The Pittsburgh Penguins have been, for lack of better phrase, crushing it these playoffs. Well, not just these playoffs – they’ve been one of the best teams in the NHL since Mike Sullivan became their head coach.
The Penguins have been persistent playoff threats over the course of the last several years. Of course, when you’ve got the best player in the world, it’s only fitting to be so competitive. But they’ve been bowing out of the post-season early more often than not; this is the first time they’ve been in the Final since 2009.
A lot of people in the organization deserve credit for this year’s turnaround. Let’s focus on those who get it done on the ice – and the man off the ice who put it together, General Manager Jim Rutherford.
Out with the old, in with the new
This is Rutherford’s second season as the Penguins’ general manager. In his first year, the Penguins barely made the playoffs and were bounced out in the first round. Here are the changes he’s made since then:
|Nick Spaling||Conor Sheary|
|Andrew Ebbett||Phil Kessel|
|Blake Comeau||Kevin Porter|
|Christian Ehrhoff||Eric Fehr|
|Craig Adams||Nick Bonino|
|Daniel Winnik||Matt Cullen|
|Maxim Lapierre||Trevor Daley|
|Paul Martin||Carl Hagelin|
|Steve Downie||Justin Schultz|
This isn’t a complete list, but these are the names of consequence. They subtracted a fair number of players who weren’t doing much, and added players that provided greater impact (though some of it is still just coming to fruition).
For example: the Penguins made a choice to add Maxim Lapierre to their lineup in 2014-15; he did absolutely nothing of note. While they did acquire Tom Sestito this season, he spent the bulk of his season in the AHL: hardly a factor, but more importantly, one not taking up an NHL roster spot.
Consider Craig Adams, who the Penguins chose not to bring back after seven seasons with their team. Matt Cullen is their fourth line centre, now – and he provides significantly more production, not to mention a comically large possession boost (Adams was a 47.65% 5v5 CF player in 2014-15; this season, Cullen is a 49.48% guy).
Then there was the decision to swap Brandon Sutter (49.56% 5v5 CF in the past two seasons) for Nick Bonino (51.31%). And Rob Scuderi (49.57%) for Trevor Daley (50.16%, not to mention the upgrade in points).
The Penguins’ most productive line these playoffs is Hagelin – Bonino – Kessel. None of those players were Penguins this time a year ago. What they all are are smart roster additions: swapping out a slumping David Perron for a speedier player in Carl Hagelin, getting a massive possession boost by subtracting Sutter for Bonino, and just plain adding superstar power in Phil Kessel.
Lesser known names who consistently frequent the Penguins’ lineup are Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Brian Dumoulin. (There’s also Matt Murray, but I think everyone knows who he is by now.) Dumoulin graduated full time to the NHL at the start of the season, but the three forwards were all playing in the AHL to start their year – and had each been in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton since at least the 2013-14 season.
Sheary was an undersized free agent addition. Rust was a third round pick. Kuhnhackl was a fourth rounder. They’re all 24 years old (well, Sheary will be in two days), and have a combined 141 NHL games between them, almost all of them coming from this season.
The Penguins swapped out older, more expensive guys (Blake Comeau, Paul Martin) and have added a handful of kids who are getting the job done just as well. They’re also all extremely cheap, which allows the Penguins to have their top-heavy forward group without sacrificing quality of depth.
Older drafts and scouting are paying off for them, now – and the Penguins’ window should still be open rather wide after this season, win or lose.
What can the Flames learn from this?
The Flames don’t have a Sidney Crosby. They don’t have an Evgeni Malkin. They don’t have a Phil Kessel. All of their big names are on the blueline; their core forwards are still coming into their own.
But the Penguins’ approach this past off-season should be something the Flames try to follow both this season and next, especially as bad contracts start to come off the board. There are a lot of players the Penguins didn’t bring back that don’t look appealing in any capacity, and indeed, some of those guys are out of the NHL now. But the players they brought on board? It’d be difficult to turn away any of them.
Nobody’s minutes in the Penguins’ lineup goes to waste. They avoided actively playing any Bollig-like characters, and instead brought up kids from the AHL (Scott Wilson and Oskar Sundqvist are two other names to consider, in addition to the trio of rookie forwards still playing right now).
The Penguins are in win-now mode, so they’re a different situation: but it’s still important to recognize they didn’t just trim the fat in their roster; they cut it out entirely. They’re in the Stanley Cup Final and everyone is playing a regular shift.
So what can we learn from them? One such lesson: four lines, three defence pairings who can all play. A well-structured cap with superstars getting their dues, and quality depth players, many of which are young, filling in for the rest. “Character guys” who can do more than merely offer intangibles, but actually play, too.
They’re not perfect, but they’re doing better than most.
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