On the Pens’ Elimination from the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs

I’ll probably do a full season recap on the Pens later – after all, any year in which you finish with 107 points and ice the Art Ross and likely Hart Trophy winner is not a total failure, sky-high Franchise standards be damned – but for right now, here’s my quick analysis of the Pens’ series loss to Philadelphia:

* The Penguins did not lose to some Conference bottom-feeder; they drew a brutal first-round matchup that likely determined the Conference representative in the Cup Finals. It seems like a cop-out, but no one with any understanding of NHL hockey disagreed that Penguins-Flyers in the first round was a fuck deal for one of the teams. You can argue that a true champion should be able to beat anyone at any time (which Philadelphia still could), but the reward for 107 regular season points and 2nd in the Eastern Conference should be better than your hated rival and third-best team in the Conference in the First Round.

* The Flyers were the better, faster team. Yes, the Penguins did themselves no favors by allowing the Flyers to capitalize on an absurd number of Power Play chances (to say nothing of Shorthanded Chances/Goals Against), but the Flyers dictated play and tempo at five-on-five for much of the series. The Penguins, especially their star players, were forced to spend too much of the time batting for and chasing the puck, which took away from their ability to make plays offensively.

* The issue was not effort or will. The Penguins fought until the very end of Game 6. Geno, in particular, looked like a car running on fumes by the second-half of Game 6. The Penguins’ competed all series, and when the effort is there but the results are not, something about the process needs to be corrected.

This brings us to what needs to be fixed in the off-season. Again, these are only my opinions, but here is what I saw in the six-game loss to the Flyers:

Goals for the Off-Season

1) Coaching

I do not think Dan Bylsma was out-coached, as the team was failing to implement fundamentals in Games 1-3. They were not playing, as Coach Disco likes to say, “Pittsburgh Penguins Hockey”: Get the Puck North, Keep the play in the Offensive Zone, and Grind Those Bitches Down.

While I originally diagnosed this as a lack of discipline, I’ve since changed my stance: I think the Pens were simply outclassed in speed and systems play (particularly Special Teams), which led to a negative feedback loop in which they took an inordinate amount of penalties in trying to compensate.

When the team is not executing the Coach’s game plan, as was the case in Games 1-3, that’s on the players. When the team is trying to execute the game plan and failing, as was the case most evidently in Game 6, that’s on the Coach for failing to make adjustments.

I greatly respect Dan Bylsma, and think he’s an excellent coach. However, one of his greatest strengths has become a weakness: his belief in the team’s identity, which is the aforementioned “Pittsburgh Penguins’ Hockey” and aggressive forecheck/Offensive Zone control game plan. He has been very reluctant to alter this plan, even when it is obviously not working.

While I laud his composure and poise and belief in his players, at some point he had to have known that the Penguins’ primary system was not working: the Flyers were beating the Penguins to the pucks in their zone, and when the Penguins did have the puck, the Flyers did an excellent job corralling the puck carriers and forcing turnovers; Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov did not have to be great because the Flyers did a great job limiting the high percentage chances that the Penguins’ aggressive forecheck ordinarily produces.

I have no idea what adjustments should have been made, but maybe given Flower’s struggles (more on that in a moment), Disco should have gone to a defensive shell like the one he employed last year when Sid and Geno were both injured. I hate to say it, but again the Flyers were the better, faster team; in cases like this, the slower team ordinarily has to rein in their forecheck and go into a more-conservative system of Defensive Zone coverage.

(Update: I just watched the Phoenix Coyotes shutout the Chicago Blackhawks4-0 in Game Six of their series to eliminate Chicago. Mike Smith is not a better goaltender than Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Coyotes’ defensive corps is not superior to the Penguins. However, the Coyotes won the elmination game despite being outshot 39-20, and with the Blackhawks dominating play in Phoenix’ zone. How did the Coyotes win?

