clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tuesday Slew: This is Why You Don't Just Go and Trade Everyone

Pittsburgh is 7-2-0 owing largely to the team's decision not to sell the farm after last year's conference finals loss.


Tuesday Slew is a day late and ten dollars short this week. You were probably reading Olli Maatta's EliteProspects page anyway.

Following their Hindenburg job in last year's conference finals, the Pittsburgh Penguins entered into a summer in which no job seemed safe.

It only took a few weeks for almost every one of those jobs to be safely extended for years.

The Pens stormed to the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, where they were dispatched by the Boston Bruins in four games and had just two goals to show for themselves.

That loss was no ordinary meltdown. The Penguins' previously all-time postseason offense tanked. The same group that acquired Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla and Jussi Jokinen at the trade deadline and averaged more than four goals per game through the first two rounds couldn't get more than a pair past Boston.

Fifteen teams fall out of the postseason running every year. It was the stunning fashion of Pittsburgh's loss which left the team's future in question.

Going into last offseason, the club had no shortage of pending free agents to try to squeeze under a falling salary cap. They had spent freely on departing trade deadline talent. Their starting goaltender was in shambles. The coaching staff and even parts of the front office couldn't escape the growing scrutiny.

Instead of pulling the team apart at the seams, Pittsburgh ownership bet on continuity.

Continuity doesn't make great headline fodder. When your team makes a habit of falling sharply out of the postseason picture after dominating the regular season, as the Penguins have, it can be agonizing. The road to the first tee is paved with fired executives who stuck too long to a losing formula.

The sting of those losses has to be tempered by reality, though, and Pittsburgh apparently believed enough in their group's ability to realistically contend in spite of the last two postseasons.

That meant doing a quick 180 on the organizational hatchet job many anticipated.

It meant a quick and public vote of confidence in the general manager and his staff from owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle. It meant contract extensions for Dan Bylsma and each of his assistant coaches. New deals for Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams. An emphatic vote of confidence for embattled goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

With what limited funds they had left by the time free agency finally opened, the team even signed former Pittsburgh defender Rob Scuderi on the first day of free agency, as if to affirm their dedication to Penguin-ness.

Given the scrutiny and skepticism brought about by the Boston series, the moves were met with cautious optimism at best.

Nine games are only nine games, but this familiar Penguins squad is off to a familiar start.

The team is 7-2-0 behind the scorching play of the team's top line, of which Kunitz and Dupuis are no small part. Malkin was given an eight-year contract extension, and the only thing he's been unable to produce for this team is a pair of healthy linemates. Scuderi has been as-advertised and its hard to imagine Letang and his new contract extension won't provide a boost for the team's blue line and power play.

Behind the scenes, Bylsma and his staff have made immediate, significant strides towards playing a more defensive game. New schemes like the 1-3-1 trap and left wing lock, as well as Scuderi's strong play in the slot, have been instrumental.

These adjustments are no accident. Ray Shero's steal of longtime NHL coach and defensive specialist Jacques Martin may be the move of the offseason. It was Martin's Canadiens that rope-a-doped their way past the heavily-favored Penguins and Capitals in the 2010 playoffs. His expertise, in addition to scheme and personnel changes, have given the Penguins the league's sixth-best defense (measured in goals against average) through the season's first few weeks.

And what an effect that kind of play is having on Fleury.

Without a doubt, Fleury is playing the season to save his Penguins career. His strong start is made all the more impressive by Tomas Vokoun's indefinite absence. While the wins have always been there, Fleury's goals against average and save percentage are above his career averages, and he has stolen several games for the team already.

Through nine games, Pittsburgh's offseason continuity is paying off.

Of course, it'll take nine postseason games (and then some) before a real verdict can be rendered.

Since 2005, the Penguins haven't been a team to make moves for the sake of it. The 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup Finals seem to be most instructive when considering this approach.

The Penguins were a young squad facing a veteran team with a veteran front office in the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit schooled the Penguins in the '08 Finals and did so again in its three wins the following year.

The lessons of those Finals series weren't lost on the Pens. The Red Wings, as an organization, tend to have very little upheaval. That's a model the Penguins have co-opted nicely.

Pittsburgh, like Detroit, has stuck by its people through thick and thin -- and the Boston and Philadelphia series' were very, very thin. Neither club has reached the Finals since 2009, but they haven't had any catastrophic seasons, either. Both groups have stuck by the same head coach, general manager and core players. As a result, they own two of the three longest playoff appearance streaks in the NHL, and currently lead their divisions.

While it's still very early in the season, one imagines Pittsburgh will continue to hold its lead in the terribly weak Metropolitan Division.

No one could have blamed Pittsburgh for shaking up its picture following the Boston series. The team could have sold some of its premier assets, brought in a new coach and swung big-name, big-money deals this summer. But those kinds of moves play better in fantasy leagues and video games than in real life. That's the peril of dealing with the unknowns that new coaches, new players and new staff present.

That's not to excuse losing, though.

Pittsburgh is too talented and has too many organizational resources at its disposal to continue to flame out in the postseason. The team can go deep in the playoffs without winning it all every year. The NHL is competitive and full of pros. It will take another outright sacking like the Bruins and Flyers delivered to affect significant change.

However this season turns out, sticking by the group they've built was the right move. Maybe they won't win it all. But this is a group that will compete year after year, even if the last few years have gone south.

Change for the sake of change is rarely effective. It's a lesson the Penguins learned years ago from Detroit. The Pens could have sold the farm they sold for the farm they sold for the farm, and over again. They could have traded or cut Fleury. Fired Dan Bylsma. Answered every yinzer-bias prayer and moved Malkin and all his enigmatic Art Ross Trophies.

It might have gotten them back to the Finals. It might have them sitting in the basement of hockey's worst division.

Penguins ownership has spoken, with its wallet and its words. They believe in the group they've got. Next spring, it'll be on the players and coaches in that group to reward the club's faith in them.

Tuesday Slew is an important weekly feature that focuses on the hot topic of the week and is important. You may tell James how hot and important his topics are on the twitter, @Slew_James.