Tag Archives: Mike Sullivan

Jarry Ready To Take The Reigns

The Penguins just have a way with handling their goaltending situation and it’s been a huge reason why they’ve won Stanley Cups in consecutive years. But this time around, it feels a little weird.

The Penguins and Marc-Andre Fleury‘s tenure came to a close last year despite the writing on the wall being etched a year prior. Matt Murray‘s emergence made the decision a bit easier. The always forgotten ring of Tristan Jarry‘s name seemed to get weaker and weaker with every waning moment that Murray spent winning at the NHL level. Now, persistence and patience has paid off and it’s Jarry’s turn to really showcase his talents in a bigger role at the big league level.

After becoming the Penguins second-round pick in the 2012 draft, Jarry was pegged as the eventual heir to Fleury’s crease in the NHL. Murray, drafted in 2013, shattered tons of AHL records on his way to jumping Jarry on the depth chart and derailing aspirations Jarry seemingly had all but locked up before Murray’s unforeseen tear.

Murray sustained a lower body injury, presumably something with his leg, in a 5-4 overtime win against the Flyers Monday night. He is week-to-week. TSN’s Bob McKenzie seems to think that it will only cost Murray 2-4 weeks, which isn’t the gloomiest situation for Penguins fans. Besides, are the Penguins really in that bad of shape with Jarry taking over the goaltending duties over the next couple weeks?

Jarry is 2-0-2 while sporting a 2.83 GAA and a .907 SV%. Yes, these numbers are a bit underwhelming but unless you’ve had the eye-test on Jarry, you wouldn’t know that these numbers are far from what he’s provided the Penguins.

The original plan had been to keep Jarry in the AHL to continue playing and developing as a goalie. Hence why they attempted to throw a league-minimum deal at Antti Niemi and hoped he could backstop Murray. That plan lasted all of three games.

Casey DeSmith was given the next chance. He allowed three goals, albeit in relief of a game that had already slipped away, in a 7-1 loss against Winnipeg. He was sent back down and the Penguins were out of options and had no excuse but to bring up Jarry and see what he can do.

Essentially, you’d figure the crease belongs to Murray until the Penguins don’t want him any longer. This is what made the decision to keep Jarry “developing” in the AHL a bit puzzling. He wasn’t being groomed as the Penguins eventual starter so why not give your two best options the goalie jobs in the wake of losing Fleury?

That time has come and it has even gone a step further as Jarry will be the starter for the next few weeks following the Murray injury. The Penguins have a home-and-home with Buffalo on Friday and Saturday so it’s likely Jarry and DeSmith will split those games in one way or another.

He has already had a 32 and 33-save performance this season while allowing only two goals in each of those games. Monday agaist Philly, Jarry had made tons of big saves despite allowing two goals on ten shots. He was pressed into a very tough spot in that game and responded with a game that he should be very happy with.

“I’m just trying to do my best out there,” Jarry said. “Every day I want to get better and better, and I think that’s something I’m trying to improve this year and trying to do every day.”

He has been on both Stanley Cup squads as a black ace and even got to serve as the backup in a few games over the two postseason runs due to injuries to both Murray and Fleury. He has never gotten into an actual postseason game but has had a birds-eye view of the action unfolding at ice level. That is experience that can’t be taken away.

Head coach Mike Sullivan spoke highly of Jarry saying he can win the Penguins some games while Murray recovers from injury.

“We believe he is a solid goalie,” Sullivan said. “I think the game he played against Tampa is a perfect example of what he’s capable of. Tristan is going to have to make timely saves for us game in and game out. We believe he can do that.”

If nothing else, Jarry will provide much needed stability behind Murray over the course of the season after he recovers, something that was sorely lacked before Jarry began backing up the starting goaltender. It affords the Penguins to keep assets instead of having to trade for an external backup goalie to keep the wheel turning.

Advertisements

Deep Attack

I grew up playing at the end of a now unrecognizable hockey era. We were literally taught to clutch and grab. There was an actual back checking drill where you’d hook a guy through the neutral zone so he couldn’t charge your defenseman going back to get the puck, and then you’d time letting him go so when your defenceman was ready with possession, the forechecker would be about halfway between you and the puck, leaving your defenceman safe and you wide open for the pass. It was blatant strategic obstruction.

