New Penguins coach Mike Johnston is receiving plenty of attention these days for leading the team to a 13-3-1 record. Rick Tocchet, a high-profile assistant and mastermind of the NHL’s top power play, is enjoying supreme popularity, too.
Riding under the radar is another assistant who, according to the Penguins, deserves plenty of credit for their eye-popping start.
Gary Agnew might have been saddled with the toughest job of all.
The longtime assistant works with the penalty-killing unit and the team’s defensemen. Players in these respective units were fiercely loyal to former assistant coaches Tony Granato (penalty kill) and Todd Rierden (defensemen).
“It probably wasn’t real easy at first for Gary,” defenseman Paul Martin said, specifically noting the penalty killers, who enjoyed annual success under Granato.
“It can be a hard thing. There has been some compromise in that maybe he brings something to the table that can be effective, (but) there are some things that we won’t like as a killing unit. Some things we didn’t think were beneficial for the way we play or the personnel that we have. With the guys we have, we’ve come to an understanding, an agreement.”
The compromise is working.
After a bad first week, the Penguins’ penalty killing has been superb. The unit ranks fourth in the NHL with an 88.4 percent kill rate. Since Oct. 18, the Penguins have killed 52 of 54 penalties.
The defense has been solid overall. It has permitted just 35 goals, the fewest amount of goals allowed in the NHL.
While many are quick to credit goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with this statistic — his numbers speak for themselves — others believe Agnew deserves some of the credit.
Agnew is a disciple of St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock, whose specialty long has been a suffocating defense.
After being fired from St. Louis’ staff last spring — the Blues were considered among the favorites to land the Stanley Cup before falling to Chicago in the first round of the playoffs — Agnew found another job with the Penguins and brought his defensive philosophies, which finally are being accepted.
The philosophy of the penalty kill is different now more than the system.
“There’s less aggression from us,” center Brandon Sutter said. “We’re more patient. There is less running around for the forwards. We’re willing to let teams set up.”
So far, so good.
“Gary’s been really good,” Sutter said. “He’s such a fun guy to be around. He keeps us loose.”
Agnew is all business about his defensive beliefs, though.
“When it comes to his system and his way of playing, he’s pretty cut and dry,” Sutter said. “He knows this system.”
Agnew said his new team has been a delight to deal with and if there was resistance to learning his way of penalty killing and playing defense, it hasn’t been a problem.
“It’s not that things are that different from last year,” Agnew said. “It’s just a commitment to playing on the right side of the puck and on the right side of the man.”
Agnew said his players are getting better defensively because they practice against the NHL’s top power play daily.
“But he deserves some credit,” center Zach Sill said. “He’s just a really good hockey coach.”
All seven defensemen on the Penguins’ roster have played well, forcing Robert Bortuzzo into the press box even though he’s been a strong presence in his first six games. Agnew likes what he’s seeing from his blue line and his penalty killers.
“It’s just a great group,” he said. “You’ve got experienced guys like (Rob) Scuderi and Martin. Great talent like (Kris) Letang and (Olli) Maatta. And I still think we can get even better.”