Saturday, January 25, 2014

Letang to trade or not to trade, that is the question

Kris Letang at one time was my favorite Penguins player, with his combination of speed, physicality, and a booming shot that for sure one day he would harnass in such a manner as to be a lethal presence at the point for the Penguins for years to come.  He was drafted in the 2005 entry draft in the third round, while playing in the QMJHL for the Val d 'Or Foreurs.  The 6 foot 201 pound defenseman came up for awhile in the 2006-07 season before being sent back for more seasoning, then ultimately after starting 2007-08 with Val d' Or, he broke in for good with the Penguins and seemed primed to be a perennial challenger for the Norris Trophy.  Letang flashed brilliance at both ends of the ice, and it seemed as if he was only the ability to play a full season away from winning a series of those elusive Norris trophies.  But, somewhere along the way, Letang seemed to have regressed in the mental aspects of the game, at times looking bewildered, and far too often involved in turnovers that led to scoring chances for the other team, or poor decisions relative to pinching that had similar results.  Suddenly, it was reasonable to argue that Letang had to produce points merely to make up for the points that resulted from his lapses in judgement.  Still, here is this young defensemen who can skate like the wind, hit like a truck, and carry the puck from end to end to turn defense into offense, so the Penguins committed to a long term deal with the young defenseman that will increase his salary from 3.5 M to 7.25 M per season starting next year, along with a limited no trade clause.  The expectations of a return to form, with a lot more production on the power play and a lot less poor puck management decisions came along with this new deal.  The season has not panned out this way to this point for Letang, at least defensively.  He is involved in still in way too many turnovers and poor decisions that wound up getting fished out of our net for the comfort of many.  He also lost his position on the top power play unit to Paul Martin, who lacks the shot of Letang, but is better at calmly distributing the puck, and less prone to mistakes that lead to short handed goals against.  When Martin went down, Matt Niskanen spent a lot of time as power play QB, and he flourished in the role, having by far his best season, racking up 30 points, along with 5 game winning goals and a plus 29.   The combination of turnovers, poor decisions, consistently being injured, the depth on the blue line for the Pens, and the lack of depth up front has many Penguins fans, and even writers calling for the trade of Kris Letang to bolster the skill of the forward group, especially after Pascal Dupuis was lost for the season.  The Super Genius Mark Madden thinks any yinzer like me who thinks that trading Kris Letang is a good idea does not know hockey.  We are morons in fact.  Well, Mark, actually that is not the case.  And though I agree you can make the argument that moving a player with the unique skill set of Kris Letang, while under a long term contract is NOT the way to make the Penguins better, I can name a number of reasons why considering it does not make me or the others who suggest it morons in any way.  I concede to all of your points about speed, dedication, physicality, puck carrying ability, and general ability to generate offense.   Totally correct on all points!   Offense with or without Letang does not seem to be the issue for Pittsburgh.  Especially in the post season, grit and defense seem to be an issue for them.   Mr. Madden, you fail to consider several real points that make the argument to trade him compelling as well.   First, I do not suggest just dumping Kris Letang for a bag of pucks.  If other GMs value his skill set as much as you say they do, and you use the Whitney for Kunitz, and Goligoski for Neal and Niskanen trades as barometers, moving Kris Letang would go a long way towards completely revitalizing the forward group into championship caliber and depth.   The Penguins are in need of a winger to replace Dupuis on the top line, and also at least one more bottom six guy with size, an attitude and some ability to contribute the odd goal or two.  Dejan Kovacevich references the perfect example of a similar trade that put the Penguins over the top in 1992 and netted a Stanley Cup Chanpionship.  Craig Patrick moved a budding offensive powerhouse in Mark Recchi, who was coming off a 113 point season for Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson, and Ken Wregget as he felt the Pens had plenty of offense, but not enough toughness and grit.  He also moved Paul Coffey to Los Angeles to bring in more toughness in Jeff Chycrun.  Does this need for grit in return for moving an abundance of offense sound familiar?
  The end result of this move was the Penguins won their second Stanley Cup in a row.   I would agree with Dejan, that it will take a player of the magnitude of Letang to bring in the level of talent up front that could put that group over the top adding the toughness and team balance necessary to bring home Lord Stanley's cup.   Madden also says that the team that gets the best player wins the trade, and I think that 1992 move would refute that, as would the more recent Jordan Staal trade.

