With so many changes during the offseason, we checked in with a few of the team leaders who have been here for years – Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury – to see how the team has adjusted to all the changes through the first half.
-- Fleury has been with the Penguins ever since they drafted him first overall back in 2003, so the team’s longest-tenured player has seen more organizational changes than anyone on this roster.
He’s played under three general managers (Craig Patrick, Ray Shero and now Jim Rutherford) and four head coaches (Eddie Olzyck, Michel Therrien, Dan Bylsma and Mike Johnston) – not to mention countless other staff members – since he was first added into the Penguins organization.
He’s seen the Penguins go from a team seemingly permanently situated at the bottom of the standings to a Stanley Cup contender every year, so the franchise netminder understands perhaps better than anyone that sometimes, change is necessary – and it has benefitted this particular group.
“You never want to see somebody lose their job and you always feel somewhat responsible for it, so it’s always a little tough, but I think for the team, it might have been OK just to get different ideas and I think it’s good,” Fleury said. “New ideas, new perception of the game, new systems – I think it’s been helping us out.”
-- With so much happening over the summer, of course everything was going to feel different when the players reported to training camp in September. But in what ways?
“One of the first things they said in our meetings at the beginning – I think it was Jim – he came in and he said I want to see smiles on the faces of all the guys and I want the guys to come to the rink and have fun, and in the games having fun, enjoying every moment of it,” Letang said. “That’s why you can see it’s looser here.”
This Penguins team wasn’t able to do that last season. During the playoffs, they acknowledged the burden of expectations placed on them and admitted to internalizing that outside pressure. At one point, veteran Rob Scuderi – who’s won two Stanley Cups, with Pittsburgh in 2009 and Los Angeles in 2012 – said “sometimes, I think we’re held back by the fear of losing.”
Letang acknowledged that the atmosphere is different, but the goal is still the same.
“It’s the same pressure,” Letang said emphatically. “We want to win, there’s no doubt in our mind that we’re not just trying to be in the playoffs – we want to win. But at the end of the day, it’s just how it feels is different.”
-- The new coaching staff has been taking a lead by example approach in that regard.
“They’re pretty upbeat and want us to be, too,” Fleury said. “They want us to win and have fun doing it.”
“You want your coaches to be happy to come to the rink and bring that energy, and I think they definitely do that,” Crosby agreed.
Rick Tocchet, who played 18 seasons in the NHL, scored 440 goals and compiled 2,972 penalty minutes in 1,144 games and won the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 1992, oversees the forwards and power play.
As Rutherford said when he hired Tocchet, “Rick was an outstanding NHL player who brought toughness and intensity every night.” Now as a coach, he’s been bringing that to the Penguins’ bench every day as well.
“With ‘Tocc,’” Crosby said with a big grin, “He kind of brings more of the emotional side of things and gets guys amped up and stuff.”
At the opposite end, Gary Agnew is in charge of the defensemen and penalty kill.
“Right now, I have the chance to work with Gary and while Gary minds mistakes, he’s going to make sure my brain is not stuck on it,” Letang said. “He’s going to make sure I forget about it. So either he’s going to tell me a joke, or he’s going to make me think of something else. But he allows me to move on, forget about the mistake and go on to the next shift and make a better play.”
And of course, Mike Johnston oversees it all.
“Mike’s pretty calm,” Crosby smiled. “I think it’s easy to get emotional and you want to have that intensity, but you know when your coach has that sense of calm and that confidence, that quiet confidence, I think that helps everybody. So I think that’s been something that has helped us that way.”
Letang is enjoying one of his best NHL seasons, and he thinks the coaching staff’s approach has benefited himself and the team as a whole.
“Honestly, as a whole group, they’ve been trying to address the fact that we have to use our heads, use our reads, be confident in ourselves,” Letang said. “I think that’s the main thing. It’s not always playing the same way so you try to reduce percentages. It’s more of reading and trying to be a better player.”
-- Now that they’re halfway through the season, do the players have a better sense of what their identity is and who the Pittsburgh Penguins are under this new coaching staff?
“You know what, it’s been tough,” Crosby said. “With so many injuries, it’s tough to necessarily nail that down.”
That being said, Crosby said he can see the kind of team the Penguins are meant to be when everyone is back in the lineup.
