It’s the lifeblood of the Penguins’ game. Speed. Coach Mike Sullivan wants forwards who can get on the opposition and wear ’em down with a hard forecheck.
On the back-end, he likes defensemen who can skate and move the puck to the forwards quickly and efficiently.
It’s an approach that’s paid off handsomely for the black and gold during the regular season, not to mention when we won our back-to-back Cups.
On the down side, those returns have greatly diminished in recent postseasons. We’ve endured four-straight early playoff exits… the past three in the opening round.
In each instance we lost to a heavier, more structured team.
As new PenguinPoop commenter Lightning so aptly noted, the Pens’ speed and energy provides a definite advantage during the long grind of the regular season, when intensity levels vary greatly from game to game.
However, in the postseason, when the intensity gets ramped up along with hitting and physical play, the Pens’ advantage seems to be greatly diminished. There’s generally less room to make plays and you have to fight harder for prime real estate between the circles.
A classic example? Jake Guentzel. I so greatly admire Jake’s heart and courage and, in particular, his willingness to battle through traffic in search of goals despite a less than imposing frame. However, during last season’s playoffs, the larger, more rugged Islanders put the body to Jake and denied him access to the prime scoring areas.
The result? Only one goal in six games for the erstwhile sniper, and that from the comparatively distant high slot.
So what prompted this ramble? In the wake of the Brad Marchand’s attack on Tristan Jarrya writer on a fellow Penguins blog wrote a rather impassioned plea against the black and gold adding any kind of a physical element or deterrent.
His main argument? The addition of a more physical… and perhaps slower player… would somehow derail our speed game and prevent us from fully executing Sullivan’s system.
My thoughts. Really? I mean, could the addition of one sub-sonic skater have that great a negative effect on our overall game?
I keep cycling back to recent Stanley Cup champions St. Louis and Tampa Bay. Ryan O’Reillylinchpin of the Blues’ Cup winners, is not particularly fast and neither is teammate (and former Pen) David Perron. Yet each was a driving force in the Blues’ title run. So were behemoth defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Joel Edmundson. The latter made it to the Final last season with Montreal as well.
Pat Maroon and David Savard aren’t known for their fleetness of foot, yet both skated regular shifts for the Lightning during last spring’s playoffs while providing a necessary underpinning of muscle.
You get what I’m driving at. Would it hurt terribly if the Pens grafted a more physical player into… say…Dominik Simon’s spot? Yes, I know Simon excels at the small details and does a good job of driving possession. But I’m betting those traits get nullified in the postseason along with his effectiveness.
I’m going to digress for a moment. In my mind, our then-two-time defending Cup champs had the perfect blend of players back in the spring of 2018. Ryan Reaves was riding shotgun and liquidating any opponent foolhardy enough to trifle with his teammates. On defense, Ian Cole and Jamie Oleksiak formed a highly effective and physical third pairing.
The team was humming… and I mean humming… at a 16-4-1 clip in the New Year. They’d outscored opponents, 84-52, over that span. 3LIEVE signs popped up all over town. A three-peat seemed a strong possibility.
Then came the damn Derick Brassard trade. Out went Reaves and Cole, upsetting the team’s near perfect blend of skill and muscle. In the pivotal second-round series against Washington, Tom Wilson freight-trained and destroyed Zach Aston-Reese with a crushing hit. It was as if Dracula himself had put the bite on us and drained all of our blood. While we faded, the Caps outscored us, 3-1, to take the pivotal Game 3 and a 2-1 edge in the series. They went on to capture the Cup.
I do not think we’ve had the right blend of players since, although this team’s close. Jeff Carter is certainly a bona fide power forward and hulking Brian Boyle has done a more than admirable job, especially on the PK, and he’ll drop the gloves when the situation calls for it. However, when we’re healthy (if that ever happens) Boyle’s probably in the press box.
I’d like to see us add one guy who can skate a regular shift and add a little push-back to the lineup. Right wing Josh Anderson of Montreal popped into my head. The ex-Blue Jacket’s big (6’3 ”226), can skate, score and fight. Alas, he’s on a pricey long-term deal. Unless he can be acquired for Jason Zucker in a dollar-for-dollar swap no a no go.
Free-agent bust Nick Ritchie was waived by Toronto on January 7 and is in limbo pending a trade. A former 10th overall pick, he’s notched as many as 15 goals in a season, is a big hitter and handles his dukes quite well. However, skating’s an issue. He’d surely wind up in the press box under Sullivan.
I’m not sure who or what the answer is. Only that I’d like to see us add a capable physical player for the postseason. If we sacrifice a morsel of speed in the process, so be it.