Sidney Crosby doesn’t need to be taught how to play hockey. He is the maestro of the backhand. He is a triple gold club member. He is the best player in the world.
Mike Johnston, ever the professor, wanted to teach him how to play hockey.
Mike Sullivan, the Pittsburgh Penguins new head coach, wants the world’s best player to tell him what is your contribution to helping this team win.
Hockey players are often told things like this is our identity and this is how we will play. Mike Sullivan is not going to tell the Pittsburgh Penguins how they will play. Instead he wants them to assess their own strengths, both individually and as a team, and build their system on that. He is a big believer in creating an identity as a group and working towards that.
Sullivan had a full team meeting his first day as head coach. In that meeting he introduced his philosophy. He also plans smaller meetings with the team’s top players moving forward. These meetings will probably involve him asking guys like Phil Kessel, “What one thing out there do you do better than anyone else? What one thing do you pride yourself on?” He may ask Sidney Crosby to assess what features of this team make them better than others.
The new coach doesn’t have an identity in his back pocket for his players and as such it will take time for changes to settle in. The first changes, working on solid tape-to-tape passing and focusing on coming out of your own zone with speed, were implemented right away. Other elements of their team game will become apparent as time goes on.
This is what Sullivan did in Wilkes-Barre, where he coached the Penguins top minor league affiliate to one the best starts in franchise history, and it worked spectacularly. While certain aspects of their game were apparent immediately, namely the strong play of both netminders, others came along gradually like increasing shot totals and activating their puck moving defensemen.
This is the kind of system a highly talented team can benefit from. These Penguins don’t need a one-size-fits-most approach because they aren’t most teams. Few teams not named the Edmonton Oilers have iced as many first round picks as the Penguins have right now. And no one wants to copy the Oilers. The key is to develop a system that fits their skill sets and inspires these guys to play a certain way.
Teams can’t win on talent alone though and Sullivan isn’t going to let anything slide. He prides himself on his honest and candid assessment of where his teams are and where they need to go. So while he is going to unshackle guys like Evgeni Malkin, he is going to instill into every player that they need to be accountable.
Is this going to be a magic bullet? No. There are still deficiencies and they start between the ears of some of this team’s most talented players. What this change is, is a shot in the arm. It’s a shake it up to get the right players playing the right way. It gives some of these most talented players, many of whom have been seen as stars from their pre-teen years, a chance to “embrace the struggle” and become their best versions of themselves instead of the best version of them someone else has created.