Obviously over the years the NHL sought to get rid of that. The obstruction interference rule was introduced. The red line was taken out. It was all about stretch passes and speed. For decades they thought opening up the game would lead to more offence and less frustration.

But the people behind the scenes of individual teams are smart. They’re part of an NHL organization for a reason. Coaches are front and centre, but what about those video analysis guys? The special teams guys? The strategists who provide vital information to coaches and players? The Pittsburgh Penguins organization is littered with hockey geniuses. I’d have to believe the video teams and opponent breakdown people are some of the best.

As the game looked for three line passes and end to end action, teams adapted almost immediately to defend this revolution that was supposed to let superstars be superstars and increase scoring. Since the “real crackdown” on obstruction after the 2005 NHL lockout, what we’ve seen in reality is success by teams who know how to slow the game down in other ways.

Of the 12 Stanley Cup Championships since 2005, eight of them were won by three teams (Pittsburgh – 3, Chicago – 3, and Los Angeles – 2), and a ninth Cup was won by the franchise those other three tried to emulate: the 2008 Mike Babcock coached Detroit Red Wings. Oddly enough, Mike Babcock used to be the coach of the Anaheim Ducks, who reached the 2003 finals, losing to the not so offensive minded New Jersey Devils. The Anaheim franchise went on to win its Cup in 2007.

The formula for victory of these repeatedly winning teams isn’t overwhelming oppponents with long range passes. It isn’t spreading the ice out, or racing up and down in a series of back forth end to end blitzes.

It’s now a game of possession. Instead of spreading out, it’s keeping close and methodically picking your way up the ice together. Instead of two defencemen and three forwards it’s a unit of 5 players making coordinated 5-10 foot passes, staying close enough to make the pass easy but far enough away from each other that one opponent can’t defend two of you.

This is a concept that was perfected by the Detroit Red Wings early on. It was adapted by the most successful teams over the past 12 years, including the Penguins. Now, the Mike Sullivan era Pittsburgh Penguins and their video staff have also discovered the antidote.

There’s one difference between the Penguins and the other dominant post obstruction teams. The Blackhawks, the Kings, the Bruins, the Sharks, the Ducks, the Lightning, and the Wings ALL consistently finish in the NHL top 10 for fewest shots on goal against. They frequently appear in the top 5 even. The Penguins repeatedly finish in the BOTTOM 5.

I’ve said before that I don’t really buy into the whole shot differential being that important, but I just want to show how the Pens have never had the extremely deep defensive core of the Red Wings or the Blackhawks or the Kings or the Bruins. They’ve had Kris Letang and a handful of known unprovens who are always listed as the team liability and always mentioned as the thing the team wins in spite of, not because of. They’ve had Marc-Andre Fleury and, for the past two championships and beyond, Matt Murray.

The Penguins have always relied on a team defense. On that philosophy, this season in particular they’ve made one more pivotal strategic adjustment. The team as a unit of 5 collapses very low in the defensive zone and stays very tight together.

After being opened up for 10 goals in Chicago earlier this year and giving up 7 to Tampa Bay last Saturday, the Penguins have really bought into their defensive zone formation with renewed vigour.

These are photos from each of the past three games:

 

They divide the defensive zone into 4 quadrants. As you can see, all five Penguins stay in the same half top to bottom. They also stay in the same half side to side, which means more often than not, the whole five man unit packs itself into the same little quadrant.

Over the past week this has resulted in giving up a total of just 4 combined goals (1,1,2) in three games. The Penguins sit 27th in league shots on goal against for the season which is nothing new(32.7), but during this three game span they’ve only allowed 31 shots or less in each, and the quality of the scoring chances they gave up have been less dangerous.

This defensive concept isn’t by any means. It’s just usually associated with teams that aren’t offensively gifted as a means to clog things up and hope for the best against superior competition. What the Penguins benefit from by using this system isn’t just defensive.

As soon as they gain possession in this formation, now those 5-10 foot passes they love for attacking are already available. It’s instant transition. Plus, it pulls the other team down because they feel like there’s no danger behind them. But every now and again you’ll see one or more of the forwards take off for that deep attempt. It’s like a quarterback throwing for 4-5 yards over and over again, forcing the defense to finally step into those holes, and then going over the top into a now depleted secondary.

