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.  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Not a time to want Shero's job

Well Pens fans, here we are again, left licking our wounds after another ugly exit from Lord Stanley's annual tournament, albeit this time it was in the Eastern Conference Finals, not the Quarter-Finals.  Despite winning two series rather handily, the nature of this exit given the health and depth of this team seems to be sitting about as poorly with Pens Nation as last year's meltdown against the Flyers.  Getting swept, and scoring all of two goals in four games plus nearly two periods of OT is not going to win you much love when your team was again considered a favorite if not THE favorite to win the Stanley Cup.  An 0 for 15 power play did not help in any way either, so here we sit, again.  The fan base is VERY agitated, and there are many different calls for action to deal with a fourth exit from the playoffs without the hardware since 2009.  The most noted proposal from many Pittsburgh fans is the "Bylsma must go," faction.  You know, the guy who took the Pens from an ugly 10th place in February of 2009, then rattled off an 18-3-4 record to put the Pens in the fourth seed, before avenging the loss in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals to Detroit, bringing Pittsburgh their third Stanley Cup!  The same Dan Bylsma who took a team that lost its best players mid year, and despite being ruled out of contention, guided that team to the third best record in the NHL, and had a 3-1 lead on a dynamic Tampa team that went to the Eastern Conference Finals, before losing to Boston, the eventual Cup Champions.  That run was held in such esteem, that Bylsma was awared the Jack Adams award, given to the NHL's coach of the year.   This is the same guy who reached 200 regular season wins the fastest of anybody in the NHL, and was named in a poll of NHL players as the coach they would most like to play for.  He has a record of 201-93-25 as the coach of the Pens, and after his Stanley Cup ring, the Penguins have been in the top four of the LEAGUE in terms of points each year.

So why would you think of something as insane as getting rid of THIS guy?

In the post season,  Bylsma's Penguins have badly underperformed, losing to Montreal in the Conference Semis in 2010, laying an egg on home ice in the decisive seventh game.  They then lost to Tampa, after holding a 3-1 lead in the series, getting shut out on home ice in Game 7 in the Conference Quarter-Finals in the 2010-11 series.  Last season, after having the second best record in the East, the Penguins imploded in the first round against the Flyers.  They took multi goal leads in the first two games on home ice, gave up the lead in both games, losing them both.  They got creamed in Game 3, and looked totally lost, before succumbing in six games.  Shero took the off season and trade deadline to address every percieved weakness from back up goaltending, to some size and nasty in front of our net, to some grit and leadership on the forward lines, bringing in Vokoun, Morrow, Murray, Iginla, and Jokinen to an already stacked team.   Morrow and Iginla were both captains of their former teams, and hungry tough veterans who could still put the puck in the net.

Well, after handling two teams who were not the caliber of the Pens in the first two rounds, it seemed as if Disco had the monkey off of his back.  He had reached the Conference Finals, and short of a disaster, most felt that he had secured his job at a minimum, and at a maximum, had his second Cup in reach.  Well, said disaster occurred, as noted, with Pittsburgh getting swept by Boston, and many people questioning the decisions or lack thereof by the head coach.  Let me say that Pittsburgh could pretty easily have won 3 of those 4 games, with the very ugly game two on home ice being the notable exception.  It was notable in that it was one of, if not the worst playoff performance I have witnessed personally.  There is a faction who correctly note that the players, especially the stars who make millions are the ones who play, not the coach.  But, while true there were a number of questionable decisions by Bylsma that do make him appear rigid, too much in tune with the grinders v the best skilled players, and unable to put a game plan together to react to a team who was preventing the Pens from "getting to their game" as he says so often.

First, and this was apparent throughout the playoffs, but Pittsburgh's talent differential masked it in the first two rounds, was the stubborn use of stretch passes and stick handling to gain the offensive zone resulting in turnovers, and odd man breaks the other way.  It is pretty accepted knowledge in the NHL, that the time and space for fancy plays that exists in the regular season always disappears in the playoffs (unless you are playing Pittsburgh), yet the Penguins under Bylsma again seemed to ignore that fact while getting burned time and again with blue line or neutral zone turnovers.

