Heavy-handed hockey works for some teams. It does not work for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Since Dan Bylsma took over the Pittsburgh Penguins, he has dramatically increased the aggressiveness and physicality of this team. Bylsma has changed the Penguins from an offensive juggernaut to an adversarial group that is gaining a league-wide reputation for thuggery and poor sportsmanship. All the players on this team—including stars like Sidney Crosby and James Neal—are now engaging in this physical play.
The Penguins now have to deal with the negative attention that their physicality attracts, both on and off the ice. Their offensive efficiency and overall discipline suffer because they are concentrating on the extracurricular activities and their aftermath, rather than the game of hockey. Now, one of the best teams in the league has lost its magic touch. The attitude change has steadily worsened the postseason performance of this team, and it’s finally come to a head. The Pittsburgh Penguins are about to be swept out of the playoffs for the first time since 1979, and they have the rough stuff to thank for it.
The 2007-08 season was the last full year that Michel Therrien coached the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team finished with 48 fighting majors and finished as runner-up in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Detroit Red Wings, a disciplined team that finished dead last in the league with 11 FMs that season.
The Penguins struggled under Therrien the next season, and he was fired at the midway point to be replaced by Dan Bylsma. The rookie head coach led the Penguins to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup victory in 17 years. The Penguins finished with 39 FMs, 23rd in the league.
The following year would be Dan Bylsma’s first chance to fully implement his system and his principles. The Penguins returned to a total of 48 FMs, good for 16th in the league. That season also saw their bid to repeat as Stanley Cup champions flame out in the Eastern Conference semifinals, falling in seven games to the giant-killing Montreal Canadiens. That was their worst playoff performance in three seasons. But no one could have imagined that it would only get worse from there.
The 2010-11 season saw the most dramatic change in the Pittsburgh Penguins, in both physicality and postseason performance. Pittsburgh accrued 71 FMs, catapulting them to third in the league. However, they fell flat in the playoffs, losing in the quarterfinals to Tampa Bay in seven games. The Penguins had not exited the playoffs that early since Sidney Crosby made his postseason debut four years earlier.
This past regular season, Pittsburgh's fight total dipped to 31. Interestingly enough, Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh's captain and ring leader, missed 60 games with highly scrutinized concussion issues. But the team grabbed even more headlines with two fight-filled games at the end of the regular season, drawing public criticism from Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette and New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella. The Penguins finished with 108 points and qualified as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, but have already dropped the first three games of their quarterfinal series to intrastate rival Philadelphia.
Tough, physical, even violent hockey can be successful in the NHL, including in the playoffs. The originators of this style of hockey were the Broad Street Bullies, the two-time Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers of the mid-1970’s. That team would beat you with their fists and then beat you with the final score. That was their philosophy. They built their team around it, and it worked for them.
In recent seasons, the NHL has seen a return of the Broad Street style, and it still works. The Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup Finals last season by being the Big Bad Black. They continued their bullying ways this season, finishing second in fighting majors. The strategy worked again, as they returned to the playoffs. The New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Ottawa Senators, St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks all utilize a similar strategy. All five teams finished in the top 10 for fighting majors this season, and all are currently in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But those teams use a strategy that fits them. The Pittsburgh Penguins are using that same strategy, but it's not a good fit.
And now, the Pittsburgh Penguins are being thrashed—in more ways than one—by the Philadelphia Flyers, a team more suited to this brand of hockey. Pittsburgh has made this series downright nasty, and it has actually given the Flyers an advantage. The Penguins would have had the advantage in the series if they had maintained their composure.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins want to return to raising their arms in victory, they must stop raising their fists in anger.