Young defensemen take time to learn Bylsma's system with Penguins
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Rossi: Time with Penguins taught Bylsma importance of stability
- Penguins’ Scuderi offers honest assessment of his 2013-14 performance