The Penguins Are Fun Again Thanks To Jim Rutherford and Mike Johnston by @MadChad412


I want to be clear, Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win a lot of games, including a Stanley Cup. The playoff failures and the lack of player development eventually cost them both their jobs. That being said, I don't expect the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup every single year nor should you. Perhaps the most startling thing that happened during the Bylsma-Shero-era was how stale the team's style of play became in the last two years. Constantly looking for a stretch pass, low-skilled players constantly just dumping the puck in, even when they had room to carry the puck. I think fans, including myself, became frustrated by the lack of playoff success as well as the fact that the Penguins just weren't as fun and exciting to watch anymore. 


Jim Ruttherford has since replaced Shero as GM, and rookie head coach Mike Johnston took over for Bylsma. Sometimes, big changes such as firing your GM and head coach  can be enough to get people excited about the future. I for one, have loved all of the moves Rutherford has made so far as Pens' general manager, including bringing in Johston to coach the team. The Pens were a good-not-great team under Bylsma. Perhaps any coach could have won lots of regular season games with the core of players that Bylsma had. All that I know as of 2013, the Penguins no longer as fun of a team to watch play hockey. Everything seemed robotic, corporate-like, and then there were reports of the Pens have a country-club like atmosphere. With talents like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal, the Penguins should have been one of the more exciting teams in the league. The last two years under Bylsma, they were not. 

Beau Bennett, who is currently injured, summed up the difference between the old system ran by Bylsma, and the current system run by Johnston. 

“We played a lot like robots last year. Everything was so ingrained in your mind. You had to be at a certain place at a certain time. Even today, on our forechecks, it was cool to (hear), ‘I don’t care who’s the second or third guy. Just go to one of these spots.’ It was more free reign that way. More read and react.” Quote via Jonathan Bombulie

Precision is great. Guys playing hard is great. However, when you're not winning championships, let alone getting eliminated from the playoffs in disappointing fashion year-in and year-out, fans at least want to be entertained by a highly skilled team. Fact is, Bylsma and Shero couldn't even give the fans that in the last year of their respected tenure with the Penguins. Instead, we got Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Neal, and a bunch of guys that were mostly fit for the AHL dumping the puck in the zone every night. Now dumping the puck in is a last resort. With Johnston, it's about obtaining the puck, getting the puck carrier going with speed, supporting the puck carrier and attacking the net. 

With Rutherford, who has accepted analytics as part of hockey, he has done a great job  of getting skilled guys at great value. Shero and Bylsma wanted gritty guys who tried hard, and played tough in the corners on the bottom-six. Guys like Joe Vitale, Tanner Glass, and Taylor Pyatt. Rutherford has replaced those guys with guys that are willing to forecheck, fight, and play gritty, but with much more skill. Rutherford brought in Steve Downie and Blake Comeau to replace guys on the bottom-six, and did so by actually saving the Penguins money. 

Comeau is signed for 1 year, $700,000
Downie is signed for 1 year, $1,000,000

Joe Vitale is signed for 3 years, $950,000 per (Arizona)
Tanner Glass is signed for 3 years, $1,900,000 per (Rangers)

Compare the four: 



Comeau has been fantastic in the first two games of the season. He's scored a goal, has thrown some hits, and has looked like a great fit. For those that wanted more grit, there was a play against Anaheim where Kris Letang took a huge hit late in the game, Comeau came over and retaliated with a huge hit of his own, sticking up for his star defenseman. Downie also came over after the whistle and had some words. Downie has been great at staying composed while trying to draw a penalty by instigating. If you wanted grit and guys that are going to stick up for the star players, Downie and Comeau will be your favorite players, and they'll do it with more speed and skill than most of the guys the Pens had been playing on the bottom-six the last two years under Bylsma. 





