I’ve already written an article on this topic during the last season. However, my conclusion on this subject is still up to date, actually even more important than ever before. 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 their own 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!
Since the beginning of his tenure as Penguins General Manager, Jim Rutherford has continuously acquired those type of defensemen that allow Head Coach Mike Johnston to (effectively & successfully) play his system. Rutherford acquired the needed type of defensemen in the person of Ian Cole, Adam Clendening, Tim Erixon & Ben Lovejoy – that unfortunately happened at the expense of a young defenseman, already playing the needed type of defense. And yes, Lovejoy also fits to Johnston’s system, if properly used as 5th/6th defenseman. In this regard, you can further mention the newly signed Swedish defenseman Niclas Andersen, even though it remains to be seen if he can manage the jump from the SHL to the AHL and then to the NHL.
“A smooth skating two-way defenceman that can read the game like a forward. Possesses slick hands, a good stick, and a sharp shot that jumps off of his stick. All-in-all, a productive two-way defenceman that has a high offensive ceiling, and is responsible defensively. (Curtis Joe, EP 2014)” – http://www.eliteprospects.com
“A very smart defenseman that plays a solid two-way game. Erixon is not very spectacular, but plays an effective and rather simple game. He does not throw his body around, but can be aggressive and has active stickwork. Hockey sense is very good and so is his offensive positioning. Not a pure offensive force, but has enough skills to put up points and quarterback the powerplay if needed. Furthermore, he has good size and mobility and handles the puck well.” – http://www.eliteprospects.com
“Andersén is a strong defensive defenseman. Also has an alright outlet pass and displays decent offensive instincts at times. Owns solid skating ability.
– Erik K. Piri, EP (2013)” – http://www.eliteprospects.com
On the other side, Jim Rutherford and his Assistant General Managers let walk players like Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland & traded away defensemen like Philip Samuelsson & Robert Bortuzzo. All players, whose type of play doesn’t fit to Mike Johnston’s system at all. Furthermore, give former GM Ray Shero some credit, who drafted Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot and acquired Brian Dumoulin in the Jordan Stall trade – all promising young players who perfectly fit to Mike Johnston’s hockey philosophy!
Yes, Jim Rutherford also let walk “qualified” players like Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff & Matt Niskanen and traded Scott Harrington. However, that were all necessary & inevitable moves in order to improve the Penguins as a team – the cap era is all about a clever Salary Cap Hit management!
Given that all players stay healthy this season – I’m more than optimistic that this will finally be the case this season – HC Mike Johnston has all the tools in order to finalize the revolution of a defensive hockey philosophy – the revolution of the “stay-at-home defense philosophy”. He just needs to let play Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin, Adam Clendening and even Tim Erixon over Rob Scuderi & his $3,375 Mio Cap Hit 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:
As you can see, the Penguins registered one of the fewest GA per 60 Minutes of Ice Time (at Even Strength & at All Situations) since the 2009/10 NHL season, despite significant and partly even long-term injuries to KEY defensemen like Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff – these have basically been Pittsburgh’s (system-wise & in general) most important defensemen & entire top 4 defense, adding up for 116 man-games lost. Furthermore, Pittsburgh’s offense also had to deal with a lot of injuries to key players like Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Blake Comeau, adding up for 126 man-games lost. This results in a total amount of 242 man-games lost to players who have been part of the foundation of Mike Johnston’s system. No team can withstand & overcome such an amount of injuries without any kind of negative impact. Take this, plus the fact that the Penguins had their biggest roster & system change since the 2008/09 season and it’s easy to say, that we have to even higher value & appreciate the achieved, relatively low GA60.