Second, and related to this issue is the lack of traffic around the net that most teams use when facing a hot goaltender v picking corners of the net or making that last perfect pass that never gets there.  Maybe Bylsma told the players to get to the net?  Well if he did, they did not care enough to listen.  The front of the net on both ends of the ice seems like a no fly zone for Pittsburgh.  That cannot be in the NHL playoffs.

Third, the misuse of Jarome Iginla as a left wing on the second line or demoting the future Hall of Famer to the third line for a game so that Crosby could keep his line intact.  If you drop Kunitz to the Malkin line, you reunite last year's best line in hockey in Malkin, Neal and Kunitz, while giving Crosby and Dupuis a Hall of Fame 1,000 point plus tough right winger.  If the Crosby line were doing anything or the Malkin line were doing anything, maybe you can excuse this.  But nobody but Kunitz from those lines, registered a point in the series, so why would you not at least at this late juncture put Iginla where he is comfortable? 

Not taking advantage of home ice to get favorable line matchups was another highly criticized no-move by Bylsma. 

Fifth, the short handed goal issue partially created by having Malkin on the point on the power play v Paul Martin, who is the best puck distribution guy, a key element on any power play, and a defenseman, which may have cut down on the odd man breaks against on our power plays.  The three short handed goals against leads all playoff teams.

The decison to put a power play unit and most especially (in this playoffs) high risk players like Letang and Malkin on the ice with 30 plus seconds to go in Game 3 against Ottawa, as opposed to defensive minded players to protect a 1-0 lead was highly questionable.  Every possible mistake was made and instead of a 3-0 stranglehold on a series, the Pens almost let Ottawa make a series of it.

Sixth, leaving a guy like Simon Despres on the bench while players like Engelland, eventually Eaton, and often time Niskanen were liabilities.  Despres is a big puck moving defenseman who can be physical yet he sat since mid way through series one.  He was a good partner to Letang during the year, who frankly looked either great or HORRIBLE the whole playoffs.

Similarly, Beau Bennett seemed to prove that the playoff stage was not too big for him, and his size and skill would have landed him ice time on any other team but ours I would think.  Bennett did get some time late in the Bruins series, but his use or lack thereof seems to underscore the other Bylma crticism that he favors plumbers like himself too much v pure talent.  Would Brandon Saad be a part of the Penguins playoff run if drafted by Pittsburgh, or would he have been toiling down in WBS?

The young Penguins, beginning to make a splash in 2006-07 and through the 2008-09 championship team seemed to laugh off adversity and stick it in your ass when you thought you had your foot on their throats.  That swagger and mental toughness helped launch my already insane love for this team to scary heights!  However, it seems that for the past two or three years, any hint of post season adversity sends this team into a bewildered, lack of confidence mode that is frustrating to watch.

Finally, there is the eye test.  I doubt anybody would argue that Boston has more talent than Pittsburgh.  However, Julien's team seemed to execute a game plan that all 20 players lived shift in and shift out.  Clog the neutral zone, play defense first, protecting your net, create offense off of the transition game created by sloppy Pittsburgh puck management, win the puck battles, funnel shots to the point and crash the net.  They played like a team, executed a game plan that was simple but effective, yet Pittsburgh never changed their approach.  As alarming as that was, it alarmed me more to hear commentary from Pittsburgh players and the coach that they ran into a hot goaltender and there was nothing they would do differently other than get pucks in the net?  If you truly believe that, then you are in denial, and there would be very little reason to believe that anything will change in the post season next year. 

Does that mean I am sure they should fire Bylsma?  First, you have to know who you would want to replace him, and how or why he would have better results.  Is the philosophy described above that of the coach, or is it the same from somebody higher up in the organization?  Would you find it scary to see Disco behind the bench of the Rangers?  Would adding an opposite type personality in place of a key assistant add some balance to the Bylsma system?  I listed a number of issues I see and saw again in this post season, but do I want them to fire Bylma?  I don't want them to, no, BUT I am not sure how they think they will progress past the types of issues noted above to complete another quest for the Cup unless they do.   It is a decision I would not have to make given the kind of guy that Disco Dan is, as well as his many positive contributions to this organization.  But I am not sure there is a choice if you want post season success.  That makes me sad to say, and I hope that there is a solution that will work other than this one, but I cannot think of one.

