Pittsburgh Penguins: Simplicity, Less Flash Will Remedy Slow Start

Laura FalconAnalyst IOctober 15, 2010

PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 13:  Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins screens goaltender Jonas Gustavsson #50 of the Toronto Maple Leafs as a shot on goal comes in on October 13, 2010 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Toronto defeated Pittsburgh 4-3.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

After four games, the Pittsburgh Penguins have no answers to their poor play that has kicked off the start of the 2010-2011 inaugural season of the Consol Energy Center.

Lucky for them, an answer doesn't need to be found. Head Coach Dan Bylsma knows what must be done.

Listening to Bylsma's comments that are coated with frustration, he's absolutely right.

"Sometimes the identity of our team is that we're a high-skilled team that can make plays...when we fall into that kind of identity, we run into problems."

I couldn't agree more; an identity crisis seems to describe the Pens' situation perfectly. Looking at the quality of play from the Pens since Bylsma took the reins on Feb. 15, 2009, the best hockey came when the team embraced Bylsma's system of dumping the puck, forechecking and forcing turnovers, and putting the puck on net with traffic surrounding the crease.

The Pens that have shown up for the first four games of this season haven't come close to implementing that system, but if they can, they can be just as dominant as they were leading up to the Stanley Cup win in 2009.

The key to this is simplicity. The saying goes "keep it simple, stupid" for a reason and with the roster GM Ray Shero put together over the summer, applying this mentality is very possible and could be very rewarding for the Pens.

To go along with Bylsma's emphasis on a heavy forecheck, he signed gritty winger Arron Asham and center Mike Comrie. With those signings, the Pens boast 11 gritty players who aren't afraid to throw a few shoulders, fight in the corners, and get in the face of the opposing goalie.

A gritty system should be pretty obvious to adopt, no?

Somehow, this year's Pens squad makes it look like the theory of relativity.

Instead of passes moving forward and behind the opposing goal line, I'm seeing more drop passes than ever before attempted by players who do not boast the hands to do so. Passes are also going primarily east-west instead of north-south.

It's getting overly complicated, as if the players are thinking too much about setting up the perfect scenario to score a goal.

This may work for some teams, but I would argue that there are no more than four skill players on the Pens. The only person able to handle Sidney Crosby's no-look, backhand pass is Evgeni Malkin, so why is Mark Letestu attempting to do the same to Comrie?

The Pens are built on the skill set of their top three centers so there could be some kind of pressure to play into that more, maybe because the team is depending on them to win. Regardless of the reason, it's time for the Pens to get back to the basics of playing a simple hockey game, the same style that won them the Cup just two seasons ago.

Looking to the past may not always work, but in this case, emulating the play of mid-February and onward Pens would certainly benefit more than hurt.

Though led by the high numbers of Crosby and Malkin and Staal's two-way play, the Pens won the Cup because of players like Max Talbot, Tyler Kennedy and Miroslav Satan.

No flash or fancy play, just pure hard work that made a huge difference on the ice. The Pens have an even grittier line up than in 2009 so it shouldn't be difficult for the Pens to try this again.

A noteworthy difference between now and 2009 was that the current Pens weren't in 10th place with just 25 regular season games remaining. The desperation to win was in full force when Bylsma took over which is why the Pens readily digested and implemented his system.

This is why pegging the blame on Bylsma is pointless. When the team plays the way he wants them to play, they win.

That desperation is gone now, despite the many changes on the roster since then. Tapping into desperation mode now would be foolish, but the Pens need to show that there is some desire to win on a regular basis.

If there is one aspect of the Pens' game that could use desperation at every opportunity, it's the power play.

Ah, yes, the dreaded Powerball Power Play that makes every Pens fan wish a penalty could be negated. After all, the Pens tend to play better five on five anyway.

Even with veteran defenseman and power play quarterback Sergei Gonchar, the Pens had a very disappointing power play conversion rate with one exception: the 2009 playoffs.

This power play clicked at 20.6 percent. That number may not seem very high, but the power play got hotter as the playoffs progressed to the point where it was actually considered a threat to other teams.

Why was it so hot?

Yes, there was desperation behind the players, but their formation on the power play made the most sense because it utilized players and their basic skills to their best advantage.

Gonchar was, of course, on the point, Malkin on the right half wall and Crosby coasted along the goal line. Malkin was perfect on the half wall because he would set up camp and shoot one timers until he put a hole through the net. Most, if not all of Malkin's power play goals have come from that position in the circle.

Crosby has a great spot along the goal line because he would coast from left side to right side, usually disappearing and reappearing in a play stealthily, sometimes avoiding the eyes of the penalty killers. This makes room for his creativity to shine and a creative Crosby is always a good thing.

The three of them worked so well together because Gonchar, who practiced hours with a chair on the ice, would throw pucks to the net and someone, either the goalie screener or Crosby, could stuff it in. Malkin also never backed down from a one-timer.

Notice the focus has been "get the puck to the net and good things can happen." It's basic and can be easily mastered when players gain some confidence. Too bad the Pens are so busy passing the puck around like a game of catch to do this.

Not only have the passes become too frequent, they've become too slow. What point is passing the puck if you're going to hold onto it long enough for the penalty killers to get a stick or body in a shooting lane? If the Pens attempt a shot, it usually ricochets off of a body or a stick and ventures into the neutral zone for the clear.

On top of that, the Pens aren't even moving on the power play. They're stationary which is sad to see when the team is down by a goal with only five minutes left in the game.

With Gonchar gone, Paul Martin looks to have taken over the point position, Alex Goligoski hangs out on the left side and Chris Kunitz takes his place in front of the goalie. Together, they create a passing clinic that results in a waste of two minutes.

The Pens need to get out of the habit of relying on passes and waiting for the perfect pass to come so someone can shoot it home. If there's one thing to take away from Bylsma's system, it's that you have to take control of the game and not sit on your heels waiting for something. Many players have that mentality, it's just a matter of tapping back into it.

In the end, this losing streak is good for the Pens. I haven't seen a time when a losing streak hasn't somehow benefited them in the long run because they always learn something.

Right now, the Pens are getting a reality check: dedication to simplicity is better than unfocused complex play.

If they can find a way to simplify their game and make use of the players' talents, then the losses to Staal, Asham and Michalek will be less obvious and the Pens will be able to find a way to win.


Laura Falcon is a Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins and a college writing intern for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter or email her at lfalcon@mail.umw.edu with any comments.