Tim Benz: Penguins going younger, faster to mask issues on defense | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Penguins going younger, faster to mask issues on defense

Tim Benz
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Penguins coach Mike Sullivan looks on during Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs against the New York Islanders on April 12, 2019, in Uniondale, N.Y.

This is the third of our five posts examining the “money quotes” from Mike Sullivan’s interview on 105.9 the X with Mark Madden last week.

This entry looks at an admission from Sullivan about his team.

Two, actually.

Frankly, neither is groundbreaking. More or less, both corroborate opinions that many people had about the Penguins last year.

But what Sullivan said tends to be divergent from a narrative he and Jim Rutherford tried to spin at times last season, especially after the playoff loss to the Islanders.

If you listen to what Sullivan told Madden at the 14-minute mark of the interview, he makes two things clear.

• The team wanted to get younger and faster this year.

• The team needed to do that to help mask some defensive deficiencies.

Again, not earth-shattering stuff. Anyone who watched five minutes of that Islanders series could’ve told you those were pressing issues.

But what we all saw and what Sullivan and Rutherford were willing to admit at their season-ending news conference are altogether different.

Remember, Rutherford bristled at suggestions that his defense corps wasn’t good enough, claiming it was the best that he has had during his time in Pittsburgh.

And he openly challenged questions implying that the team lost speed from its Stanley Cup incarnations.

“Have you been going to the games? You think (Nick) Bjugstad and (Jared) McCann can skate?” Rutherford shot back during his season-ending Q&A.

Well, ol’ GMJR must’ve wondered about that himself since he went out and acquired three quick forwards in their 20s — Dominik Kahun, Brandon Tanev and Alex Galchenyuk. Plus, he brought back a young puck-moving prospect defenseman in Pierre-Olivier Joseph as part of the Kessel trade.

Actions speak louder than words.

Well, in Rutherford’s case here anyway. Sullivan’s words to Madden really resonated as to why this paradigm shift back to the way the 2016 and 2017 title teams were constructed was so important.

Because for as much as Rutherford may like the make-up of his blue line, Sullivan says these improvements were still crucial to make.

“We’re really not a team that’s built to back off and defend,” Sullivan said. “It’s a group that’s more about playmaking and (our) ability to play with the puck. And if we don’t have the puck, then we have got to have the ability to pursue it.”

That’s a thing the Penguins did particularly well in Sullivan’s first two years coaching in Pittsburgh. But with forwards such as Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Conor Sheary, and Tom Kuhnhackl moving on, perhaps the Penguins simply don’t do it as well.

And maybe Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist or even Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin aging doesn’t help.

“That’s why I think it’s so important to surround our core guys with the right pieces that allow us to get better in that aspect of the game,” Sullivan continued. “Our overall puck pursuit and being harder on the forecheck. Making better decisions on reloads, so that if our defensemen do go down the wall on a pinch they’ve got a reload on a forward working to support that kind of decision.”

Failure to do that last part cost the Penguins on numerous occasions last year, contributing to the fact that — as Sullivan reminded us in the interview — the Penguins were the worst team in hockey when it came to allowing odd-man breaks.

It feels as if Rutherford has tried to address some of the problems Sullivan discussed this offseason with the forward unit.

Should the general manager love that blue line as much as he does? Trading Olli Maatta and reportedly trying to trade Jack Johnson before that infers he may be wavering there, too.

But if the forwards can help more often — as Sullivan intimates should be the case this year — maybe the debate about the blue line won’t be as pressing.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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