Penguins Playbook: Pens Still Adjusting To Defensive System

Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland
Deryk Engelland has been questioning himself on defense (Tom Turk/THW)

The Pittsburgh Penguins were fairly happy with the result of their three-game Western Canada road swing (Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton).  It’s hard to complain about gaining 5 points of a possible 6, but all three games saw the Penguins whittle away leads late.

On Sunday in Edmonton, a blown lead and the inability to score on a five-minute powerplay at the end of the third period ultimately led to a shootout loss.  The new powerplay is still under construction and we’ll wait another handful of games before drawing any conclusions, but the Penguins defensive zone coverage is leaving a lot to be desired.

In training camp, coach Dan Bylsma hinted that he planned to unveil minor tweaks to the Penguins’ neutral zone and defensive zone systems.  One new neutral zone system was getting picked apart by opponents in a limited preseason trial and seems to have been abandoned by Bylsma – at least for the time being.  On the defensive end of the ice, players still seem to be struggling with new assignments and rotations and the mistakes have already led to a handful of goals this season.

Bylsma used a fairly standard setup in the defensive zone last season.  When opponents had the puck in the corner, one defenseman would pursue the puck-carrier, the first forward back (preferably the center) would provide support, and the second defenseman would guard the prime scoring area in front of the net.  The right and left wings would be assigned to cover the opposing team’s defensemen.

When the puck switches corners, the defenseman in front of the net pursues the puck-carrier, the center supports, and the other defenseman assumes coverage in front of the net.

Here’s an example from the playoffs of the system in action:

In football terms, this system is mostly zone-coverage where each player is assigned a specific part of the ice.  There’s a lot of movement going on, but a few basic items to note:

  • Notice winger Alex Kovalev (72) is the first forward back and assumes the center support responsibilities down low. After center Craig Adams (27) gets back into the zone, he and Kovalev switch to allow the more defensively-responsible Adams to assume his correct spot.
  • Left-defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) guards the front of the net while right-defenseman Ben Lovejoy (6) aggressively pursues the puck-carrier in his corner.
  • Mike Rupp (17) covers the far-side defenseman but is available to help out in the front of the net if necessary.

Here’s a clip from the same game of the system breaking down because Brooks Orpik chases the puck into the corner to cross-check Steven Stamkos instead of covering the front of the net:

This year Bylsma has tried a more aggressive man-to-man style of defense at various times throughout the preseason and regular season.  The wingers still cover their respective ‘points’, but the two defensemen and center play man-to-man against the opponent’s three forwards.  In one instance during the preseason, a Penguins defenseman (Niskanen I believe) even followed a Detroit forward all the way into the neutral zone to maintain his assignment.

At times, this can even result in two defensemen aggressively attacking the puck in the corner leaving just the center alone to cover in front of the net (not ideal).  The hope is that the aggressive attack will create more turnovers, but on opening night the uber-talented Sedin twins picked the Penguins defense apart:

The Sedin line finished with over a dozen scoring chances in the game and —  just like in football — man-to-man coverage was not enough to handle world-class talent:

  • Deryk Engelland (5) seems lost on the play.  He rushes into the corner to attack Alex Burrows (14) already covered by Kris Letang (58), then stumbles back in front of the net looking for another forward before eventually finding Daniel Sedin (22) to latch onto.
  • Henrik Sedin (33) recognizes that Letestu is responsible for him and uses the net to screen Letestu from defending him.
  • Daniel wisely sucks Engelland away from the net leaving a wide open lane for Henrik to step out and shoot.
  • Pascal Dupuis (9) is mesmerized by the twins’ sixth sense and forgets to cover Keith Ballard (4) flying in wide open from the point.

Despite back-to-back scoring titles, the Sedins are still fairly underrated because they don’t possess the flashy offensive skill of an Alex Ovechkin or the booming shot of a Steven Stamkos.  This clip is a perfect example of how intelligent they really are.

In the following games against Calgary and Edmonton, it looked like Bylsma had his team reverting back to the old system but it’s something that bears watching over the next few weeks.  The Penguins won’t be faced with talent like the Sedin’s every night, but they’ll need to tighten up their defense as the season goes along if they want to have success.

News and Notes:

~ Steve MacIntyre made his Penguins debut on Sunday night in Edmonton, playing four shifts for a total of 1:27 in ice time.  The humorous MacIntyre seems like a good locker room replacement for jokester Max Talbot and his bodyguard skillset is well-understood.  But if he can’t be relied upon to handle a regular shift, why were skilled players like Jason Williams and Nick Johnson waived in his favor?  Williams is still working his way back to full health and hindsight is 20/20 on Johnson (who was claimed by Minnesota), but MacIntyre’s presence is puzzling.

~ As we speculated last week, it doesn’t look like Brooks Orpik is very close to returning to the lineup.  Bylsma says he is still progressing, but added that Orpik “thinks it’s better to be off the ice for a few days before he gets back on the ice and skates with the players.”  Orpik’s intial rehab timetable was 6-8 weeks following his July 20 surgery and we’re almost at the middle of October.  The Penguins defense can survive in its current form but injuries could create problems down the road.

~ Bylsma also gave an update on the recovery of Dustin Jeffrey (ACL surgery).  “Just in terms of the strength of where he’s at, his ability to play is where he needs to keep improving,” Bylsma said. “While he’s skating and absorbing contact and being in those situations, he needs to continue to get stronger for his leg strength.”

~ Joe Vitale (59.5%) and Richard Park (58.3%) have been excellent in the faceoff circle so far.  Vitale has won a number of key draws including 5-for-5 in the defensive zone last game against Edmonton.

~ A few more random stats: Zbynek Michalek leads the Penguins with 5 giveaways (0 takeaways).  He and Martin have been very shaky so far this season and need to improve.  James Neal hasn’t been afraid to use his heavy shot but he needs to find the net.  His 10 missed shots are twice as much as anyone else on the team.


Mike Colligan is the Pittsburgh Penguins correspondent at and an NHL analyst at Forbes SportsMoney.

You can email him at or follow his updates on Twitter: @MikeColligan


2 thoughts on “Penguins Playbook: Pens Still Adjusting To Defensive System”

  1. All good points Tom. I think it first depends on your personnel. Do you have mobile defensemen capable of playing man-to-man, or do you have Hal Gill’s better suited for laying across the slot in zone coverage? Second, it definitely depends on matchups like you mentioned.

    Guy Boucher tried a super-aggressive man-to-man early last year (which I’m sure worked at the lower levels) where 2+ players would attack the puck carrier. His reasoning was it took all the decision-making away from playing defense. Instead, he wanted his players just to react. Tampa got picked apart.

    It seems like the answer is probably a mix of both.

  2. I haven’t seen any penguins games yet this year but playing man to man defensively at the NHL level is a recipe for disaster, specifically on the road.

    If the opposing coach uses his last change correctly he can throw out his best players against Pittsburgh players that cannot win 1 on 1 battles. If I’m Steven Stamkos and Richard Park is following me around I am loving my life. As you mentioned with the Sedins, top level offensive players will eat up man to man coverage.

    Paul Maurice was using man to man in Toronto for 2 years and he got absolutely roasted in the media. One blown assignment leads to a collective scramble. It’s one thing when you have Crosby and Malkin in the lineup and the opposing players have to be cognizant of them at all times, but without them there aren’t many players on the Penguins roster that warrant any extra attention.

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