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.
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
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.
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."