On Tuesday morning, the Pittsburgh Penguins announced the hiring of assistant coach Gary Agnew, who was fired by the St. Louis Blues at the end of last season. Agnew, who has also spent time with the Columbus Blue Jackets and is the winningest coach in the history of the Syracuse Crunch (AHL), was held responsible for the Blues going 2-for-29 with the man advantage against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs last year, which was a large reason for their early exit from the postseason.
However, during the regular season, the Blues had the 7th best power play in the NHL, and Agnew is held in very high respects around the league when it comes to his ability as a special teams technician. Now that he’s in Pittsburgh, he has some big shoes to fill. The Penguins had the best power play in the league last season, but not all of the tools are returning, which means that Agnew will have to redesign it in order to maximize production.
The biggest problem he faces is having to find a replacement for James Neal. Over the last three seasons, Neal has 38 power play goals and was the go-to-guy in the Penguins’ old system. Now that he’s gone, Agnew will need to find someone who can infiltrate the slot area on the power play.
The good news for Agnew is that there is a laundry list of weapons at his disposal. The talent pool in Pittsburgh is far greater than that of St. Louis or Columbus, which can only mean good things for a guy who has already established himself as a successful power play conductor.
Even with the departure of Neal, Agnew still has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, Paul Martin and two newly-acquired players in Christian Ehrhoff and Patric Hornqvist at his fingertips. The first unit can utilize the skill level of Crosby and Malkin, and Kunitz has began to erupt as a natural goal scorer, which could lead to a big year from No. 14. The Penguins were rarely a unit that tried to move the puck up top and get bodies in front of opposing goaltenders, but with Ehrhoff’s big shot at the top of the umbrella, that might be something worth looking into for the second unit.
It will also be interesting to see how Agnew divides the power play in terms of forwards and defensemen as well. Last year, the Penguins wanted to have four forwards and a sole defenseman on the first unit, but they kept getting burned for shorthanded goals and were forced to switch back to three forwards and two blueliners. If Agnew can help develop Malkin, who was commonly the forward left out to dry and forced to play defense on the power play, when the Penguins turn the puck over, then they should be able to get away with having four serious offensive threats on the ice at the same time.
Agnew’s hiring is a great move by the Penguins’ front office, and with more weapons as his disposal than ever, the Penguins’ power play is looking like it’s going to have another big year.
Shane Darrow is an NHL writer for Rant Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @ShaneDarrow.