On the NHL’s trade deadline day, Pittsburgh made two moves – acquiring defensemen Ian Cole from St. Louis and former Pens blueliner Ben Lovejoy from Anaheim.
In exchange, the Pens sent two physical blueliners out of town with Robert Bortuzzo and a 2016 seventh-round pick heading to the Blues and Simon Despres going to the Ducks.
“In those players, for us, we’re getting more experience,” head coach Mike Johnston said. “And really, when you look at this time of the year, experience is a key thing. And what our young defense has done so far this year, certainly with the injuries and the situation with Olli Maatta, I thought they’ve done a great job. Now it’s the time of the year where you really need some experience as you head down the stretch and into the playoffs.”
Now that the trade deadline has passed, this is the team the Penguins will be taking into the stretch run and the playoffs. So we talked to a bunch of the guys after practice Tuesday – before they took their four-game win streak out West and picked up Lovejoy and Cole along the way – to get their thoughts on the moves.
ON HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT THE TEAM THEY HAVE THE REST OF THE WAY… Sidney Crosby: I think it helps we’ve been playing some decent hockey here, so when a couple guys come in, hopefully we’ll be at our best and make that transition as easy as possible. But it’s a process. We’ve got some games here to make sure we’re on the right track and we know our roles and things like that. But if anything, knowing that stuff is all behind us kind of clarifies everything as far as what’s expected of guys and it’s up to us here to do our part.
Evgeni Malkin: I’m always happy (with the team). Of course I’m happy with how we play the last four games. If we still play the same lines, still focus, it’s a good team and we have a great chance to win. Just play hard every game.
Christian Ehrhoff: I think we’ve got a great-looking roster. We just got to the point where most of the guys are healthy and we can really work on the details as a group here down the stretch. And hopefully come playoff time, we’ll be at our best and I definitely believe that we can go a long way.
Kris Letang: I’ve always been confident with the team. I think we had tons of injuries this year, so it was tough to have a full lineup. At times we were missing key guys. I think right now, we’re going to hit the playoffs with good chemistry with all the guys all together.
Johnston: The management group has made some moves throughout the year to try and touch up some areas we talked about before, losing (Pascal) Dupuis and losing Maatta, to try and make sure we accommodated for that. And then going forward, I really like our depth up front right now. And now we’ve added two experienced defensemen, and that’s going to be important. But it’s getting all of the pieces together now that (Maxim) Lapierre’s been here a little bit, (Daniel) Winnik is starting to fit in and now we have a couple defensemen. So it’s a matter of getting all of the pieces together. We like our lines, we like our line combinations, the depth – now we have to do the same thing on defense.
ON THE DEPARTURES OF DESPRES AND BORTUZZO… Beau Bennett: It’s tough seeing (Bortuzzo) and ‘Desi’ go. I know we’ve got two players coming back, but ‘Borts’ is the guy I live with. For two-and-a-half years we spent every minute together, so it’s going to be different in that regard, but we wish them all the best.
ON BEN LOVEJOY RETURNING… Crosby: When I found out, I thought of all our battles in practice we’ve had in the past. So figure I have to get ready for practice a little more than usual (laughs). I think he’s pretty excited to come back, and we’ll see those two guys here today when we get to Colorado.
Malkin: It’s good. I think people love him, he’s a good guy. I haven’t seen how he played the last two years. It’s a long time. But I know he’s a little bit tough on the ice, good shot. We lost a couple players and it’s always tough because it’s all my friends. But we look forward and it’s hockey. It’s tough because every year, we lose a couple players. But I’m glad, I know Lovejoy a long time and I’m glad he’s back.
Letang: I think he grew a lot as a player down there in Anaheim. He got put in situations where he played big minutes and they improved his game, so it’s fun to have him back.
Chris Kunitz: I think when you play against different competition and you go to a different coaching system, I think we saw it last year in his play, he had a lot of confidence. Played in one of the top pairings out in Anaheim. I think coming back with confidence, being familiar with the guys, maybe learning the new systems, you elevate your game a little and I expect him to come back and be maybe an even better ‘Lovey’ than we had before.
He’s competitive. Battled for everything, didn’t matter where he was in the lineup. He came out and wanted to play hard. Practiced hard and made us better. Always remember him penalty killing against our power play and pushing us to get better every single day. He’s a great guy. I think they had an addition to their family, which changes a person’s perception. You come to the rink and it makes it a lot of fun just to be able to catch up with somebody and his wife and meet their new baby.
ON IAN COLE… Maxim Lapierre: I think he’s a really good player. He’s good offensively and he’s really strong defensively. He’s a big guy, so it’s tough to go 1-on-1 against him in the corners and that type of thing. So I think it’s a good addition to our team. He’s a pretty quiet guy, obviously loves playing hockey and you can see he enjoys coming to the rink every day. Really works hard to really do extra in the gym, extra on the ice and you can see he wants to get better every day. It’s always fun to have a guy you played with on another team join you in a new team.
David Perron: We were drafted the same year. I think he came in a few years after me in the league, but we got to play together and I thought he was a great guy in the room. I always had fun hanging out with him and he’s going to be a great addition to this team.
ON THE PERCEIVED LOSS OF PHYSICALITY ON THE BACK END… Crosby: You know what, I think we’ve tried to pride ourselves on being a physical team and different guys have done it. There’s no hiding the fact those guys (Bortuzzo and Despres) brought that. We all know that. But we’ve got a lot of guys who are capable of playing that game and that’s the way you need to play this time of year. I think if anything, you see a lot of guys, especially down the stretch here and into playoffs, roll around and I think they step out of their comfort zone a little bit and probably become a little bit more physical, just given the timing. I think with that being said, that’s something we’ll continue to do no matter who’s in the lineup.”
Letang: What’s most important is how well you can defend against top players. I think the mindset needs to be defend first and if you can finish guys and lay out some hits, that’s going to be important too.
Johnston: The important thing is, I believe, down the stretch and in playoffs is how you defend is really important. How your defensive skills are, how quickly you can break out of your zone. That’s a real important skill for defensemen. So right now, it’s playing good defensive hockey when we have to. Getting the puck, moving it into the hands of our forwards. So the physical part of the game is important in playoffs, I don’t want to underestimate it. But it’s how you defend, and it’s also how quick you escape your zone.
ON WHAT NEEDS TO IMPROVE GOING FORWARD… Crosby: It’s tough to say. We’ve proven here at different points in the season we can be a really good team, and consistency has been something we’ve had to find a little bit more. With that being said though, the last week or so we’ve done a really good job of finding that and this is the time of year when you want to be at your best. Getting these guys and building some momentum and playing our best hockey here down the stretch will hopefully help.
Malkin: First of all, I think it’s specialty teams, the power play and PK. We’re still not good sometimes, more on the power play. Sometimes we’re not great. Just focus on this part and if we play better, it’s important because in playoffs, we might just get a couple power plays in a game. It’s an important part. If we score a couple goals, it’s easy to play.