The Distance to Here: A Penguins Retrospective

24 04 2016

So, here we are. We’ve all made it here. Where is “here,” exactly? That is both something easy and difficult to answer.

“Here” is nothing more than the second round of playoffs in the 2015-2016 season. The Penguins have made it through round one with, what some may call, remarkable ease. “Here” is waiting to find out if the next round will be against another rival – the Flyers or Capitals (as of this writing, the Caps-Flyers game had just begun. EDIT: It will be the Capitals).

“Here” is also a much more…amorphous term. “Here” represents a location or destination. Moving on in playoffs is not a unique sentiment or goal. Every team wants to make playoffs and then progress as far as possible. Getting “here,” however, is something different for this Penguins team. “Here” isn’t simply the 2nd round (or Conference championship or even the the Finals themselves). “Here” means the transformation of the Penguins into this team, this style of play, this everything.

To understand how the Penguins got “here,” we need to look at a journey they collectively took. For some of you, none of this will be new. Let’s take a trip back in time. Not to the distant past. Not to the explosion of the stars from which we were all created. Let’s take a trip back to the grand old days of 2010.

The Pens were fresh off a monumental win against the Red Wings in the finals. They were champions again. Everyone felt great about the team. Of course, there were ups and downs, but the team rolls into playoffs and battles through a first round that was tougher than it should have been. I was at game 1 vs Ottawa when the Pens lost 5-4. That was bad hockey. They managed to get past the Senators, though, and went on to face the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs, of course, had just come off a miraculous win vs the top-seeded Capitals.

How quickly everyone declared the Pens had run into a “hot goalie” and that there was the Stanley Cup hangover after two runs to the Finals. So many were willing to say “eh, shit happens.” I was one of them. I was wrapped up in the Finals runs and understood that it’s not possible to win them all and the luck has to run out sometime. I didn’t so much buy the “hot goalie” argument, though, because Halak wasn’t really tested in that series. The Pens never made life difficult for him and he didn’t have to make many spectacular saves. He was good, sure, but not a series stealer. There was something far more nefarious in that series – the Jacques Martin PK Box at 5 on 5 play.

Martin’s Habs team was so prepared for Dan Bylsma it wasn’t even funny. He knew EXACTLY how to minimize the Pens’ vast edge in skill and talent. That Habs team wasn’t very good, but, my word, did they make the Caps and Pens look bad. Martin knew to give up the zone by collapsing all around Halak and keep all play to the perimeter. The Pens had to get pucks through so many bodies that nothing ever made it to Halak. When it did, there were always people around to clear the rebounds. It wasn’t difficult to see.

Now, I’m not a coach. I just pretend to be one on the internet. But I, along with many others, saw what was happening and that a different approach was needed. Anyone who saw the Eastern finals that year saw just how easy it was to break Martin’s system. In the wonderful words of Denis Green, “they were who we thought they were.” The Flyers made the Habs look incredibly silly, winning the series 4-1.

As a whole, we took a step back and started to look at everything. Those of us who dared to question things didn’t immediately buy the narrative of the “hot goalie.” We could see there was something else, but we didn’t panic. There were definitely some cracks, and, maybe, we should have been more mindful of those, but we move on to the next year.

2011, as pretty much everyone knows, was a travesty for a variety of reasons. That was the year I earned my “bad fan” card (and was routinely told how awful of a Pens fan I was) because I dared to speak the idea prior to game 7 vs Tampa that the Pens just didn’t have what it took to win.

I was, of course, right about that. The 2011 team just didn’t have “it.” That team was completely wrecked by injuries. The top line was Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy. They couldn’t score. They also weren’t giving up goals. Fleury played great. Martin was a beast on defense. The forwards played responsibly. But, like the Habs’ PK Box, Tampa, led by Guy Boucher, rolled out the trap. The Pens had no players with speed. They had no skill. It wasn’t exactly a daring statement to say this team didn’t have the wherewithal to compete. But I was the jerk for saying it.

And, like the year before, there was nothing done to negate it. The pattern emerged. Dan Bylsma would not, under any circumstance, change his gameplan and adapt to the situation at hand. I know it became something of an overused trope against Bylsma, but these years should have been glaring red flags. Dan Bylsma would not change no matter what was presented to him.

But I, like most everyone, said this year was excusable because of the injuries. And there is -some- truth to that. It’s hard to compare apples-to-apples when this team was so destroyed by injuries. The underlying problems still existed and it didn’t matter who laced up the skates. But we didn’t want to think about that.

So, here comes 2012. Holy mother of Moses, the 2012 Pens team was stacked. They were just scary good. 51-25-6, scoring 282 goals over the course of the season. 108 points. They were good.

