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Changing of the Guards

From old to young. From slow to fast.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Back during the preseason, after a 6-1 loss to the Red WingsRob Scuderi was interviewed about his role with the Penguins.

Rob Scuderi insists he is still a top-six NHL defenseman.

And he believes the Penguins will see it that way, also.

Scuderi made some strong comments following the 6-1 preseason loss to the Red Wings Thursday at Joe Louis Arena, underscored by this sentiment: He fully expects to be on the ice Oct. 8 in Dallas.

"I would certainly hope so," Scuderi told me. "Yes, there's a lot of young talent on this blue line, no question. And that's great. That's all part of it. But I've never heard of a team out there that's decided to go with six offensive defensemen."

At the moment, the Penguins have done exactly what Scuderi has "never heard of". Every one of their regular d-men is offensively capable, with skillsets that help push the offense.

Offensive Production On The Blueline

In 2016, this is each Penguins d-man's even-strength production rate:

  • Dumoulin, Maatta: 0.8 pts/60
  • Cole, Daley, Pouliot: 1.2 pts/60
  • Letang: 1.4 pts/60
Among 215 d-men that have played at least 300 minutes at even strength this season, this is where that production would rank, plus examples of d-men in that range:

  • Dumoulin, Maatta: 55-65th - Ekblad, Chara, Stralman
  • Cole, Daley, Pouliot: 7-13th - Giordano, Klingberg, Subban
  • Letang: 3rd-1st - Karlsson, Brodie

The Penguins d-men have produced very well, and have impacted the Penguins in different positive ways that will be discussed further below.

The Penguins have reached the current state of their defense through two processes - both a changing of the guard.

First Changing Of The Guard

Here is a look at the four Penguins d-men with the highest ice time per game for each season since 2005.

The Penguins defense was led by Gonchar from 2005 to 2010. And while Letang replaced his minutes, other veteran d-men, like Orpik and Scuderi, seemed to rank ahead of him, with Orpik wearing an 'A' until he signed with the Capitals. Not only that, their abilities and playing style was completely opposite of what made Letang so good.

Now Letang is in a similar position to Gonchar in 2005. With Martin, Orpik, and Scuderi leaving, the top four of the Penguins defense is filled with young players, who are likely going to be part of the Penguins defense for a long time. Letang is the veteran d-man guiding a mostly young defense.

To illustrate this, here is the the average age of the Penguins top four d-men since 2005.

The Penguins currently have the youngest top four they had since 2005-2006. The oldest d-man under contract for next season is Trevor Daley, who will be 32. The others are:

  • Letang, 2016-2017 age: 29
  • Cole, 28
  • Dumoulin, 25
  • Pouliot, 23
  • Maatta, 22
Then there is RFA Justin Schultz (2016-2017 age: 26).

Second Changing Of The Guard

The second change of the Penguins defense is the focus on offensive talent and puck-moving ability to fit Mike Sullivan's game plan:

"This is something we've tried to do since I've been here is try to define our identity and what we are as a team. What is our competitive advantage. How do we win? We think our core guys want to play a fast game. They're all good skaters. They can all move the puck. They can advance the puck. They see the ice well. Skating, team speed, puck movement has to be our competitive advantage. That has to be the foundation of our identity. When we play that way and we don't get deterred from any sort of tactics where we're trying to play somebody else's game, I think that's when we're at our best."

That change didn't affect just the defense, but also the forward group. As Sullivan says, a fast team isn't just fast because it skates well. It's also about being able to make passes, and to make fast decisions with and without the puck, amongst many other things.

For the past few season, the Penguins always had players in the lineup who failed at that. Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Tanner Glass, Zach Sill, Craig Adams, etc., were black holes where the offense went to die. They were in the lineup in part because people thought they added something valuable to the Penguins (PK ability, toughness, defensive mindset, leadership), and it was ignored that most of them couldn't handle the puck.

The Penguins could have replaced those players with gritty, unskilled and slow players, but they focused on the opposite. A series of moves have made the Penguins fast and skilled throughout the lineup. Patric Hornqvist on the change:

Even when the Penguins moved out skilled players, they targeted those who would better fit their plan.

The impact shows up in everything they do. Here is a look at every teams' shots at even strength since the coaching change in December.

SF60 = shots on goal generation per 60

SA60 = shots on goal suppression per 60

CF/A = shots for/against

FF/A = unblocked shots for/against

SCF/A = scoring changes for/against

Data from

The Penguins rank among the top in almost every category. They generate shots at high levels, and don't allow many against. That leads to them having the 3rd most points in the NHL in the last three months, and the most goals since then, too (despite the middling powerplay).

From Micah Blake McCurdy's website, this shows even strength shots over the last 25 games for each team. The Kings lead the charge, but the Penguins aren't far behind.

As Mike Sullivan said, the Penguins have embraced their identity. The changing of the guards has led to them playing fun and exciting hockey again. To sum it up, from Mike Darnay: