaking of horses, that one has been beaten to death. It happened. The pedigreed wonder stalled at the gate. Doesn't matter now whether it was the horse, the trainer, the bad track that day or the oats the horse ate for breakfast, except in terms of post-analysis. What does matter is how the horse comes out for the races next year. Because if they change NOTHING, then nothing will change.

Even the folks with broken down laptops who live in their mother's basements know that. Maybe more than anyone else.

So they must be changing something. They must be choosing to see the ECF as a "near-miss" instead of a "failure". The difference, after all,  between the bullet that punctures your lung and the one that pierces your heart is a "near-miss", measured in centimeters, but with vastly different results. The change must be so subtle that it escapes us. It might just take a closer look at things to see what it is.

About that Sweep Hangover

Intuitively, a Sweep Hangover would work in something of an opposite fashion to the Stanley Cup Hangover. The team is likely to come out of the starter's gate with a tremendous "prove you wrong" spurt of energy and tear up the track in all the stakes races that precede the big one. Oh wait, that was 2011's play-off knock out response. Obviously some other standout response will need to occur or else we'll have to call this a "Another Head Scratcher of a Loss in the Playoffs Hangover" which is not as catchy and reads more like a defintion of stubborness, hubris and complacency than anything the Urban Dictionary would be interested in defining.

The Pens' situation reads like a plagarized page from Marc Andre Fleury's personal history. They play good to great in the regular season and fall apart in the playoffs. In other words, we can't know what they will do/have done to fix it until the playoffs begin next year. You know the drill: by then it is too late to fix it. Maybe they just want all the fans to experience the utterly perplexing and incomprehensible dilemma they have faced since they won the cup in 2009. They can't know whether Marc Andre Fleury is "better" until the horses are halfway down the track at the Derby and we can't know whether the Pens are "better" until the exact same time.

Perhaps this is why, despite several fairly wordy (and sometimes contradictory), rambling posts on the matter, what feels like a million discussions with fellow hockey fans and a trillion words read on the internet and in hard copy, I still don't really have an idea as to what they should do. I'm not a hockey expert except in the confines of my armchair, like all other writers. 

But I do have some ideas on what they will do. The lack of changes is the primary clue. So, they must be looking for a better way to get the same horse down the same track. They must be working on the near-miss theory and attempting to define a sweep hangover as something akin to "The team that just got swept does the same thing next year, only better."

What We're Likely To See Next Season

Everything is subject to the vagaries of life, of course. No one can account for injuries or other anomalous circumstances which create critical path situations. But barring any siginificant game-changing events, I believe the most obvious thing we will see will be what we have seen so far, since the ECF. What they haven't done is as big a clue as we are going to get as to what the master plan actually is. It's easy to look at what appears to be status quo, ignoring the subtle changes as being insignificant. But perhaps, like the centimeters between a lung puncture and a heart piercing, they aren't so insignificant, however subtle.

Build the Chemistry, Build the Team

In short, no big changes during the year will be the primary response, I believe. No trade deadline acrobatics, no line shuffling trying to fit new guys in, no ever shifting combos once the lines are set, sometime midway through the regular season. We aren't going see Sidney Crosby being asked to block shots or Evgeni Malkin on the third line, pulling hard minutes against the other team's top scorers. Kris Letang won't be quarterbacking the penalty kill or Brooks Oprik leading the power play. 

If one of the standout fan criticisms is a lack of solid chemistry, and it is, they will work hard to ensure that their team is a team and not a bunch of individuals. Bylsma is often said to be a coach who works hard at team building, fostering a sense of "we're in this together" in the locker room and on the ice and it makes sense that such an approach will work best if there are as few disruptions to the team composition as possible.

Expect

  • to see some initial line shuffling and then very little of it and virtually none of it as they get closer to the playoffs
  • to see virtually no in-season roster changes unless they need to replace a player due to season-ending injury or consistent, non remedial  sub-par performance
  • to see this team go into the playoffs this year with a solid, well-rehearsed team effort which should improve their composure and their performance
  • to see non-season ending injuries handled differently with the lines remaining intact, a replacement player slotted in for the duration and the regular guy stepping back in when he returns
  • to see more of the prospects in the early part of the year and a prospect being used to fill in a roster slot in the case of injury

More, Not Less of the Same Old, Same Old

They're sticking with the same basic system so expect them to invest even more heavily in it. The voluntary loss of Cooke, Murray and Kennedy and the cap related losses of Morrow and Iginla actually change the face of the team quite a lot. If they were finesse, run and gun last year, expect them to be more of the same this year. There will be fewer grit and grind players than last year and they will be able to roll out four lines with very good forwards who all have some specific skill that fits into the finesse spectrum. 

The addition of D'Agostini is quite telling. He is a little like a warning shot across the bow of the fandom. He is not grit and grind and however much his offensive star has fallen, he is still that strong skating, puck handling, offensively inclined piece the Pens favour. According to Hockeysfuture.com:

"D'Agostini doesn't excel in any one particular facet of the game, but he is always in the middle of the action and seems to make a key contribution and key moments of the game. He uses his speed to find open areas on the ice and create scoring opportunities. He also has good overall vision and anticipation -- he understands what his assignment is before he steps on the ice. D'Agostini plays a very technically sound, smart brand of hockey."