The Penguins can and will beat you with long passes and speed, but those holes and opportunities are better created when everyone starts from the very back.

COLUMN: This Season Feels Different

Somehow, we are less than a month away from the puck being dropped on the 2017-18′ season. I guess that’s what happens when you go to the Stanley Cup Finals and don’t spend two extra months watching other teams play like another Pennsylvania team does.

Every season has its headlines and it’s new waves of prospects being ready to embark upon their NHL rosters. Players depart from teams and head to greener pastures when their contracts expire. Some chase the shiny silver heavy trophy-like specimen that many call “The Stanley Cup”.

For the Penguins, the beginning of the 2015-16′ season felt like a new era. The Penguins had acquired Phil Kessel on July 1st in a deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Penguins fans spent the better parts of July, August, and September painfully awaiting the chance to see number 81 fly around the ice in a Penguins sweater. They spent the early part of the season spiraling and it seemed by mid-December they were out of it. Mike Sullivan was hired and the rest is history. The WBS guys began filling roster spots. Fun, exciting, rejuvenating times for hockey in Pittsburgh.

Last season began with no doubts. The Penguins and fans felt invincible. With practically the same roster and one of the best coaches in the league currently, it seemed the Penguins were easily going to breeze through the league and repeat. Then Kris Letang had neck surgery and missed the rest of the season. There was goalie controversy. The Washington Capitals were the league’s best team. It seemed nothing could go the Penguins way…until it did. The Penguins repeated.

So bring on 2017-18′.

They’ve got Matt Murray as their new permanent starter. They’ve got Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese just a call away. They made some adjustments to a roster that couldn’t possibly maintain this playing style for a third straight potential run at a Stanley Cup. Letang is back and cleared to participate in hockey again. They don’t even have a third-line center. And, yet, this still feels like the first time…even though it doesn’t.

I sit here and think about how it’s even fathomable to think that Matt Hunwick, Ryan Reaves, and Antti Niemi are supposed to replace guys like Marc-Andre Fleury, Trevor Daley, Chris Kunitz and Nick Bonino. Then I counter that with the fact that Letang, one of the biggest reasons the Penguins won the Cup the first time around, is back and refreshed and ready to anchor the Penguins’ defense even after they won the Cup without him last season.

I sit and think how Fleury, a Pittsburgh idol for years, has transitioned into life on the West Coast with the Vegas Golden Knights. Then I counter that with how Murray might be just that much better, even without the shining-bright personality. He’ll let his play speak and not his smile.

I ponder how the Penguins are going to get by without a legitimate third line center to start the season. Then I remember that Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby played some of the best hockey we’ve ever seen from them simultaneously over the past two seasons and instantly forget the third line center “problem”.

Let’s face it. There aren’t many holes with this team. Yes, the third line center issue might worry you. But, when has Jim Rutherford ever given you reason to doubt that he will fill that void?

The Penguins can get by early in the year with a rotation of their bottom two centers, whomever they choose to fill such roles. The market is too high right now to buy. The Penguins will hold a playoff spot all year. They can buy when teams are really trying to unload players mid-season and at the trade deadline.

There is a reason this season feels a bit different. In recent years, you couldn’t say that you guaranteed the Penguins would make the Finals, let alone win them. I still don’t think that’s the case. The roster does look a bit weaker.

Just remember, Sullivan has yet to lose a playoff series. He’s a smart coach who knows how to use his players. If you don’t produce, you don’t play. He’ll find a role player that does exactly what he wants.

The biggest reason this season feels different, though, is because of the business-like approach they’re going to have.

There are some players on this current team who have things to prove. That’s usually when the best comes out of them.

Carl Hagelin had one of the more disappointing seasons on the team last year. He scored the Cup clinching goal, but it was only one of two points he scored in the entire playoffs.

Conor Sheary, a 20-goal scorer last season, signed a three-year extension with the team at $3 million per year. Many people scrutinized this move as he’s been benched at some point in the playoffs the past two seasons.

Brian Dumoulin, also signed to a long-term extension this offseason, wants to prove that he isn’t just good when Letang is his defense partner and that he’s worth the money he’ll be getting paid.

