Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Notes on Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup victory, what it may mean for Buffalo

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com

Congrats to Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, Conn Smythe-winner Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins on their Stanley Cup victory. It was the second time in seven years that the Pens won the Cup and it was also the second time that a mid-season coaching change got them to the promised land. The first time was in 2009 as the Penguins were struggling mightily under coach Michel Therrien. He was replaced by Dan Bylsma who is now the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres.

Sullivan was a grinder in the NHL for 10 seasons as a player scoring 54 goals and adding 82 assists in 709 regular season games. He had a NHL head coaching stint with the Boston Bruins in the seasons surrounding the 2005 lockout and has a first-round playoff loss on that part his resume. The Penguins brought him in for their AHL club this season then promoted him after only 23 games as head coach for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton where he was 18-5.

Sullivan's Penguins put on an awesome display of speed and tenacity in the playoffs that was unmatched by any other team. Although they had immense star-power in the likes of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang, Crosby was the playoff MVP without scoring a goal in the Finals. In post-game, on-ice interviews amidst the celebration, one player described Crosby as the ultimate grinder.

"Grinder?" Crosby? Yup. But that was just part of it.

There was another interesting tidbit that came out of an NBCSN on-ice interview with Carl Hagelin who was considered a key lynch-pin in a speed that game no team could match. Hagelin mentioned his first conversation with Sullivan after being traded to Pittsburgh. The coach, he said, told him to use his speed to relentlessly hawk the puck and to just let it rip.

Sullivan also pulled the right strings on offense. By spreading out his top-heavy lineup it allowed each line to have a star player while also integrating an array of players including a two-way player like Nick Bonino, who isn't the fastest of skaters, and rookie speedsters Conor Sheary and Brian Rust. As was mentioned on the ice, each player was directly responsible for helping the Penguins win games throughout the playoffs.

Through Sullivan's direction, a generally non-descript (save for Letang) Penguins d-corps got the puck out of their zone on defense--either with a quick pass to the neutral zone or hitting the stick of a forward in support--and made the right decisions on the attack either jumping up into the play or pinching in on the forecheck. They also clogged shooting lanes from head to toe, and from glove to tip of the stick.

Also, reports of the death of top-notch goaltending as a cog in a Stanley Cup run was greatly exaggerated. Pens rookie netminder Matt Murray was stellar in net and he wasn't even the best goalie in the Finals. San Jose goalie Martin Jones held the fort under a constant barrage of shots and kept a badly outplayed Sharks team in every game. The Penguins outshot San Jose 206-139 in the six-game series.

The Penguins had the right coach pulling the right strings from the time he got behind the bench in December. Fans will point to their speed and look for their own team to follow that model without taking the coaching job of Sullivan into consideration. Although he didn't exactly have chopped liver to work with, he engineered a machine.

The Buffalo Sabres are headed into the second year of the building process and GM Tim Murray has shown a propensity for certain types of players whom he wants to build with. Probably the most important aspect, regardless of their skill-set, is that he and Bylsma want their players to play at a fast pace. Although they don't have the overall team speed of Pittsburgh right now they do have players that can get up and down the ice and some have shown the ability to play at an amped-up pace.

Pittsburgh's overall speed, and that of Dallas' as well, was the envy of the league this playoff year. It would be fan-like and easy for the Sabres to jump on the speed bandwagon and sell the farm for the next Hagelin, Rust or Sheary. But as we've witnessed throughout the decades trends come and go.

The NHL went from the beautiful, flowing, high-scoring 80's to the clutch-and-grab 90's because defenses caught up and clamped down. It went from speed and skill post-2005 lockout to the hammer that was the Anaheim Ducks in 2007 morphing into Western Conference-style size and grit. Woven in between Conference heavies like Anaheim Los Angeles (2012, 2014) and Boston (2011) were the silky smooth, puck-possessing Detroit Red Wings, a top-heavy 2009 Pittsburgh club and a potent, high-flying, high-scoring Chicago Blackhawks dynasty. One thing they all had in common was a coach with the ability to take what was given him an got the most out of them.

With the Sabres beginning to build in earnest, this isn't about chasing trends. If a team begins to follow the latest trend now, a new trend will have emerged by the time they've reached their potential and they'll be forced to follow another trend.

One thing that won't go out of style is drafting and developing hockey players--those who have an internal drive to do whatever's necessary--with whatever God-given skills they have--no matter who they're playing against or what era they're in. And as shown in the 2016 playoffs, it doesn't hurt to have a franchise players--like Crosby and Malkin--as a one-two punch down the middle. That's something that also won't go out of style--drafting and/or acquiring franchise-altering talent.

As the Buffalo Sabres head into the 2016 off season, they have a one-two punch down the middle in Ryan O'Reilly and Jack Eichel both of whom are changing the face of the franchise. They're surrounded by an array of talent, mostly young, with differing skill sets. Regardless of size, skating ability, talent, grit or hockey IQ, players need to execute at a fast pace.

"It’s not just their speed," said Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer of the Pens post-game to the gathered media, "they have good sticks, too. They force you into quicker decisions. They really challenge your execution. We hadn’t seen pressure and sticks like that through the first three rounds. I think our execution was an issue because of that.”

With the off season officially upon us, Murray will be looking to tweak the roster surrounding his core (or maybe adding to the core if Steven Stamkos can be persuaded to come to Buffalo.) Regardless of who they bring in, it will be up to Bylsma and his coaching staff to make it work. He has the star players to work with and a burgeoning group of young players who have a lot to offer. Bylsma started to install his systems last season and will need to be flexible enough to alter it to fit the personnel he has to work with in 2016-17.

Although the Sabres aren't close to the Pittsburgh Penguins, they can make up ground fast simply because of the top-notch talent they have right now. How the rest of the team grows, how they fill holes and what kind of goaltending they get next year will go a long way in determining their place in the standings, but it's up to Bylsma to make it work and get them to execute at a fast pace. Should things progress as expected they could in the very least be knocking on the playoff door.

Bylsma has time on his side, but only so much of it. Continued growth is essential and the playoffs next season is the goal. Should he keep his team progressing, he won't need to worry too much about another coach taking the Sabres on a long playoff run like he and Sullivan did with Pittsburgh seven years apart to the day.

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