Experience The Evolution
Hockey can be a very funny thing sometimes.
It’s inherent on ebb and flow. A major penalty-kill can swing the game your way. A four game scoreless streak can make a player grip the stick too tight and go into a scoring slump.
This article is about more than a shift or a season, it’s about the direction of the Pittsburgh Penguins as a whole.
There’s no advanced metrics here. I tried to include as much tape as I could to back my thoughts up instead.
Sometimes you just have to take a look at the big picture, the past, present and future, and that’s what I hope to attempt in this piece. I think we need a foundation of what happened to understand how we are where we are today.
Unbridled Passion and Baptism by Fire
The 2006 version of the Penguins, lead by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal, were a squad full of youthful exuberance and swagger.
Those are two adjectives you aren’t going to find metrics or breakdowns for.
The best metaphor I can give you for what former head coach Michel Therrien meant to that team is to use the analogy of a structure fire.
If you were a fireman that arrived on the scene of an empty building structure fire, you wouldn’t just hook up to a hydrant on the street and begin to spray water all over the parts of the building that weren’t burning.
There’s a methodology behind it, a structured approach to putting that fire out, to controlling that fire, to saving that building.
Prior to the arrival of Michel Therrien in Pittsburgh, the Penguins were a group of wild stallions. It was clear that a coach who could institute a structure, an aura of accountability and responsibility, could harness the youthful energy of these young players into a winner.
That’s exactly what Michel Therrien did, and it all began with the infamous post-game speech where Therrien dismantled his team’s defensive performance in a public manner.
We all remember that night. It was a turning point. The fire started to become controlled. The team started to respond. The Penguins became a very good hockey team that played with purpose.
Unleash The Kraken
After losing to an experienced and talented Detroit Red Wings team in 2008, Michel Therrien returned behind the Penguins bench with a renewed vigor.
But, when problems arose, as they always will within the grind of an 82 game season, Michel Therrien made one critical error.
Instead of giving this young and now battle-laden Penguins team the green light to open it back up, the regressed them further and further into a defensive shell.
The Penguins, still lead by the trio of Crosby, Malkin, and Staal, had learned the responsibility that comes with winning. They had learned the defensive responsibilities that come with successful hockey teams.
But they were ready to be let loose a little.
Within reason, of course.
But Therrien, the defensive specialist that he was, didn’t understand how his team had grown. They were ready to (poor metaphor) start flying offensively.
On February 15, 2009, that unleashing came in the form of Dan Bylsma.
The Penguins, with Therrien’s defensive structure fresh in mind, had a new directive: “Get North.”
The Penguins got up ice quickly. Their new system was a swing-based forecheck. There were a lot of stretch passes. As time wore on, the defensive stronghold that was Michel Therrien’s system slowly began to evolve into a complicated, fast paced, and offensively driven system.
They opened it up, and the result is what eventually ended the 17 year wait that Pittsburgh endured for another championship run.
The Book Is Written
Dan Bylsma began to rack up wins. He had a Stanley Cup on his resume without having coached an entire season yet.
People will say that Bylsma won with Therriens system, or specifically, because of it. Those people are, to me, wrong. The timing happened to be perfect, but the Penguins won because Dan Bylsma understood what they needed.
Dan Bylsma was the right shock that this team needed.
But the narrative on who the Penguins had become drastically changed in 2010 against Jacques Martin and the Montreal Canadiens.
Martin converged his players on their own net. He rode a hot goalie in Jaroslav Halak to a seven game win. The final game of which, occurred on home ice in the final game in Mellon Arena.
That blueprint still haunts the Penguins today.
The screencap above is from last year’s Eastern Conference Final. The Bruins run a 2-3 neutral zone trap, not all that dissimilar from what the Canadiens did in 2010.
The middle of the ice goes away. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lose their most precious possessions: time, space, and the middle of the ice.
History Repeats Itself
Alain Vigneault did his homework.
He read the book on beating the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The screencap above is five Ranger jerseys converged on Henrik Lundqvist, who sits deep in his crease, ready to face anything thrown his way.
The Penguins haven’t found a way to trump this system and the third period of this year’s game seven was a microcosm of the Penguins playoff failures since 2010.
Think this is all just a big coincedince?
Wait, let’s go back further in our time machine.
The Penguins never figured out the following:
1. How to combat net front convergence.
2. How to beat a 2-3 neutral zone trap.
3. How to responsibly handle the puck to avoid turnovers.
Mike Cammalleri scores off of a Penguins “get north” turnover.
Despite a Jagr hook, Deryk Engelland’s “get north” mentality causes a turnover, the Bruins score off the counter.
Another goal off the counter.
Henrik Lundqvist summarized this article after last night’s game.
So What Next? How Does This End?
I’m not sure about Dan Bylsma’s fate. I can’t say what owner Mario Lemieux is thinking about the fate of Ray Shero.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins need reigned in again.
The evolution of the team has brought us to that point.
What’s happening isn’t working. The Penguins have been pummeled in the playoffs the same way.
Over, and over, and over, and over again.
Dan Bylsma is not a bad hockey coach.
In the same breath, I think you could also say that Dan Bylsma is no longer the right coach for the Penguins.
Who is? Time will tell. Rumors will float.
One thing is for certain, this team needs to shed its skin; start over again.
It’s time to find that happy medium.