Building a roster: Lessons from the Pittsburgh Penguins

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:

Out In
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
Thomas Greiss
Brandon Sutter
Rob Scuderi
David Perron

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.

The kids

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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  • The Fall

    I find it interesting when commentators are talking about Crosby: he’s got the twinkle in his eye, Sullivan has rejuvenated him, he sees the game better…

    All of these talking heads with their ‘intangibles’ and sloganeering. Fact is Crosby is healthy for the first time in 6 years. This is how long it takes some people to come back from multiple concussions.

    He is the best player I will see in my life time.

  • The Fall

    This is a copy-cat league, no doubt. And the Pens are doing great right now. But as you said, our stars are on the blue line. I really hope theres an article exactly like this in 3 years about teams having to repeat the Flames’ model of stacking the blue line with high scoring defensemen for a Stanley Cup run and long term playoff success…

  • Thunder1

    @thefall

    “He is the best player I will see in my life time.”

    Really? You’re too young to have seen Gretzky? He was a level above Crosby. Even Crosby knows that!

    • The Fall

      Off topic, but:

      I was a kid cheering on my Flames during his time in EDM (i’m old enough to be a retired NHL’er now). But I don’t think we can compare the Gretzky NHL to what players are doing today… Sid is just all around complete.

    • OKG

      Gretzky was on the same level as Crosby, but not a level above. If he played in today’s era he’d be a taller Patrick Kane. He might have been the best relative to his era aside from Mario, but not the best period like he’s made out to be. There’s a difference.

      • kittensandcookies

        * Facepalm *

        He played in the clutch and grab era.

        He retired because he got cross-checked so much his back went out.

        Gretzky mastered consistent blind passes. To this day no one has even come close. I don’t even see players trying it.

        The guy knew where every player was on the ice and where they were going to go. He made his opponents look idiotic and his teammates look brilliant.

        • Nedd

          “He played in the clutch and grab era.”

          Exactly, this can’t be emphasized enough. No comparison to today’s game. He was multiple levels above Crosby, as was Mario Lemieux.

        • Rockmorton65

          Totally.

          To put it in perspective for the kids today. For someone to break Gretzky’s career point record, they will have to average two hundred points a season for 14 seasons. Think about that.

          Best ever.

          • Nedd

            Its difficult to compare players from different periods because the game is so different. For Crosby today, interference is called much more so the game is more open, but goalie’s are bigger, better, and have bigger equipment so its more difficult to score. For Gretzky and Lemieux, there was more holding / interference but it was easier to score as the goalies didn’t take up so much net.

            In the end all these things likely equal out so the best way to compare is probably to look at how much of an impact the player had/has on the outcome of a game. In the case of Gretzky and Lemieux (and probably Bobby Orr/Gordie Howe going back even further) they were much more dominant in respect to how they impacted the play of the game compared to Crosby today.

        • Hubcap1

          To be fair he retired because he was old (39). Lemieux was the guy with the documented chronic back problems, and Hodgkins disease. Not to say Gretzky didn’t have health issues but who would’t playing 20+ years.

  • King Quong

    Lesson 1 on Pittsburgh Penguins roster building, tank for generational player (Lemieux ) win the cup. Lesson 2 be terrible and tank some more so much that your franchise might have to relocate and the league has to gift you another franchise player via lottery.

  • The Fall

    Back to the points at hand:

    The example of jettisoning bad contracts and good cap structure is sound. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with MAF… If Ari’s points above predict the future, then The Pen’s will be looking to off load that contract too. …I’d hate to be the team that picks up Fleury.

  • MarbledBlueCheese

    Without Matt Murray this team is out of the playoffs already, and the narrative is changed to how the clock is ticking on Crosbys career and should Malkin be traded, rather than all the great depth and erudite moves by their GM and new coach.

    • cberg

      Correct, a few good moves but no genius. Bringing in Schultz a great move? Not really. Some things to learn but let’s see it play out first. Not much else…..

  • Thunder1

    Lest we forget!!

    Most Art Ross Trophies in a Career (10)
    Most Goals in a Season (92)
    Most Assists in a Season (163)
    Most Hart Trophies in a Career (9)
    Most Career Points (2,857)
    Three Consecutive 200-point Seasons
    50 Goals in 39 Games
    Won four Stanley Cups

    …. Gretzky is at least a level above Crosby!

    • King Quong

      He was great with his hockey IQ and passing skills but when it comes to his goals, he cherry picked and played when goalies couldn’t stop a beach ball. That being said ill admit I’ve only ever saw him play on YouTube but the way he could dance around everyone with the puck was amazing.

    • Jake the Snail

      I’m not really impressed with showing Gretzky’s superiority based on points accrued. After all, back in the day the Smythe Division was a goal scorers paradise. Basically a no-checking Division. I have been following the NHL since 1955 by the way. Gordie Howe over Gretzky any day? Again a different era.

      Sure it was clutch and grab era – but that was mostly played in the Eastern Conference. Crosby is playing in the Head Shot, Blind Side Hit era – How comfortable would Gretz be playing with that? and no goon like Semenko riding shotgun on his line?

      Just look back at the Flames stats in that era – 50 goal scorers too. Lanny MacDonald 66 one year.

      I’m willing to admit that Gretzky was an exceptional player based on how much better he was game in and game out than other players. Quoting goals and points from that era don’t mean much to me.

  • freethe flames

    Things to learn from Pittsburg; don’t be afraid of change and don’t be afraid of playing the kids. There are several ways to change there roster and sometimes players moving from one team to another might be good for both.

    • Bananaberg

      Agree, but another take away here is that PIT has the big stars up front to be able to play the kids. Crosby/Malkin/Kessel draw the tougher defensive matchups, which makes it slightly easier for the kids to be successful.

      Simply playing kids, even good/excellent ones, doesn’t necessarily work. (see EDM playbook in recent years).

      I think the new system that seems to be a consistent trend for all teams that made the final four this year is this:

      Three 2nd lines (ie. two really strong players plus a younger guy)

      +

      Effective 4th line (possession effective! not just smash ’em up guys…sorry Bollig)

      +

      Defensive scoring (CGY can check this box)

      +

      > 0.92 SV% (biggest hole in CGY this year)

      +

      Top 10-15 PP (obvious)

      +

      Top 10-15 PK (obvious)

  • freethe flames

    Does anyone know a website where one can easily find which RFA’s have arbitration rights? My reason for asking is there a possible trade of Colborne out there for a guy who is a UFA without arbitration rights?

  • The Fall

    Honestly, there were very few ‘systems’ for defence, goaltending, coaching in that era… Hearing a few old timers talk about the plays and no-look passes that players made their careers on back then, the main comment is that with instant video review from coaching staffs, those holes get plugged up pretty fast.

    Not to mention the advanced conditioning these kids are taking part of at very young ages.

    Not to say what he did wasn’t amazing, but it’s like saying Toronto is a great team because they won so many cups… comes down to “what have you done for me lately”

  • supra steve

    Everyone likes to think that the best of their era is/was the best of all time. Crosby (when healthy) is the best of his era. However, he is not as far above his contemporaries as was Wayne or Orr. Mario was the only one even close to Wayne, and Mario was more dominant year after year than Crosby has ever been.

    Crosby is the best of this time, but he is NOT the best of all time.

  • KACaribou

    The thing young people tend to not understand, is that almost everything great happened before their time. The greatest book, the greatest movie, the greatest sports figures… etc. etc. etc.

    That means everyone presently on earth too. We live a minuscule time, so obviously most things good and bad happen outside that time frame… in other words the past.

    Sometimes we are lucky enough to have a great person live within our life span. I never saw Lincoln, or Ludwig van, or Van Gogh, or Shakespeare…. but I was lucky enough to live (in sports terms) at a time Muhammad Ali lived… and also Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr.

