Starkey: Pens' soul-searching commendable
As the Penguins headed home last spring, after a fourth consecutive playoff flameout, their leaders seemed lost in a haze of conceit and denial.
Problems? What problems? Nothing to see here. Move along.
General manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma seemed intent on continuing to do all the same things with mostly the same people, expecting different results.
Is that not the definition of insanity?
It sure seemed that way.
But they didn't proceed that way.
Give the GM and his coach immense credit: They refused to succumb to the status quo. They pulled a Clint Hurdle is what they did. They “honestly self-evaluated,” as the Pirates manager likes to say, and reached some hard conclusions:
• Their system needed an overhaul.
• Their goaltender needed way more support.
• Their players needed to hear another voice on the coaching staff.
• Their defense corps needed a calming presence.
That's quite the checklist, when you think about it, but Shero and Bylsma aggressively attacked each item. When the team showed up for training camp, it probably looked the same to the untrained eye. But it had changed significantly. The brain trust had addressed each of the aforementioned issues, all to benefit the club next spring but all paying immediate dividends in the form of a 7-2 start.
“Hopefully,” Shero says of the changes, “it'll add up to something.”
If not, it won't be for a lack of effort or humility. This is how the Penguins tackled their priorities:
• They adopted the left-wing lock.
Early last summer, Bylsma decided he would change his system. That's not exactly a tweak.
“It's significant,” Bylsma says.
The result, in simplified form, is a scheme by which the Penguins attempt to slow opponents through the neutral zone as opposed to, you know, waving them along, the way they did in last year's Islanders series. Instead of inviting east-west passing from opponents, the Penguins are trying to suck them up ice, into turnovers, or get them to dump pucks into the Penguins' zone. Odd-man breaks have been nearly non-existent.
“There's more people back,” Bylsma said, labeling the approach in the neutral zone a “three-lane” system. “You always have three people behind the puck.”
Contrary to popular belief, new assistant coach Jacques Martin (more on him in a minute) did not implement this change. Bylsma and assistants Tony Granato and Todd Reirden were going to install the left-wing lock regardless of changes to the staff.
“I think it's an adjustment for everybody,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “I've never played it — but every game you play, it becomes more natural.”
• They hired a veteran NHL coach.
That would be Martin, 61, who provides a wealth of experience (1,294 games as a head coach) and knowledge.
Martin's focus is on “how we play without the puck, the defensive side,” Bylsma said, but he is more than just a defensive coordinating consultant.
“People forget his team (in 2003-04) in Ottawa led the league in goals,” Shero said.
Martin brings a fresh set of eyes and a teacher's demeanor to the job. When young defenseman Simon Depres was demoted, for example, Shero sent him to see Martin for an evaluation.
“Give Dan a lot of credit,” Shero said. “We'd been talking for a few years about adding to the staff — with something different than what we got. It was a bit of luck that (Martin) was available. Dan was excited to bring him in.”
• They got creative with Marc-Andre Fleury.
Last year, the goaltending move was signing Tomas Vokoun. This year, besides implementing a more goalie-friendly system and bolstering the defense, it was finally getting Fleury to see a sports psychologist and hiring a new goalie coach in Mike Bales.
We won't know until spring whether those moves pay off, but the first step was getting Fleury off to a good start. He's off to a great one. He looks less scrambly around the net, showing more economy of movement, and is casting the vibe of a seasoned veteran rather than that of a playful newbie.
• They brought back ‘The Piece.'
After all the fuss over conforming to a reduced salary cap, Shero found $13.5 million to lure back Fleury's long-lost security blanket – Rob Scuderi.
“He's the piece,” Fleury joked, invoking Scuderi's legendary nickname. “He's great defensively around the net – calm, consistent, steady.”
In other words, precisely the kind of soothing presence Fleury needs.
What's it all mean? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, the Penguins are to be commended.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at email@example.com.