They collapse all five skaters around Smith, crushing anyone who tries to carry the puck in the “House” (the high-percentage scoring zone directly in front of the goaltender, extending out to the Faceoff dots and up to the hash marks) and allowing Smith to make all the low-percentage saves. If the Penguins ran the Coyotes ugly-but-effective defense-first system, I guarantee Flower would better Smith’s .930 Save Percentage and 8 Shutouts. Phoenix has to play this way because they have overall inferior talent to teams like the Blackhawks, and that was the case when the Pens played Philadelphia. The picture below shows four Coyotes swarming Jonathan Toews:

Painful as it may be, with the current roster, the Penguins may have to consider running a similar set against teams that they cannot sustain a forecheck against, such as Philadelphia. “Defense” and “trap” are dirty words in Pittsburgh, but unless the Pens get a talent infusion on the lower lines, it may be a necessary evil to hang with Philadelphia and teams like them.)

Coach Disco brought the system that won the team the Cup in 2009; it’s now Spring 2012. Teams have had time to build and adjust to it, and while it’s still effective against less-talented and slower teams, teams of equal speed and skill have found way to counter it. During the off-season, a “B” system to implement against teams like Philadelphia needs to be constucted, or the Penguins are going to continue to lose to them.

2) Goaltending

Flower was atrocious. He knows it and everyone knows it. But he’s our guy, and he’s not getting traded, so the emphasis has to be on getting him right.

I cannot defend his play in the series, but I can defend Flower: without going into a long statistical breakdown, Flower puts up a Top-10 overal Goaltending perfomance despite seeing Bottom-10 protection. He is in the “Bottom-10″ in Quality Chances Against (odd-man breaks, Breakaways, shots from in the “house”, etc). While the Penguins limit total shots due to puck possession, they do not limit high-percentage chances against; this is a result of skaters being caught up ice while pressing on the forecheck. This stat would likely be even worse if Kris Letang was not available to break up 3-4 odd-man breaks per game (indicated in the team’s below-average record without him in the lineup).

When the team went into a defensive shell around him, as in the second half of 2010-11, he was a Vezina contender. When the team opens things up offensively, they roll the dice and expose Flower to a ton of High-Percentage chances. When Flower plays exceptionally well, he saves maybe nine-of-ten High-Percentage Chances; when he plays average, as high as five or six of those Chances go in.

Again, I’ve researched this like I was doing a college thesis: after the “Elite” Goaltenders (Hank Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick 2012, Pekka Rinne 2011/2012, Brian Elliot/Jaro Halak 2012, Tim Thomas most years, etc.), eight-to-ten other Goaltenders fall into the “Very Good” category based on Goals Against, Quality of Chances, Save Perecentage, etc. Flower is as good as any of these other Goaltenders just outside of the “Elite” range (Carey Price, Cam Ward, Ilya Bryzgalov, etc). In short, unless we can trade Flower for Hank Lundqvist, the team is not going to do much better.

Acknowledging that both management and myself fully believe Flower is the Guy (despite the lousy series), a good first step would be to get him a back-up who can play 20-25 games and ease his regular season workload. It’s worth noting that Flower was flagging down the stretch just before the post-season; he would never admit it, but I suspect fatigue and overuse played a role in his poor showing against the Flyers.

Brent Johnson was fine in 2010-11, but was woefully ineffective in 2011-12, forcing the team to lean on Flower too heavily. Johnny may have been injured, or age may be catching up with him. I have no idea. Brad Thiessen is not-quite-ready for NHL duty (evidenced by shellackings during several of his appearances late last year), so it may behoove Ray Shero to sign a low-cost veteran to a one-year deal who could both push and support Flower next year.

3) Defensemen

What’s wrong with that picture? It’s that no Pittsburgh Penguins’ skaters are touching Wayne Simmonds as he puts a goal past Flower. If you want to tear Flower to shreds over the series, that’ fine, he can take it; but at least rationally acknowledge that he was given minimal defensive support.

