Over the summer the Penguins hired Jacques Martin as an assistant coach, and a lot of people, myself included, had to ask why. To this point the answers have been pretty profound.
The Penguins have been a much better defensive team since they brought in Jacques Martin as an assistant coach
In that previous piece I suggested that Martin “isn’t in Pittsburgh to do any one thing,” and to put it bluntly, I was really wrong. Essentially his fingerprints are all over everything the Penguins have been doing except special teams and playing in the offensive zone. Their transitions (both to the offense and back to defense) and their team efforts in the defensive zone are not things that Dan Bylsma has ever utilized in his 4 full years in Pittsburgh. What follows is a brief examination of what Martin has contributed to date.
Don’t look now, but Marc-Andre Fleury is off to the finest start to a season he’s ever had in his NHL career. He’s already 7-0-0 with a .930 save percentage and 1.84 GAA. While a good start to a regular season literally means less than nothing to Penguins fans, it is exciting to see MAF looking as strong, focused, and fit as he has in the early going this year. A big factor in MAF’s success so far has been the team’s investment in proper positioning within their defensive zone.
Through 8 games the team has limited opponents to the 6th fewest shots on goal against in the league, a humongous improvement over last year’s 16th place finish in that category. Further, the quality of shots getting through to MAF (and back up Jeff Zatkoff, if he ever starts another game) have been of fairly low quality. To start the season the Penguins are third in the league in blocked shots, pretty much an unthinkable category to rank so highly in for those ‘Go, go, go! Offensively-obsessed Penguins.’ In sum the team has recorded 139 blocks in 8 games,
or a little better than 17 shots per game, that will keep the pressure off any goaltender.
These stats are entirely the result of positioning: the five guys in front of the goaltender know where to go on the ice and that’s what they are doing. For brief moments the Penguins will occasionally look like they are struggling to get the puck out of their zone. They really aren’t, what it really comes down to is that players aren’t abandoning their responsibilities to chase the puck all around the ice. It may take more time to get a clear from the zone but when the Penguins do, they are so much better prepared to make a strong push through the neutral zone, which leads to our second point….
The End of the Stretch Pass
Perhaps the most exciting change so far in this young season has been far less reliance on the much maligned stretch pass that has been such an integral part of the Penguins’ recent playoff failures. Don’t mistake me, the stretch pass has its place, in no small part the NHL lost the entire 2004-05 season fighting over the merits of such a play, and it is pretty much impossible to imagine this team as currently constructed without the stretch pass. When a team has as much talent and foot speed as the Penguins do, it is enticing to try to catch an opponent napping in transition. However, an over reliance on the stretch pass has often made the team very easy to defend, especially in the postseason when the opposition has several games to watch and react to the play. As such the Penguins have needed another transition play for some time. What they have found calls for the whole team making a methodical effort to get everyone moving up ice, at a fast pace, and setting up for a long shift in the offensive zone, and it’s working.
No longer can a team successfully trap the Pens’ stretch passes, rather than keep walking (or skating) into the slaughter, the team now is prepared to make short methodical passes all the way from the defensive zone to the offensive zone. If the team gets slowed in the neutral zone they simply reset and try something new. The efforts have paid off as the team has given up the fourth fewest turnovers in the league so far during this young season. If the Penguins get a clear from their defensive zone they make sure the puck travels all 200 feet, and have been more than willing to forecheck with renewed vigor. This new, smarter, more aggressive forecheck has led to some really spectacular goals already this season.
In case you didn’t know, the red team is the one doing the trapping. Simple right?
For as impressive as the team’s transition game has been, they have been very nearly as good when the play begins to turn back to their defensive zone. So far the team has implemented two distinct trap philosophies: the 2-3 (or Left Wing Lock, the same thing the New Jersey Devils did on their way to three Stanley Cups in the ‘90s and early 2000s) and the 1-2-2 forecheck. Both are fairly aggressive and are not easy to run in the new NHL, where interference is actually a penalty that gets called and teams can pass the puck over their blue line and over the red line without having the play whistled dead.
Many thought that the trap died in the new NHL, but as teams like Boston have demonstrated, it has merely evolved. The trap is no longer a great solution for less talented teams, now it takes hard skating, fast moving teams to effectively use the 2-3, something that the Penguins should be capable of doing. All in all, the team doesn’t trap all the time, they often don’t have any need to. But as the season progresses having that kind of wrinkle available to protect a lead late in a meaningful game can only be a good thing. I would love to telestrate what the Pens are doing, but these subtle little plays don’t tend to be plays that make it into highlight packages. As such, make do with this awesome GIF from Wikipedia and a great in-depth examination of the 1-2-2 system from the fine folks at SB Nation’s Copper and Blue Blog.
It’s not entirely accurate or fair to say that Jacques Martin has “fixed” all of the Penguins’ problems, 8 games cannot tell us that, even 82 will only provide us with so much perspective, the real test will come in the postseason, but as long as the team remains disciplined and committed to the changes made, as they have so far, the Penguins could be well on their way to reclaiming Stanley Cup glory.
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