Tim Benz: Penguins’ speed starting to dominate again
The comment from Nick Bjugstad resonated after the Pittsburgh Penguins blanked the Columbus Blue Jackets, 3-0, on March 7.
“It’s a little different style than what I was used to,” the former Florida Panther forward said. “These guys play … fast! It’s a fun way to play.”
Even with Bjugstad’s added emphasis, that used to be a common statement about the Penguins the last three years or so. An empty quote. Of course, the Penguins are fast. Who didn’t know that?
But recently, that truism became more of a question. Are the Penguins as fast as they used to be?
It seemed as if that concern started to be raised after the loss to Washington in the Metropolitan Division final last year.
The Penguins had beaten the Capitals with their oppressive speed twice in a row in the previous postseasons. But it appeared as if the black-and-gold advantage in that department began to fade not long after the Stanley Cup was paraded through Pittsburgh for a second straight year in June 2017. Piece by piece.
Since that first 2016 Stanley Cup team was constructed, fleet-footed skaters Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley and Conor Sheary have been traded.
Justin Schultz, Kris Letang and Bryan Rust have spent at least one extended stretch off the ice with significant injuries.
Add in the natural slowing down of a roster with seven high-leverage players in their 30s (or 40s, Matt Cullen), and the Penguins weren’t looking as quick as they used to be.
But that’s not how Bjugstad sees it coming in from Florida during the middle of the season.
“Coming to this team, from the get-go, it was noticeable right away,” Bjugstad reiterated about the team’s speed after a 4-2 win over Boston Sunday. “There’s a lot of high-end talent. It’s a fast pace. It makes it hard for the opponents.”
Bjugstad is more of a long strider than a zippy skater. But he can cover some ground. Certainly, that reach on his 6-foot-6 frame augments whatever speed he has.
His fellow former Panther, Jared McCann, has helped inject some pep since coming on board. He looks to be able to keep up fine as the third wheel on that speedy first line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. McCann has nine goals and four assists in 20 games as a Penguin.
“Speed is the name of the game today,” McCann said. “The more speed you have, the less time the (opposing) defense has to make plays. The less time they have as a team to make plays.”
If you listen to head coach Mike Sullivan, the issue of diminished speed hasn’t been as much of a problem as you may think.
The injuries to the likes of Rust, Letang and Schultz have gotten in the way, for sure. But when his full roster is assembled, Sullivan seems to think the perception of a slowing Penguins team is more about optics than foot speed.
“It’s not just about physical skating ability,” Sullivan said after the victory over Boston. “It’s about your ability to transition the puck and change the point of attack. That’s when our team shows our best speed game.”
Sullivan also contends that the Penguins never actually got slower. He argues the rest of the NHL is speeding up.
“The rest of the league has gotten faster,” he said. “Maybe a couple of years ago in 2016, we might have had a significant speed advantage. I think the whole league has tried to get faster. But I believe we are a team that can still play fast.”
Sure. That’s true. But it also may be a little generous. It’s tough to argue that between the injuries and trades listed above, the Penguins haven’t slowed a touch. But with the addition of McCann and Teddy Blueger, the increasing confidence and familiarity of Dominik Simon and Bjugstad and the eventual returns of Rust, Letang, and Zach Aston-Reese, the Penguins may soon be well ahead of the rest of the pack in terms of speed. Just as they used to be.
I mean, not Antonio-Brown-on-McKnight-Road fast. But pretty quick.