Anyone who watched the Pittsburgh Penguins under the previous regime of Dan Bylsma knows that the team had more than it’s fair share of weaknesses.
A lack of scoring depth, shaky goaltending, injuries, and oftentimes sloppy neutral-zone coverage were all major factors in a Jekyll-and-Hyde season that saw Pittsburgh jump between looking like an elite contender and a seriously flawed bubble team that ultimately succumbed to defeat in seven games at the hands of the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
New general manager Jim Rutherford has already set about fixing the depth issues, and hopefully coach Mike Johnston’s system will be one more conducive to smarter coverage between the blue lines.
That said, even with those issues being addressed, there is still one major area that Pittsburgh would benefit from improving: the penalty kill.
It’s kind of strange to think that a penalty kill that was fourth best in the league during the regular season would need a significant set of changes in the summer, but the more you look at in in-depth, the more evident it becomes that the Penguins PK had some significant flaws.
Like I said, the Pens were pretty solid at not allowing power-play goals, ceding just 38 during the regular season.
However, of those 38, almost two thirds were scored as a result of an opposing player standing un-opposed in the crease, either by way of screening the goaltender, deflecting a shot from the point, or sitting unencumbered on the doorstep and banging home a rebound.
Here’s a perfect example from early last season against Tampa Bay. Keep an eye on Teddy Purcell down low in front of the net.
Purcell positions himself perfectly for a re-direct, and the result in a power-play goal and a 3-2 lead for Tampa Bay. If you go and search every power-play goal Pittsburgh gave up last season, a great majority look something like that.
The play starts with Martin St. Louis picking the puck up off the half wall and throwing it up to Sami Salo on the point. Notice that Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi both have their eye on St. Louis and are completely ignoring Purcell setting up in the crease behind them.
The puck moves out to the left point to Stamkos. At this point, Martin moves out to challenge him, leaving Scuderi as the only Penguin down low to deal with two Lightning. Scuderi keeps his stick moving but does not put a body on either of the two opposing players on his sides.
Purcell is allowed to move unfettered in and out of the crease while Steven Stamkos and Salo shuffle the puck from the points trying to find an open shot. Salo sees an open shooting lane and puts it on net, where Purcell is standing to deflect it home for a goal.
Joe Vitale apparently decided that laying face-down on the ice was the most effective way to attempt to block a shot, I guess.
You get the point. The PK under Bylsma was one that emphasized stick work and poke-checking down low as opposed to body-ing up (is that a real term? It should be) the man and challenging him for puck battles.
Once the opposing team had a chance to set up in the Penguins zone and start cycling the puck, the Pens set up in the traditional four-man box, and put more focus on applying outward pressure to the points and keeping things on the perimeter than worrying about anyone down low.
It makes sense in theory. If you keep the puck to the outside, any shots that get through will be from far out in the zone and therefore easier to stop. But here’s the thing: it only works if the goaltender can actually see the shots.
By neglecting the man in front of the net, Marc-Andre Fleury was flying blind on many of the power-play goals he let in, with no real chance to even see the shot as it was let go. It’s pretty hard to stop the shot if you can’t even see it before it’s too late. Most teams run the traditional four-man box on the PK like the Pens, but I can’t think of another that completely ignores net front presence the way the Penguins do.
What’s more, Bylsma seemed completely reluctant to stray from this system the past few years, and certain players and teams made him pay for it over and over again.
Wayne Simmonds figured it out early on in his Flyers career, a big reason he popped them for three power play goals in 2014 alone. Boone Jenner figured it out too in the first round of the playoffs last year against Columbus, and was a major thorn in the side of Pittsburgh all series.
Here’s the bottom line: Pittsburgh’s penalty kill, while pretty effective, could still be better.
It was almost frighteningly easy to figure out under Disco Dan, something just about every team who’s played them in the playoffs the past five years can attest to.
Things must be different under the new regime. A greater physical presence in front of the net, along with allowing fewer zone-entries will make the Penguins penalty kill even better than it was before, especially in the post-season.