The 2014/15 Pittsburgh Penguins had (unfortunately) again one of the biggest negative injury impacts on their team (the higher & the more on the right side of the chart, the worse has been the impact of injuries on a team):
Of course Marc-Andre Fleury and his outstanding performance during this season have been a huge reason for the relatively good defensive performance. However, you also can say that Johnston’s system and the way Pittsburgh’s defenders were executing it, have been 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 zone, 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 therefore 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 (which isn’t by far the case with Rob Scuderi). However, I will guarantee you: At times, players like John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Corey Perry, Alex Ovechkin & all the other great NHL players 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, P.K. Subbans, Paul Martins, Drew Doughtys, Derrick Pouliots & Olli Maattas 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 all defensemen the Pittsburgh Penguins used on their penalty kill from 2007 – 2015 (at least 90 minutes of shorthanded ice time), Rob Scuderi allowed the most shots against per 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time and he blocked the fewest shots per 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time! (The higher the FA60 number, the more shots against & the fewer shots blocked). In addition to that, Rob Scuderi also created the fewest shorthanded scoring chances. (The higher the FF% number, the more scoring chances created).
Regarding to “allowing shots” & “blocking shots”, Rob Scuderi ranks 111th out of 158 defensemen with more than 500 minutes of shorthanded ice time from 2007 – 2015!
Regarding to “creating shorthanded scoring chances”, Rob Scuderi ranks 154th out of 158 defensemen with more than 500 minutes of shorthanded ice time from 2007 – 2015!
Not particularly good!
Now let’s take a look on the point production of Pittsburgh’s defensemen from 2007 – 2015, while playing shorthanded & while playing at Even Strength (5 vs 5):
As Head Coach Mike Johnston’s system is all about puck possession, let’s take a short look at the Even Strength (5 vs 5) puck possession numbers of Pittsburgh’s defensemen from 2007 – 2015:
Proof of what everyone has already known: Rob Scuderi is a bad puck possession player & doesn’t fit to Mike Johnston’s hockey philosophy and system.
To make things worse, Rob Scuderi furthermore has a negative impact on his linemates. No matter if you evaluate his performance based on solely his goal production impact (GF60 / GA60) or his puck possession impact (CF60 / CA60), Sucderi makes his linemates worse! Once they’re playing WITH Scuderi, they are scoring fewer goals (negative GF60), while they are getting more goals against (positive GA60). Same applies to the puck possession department! Scuderi’s linemates play worse offensively AND defensively, when playing with him!
As Domenic Galamini’s HERO-Charts provide a great, simple & short overview of a player’s performance AND usage, let’s take a look at Scuderi’s, Letang’s, Maatta’s, Cole’s, Lovejoy’s and Derrick Pouliot’s HERO-Charts, based on each player’s statistics from 2013 – 2015:
Noteworthy: Due to a limited sample size, Pouliot’s HERO-Chart should be more looked upon as a tendency & forecast on what kind of performance Pouliot will be able to provide.
There is a huge difference between the performance of Rob Scuderi & all other (former) defensemen of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Furthermore noteworthy: Rob Scuderi played Top Four Minutes of Ice Time, while mostly not even performing on the level of the average Bottom Pairing defenseman. On the other side, Ian Cole and Derrick Pouliot played Bottom Pairing Minutes of Ice Time, while mostly actually performing on the level of the average Top Four defenseman. That’s unacceptable & needs to be changed in the upcoming 2015/16 NHL season!
The fact that Derrick Pouliot hasn’t scored that many points yet, isn’t a reason for concern. He’s still a rookie, who has yet played only 34 NHL games. He furthermore didn’t play together with the strongest linemates during those 34 games, as the following Player Usage Chart proves:
Pouliot’s point production will increase the more he plays and the better the linemates, with whom he’s playing, are!
Yes, also Scuderi didn’t have the greatest “Quality of Teammates” regarding to “relative Corsi”. However, you have to consider, that Scuderi playing with better teammates may lead to a better performance by Scuderi, but heavily at the expense of those teammates’ performances!
Check out Letang’s, Despres’, Pouliot’s and Martin’s “Corsi For Percentage of Total (CF%) at Even Strength“ – numbers TOGETHER with Rob Scuderi & APART from Rob Scuderi:
As you can see, Letang, Despres, Pouliot and Martin have way better puck possession numbers once they are playing APART from Rob Scuderi, than they do have once they’re playing WITH Rob Scuderi. To make things worse, Rob Scuderi’s puck possession numbers are in some cases even better, once he’s not playing with skilled & mobile defensemen like Letang, Maatta, Martin & Pouliot.
