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Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) and Tampa Bay Lightning center Dana Tyrell (42) battle for a loose puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game on Friday, Nov. 29, 2013, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) ORG XMIT: MIN2013122019011072

Chris O’Meara • Associated Press Defenseman Matt Niskanen is one of several players who have st,

Sunday NHL Insider: Pittsburgh's system works

  • Article by: Michael Russo
  • Star Tribune
  • December 21, 2013 - 5:28 PM

Dan Bylsma swears he doesn’t have any secret, magic potion, that “we don’t sound fire alarms” and change everything when Pittsburgh Penguin players drop and drop and drop.

Yet, how does he explain the fact that his team is able to annually survive when top players, from Sidney Crosby to Evgeni Malkin, go down with injuries?

How does he explain the fact that this season the Penguins have been routinely playing without eight, nine, even 10 regulars, including top-4 defensemen Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi and now suspended defenseman Deryk Engelland and yet racking up victories?

“I don’t have a good answer for you,” said Bylsma, who took over as Penguins coach in Feb. 2009 and led them to a Stanley Cup four months later.

This season, it’s helped that Crosby has stayed concussion-free. He leads the league in scoring with 54 points, and for a team that’s won 11 times in 12 games and seven in a row, Crosby has points in 10 in a row.

It helps that every night, different players are stepping up, from Chris Kunitz to Brandon Sutter to Pascal Dupuis.

But the Penguins overwhelmed the Wild on Thursday using a blue line that included names like Matt Niskanen, top-pick youngsters Olli Maatta, 19, and Simon Despres, 22, Brian Dumoulin, 22, who came over in the Jordan Staal-for-Sutter package from Carolina, Robert Bortuzzo, 24, and Ulf Samuelsson’s kid, Philip, 22.

Niskanen was the only top-6 defenseman standing from training camp, and all the Virginia, Minn., native has done is lead the NHL in plus-minus (plus-20).

Tomas Vokoun is lost to a blood disorder? No problem. Call up Jeff Zatkoff, 26, in goal and watch him win six in a row.

There are teams around the NHL that rave about its depth, including the Wild, yet fall apart when struck by one or two injuries. A few years ago, the Wild collapsed when Mikko Koivu got hurt. This season, it took one Mikael Granlund injury to dry up the already-deficient scoring.

Imagine what would happen to Minnesota if it lost five defensemen.

The Penguins, who are running away with the awful Metropolitan Division, have true depth.

Most teams deploy the same system between the NHL and their top farm team in the American Hockey League. But there’s a difference between playing the same way and real integration.

Bylsma and Wilkes-Barre coach John Hynes use the same drills and same verbiage on the ice and in the locker room.

“To have a player step into our practice and go to the front of the line and do the drill and do the drill with detail and habit we expect, that’s a good sign,” Bylsma said. The Penguins use the simple concept of draft and development (Tom Fitzgerald oversees the development) and seem to do it better than most.

Players come up from Wilkes-Barre and don’t have to fret because they’re so comfortable with their role and responsibilities.

“I almost feel cheated. I don’t even get to coach them when they come up,” Bylsma said. “I don’t even get to say anything to them.”

Leipold: League is healthy

Under the NHL’s new revenue-sharing system, the Wild actually gets “a little money,” owner Craig Leipold said. Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, the top 10 revenue-generating teams distributed to the bottom 10. Now, the top 10 give to the bottom 20.

“This league is really healthy,” Leipold said. “A lot of the new revenue that’s coming into the league is leaguewide revenue that all 30 teams at least share in. In past years, the revenue in the league was going up, but it was because the top five or six teams’ local revenue generated such a large degree that it pushed the revenue of the league up. That didn’t help the lower teams.”

No rest for the weary

Dan Bylsma, who doubles as the U.S. Olympic coach, was asked if Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, who leads the NHL in ice time, may feel refreshed at the Olympics because he won’t have to play 30 or 32 minutes a game.

“Who says that’s the case?” Bylsma said, smiling. “He’s a pretty good player.”

Just in case

The Wild’s Matt Cooke is an infamous prankster, so during his return to Pittsburgh on Thursday, Bylsma joked, “We did change the locks [of the locker room] on him.”

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