Time, practice will cure most of what ails Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins are five games into a 48-game season. For practical purposes, they’ve won two, lost two and tied one, with the shootout’s existence the only thing keeping them from a .500 record at this (admittedly early) point.

Jan 27, 2013; Ottawa, ON, CAN; Pittsburgh Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis (9) splits the Ottawa Senators defensemen Mark Borowiecki (74) and Erik Karlsson (65) during the third period at Scotiabank Place. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Dan Bylsma cancelled Monday’s scheduled practice for reasons unclear, although we can guess Sunday night’s improved defensive performance in Ottawa showed the boss enough to convince him progress is being made. On Saturday, Bylsma put the Pens through a rigorous and thorough workout to reemphasize key points of their system.

Normally, an NHL team wouldn’t conduct such a lengthy practice on a lone off-day between games. But this year, during what is clearly an anomalous season, all teams are currently works-in-progress, even the undefeated squads in Chicago and San Jose.

I’ll confess, I was a believer in the idea that the Penguins, featuring only two new skaters and three previous full seasons under Bylsma, would thrive early despite a truncated training camp. But Pittsburgh and the defending Stanley Cup champions in Los Angeles – the 1-2-1 Kings kept their entire roster intact – have shown that continuity might have been overrated.

If you’ll allow another mea culpa, I was also fooled a bit by the Penguins’ back-to-back wins over the Flyers and Rangers on opening weekend. A combination of confirmation bias and being captivated by results over process is to blame, as the Penguins were a goalpost away from heading to overtime in Philadelphia and were mostly putrid in the third period at Madison Square Garden.

As ugly losses to Toronto and Winnipeg demonstrated, perhaps the Penguins got by on more adrenaline than polish during their 2-0 start. Even in a shortened campaign, execution will prevail over emotion when it comes time to set the playoff field.

Out of all 30 NHL teams, the Penguins had the fewest players (six) active in pro leagues during the lockout. The Rangers, Vancouver and Calgary had seven each, and none of them have records any better than Pittsburgh’s at the moment. Maybe there’s something to say for getting reps during game action, no matter if it’s in Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, the American Hockey League or the ECHL.

Jan 25, 2013; Winnipeg, MB, CAN; Winnipeg Jets forward Evander Kane (9) fights for position with Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kristopher Letang (58) in front of goalie Tomas Vokoun (92) as they look for the puck during the third period at the MTS Centre. Winnipeg wins 4-2 over Penguins. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

All of which isn’t to claim that Sidney Crosby, Matt Cooke and Chris Kunitz didn’t work hard enough over the past four months, but observation reveals each of those veteran pros to be sloppier and less confident than usual so far. At the NHL level, a slight downgrade makes a large difference.

However, on the other side of the coin, winger James Neal and defenseman Kris Letang didn’t don a game jersey during the work stoppage and they’ve been the Penguins’ two best skaters in the season’s first 10 days. Goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun have also looked fine or better despite only engaging in informal workouts while waiting for the season to begin.

It’s a small sample size and a unique situation, so uncertainty still reigns in the 2013 NHL season – and it might for a while yet. One thing remains sure, though: improvement will come with more repetition, both in structured practices and during games.

Over the course of this compact schedule, coaches will have to find an effective balance between sharpening with practice and refreshing with rest. Judging by his recent actions, Bylsma is concerned about both aspects.

His team may not be playing the way he wants yet, but Bylsma can find comfort in the knowledge that 29 of his colleagues share his frustrations.

Topics: Dan Bylsma, NHL, Pittsburgh Penguins

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