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Exploring the Pittsburgh Penguins new system

Pittsburgh columnist Dejan Kovacevic laid out the Pittsburgh Penguins new system under Mike Johnston. We look at it and get excited.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe it was just me, but I didn't think this got the buzz or discussion around here that it should have. Dejan Kovacevic's article from Saturday about puck possession under Mike Johnston and highlighting some systematic differences in what to look for now. Here's the piece, it's a subscription site but he gives some free previews, so hopefully I won't get in trouble for quoting some of it.

The first component of what Johnston and Jim Rutherford, through roster-building, have tried to establish is to emphasize speed and individual skill on defense. That's why Christian Ehrhoff was signed even though the Penguins already appeared to have the full complement of offensive-type defensemen. As Rutherford put it, "We wanted to have talent back there, to be creative, to game-plan around that."

This is best evident with puck retrieval, a simple practice that occurs countless times a game albeit with zero fanfare.

Under Bylsma, when a puck was dumped into the Pittsburgh zone, both defensemen would pursue it. It's called a ‘stack,' and it's been employed by the Red Wings, Ducks and others at times. The first defenseman to the puck would either make a play or, if covered, chip to his nearby partner. As with most of Bylsma's systems, when it worked, it was beautiful. But also as with most of Bylsma's systems, when it didn't work, there was no counter.

Let Kris Letang explain, citing an example involving partner Paul Martin: "If I go back and Paulie's with me, then my forechecker comes, and his was coming, too. Then, sometimes, the other team would bring a third guy, too."

The Blue Jackets did that in the playoffs. So did the Rangers. Bylsma adjusted at one point by bringing back another winger of his own, but all that did was stifle Letang further. Now, there was five or six bodies in tight quarters.

Under Johnston's retrieval, Letang will go get the puck. He'll either be able to go across to his partner - spread out with some distance - or make his own play. The hope will be for the latter, and that hope is high because it involves Letang beating that forechecker one-on-one, something he does as easily as most of us breathe.

Does he think he can handle that?

"Yeah," he came back with a small laugh. "I should be OK."

What do we make of it? Will the Pens be more successful in playing a more puck possession emphasized game? I think the changes in the breakout and on the rush are encouraging. Bylsma is and was a good coach, but to have a change of perspective and try new ideas should be beneficial for a core (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang) that has gotten bogged down in recent playoffs.

It's also interesting that the team wants to play more like a Team Finland with quick support passes, moving in packs and really triangulating the game more. In theory it sounds good, but the season hasn't started so everything sounds good. Hopefully it works in execution as well.

The rest is worth your time as Kovacevic breaks down what the Pens will do on the rush and attack. It's an interesting glimpse into the mindset of the Pens new coach and how the new system will work. Those elements of change should be the biggest for the whole team, so it will be critical to see how the system works- and is tweaked to the speed of the NHL game- for the Penguins success.