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Special Questions

In what should come as a surprise to no one, the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs have presented the usual dose of compelling evidence about the importance of special teams.

From the Vancouver Canucks taking firm control of the Western Conference Final with three 5-on-3 power-play goals in Game 4 against San Jose to the Tampa Bay Lightning winning a fourth straight elimination game by scoring three power-play goals in a Game 6 win over Boston in the Eastern Conference Final.

With the Cup Final upon us, six of the seven worst penalty killing teams in the playoffs had been dispatched in the first or second round – the same math held true for six of the seven worst power play teams.  It’s possible to succeed in the post-season with average-to-good special teams—the Penguins did so in 2009—but it’s virtually impossible to win with poor special teams.  

It’s doubtful any of this was lost on the Penguins who could still bear to watch, who played hard in a seven-game loss to Tampa Bay in the first round but lost in part because the Lightning so decisively won the special teams battle. The power play, of course, missed Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin but had enough talent to do better than 1-for-35. Certainly the absence of Matt Cooke hurt Pittsburgh’s ability to kill penalties, but that doesn’t explain Tampa’s 6-for-13 performance while gaining critical victories in Game 2 and Game 5.

The focus on the Penguins’ special teams heading into next season actually begins now, as three of the five forwards who helped the team lead the NHL in penalty killing last season are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on July 1. Craig Adams (3:05) and Max Talbot (2:55) both ranked in the top 10 among all NHL forwards in average PK time per game, and Pascal Dupuis also saw a healthy 2:24 per game while short-handed.

Cooke and Jordan Staal remain under contract, as do all of Dan Bylsma’s defensemen and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. So the foundation is largely in place for another excellent penalty killing team, but the Penguins don’t have the ability to replace all three potential free agents from within. Restricted free agent Dustin Jeffrey, who shared the AHL lead for short-handed goals this season (six) despite missing 40 games, seems poised to take one spot.

None of the Penguins’ unrestricted free agents played a significant role on the power play, but that’s not to say Bylsma and his staff won’t be thinking about their power play units this summer as they lay out plans for next season. It would be simple to suggest that a healthy Crosby and Malkin will solve the team’s man-advantage problems (it finished 25th this season), but it would also be wrong; the Penguins were 19th on the power play in 2009-10 and 20th in 2008-09 with both of them healthy.

The time is probably right for the Penguins to rethink their whole power play approach, including the ways Crosby and Malkin are deployed. They need more consistent zone entry; they need Kris Letang to continuing growing into his role as a quarterback on the blue line; they need to establish a power play partner for Letang (Zbynek Michalek?); they need to find a place for James Neal; and figure out if Tyler Kennedy should see more power play time and why Staal just can’t seem to fit comfortably into a five-on-four role.

That’s plenty of special teams questions to fill a long off-season.

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