At the beginning of the season, Penguins center Sidney Crosby certainly did not play like the best player in hockey. In fact, he was downright pedestrian. The Penguins captain only notched 19 points in his first 30 games of 2015-16. His uncharacteristically mediocre performance probably played a key role in the Penguins’ decision to fire former head coach Mike Johnston in December.
Since that decision, Crosby’s looked more worthy of the “Best Player in Hockey” label that he had been anointed with years ago. He’s collected 47 points in the 38 games since Mike Sullivan took over as Pittsburgh’s bench boss and is back among the top scorers in the league. While the Penguins are still not a lock for postseason success, or even a playoff berth, it appears that their most important component is back his usual better-than-a-point-per-game track.
So what has sparked Sid? The timing of Crosby’s recent resurgence correlates almost perfectly with Sullivan’s hire, so it’s probable that the new head coach’s system is a better fit for the star center. After all, with the exception of Evgeni Malkin who generally plays by his own rules, the whole team was less productive under Johnston than they are under Sullivan. Crosby is no different.
The differences between Sullivan and Johnston’s coaching styles are simple, yet significant. Johnston wanted the Penguins to play a systematic, puck-control based hockey game similar to the Juniors teams he had coached previously. Sullivan’s more inclined to let it fly and allow his players to live and die with their athletic abilities.
In the NHL’s current Clutch N’ Grab Redux where players are seemingly able to get away with increasingly reprehensible forms of obstruction, finding a way to separate Crosby from the goons and pests sent to (often literally) hold him down will be imperative.
What better way to escape the league’s knuckle draggers than by blowing right past them?
From the beginning of Sullivan’s tenure, he has preached that the Penguins need to utilize their speed in order for the team to remain in contention through the end of the season. The transformation has started in the defensive zone, which has been revitalized with puck-moving defenders. Rob Scuderi was traded for Trevor Daley. Derek Pouliot took over for the injured Ben Lovejoy. Justin Schultz came over from Edmonton and Ian Cole has proven that he’s still productive even though he’s getting a bit long in the tooth.
And, of course, Kris Letang has flourished under Sullivan and now ranks fourth in scoring among defensemen. Thirty-seven of Letang’s 51 points this season have come after the coaching change and Sullivan has given Pittsburgh’s star defender the freedom to push forward with confidence that Letang could get back if necessary.
One of the primary reasons why the Penguins suddenly dangerous defensive corps is meshing so well with Sullivan’s system is that they are not being asked to do too much. Their job is to gain possession in their own zone, make a responsible read, and move the puck forward toward one of their All-World forwards who are racing through the neutral zone. Unfortunately, information regarding player speed is not readily available. But one doesn’t need fancy radar or advanced statistics to notice a distinct difference between Coach Johnston’s style as opposed to Coach Sullivan’s. Just use the ol’ eye test.
Take a look at Crosby when the Penguins hosted the Kings on December 11th, Johnston’s last game as coach:
The Penguins have churned out dozens of elaborately produced Sidney Crosby highlight films over the past decade, but none of that footage will likely come from the first two months of this season.
It was challenging to find a clip that demonstrated how he lacked that signature burst that so frequently separated Crosby from his competitors. This video shows Crosby, who is one of the better close-proximity scorers in the history of the game, whiff on an easy cross-ice pass, recollect the puck, and drive it right into the neck of Jonathan Quick. One shouldn’t pick apart this play too much, but it was the culmination of months of uninspired hockey from one of the most consistently exciting hockey players of all time.
Compare that version of Crosby, who was enveloped at the blue line, with this one from February:
Now, this isn’t quite fair. I selected an obviously weak early-season effort by the Penguins and put it up against Crosby’s best goal of the season. That’s not the fairest way to assess the differences between the two systems. But these are just two examples. It doesn’t take much searching to find the Johnston-era Penguins foregoing scoring opportunities to drop pucks back to the point or just turning the puck over on a poorly executed cross-ice pass. It also doesn’t take long to find several more examples of the Penguins’ high-pressure defense creating quality scoring chances.
The Penguins’ improvements are not just viewable on video, however. The statistics show that the offense is producing far more shots under Sullivan than they were under Johnston.
Shots under Johnston
Shots under Sullivan (Prior to Sunday’s game against NYR)
Since Sullivan’s hiring, the Penguins have been aggressive and have controlled the game much more effectively than when Johnston was at the helm. They have tallied 178 more shots than they have allowed and those shots have turned into scoring chances.
Here is a graph (courtesy of War On Ice) that illustrates how the Penguins have stacked up against the Metropolitan Division since Sullivan became coach:
They have had more shots on goal and created more scoring chances than any team in the division since December 14th. If it weren’t for Washington’s unparalleled scoring ability, which has been aided by a favorable PDO (essentially the hockey equivalent of BABIP, baseball’s “luck” measurement), the Penguins would be the best scoring team in the division through that time period.
The change in system doesn’t entirely explain Crosby’s return to the top part of the league’s scoring rankings. Most of Crosby’s surge has nothing to do with coaching. There really isn’t much that Mike Sullivan can teach a generational talent like Sidney Crosby. But something was definitely off with Crosby at the beginning of the season and, for whatever reason, the mid-season coaching change has sparked the former two-time Hart Trophy winner at the right time.
This isn’t the first time this has happened, either. Crosby was similarly despondent within former head coach Michel Therrien’s conservative system before Dan Bylsma took over and loosened the leash a bit. That resulted in a Stanley Cup.
Those are lofty expectations to place on Sullivan and the 2015-16 Penguins, especially now that an upper-body injury will keep Malkin out for the rest of the regular season. They’re not a perfect team, but at least they’re more exciting to watch.