The NHL is nothing but a copycat league. Teams see what the champion does and suddenly it becomes the en vogue blueprint of what many other teams try to be like. It would be good for the sport if the Pittsburgh Penguins become that blueprint.
I got thinking about this after reading Josh Yohe's excellent article today.
The Penguins, as an organization, have always had a little bit of renegade in them. They don’t belong to the old guard. They’ve always been about speed and skill, believers that talent and hard work win out against structure and the dreaded trap.
Now, the organization sits on the verge of its fourth championship. Once again, it’s being done their way.
They aren’t big. They aren’t physical. They don’t have a traditional third line, or a traditional fourth line. They don’t have traditional stay-at-home defensemen. There is nothing about them, in fact, that is at all traditional. When they try to sit back to protect leads, it rarely goes well.
I remember when Anaheim won the Stanley Cup in '07, the blueprint was to play "heavy hockey" with big, brutish players imposing their physical will. More recently when the rough-and-tumble LA Kings won their recent Cups this was also cited.
When teams like Chicago or Pittsburgh win, the narrative changes and the blueprint becomes skill, will and playing fast hockey.
Hopefully teams around the league copy what the Pens have done. What would that be?
- That trade deadline pickup?Instead of getting a big meathead who can't handle the puck (you know, like the Sharks and Roman Polak) , go acquire a skilled guy who might need to be shielded but can still dominate possession when placed in a favorable situation like Justin Schultz.
- Along those lines, don't keep old, slow players like Scuderi, upgrade them for counterparts that can skate and move the puck (Trevor Daley) at every opportunity
- Instead of signing #grit and #hustle 4th liners to bloated contracts like Tanner Glass, anchor your 4th line around a guy with talent who used top be a top-6 player in Matt Cullen.
- Play fast hockey and don't be afraid to trust youngsters without NHL experience in key roles if you believe that they can rise to the occasion and get the job done.
- Spread talent to have a first line player on 3 different lines to maximize matchup nightmares for your opponents.
Of course, there's some elements teams just can't copy. Only a handful of franchises have a defenseman who can handle (and win) playing 29 minutes a night like Kris Letang . And no one has the depth and talent down the middle to have former (and possibly future) MVPs like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin . Not many have the depth to have a Conn Smythe worthy performance from a backup goalie in Matt Murray if the high-paid franchise goalie goes down to a late season injury. The Pens are fortunate to be built around many factors that are virtually impossible to replicate in another team.
Hockey would be better to watch if more of the league tried to play fast, aggressive, offensive-minded hockey like the Pens. Now, this isn't to say the Pittsburgh Penguins invented the wheel or came up with and revolutionary new tactics, because they haven't. But they've succeeded under Mike Sullivan because they've found an identity and worked to play winning hockey through skill and speed. The blueprint is out there if any teams want to follow it, and it will be interesting to see if it happens.