PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The puck is the same size. So is the rink. The goal too.
So forgive Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby if he’s not getting too caught up in the idea new coach Mike Johnston and general manager Jim Rutherford are creating some kind of brave new world for the perennial Stanley Cup contenders to navigate after they were brought in to replace Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero.
“There’s only so many ways to play,” Crosby said. “It’s not like we’re reinventing anything. It’s little details, little cues. Guys at every position have to be aware of little details.”
And one big one: thrive in May and—hopefully—June.
Five straight seasons without a Cup victory parade cost Bylsma and Shero their jobs, leading to the kind of turnover the Penguins have largely avoided during Crosby’s eight-year career.
While the league’s reigning MVP allows there will be an adjustment period as Pittsburgh gets acclimated to Johnston’s up-tempo but decidedly more responsible approach, Crosby believes the Penguins are ready for the challenge.
“I think in different situations change can be a pretty good thing,” he said. “But it’s all about your attitude and your mentality toward it too. For new guys and guys that have been here, you have to focus that much more and pay attention to everything. In a way I think it gets the best of everyone and forces everyone to be more focused right away.”
Even if that’s not the ultimate goal. Rolling through the regular season has never been an issue for the Penguins, who romped to the Metropolitan Division title last spring only to fall to the New York Rangers in seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals, a series they led 3-1 before collapsing. It was the fifth straight post-season Pittsburgh fell to a lower-seeded team.
Bylsma and Shero weren’t the only ones out the door. Forward James Neal took his 27 goals and his sometimes surly attitude to Nashville in a draft day trade. Defencemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen bolted for the riches offered by Washington in free agency.
Their replacements aren’t bold-faced names, but that’s fine. In Crosby, forward Evgeni Malkin, defenceman Kris Letang and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins have plenty of recognizable faces. What they need is the cohesion it takes to play deep into spring. After a bumpy summer, Pittsburgh is ready to move on.
“When you get a new house, you’re excited with your new house,” Letang said. “It’s not that the old one was bad, it’s just that it didn’t work for you anymore, stuff like that. It’s exciting to be in something new.”
Some things to look for as the Penguins try to get back to where they once belonged:
SLOW START: Johnston’s first training camp hasn’t exactly gone to plan. Crosby has missed time with a wrist injury and the loss of his grandmother, while Malkin hasn’t been anywhere near a practice while recovering from an undisclosed injury. Johnston stressed early on the issues with the former MVP were minor, but his absence stretched into the final days of camp. Whenever the 28-year-old Russian returns, it will take him a bit to get up to speed, leading to the potential for a sluggish start.
CROSBY’S OK: Crosby insists the bum wrist that slowed him at the end of the 2013-14 season and limited his effectiveness in the playoffs—where he scored just once in 13 games—is responding well to treatment. He opted to skip surgery only to have another minor issue pop up just before camp. He’s optimistic it won’t take long to find a rhythm in Johnston’s system, which focuses more on puck possession, meaning he may have the puck on his stick more than ever as he searches for a third MVP award.
FLOWER POWER: Fleury was one of the few bright spots during the playoffs. After a handful of tough springs, he posted the second-highest post-season save percentage (.915) and second-lowest goals against (2.40) of his career. Still, it wasn’t enough for the Penguins to offer him a new contract. So he enters the final season of the seven-year deal he signed in 2008 with a bit of uncertainty. If he’s worried, he’s not showing it.
“I just want to go play, go win,” Fleury said. “What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen. I’m not worried too much about it.”
SUPER DUPER: The Penguins played the second half of last season without forward Pascal Dupuis, who tore the ACL in his right knee and watched Pittsburgh’s meltdown against the Rangers from afar. He’s back playing alongside Crosby, and the Penguins will rely on the 35-year-old’s steadying presence in the dressing room now more than ever.
GO, GO, GO: Johnston is at his first NHL head coaching stop but he’s not new to coaching some of the game’s best. He served as general manager for the Canadian hockey program and spent time in Los Angeles and Vancouver as an assistant. Given a roster filled with offensive-minded players, his goal is to get them moving together.