If the Penguins were able to get by on one thing during the 2010-11 season, it was on the organization's single-mindedness.
That they could not keep up their November and December pace when injuries struck was unsurprising. Replacements for the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are not typically found in the minor leagues. But the fact that the Pens remained competitive in the Eastern Conference with Mark Letestu on the first line, Dustin Jeffrey taking an increased workload, and Joe Vitale, Tim Wallace and Brett Sterling, amongst others, filling the gaps was impressive.
This didn't happen by accident. Rather, the reason for the Penguins' solid play in the absence of their stars was the institutionalization of Dan Bylsma's style throughout the the entire Penguins organization.
When watching the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins play, the similarities to their parent club are evident.
Get the puck deep? Check.
Maintain a cycle and keep the puck low? Check.
Take shots from all angles and crash the net? Check.
At their best, the WBS Penguins play frantic, aggressive hockey and dominate the shot chart. The same type of hockey beloved by Bylsma, their former coach.
So, when players were called up, they knew exactly what was expected of them.
"There is an idea that we've changed because we have skilled players out of the lineup," Bylsma said. "It looks different when you take Sidney Crosby off the ice because he's one of the best players in the world. You're not going to see as many highlight-reel goals from Craig Adams as you are from Sid. That's evident no matter what happens on the ice. But we're playing the exact same way. We're asking the exact same from our team."
As a result, it's easier for unseasoned, and perhaps underwhelming, players to make a real difference for the Penguins. When Letestu gets told he's being bumped up to the first line, he knows exactly the type of support he needs to provide. Ben Lovejoy can cope with an increased offensive workload in Alex Goligoski's absence because he's carried the same workload in the same system in the minors.
Compare this to recent late-season acquisitions like James Neal, Matt Niskanen and the Alexeis, Ponikarovsky and Kovalev. All had difficulties transitioning to life in Pittsburgh. The suggests that developmental consistency throughout the organization is critical. Neal seemed excited, Niskanen wary and Kovalev ambivalent, but they all had similar problems adapting to the Penguins' style of play.
Trade deadline blockbusters are now less of a sure thing for the Penguins as they go further and further down the rabbit hole of aggressive, physical hockey. The assets they're willing to part with are fewer, and salary cap space sparser, while it remains difficult for skilled players to adapt to the Penguins' style.
This is why the Penguins' approach to the draft must change. The organization holds just five picks in this year's draft, having already dealt away their third- and fourth-round selections. Couple this with a tendency to go for boom-or-bust players and the Penguins farm system, despite a level of competitive success, would appear to not be on the firmest ground.
So, what is the remedy? It's hard to imagine a competitive Penguins squad being inactive at the trade deadline. Ray Shero has built much of his reputation upon making a splash with trades. This year, he tiptoed cautiously, perhaps knowing that, sans Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins had little chance of making a dent in the playoffs.
A pragmatic view? Yes. Yet it's a level of pragmatism that will be required for the Penguins to succeed. Shero can't go for broke every deadline. The best remedy for the Penguins' ills should, ideally, be found within the organization. Not all will be. But with Bylsma already getting results from an injury-ravaged squad while relying on a moderately-stocked farm system, imagine what he could do with some depth at his disposal.