The reason why it’s time for the Pittsburgh Penguins to finalize their revolution of an old-school defensive hockey philosophy!
With the hiring of Mike Johnston as new Head Coach back in June 2014, the Pittsburgh Penguins took the path of Revolution – the Revolution of Pittsburgh’s defensive hockey philosophy, if not NHL’s defensive philosophy in general.
I’m talking about the stay-at-home defensive philosophy. Mike Johnston’s system is quite the contrary to this philosophy.
Mike Johnston’s “SIX KEYS TO OFFENSIVE SUCCESS” as per his blog on the homepage of his former team, the Portland Winterhawks:
1. Be a First Pass Team
– Discourage the “dump out” or “no look rim” style of play
– The players away from the puck have a responsibility to get their stick open and available for direct passes… (much like a receiver in football)
– Allow passes to the front of the net or through the middle
2. Shoot the Puck and Drive the Net
– Sounds simple but volume of shots are key
– Funnel shots and players to the net
3. Activate Your Defense into the Attack
– Encourage them to join and stay in the rush from the breakout… supporting the mid or wide lane up the ice.
– Often the net D will have an opportunity to move up ice before the low forward in defensive zone coverage.
– Make the attack an odd number by their blueline
– Responsibility is in the hands of the puckcarrier…don’t blame the defence for creating options
4. Stretch Out the Offensive Zone
– Get the puck to the back of the net on the cycle and work plays from there… stressing their coverage
– On shots off the rush move the puck low/high right away and catch them over backchecking
– On low scrambles move the puck back to the point quickly and catch the team collapsing
– Players and coaches underestimate the danger of point shots
5. Cycle With a Purpose
– Challenge their ability to contain by driving the seams and going to the net with the puck
– Set picks and screens to open up ice for the puckcarier
– Work the overload…once the puck is passed back to the corner that player needs to get into an overload position ready to shoot
– Defence support the backside…strongside slide…or mid ice seam… practice plays involving the defence on the cycle
6. Work Set Plays
– Have set faceoff plays for each zone which will create an offensive advantage. Your centers should take responsibility for every set up… remember you can win by losing
– Regroups geared to beat the trap and hit their blue line with speed
Mike Johnston wants his net-presence defensemen to be out of the defensive zone before the low forward! That means players are going to be flying as a package through the neutral zone as soon as there is a save, a turnover or a faceoff win. He also wants that his defensemen push the puck towards the net before the opponent’s backcheckers can even catch up with the play on the rush. And he wants his forwards to get the puck back to their defensemen once the opposition is collapsing.
To sum up Johnston’s philosophy: Every good offense starts with a good, active and mobile defense & every good defense starts with a fast and hard backchecking by defensively responsible forwards. Mike Johnston’s system and hockey philosophy are about puck possession, high shot volume, skill and speed.
This system perfectly fits to Pittsburgh’s star & core players like Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby. This system needs skilled, very good skating, mobile and puck-moving defensemen. Defenders who are quickly exiting zone, who aren’t afraid to jump up and join the rush and defenders who aren’t afraid to make passes and plays by their own. People seem to have this habit to call such players “offensive defensemen”. I for my part don’t like this description/expression, as it’s somehow stating that these defensemen can’t play a good defensive game as well. But that’s not true! There are so many defensemen in this league who are known for their offensive qualities, but also defend very very well!
In order to allow Mike Johnston to play this system, GM Jim Rutherford acquired the needed type of defensemen in the person of Christian Ehrhoff, Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole, while he let walk Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland & traded away Simon Despres and Robert Bortuzzo. Furthermore give former GM Ray Shero some credit, who drafted Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot and Scott Harrington – all promising young players who perfectly fit to Mike Johnston’s hockey philosophy!
Once Christian Ehrhoff is back, HC Mike Johnston has all the tools in order to finalize the revolution of a defensive hockey philosophy – the revolution of this “stay-at-home defensive philosophy”. He just needs to play Ian Cole over Rob Scuderi and the Penguins will have 6 very good skating & puck-moving defensemen in their lineup who all perfectly fit to Mike Johnston’s system!
It’s said that “defense wins championships” and NOT that “stay-at-home defense wins championships”!
Statistics prove, that Pittsburgh’s defense will be totally fine without any kind of unskilled stay-at-home defenders:
Of course Marc-Andre Fleury and his outstanding performance during this season are a huge reason therefor. However you also can say that Johnston’s system and the way Pittsburgh’s defenders are executing it, are a huge reason for Fleury’s great performance. It’s a collaboration/cooperation!
There also is this perception that you just can win the Stanley Cup with tough, hard-hitting stay-at-home players. But that’s not true! You win the Stanley Cup, if you’re playing to your strengths.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the fastest and most skilled teams in the NHL, their strengths are skill, puck possession and fast skating. That’s also what HC Mike Johnston’s system is about. The Penguins just have to keep on playing the way they’re best at, once they face a team which tries to “wrestle” them down. They just have to keep on skating, they just have to keep on using their skill & not try to outhit the opponent like they always did during Dan Bylsma’s tenure. Remember how they always forgot to play hockey, while they just tried to outhit the opponent”!?!
Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero tried for years to match tough and physical teams with toughness and grittiness (Douglas Murray, Brooks Orpik, Deryk Engelland, Tanner Glass, Brenden Morrow etc. …) Worked out well or?!
In order to repeat it: You have to play to your strengths! Pittsburgh Penguins hockey has always been about skating, speed & skill. These are the strengths of the Penguins, that’s how they have to play!
Again, why have many fans this perception that just tough, big and hard-hitting stay-at-home defensemen and a stay-at-home defensive system are leading to a successful defensive game?? I have never been a fan of this philosophy and I’d even tend to say that Mike Johnston’s philosophy of a skilled, mobile and puck-moving defense leads to even more success on both sides of the ice!
The main reason that I’m not a fan of unskilled stay-at-home defenders like Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik, is the fact that they’re often defending by dumping the puck into the offensive zone. Yes, that’s a simple and allegedly safe play, which, beyond question, is necessary at times!
However, is it really the safe play? In my opinion it’s not! Dumping the puck into the offensive, even if it’s not required, just forces your forwards to work way much harder in order to obtain the puck, in order to gain control of the puck, than it would be necessary! It forces your forwards to battle hard in order to eke out the puck. That costs a lot of energy and furthermore takes a lot of time!
And what happens, if your forwards aren’t able to obtain the puck during these forechecking battles? The puck and the opponent immediately come back entering your defensive zone and therefor have another chance to score a goal! At times this type of defense is somehow like you would try to blow out a fire by using fuel! In my opinion it’s very risky, if you are just defending via great positioning, clearing the crease and blocking shots, instead of trying to have more puck possession than your opponent. We’re talking about the NHL! Your opponent also has one of the best hockey players in the world! If you give them the chances to shoot – and that’s what you’re doing with a stay-at-home type of defensive system – it’s only a matter of time until they will score. Even the best blocking, hitting and clearing-the-crease defenders can’t prevent that.
The positioning by a player like Rob Scuderi can be perfect all the time. However, I will guarantee you: At times, players like John Tavares will still be able to overskate you – despite your great positioning. A great-skating player like Letang can at least keep up with this speed and still has a chance to prevent the goal. A player like Rob Scuderi cannot.
Or in other words: Your gap control can be better with a mobile defensemen – if he is good coached – than it would be with a slow, non-mobile defensemen: If your gap control fails – and every now and then it WILL fail once you are facing great players – your Kris Letangs and Paul Martins at least have a chance to catch the opponent’s players before they score a goal!
To sum it up: Stay-at-home defenders force you to defend more and that can only lead to more problems. On the other side, mobile, great-skating and puck-moving defensemen help your team to play the best defensive hockey possible – not having to play in the defensive zone at all!
On top of that, these types of players are also able to clear the crease, they are also able to block shots, they are also able to hit and play a physical game. But they’re just doing it if really necessary. Otherwise they’re also contributing to the offensive part of the game – and you still can’t win any game without scoring a goal!
“But Rob Scuderi is Pittsburgh’s best penalty killer!” – No, he’s not!
Amongst Pittsburgh’s most used defensemen when it comes to killing penalties, Rob Scuderi allows the most shots against per 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time and he blocks the fewest shots!
Regarding to “allowing shots” & “blocking shots”, Rob Scuderi ranks 145th and 142th out of 149 defensemen with more than 50 minutes of shorthanded ice time!
The Penguins, their defense and their penalty killing will be totally fine without Rob Scuderi. Ian Cole actually is a very good defenseman. He’s a good skater, he can move the puck, he can shoot and he can make plays, like these statistics prove:
To sum it up: Ian Cole scores more points per 60 minutes of ice time, he has way better “Usage Adjusted Corsi For Percentage” – statistics and “Usage Adjusted Fenwick For Percentage” – statistics (= The isolated “puck possession skill” after the effects of factors like “quality of a skater’s linemates”, “quality of skater’s competition” and “zone start percentages” have been abstracted), as well as better “Individual Corsi per 60 Minutes of Ice Time” – numbers & “Individual Fenwick per 60 Minutes of Ice Time” – numbers.
All in all: He fits to Mike Johnston’s system and deserves a chance to play more often than Rob Scuderi/instead of Rob Scuderi.
You have to play your 6 best defensemen. Ian Cole is better in nearly most aspects of the game and he better fits to Pittsburgh’s defensive system.
“But Rob Scuderi is very experienced!” – Yes he is! However, you have to ask yourself this question: “Does his experience outweigh all his flaws and deficiencies he has compared to Ian Cole?” – In my opinion, it does not!
Therefor it’s time for Pittsburgh to play with 6 skilled and mobile defensemen! It’s time for the Pittsburgh Penguins to finalize their revolution of an old-school defensive hockey philosophy!
– Benedikt Bäumler