NHL teams accumulate a lot of statistics, from the most traditional to the latest in advanced analytics, over the course of a season.
The Penguins are no exception, and they can find something of value -- or, at least, of interest -- in pretty much every one of those numbers.
But when Mike Sullivan assessed his team's performance in 2018-19, there was one figure he felt captured the essence of why the Penguins did not qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs until the waning days of the regular season, then lasted only a week after they got in.
"We were 31st in the league in odd-man rushes against," Sullivan said. "I shared this conversation with a lot of our top guys and our coaching staff, and I said we can't expect to win championships if we're going to lead the league in that category. I said, there are a lot of reasons behind why we're giving up odd-man rushes, but I think part of the DNA of our group is, we've got a lot of offensive players, and they want to score. But the way you win games in the NHL is, not only do you have to score, but you also have to have a certain diligence about your own puck-possession; or become harder to play against by not becoming a high-risk team, in certain aspects of the game. And when you don't have the puck, you simply have to defend hard. For me, that's the formula, that's the recipe, for success."
Sullivan then broke it down to its simplest terms.
"You have to score goals, but you have to keep it out of your net, as well. Our team, I know, has the ability to score goals. We have to do a better job at keeping the puck out of our net. I think a lot of that has to do with a mindset. One of my main responsibilities, one of my main objectives going into this training camp, is to manage that mindset appropriately."
The Penguins had the sixth-most productive offense in the league last season, averaging 3.3 goals per game, but were 14th in goals-against, allowing 2.9 per game.
Playing effective defense requires more than a willingness to work — a commitment to doing it is an important part of the equation. And it's a variable over which every player has control.
"It's effort, it's decision-making, it's understanding and buying into a team concept," Sullivan said. "There's a little bit more to it than just simply effort. But certainly, I know it's something our guys are capable of because we've shown the ability to do it. We just have to do it more consistently, night in and night out, and that's what's going to give us the chance to be the team we all believe we're capable of becoming."
While he obviously was displeased with the Penguins' defensive lapses and disappointed they made only a cursory appearance in the playoffs, Sullivan volunteered that he does not see the past season as an abject failure, that there were some positives that shouldn't be dismissed entirely.
Nor, he was quick to add, should their significance be overstated.
"In some ways, I'm really proud of the group for what we accomplished," he said. "We got 100 points last year. It's hard to get 100 points in this league. With some of the injuries we went through and some of the challenges we went through as a group, we still found a way to get 100 points.
"I'm proud of our players for that. But certainly, that's not where our ultimate goal is. We're disappointed because we didn't meet our own expectations. No one has higher expectations for the Penguins than the players and the coaches and the management themselves. We're harder on ourselves than anybody outside our dressing room."
There will be new faces in that dressing room this fall, as Jim Rutherford didn't hesitate to begin overhauling the roster that lasted just four games against the New York Islanders in Round 1 of the playoffs. Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta have been traded and Matt Cullen has retired, while Alex Galchenyuk, Dominik Kahun and Brandon Tanev have been added to the personnel mix.
And there surely will be other moves, if only to open the salary-cap space needed to re-sign restricted free agents Marcus Pettersson, Teddy Blueger and Zach Aston-Reese.
While Sullivan said that there is not a specific type of player he would like to add if Rutherford has the opportunity to make additional deals, he offered an unequivocal endorsement of the ones that have been pulled off in recent weeks.
"I think Jim has done a really good job at improving our team in the last few weeks," Sullivan said. "He's made some really smart decisions with adding certain guys who I think are going to help us in the areas we identified that we need to improve. They're not earth-shattering trades, they're not blockbuster signings, but these are guys who are going to make us faster, who are going to make us more difficult to play against. We're hoping they're going to help us surround our core guys with the right attributes that are going to allow these guys to be at their best."
Whether the Penguins' best will be good enough for them to challenge for another Stanley Cup is hard to say in mid-summer, but Sullivan seems cautiously optimistic about this team's promise.
"I believe we have the potential to be a really good hockey team, a competitive hockey team," he said. "You know what? We'll see where everybody is at the end of the year. I believe in this group of players, I'll tell you that. I believe in the group that we have, and I think they're capable of great things. But ... nothing is inevitable. You have to go out and earn it every day."
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