And then the the Flyers happened. Pens fans still have PTSD over that series. That series went six games. The Flyers absolutely were in the heads of the Penguins. The Penguins took so many bad penalties and made so many awful plays. Asham, Adams, and Neal (more on these players later) all were suspended in the series. Need I remind everyone that this is the NHL and you pretty much need to murder someone or commit a hate crime (Hi Shaw!) in order to be suspended. And the Pens managed to get an entire equivalent line of forwards suspended in addition to Dan Bylsma getting fined for Adams instigating a fight in the final minutes.

That series was truly the jumping off point of many people. That was a series that was lost entirely at the feet of Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero. Dan Bylsma could not have had that team any less prepared for the Flyers. The mental breakdowns and antics fall entirely at the feet of the coach. The buck has to stop there with that kind of play. Bylsma did not lead that team. The inmates were running the asylum.

Many, myself included, called for blowing up the team. There needed to be changes. Whatever that team was, it clearly wasn’t cutting it. I began my lonely, sad quest of being the first to dare to question the philosophy of Ray Shero. I began to question the drafting. The free-agent signings. The player retention. The refusal to acknowledge the failures of coaching. I dared to whisper the unthinkable. I questioned the cult of personality around Ray Shero.

Ray Shero was a power-hitter. He’d just go out and swing for the fences with his trades. And he was good at them, but at what cost? Shero regularly gambled the future without any thought as to what it meant. And there is some value in doing that when you have a legitimate chance. When you do it year after year, though, you find yourself in a bad spot. But, much like Climate Change deniers today, who cares? You won’t be around to see it anyway.

Shero’s drafting left a lot to be desired. He had a few hits and a lot of misses. And that’s how it goes with NHL drafting. The problem was when you only have two or three picks, all later rounds, you need to make sure they all hit the mark. Factor in the players being drafted, it became an even bigger problem. Shero became known for drafting mobile defensemen. The argument from the Pro-Shero faction became “well, those mobile D-men are always in need and he can flip them for forwards whenever he wants.” There was – some – truth to that. Of course, about the only notable trade was the Goligoski trade. He did turn Goligoski into Neal and Niskanen. There can be debate about the trade for Iginla, but that was a little different because of the NTC.

The problem was that we live in reality and not EA Sports NHL game. You couldn’t just get great players from other teams for your shitty or unproven ones. Prospects are only so valuable without experience. It takes two to tango and it didn’t become so easy to just flip those players. When Shero did find a trade partner, he rarely traded for players with term. He was always trading the future for the present. That’s fine for someone with an incurable disease who doesn’t have long, but not for a sports franchise that needed to be competitive for more than 2-3 years.

So, you now have years and years of bad and/or limited drafting in high(er) rounds with basically nothing left in the pipeline for the next few years. Enter 2013, the Lockout shortened season.

The Pens were disgusting in 2013. Absolutely ridiculous. And they rolled over teams. They got Iginla, for God’s sake.

And then Boston happened.

This was a nigh unstoppable bruiser of a team until they met up with a defense-first, trap, choke, and smother team. They didn’t just lose. They lost their assess off in one of the most embarrassing ways for a professional team to lose – by being swept in the Conference finals, managing to score a total of 2 goals. Two! A team with the likes of a healthy Crosby, Malkin, and Iginla, they scored two effing goals. Those three had zero points in the conference finals. Zero!

You could almost make a case in the previous years as to why Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero shoud have kept their jobs. It became much, much harder to do after the meltdown against the Flyers. Shero at least started to shake things up in moving Staal. Of course, he selected two defensemen with the the first round picks, which included actively NOT drafting Filip Forsberg at number 8 (Shero selected Derrick Pouliot who has started to have the word “bust” whispered about him). Shero at least made a few symbolic moves in an attempt to shake things up that year. Bylsma? He just dug those heels in even more.

The result was the embarrassment that was the series against the Bruins. There was NO excuse for that series. People still talk about it today as being one of the lowest points in all of the Pens’ history. It’s one thing to go out and play your heart out and lose a tight series. There is no shame in losing when you put up a valiant fight. To lose the way they lost was truly embarrassing. And that was on coaching, the leadership of the players, etc. That was a total failure. Again, the buck must stop at the coach’s feet…

It didn’t. What truly should have been Dan Bylsma’s last chance became, somehow, his moment of being emboldened. Not only did he not get fired after the Boston series, Shero had the audacity to extend his contract. It was in that moment when it came clear to anyone not wearing a certain pair of colored glasses that Shero and Bylsma were far more concerned with proving that they were right and everyone else was wrong. It was obvious that Shero was never going to fire Bylsma and that Bylsma was never going to change his habits. Yet, we march into another year with the same bullshit.

