Ask most hockey fans, and they’re likely to associate the Penguins with star power.
For good reason, too.
After all, the team allocates more than 44 percent of its salary-cap space to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel alone. But for as much skill and speed as the Penguins possess, there’s almost a second identity to this group.
One built on a blue-collar work ethic, a straightforward approach and the desire to prove a lot of people wrong.
“If you look at our team, obviously we have a lot of high-end talent,” Tom Kuhnhackl said. “At the same time, they’re not shy about working hard. They’re working in the offensive zone. They’re working in the defensive zone. They’re blocking shots. They’re playing for the team. We have trust in each other. You can see that on and off the ice.”
The key stat here is this: Since Mike Sullivan took over as coach, the Penguins are the only NHL team to rank in the top 10 for hits, blocked shots and Corsi For Percentage, a measurement of puck possession as a percentage of shot attempts one team has versus another.
The reason is this: It starts at the top.
The Penguins’ two most impactful leaders — Sullivan and Crosby — in and around the dressing room either have skill or can coach skill, but they’re grinders in the way they approach their jobs. They’re both impeccably dressed when seen publicly. But give them a choice, and they’d easily rather throw on a hat and go fishing on a quiet lake.
“Look at our coach,” Ian Cole said. “Look at our captain. The message ‘Sully’s’ putting out there and what our captain does as far as doing all the little things, the things that might go unnoticed. You notice a lot of things that he does, but there are a lot of things that you don’t.”
Some of the things that are noticeable and/or quantifiable for the Penguins this season include:
• As a team ranking sixth in blocked shots with 1,307 and eighth in hits with 2,060
• Cole ranking third among all NHL players and setting the Penguins franchise record with 194 blocked shots.
• Nick Bonino leading NHL forwards with 99 hits and nearly becoming just the third forward since 2005-06 to break the 100-block barrier.
• The Penguins leading the league in both goals (3.39) and shots on goal (33.5) per game.
“Talent alone doesn’t win in the playoffs or doesn’t win at this time of year,” Sullivan said. “You’ve got to play the game the right way. There’s only one way to play this game, and that’s hard. You can’t win if you don’t play hard.
“Part of that is defending when the time is called upon. It’s getting in shot lanes. It’s being willing to engage in puck battles. It’s getting involved in wall play.
“It’s a lot of those thankless jobs that are very, very difficult to quantify, where you can’t go to a website and look up a stat, but they’re vitally important to helping teams win hockey games.
“I give our players and leadership group a lot of credit for leading by example and making sure we value those things.”
To complement their stars, the Penguins have acquired a group of players with something to prove.
Conor Sheary was undrafted. Bryan Rust was a third-round pick whose ability as a finisher was questioned. Tom Kuhnhackl was a fourth-round pick who traded an offensive game overseas to a defensive-first one in North American. Patric Hornqvist was drafted last overall.
Many players on the Penguins’ roster had to change peoples’ perceptions.
“Guys like [Matt] Cullen and Bonino have been around a long time,” NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said. “They know how they got in the league. They know what they have to do to stay in the league.
[Chris Kunitz], Cole and Brian Dumoulin, those are guys who were not counted upon to be superstar players from the time they got in the league. They were counted on to struggle to stay in the league.
“Sheary, Rust, Kuhnhackl … you bring in all these guys who want to prove a point. They all want to say, ‘I’m better than what you think.’ They all came in together at the right time.
“Don’t forget that Mike Sullivan had a point to prove, too. After those two seasons with the Bruins, Mike had to prove he could coach in the league.”
It’s probably safe to say Sullivan has done that.
And he’s done it by taking a bunch of high-end talent and cultivating a culture around it that’s similar to what you might find at a welding shop in Dravosburg.
“Sully did a good job with all of us, just putting us in the right situations to succeed,” Trevor Daley said. “He preaches a lot of the same stuff. He keeps it pretty simple. Every day it’s the same; it doesn’t really change much. It’s consistent around here, and I think that shows in our play.”
Jason Mackey: email@example.com and @JMackeyPG.
CHECKING ALL BOXES
The Penguins, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and Detroit have accounted for the past nine Stanley Cups. Here’s a look at how the five have ranked since Dec. 14, 2015 — Mike Sullivan’s first game as Penguins coach — through the end of the 2016-17 regular season when it comes to hits, blocked shots and Corsi For Percentage (CF%).
Team | Hits | Blocked Shots | CF%
Penguins | 6 | 10 | 3
Blackhawks | 30 | 14 | 15
Kings | 1 | 24 | 1
Bruins | 11 | 20 | 2
Red Wings | 24 | 29 | 18