Now let’s take a look at Ian Cole’s & Ben Lovejoy’s “Corsi For Percentage of Total (CF%) at Even Strength“ – numbers TOGETHER with Derrick Pouliot & APART from Derrick Pouliot:
Both Ian Cole & Ben Lovejoy have way better puck possession numbers once they’re playing WITH Derrick Pouliot, than they do have once they’re playing APART from Derrick Pouliot.
As I mentioned before: Due to a limited sample size, Pouliot’s “Corsi For Percentage of Total (CF%) at Even Strength“ – numbers should be more looked upon as a tendency & forecast on what kind of performance Pouliot will be able to provide.
I compared Pouliot with Lovejoy, because he played one of the most minutes of his first 34 NHL games with Ben Lovejoy. I compared Pouliot with Cole, because I figure both as a strong defensive pairing which the Penguins should definitely try out!
To sum it up: The Penguins, their defense in general and their penalty killing will be better without Rob Scuderi, but with players like Derrick Pouliot, Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin, Ben Lovejoy, Adam Clendening & Tim Erixon – all defensemen who are good skaters, who can move the puck, who can shoot and can make plays on their own.
Final conclusion: Players like Ian Cole, Derrick Pouliot, & Ben Lovejoy score more points per 60 minutes of ice time, have way better “Corsi For Percentage of Total (CF%) at Even Strength/while shorthanded“ – numbers and better “Fenwick For Percentage of Total (CF%) at Even Strength/while shorthanded“ – numbers, as well as better “Individual Corsi per 60 Minutes of Ice Time” – numbers & “Individual Fenwick per 60 Minutes of Ice Time” – numbers, than Rob Scuderi. They are not just better at Even Strength, but also on the penalty killing. And they don’t drag other players’ performances down, like Scuderi unfortunately does.
All in all: They are all better players & fit way better to Mike Johnston’s system and and therefore should all play instead of Rob Scuderi.
Furthermore, the Penguins have a couple of young and promising defensemen in the person of Brian Dumoulin, Adam Clendening & Tim Erixon, who have all three already shown, that they can successfully play (on the NHL level) the style of game Mike Johnston and his system demand, while Rob Scuderi isn’t playing good at all & definitely doesn’t fit to Mike Johnston’s system. Those three young players can’t play worse than Rob Scuderi!
You have to play your 6 best defensemen! Rob Scuderi isn’t part of those 6, but Pittsburgh’s young defensemen, who need the 82 Regular Season games in order to be able to perform during the playoffs, like everyone would expect them to perform!
Yes, Scuderi carries a huge $3,375 Mio Cap Hit. But the Penguins can’t change this fact, unless GM Jim Rutherford gets done another magical trade. They have to deal with it & they have to try to make the best of their current & given (cap) situation. Making the best of their current situation means the Penguins have to give other players the chance to play before Rob Scuderi, making the best of their current situation means the Penguins have to bench Rob Scuderi – as cruel as it may sound.
“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 all those other players I mentioned above?” – In my opinion, it does not!
Before some people blame me for hating Rob Scuderi: No, I definitely don’t hate him. I like him as a person. He’s a nice player & definitely a good leader presence in the locker room. I furthermore know, that he has already won a Cup with the Penguins (even though you could argue, that the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup, despite having Scuderi in the lineup). However, you can’t look back upon the past & past success, if you want to win the Stanley Cup in the here and now!
The name & the logo on the front of a jersey are way more important than the name on the back.
Therefore 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
Sources of the used data (if not mentioned below the related chart):
– “Corsi For Percentage of Total (CF%) at Even Strength” statistics (WOWY statistics) taken from: Puckalytics
– “Points Recorded Per 60 Minutes of Ice Time (P60) at Even Strength/while shorthanded” statistics taken from: Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com