Have the Penguins reclaimed their speed?
It was a throwback to a bygone era during the late stages of Penguins practice in Cranberry on Wednesday.
They performed a task they have largely ignored for roughly half a decade.
A shootout drill.
Players in black and yellow jerseys took turns on goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray, using their best moves in hopes of scoring a breakaway goal.
Under former coach Dan Bylsma, the Penguins would end virtually every practice with a shootout competition. The losers would have to peform some indignant task, such as growing a mustache for a month or untying a teammate’s skates in the dressing room.
Under Mike Sullivan, and even predecessor Mike Johnston, the Penguins have largely done away with working on shootouts.
But for the last practice before the start of the regular season, it was a fun activity to conclude training camp.
The Penguins are far more interested in bringing back something of far greater value from a more recent vintage.
It was the calling card of the Penguins when they won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017. In some ways, it was their downfall during aborted the playoff runs of 2018 and 2019. The opposition caught up and surpassed them on many nights.
“Every team is always trying to play fast,” forward Sidney Crosby said. “Whether you have guys with good foot speed or guys that make decisions fast … that’s the goal for every team is to play a fast game. That’s the case with us and I definitely think we’re built for that, even with the way our (defensemen) move the puck and the way they skate.
“We’re playing a fast game and we’ll have to build on that as the season moves on.”
Determining if the 2019-20 Penguins are indeed faster than their 2018-19 counterparts is an appraisal which may take upwards of 82 regular season games to conclude. And given general manager Jim Rutherford’s aggressive inclinations, they may make a trade or two (or more) to achieve the right tempo.
But on the eve of the regular season, the players suggest this group is faster than the squad that meekly shuffled out of the 2019 playoffs in April.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” forward Jared McCann said. “We’ve made some really good changes this summer to bolster our lineup and kind of bring some new energy to our the lineup. With guys like (Alex) Galchenyuk and (Dominik) Kahun coming in, they’re very quick and fast and think the game at a high speed. That’s just going to help us.”
Even beyond the tangible additions of Galchenyuk, Kahun and fellow forward Brandon Tanev, whom Evgeni Malkin suggested is one of the NHL’s best skaters, the incumbent members of the roster have received a clear message that they need to play at a quicker pace than what they offered last spring.
“We had a great camp,” defenseman Marcus Pettersson said. “A fast-paced camp. You can see everybody wants to play that way and everybody is excited to play that way for sure.”
Speed seems like a fairly simple concept in hockey. But in all reality, it’s much more nuanced that skating goal line to goal line.
“Playing with speed means to be quick everywhere,” Kahun said. “Make quick decisions, make quick plays. The speed of that is not just skating straight. Make quick plays. Be everywhere quick. That’s what I think I can do.”
For defensive defensemen in the modern NHL, playing with speed is a considerably detailed proposition.
“You really have to close on guys quick,” defenseman Erik Gudbranson said. “Down low, a lot of it is stick-on-puck and taking away (an opponent’s) angle as soon as possible. I can be right besides a guy, but if he can make a play through me, I’m really not doing anything being that close. Having a good gap is huge obviously. Nullifying plays, trying to stop them at the (center) red line as opposed to the blue line and making it tough for them to gain speed through the neutral zone is huge. It pretty much covers every facet of the game.”
Above all else, thinking fast takes precedent over skating fast.
“This game is 90 percent mental to begin with,” Gudbranson said. “Every team is so even starting off. The teams that are able to execute more often and a more consistent amount of time go deep.”
It remains to be seen if the Penguins have sufficient speed to go deep on another postseason excursion, especially with fleet winger Bryan Rust sidelined to start the campaign due to a suspected hand injury. But with training camp completed, they fully realize it will be a vital component to adding another championship banner to their collection in the rafters of PPG Paints Arena.
“We do know we have a fast team,” Pettersson said. “We want to be a team that pushes that style of play. Everybody is buying into that.”
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .