Beyond being an exciting, talented amateur hockey coach, Herb Brooks was a man who had a way with words. That way was a direct line, the shortest distance between two objects. He pulled few punches and not only let you know what he thought, but also what he thought about you.
True to form, Brooks, arguing over the makeup of his famed, gold medal-winning 1980 USA Mens Olympic Hockey Team, once stated:
"You're looking for players whose name on the front of the sweater is more important than the one on the back. I look for these players to play hard, to play smart and to represent their country."
One can almost see this logic in the current incarnation of the Pittsburgh Penguins, assembled by general manager Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma. The Pens are a team that, for all intents and purposes, is performing above expectations based on the makeup of its roster. Think, for a moment, about the Penguins' recent 12-game winning streak.
The Penguins operate with one of the most top-heavy rosters in the league, featuring the red-hot Sidney Crosby and the now-healthy Evgeni Malkin. But, for much of the streak, Malkin was playing hurt, or not at all. Not only that, but Jordan Staal, the team's third highest paid forward, was still battling through injuries and hadn't yet played this season. Essentially, the only two healthy scoring forwards were Crosby and Chris Kunitz, who also ended up running into injury problems.
So who found ice time during this streak? Max Talbot. Matt Cooke. Mark Letestu. Chris Conner. Dustin Jeffrey. Everyone. Legit line rolling, aside from the top line of Crosby, Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, which was worked to death, was practiced. The team essentially put a scoring line together with two third lines and a fourth line that were expected to grind until their last breath. It worked.
The Penguins play a very aggressive brand of hockey, valuing puck possession and endless hounding of the opposition. The phrase "the best defense is a good offense" is clearly not lost on Bylsma, who emphasizes keeping the puck in the opponents zone to minimize opposition scoring opportunities. Once again, this hearkens back to Brooks, a man known for the "hybrid" style of hockey he coached, which not only valued an aggressive forecheck, but looked for attractive team play and full commitment from each player as well.
As Sports Illustrated's Kostya Kennedy once quoted Brooks shortly after he took over the Penguins' coaching duties from the defensive-minded Kevin Constantine in 1999:
"I want speed, and excitement and I want our players to go out there and have the times of their lives," Brooks said to me that day. "We're not going to be hanging around waiting for something to happen. We're going to make things happen ourselves."
Brooks was brought to the Penguins by then-General Manager Craig Patrick, who had served as his assistant coach during the 1980 Olympics. The two men shared a common approach, and the players responded positively to the change:
"Herbie has us skating all the time, all over the ice," Pittsburgh center Robert Lang told me that season. "There's much more movement than before. That's fun for us."
A similar relationship seems to have been struck by Bylsma and Shero, who appear to share the same wavelength.
Rewind back to early 2009, with the Penguins playing uninspired hockey under the reigns of the similarly defensive-minded Michel Therrien. His style of play was instrumental in the team's turnaround from a laughingstock, true. But, at that point, the Penguins had grown beyond that. They were a young, hungry team. They had legs and energy dying to be unleashed.
Newly-appointed Dan Bylsma did precisely that, and the players also responded. The Penguins turned themselves around and didn't look back.
Since that time, the Penguins' roster has been restructured quite a bit. On paper, it isn't very attractive beyond the marquee stars, but it would be beloved by Brooks, the man who won a gold medal with a roster that wasn't exactly teeming with talent. Plenty of speed and ability on the puck from defensemen, energy and character from the forwards, a couple of game changers, and a goalie who makes a big difference when he's on his game. The sum of the team is worth more than its parts.
Brooks famously disliked coaching in the NHL, only taking over the Penguins as a favor to Patrick. He couldn't stand the attitude of some professionals who would scoff at the enthusiasm and commitment he would demand of them. Something tells me that, if given an opportunity to coach the current incarnation of the Penguins, he might have a change of heart.