What makes Dan Bylsma an elite NHL head coach?
Experts are quick to point to how the Pittsburgh Penguins have thrived the last two seasons despite serious injuries to their star players. I think that’s just a small part of the equation.
What about teams that win and never possess that caliber of talent in the first place? Phoenix just ran the table with a 11-0-1 record in February. Their leading scorers are Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata. Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett should probably be an annual finalist for the Jack Adams Award.
After watching the Penguins play for three seasons under Bylsma, what really stands out isn’t his positive attitude. It’s his constant innovation and creativity. His relentless pursuit of new information. His thoughtful line combinations, situational matchups and effective use of timeouts.
Bylsma isn’t the only one to have a firm grasp on these all-but-invisible aspects of the game, but he and his staff are certainly ahead of the curve.
The Penguins have been carried offensively by the Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz line this season. The trio possesses a ton of skill, but part of their success that gets ignored is Bylsma’s ability to put them into scoring situations, particularly on home ice where Pittsburgh gets the last line change.
Bylsma tosses the Malkin line on the ice at the end of almost every period. He unleashes them at the end of penalties before tired powerplay units have a chance to change. He even manages their ice time so they are well-rested and ready to take offensive zone faceoffs coming out of the two television timeouts each period.
The Penguins have dozens of faceoff plays designed to take advantage of individual player abilities and manipulate defenders. We discussed Malkin’s new focus on winning faceoffs a few months ago. With the addition of a pure sniper in James Neal, Malkin’s line has suddenly become as dangerous off the draw as they are on a three-man rush up ice.
January 22 vs Washington
Over the first half of the season, Neal scored a handful of goals off the faceoff by standing and shooting from directly behind Malkin.
This play is pretty standard throughout the NHL. Pittburgh’s split-second execution is not:
Here are the Capitals’ defensive responsibilities in this type of formation:
WSH Center: Win the faceoff backwards.
WSH Right Defenseman: Make sure the puck doesn’t come to his side of the ice. If the center wins the draw back, the defenseman skates behind, picks the puck up and likely goes around the net to start the breakout.
WSH Right Wing: As the puck is dropped, he sprints through the circle to confront Neal and disrupt any shot attempt. If the Caps win the faceoff, he’s already in position on the right side of the ice for a breakout.
WSH Left Defenseman: Defend the front of the net and make sure Kunitz (14) can’t screen the goaltender.
WSH Left Wing: Help the defenseman guard the front of the net. He skates out to confront Kris Letang (58) if the faceoff is won to that side of the ice. If the Caps win the faceoff, he goes directly to the left boards to give his defenseman a passing option on the developing breakout.
The key to the Penguins’ success on this play is obviously the faceoff win by Malkin and the quick and accurate release by Neal.
But just as important is the little bump Kunitz gives to the Caps’ right wing sprinting out to take away Neal’s shot. The contact isn’t enough to be deemed interference, but it gives Neal the extra split-second he needs to get the shot off.
The slight pick also means there are two more bodies directly between Neal and goaltender Michal Neuvirth. It’s no wonder Neuvirth hardly flinches on the play as the puck whizzes by his ear.
So how do you defend the play?
February 7 vs Montreal
Just like in football, the defense starts to cheat. They’ve seen video of the faceoff in scouting meetings and coaches tell them they cannot let the Penguins score off this play, as if their paycheck depends on it.
The Center bears down to make sure Malkin doesn’t win the faceoff. The Right Wing jumps even quicker so Kunitz can’t set the pick.
And just like a playaction pass in football, the trap has been set:
Malkin enters the faceoff with his bottom hand on the stick flipped over. This almost always indicates a player wants extra leverage to win a faceoff backwards.
Montreal’s center surely notices this and becomes even more determined to not let it happen. Instead, Malkin taps the puck forward, flips his hand over and steps around the Canadiens’ center before picking up the puck on the other side.
Kunitz fakes the pick play, lets the Right Wing fly past him, then slips in behind the defense and waits for the pass from Malkin.
The play works to perfection and barely misses.
February 11 vs Winnipeg
Four days later the Jets come to town. Center Jim Slater and his teammates are aware of the new faceoff wrinkle the Penguins attempted. Their coaches tell them to be careful not to overpursue Neal before they’re sure the puck is going to him.
Give James Neal a second and he’ll make you pay:
“[Malkin] beat me clean,” a frustrated Slater told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s a play we knew they were going to try. It’s just one of those things that doesn’t happen very often, but, when it does, you feel bad about it.”
So now how do you defend it?
One option is to have the Left Wing challenge Neal while the Right Wing stays in place, not allowing Kunitz to screen and pick as effectively. Another simple fix is to have the goalie come out further to cut down the angle on the shot.
February 29 vs Dallas
I’ve been waiting for the Penguins to make the inevitable next tweak. It finally happened on Wednesday night against Dallas.
Malkin wins the faceoff back to Neal as usual. Instead of the quick catch-and-release, Neal hesitates with the puck. He allows the defenders and the goalie to fully commit to him before dishing the puck off to the left-handed shooting Paul Martin (7). Kunitz rotates to the center of the ice and provides a tip/screen option.
The play worked perfectly and Martin’s shot hit the post. If Bylsma had a left-handed shooting defenseman that could wire the puck into the back of the net, this faceoff play would be almost unstoppable.
The new wrinkle gives defenders something else to think about though. They’ll hesitate, and over the next few weeks Neal will go back to shooting the puck.
He’ll score, an opposing center will be frustrated, and then you’ll see Bylsma try the Martin play again.
Coaching at the NHL level is a chess match and the true Grandmasters are always a few moves ahead.