Well, you know it wouldn’t take long
Well, you know it wouldn’t take too long. In some of his first public comments outside of the initial press conference to announce his hiring, Brian Burke talked on the 93.7 The Fan morning show and gave a very Brian Burke highlight quote.
Some foreshadowing here?
Brian Burke with us: “Pittsburgh’s the last team to win with a small, fast team. The last 3 Cup winners have been big, they play long pants hockey, they play ugly hockey. I think we need to look at that & see, have we kept up with the joneses here?”
— The Fan Morning Show (@FanMorningShow) February 12, 2021
There’s a lot of meat on the bone here to look through here.
For starters, in case Burke didn’t notice, the Penguins got a good look three Cups ago at the Capitals. And I didn’t see any long pants, I saw a lot of Jakub Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov using their speed to score goals. We saw Lars Eller badly, badly outduel Derrick Brassard on the third line and Braden Holtby play better than Matt Murray. THAT all happened in 2018 when it all was in the Pens’ favor in 2016 or 2017 and Washington beat the Penguins, in case Burke needed the refresher.
Since it’s always a copy cat league, Tampa winning the last Cup stands out as a really good team who played really well. The perception that they weren’t mainly a small and fast team (if that’s what you’re calling the 2017 Pens, anyways) is also a bit off.
Pittsburgh Penguins 2016-2017 cup run, average height (weighted by ice-time): 73.04 inches.
Tampa Bay Lightning 2019-2020 cup run, average height (weighted by ice-time): 73.27 inches.
Not even a quarter-inch of reality onto which to project our prejudices.
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) February 12, 2021
There’s also the weird and untrue projection that Tampa won with size. Almost all their most effective and gritty physical forwards (Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Anthony Cirelli to be specific) are all under 6’0 and listed at under 200 pounds — which means in reality they’re probably way lighter than that.
Look at all these massive big bodies leading the way in puck recoveries, forecheck pressures, and zone exit disruptions for the Lightning. What? None of them are big bodies? Oh. pic.twitter.com/3dnN1EwC0E
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) February 12, 2021
Tampa did not win the Stanley Cup because Pat Maroon (1 goal in 25 playoff games) played 12 minutes a night, their major factors were still in the foundation of speed and skill.
It’s certainly an odd takeaway to watch Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov carry a team to the Cup with skill and think “BIG BOY HOCKEY IS BACK BABY!”, but such is the perspective of a dinosaur like Brian Burke.
Which also isn’t to say it is wrong or bad or impossible to use size to build an effective roster. But often Stanley Cup winning teams present Rorschach tests for many observers. Did you want to see them as physical? As wearing the opposition down over a series? Did you want to see their top players play like studs and score a lot? Does this prove the best goalie always wins? Or the team with the best four defensemen? Best coach doesn’t often lose a series, does he? The fastest team won the Cup, didn’t they? Or was it the biggest? Or most skilled?
Pretty much whatever you want to see, it’s there. It’s not necessarily right, but it’s also not necessarily wrong, which is why such a spirited debate is always made about just what the key factor and winning ingredient truly was.
Burke, himself, also seems to be often full of bluster and contradictions. The Sedin twins were neither all that big nor physical, yet rightfully had a special place in Burke’s heart for their ability. Burke might have jumped at the chance to add Chris Pronger back at the day (because, duh, why wouldn’t you add Chris Pronger?) but he also knew, respected and understood the value of a player like Scott Niedermayer as well. Because, as always, the best concept blends the best of all worlds together.
To further Burke’s on the job training, if he knew much about the recent Penguin past (hopefully Patrik Allvin will help educate him), he would already know that since 2017 the Pens chased size and muscle for key decisions about building a roster, and have paid the consequences of weakening their team ever since by not blending the best of all worlds and sacrificing the advantages that made them champions.
What Burke should hopefully focus on, is effective players. A guy like Zach Aston-Reese is the perfect example. Not big, but a tenacious forechecker. Last night he won a puck battle on the wall, and quickly deposited said puck in the net from in front on after getting his own rebound from his initial shot. Do the Pens need more attitude and willingness to do that? Yes. Was that “ugly hockey”? Maybe. It was also effective. Aston-Reese doesn’t need to be 6’4 or 230 pounds to do that (he’s listed at 6’0, 204 officially and actually probably less in reality).
It will be interesting if adding to size and feistiness is an direction that the Ron Hextall/Brian Burke regime goes towards. There is some room for turnover and addressing the lineup: 6’4 Mark Jankowski has faded big time, the Pens could probably use a more effective fourth line center. Colton Sceviour might be a Burke-favorite for being a responsible grinder, but he doesn’t move the needle much. Drew O’Connor is big but not physical and has been fairly invisible in his first NHL stint. Evan Rodrigues is weeks away from a return from injury, but his spot or opportunity now looks as cloudy as ever.
As Burke also said on the radio, the new regime “we haven’t even begun evaluating” players. Which is not going to be reported or thought about by either the side that wished Burke would pull up the Truculence Bus immediately or those afraid it is imminent that they butcher what is left of the team’s window by doing so.
The evaluations and direction the Pens take will be telling. The emerging challenge for Ron Hextall will be how to run the day-to-day operations with a loud voice giving out-dated ideas — that aren’t even necessarily accurate — about how a modern winning team can actually built. The Penguins don’t need to follow the past, they need to accentuate to their strengths and make tweaks with an eye towards doing that. Whether that means long or short pants, they really just need to make sure they don’t leave Kennywood open and are ready to go.