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The Need For Speed

Whenever a hockey team changes coaches mid-season, it’s fair to look at the season in two parts. The beginning of the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins campaign was the end of the Mike Johnston era and the remainder marked the beginning of Mike Sullivan’s tenure as head coach.

For those who follow the team, the change certainly felt significant. Johnston’s close-to-the-vest style felt stale and limited Pittsburgh’s superstar players from doing the super things they are wont to do. Sullivan, on the other hand, lets them fly. They’re a better team, right?

Well, maybe. But the early returns on Sullivan aren’t quite as enlightening as it might appear.

In 28 games under Johnston this season, the Penguins earned 33 points. In Sullivan’s first 28 games, the Penguins also earned 33 points. And the Penguins are just as ineffective against the league’s best teams under Sullivan as they were under Johnston.

But the win-loss record only tells part of the story. The reason why Sullivan’s presence on the Penguins bench feels significant is that he is getting production out of the players who are supposed to produce.

After a prolonged slump to begin the season, Sidney Crosby went on a 20-game scoring binge shortly after Sullivan assumed his position at the Penguins’ helm. Patric Hörnqvist has shown a spark that this team had desperately lacked through the beginning of the season. Even Phil Kessel—whose first season in Pittsburgh has been an unadulterated disappointment—has managed to become a productive player within Sullivan’s scheme.

But perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the new system has been Kris Letang. The Penguins defenseman’s career has had more peaks and valleys than the Swiss Alps as injury and illness has broken up stretches of on-ice brilliance. Currently, Letang is setting up camp atop one of those peaks.

Letang recorded just 14 points—one goal and 13 assists—in 25 games under Johnston this season. He was a minus-14 and was generally ineffective.

Under Sullivan it’s been a totally different story. In his first 24 games in Sullivan’s system, Letang has become a better than point-per-game player. He’s scored eight goals and averaged nearly an assist per game.

This streak of success is far from accidental. Like Johnston, Sullivan keeps things simple. But as Johnston encouraged a conservative approach, Sullivan demands fast past.

“He wants his defense to be active in the rush and that’s part of my game,” Letang said. “I think we’re playing with pace, we’re playing fast, and that’s helping us score goals.”

All of Pittsburgh’s puck-moving defensemen have benefitted from the new fast-paced approach, but Letang is leading the charge. The Penguins defenseman logs an average of more than 26 minutes per game and leads the team in Fenwick, which measures the amount of shots taken at the goal while a player is on the ice at even strength. Even in today’s blocked shot obsessed NHL, Letang has been able to sneak more than 53 percent of his shots from the blue line through the defense.

The Penguins head coach said that to win in today’s NHL, a team has to play fast and that all starts with getting the puck out of the defensive zone and onto the attack as quickly as possible.

“In today’s game, it’s hard to generate offense in the absence of your defensemen getting involved,” Sullivan said. “[Letang] trusts his skating and, if he gets beat, he can recover because he skates well. Because of that, he plays with a little more swagger.”

Sullivan has repeatedly praised Letang’s passion and is letting him lead by example, which represents a transition for the 28-year old, who logged his first full NHL season eight years ago. For much of his career, Letang was paired with reliable veterans like Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin who could help mask the young defender’s faults.

Now Letang is a veteran in the locker room and is relied upon to provide that leadership to the younger generation of Penguins Kris LetangPenguins defensemen. He is frequently paired Brian Dumoulin or Olli Maatta, two extremely talented but relatively inexperienced players. It’s now his responsibility to lead by example.

“[Letang] is a passionate player and he’s a real good player,” Sullivan said. “He and I have had a lot of conversations about how we’d like him to play, what our expectations are, and we’re trying to put him in a position to be successful.”

In order for the Penguins to live up to the lofty expectations they have built over the past nine seasons, Letang is going to have to continue to shine through the end of the season. And it appears that Sullivan has at least given him the platform to do so.

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