The Blueline Dilemma
Last season the Penguins coaching staff decided around early January that the best way to win in the playoffs was developing a defensive mindset to go out and win games 2-1.
It led to a generic offensive brand of hockey and more defensive responsibilities on the centers and a big focus on forwards providing consistent back pressure to tighten the Penguins gap structure in the neutral zone.
A deeper team offensively in 2015-2016, will the Penguins actually be able to get away with playing a run and gun type style with the personnel they have on their backend?
Two burning questions right now for this group:
1. How soon into the season before the coaching staff has to dumb down the system again like last year to limit issues in their own end?
2. How long will they actually be able to stick with a top pairing of Olli Maatta – Kris Letang?
Penguin coaches and the management team determined this summer the best way to defend is to be able to go get the puck and move it.
“I look at compete, skating and puck movement,” Mike Johnston said of what he looks for out of his defensemen.
It sounds like a great plan until reality sinks in that the Penguins success defensively is going to be so heavily dictated by the commitment of the forwards playing all three zones.
At somepoint it’s bound to happen where it becomes one or the other for the Penguins. Try to go out and win 5-4 most nights, something the NHL doesn’t allow with how games are called now and so heavily coached, or tighten up their system defensively to off-set a weak blueline.
The Penguins have a potential gem of a top pair in Olli Maatta – Kris Letang but for the coaching staff to get away with Maatta – Letang as a top pair, an adequate No. 2 pairing has to emerge.
If a Paul Martin or Matt Niskanen was still around, then as a coaching staff you could certainly count on being able to keep Maatta – Letang together for the long-haul.
Some in the media continue to talk up Derrick Pouliot and Ben Lovejoy as the Penguins likely No. 2 pairing. Let’s just say that scenario would have opposing coaches licking their chops on any given night.
“The Pouliot kid is a train-wreck,” an Eastern Conference scout said of Pouliot’s play in his own end. “He has no grasp of the position, his head looks to be spinning a 100 mph.”
Pouliot did nothing in the rookie tournament or in camp so far to dispel those type of views some NHL types OUTSIDE of Pittsburgh have on him.
“Young defensemen making an impact in this league at 20-21 years old are sound defensively first and then the offense starts to come a few years down the road, a former NHL assistant coach said. “Thinking he’s [Derrick Pouliot] going to be [Erik] Karlsson and the ‘O’ will outweigh the defensive mistakes just isn’t being realistic.”
Kris Letang and Olli Maatta are great examples of that. Letang didn’t top 35 points until his fourth full NHL season. He was averaging nearly 20 minutes per game during the Penguins Stanley Cup run at age 21 in 2009 because he could play his own end very well, not because he was the offensive player he is now who averages over 0.70 points per game.
Olli Maatta is so good at a young age because of how well developed he is defensively and was at 18 years old. That’s why the Penguins need to be patient with Pouliot.
Learning from Mike Sullivan down in Wilkes Barre who is regarded as an excellent teacher could be a great thing for Pouliot’s development
WHO EMERGES WITH IAN COLE?
The Penguins developing an adequate No. 2 pairing starts with Ian Cole. He’s a question mark on how he’ll handle top-2 pairing minutes but some in upper management believe Cole is Matt Niskanen 2.0 and we’ll find out soon enough.
Someone outside of Maatta-Letang-Cole, though, has to step up in a big way.
It’s not going to be Lovejoy, it’s certainly not going to be Gonchar.
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