Only this time, things felt different. And not in a good way. The 2014 season, from the word “go,” felt incredibly fatalistic. It was as though we all were just sitting back watching the slowest trainwreck happen. To a man, everyone knew the Pens would flame out in the playoffs. Many were finally saying so. It became a matter of just waiting for the misery to hit.

And it did. The Pens enter the 2014 playoffs against the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jackets simply played a tenacious, yet green, game and made the Pens work for their wins. The Pens survive courtesy of some lucky bounces and simply being a better team. Many believed this to be the start of a new, heated rivalry and the emergence of the Ohio-based team. Boy, everyone was wrong there.

The came the Rangers, a team who didn’t scare many, but couldn’t be taken too lightly. The Pens were up 3-1 in the series. Of course, there was the death of Martin St. Louis’ mother which helped motivate the Rangers, but I believe there was something else at play.

The Pens weren’t a bad team that year, but there was something amiss. All anyone needed to do was go back a few months and look at the truly laughable performance of Team USA in the Olympics to know what kind of coach Dan Bylsma was. Yet, the same Pens team, coached by Dan Bylsma, was up 3-1 against a good Rangers team.

And they lost. The lost in 7 games. Losing three in a row to close out a monumental collapse. The Rangers had never in their history overcome a deficit like that. The Rangers went on to the Finals that year while the Pens finally had some other plans.

I have absolutely no evidence to support this and am completely aware that it puts me into tinfoil hat territory, but…I genuinely believe, and nobody can tell me otherwise, that the Pens purposefully lost the games to the Rangers. I think they knew the only way things would change would be to blow a 3-1 lead. I think in their heart of hearts they knew that nothing would change if they made it to the Conference Finals and I think they knew only too well that success would not be theirs under that coach and that general manager.

Welcome to the off-season of 2014-2015. As we all know, Ray Shero was relieved of his duties while Dan Bylsma was left to flap in the wind. Some called that classless of the Pens. I, for one, was giddy over it because it was sort of a cosmic way of getting back at Bylsma for all those wasted years of what many believed to be a dynasty. Of course, DB was still getting paid and so forth, but it was somewhat beautiful to watch as he twisted in the wind for weeks after Shero was fired. He knew it was coming, but he couldn’t leave. It seemed like a genuinely fair punishment for being such a massive dick for the last few years.

I had heard a rumor that there was something in Shero’s contract that only he, not ownership, could fire the coach. It makes some sense, then, why Shero was fired first and Bylsma was left to hang. Mario and Burkle couldn’t fire Bylsma while Shero was around and Shero had tied himself to that sinking ship, so, they both had to go. Shero deserved to be fired of his own merit, but it was made doubly so when it became apparent he would not fire Bylsma. Thus, they both were relieved of their duties.

In comes Jim Rutherford. This is really where what happened yesterday began to take shape. Rutherford comes in and immediately begins to do what he can to wash away the stink of Shero and Bylsma, but he has a bunch of players signed to Shero’s awful contracts (Scuderi, anyone?). I wrote about this at some length last year after the playoffs and I maintain much of what I said. You can go back and read those thoughts on Rutherford and the team.

Jim Rutherford has not been perfect, but he’s been damn good at his job. There were so many last year who refused to acknowledge what Rutherford was doing as good. Hell, many of those people continued down that path through most of this year. Rutherford’s first move as GM was also, oddly enough, one of his biggest mistakes. He hires Mike Johnston to take over as head coach of the Penguins.

Many accounts say the team low-balled candidates. Others say it was simply a matter of finding someone who would be willing to accept the assistant coaches who were already hired. It was a bad situation overall. Again, I’ve spoken on this at length before, too. I said we should be patient with Johnston to see how he responded the following year after the ouster from the playoffs. Well, we know how that went.

I said it was going to be a 2-3 year process to wash out the Bylsma/Shero stink (especially the Shero stink) for Rutherford and here we are 2 years later with a completely different team. Some of that is coaching, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but most of it has to do with personnel and the team’s approach to hockey.

The 2015 team came out like gangbusters for the first month or two of the season before the injuries hit. Johnston was playing an up-tempo game that was fun to watch, high(er) scoring, and rather wide open. As injuries mounted, Johnston adapted the team to play a much more defensive system. The team became woefully conservative in their approach. As a means of attempting to cover up perceived shortcomings, the team was playing more and more in their own end simply trying to prevent goals instead of score their own. Then, naturally, the salary cap crunch happened. Rutherford made some trades and pushed the team to the edge of the salary cap. It was so bad that the team had to skate with five defensemen for a while. The team couldn’t score. They ended up backing into the playoffs.

