Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Why the Penguins are Scary Again

You would have been right to hesitate after Mike Sullivan took over to think the Penguins would be a force again.  Starting out 0-4-0 will do that.  It made you wonder how deep the Penguins problems ran.  Chances are this weekend, as well and their six game winning streak, has made you a believer.

How have they become such a force?  Five in-season moves set the stage.

5.) Justin Schultz for a song

Jim Rutherford's big splash at the trade deadline was acquiring Justin Schultz, who was down and out in Edmonton, for a pick and a little bit of cash.  Costing only a 3rd round pick, Schultz has been more than the Penguins could have hoped.

Confidence all but forgotten, Schultz came in to the league expected to be a hotshot offensive defenseman.  Spurning the likes of the Penguins to sign with the Oilers, a team in dire need of defense (even back then) he was expected to be the lynch pin in an up-and-coming dynasty.  That didn't work out.

As the Oilers rebuild, again, they jettisoned pieces.  One of them was Schultz.  Seen as a project, Schultz scored his first goal as a Penguin on Sunday night as well as adding two helpers on impressive slap passes.  He already seems like a new person compared to the player who only racked up 10 points in 45 games for the Oilers.  His added mobility, passing, and speed have helped reshape the blueline, a weak spot coming in to the season that has morphed in to a strength.

4.) Matt Murray for Jeff Zatkoff

This isn't so much a trade as a trade off.

When ever you'd hear Fleury was starting a game, you felt confident in a win.  You also knew that, as the season went on, he was shouldering an abnormally high work load.  You worried about wearing down.  But the alternative wasn't exactly sterling.

Jeff Zatkoff, we'd all seen this before.  He's a capable AHL starter.  He's a back up for a middling team looking for a stop gap in a hold over season.  For a team looking to win now, needing every single point possible, to squeeze every drop of juice out of the fruit, he would not cut it.  A .917 save percentage?  A 4-6-0 record?  Painful.

Every time Zatkoff started you worried.  Which bad goal would break them?  Which poor angle would be the go ahead?  And you'd look at the AHL standings and wonder why Matt Murray or Tristan Jarry, their two headed goaltending monster, didn't get a chance to work behind Fleury to give him a break?

Finally the change came.  After losing out on important points far too long, Matt Murray was promoted.  Zatkoff remains on the roster, a popular player in the locker room, but Matt Murray is now the back up.  And he's shined.

Going 4-2-0 in seven games played, posting a minuscule 1.85 GAA and a .935 save percentage, Murray has been everything the Penguins fans, and likely brass, had hoped him to be.  He's no longer the teams future.  He's currently the team's present.  With him, Fleury can rest and the Penguins will still pick up wins.  With him, Fleury can take a breather and the Penguins can excel.  With him, the Penguins will win far more than they'll lose.

3.) Carl Hagelin for David Perron and Adam Clandenning

Last year, David Perron was brought in as the winger savior du jour on a team constantly searching for help.  At first it worked, and then it stopped.  And continued to stop.  It wasn't for lack of trying that David Perron wasn't scoring, something just wasn't working.  While not only snake bitten, his plodding style seemed to hamper his ability to get in to the high traffic areas to work with Malkin and Crosby.

A change of scenery is what they'll call this trade, and it's one that benefitted both parties.  Perron has been effective in Anaheim, before a shoulder injury recently sustained.  With 8 goals and 12 assists in 20 games, it was a good move for David.

It was an even better move for Carl Hagelin.

While his stats have been remarkably similar to Perron's in Anaheim since the trade (5 goals, 13 assists) his speed has been a huge factor in a trend that has entered in to all facets of the Penguins attack.  Hagelin has been what made a line of Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin click, with his speed disrupting and creating space for the two playmakers.

Hagelin has joined the likes of Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust, and Schultz, and our next move in added an element of speed to the team identity of the Penguins.  It's led to a rebirth of who they were, who they are, and who they will be.