Acknowledging that Flower was horrible (Save Percentage below .800, which is historically bad), the work of the defense corps was not terrific either. As far as the defensemen go, the team is far too reliant on what Kris Letang brings on both sides of the puck. Our best move would be to make four clones on him, but that doesn’t seem to be a likely solution.

I thought Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, and Deryk Engelland were fine in their defense-first roles. The Flyers’ skill and speed forced them to chase the likes of Claude Giroux around their Zone, which is an absurd task, but all three would have acquitted themselves better if they could have instead focused on protecting Flower and the front of the net.

The Penguins desperately need someone to push each of them down one slot in the depth chart, and to eat up 20 minutes a night of mostly puck-possessing play. Matt Niskanen elevated his play to help in thie regard, but the team operates much better when he can play Letang-lite on the third pairing with Deryk Engelland.

Paul Martin was supposed to be the puck-possession guy, dictating play and controlling tempo with poise as he did in New Jersey. While Ray Shero knew he was not getting back a Sergei Gonchar clone when he opted to sign Martin in July 2010, he probably thought he was getting a player who could similarly dictate tempo and slow things down when necessary. I like Paul Martin, and I think the effort has been there, but I don’t think he’s part of the solution.

After two years, most can admit that he is a poor fit for the system and efforts need to be made to move him out. On a Cap-ceiling team, you simply cannot have your most-expensive defenseman provide so little impact. The Penguins need a third puck-moving defenseman to compliment Kris Letang and Matt Niskanen, ideally a left-hand shot who skates and pairs well with Zbynek Michalek.

It would seem Simon Despres could possibly be that guy. Having said that, if he is not ready to go by training camp 2012 as legitmate, puck-moving, top-four NHL defenseman, efforts need to be made to find that guy, lest the team continue to consistently lose to Philadelphia. Worst case scenario, it would seem Ray Shero should be looking to alleviate Salary Cap pressure by moving Martin off the roster and going with Despres, possibly using the Cap space to reinforce depth across the roster.

4) Forwards

It would take forever to comment on each of the forwards; in short, I just want to give special thanks to Jordan Staal for playing like such a beast. I thought Sid and Geno played as well as they could, considering Sid was far from mid-season form and forced to check Claude Giroux and that Malkin had Sean Courturier hanging from his balls at all times.

I think the Top-9 forwards are fine; goal-scoring continues to not be an issue for the Penguins. The team returns 8 of their top-9 forwards, excluding Steve Sullivan (who was great down the stretch and should be welcomed back for a similar salary).

The biggest discrepency I saw between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh was that the Flyers could ice the likes of Braden Schenn, Sean Courturier, and yes, Max Talbot with the sole mission of disrupting Sid and Geno. While the Pens were forced to make Sid or Jordan Staal check Claude Giroux, the Flyers could afford to let Giroux and his line focus on scoring while the youngsters wore out Sid and Geno.

No disrespect to the Penguins’ fourth-line guys (Craig Adams, Joe Vitale, Aaron Asham, Richard Park, and to a lesser extent Eric Tangradi), but that group provides almost non-existent offense and as a group is much slower than what the Flyers can throw out on the third and fourth lines. Craig Adams may be a terrific penalty killer, but he is not a threat to go the other way and score like Sean Couturier, Max Talbot, or Claude Giroux are.

I believe it’s time for a philosophy change on the fourth line/penalty kill units: it’s time to let Sid and Geno take some shifts on the Kill, and the fourth line/Kill unit needs an large injection of speed and skill.

I realize Braden Schenn and Sean Courturier are former top-10 draft picks and elite prospects, and that the Penguins are not likely to find comparables to players like those to fill out the fourth line. But those two players were obvious difference-makers in the series, and the Penguins do not have answers for them right now.

