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Cup-Winning Penguins a Model for Depth

Friday, July 8th
Cup-Winning Penguins a Model for Depth

It’s one of hockey fans’ favorite debates in the middle of June as the last men standing duke it out for the most coveted trophy in sports—who is the most valuable player? Each year there is give-and-take among pundits, but more often than not we can all settle on a general consensus of the one player who stood out, carried the team, and made the big play in the biggest moment.

But this year?

Sidney Crosby won his first Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, a choice that certainly is hard to argue against. And yet there were many who would have cast their ballot for defenseman Kris Letang, averaging just over 29 minutes per game in the Final while adding a goal and four assists. Or Phil Kessel, who led the Penguins with 22 points in the playoffs en route to his first Cup.  Rookie goaltender Matt Murray posted a .923 save percentage and a 2.08 goals-against average while winning 15 playoff games, tying a playoff record for rookie goaltenders.

What’s the point? There were a lot of players on this Penguin squad responsible for the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup, and we haven’t even mentioned Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bonino, or the role players on lower lines that put up huge post-season performances.

“It was very impressive to watch and entertaining as well. To see a team like Pittsburgh that balanced its attack up front, with Malkin, Crosby, and Kessel all on different lines, they still had a fourth line that was offering an equal role and contributions,” said Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham, carefully following along with the NHL playoffs like everyone else in the hockey world. “With an attack that balanced, how do you stop it? Your shutdown D can’t get enough minutes and it’s very difficult to match a team that has that much depth and is this impressive to watch.”

Another hockey-talk tradition following the Cup Final is to surmise how other teams will try to copy the strategy of the previous Cup winner. While it’s a conversation we’re used to having, it’s particularly meaningful this year after seeing a team win the lock-down defensive battles and at the same time win the transition speed game. It’s a tempo that coaches at every level of the game will give close attention, especially after seeing how it stifled a San Jose Sharks team that was flying high entering the Final.

“It’s something we prided ourselves with in Idaho at the end of last season and into the playoffs, that we had three lines contributing almost evenly at some points,” said Graham. “You didn’t know which line would break out that night and it made us tough to defend. It’s something we’re trying to build off for next season as well, having that depth to our attack where you can roll three lines evenly and keep the tempo of the game up while getting contributions from everyone.”

It was that depth for the Steelheads in April that allowed them to push the eventual Kelly Cup champion Allen Americans to overtime in Game 7, despite the fact that top performers like Jefferson Dahl and Corbin Baldwin were unavailable. While the Penguins saw important contributions from Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr, and Carl Hagelin, the Steelheads saw players like Andrew Carroll, Kruise Reddick, and Tommy Fallen stepping up with important playoff moments.

“The list goes on with Pittsburgh- Tom Kuhnhackl, Fehr, the role players who were also contributing offensively while still doing their job defensively. They didn’t spend a lot of time in their defensive zone in a Stanley Cup Final, playing the Western Conference champs,” said Graham.

Of course, if it were easy to find a full roster of players that could win every foot-race and shutdown the other teams’ best players, every team would be built that way. It takes savvy from management and a willingness of every player on the team to buy in. That’s what Graham spoke about all of last season for the Steelheads, buying in to team concepts and using team speed to wear down opponents.

This is the off-season, the time when teams look at their rosters and decide what pieces they can add to the mix to create a perfect winning formula. Every team will take a serious look at how the Penguins used their big-time stars combined with big-time role players to shut down one of the NHL’s best offensive teams this spring.

“The way they transition and play with speed is a fun brand of hockey, and when it’s executed correctly, it brings big results.”

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