I will handle other RS off season decisions in separate posts.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Loving Flower does not mean Losing your Mind

I am kind of known as the local Pens freak at my gym, at my office, on my street, and well just about everywhere.  As such, I cannot tell you how many people ask me daily when the Pens should put Flower back in over Vokoun.  Their facial expressions are priceless when I say, "Either next year, after TWO bad games by Vokoun, or never."  It makes my day.  I know, I am kind of an asshole, but nonetheless, it makes my day.  I  get a lot of heated replies ranging from he is a great goalie, to a great guy, to the Pens would not be here without him, to maybe he is just struggling with adjusting to being a new dad.  Is he a great goalie?  Well he has been to the Finals twice and won the Stanley Cup in 2009, so I would say he is at least an excellent goalie.  Is he a great guy?  I got the chance to bowl with him one night for Make a Wish, and I can confirm from that night and all other accounts Fleury is a GREAT guy.  Would the Pens be here without him?  Well, he sure has been a BIG part of the Penguins's recent successes, and when you look at other teams who have great personnel, but not won a Cup or been to the Finals in recent memory, I would say that it is true that the Pens as a franchise would not be here without the contributions of Marc Andre Fleury.  Is he possibly struggling adjusting to being a new father?  He would not be human if he were not.  The thing is people.....THAT NONE OF THAT IS RELEVANT TO THE CURRENT SITUATION.  We are not in kindygarten guys and dolls.  We are not part of the pussification of America when speaking of big time sports in America.  (Thanks Matt Walker) .  We are not in Little League letting you bat until you hit.  Jordan Staal scored a SHG in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals that likely turned the tide from another 6 game loss at the hands of the Wings, to a glorious third Stanley Cup for the good guys.  When he turned down a great offer from King Ray, he found himself in Carolina, while the Pens got Brandon Sutter, cap relief and two top notch blueliners in return.  All of that is being stated so I can get to my main points.  The first is most of the people caterwauling over Flower sitting while Vokoun has gone 6-1 would be the first to use the phrase, "In Shero we trust."  Well, put your money where your mouth is people.  Remember early June last year, after the hated Flyers destroyed the Penguins, and Fleury posted his third straight sub .900 save percentage post season?  That same Ray Shero went out and pryed an undervalued Vokoun away from the Caps for a seventh round draft pick to do two things for the Pens.  First, to give Fleury some rest during the regular season, as many believed that his post season meltdowns had a lot to do with being over played during the regular season.  Well, Vokoun played in 20 of the team's 48 games, while Fleury played in 33 of those games.  Vokoun was 13-4-0-3 with a 2.45 GAA and .919 save percentage, while Fleury was 23-8-0-1 with a 2.39 GAA and .916 save percentage.  So, Vokoun accomplished goal number one of allowing Fleury to stay fresh for the post season.  Then, after pitching a shutout in game one of the Islanders series, Fleury was pulled in favor of Vokoun for Game 5.  Fleury went 2-2, posting a .834 save percentage and a very bloated 4.63 GAA while looking bewildered at times.  Since then Vokoun has gone 6-1, the Penguins have rather easily handled the Islanders and Senators, while Vokoun is 3rd in GAA at 1.85 and 2nd in save percentage at .941.  What's more is he was 29 seconds and a series of boneheaded plays by his mates away from being 7-0 before losing to Ottawa in double overtime 2-1 in Game 3 of that series.  It is safe to say that thus far, Vokoun has more than delivered on the second part of the reason for his presence, in a BIG way.  So, tell me again what Vokoun has done to deserve a benching in favor of Fleury?  Oh yeah, the pedigree of Fleury some say....well ladies, Vokoun has appeared in 700 regular season NHL games posting a .917 save percentage and a 2.55 GAA, while Fleury has appeared in 467 regular season NHL games posting a .910 save percentage and a 2.66 GAA.  These numbers are very comparable to Vokoun's but Vokoun's are BETTER.  Well, look at his post season pedigree compared to Vokoun's.  Fleury has played in far more post season games, 79 to be exact, and he has a .904 save percentage and a 2.72 GAA.  Conversely, Vokoun has only played in 18 post season games, but he does have a .930 save percentage and 2.22 GAA.  Yes, Fleury has more playoff experience, yes he has two trips to the Finals and a Stanley Cup, Vokoun, until now never got a sniff at either, with his prior post season experience in net being with Nashville, perennial one and done playoff fodder.  But, Fleury's last four post seasons netted him .891, .899, .834, and .891.  His GAA's during that stretch?  2.78, 2.52, 4.63, and 3.40!  Hence the presence of Vokoun in the first place, whose 2M salary, combined with Fleury's 5M salary has the Pens at 7M invested in the net.  That will tell you how important two dummies like Ray Shero and Mario Lemieux thought it was to have a safety net behind Fleury.