    Crosby is good, there is no question. But young people are more than likely to see someone better in the future. He isn’t a lifetime figure like Ali.

  • BlueMoonNigel

    Pure spin-doctoring. An absolute case of cutting the cloth to fit the pattern. Give me a team that is two wins away from a championship and how easily I can hold it up as a model for other clubs to follow.

    Pre-playoffs we kept hearing about the Blackhawks model as the one clubs should follow. That lasted until they got bounced.

    Now it appears that all the clubs not named Pittsburgh should trade for a very pricey career under-achiever like Kessel as their ticket to the cup. How many called that a great move when it happened last summer.

    Laughter in Calgary was uncontrollable when Pitt traded for Justin Schultz. How little we knew that he was going to be one of the keys to the cup for the Pens. Ditto for Benino and Fehr.

    Gee, if only the Flames had fired Hartley during the season and hired Mickey Sullivan or his brother, it would now be the Flames that were 2 wins away from the cup, right?

    There is an old Italian proverb that translates into English as “Everybody knows why the ship sunk after it has sunk.”

      • BlueMoonNigel

        Doesn’t the salary cap dictate that you can pay just a few players handsomely and then salt to the spearchuckers? The key is to scout well, draft well, and develop well. That’s hardly a Blkackhawks’ exclusive. Any pothead will tell you if you can grow your own and roll your own, you will be ahead in the game.

        I hardly think the “Hawks” model involves a very pricey goalie sitting on his duff opening and closing the gate for his teammates, nor does it include an expensive under-achieving ex-Leaf who absolutely coasted for at least half of the regular season. Hell, Kessel sucked for so much of the season, he didn’t even get an invite to the US dream team.

    • cberg

      Agree, but a couple things we know.

      1. Getting an elite scorer for your 3rd line and playing regularly against other team’s third liners has a very high chance of success. Of course, having 2 superstars for the first and second lines doesn’t really hurt.

      2. Playing solid team defence with a focus on the other team’s stars really limits their chances and enhances your own.

      3. D offensive involvement isn’t really essential. The key is scoring one more than the other team. Defence really helps.

      4. It’s a team game. You are only as strong as your weakest link.

      5. Solid goaltending is essential, and matched with strong team D is enough.

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    It is uninteresting to look at The Penguins team make up and see if there are any similarities with the flames, if we were to build our team using this blue print. Having an special game breaking player on each of the 3 lines definitely puts the Penguins in an enviable position.

    Of equal importance, is the ability to play these 3 lines relatively equal if necessary. The Penguins defence is under rated and has proven that a strong defensive system can limit the importance big name players on the back end. Letang seems to be the only elite defender but it is not hurting the Penguins in the least. The goaltending is good enough to steal games when needed.

    Then there is Calgary, one elite, game breaking player on the top line however Gaudreau’s game breaking ability is really only elite in tight. No real slap shot or one timer in his arsenal. The second line has an up and comer in Bennett but his ceiling is still undetermined.

    The third line with Backlund and Frolick is as good as Pittsburgh’s defensively. As much as people are saying we need to stock up on another marquee defence man to compete this model shows the Flames biggest deficiency( outside of Goaltending) is elite level scoring on our top lines.

    This is ringing endorsement for a player like Nylander or Keller who both have game breaking ability that we are seeking. Nylander has the ability to make a team pay for taking dumb penalties. He needs very little space to impact a game. He is a skinnier, fitter Kessel if you will…. Hopefully with more grit.

    I don’t see this game breaking ability in the 2 power forwards that have been discussed as possible selections for Calgary in the first round, namely Dubois and Tkachuck. I guess one could argue that Malkin can play a power forward role. I am not seeing this as a vital role in the Penguins model. It is more built on overall team speed and elite and timely scoring.

  • BlueMoonNigel

    Puck possession is a crock according to former NHL superstar Craig Simpson and award winning broadcaster Jimmy Hewson as they wax about Bonino and his shot blocking prowess. Hell, when Kris Russell was doing the same for the Flames, the experts on this forum lit into him arguing if he is blocking all those shots, he can’t get or keep the puck. Gee, I wonder who to believe? Craig Simpson or Mom’s Basement.