Rutherford also signed veteran defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to a one-year deal worth $4 million-per-year. Another high-reward low-risk deal that is going to pay off huge for the Penguins. The Penguins let Brooks Orpik go in free agency this summer for big money. Orpik was always overrated in my eyes, mostly because people love hockey players that can lay big hits, and Orpik certainly did that. However, Orpik is not worth over $5 million-per-year. Hell, Orpik probably shouldn't make over $3 million. Bylsma and Shero treated Orpik as if he was a top-four defenseman and that just wasn't true. Now, the Pens have a cheaper and much more talented Ehrhoff to replace Oprik and if you have watched the Penguins first two games, you would already notice the improvement in the Penguins blueline, from carrying the puck to getting the puck out of the zone. 

Here is Orpik vs Ehrhoff. Remember that Orpik makes $1.5 million more than what the Penguins are paying Ehrhoff. 




One thing Johnston has done with the defense is allow them to move up to be apart of the play, as well as carry the puck out of the defensive zone to set up the transition game. The Penguins not only have more skill on their blueline, but they have much more freedom to be a part of the offense. Other small things that I like about Johnston is him putting Malkin on a wing, and using Sidney Crosby's speed to attack. Both Crosby and Malkin could have career years this year. 


Listen, the Penguins have only played two games, so there is a small sample size of how they look under Johnston versus what they looked like under Bylsma. However, 11 goals in two games, plus their absolute dominance in possessing the puck has lit a fire under this fanbase. Patric Hornqvist, another Rutherford offseason acquisition, has been a force, playing alongside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. Hornqvist has 12 shots on goal, 2 goals, and 4 points in just two games. Hornqvist has the skating ability to keep up with Crosby and he is an absolute force in front of the net. As a team, under Johnston, the Pens just look faster, they swarm the puck, they protect the puck, and they have fast breakouts that lead to scoring chances. They also don't hesitate to shoot the puck. The Penguins are currently second in the NHL in shots taken per game with 40. The Penguins weren't even in the top-10 in the NHL in that category the last two seasons under Bylsma.

This was not meant to be an all-out bashing of Shero and Bylsma, more-so as it was to show why Pens' fans should be excited about all of the changes. The Penguins have a different look, and that look is faster and more skilled. The Penguins are also a deeper team than last year's stale Penguins. Hell, even Craig Adams is having a decent start of the season. The changes were needed, for the fans, for the franchise and most of all for the players. The players seem excited, scoring 11 goals in two games is exciting, this team will be more exciting to watch than they were over the last two seasons. This Penguins team looks like they are ready to have some fun, which translates into the fans having fun watching them play. Something I can say I was not having in the last few months of the Bylsma-coached Penguins. 

Some suggested that the Pens made major changes just for the sake of change. That is false. The fact is, the Pens needed a major shakeup in this organization. The key players needed that change, as did the fans. Change is usually good especially in hockey. The changes the Penguins made are already paying off and any excitement is totally warranted. 

This is the most excited I have been about the Penguins in a few years. This Pens team could be the most exciting team to watch on a nightly basis since the 2007-2008 team that featured Marian Hossa and Gary Roberts. ( I actually think that team was more fun to watch than the team that won the Stanley Cup a year later) As a fan of the Penguins and the game of hockey, I would rather have an exciting team that uses its strengths flame out in the playoffs, than a team that does not. Thus, I am finally excited about the Penguins again, and you should be as well. And you have Jim Rutherford and Mike Johnston both to thank for that. 


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About Chad Nolan

Steelers, Pens, Pirates....Yup
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1 comments:

  1. You have made some excellent points. Some comments:

    Any stat person will tell you that to base the season on the first two games is way too soon. Take a look at where they are after 10 games. Then 20. If they keep playing this way at game 20 then it truly is something to get excited about.

    To say they were not exciting the seasons under HCDB and Shero doesn't add up. The skills of 87 and 71 were on display most evenings. Every time they touch the puck its exciting. And how many sellouts have the Pens had ? And going to four road games last season I saw and heard very vocal and excited Pens fans. They won a lot of games the last few seasons. The boys at RootSports don't have any problem coming up with a highlight reel.

    And its time to stop blaming the past w HCDB and Shero. Be thankful for what we had with them and anticipate a great season ahead.

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