Folks, again, I really do like the Flower, and his athleticism and ability to make unreal saves is well........ unreal.  That said, as the statistics above would suggest, he also has an ability to let in too many goals that he should stop, especially in the post season.  Vokoun, on the other hand, is not as athletic, but for the most part, stays in position and makes the saves he should make.  And on the rare occasion where he has looked a little shaky in this post season, he has shook it off to stand tall when the team needed him to.  They are to classy to say it, so we will never know for sure, but the eye test suggests that this team is calmer and plays a more steady game with Vokoun's veteran presence in the net.  So, despite all of the postives about Fleury as a player and as a human, I do not see why the Penguins would give the job back to Fleury when a veteran goaltender with slightly better numbers lifetime, has been a calming influence.  One who should be 7-0 in this year's post season, and is among the top players in net statistically while Fleury is usually middle of the pack.  And by the way, it is a BUSINESS!!!  I made the case that despite my deep admiration for Fleury, that this job belongs to Vokoun right now, but let me part with another shot.  This decision is bigger than Vokoun v Fleury folks.  There are twenty eight players who dressed for the Penguins this year who want their name on Lord Stanley's Cup.  There is a coaching and scouting staff with many hours of their time and skin in the game.  Hell, Disco's job was likely in jeopardy if there was another first round exit, as well as those of his staff.   There are stitches, bruises, broken bones, jaws, lost teeth, hours of practice,travel, and film watching devoted to the singular pursuit of the Stanley Cup.  Crosby rushed back with a decimated jaw bone to win the Cup.  Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow waived no trade clauses for a chance to win the Cup, and Iginla pretty much strong armed his way here to pursue that lifelong dream.  So, whomever people like Shero, Bylsma, and 66 think gives the Penguins the best chance of accomplishing that goal should be in net, despite how nice they might be, or their past accomplishments.  And, lest I forget, we fans have skin in the game too.  Do yinz realize how fortunate yinz are to see the second golden age of Penguins hockey?  Do you realize that this ownership group spends to the Cap every year, in order to give us the best possible product?  Did you know that each home playoff game generates seven figures of direct revenues to the Penguins organization?   That deep playoff runs add more dollars in souvenir sales?   If you saw the commerce being done in countless bars you would see how much tax revenues and income for bar owners, staff, and arena workers is generated based on this team making a deep playoff run v golfing after round one. Do you think that more home games would mean it is more likely that these owners can keep spending to the cap so that we continue to enjoy excellent hockey, as well as provide income to thousands of local Pittsburghers?  Yeah, I love Fleury too, but I did not lose my mind.  Play the guy most suited to keep this run alive, and you can love them both.  They are BOTH OUR guys!  Go Pens!
PS:  I forgot to touch on the "where does that leave him for next year" mantra.  Well, let's deal with that next year.  The cap is falling, the sky is not.....The body of work that will determine who the Penguins want to keep and who they can keep is still incomplete until this playoff run is over.  The demands of the free agents are as yet unknown, the availability via trade of other players is unknown.  He may yet wind up in the nets and get that monkey off his back, or he may not, but there are too many other variables to worry about next year, when you are 8 wins away from winning the toughest trophy in all of sports.  We are in the equivalent of the Final Four except the one that takes huge balls to be in!  As the Ole 29'er would say......Buckle Up Baby Are You Kidding Me!!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Halfway to Heaven