“I’d like to think we’re a team that likes to play fast and still with a bit of grit at the same time; we can play a physical game if we need to,” he said. “But I think our speed and ability to move the puck is probably our biggest strength as a group.”
-- Through the first month or so, that was exactly the type of team the Penguins had become. But then the injuries starting coming, as they seem to inevitably do for the Penguins every year.
Only three players – Evgeni Malkin, Nick Spaling and Rob Scuderi – have skated in all 41 games. Thirty-five different players suited up for the Penguins during the first half, with six making their NHL debuts (Scott Harrington, Bobby Farnham, Bryan Rust, Scott Wilson, Dominik Uher and Derrick Pouliot).
At one point in December, they were missing 12 players, nine of whom were on their 20-man opening-night roster. Right now, they’re still missing four of those players: Pascal Dupuis (blood clot), Patric Hornqvist (upper body), Blake Comeau (upper body) and Olli Maatta (upper body).
“Until you get to that point where you’re kind of really buckled down and you feel that you’re able to smother teams, whether it’s through the neutral zone or in the way we forecheck, I think with so many guys in and out it hasn’t been that easy to really nail that stuff down,” Crosby said. “But we’re getting some more practice time here with guys coming back and that’ll help. But it’s still a long season. Still a lot of time left and it’s still a process and you’ve got to continue to work on that stuff.”
What do they feel they have to continue to work on?
“I think the possession,” Letang replied. “We’re still having some habits of the old system. When we feel squeezed, we don’t hold onto the puck. Those are things that you started to see more, but it’s not perfect yet. There’s other things. The power play, it was great at the beginning of the year, now it’s slowed down. We’re trying to get it back up, but it’s tons of things. It’s the whole system that needs to be perfected.”
-- However, Letang feels that one of the Penguins’ strengths is how they play in their own end – and it all starts with Fleury.
“I think we’ve been playing better defensively,” Letang said. “I think with our possession, we didn’t allow teams to spend that much time in our zone. And ‘Flower’s’ play has just been unbelievable.”
Fleury was the Penguins’ MVP through everything they faced the first half. No matter who they had in the lineup, the Penguins knew they could rely on absolutely rock-solid goaltending from their franchise netminder, who signed a four-year extension in November. And he has the numbers to prove it, ranking in the NHL’s top 10 in all major statistical categories (wins, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts – where he is first with six).
“There’s been a few guys missing for parts of time, so I just tried to do whatever I could to help out the team,” said Fleury, who turned 30 on Nov. 28. “I’m getting older, so I have a little more experience, a little more calm, I think. So I guess that’s been helping.”
Fleury has been the epitome of controlled athleticism. He’s been so calm and steady in the net, and hasn’t been forced to make as many crazy, scrambling saves.
“He doesn’t need to now because he’s in such good position,” Letang said. “Once in a while, it’s fun to see him doing that because you need desperation at some point of the game and you’ve got to have those saves from Flower, but I think initial saves, he’s more square in his net.”
Fleury, of course, credited the team’s defensive play in front of him.
“I think we’re maybe a little more disciplined in our zone and in making sure we’re being in the right spots,” Fleury said. “And coming out of the zone, too, everybody’s close together, helping each other to get out of the zone. If somebody messes up or a puck bounces up, there’s always somebody around. So I think it’s been helping.”
-- This Penguins team still has a lot of work to do. They started the season strong, with just six regulation losses in their first 33 games. But they’ve since slowed, losing five of their last nine while other teams in the conference, especially the ones in their division, have started heating up.
The Penguins have slipped into second place in the Metropolitan one point behind the Islanders, while the Rangers, 13-1 in their past 14, are breathing down their neck just four points behind them.
But the Penguins are hoping that everything they faced in the first half has helped them come together as a team, which can only be beneficial as they enter the second half and prepare for the stretch run heading into playoffs.
“I think when you’re challenged like that, when you’re faced with adversity, you want to see how your team responds,” Crosby said. “We do have a lot of new faces, whether it be guys who came from Wilkes-Barre or guys just added to the team this year. So I think all that stuff, having to go through that and kind of gel together and facing that stuff pretty early was a good test for us and hopefully it’s something that can help us further down the road.”