Ranking sixth in goals against last season allowed the Penguins to reach 106 points in the standings. With no Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to lean on, a great defense was Pittsburgh’s only hope to survive in a star-driven NHL. The team’s 2.39 goals against average was almost .5 better than their 2009-10 average. This year, the Penguins hope to improve on the stat.
So far, so good. Pittsburgh has only allowed nine goals in four games—an average of 2.33 goals against per contest. But, Dan Bylsma wouldn’t be a Jack Adams Award winner if he wasn’t always looking for a way to better the team.
As Mike Colligan of The Hockey Writers eloquently illustrates, Bylsma focused on the defensive system this season. Bylsma, feeling that the typical zone scheme most NHL organizations apply could be improved, shifted the unit to a man-to-man system.
“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.”
The results? Let’s leave it at ‘to be determined’.
A couple Penguins defensemen have had trouble picking up the system. Colligan points out as much in his article. So the question is: Why change after the team finished sixth overall in defense last season?
The honest but simple answer: Because the new system is better.
There are many reasons why the defensive unit hasn’t been tampered with over the past couple seasons. The first of these reasons is because a good offense is the best defense.
Bylsma and the Penguins employ a system designed to keep the puck in the offensive zone. Defensemen pinch; forwards replace; the offense cycles. The style has resulted in one Stanley Cup and 114 wins over the past three seasons. It also has relieved most of the pressure on the defense.
Secondly, talented defensive-offensmen have back-boned the Penguins for the past several years. Crosby, Malkin, Jordan Staal, Craig Adams, Pascal Dupuis, and Matt Cooke don’t often give ground defensively. Overhauling the defensive system isn’t much use if opposing forwards can’t shed their backchecking counterparts.
For as relentless as the Penguins offensemen are on defense, Pittsburgh’s defensemen are just as skilled in their own zone. Kris Letang was a Norris Trophy candidate last season. Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin were USA Olympians. And, Zbynek Michalek led the NHL in blocked shots. Who needs a NASA-esque defensive game plan when you feature four of the best defensemen in the game.
Finally, the system escaped tweaking because of the Pens physicality. Pittsburgh finished third in the NHL last season in hits. Any offensive flow is bound to be disrupted when players are holding up in corners and being rerouted from the middle of the ice.
After injuries piled up last season, Bylsma figured to guard against the repeat of a skill void by installing an aggressive defensive system. When worked to perfection, the strategy is capable of sterilizing even the best offense.
One reason why the man-to-man system works is because it prevents scrambling. As Colligan’s examples show, the strategy is vulnerable to confusion in its early stages. A more weathered, practiced version of the system would be air-proof though.
Each of the three low defenders is assigned to a man. No defenseman is locked in to a specific location. This keeps the D from switching assignments. The goal of the offense is to cycle the puck enough, or create enough havoc, that the defense becomes confused on which man they should take. With specific assignments, this problem is avoided.
Ideally, the man-to-man system eliminates confusion by eliminating defensive zone restrictions.
Without restrictions, the defensemen eliminate gaps. Since each blueliner is assigned to a man and not a zone, the coverage on each forward is tighter. Tighter coverage takes away space and forces turnovers.
Ultimately, the man-to-man system generates so much pressure that the offense cannot string passes together. This results in a turnover.
As evidenced by Pittsburgh’s Western Canada trip though, the man-to-man scheme is challenging to pick up. Again, Colligan provides evidence of Penguins defensemen struggling with the new plan.
The main downfall of the system is that it isolates talent. Less skilled defensemen may find themselves facing the NHL’s most dazzling players. Guys like Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy, and Matt Niskanen are obviously not equipped to handle players like Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Match-ups like these are exploited in a man-to-man system.
Another way to avoid the one-on-one pressure is to set picks. Many NHL teams employ this strategy with minimal legal ramifications. In a zone system, defensemen are less effectively picked because they are only required to stay in their area—not with a specific forward. Thanks to the increased pressure, man-to-man coverage is more susceptible to the blocks.
There is no better way to create a scoring chance than by setting up a pick. The number one phrase in defensive hockey is ‘time and space’. Running interference at the front of the net or in the corner enables a forward to get lost in the shuffle for just enough time to create a scoring opportunity. The only way to prevent these occurrences is to practice.
Chemistry between defenders is vital when utilizing a man-to-man scheme. With ten games in 17 days, the Penguins haven’t had much time to work on the system. The defense reverted to a more traditional style against Florida on Tuesday and will probably keep it that way until the schedule lightens. But, don’t be surprised to see Bylsma and the defense experimenting with the system down the road.