Ok my fellow yinzers, our beloved flightless birds have now won two playoff series, and await what is likely to be the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Confernce Finals unless the Rags can pull off a miracle.  Here is to hoping they at least extend the series a game or two.  I don't know about you, but the Penguins early exits in recent post seasons has me out of practice for this marathon.  Is it me, or does it feel like they were in two tough back and forth battes?  In reality, they are 8-2, and were never in any real danger of elimination.  Maybe recent history played a part in that feeling, or the fact that Marc Andre Fleury was chased seven games ago, but man, I am not sure I could live through a six or seven game series, or one where we fell behind, though in 2009, I very much believed in the Penguins in both the Caps and Red Wings series' even when they fell behind two games to none.  I hope to get that swagger back for this playoff run, my life may depend on it!  Instead of blowing up my Facebook page with all of the ramblings in my head, I figured I would take our halfway point in the March to the Cup to put most of my thoughts in one place.  First and foremost, Ray Shero, you are the best GM in all of sports.  All of the late season acquisitions have performed pretty much as expected in this post season.  I know, some are a bit disappointed in Morrow, but he has done okay, and has been coming on late in this series.  He will be very valuable in the Bruins series in my opinion.  Murray has been the shot blocking monster he is supposed to be, Iginla has more than a point per game, and Juicy has added depth and versatility to a lineup that is tough to crack, but he has delivered when called upon.  Now to give a recap of the statistical performance of the Penguins that I find interesting.  First, if you look at playoff points leaders, after David Krejci of Boston who has 17 points to lead the league, the Penguins fill out the remaining positions of the top 5 with Malkin, Letang, Crosby, and Iginla in that order having 16, 16, 15, and 12 points.  The Pens boast 4 of the top 5 scorers in the post season.  Crosby and Dupuis are tied for the league lead in goals with 7, and James Neal is coming on like a freight train right behind with 6 goals, giving Pittsburgh 3 of the top 5 goal scorers in the playoffs.  Neal in fact has 5 goals and 2 assists in his past TWO games after a rather sluggish start to his post season.  As far as netminding, despite not starting the first 3 games, Tomas Vokoun is second in wins in the NHL after a three way tie for first between Lundqvist, Rask, and Quick.  If not for a mind numbing display of stupidity by the Malkin, Kunitz, Letang, and frankly Byslma in the waning seconds of game 4, Vokoun would be tied for first in wins despite playing 3 less games than the leaders.  He also boasts a 1.85 goals against and a .941 save percentage putting him in the top 3 in both categories amongst playoff goaltenders.  I would say Shero's move there is paying the proper dividends no?  Kris Letang leads the NHL in assists in the playoffs with 13, while Geno is right behind him with 12 assists.  Letang also leads the NHL in plus/minus at a plus 7.  That is truly amazing given the number of goals he has been on the ice for, and speaks volumes about his ability to just take over games when he is on.  For example, he looked pitiful in the first period plus of game four, directly contributing to both Ottawa goals scored early.  Then he took over the game, getting 4 assists, followed by a goal and 2 assists last night.  So in the last five periods of play, Letang has added 7 points, while also playing sound defense. 

Daniel Alfredsson took a lot of heat for referring to the thought that his Sens would have a tough time recovering for their 3-1 deficit in the series due to the depth and skill of the Penguins.  Well, the Penguins have five players who have MORE than a point per game in these playoffs including Malkin, Letang, Crosby, Iginla, and Neal.  Also Dupuis, Kunitz, and Martin are flirting with a point per game.  Umm, that would be what they call scoring balance!  As for team statistics, the Penguins still have the most goals per game of the remaining playoff teams at 4.27 goals per game, and the worst goals against per game at 2.54.  I am hopeful that the Pens can work a bit on the goals against, but when you score more than 4 and allow less than 3, it is still a pretty good goal differential.  Special teams have been a positive for Pittsburgh, with the power play tops in the league, clicking at 28.3% and the Penalty Kill second only to Chicago at 89.7%.  That is a combination of special teams stats that could net you the Cup.  One caution about the stunning special teams play is that the Penguins have also given up 3 short handed goals, the most in the league for the playoffs.  That is an area that needs to be locked down going forward. 

