What good is having extremely talented players if you refuse to put them in the best position to succeed? For all of the successes that Dan Bylsma had as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, perhaps his biggest folly was not adapting his philosophies to his players, instead forcing them to adapt to his system. Bylsma, who liked to play aging veterans as well guys that would "grind it out" over younger more-skilled alternatives, was truly holding back some of his players and teams from reaching their full potential. Bylsma was fired this off-season, along with general manager Ray Shero.
Insert new head coach Mike Johnston. Johnston, who was previously coaching in the WHL with the Portland Winterhawks, is known for getting the most out of talented defenseman. His system is an up-tempo game that will allow the Pens' defensemen to carry the puck out of the defensive zone to generate offense. This will be different from the Bylsma approach, which saw the defenseman look to make longer passes out of the zone. Instead of looking to chip the puck up the ice, the Pens will finally be able to be more creative, allowing players to carry the puck up the ice with puck support.
Johnston's system is perfect for the group of defensemen that the Penguins currently possess.
The coaching change will benefit the Penguins as a whole, but perhaps no player will prosper more due to this change than Kris Letang.
|(Corsi is a measurement that is used to show puck possession with said player on or off of the ice)|
In 2012-2013, Letang played predominantly alongside Matt Niskanen, a much more skilled player, and the results were fantastic. Letang had 38 points in 41 games, and finished third in the Norris Trophy voting. Letang also looked brilliant when paired with Paul Martin and Simon Despres, even if those pairings came in short spurts. The stats do not lie. Letang is a better player when given more freedom with the puck while playing with another good offensively-skilled defenseman.
It's crazy to think about the numbers Letang would have put up had he not been anchored down in both terms of style of play, and by his defensive partners. Letang is the Pens' third-best player on their roster right now, you can make an argument for him being the most skilled offensive-defenseman in the NHL. The Pens need to get the most out of his ability to make that $7.25 million per-year worth the price. Under the Bylsma-Shero regime, the Pens were not doing that.
Jim Rutherford to the rescue. Rutherford's best decision so far has been to replace Bylsma with Johnston as head coach. His second best decision might be signing veteran defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to a one-year $4 million deal this offseason.
Some argue that the Pens did not need Ehrhoff, but at that price, this will go down as the biggest steal of the year. Ehrhoff, 32, is a top-two defenseman on most teams in the NHL, and has three 40+ point seasons in his NHL career. Ehrhoff's best season of his career came in Vancouver in the 2010-2011 season. Ehrhoff, who played with Alexander Edler (another talented defenseman) had 50 points and a CORSI-for of 54.92. Ehrhoff and Edler were the Canucks top defensive pair, helping the Canucks reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.
After that season, the Canucks traded his rights before he hit free agency, and Ehrhoff signed a 10 year, $40 million deal with the Buffalo Sabres. The Canucks never recovered from the loss of Ehrhoff. Ehrhoff's statistics dropped significantly, though you really can't place the blame on him, considering that Buffalo has been one of the worst teams in the NHL over that span. Even when Ehrhoff was on the ice, he made whoever he was playing with better.
The Sabres bought him out this past offseason, but it was due to worries over the cap penalties he'd face from retiring before his contract was finished, not his play on the ice. Ehrhoff's one-year deal with the Pens is a win-win for both parties. Ehrhoff can play on a Cup contending team, paired alongside Letang, and have a chance to have a career year. If that happens, Ehrhoff can cash in big time next summer, and the Pens will obviously benefit from that as a team.
So far this preseason, the pairing of Letang-Ehrhoff have looked incredible, especially considering that both players are still getting adjusted to each other and the new system. They have been fun to watch, active with both the puck and their sticks. They compliment each other very well, since Ehrhoff has the skill-set and mobility to keep up with Letang, one of the most gifted skaters in the NHL.
The pairing of Letang-Ehrhoff can absolutely be the most best overall defensive pairing in the entire NHL this season. The new system allows them to do what they do best, generate offensive possession via carrying the puck. They will also be one of the most exciting pairings in the league. I would not be shocked at all if both players best their career highs in both points and CORSI-for. This also sets up Paul Martin and Olli Maatta to be paired and will allow the Pens to use Scuderi in very limited minutes.
Putting Ehrhoff with Letang is the right move for this team and for Letang. They are a match made in Heaven.