In my opinion, the teams with the most balance, grit, depth and work ethic win the Stanley Cup.  The Penguins lack depth and grit up front, and they have an embarrassment of riches on the blue line, you know where Letang plays.  In addition, the Penguins won most of the 18 games Letang was out this year, and their goals against was better with him out of the lineup, and oddly their goals for was slightly better as well.  The team played a more steady conservative game, and it worked.  More importantly, THAT STYLE IS THE STYLE NEEDED TO WIN PLAYOFF GAMES!  From where  I sit if you can round out your first line with a legitimate top six winger, and get a tough third liner for Letang, you have taken a big step towards having four good lines, while still boasting a blue line that would have Martin, Orpik, Scuderi, Maatta, Niskanen as the top five, while still having Despres, Bortuzzo, Engelland, as the top challengers for the sixth spot.  Despite missing 18 games, Letang is fifth in the league in scoring for defensemen, and that coupled with the cost certainty of his contract,  makes his trade value high for the right team.  When he is injured, the Penguins do not seem to miss a bit, and that is without the addition of a couple of productive wingers his movement could  bring.  I am intrigued by the thought that the Pens could roll four very strong lines AND still have an extremely capable blue line focused on clearing the zone, and jumping up when it makes sense, but not when it does not.

The other consideration is the fact that Letang's new deal next year more than doubles in value and adds a limited no trade clause, which will limit half the options available to move Letang after this season.  If you combine his salary raise with the raise coming to Malkin, most of the projected cap increase is gone, which will hurt your chances to retain other value free agents that are due some raises if you expect to keep them.  The combination of raises to Malkin and Letang will take up about 4.55M of the projected 6M cap increase, which will undoubtedly cost the team some valuable components.  Some notable players who will need raises to be retained are UFA's such as Jussi Jokinen, making 2.1M per year, but a portion of that is covered by the Carolina Hurricanes, which will not be the case in any deal going forward.  Jokinen seems to be the third piece of an extremely productive line with Malkin and Neal, and I would think retaining him would be key.  Matt Niskanen, making 2.3M per year is due a new deal, and coming off of the year he is having, his demand on the open market will be high.  Niskanen leads the NHL with a whopping plus29, while scoring 7 goals, and adding 23 assists!  Five of his seven goals are game winning goals as well.  Brandon Sutter, whose play has contributed mightily to the Penguins boasting the number one PK unit in the league is RFA, and will also be due an increase on his 2.1M contract if the Penguins expect to retain his services.  There are many other UFA and RFA Penguins coming up after this season, including Brooks Orpik, Simon Despres, Tanner Glass, Philip Samuelsson and Zach Sill.  Shero created room and upgraded the team oddly when he was forced to trade popular and productive Jordan Staal for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin, and the 8th overall pick which  became Pouliot, a young defenseman they feel will be a top two pairing guy and power play quarterback in the near future.  His play in the recent WJC did not nothing but increase that expectation.  Most would call Jordan Staal the best player at the time of the deal, BUT Sutter not only filled his role capably, the 4M difference in cap hit between he and Staal allowed the Penguins to add other complimentary  parts to the team,  not to mention the value that Dumoulin and Pouliot bring by adding such depth to the blue line that Shero has numerous options to utilize that depth to bolster the team.  In short, the team is over stocked on the blue line, thin on the wings, and cap strapped, so the notion of dealing from depth and using a premium chip to bolster the area lacking depth of talent with premium returns, and getting some cap relief in the process is not a dumb notion.  Remember, we are talking of getting the right deal, not just any deal.

Madden also uses the tremendous record of the Penguins as a reason that significant change would just be stupid!  Really Mark??!!  Hmmmm, it would seem that this movie looks familiar and if recent history holds, us yinzers are not going to like the ending.  Recent history has the Pens using their firepower to cut through the regular season with impressive ease, only to falter in the post season, when the referees put the whistles away, and every inch of ice is fought for making scoring goals a much harder task.  Style gives way to grit and determination, pretty gambling plays give way to intelligent safe plays and capitalizing on the mistakes made by the other team.  This style of play has not been kind in the post season for Pittsburgh, so the notion of change despite the record is actually not at all foolhardy.