Another note to consider going forward is that Pittsburgh is 8-1 in their past nine games against both Boston and New York, so they have been a bit of match up nightmare for both clubs. What does that all mean?  Probably nothing, as each series is a different animal, and the playoffs are FAR different than regular season games.  That said, it seems as if the Penguins are taking advantage of the depth they can bring to a series to eventually wear an opponent down. Vokoun is making the saves he needs to make, and even after a softie or two in the middle of this series, he always made the saves he needed to make.  What's more is the fact the Penguins also have guys like Brandon Sutter, Brendan Morrow,  and Tyler Kennedy who may not always show up on the score sheet, but tend to do so with BIG goals when they do. The Pens will most likely face Boston in the Conference Finals next week, and the Bruins sure do look like a handful right now.  I was wavering on the Penguins chances against Boston, but I need to remember how a seven game SERIES can unfold with a cumulative effect of a team who can roll out the kind of depth of scoring and toughness that Pittsburgh can.  I am warming to the idea of Pittsburgh returning to the Stanley Cup Finals after a tough 6 game series with Boston.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Pens take a very shaky 2-1 series lead

Okay three games in, and it is already a roller coaster ride for us Pens fans.  After a 5-0 blowout win in the opener, the Penguins blew a 3-1 lead to the Isles at home in Game 2 to lose 4-3 and also give the Islanders some real confidence that they could win this series.  Scary to me, was the fact that it was looking like a movie I had seen before in Game 2, between giving up the lead, taking penalties, making poor puck management decisions, really bad defensive zone structure, and Fleury giving up a couple of questionable goals, despite being stellar early in the game.  Instead of a commanding lead in the series going to Long Island, the Pens had let the Islanders off the mat, and now they really believed they could win this series.  Then in game 3, the Pens fell behind 2-0 early in period one, then came roaring back to go into the second period ahead 3-2.  When Douglas Murray scored late in the second period to put the Penguins up 4-2 going into the third, it really seemed like the Pens had grabbed control of the game, and hopefully the series.  But no, flashbacks again to last year's debacle, and the Pens get outshot 13-3 in the third, give up a shorthanded goal, and another two goal lead to send the game into OT.  Thankfully, Brian Strait took a penalty in OT, and Chris Kunitz scored his second goal of the game off of a beautiful feed from Sidney Crosby to win this game, despite the sloppy play.  Crosby's assist was his third of the game, giving him 2 goals and 3 assists in just two playoff appearances this season.  The Penguins dodged a bullet and now have a 2-1 lead in the series, though it feels a bit shaky to me.  The Penguins got through today's game by going 3 for 5 on the power play, while getting badly outplayed 5 on 5.  They also gave up their second two goal lead in as many games, though this time they overcame that problem to win the game.  The Islanders now really believe they can win this series, and despite being a much less talented team, they are giving the Penguins all they want.  In fact, outside of game one, they have looked like the more composed team for the most part.  That said, Pittsburgh, with a win on Tuesday can take a stranglehold on the series.  Some things I think I think:

Despite the fact that Tomas Vokoun was brought in to be an option should Fleury struggle, and Fleury has had a couple of games where he has let in some questionable goals, he also has a .923 save percentage overall, and has made some huge saves while being let out to dry by his defense.  The issue is that this has been his issue in recent post season play.  Great play getting nullified by morale sapping bad goals at key moments.  That said, I think Fleury should start the next game and his play in that game would dictate if it is Vokoun time.

Evgeni Malkin leads the NHL in playoff points with one goal and five assists, while Jarome Iginla has a goal and four assists.  The damage has mostly been done on the power play, while the five on five play of the Malkin-Iginla-Bennett line has been pretty quiet.  If it were me, I would put Kunitz with Malkin and Iginla with Crosby to try to get better 5 on 5 production, but I sure would not mess with the power play.

Pascal Dupuis leads the NHL in playoff goals with three, and Paul Martin has three assists from the blueline for the Penguins.

