Friday, December 3, 2010

Good idea at the time


Back on September 3 of this year, there was a relatively low-profile free agent signing that had the makings of one of the best bargains in the NHL. Through the preseason, nothing happened to change anyone's thinking.

Then the real games started.

Yeah, that Mike Comrie acquisition by the Penguins is not exactly working out. The winger-sometimes-center signed a one-year, $500,000 contract that had no risk, given its minimal length and dollar amount, and plenty of potential for reward, seeing as how Comrie twice scored at least 30 goals in a season and two other times netted 20.

Pittsburgh had a glaring weakness of wingers with actual skill and the marriage seemed to be as heavenly as Comrie's to Hilary Duff. Comrie scored the first goal in Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh's first preseason game. In the last preseason game, Comrie had a pair of goals to cap a very strong preseason.

Now Penguins officials and fans are saying, "What the hell happened?"

Seriously: What the hell happened?

Comrie centered Evgeni Malkin and Eric Tangradi (Tangradi since demoted to the AHL as he's not quite ready for the NHL) during those exhibition games but that line didn't show nearly the ability in the regular season. Comrie has appeared in only 16 of Pittsburgh's 27 games and has yet to score a goal. He has just five assists to his name.

Often, he's been a healthy scratch. Lately, he's been out of the lineup because of what is believed to be a groin injury.

Head coach Dan Bylsma appears to be unwilling to make the same mistake twice: Last season, he played Ruslan Fedotenko much of the time alongside Malkin, and Fedotenko had basically the worst season of his career. Comrie is underperforming the same as Fedotenko. Thus, keep him out of the lineup.

Personally, I think Bylsma is still making a mistake. I think he pulled the plug on Comrie far too early. Comrie has considerably more offensive skill than Fedotenko, and when other options at wing are Matt Cooke and Max Talbot, why not let him try and find that chemistry he had with Malkin?

It's hard to nitpick what's going on with the Penguins right now. They've won eight games in a row and are 9-0-1 in the last 10. The second line has mostly been Cooke-Malkin-Talbot in that time. Of course, that second line isn't providing a whole lot of goals. I think Cooke and Talbot are the exact same player; they're grinders, muckers, role players. Not exactly snipers. I don't think one provides anything more to the table that the other doesn't.

Comrie at least has that potential to find his scoring touch again. Cooke and Talbot have never even possessed a knack for the net, at least not like Comrie. Both Cooke and Talbot can chip in goals occasionally, and Talbot in particular has a knack for clutch goals. Still, Talbot's career-high for goals is 13. Cooke's is 15.

Some people have said Comrie's lack of an all-around game is a problem for Bylsma's system. Well, criminy, that didn't seem to be a problem in the preseason. What changed in his game? One source says Comrie isn't working hard enough in the dirty areas. OK, that might make sense.

One thing to remember is Comrie wasn't playing for a job in the exhibition games. He already had a contract signed and sealed before games began. He wasn't on a tryout basis like Fedotenko with the Rangers or Bill Guerin with Philadelphia. In fact, his willingness to sign for the league minimum is what drew him to the Penguins. There's no reason to think Comrie's effort or desire tailed off once the regular season began.

Performances in the preseason should always be taken with a grain of salt. I didn't have Comrie penciled in for the Art Ross trophy. But his game fell so far off the face of the earth once the games started to matter that it's shocking. Byslma decided essentially by Halloween that Comrie would never rediscover his game.

I think that's far too quick a hook. Obviously, Comrie isn't impressing enough to get back into the game. Pittsburgh's new third line - Chris Conner, Mark Letestu and Tyler Kennedy - are playing fabulously. If Talbot or Cooke were to be removed from the second line, the third line is likely where they'd end up. Surely, Bylsma doesn't want to break up the third line right now. The fourth line - Arron Asham, Mike Rupp and Craig Adams - is, well, it's a fourth line. It has interchangeable parts.

So on the one hand, there's not a lot of room to work in Comrie. Conner in particular has been very solid, much more than Comrie has shown, since his recall from the AHL. Still, the Penguins have no real threat at wing. Comrie (whether himself as a winger or moving Malkin to wing and have Comrie center Malkin) provides that possibility.

With the team winning, Bylsma won't want to break anything up. But considering the level Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury are playing at, why not give Comrie another shot? Of course, his health has thrown a wrench into that.

Asham, by the way, quickly developed good chemistry with Malkin. I'm still trying to figure out why he was removed from that line. But that's another topic.

The Comrie signing was low-risk, high-reward. Well, only the low risk part has played out. Barring further injuries, it's not likely Comrie gets back into the lineup, especially once Jordan Staal returns in (hopefully) a couple of weeks. That's a shame, because I'd still much rather see Comrie playing alongside Malkin instead of Cooke AND Talbot. One or the other of Cooke or Talbot I'm fine with, but both just seems redundant.

Experts always talk about the lack of a goal-scoring winger for Crosby as a big weakness on the Penguins. No one talks about the crap linemates Malkin gets on a regular basis. Of course, I guess Comrie goes in the group of subpar wingers.

When Staal returns, expect him to be paired with Malkin, as they were in Staal's rookie season when he scored 29 goals. But Staal missed all of training camp and will have missed nearly three months of the season. How good will he really be?

Better than Comrie, apparently. That wouldn't be hard to do.

Friday's games
-Colorado (13-9-2) at Carolina (10-11-3), 7 p.m. ET - Craig Anderson returns for the Avs. Maybe he can stay healthy this time.

-New York (5-13-5) at New York (15-11-1), 7 p.m. - Will either of these teams have any goals left after a 6-5 game Thursday?

-Columbus (14-8-1) at Buffalo (9-13-3), 7:30 p.m. - BJs 8-2 on the road; Sabres 4-8-1 at home.

-Calgary (10-13-2) at Minnesota (11-11-2), 8 p.m. - We'll call this the Hot Seat Game. Will either coach make it to the end of the season?

-Vancouver (13-7-3) at Chicago (14-11-2), 8:30 p.m., NHL Network - No way Roberto Luongo starts this game, right? He's not exactly good against Chicago.

-Detroit (16-4-2) at Anaheim (13-11-3), 10 p.m. - Haters of the Red Wings should really be concerned. Does this team have any flaws?

Colorado 4, Carolina 2
New York 3, New York 1
Columbus 3, Buffalo 1
Minnesota 2, Calgary 1
Chicago 5, Vancouver 3
Detroit 5, Anaheim 1

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