This move represents no change in philosophy but does signal a more determined immersion into their chosen style and system. D'Agonstini represents an affordable player who is in the mold if not quite of the caliber. In other words, they are getting off the fence entirely and instead of having a team with a highly skilled, offensively minded top end and a more gritty bottom end, they are coming at it in a "go big or go home" way. If they are going to have to change their coach and their style, they are giving that same coach and his style one last truly supported chance to prove it can work.

Expect

  • to see fewer penalties and less willlingness to be goaded into stepping off their game; fewer fights and fewer roughing calls against them
  • to see them draw more penalties simply by taking the high road
  • to see fewer hits and a less physical style of play, opting instead to run around the obstructions instead of trying to move them
  • to see the exact same Letang quarterbacked transition game with a slightly deeper approach with the lead defensemen coming further into the neutral zone and following the offense more closely
  • to see set defensive pairings that include one puck moving guy and one stay at home brick wall guy
  • to see an even higher points per game tally than last year (and a higher corresponding goals against)
  • to see a faster paced game whose largest defensive component will be puck possession and not defensemen, per se
  • to see all forwards, even Malkin, step-up their defensive play - expect to see more 200 foot games from all their centers
  • to see a less uneven points distribution amongst forwards and lines

Goaltending Balance and Defense

Whatever they are saying publicly, anyone with any sense understands they realize Marc Andre Fleury is a problem. Not only do I expect Ray Shero will be constantly combing the available pool of goal tenders but that we will see their prospect goalies up to play a game here or there to give them some big league exposure. But I think the area in which we will see the most notable change is the way they manage Vokoun and Fleury. While I believe they will go with a 1A and 1B approach to best help Fleury overcome whatever confidence issues he has, I believe this will just be a smokescreen to allow them to keep Vokoun in condition without tiring him out. At 37, he will have a tougher time with a full 82 games than he did in last year's shortened season.

Expect

  • to see Tomas Vokoun and Marc Andre Fleury sharing goal tender duties as 1A and 1B in a more or less equal distribution
  • to see (or rather, don't be surprised to see) a trade in which Marc Andre Fleury joins another NHL team and the Penguins acquire another goal tender
  • to see very steady coverage from the top two stay at home guys, Orpik and Scuderi, and slightly more defensive attention from Letang and the other offensive minded d-men
  • to see Kris Letang score fewer even strength goals and more power play goals and assists, to give up his winger dreams and stay more in his zone at regular strength
  • to see Paul Martin do exactly what he did last year

Coaching

Bylsma will have "big ice" and "European style" on his mind as he is going to be coaching the American team at the Sochi Olympics and he will have been doing his homework. As the Penguins are as close as one gets in the NHL to a "team of superstars" ala an Olympic team (at least in the offensive sense), it makes sense that he will be employing some of the tactics and putting into practice some of the newly acquired knowledge he will use at the Olympics on his own team. If he doesn't, then we can assume he's a lame-brain, which I do not believe is the case. 

When he returns from Sochi, late in the middle of the NHL season, look for him to be employing even more of these tactics, namely puck possession and a different approach to forechecking. If I could put a name on it, I expect we will see something closer to a Swedish style of play from the Pens than we have seen in the past. Less forechecking, less antics along the boards, fewer penalties and a broader range of plays aimed at increasing puck possession.

With a team roster that seems best fitted to his game style and philosophy this may, in fact, be the first year that he has had all the right pieces for an entire season. The Pens seems to have taken that one last step that changed them from something of a hybrid to a full out thoroughbred. If they're going in for this one last dip, they're going all in. By giving Bylsma the right players, perhaps he will prove better able to manage them - from line compositions to controlling their frustration and instinct to break out and do the thing themselves. Maybe with all the right pieces, he will not be forced to make do in key areas of his style and can bring the thing to the ice in as full a realized form as is possible.

Expect

  • to see him get better an in-game adjustments, primarily in playbook ways and less in line change ways
  • to see him develop several variations to the transition game
  • to see him spend a lot of practice time in skating and speed drills and developing more NZ navigating, anti-trap east-west plays
  • to see him exert better control and insist on compliance to his game plan, to not "lose the room" as he appeared to do in the ECF, to keep the superstars from going rogue (for all the right reasons, maybe, but to the expected bad result)
  • to see him work on plays that improve the puck possession capabilities of his team by creating a lot of cycling and regrouping drills
  • to see him work on having a two-tiered playing style; one that accounts for an open style when playing offense-first teams and one that accounts for a tighter through the NZ style when playing defense-first teams
  • to see reduced shots on goal and a higher shot percentage
  • to see him use Harry Zolnierczyk when he needs to

The addition of Harry Zolnierczyk is an interesting move for the Pens and may well be the most important thing they did. According to the Trib:

Best known for his aggressive antics with the Flyers during the past two seasons, Zolnierczyk has played 44 career games, mustering 71 penalty minutes. While playing on Philadelphia's fourth line, he produced three goals and seven points in those games.