I was feeling pretty good about my smarts when Deryk Engelland looked out of place in game two and Simon Despres was in his place.  Then Despres was beaten badly in the first period, leading directly to the first two Islanders goals, and I remembered that I am not that smart.

The Penguins have 12 goals in three games, and nine players scored those goals.

There are too many parts of the Pens game that look just like the Flyers series last year to make me a little uneasy, but I still think that the depth of the Pens will ultimately will make it tough on NYI to win this thing.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Pens win Stanley Cup!

Ok, so I may be a little sarcastic here.....I LOVED the game played by the Penguins last night in their 5-0 drubbing of the Islanders in Game One of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Penguins chased Evgeni Nabokov, they got physical with John Tavares, their achilles heel, the PK delivered going 4-4, and the power play went 2-4, including a beauty by rookie Beau Bennett.  The world turned upside down, as the Penguins even got a goal from Tanner Glass!  But, yinzers I spoke with everywhere today were convinced that the showing last night likely meant a sweep of the Isles, and a run right to the 4th Cup.  I am more with the Penguins players who correctly enjoyed the moment, then immediately began to put their focus on Game Two Friday night.  10-0 or 2-1, it is only one game of the four necessary to win the series.  Lest you think I am just a hockey Scrooge, in two of the past three first round exits, our flightless Birds handled Montreal 6-3 in game one, chasing Jaroslav Halak in the 2010 first round series, which they ultimately lost in 7 games.  In 2011, the Pens shut out the Lightning 3-0 in Game One, then lost the series, which they led at one point 3-1, in seven games.  I suspect that those experiences, plus the additions of Morrow and Iginla will keep the Pens focused on the task at hand, and I do expect that they will prevail, but calm down folks.  If the Isles storm back and take Game Two, we have a best of five series with both teams even.  Friday night is a big night for Pittsburgh to make a statement about their overall depth and talent being too much for New York.  A New York rebound win, and people, you may have a dog fight to contend with.  After presenting my cautionary tale, let me get back to things that I liked about Pittsburgh last night:

Marc Andre Fleury came out and played a very strong game, hopefully setting up the frame of mind he will need to put recent post season failure behind him;

Pascal Dupuis continues to show the hockey world what kind of player he is, putting home two goals, including the dirty second goal of the game which seemed to deflate the Isles a bit;

Iginla and Jokkinen both continued their hot streaks adding 2 assists each to the scoresheet, while Iggy played a physical game all night long, physical, tough, straight line hockey;

Kris Letang was simply in beast mode, nuff said;

Mark Eaton played a very steady defensive game, and blocked 8 shots;

Crankshaft showed the element missing from the past three playoff disasters by his physicality in front of the net, sending Islanders flying like bowling pins;

Beau Bennett, the "scared" rookie took a Martin to Malkin tip on the boards and roared in on Nabokov and tucked a power play goal in a small space over his shoulder and played tough and smart all night long;

As noted, the Pens won the special team battle with a 4-4 PK effort and a 2-4 PP effort to control the game from the drop of the puck;

Brenden Morrow, though not on the score sheet, played the kind of relentless physical hockey that over the course of the series will take its toll;

Matt Cooke is already under the skin of the NYI, and drawing the early penalty from Brian Strait, put the Pens on the PP which led to the Bennett goal.

Evgeni Malkin to me had a mixed night.  He had two assists, and those cannot be discounted, but he also played some pretty uninspired hockey at times, mixed with rushes where he tried to beat four Islanders and turned the puck over.  You may think I am too hard on Geno, but he earns what Sid earns, wears an A, and after admitting to the fact that he did not deliver in the regular season, turned in an up and down night in my opinion.  Other than the psychological damage it may do to strip it, I can think of several more deserving Penguins in terms of the A.  A step in the right direction, but still not what Geno is capable of.  The other downer are more injuries to both James Neal and Juicy.  With Orpik still day to day and Crosby still out, I would prefer not to keep testing the depth of the team this early in the post season.  I LOVED the game played by Pittsburgh, and love the fact that they quickly deflected the love they were thrown for the win, and turned the attention immediately to Game Two.  Love the focus and physicality, but unlike many others here, I would prefer to take this run game by game.  LETS GO PENS!