2.) Trevor Daley for Rob Scuderi

It's still hard to believe this trade happened.

Rob Scuderi once had a place in Pittsburgh.  When he was "The Piece" he was a fan favorite who saw him game evolve in to something useful (ask any old timer about the woeful "Scuderichar" pairing).  We all thanked him when he left and were happy for him when he won the Cup with Los Angeles.  Then Ray Shero brought him back.  And he was dreadful.  Slow, couldn't send a break out pass, and ineffective in every way.  He was an expensive anchor.

Then the skies opened up.

A trade no one thought possible, the Penguins sent Rob Scuderi to the Blackhawks for Trevor Daley.

It was as if the skies had opened up, and rain had finally blessed the scorched earth.  At worst, Daley could skate.  We knew that.  We saw him in Dallas and knew of his abilities.  Defensively he could be suspect, but offensively he was what the Penguins lacked.  If nothing else, he wasn't Rob Scuderi.

It turns out, he's been so much more than just Not Rob Scuderi.

His creativity has been impressive.  His break out, and willingness/ability to rush the puck, eye opening.  His goals the past two games, knowing when to pinch and follow his offensive instincts, feel like something the Penguins d-corps hasn't witnessed since Ryan Whitney and his Whitney Play.

Trevor Daley was not just addition by subtraction.  Trevor Daley was the first sign of changes to come.  A welcome addition to a team in need to finding its new identity and the first step towards regaining itself again.

1.) Mike Sullivan for Mike Johnson

Remember how boring and painful the Penguins were to watch at the start of the season?  How slow and hapless everyone seemed?  A team with Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Evgeni Malkin shouldn't be playing a defensive game.  Yet here we were, watching them play full ice and everyone suffering as a result.

15-10-3.  Putrid.  For a team used to excelling in the regular season with offensive dynamics, a defensive team barely able to score a goal and out of playoff contention didn't sit well with many.

And so a change was made.  With a change of Mikes, out goes Johnston and in comes Sullivan, things began to shift.

It was gradual.  A tough start for the promoted coach from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton saw him lose his first four games.  Games which happened to be played in quick succession.  From there, Sullivan took this team and made it his.  Since his four game swoon, a 25-10-5 record is in his pocket.  His team has rocketed from out of the playoffs to second in the Metro and has turned everything around.

Speed, goal scoring, and most importantly fun.  It's finally a team that plays up to their strengths, not down to their weaknesses.  With a lot of help from Jim Rutherford, crafting a line up around its stars to emphasize the system which Sullivan preaches, to compliment and enhance his star players.  To play to Crosby's strengths, not Scuderi's weakness.

Sullivan has also espoused mental toughness, as well as a physical one.  After seeing Kris Letang lose his cool in a game, Sullivan pulled him aside and had a talk.  It's a talk that's trickled down to the whole team.  No more was that evident than this weekend, where their two biggest rivals tried to bring them down and they stood strong.  The fight back came on the scoreboard, not in the scrums.

There are more pieces to the puzzle that put together the Penguins turn around from one team to the next in this season.  As Adam Gretz points out, the third and fourth lines have been crucial to this transformation.  Their penalty kill structure, with the added speed of Hagelin, Kuhnhackl, and more have altered the the threat of more than just stopping goals, but adding them.  Though unproductive, the likes of Daley and Schultz have given the power play a higher potential for production.

Want to go in to a bit of fancy stats?  They are the best possession team in hockey since the trade deadline.  You don't always score goals when you own possession, but it's a lot harder for the other team to score goals when they don't have the puck.  And it's all because of these moves.

Are the Penguins peeking at the right time?  It's getting hard not to argue otherwise.  We've seen this story before, a struggling coach loses his job and the team rallies around the new one.  We've seen the fairy tale ending with that season.  It may be too soon to start dreaming of a fourth ring, but the results are speaking pretty highly of such a possibility.

The Penguins are enjoyable again.  With 10 games to go, it's going to be a lot more fun to watch this all play out.

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