Listen, I get what Letang can do, remember he was my favorite player for a long time, but at what point do you expect a player who is taking up the cap space he will take next year to play an intelligent game, not erode his considerable offensive capabilities with consistent defensive lapses, and run the number one power play unit?  Adding a 25 goal plus type on the first line with speed and grit, along with a large solid third liner both with term would surely have to be considered if that deal came along, wouldn't it?  I again like balance since the Pens are pretty loaded with talent in the middle, and lacking depth of premium talent on the wings.

If you are not going to try to get a big game changing return for Letang, your trade chips would seem to be Despres, as many do covet his size and overall game, but I don't see a top six winger coming  back for Despres.  An odd piece of trade bait if the Penguins will not consider moving Letang is Matt Niskanen.  Yes, the same Matt Niskanen who has been the Penguins rock this year.  If the Penguins do not make significant moves with other high rent players such as Letang, they will not be able to compete to keep Niskanen next year, who will likely be getting offers in the 4M-5M per year range in free agency.  His value right now is the highest it has ever been.  It would make me sick to see him dealt, but if you will lose him for nothing after this year, and the right team offers the right player, or given Shero's history, players,  well, it may make sense.  There are many other moves that would involve Orpik or Martin as other high priced defensemen who could become luxuries the Pens cannot afford, but that would take a whole other post.  My point is simply that simply believing that moving Letang would make you a stupid hockey fan as advanced by Mark Madden is actually the stupid idea.  The notion of keeping Letang is not stupid either, but if you do, it will come at the cost of others and I just hope he winds up worth it, as this team has no issue scoring goals with or without him, but in the past couple of seasons he has contributed to key lapses in the ability to prevent them.

Either way, the notion makes for an interesting debate among NHL and Penguins fans, though I do not think the Penguins agree with the notion of moving Kris Letang, which opens up many other possibilities to monitor as we approach the Olympic break and the trade deadline.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Remember the Good

Tonight I was commenting on a favorite local media member's congratulatory post to Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin for their recent selection to the US Olympic Team, seconding his congratulations, when another poster was pretty negative about  both being on the team and calling it a homer decision.  He was a Pens fan.  I did not get sarcastic but noted that there was a large committee who made the choices, not just team Pittsburgh, and left it at that.  At this point the typical internet idiot came out, not due to his disagreement with my position, but due to the fact he immediately went to name calling mode, and telling me that Ray Shero, Dan Bylsma, and David Poile all were horrible at their jobs and made big mistakes.  I indulged the idiot for a few but moved on as you cannot reason with idiots, as entitled to his opinion as he is, his need to beat his chest and throw about names while denigrating people who make more important decisions before their first piss each day than he likely does all year made it a waste of time to engage him.  His big point was that other than Whitney fetching Kunitz in a trade Shero had done nothing for the Pens and that Bylsma was a loser.  I chose not to respond and clutter the timeline of a person I respect any more than I had in my brief encounter with said idiot, but in very short order I can list a few things that would seem to indicate that these men are pretty good at their jobs.  First, let me say yes, I LIKE both men quite a bit, but I have also QUESTIONED at times ASPECTS of their jobs.  For instance, if you look at Shero's draft history, it is littered with players who never did anything for the Penguins, and are either gone or pretty much pigeon holed as non NHL or non-impact NHL players.  As for Disco, I, like many fans got quite frustrated with the past couple of post seasons, and the one right after the Cup.  That frustration with recent post season results does not negate a very positive overall body of work.  I mean, they have gone to the Eastern Conference Finals and lost, the Stanley Cup Finals and lost, and won the Stanley Cup in Bylsma's 5 completed seasons with the Pens.  The Pens were mired in 11th place when Bylsma took over in February of 2009 and they won the Stanley Cup later that year.  Four best of seven series folks, and they avenged their 2008 loss to an excellent Detroit team in so doing.  Let's not forget that in 2010-11, Bylsma won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's best coach for guiding the Penguins to 106 points despite losing Crosby and Malkin among others for the second half of the year.  In his three full seasons post Cup the Penguins have finished with 101, 106, and 108 points, while finishing atop the Eastern Conference in last season's strike shortened season with 72 points. This year the Penguins again have been demolished by injury and yet remain near the top of the entire league, recently winning 14 of 18 games, despite losing their top 5 defensemen, Malkin, Bennett, Glass, Dupuis and others.  So, despite being concerned about recent post season play, stubbornness related to matching lines or adapting to the other team, and an infatuation with Deryk Engelland that drive me nuts, you can hardly call the Bylsma tenure a failure.  He also contributes mightily to a general feel along, with GM Ray Shero that makes the Penguins a place that highly valued players take less than market value to stay long term and be part of an organization that treats them right.  That is an underrated contribution to the long term success of the organization.

