It's probably impossible to pinpoint any particular facet for what went wrong with the 2018-19 Penguins. But Mike Sullivan, speaking a couple weeks ago with our Dave Molinari, certainly sounded willing to try.
“We were 31st in the league in odd-man rushes against,” Sullivan would lay out succinctly. “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."
He's right, of course. And in citing that broader statistic, as he apparently plans to do from the first bucket of pucks dropped onto the Cranberry ice, he can also underscore that this wasn't simply a playoff issue. It was all winter long, front to finish. Breakaway after breakaway. Two-on-one after two-on-one. And let's not even bring up all the breakdowns on the power play.
But what to do about it?
The easy part's identifying the problem. A hot dog vendor at PPG Paints Arena could've identified this with his back turned to the event.
The harder part will be creating the needed focus. Sullivan's capable of that. He can pound the same phrase, the same thought process into people's brains with the best of them.
I can't help but wonder, though, if that'll be enough. If maybe this group couldn't benefit from a bit more caution instilled into the Xs and Os.
Now, I made up my mind to put together a Drive on pinching, but, it being late July and all, I didn't want to do so without reviewing some actual hockey footage. And within that, I chose to confine that to the playoff sweep by the Islanders — since that kind of mattered the most.
Let's queue up one GIF from each of those four games:
This is, beyond a doubt, the worst of the worst: Kris Letang's one-on-three toe-drag in the New York zone that led to Josh Bailey's overtime deposit in Game 1. But it's also been beaten to death, to the extreme that some, remarkably, use it to bury Letang's career. You know, fresh off the very best season of that career.
Some, equally remarkable, use it to pan pinching.
Except that it isn't an example of pinching at all.
Pinching, as will be illustrated below, occurs when a defenseman elects to pounce on a loose puck in the attacking or neutral zones, usually along the boards. The term also gets used, maybe overused, when a defenseman opts to support a rush. But the Webster's definition, if there were ever a hockey dictionary, would be about pouncing on a loose puck.
That's not what happened up there on the OT mistake. That was nothing more than a terrible lapse in judgment at an inopportune time. It's got nothing to do with strategy or disobeying strategy. It was a lack of common sense, as Letang himself would acknowledge that night in Uniondale.
What's below was a pinch, and an awful one:
That was Justin Schultz's pinch up the left boards at center red that led to Bailey's goal in Game 3. Schultz knew Sidney Crosby was the Penguins' highest forward on the sequence, he knew the Islanders had numbers to that side, and he had to have known Jack Johnson, his partner, would be overmatched by those numbers if something went awry. And Tom Kuhnhackl's picture-perfect chip to Bailey was more than enough.
I'll repeat: It was a pinch, and it was awful.
But that, too, wasn't a failure of the system. At least not necessarily. Barry Trotz's defensemen are prohibited from ever pinching, so there's a very good chance that a similar scene wouldn't have burned the Islanders because they'd have instinctively backpedaled. That argument absolutely can be made.
Is that worth it, though, in the long run?
Here's a positive pinching episode:
Follow Letang all the way through. He starts out this Game 2 shift with a smart pinch up the right boards of the New York zone, then does all kinds of other Letang-y goodness before ultimately winding his way low down the left side to position himself for a rebound near Robin Lehner.
There aren't five defensemen on the planet who can do that. There might not be three.
Who'd want to take that away?
Who'd want to anchor that player to a specific spot on the rink?
Here's a better one, if only because it's the most frequent type of pinching, and it was rewarded with the ideal result:
That's the opening goal of Game 4, and that's as pretty as pinching gets. Letang gets down the right boards and bangs big Matt Martin — not once, but twice — to ensure the puck gets back to Crosby. From there, Crosby spies Jake Guentzel, and that's that.
But to fully appreciate why it worked, watch it from the back angle:
First, notice that Letang's pinch is accompanied by Guentzel smartly tracking back. He's the F3 -- or the highest forward -- in that setting, as he's there to cover if the Islanders should somehow snap right out of there.
Next, notice that Guentzel doesn't break across to the slot for Crosby's pass until he's sure Letang's sliding back.
That, my friends, is pinching Sullivan-style. It's not about assigning one forward to be F3 at all times, the way responsible forwards from Bob Errey to Carl Hagelin to Dominik Simon have been assigned over the years. It's about trusting all forwards to make the right reads and react accordingly.
Very clearly, it doesn't always work. Equally clear, a lot of those most responsible for it not working will be back on the roster. So if Sullivan's aim is to simply make them try harder, there can't be much cause to hope it'll change. People are who they are, for better or worse.
What I'd like to see is the elimination of the pinch in targeted situations. When facing, say, a banged up New Jersey lineup that's got barely one threatening line, don't pinch when that line's on the ice. When leading by a goal or two in the third period, maybe don't pinch as much.
Sullivan prioritizes puck possession. He wants it on the Penguins' sticks at all times and at all costs. I respect that. It's a healthy approach to the modern game. But he's also got to coach to the players and personalities he has, not to the ones he might wish he had.
If he wants them to change, maybe he should offer a bit of that himself.
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