They had to face the Rangers again, only this time they were clearly an underdog and were totally gassed from playing with a short bench. It was a terrible matchup and pretty much everyone knew what was going to happen. And it happened. The Pens got steamrolled, 4-1.

I mentioned that I called for patience. Let’s see what another off-season can bring and how Johnston changes. Of course, the big news in that off-season was the massive trade for Phil Kessel. Rutherford made the trade without giving up major assets, either. It was a bummer, sure, to give up the draft pick and Kapanen, but it was Phil Kessel and he didn’t give up any of Dumoulin or Pouliot or Maatta. And Toronto retained salary. It was a huge win for the Pens.

But there was the slight problem of Mike Johnston being Dan Bylsma 2.0.

Johnston was the anti-Bylsma when he arrived. He wasn’t buddy-buddy with some players. He didn’t create a culture with certain veteran players. He was stoic, often to a fault, and was incredibly cerebral about the game. Johnston was on the edge of being pedantic about the game and he got lost in those details. He lost the bigger picture for the minutiae and paid a price for it.

Ultimately, Mike Johnston was good, but tragically flawed, coach. I definitely think he’s a guy who will end up as a coach again in the NHL. Maybe he needs a year or two as an assistant or just simply to end up with a team where he can be a teacher and mentor. He’s a genuinely good man, from all accounts, and a definite hockey guy, he was just a bad fit for this Penguins team. And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself because it was something that could be fixed.

I said over the course of this year that it didn’t matter who the coach was because the players themselves were grossly under-performing, even factoring the defensive style Johnston was employing. There were all the calls in the first few months of the season for Crosby to be traded or retire. That the best years were clearly behind them and that all the years and hard miles caught up with them. Some of that was coaching and some of it was simply on the players not playing up to their abilities.

You could put Scotty Bowman or Al Arbor or even Ken Hitchcock behind the bench and it wouldn’t have done much until this group of players finally looked inward and made the change. And that started to happen in late November, but Thanksgiving and the losses to bottom feeding teams pretty much put the nail in the coffin for Mike Johnston. The players were playing much better, but the system was holding them back from reaching potential. Rutherford stepped in and relieved Johnston of his duties. And it was the right move.

Of course, there were other things that brought this team to “Here.” Look at the changeover in the roster. Rutherford was only too happy to finally be done with the likes of Craig Adams. There were all the reports of people like Adams creating a rift in the locker room. He was one of the “Bylsma guys” and they definitely looked and played like a team that was playing against itself. In nearly 500 games, Adams scored 18 points. Not goals, mind you, but points. In a comparative move, Rutherford signed Old Ass Matt Cullen ™ for 800k and Cullen had 16 goals and 16 assists in 81 games. In literally one season, Matt Cullen doubled the career totals of Craig Adams. Old Ass Matt Cullen also could skate and didn’t look like a bag of porridge slopped into a Penguins sweater lazily shuffling about the ice.

Speaking of bags of porridge sloshing across the ice and collapsing into a puddle of nothingness, Jim Rutherford traded Rob Scuderi and his God-awful contract (Yay Shero!) for Trevor Daley. You literally could have traded Scuderi away, retained salary, and gotten nothing in return and it would have been a good move. Rutherford not only got rid of a truly, truly atrocious player, but added a very good player who is made even better by the style of play he brought to the team.

Sometimes players just fit. Dupuis was a guy who was not an all-star, but became one with Crosby. They just meshed well. Daley’s game fit exactly what Sullivan and the Pens were trying to do. Add in shipping out David Perron for Carl Hagelin, you see where this team was going.

I liked Perron. I was excited when they brought him in, even at the cost of a first round pick. He was a legitimate NHL player and the Pens had no forwards in the pipeline capable of playing last year. Perron didn’t live up to the value of the trade, but he paid for it in spades with the return of Hagelin.

Of course, all you need to do is look at the response many had to Rutherford making that trade and see how the lady doth protest too much. Many wanted to bury JR again for this trade. “Third liner,” “too expensive on a cap team,” and “too many years of term” were the most bandied about by the chattering class. Of course, those same people are now bowing down and declaring how great a trade it was, but that’s a different issue all together.