Like Paul Martin, it’s time to admit that Eric Tangradi is a poor fit for the team’s primary systems, and efforts should be made to move him for a more suitable player. The San Jose Sharks play a game that suits Big Dawg’s skill-set more; maybe there’s a deal there for one of  the Sharks’ young forwards. I don’t know. But Coach Disco’s system requires it’s players to be absolutely fleet of foot, and Big Dawg seems to have a hard time making plays because he is always behind them. Not his fault; just a bad fit, like Martin.

While I am all for Pascal Dupuis playing with Sid, the fact that someone of his skating ability is unavailable to primarily check is a problem. It’s a long way down the skating ladder from Duper to Aaron Asham, and if Duper is going to skate with Sid, the checking line needs a similar injection of speed.

I call the fourth-line the checking line because the “Disco” line of Jordan Staal with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy does not defensively swarm the elite players on the opposite team; they chew up valuable time in the Offensive Zone and provide excellent offensive depth, but they do not physically wear-out the likes of Claude Giroux the same way Braden Schenn wore out Sid and Sean Couturier and Talbo wore out Geno. It may be time for a true “checking unit” ala New Jersey’s John Madden-Jay Pandolfo or Anaheim’s Rob Niedermeyer-Sammy Pahlsson-Travis Moen if the Pens are to continue playing in a Division featuring Giroux, Marian Gaborik, Ilya Kovalchuk, John Tavares, etc.

The Pens need to add a future star or two to the bottom of the lineup, or at least a few quick skaters with the potential to develop into those types of players.

Special Teams

Yuck.

I know management doesn’t want Sid and Geno blocking shots, but the Flyers have used elite talent (Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Claude Giroux) to short-handed success against the Penguins for years. It’s time the Pens started using sets with Sid and Geno on the Kill, to at least give opponents the fear of short-handed chances against. I like Craig Adams a lot, but he isn’t making Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle nervous.

As for the Power Play, the team painfully needs a true Quarterback. I realize Sid and Geno are fully capable, but they both defer to each other, neither one likes playing the point, and both are pass-first players. Kris Letang is a triggerman and a very capable hand, but he needs a fellow defenseman on the other point so he doesn’t have to make so many saves on odd-man breaks.

Are you starting to wish Ray Shero had caved and given Sarge the third-year on his contract in 2010? I sure am. Hell, I would trade Sarge for Paul Martin straight-up today, except Sarge is busy scoring goals for the Senators, calming down Power Play partner Erik Karlsson, and helping his team attempt to upset the Rangers; you know, the types of things he used to do for the Penguins.

Assuming Ottawa won’t do a Sarge-for-Martin trade, a true Power Play coach needs to be hired and a true Quarterback needs to be found. Even a defensive cypher or specialist like Tampa’s Marc-Andre Bergeron could be forgiven for defensive miscues if he could get the Power Play up to the Lemieux-approved mark of over 20%. Failure to convert Power Plays, almost as much as giving up Short-Handed Chances Against, murdered the Pens in the series against Philadelphia.

Conclusions

The window for the current team to compete closes next year; at that point, Sid, Staal, Duper, Kuni, TK, and Cooke all go UFA. It is time to go-for-broke, and if that means moving out high draft picks or promising prospects (Beau Bennett, Big Dawg, Joe Morrow, etc.) for more NHL-ready help, the time to do that is now. Philadelphia has proven to be the team through which the Eastern Conference now runs through, and they will only get better as their young elite talent develops.

The Penguins’ core of Sid, Geno, Staal, Letang, Flower, and James Neal is as good as Philadelphia’s or New York’s or Boston’s, but the Penguins’ depth no longer matches any of those teams. The onus is now on the usually-unflappable Ray Shero to make a bold move or two, and for Dan Bylsma to evolve his system. Otherwise, the Penguins may be looking at a terrible new moniker: Regular-Season Team.

About sfarrell11000
All over the place

One Response to On the Pens’ Elimination from the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs

  1. SwedishPenguin says:

    I was just watching Gonchar playing for Ottawa last night and wondering why we ever let him take off his Pens jersey.

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