Let's get back to Ray Shero, who according to this clown has done nothing but the Whitney trade other than play with Craig Patrick's players.  First, when you look at the value of Kunitz to the Penguins (an off the radar winger at the time), and compare that  to what happened to Ryan Whitney's career this is no small feat!  However, it is hardly the only valuable thing Shero has done.  First, he has created an atmosphere that makes the Pens a destination that players want to go to, and he has done that in many ways I will not detail as many others have done that before me.  But let's start with some early moves that helped mold this team like trading Noah Welch to Florida to get Gary Roberts. whose toughness and leadership helped this young team go on its magical and unexpected tear to the 08 Finals.  He also sent Carcillo and a pick to Phoenix to bring in Georges Laraque, who also added toughness and grit his first couple of seasons here that changed the swagger level of the young stars on the ice.  In the off season of 07-08 he signed Petr Sykora, another prominent player on the teams that went to the Finals, and he brought in Hal Gill at the deadline who played a prominent role in the  Cup run.  To me the Hossa deal helped win the cup in 2009.  And yes, I know Hossa was not on the Pens in 2009, but sending Erik Christensen, Colby Armstrong, Angelo Esposito and a pick to Atlanta for Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis told this team they were ready to win and win now.  That run to the 08 Finals does not occur without that deal, and the 2009 championship does not occur without that 2008 run that ended in a home loss in Game 6 of the Finals.  Oh yeah, and Dupuis has been arguably the best value in the NHL dollar for dollar over that time frame.  The players our fans were distraught over losing have done nothing of note since the trade.  Ray Shero, his guts, and savvy played a major role in turning the Pens into a perennial Cup contender.

Does anybody think that getting James Neal and Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski is anything short of robbery?  Niskanen has been at worst a solid fifth defenseman, and at best during the recent injury spate, the leader and anchor of a blue line that contributed to a lengthy win streak putting the Pens near the top of the league while playing with mostly AHL players.  When you see the money being thrown around does anybody think Shero sucks for getting Neal for five years at 5M per year?  The acquisition of Neal also gave Malkin a bonafide sniper to play with and when paired they are amazing to watch!  Does anyone think that deal Neal signed sucks?   Didn't think so!

What about the Jordan Staal deal.  Remember he was Shero's first pick ever and a big part of the Penguins success and Stanley Cup win.  The emotional ties there could have led to a disastrous attempt at retaining him.   As Staal was about to enter his final year before going UFA he turned down a 60M offer from the Pens which SHOULD have killed any leverage the Pens had in dealing him since it was pretty obvious he could be had for nothing at the end of the year.  Yet Shero gets Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin and the 8th overall pick in return for a lame duck pending UFA?  Sutter is a key component of the current team, Dumoulin showed he is ready for NHL play and will either allow the Pens to deal a more expensive blue liner to make room for him or get value back in a trade for him.  Pouliot is getting high marks as a guy who could be NHL ready next year and a potential top power play quarterback.  Oh, yeah we saved 4M in cap space for a year as well. I would say that move was also borderline robbery on the part of Shero given the situation at hand.

 Shero sucks??  OK pal.

Can you criticize some of his drafts?  Yes, especially the early ones which did not net much in return for the Penguins.  However, in this recent run of injuries the blue line was stocked with Shero picks like Despres, round one 2009, Bortuzzo round 3, 2007, Maatta, round one 2012, Samuellson round 2, 2009, and before injury Beau Bennett the first round pick in 2010 was a top nine forward.  The system is stocked with young defensemen and Shero has shown in getting Kunitz, Neal and Niskanen in return for Whitney and Goligoski what he can do with young defensemen in the trade market.  The Penguins have won 2 Division Championships, had a conference finals loss, a Stanley Cup Finals loss, and a Stanley Cup Championship under Shero's tenure.   They are again among the favorites to win the Cup this year.  Their organizational depth was there for all to see for the past two months, meaning they are set up well for the long run also.   There are very few organizations in pro sports who would not trade places with the Penguins if they could. yes, I can pick some items that both do to debate and question, but in the end the results have spoken for themselves and on top of that they are both classy men and assets to the organization in ways outside of the hockey specific items noted above.   Yeah, these two are idiots.