Justin Schultz, the final long-term contract signee, wants to show he wasn’t a one-hit wonder and has truthfully resurrected what Edmonton almost ruined.

Derrick Pouliot, a former first round draft choice, has yet to put together a solid resume in the NHL. He plays fantastic in the AHL and looks like a dumpster fire when given NHL minutes.

Reaves, a perceived tough-guy, wants to disprove that notion and show that he was worth the first round pick and Oskar Sundqvist that was given to St. Louis in exchange for his services.

Murray wants to prove that he can handle a season’s worth of workload. Many have said that his success is only because he’s kept fresh for when it really counts.

Crosby and Malkin want to assure their legacy and prove they’re the best duo in the modern-day NHL.

The list could go on and on.

When there is competition or a chance to prove yourself to people, it usually brings out the best in that individual or team. I don’t think there is a scary team in the Eastern Conference than Pittsburgh. The Western Conference always has a few teams.

You may say there isn’t much left to prove when you’ve won two straight championships and the target is on your back. Ask these Penguins if there isn’t something to prove.

Incase you are unaware, the Flyers will no longer have a team on the Stanley Cup if they don’t win this upcoming season as a new ring will need to be placed on the Cup following the year. There would be no better way to knock the Flyers off of the Stanley Cup than to put the Pittsburgh Penguins’ name on there for a third straight time.

Damn, it’s been a long time since 1975.

KesselMania

How far will people go to find a narrative?

In the past few weeks, several Pittsburgh Sports Media figures have been doing their best Toronto impression and have attempted to make a case for as to why Phil Kessel should be traded.

Back to back Stanley Cups along with proven statistics that show his exceeding worth to the Penguins apparently aren’t enough to show to the hockey world that Kessel belongs in Pittsburgh.

There have essentially been two main stories that have crawled through the woodwork this offseason that “prove” that a Kessel trade should be considered, that his statistics are slowing down and his value isn’t worth the $6.8 million he acquires per year and that the leaving of former assistant coach Rick Tocchet will affect Kessel’s relationship to the Penguins. Let’s take a few minutes to debunk both those myths.

Last year, Phil Kessel notched 23 goals in 82 games which was topped by 58 players that scored 24 or more with the Penguins’ own Sidney Crosby scoring 44.

Out of those 58 players, the average cap hit is $4,207,052.22. While that may seem like an overpayment to some, please keep in mind that that number is including player on entry level contracts and bridge year contracts that certainly are outliers. So when that is considered, the $6.8 that Kessel costs the Penguins is certainly a fair value.

On top of this, one of the things that I have seen and loved from Kessel is his outstanding playmaking ability.

While his “quarterbacking” of the powerplay in Kris Letang’s absence absolutely drove me up a wall, his raw ability to see the ice is unparalleled. This led to Kessel having a whopping 47 assists, a number that was bested by only 10 NHL’ers last season.

The average cap hit of those ten players is $5,560,833.03.

Again, while this does fall under Kessel’s cap hit, there are two entry level contracts in that top ten, just for fun, if we take out the two contracts, the average cap hit increases up to $6,719,791.62, which is obviously about Kessel’s paygrade.

Finally, looking at overall points, Kessel had only 17 players score more than the 70 points he notched.

The average cap hit of those 17 players, while again still including the outlier contracts is $5,694,951. Take all three of the average caps hits that include the entry level deals and find that average leaves us with a cap hit of $5,154,278, just $1,645,722 under Kessels’ current cap hit against the Penguins.

Now one might wonder as to where he makes up that extra money. That would in the playoffs.

Without a shadow of a doubt, he makes up for all of it in the playoffs. In 71 playoff games, Kessel has an outstanding 66 points with a tremendous 31 goals and 35 assists in what is often considered the hardest hockey to play all year. The 66 points in 71 games leaves Kessel with a .929 ppg in the playoffs putting him eighth amongst all active players.

For those wondering, the average cap hit of those seven players above him is $8,103,571.43….which is almost 2 million dollars more than what Kessel costs the Penguins per year. If you think Kessel’s overpaid or his value to the Penguins is decreasing, get out of my face.