"It was shocking news," said Zolnierczyk, 25. "But to be honest, I'm really excited about this trade. I hope I'll be a great fit. I'm really looking forward to being in Pittsburgh."

Zolnierczyk was suspended four games in March for a charging infraction against Ottawa's Mike Lundin. Philadelphia traded him to Anaheim a couple of weeks later.

"What attracts you to him is that speed and that he is physical," Shero said. "He's never proven to be an elite finisher at any level, but he plays with a lot of speed and he's shown that he can be a bottom-six guy in the NHL."

Zolnierczyk promised that he will offer protection for Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when necessary.

"By no means do I consider myself an enforcer," said Zolnierczyk. "But I am an agitator and I'm always going to stick up for my teammates."

A Revival In the Works?

Although I realize that this is going to come off as a little wonky (which never worries me, but I do recognize the possibility) I believe the Pens are going to dance as close to the use of an "enforcer" as any modern team dares to do. While many people compared the Pens top lines to the days of old when the eighties Oilers and the nineties Pens were playing, in terms of sheer offensive ability, the one missing factor was always "that guy". The Marty McSorley or the Ulf Samuelson. The guy who made you sorry if you cheap shotted the star players. Or better yet, was a deterrent to the action itself. I'm not talking about skating around beside them and acting like a fullback as prevention (although he is likely fast enough to do that, too, if the sort of pressure Crosby or Malkin are receiving is particularly punky), I'm talking about being the consequence that comes out later. It's second-hand prevention.

Matt Cooke didn't qualify. He was tough, all right. But he was actually a skill player, too. He had a regular line on which he played. His reputation and history brought a lot of baggage to the ice, too. What might have been a stern look from officials always turned into a penalty, what might have been a minor always turned into a major. He was a bit of a marked man.

This is not so much a deviation from the Pens philosophy and game style as it is a protection against being able to play it. At an average of one penalty per game and a teeny, tiny fractional goals per game stat, Zolnierczyk, cannot be called a skill player. But I don't think Shero was shopping for skill that day - more likely he was shopping for a player who could hold his own in the NHL but whose real role was to be a deterrent or, as necessary, a punisher.

Zolnierczyk can be the 23rd man. The "spare" who is on the bench but not expected to pull double duty and score goals (and thus adding a player to one of the regular lines who does not fit into Bylsma's wide open game style). He can work the penalty kill, take some third and fourth line shifts in match-up situations, but mostly he can be the guy who skates out and inflicts pain on punks. That can be done within both the rules and the spirit of the game. It can be done in a way, if it is well managed, that does not create its own backlash. While Murray was a great "Crankshaft"; a sort of immovable force on the blue line, Zolniercyzk is a forward, not limited to where he can go on the ice, or whom he can pay special attention to. He's like a roving "Crankshaft".

Frankly, if they are going to stick to their game, and I think they are, then this is pretty much a necessary move. You know the expression, the surface didn't get that smooth without a few pieces of sandpaper being used.

I am not advocating a return to goonery at all, nor am I suggesting that the Pens are aimed at it. I do not expect to see Zolniercyzk out there randomly charging people or punching faces for the sheer fun of it. I do not expect that either Bylsma or Shero is interested in adding a bully to the team. I do suggest that they are tired of seeing their two best forwards, who happen to be amongst the two best forwards in the game, being bullied. I see Zolniercyzk as more of a "big brother" figure than a counter bully. I don't think he will start many confrontations, but I do think he will stay to finish them.

Since nothing has changed in any other obviously significant way, we must read the plan for next year into that fact and from the smaller changes that did happen. Tweaking, I suppose you would call it. As much as the Bruins series smelled like a "sucky" disaster, it wasn't if you watched all the games, quite the rout the scores indicated. It is easy enough to see, when you calm down and let the boiling blood cool a bit, how a small tweak here or there would have changed up the whole thing. Since I happen to believe Ray Shero is a very smart man and that Dan Bylsma is onto a good thing, with his apparent desire to elevate the game to something of a skills contest, I, too, am willing to give it one more year of testing.

For me, it would feel like a hockey revival. A game of skill and scoring. A game where the truly great players got to play without being bashed about by any old low-skill opponent without any consequences. I want to see Crosby and Malkin play the best they can play and maybe this will help keep them healthy and able to do that. Everyone, even non Pens fans, wins if that happens. They are clearly trying to achieve something that is starting to smell good to me. It seems to me they are trying to find a way to open the game back up. Give us more of those high flying moments that make you remember why you love the game. I like it.

On that basis alone, I am willing, as a Pens, fan and a hockey fan, to bury the embers of my "fire the coach" reaction that sprang to life sometime in the middle of game 2 of the ECF. Maybe there is nothing wrong with the coach or the system, it was just missing a few parts, a couple of necessary tweaks, a little oil and grease. The difference between your car working and not working is only a few tablespoons of gas, after all. 

I have faith and, now, as I reflect on what I believe I see coming for next season, a lot of hope and anticipation.

Previously on Sidelines:
Winnipeg Jets 1.0 - The Golden Years

Next on Sidelines:
Sidney Crosby Passes to Brad Marchand and Marchand Passes Everyone Else

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