New Penguins Defensemen Mastering Dan Bylsma’s System

PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 07: Paul Martin  of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Consol Energy Center on October 7, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

With the Penguins on an 11-game winning streak, I just don’t hear the same calls to fire Dan Bylsma that I did earlier this season.

Funny how a winning streak translates to job security.

What’s changed for Pittsburgh?

They’re still without Jordan Staal.

Evgeni Malkin’s been having knee problems and he’s been struggling, with only eight goals on the season.

But goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s play has stabilized a lot.

But mostly, I think the Penguins’ “turnaround” (they really were never that bad) can be attributed to new defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek getting a handle on Bylsma’s system.

Bylsma’s system basically entails everyone in the defensive zone treating the puck like a grenade. If an opponent manages to get the puck deep into the Penguins’ zone, the job of the defense is to get it out as quickly as possible. That means flipping it, shooting it, or even icing it. It doesn’t matter as long as it happens as quickly as possible.

It’s almost like Bylsma tells his defense to act like they don’t trust their goalie to touch the puck unless there’s no other option…

Most of the time, the defensive zone is not the place for a defenseman to wait behind the net while the offense sets itself up. In Bylsma’s system, if the puck is resting on your stick in your own zone, you’re putting your team in danger.

Plus, by moving the puck so quickly, forwards can cheat a little bit, and leave their own zone a little early, which leads to offense.

Martin and Michalek seemed to have trouble grasping their new responsibilities. But to see how they’ve picked things up, just look at their +/- ratings.

Martin is +5 in his last 11 games, with just one minus game. This coincides with the Penguins winning streak.

Michalek is +3 in his last 11 games, with two minus games (a-1 and a -2), a little less impressive. But Michalek missed nine games in October so he might still be struggling with his new responsibilities.

The Penguins’ defense really drives their offense, though, so, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s not surprising two new top-four defensemen would cause some bumps for the Penguins. Plus, their goaltending earlier this season certainly didn’t help things.

Obviously, the +/- is an imperfect metric, but it does give a sense of how the two defensemen seem to be becoming more comfortable and fluid in their own zone.

But it’s scary to think how good the Penguins will be once Staal is back, healthy, and caught-up.