Ask a casual fan to roll through the list of reasons the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to emerge as back-to-back Stanley Cup champions and a familiar list of attributes comes up: dominant top-end talent, well-stocked with speedy secondary scorers, backstopped by one of the game’s top young netminders, etc…
One component of the club’s recent run that likely doesn’t get enough consideration? The forward-thinking approach from the team’s coaching staff.
And according to head coach Mike Sullivan, this may have been the key game-changer in 2017.
Specifically, Sullivan pointed to how his staff utilized the addition of the iBench system during the 2017 playoffs in their efforts to repeat as champions, telling The Boston Globe‘s Fluto Shinzawa the league’s new iPad system had a significant impact on Pittsburgh’s playoff strategizing.
The 2017 playoffs marked the first post-season in which teams were allowed to use this iBench system, putting iPads with real-time playback capabilities on the benches of each of the 16 playoff clubs. Whereas teams were previously forced to wait until the intermission to review video and instruct players about in-game adjustments, the new approach allowed coaches to do so in the moment, while the stakes were still high, reviewing on-ice events with their players immediately after said events occurred.
“The main areas where we probably gained the most use out of it was special teams, because you get immediate feedback,” Sullivan told Shinzawa in a piece published Saturday. “You can make subtle adjustments on the fly. In the playoffs, you might only get two power plays a game. So if you have the ability to make an adjustment that might lead to an opportunity to score or generate a scoring chance, that could be the difference between winning and losing.”
That meant, for example, the coaching staff reviewing a failed power-play zone entry attempt with Phil Kessel, suggesting a new approach and allowing the quick-footed winger to adjust and find more success on the very next play.
Those on-the-fly strategy changes undoubtedly paid off as the Penguins managed to connect on 20.5 percent of their power play chances during their 2017 run, leading the league in power-play goals while Kessel paced all skaters in this regard.
“I’ve always felt strongly that this is such a robust program,” Sullivan said. “But my experience of being around the game is that most coaching staffs use the tip of the iceberg. So my feeling has always been that, ‘Hey, if we can get better at this stuff than the other guys, then this could be a real competitive advantage for us.’
“On our staff in Pittsburgh, we spend a lot of time learning this stuff.”
Though the Penguins have two Stanley Cups in the bag, the latter championship tied directly to this new technological progress, Sullivan has his eyes on an even bigger step forward: in-game biometrics.
“Let’s say Kris Letang, he’s on an extended shift, 1:20, we take a penalty, and there’s a commercial break,” Sullivan said. “He’s our best defenseman. We’d like him to kill the penalty. There’s a 60-second commercial break, and now we’ve got to kill a penalty and the faceoff’s in our end. I can ask Kris Letang, ‘Hey, how do you feel? You good to go?’ He’s always going to say yes. His heart rate could be 250, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, I’m good, Coach.’ That’s the type of guy he is. But it would be nice if you had some sort of understanding of the physiology of the player and where they’re at.”
Whether the league gets to that point at any time during Sullivan’s NHL tenure remains to be seen, but there’s no denying that the game has evolved considerably as of late.
And it seems those that have embraced this change willingly, like Sullivan and his staff, are reaping the rewards of this progress.