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Friday, November 14, 2014

Awakening the Sleeping Giant by @BrianK_PI

When the Penguins exceeded expectations to make the Stanley Cup Final as a young, talented team, and won it all the year later, it seemed like only the beginning for what many were calling hockey's next dynasty. Anchored by four top draft picks all in their young 20s, it appeared that Pittsburgh was going to be atop of the league for years to come. And they have, to a point: they've finished over 100 points in every full season, and they've ranked 8th, 3rd, 4th, 2nd, and 6th in the league during the regular season.

Problem is that the regular season success hasn't carried over into the postseason. They failed to win a playoff series in two of the five seasons since winning the Cup, and two other seasons they bowed out in the Eastern Conference semifinals. As time went on, expectations for the group grew sky high, and even a trip to the ECF was viewed as a disappointment. It became a no-win situation that any team would struggle through. Lose a playoff series and watch the whole world tear apart their performance until everyone received a share of the blame. Win another Stanley Cup? There'd certainly be those wondering why it took them so long.

Eventually enough was enough for Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, and the weight of those expectations led to the end of Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma's tenures in Pittsburgh. This was supposed to be a team in transition, a team that was struggling to find its true identity, and a team whose window was supposed to be rapidly closing. Mike Johnston, who has a very similar approach as Dan Bylsma did, was supposed to take time to get his system in place, the players to buy in, and this team playing to its full potential. That is, if that even happened at all. There were those who doubted whether jumping from the CHL straight to the top of the NHL would be too much to handle.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Pittsburgh bottoming out on the ice: they didn't. In fact, they didn't just avoid a letdown: they've come out flying to start the season with a 10-3-1 record through their first 14 games, putting them on pace for 123 points. Jesse Marshall  had a good piece earlier in the week about how the Penguins are due for a regression to the mean, but like he says, this doesn't mean that they're going to play like a lottery team over the next few weeks. Their power play percentage, their shooting percentage and save percentage (as evidenced by their league leading PDO of  104.3), they're all likely to come back down to more reasonable levels,  but if the opening season has shown anything it's that they're still a damn good hockey team, and they're still more than capable of playing at a very high level.

And possibly even more important, though not quantifiable, is the change in the culture, the vibe of the team, the re-calibrating of the expectations. The weight of the expectations at the end of the Shero/Bylsma era were absolutely crushing the team. Despite one of the league's best offenses and receiving (mostly) great goaltending, the Pens wilted under pressure in four games against the Bruins and the final three games against the Rangers, scoring just 5 goals in 7 games. The environment many derided as a "country club" led to a lack of accountability and an increasing amount of frustration.

If nothing else, the move from Shero and Bylsma to Rutherford & Co. and Johnston hit the reset button for the fans, the players, and the organization as a whole. There certainly seemed to be fewer and less severe overreactions during the recent seven game win streak, and while it would be premature to say now that unrealistic expectations won't return for the playoffs, it does seem to have sent a message that another Stanley Cup isn't a given. Having elite players helps, but having a strong supporting cast with those players helps more, and even then it only provides an opportunity. Mike Johnston brings a less structured system that encourages talented players to try to make plays, not to mention the opportunity for players like Simon Despres to develop on the ice without fear that a single mistake could result in being benched and healthy scratched. Jim Rutherford made it a point to emphasize the bottom of the roster in free agency, and those players have given the Pens a much improved bottom six over what they had last year.

And as much as everything has changed, this much has remained the same: The Pittsburgh Penguins are still one of the best teams in the league, and as tumultuous of an offseason as this was it might have been just the wake up call they needed.

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