The second mind-numbly dumb point that the Pittsburgh Sports media is trying to make is that because of Tocchet’s departure from assistant bench boss, Kessel is now all of a sudden going to be uncoachable.

This thought that Kessel is uncoachable is honestly laughable at this point. The reason he’s torn through so many coaches throughout his career is that he played on the Maple Leafs for all but two years of it. And Leafs fans will agree, it was like a carousel of coaches there for a majority of his tenure and it had absolutely nothing to do with him, he was bar none their best player.

And he’s done nothing but produce since he’s been shipped to Pittsburgh.

Sure the goal totals are lower than expected but when you’re coming down the wing with the stallion that is Evgeni Malkin down the center, you’re not scoring all the goals on that line.

And as I mentioned earlier, his assists numbers and playmaking ability is among the top tier of the league. So even if Mike Sullivan has a “problem” with Kessel, guess what, too bad, get over it, the guy can flat out play.

And I do think Sullivan sees how Kessel is in the locker room and something tells me a guy like Sully really sees the value in that. There is no evidence to suggest that there is or ever was a rift between Sully and Kessel so I have absolutely no idea why it’s being made as if there is one.

Kessel is and will continue to be a premier player in this league. He’s worth his cap hit and will continue to be as the salary cap should increase as the years go on. I’m for one glad that I can proudly say, Phil Kessel is a Pittsburgh Penguin.

COLUMN: The Non-Move That Won The Pens A Cup

Let me start by saying that Sidney Crosby is deserving of the Conn Smythe. I do believe it should’ve gone to Evgeni Malkin but Crosby was just about as equally deserving.

But let’s make no mistake about it, had it been possible to give the Conn Smythe to a split tandem of Pittsburgh goaltenders, there’s no doubt in my mind they were the club’s most valuable players.

Without Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins don’t beat Washington. They probably squeak by Columbus with an average backup goalie because they were simply the better team. The game seven shutout of Washington in the second round was about as disheartening to a fan base as the inevitable Fleury trade will be for this one. He carried that momentum two games into the Ottawa series, then things went south.

A bad nine minutes in game three, where he allowed four goals on nine shots, will soon turn into the final outing that Fleury had as a Pittsburgh Penguin. Let me remind you, Fleury is considered the back up.

So, when the starter got his chance, he wasn’t going to look back.

Matt Murray was very good over the final four and a half games of the Eastern Conference Finals. He faced barrages from the Senators and battled tooth and nail with embattled Senators goalie Craig Anderson for a victory in seven games.

Murray took on the Cinderella story from Nashville. He opposed Pekka Rinne, a leader for the Conn Smythe heading into the Stanley Cup Finals, and thoroughly played better. The Penguins made Rinne look silly on several occasions. Although it seemed that mid-series that the Predators had figured Murray out, Mike Sullivan‘s confidence didn’t waiver. He stuck it out with Murray who repaid the coach with, not one, but TWO shutouts in the final two games of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Murray is still considered a rookie. He is the only player in NHL history to win two Cups as a rookie. While this comes on sort of a technicality, it doesn’t downplay the magnitude of him spearheading two Stanley Cup championships. Who’s to say the Penguins would or wouldn’t be in this situation today had Murray not hurt his groin in the pregame of the game one of the Blue Jackets series?

But that wasn’t the case. Fleury stepped in and did an admirable job. One that Tristan Jarry simply wouldn’t have been able to do.

Credit Jim Rutherford for that one.

As trade deadline day approached, an unsettling feeling grew within the stomach of Marc-Andre Fleury. He was drafted by the Penguins in 2003 and has played his entire career to this point with Pittsburgh. The rumors ran rampant that he’d be moved to another team as his trade value seemed to be plummeting ever so quickly after his truthfully horrible regular season.

Rutherford surprised everyone and stuck to his guns saying that it’s never a bad thing to have two goalies of the caliber that Murray and Fleury are. Rutherford wants to keep both goalies. It’s practically impossible at this point.

The impending Vegas Golden Knights franchise will be drafting in a few weeks to assemble their team for the upcoming year and Fleury is undoubtedly on their radar. After his playoff performance, he’ll be on a few other teams’ radar.

As I mentioned before, the Penguins don’t beat Washington without Fleury. It doesn’t happen. He was spot on against Alex Ovechkin and outdueled Braden Holtby with no reason to look over his shoulder.

