NHL Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins have a whole new focus

Pittsburgh headed into game three against Boston last June a bewildered, desperate shell of the team it was supposed to be—down 2–0 in the series and outscored 9–1. David Krejci found the net on Boston’s first shot, 102 seconds in, but then Pittsburgh took a deep breath and played a massive game. Chris Kunitz tied it up in the second, and the Penguins outshot Boston 39–25 in regulation—including a 14–4 attack in the third. The game went deep into double overtime; by the time a redirected shot put the dagger in Pittsburgh, the Penguins had forced Tuukka Rask to make 53 saves. “We threw it at them tonight and didn’t get the win,” coach Dan Bylsma said afterward. “But it’s a race to four, and they aren’t there yet.” Two nights later, they were. The Penguins—the East’s top team and, on paper, one of the league’s most formidable squads—were swept away.

New seasons are a fresh start, but the spectre of the way weak team defence cannibalized their offensive juggernaut in the playoffs—again—still hangs over Pittsburgh heading into 2013–14. It was there on the first day of training camp, when Marc-André Fleury—who played himself out of a starting job, leaving Tomas Vokoun in net for that marathon Boston game—let in the first three shots he faced during a scrimmage. The moment couldn’t have been more meaningless, or ominous. Despite the fact that Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang et al. can keep the goal light going like a strobe lamp, their team is turfed from the playoffs with alarming ease. But the organization made some off-season moves designed to change that, and Pittsburgh should finally be able to balance its scoring prowess with the solid defence its beleaguered goaltenders badly need.

The most important change, however, was an off-ice one, and it’s a clear signal that the run-and-gun style in Pittsburgh is going to shift. Forced to let some pretty big-name free agents walk to keep his team under the salary cap this season, GM Ray Shero made Pittsburgh better without adding to the pile: He hired Jacques Martin as an assistant coach. A teacher in his pre-coaching life, Martin is excellent with young players and unswervingly dedicated to a defence-first system. He likes discipline—teams that block shots, work their positioning in five-man units and go on the attack only when it’s smart to do so. As head coach in St. Louis, Ottawa, Florida and Montreal, Martin was famous for pre-season retreats in which his players had to haul themselves through obstacle courses chained together or, say, find their way out of the Banff wilderness blindfolded and guided by their teammates’ voices. Pre-season team bonding aside, the criticism most often levelled at Martin is that he stifles offensive creativity in service of his system, building very effective hockey teams that put even diehards to sleep. And that makes him exactly what Pittsburgh needs. He’ll bring balance to an offensively talented team—and chances are slim to none that anyone could make a roster with that kind of firepower boring.

Martin has plenty to work on. The penalty kill is a major issue, with Pittsburgh tumbling to 25th in the league last season. A healthy Letang and Paul Martin, who each missed more than a quarter of last season, will help. And what’s old is new again, with Shero signing free agent Rob Scuderi, who was with Pittsburgh for the 2009 Cup win. Last season, Scuderi led Los Angeles in blocked shots and shorthanded minutes. He’ll be a cornerstone of the Penguins penalty kill, though at 34 he’s not exactly the defenceman of the future. Brooks Orpik will be another stay-at-home man, and while Letang specializes in an offensive role, Martin will push him to polish his defensive chops.

While team defence has been the biggest problem in Pittsburgh’s recent springtime implosions, the man between the pipes has taken most of the blame. The contrast between Fleury’s regular-season self and the guy who shows up for the playoffs is downright weird. Since the Cup win, his cumulative GAA is 2.44 in the regular season and 3.18 in the post-season, and his save percentage drops from .913 to .880. The Penguins hired a new goalie coach in Mike Bales, a technical guru and strong communicator who spent two years as the development coach within the organization. The team also asked Fleury to see a sports psychologist this summer; he says the sessions gave him “different tools” and he may tweak his pre-game routine. If Fleury can learn to block out the noise and nerves, he’ll stop more pucks come springtime, and together with a renewed focus on defence, that means Pittsburgh will be a well-rounded force to be reckoned with.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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