In his 2 years with the team, Jim Rutherford has moved out players like Adams, Bortuzzo, Despres, Sill, Engelland, Glass, Megna, Neal, Orpik, Sutter, Vitale, Gibbons, Chorney, Downie, Farnham, Goc, Scuderi, Thomas Greiss and Spaling (some via trade, some via free agency) and replaced some of them with the likes of Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Old Ass Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino, Ian Cole, Trevor Daley, Eric Fehr, Carl Hagelin, Tom Kuhnhackl, Ben Lovejoy, Matt Murray, Justin Schultz, Conor Sheary, Daniel Spring, Oskar Sundqvist and Scott Wilson.

Yes, some of those were picks of the Shero/Bylsma era. And it has been fortuitous that they worked out, BUT, and this is the big caveat, let’s be real – many of those young players would never, ever see the NHL under Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero. The two of them did not trust young players and Shero would move prospects out quickly for a veteran at the deadline. So, yes, there is an irony is listing some of those players, but I listed them because they have actually been in the lineup as regular roster players and have contributed mightily to the team’s success.

Look at the players who have been moved out – lots of the big, prototypical North American players with lots of grit and character. Look at many of the players who have been brought in or promoted – smaller, but lightning fast, smart, skilled, and team players. People can rag on Rutherford for a lot of things, but you cannot say he has not done a miraculous job of transforming the Shero/Bylsma dynasty of failure into a team that is both enjoyable to watch AND successful.

Mike Sullivan came in and got the ship righted, but it took a little while. The players were playing better in November and December, but the wins weren’t coming because the puck was not going in the net. The Pens were also horrifically unlucky and that was bound to balance itself out, too, but there were a lot of variables. Sullivan’s start with the team was just a rocky as Johnston’s finish.

It’s a sad statement about the team that they needed someone like Sullivan, a borderline psychopath and ticking timebomb, to get them to straighten up and fly right, but it works. I’m more disappointed in this team needing someone like that instead of being able to manage their own affairs, but I see it as the Pens being a bunch of Advanced Placement kids – driven, motivated, and intelligent, but need someone to just whip them to keep them on the straight and narrow because, if they are left to their own devices and guidance, they will follow the path of least resistance.

And the Penguins just demolished the Rangers in 5 games. It wasn’t even close. You could read the body language of the Rangers after every goal. Henrik Lundqvist is a great goaltender. He’s made better by defensive systems and shot blocking and so forth, but the core point remains that he is excellent. He’s a hall of fame level player. And the Penguins just made him look like a rookie. In five games, the Pens managed to put 21 pucks behind Lundqvist and Raanta. That’s 4.2 goals per game against one the best goalies and defensively minded teams in the post-lockout generation.

There are, of course, many reasons why this happened. I’m not writing about the lengths to which the Rangers went chasing a Cup last year and how that will play out going forward. The Penguins were simply a bad match-up for the Rangers because of the style of play the Penguins implemented. Sullivan came in and opened the gates, a la Bylsma, after a coach preached nothing but defense. Mike Johnston definitely deserves credit for getting this team, even with the turnover of personnel, to think defensively and make better, smarter plays with the puck. The team had badly gotten away from those fundamentals under Bylsma. The hope is that Sullivan can preach about speed and possession while also keeping the fundamentals in play.

Mike Johnston may have made a lot of mistakes and deserved to be let go, but, if the Pens continue on down this path, he deserves a lot of credit, too, for getting these guys back to basics and re-learning what it meant to be hockey players. Mike Sullivan deserves the credit for getting them actually play hockey. And the players deserve the credit for realizing that they caused two guys to get fired (though justified) and to get it together.

These playoffs feel different because they are different. The players are different. The coaches are different. And people can complain all they want and joke about Rutherford being the old man and needing to get home in order to watch reruns of “Murder, She Wrote,” but Jim Rutherford has saved the Penguins and their brand. I know people cringe at the use of that term, but it applies. The Penguins, just as any NHL franchise, are a brand name. It is still a business venture and they need to protect that investment. In the waning years of Bylsma and the short time of Johnston, the Penguins became synonymous with boring, lousy play and playoff failure. Now? Things are different. Jim Rutherford came in and did everything he could to wipe the slate clean of the previous regime. When he saw that his own moves weren’t working, what did he do? He cleaned those out, too. He isn’t a man too proud to admit a mistake and do what he feels is right. The team and coaching staff have an identity now – a skilled, possession-driven, high-scoring, entertaining team. You certainly cannot say the same about the teams from 2010-2014. I know he won’t because there are sexier picks out there, but I truly believe Jim Rutherford deserves consideration for GM of the year. What he has managed to accomplish in two years is nothing short of a miracle.

People talk about catching lightning in a bottle. Maybe this is what is happening now with the Pens. Whatever it is, all of these events have brought us “here.” We couldn’t be here without all of those events happening.

 

 

 

 

 


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