Rutherford not moving Fleury is a credit to Rutherford’s intelligence as a general manager. It’s a huge reason why the Penguins repeated as Stanley Cup champions and why they have a legitmate shot to win yet again in 2018.

Pens In Need of A Bounce Back

Not often will a team that played one of it’s worst games of the season come out victorious. That’s exactly what the Penguins did Monday night. If the Penguins want to win Wednesday, they will absolutely have to be better.

They went 37 consecutive minutes without a shot on goal and were sloppy in their zone entries. They allowed Matt Murray to be tested more often than they would’ve preferred without a doubt. So where do they go from here?

This Mike Sullivan led team does not lose consecutive games. It’s in their DNA to avoid being unacceptingly horrific in two straight contests. They just won’t accept it.

Sullivan kept reiterating the lack of pushback from his team in his postgame conference after game one and how the Penguins were unable to do so when the Predators went on attack.

“When you’re playing a team like Nashville that has a balanced attack, you’ve got to have some pushback. I don’t think in the second period we had any pushback.”

He’s right.

As the Penguins somehow tip-toed out of a shotless second period, the first in the franchise’s history, only allowing one goal after a three goal onslaught in period one, it became increasingly clear that the Penguins couldn’t cling to the lead much longer. The Predators then tied the game accordingly until Jake Guentzel, a near scratch before Monday, and buried a laser in behind Nashville goalie, Pekka Rinne, who was absolutely abysmal in that game.

It’s very likely the Penguins won’t see this bad of a Rinne and this lackluster of a Predators team the rest of the series. They will need to be better and, if they are, the Penguins should be in the driver’s seat comfortably heading into Nashville.

Credit Mike Sullivan For Making Changes Even When Unpopular

Coach Mike Sullivan might only have near the same amount of time behind the bench as a head coach as Connor McDavid has playing in the NHL, but he’s shown the wisdom of a tenured coach like Joel Quenneville or Mike Babcock. Just like what these 2 men already obtained, Sullivan is trying to join them as a multi-time Stanley Cup winning coach.

Make no mistake about it, Sullivan has earned his stripes and is just as responsible for the Penguins getting this far as any player on the ice.

Years of being an assistant coach taught him how to be a general right there, commanding respect even when he does something unpopular that might get questioning from some fans, even if its the right move.

Inserting Matt Murray in goal for games 4 and 5 put him under fire by many (though I agreed with the move) but that’s exactly what the Pens needed, a spark that would turn into a fire. You can’t argue with the results since the move, a must win on the road followed by a 7-0 blowout, Sullivan created some change.

There could of been many 2nd guessers based on how great Marc-Andre Fleury had played so far these playoffs, but Sullivan stuck to his gut and went with his guy Matt Murray. None of the nay sayers are saying anything now.

It goes much further than just the goalie situation, Sullivan has evolved the team from game to game and series to series, shuffling lines around without hesitation to make the Penguins squad better. That meant sitting guys who have been staples of the team we have come to know and love. Now sometimes the moves he made were forced because of injury, but that doesn’t mean he’s pieced together some wonderful things.

Look at the line with center Nick Bonino being thrown along with Bryan Rust and Carter Rowney, they might have been the most dominant line in game 5, but it was Sullivan who put them together. He’s learned when to keep a nice line going and when to tweak it around for proper filling.

Josh Archibald has made a positive impact since being called upon to play his role, that meant sitting players like Tom Kuhnhackle (even before he got hurt) and Connor Sheary, guys who have helped all year. Sullivan learned early and often that you can’t please everyone, it’s about winning and not other’s feelings.

They’re not done either, there’s still some wins to go and I bet we will still see some more changes made. Whether that’s calling up another winger or dressing 1 more defenseman because of a Chad Ruhwedel injury, Mike Sullivan will get it done. He isn’t afraid to make any choice no matter the preference on the move.

No player or team does it alone, Sullivan’s made great decisions on a team that’s been worn thin by sidelined players, but he still needs the Evgeni Malkin’s and Phil Kessel’s of the world to contribute. Those great players still need the right coach, Sullivan has fit that bill so far in his 2016 and now 2017 playoff durations, though they’re not finished yet!