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Kovacevic: Planning Pens' power surge

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Monday, June 27, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Penguins' many issues this summer include pending free agents, possible trades and now the pursuit of Jaromir Jagr. But most pressing, in my view, will be fixing the embarrassing power play.

So, let me be the first to applaud Dan Bylsma for having begun that process.

The head coach told me at the NHL Entry Draft over the weekend that he and his assistants met recently on that matter, and they not only are revamping their approach but also aim to have so many strategies that they can change game to game, even shift to shift.

"We need to have different sets," Bylsma said. "We're not effective when we become stationary and predictable, and that's a fault of ours. We're going to have four forwards out there a lot. We're going to have a point guy in the middle at times. We'll have different things for teams to worry about."

That's welcome, but what took so long?

The power-play strategy last season appeared complacent bordering on nonexistent, never more than in the playoff loss to Tampa Bay: The Penguins maddeningly dispatched the same players in the same spots to produce the same results in going 1 for 35 with the man-advantage.

Sure, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were missing. But that didn't excuse, for example, using three left-handed forwards and all but advertising that no back-door play was coming. That allowed the Lightning penalty-killers to load up to one side and routinely steal the puck.

The Penguins' power play for the season succeeded just 15.8 percent of the time, 25th in the 30-team NHL. Bylsma was fair to point out that it was a respectable 20.5 percent before Crosby and Malkin were hurt, but he correctly added, "Even then, we didn't have a great look."

As Bylsma indicated, there soon will be many looks. There also could be roster changes, not the least of which would be adding Jagr as power-play quarterback.

For fun, though, let's make a power-play formation using the current roster as well as Bylsma's new plan for four forwards and a lot of movement. Let's also go with an umbrella formation — one defenseman at center point, which Bylsma acknowledged will be an option.

The key to the umbrella is a gifted, mobile defenseman capable of covering up mistakes, and few players anywhere meet those criteria better than Kris Letang. Besides, being at center point could help cut down on Letang's many misfires. That's a win-win.

To his right is Malkin, owner of one of the game's most powerful one-timers. Malkin also can use this position to carry the puck into the slot if there's an opening, a wild card most power plays don't have.

Also on the right but down by the goal line is Crosby. He always has been most effective there, making passes, collecting loose pucks behind the net, stuffing in surprise shots and, as of last season, deflecting point shots like a wizard. Beyond all that, it never hurts to have the best player close to the net.

Finding players for the left side is not nearly as easy.

My tentative choice for the flank to Letang's left is Tyler Kennedy. He is a rare right-handed shot among the forwards, he loves shooting from the left circle and he can adjust and crash the net as needed. I have concerns about his ability to make passes and maintain possession, but Bylsma feels Kennedy has improved in those areas over the past year.

My guy in front of the net is Chris Kunitz. Yeah, all 6-foot, 193 pounds of him. He's no John LeClair, but he is the only remaining forward with proven ability to score from tight range. He also fits Bylsma's wish for movement because of his puck retrieval and, of course, he has a knack for finding Crosby.

My second choice for the front of the net, which will surprise some, is Mike Rupp. Jordan Staal lacks the hands, James Neal clearly prefers the perimeter and Eric Tangradi isn't ready.

Of course, I'd scrap all this in a Manitoba minute if Jagr could be added to the power play. And it sounds like Bylsma would embrace that, too.

"You do have to consider how good it could be with him," Bylsma said, "in addition to all the great players we already have."

Good luck to the Lightning -- or anyone else -- defending a power play with three NHL scoring champions up front.

Add Dejan Kovacevic to your Google+ circles.




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