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Young defensemen take time to learn Bylsma's system with Penguins

| Sunday, July 21, 2013, 10:36 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Olli Maatta skates during the Penguins' development camp on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

Olli Maatta grins. Scott Harrington's eyes get big. Derrick Pouliot laughs.

Brian Dumoulin just shakes his head.

The four best defensive prospects in the Penguins' system have NHL potential, but they won't play in Pittsburgh until they've mastered coach Dan Bylsma's system. For defensemen, this is no easy task.

“It's definitely different than anything I was used to,” Pouliot said.

Penguins coaches frequently speak of “getting north.” With arguably the most talented group of forwards in the NHL in its possession, the coaching staff wants the puck onto Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin blades as quickly as possible.

Instead of deploying a methodical system to retrieve pucks, the Penguins use an up-tempo approach that, when executed properly, springs the puck to Crosby or Malkin when the stars are in full flight.

Executing that approach, though, isn't a cinch.

“It takes a lot of work,” Maatta said. “I feel more comfortable with it than I once did.”

Touch passes and perfect timing are required to make Bylsma's master plan work. The system often sees two defensemen providing puck support for one another in the Penguins' zone before quickly directing the puck to the neutral zone where the forwards are potentially already preparing a rush.

Simple, cross-ice feeds between defense partners are the norm in the NHL. Such methodical hockey isn't what the Penguins want from their blue line, which explains their preference for speedy defensemen who excel at firing perfect passes.

“That's why this week is so crucial for the kids that come here (for the team's prospect camp),” said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton assistant coach Alain Nasreddine, who grooms defensemen in the AHL before they are ready for NHL action.

“It is different than some things that you see on a lot of other teams. The first thing we tell them is that, ‘This is going to sound weird, but it works.' It's worked for us for a number of years.”

Forwards almost universally love playing in this system. Defensemen require time to understand the nuances.

Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek were acquired via free agency in 2010 and admitted during the 2010-11 season that part of their struggles were related to the complexity of the system. Michalek never felt comfortable with the Penguins, and Martin never thrived until his third season.

“It definitely takes a while to get a grasp on it,” Harrington said. “It's not totally different than the stuff we did in London (Harrington's OHL team), but there are differences. Some of it is small stuff, just things they want us to do with our footwork. But the idea is always to get the puck to the forwards as quickly as possible.”

The system can click at a high level when executed properly, but given how much of the Penguins teachings go against the grain of how their defensemen were taught during earlier stages of development, weeks like the prospect camp are important.

“I wouldn't say stuff we did at Boston College was totally different,” Dumoulin said. “But you really do need to come here and get the refresher. The system just really relies on communication. You're relying on your defensive partner to tell you which direction to go. It's different. But I think we're all getting there.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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