TORONTO — The Pittsburgh model — the one that former Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke derisively laughed at so many years ago because, “what’s the Pittsburgh model? They won a goddamn lottery and got the best player in the game” — has changed over time.
Yes, the Penguins reached back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, winning in 2009, because they tanked and then selected first or second overall in four consecutive drafts. And yes, teams such as the Buffalo Sabres, Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers have tried copying that model with varying degrees of success. But after winning back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017, it’s a different blueprint on display these days.
Well, it’s not so much a blueprint as it is a battle plan — one that is being copied again.
The Penguins are the only team with three players ranked in the top 10 in scoring. And the crazy thing is, except for the power play, those three players usually skate on different lines.
Evgeni Malkin, who centres the second line with Carl Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist, is one point behind Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov in the Art Ross Trophy race with 87 points. Phil Kessel, who plays wing on a third line with Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan, is eighth with 78 points, while Sidney Crosby, who anchors the top line with Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel, was tied for ninth with 76 points. They collected five of the eight points the Penguins recorded in Sunday’s 3-1 win over Dallas.
Three players. Three lines. And for opposing teams, who are continually forced to pick their poison and decide which one deserves the most attention, three potential headaches.
“I wouldn’t be concerned about numbering them,” said Leafs defenceman Ron Hainsey, who won a Cup with Pittsburgh last year. “I would just be concerned with all of them. Obviously, they’ve got great talent and scoring ability up and down the lineup.”
Not every team has the luxury of having a Crosby, never mind a Malkin and a Kessel. If they did, however, they usually would have stacked them together on one or two lines.
That’s what Philadelphia does with Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier, and what Boston does with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Even Tampa Bay loads up its top line with Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.
Judging by their places in the standings — Tampa Bay leads the NHL with 100 points, while Boston has the second-best record and Philadelphia is secure in a playoff spot — it’s hard to argue with the results.
And yet, Edmonton’s inability to spread out its offence is part of the reason why the Oilers have struggled this season. If you can shut down Connor McDavid or limit him and Leon Draisaitl (something that Minnesota failed to do the other night), then you have a fighting chance.
It’s harder to do that against Pittsburgh, where even if you manage to keep Crosby and Malkin’s lines off the board, you still have to contend with Kessel going against your third line. It’s a rolling wave of attack that most teams simply cannot handle.
“We have a lot of depth. Obviously, that’s the way they won the last couple of years,” said Brassard, who was acquired right before the trade deadline from the Ottawa Senators, where he was playing in a second-line role. “Sid and Geno are going to get the top pairs every night, so it’s a great opportunity for me and Phil to be the difference. He’s almost an 80-point guy and he’s playing against a third pair. That’s a good matchup.”
Again, Pittsburgh is able to do this because of its personnel. Crosby, Malkin and Kessel are so good that they can practically carry a line by themselves.
“We’re fortunate to have the guys we have,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s the balance that makes us a hard, potential matchup for teams. When you look at the scoring production of our top nine, five-on-five it’s pretty even. And so on any given night, any one of those lines can be better than the others.”
The NHL is a copycat league, so it’s not surprising that other teams are once again starting to follow Pittsburgh’s lead. The best example of this is the Leafs, who were able to defeat the Penguins 5-2 on Saturday night in part because they also had three lines that are equally dangerous.
Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, who are Toronto’s top two scorers, rarely play together, while the Leafs’ top three goal-scorers (Matthews, Nazem Kadri and winger James van Riemsdyk) each anchors a separate line. Winnipeg, Nashville and Vegas are loaded with similar forward depth.
“There’s a trend out there that these deep forward teams are tough to handle,” said Hainsey, who mentioned Winnipeg’s impressive depth. “The third line’s (Paul) Stastny, (Nikolaj) Ehlers and (Patrik) Laine — if you number them. Laine’s second in goals.” (Laine is now tied with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin with a league-leading 40 goals.)
The secret, according to head coach Mike Babcock, is having centres who are strong enough to distribute the puck.
“I think if you have good depth down the middle, no one’s starving to death on the wing,” Babcock said. “If you don’t have enough centres, you put guys out there together because the guy out there by himself never gets the puck and pretty soon things aren’t going good. So I think the depth at centre allows people to drive their own line. And they’re all capable of doing it.”
Of course, in the Leafs’ case of drafting Matthews, it also helps that they won a goddamn lottery.
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