    In addition, what an idjit Tre is as he could have got Benji Lovejoy for virtually nothing and he passed.

    I wonder if Ari has her piece ready about how teams should follow the San Jose model if the Sharks come back and win the cup.

    Seems to me that if the Pens win the cup, Tre should be sending blank contracts and cheques to Tochet or Jacques Martin.

    • Greatsave

      So goes the logic: Craig Simpson was an NHL “superstar”, analytics people are not, ergo Craig Simpson is right and analytics people are not. Gee, if you had it your way Treliving would probably just hire Craig Simpson for head coach.

      Lovejoy was available for “virtually nothing”? When was this? When he re-signed with the Ducks in 2013 before Treliving became GM? Or on TDL in 2015 when the Penguins gave up Simon Despres, a former first-round pick, for him?

  • I often wondered would it would be like to have Mario without back issues or Hodgkin’s. He was just unreal to watch. Even when he came out of retirement to play with Sid he was 2 steps above anyone. I love Sid almost as much as any Canadian but Mario was more of a game changer.

    I am old enough to have watched a number of games with Gretz and he is in the same realm as Mario. Orr and Howe I have no idea as that is well before my time.

  • freethe flames

    With Pittsburg up 3-1 buy out season is getting closer. I believe that 48 hours after they win the cup it can begin. It’s time to get the new head coach signed, time to get our own stars locked up for the forseeable future and time to do some addition by subtraction. BT and staff I suspect have been busy. I can’t wait to see something done rather just our own speculation about what should be done.

  • al rain

    The Penguins system for building a championship team (and let’s keep in mind that they’re still a win away) probably looks more like a system to us than to them. My guess is that Rutherford would say that he’s got the the team he built, not the team he was trying to build – that it’s a work in progress.

  • al rain

    Regarding best players from history, this is a fool’s errand and we all know it.

    But I’ll throw in with Mario. At his best he matched Gretzky’s best seasons, without having nearly the supporting cast of HOF’ers riding along or needing any of the body-guarding. Respect all day long.

  • Brodano12

    Crosby is not better than Gretzky. Aside from the late Mohammad Ali, Gretzky was the most dominant player at his sport in all of sports history. However, if we are isolating it based on pure skill and ability, I actually believe Mario was the best of all time and would have challenged Gretzky’s records had he been healthy.

    Imo, it goes like this:

    1. Lemieux

    2. Gretzky

    3. Orr

    4. Crosby

  • BlueMoonNigel

    It was almost a year ago when so many Nations’ knickers were knotted when Westy Gilbertson tweeted that Burkie had laid the foundation of a deal that would have brought the “K” in HBK to Calgary. Tre apparently snuffed out the deal and all those Nationals who were calling Flying Phil to Calgary an abomination and damned outrage were able to step back from the ledge and resume their normal breathing.

    Now it seems Burkie was right, and the Flames should have got Kessel, and he along with Backlund and Hathaway could have formed Calgary’s own HBK line and it would be the Flames that would be a win away from winning Lord Stanley’s jock.

    And you trust the same Tre to hire the right coach and choose the best available player at 6th overall? Oi voy!

    • Greatsave

      Kessel being a part–even a significant part–of the Penguins’ Cup run has no bearing on whether the Flames or Burke would have been “right” to pursue him. Your suggestion that Kessel was the one piece missing from the Flames becoming a Cup contender–if you were indeed being serious–is laughable.

      Kessel being a right piece–among a number of pieces–to add to the Penguins is only that: he was right for the Penguins whose window with Crosby, Malkin, and Letang is closing. That doesn’t make him right for the Flames who are not in their window yet.

  • Greatsave

    I understand the rose-tinted specs of nostalgia, but some of you seem to have forgotten that Gretzky and Lemieux had their prime years in the high-scoring 80s, *not* the clutch-and-grab 90s.