Saturday, April 30, 2011

Now what?


With the dust settling for the Penguins, it's time to start thinking about what this team could look like next season. It could be very different or it could be exactly the same.

If you were to go to's Penguins page, you'll see an awful lot of green UFA icons among the forwards. There are 10 of those, to be exact, with an additional two red restricted free agents.

In other words, Pittsburgh has more expiring contracts for forwards than those signed for next season.

It's also pretty clear that the current group didn't have any kind of firepower to get the job done in the wake of certain high-profile injuries you might have heard about. Ray Shero's decision is how many of these players does he want to retain and how much does he want to dip his toes into the free agent pool.

We can rule out a few of those 10 names right off the bat. Eric Godard, Alexei Kovalev and Mike Comrie will not return. (Editor's note: I will always regret how this season went down for Comrie. At least until next season.) Arron Asham and Mike Rupp are wild cards who are a) affordable and b) replaceable. My thinking is Rupp is the likelier of the two to stay.

One or two players seem certain to return. Craig Adams and Pascal Dupuis have both found happy niches here. Adams accepted close to the league minimum for two years to remain in Pittsburgh when he was a free agent in 2009 and I'd almost expect him to sign a very similar contract this time around. Dupuis is coming off a three-year contract that paid him $1.4 million per year. Considering Dupuis is 32, I doubt he'd get a three-year offer from Shero, who rarely offers that kind of term to role players. I could see Dupuis coming back for two years with maybe a raise of a couple hundred grand.

A sixth name on the list is Nick Johnson, who spent the majority of the season in the AHL. I'd be surprised if he leaves the organization but he would likely receive a two-way deal.

Max Talbot could be the Penguin most likely to be elsewhere. In a Rob Scuderi situation, some team might offer him more money than he can afford to turn down. It shouldn't be a great deal; he made $1.05 million the last two seasons, and his biggest assets are his penalty killing and heart, so a gigantic raise shouldn't be expected. But as close as Pittsburgh is to the salary cap as it currently stands (CapGeek says the Penguins have just under $3.7 million available for next season, but of course, that number could raise by two or three million), too many players earning raises could price them out of town.

Chris Conner earned an NHL job this season and is the last of the UFAs. In fact, he might be the guy who possibly pushes Talbot or Dupuis out of Pittsburgh as a cheaper option. However, he did not kill penalties, and that could work against him.

The two RFAs are the intriguing ones. Dustin Jeffrey should return. His problem is he has actual ability to play the skill part of hockey, and management and the coaching staff frown upon that sort of thing. In any case, Jeffrey made a shade over $500K and shouldn't expect a big raise.

It's Tyler Kennedy who could move up a bracket. He clocked in at $725K the past two seasons and responded with a career-year this season. Since he's just an RFA, he won't have as much leverage but I'm sure he'll end up pulling in north of a million annually. The question is how much.

Money, term and salary cap aren't the only issues either when deciding who returns. Available jobs is just as key. Let's take a look at what Pittsburgh's lines would look like right now, with none of these 12 free agents re-signed:

Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-James Neal
Eric Tangradi-Evgeni Malkin-_________
Matt Cooke-Jordan Staal-________
______-Mark Letestu-_______

(And no, I didn't really like typing Cooke's name, but he's going to be given one last chance to clean up his act, whether I like it or not.)

Twelve pending free agents. Four open roster spots in the starting lineup, with room for a couple extra forwards, maybe. Pittsburgh has seven defensemen signed for next season with Simon Despres possibly ready to play in the NHL. That's quite a logjam and makes the decision-making very difficult. The Penguins should no longer need an "enforcer" given the emergence of defenseman Deryk Engelland's fighting ability, so no need to sign someone like Godard.

Now, maybe they decide Tangradi should play at least part of the season in the AHL. I do not wish this but the concussion he suffered set back his development at least a little. So his roster spot is not a certainty. That still wouldn't clear up room for everyone, so we're going to assume he's ready. His mere presence alone could improve that ghastly power play.

Kennedy and Jeffrey should return. Adams too. So that would leave Rupp, Talbot, Asham, Dupuis and Conner left for one starting spot and maybe two or three roster spots as healthy scratches/13th-14th forwards. Yikes.

(OK, insert, "Well, there will be one more spot available once Cooke gets suspended" joke here.)

The one thing that seems certain is some quality role players will be hitting the market on July 1. I don't envy Shero these decisions. And by the way, we haven't even talked about anyone he might want to pursue from other teams.

Part of me wants to see new blood in the lineup but also likes the possibility of some potential line combinations with this group. Of course, that's assuming Jeffrey gets a chance to play with good players.

To sum up, I'm glad I'm just spewing my baseless, meaningless opinion about this and don't have to actually make any decisions myself.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Grading the Penguins: Defense, goalies


Part One on grading the Penguins was on the forwards. Here's the rest of the roster.


Kris Letang: B-plus

His game fell through the floor over the last couple months of the season. Prior to that, he was under Norris Trophy consideration for his strong offensive and defensive play. Possibly overworked by season's end.

Brooks Orpik: B

Missed 19 games but still led the team with 194 hits. Second on league-best penalty kill unit in shorthanded ice time per game, third-best at blocking shots. Offense not part of his repertoire nor is it expected.

Zbynek Michalek: B-plus

Team's best shot blocker, first in shorthanded ice time per game. Offense took most of the season to show up before coming in at a decent clip. Slow start at both ends contributed to lower grade.

Paul Martin: B

Nearly as effective at blocking shots as Michalek, Martin also was very positionally sound. Also got better as the season went along but did have some glaring gaffes late. (Not that he was alone.) Would like to see more offense from the team's highest-paid defenseman.

Ben Lovejoy: B-minus

In his first full professional season, Lovejoy admirably filled in as the No.5/6 defenseman. Split time with Deryk Engelland before taking on a full-time role after the Alex Goligoski trade. More offense to his game than defense.

Deryk Engelland: B

Established himself as one of the league's new heavyweights. Became another physical defenseman on a team lacking in that area. Surprisingly competent with the puck but knows his limitations and doesn't try to do too much. Shockingly did not get into the playoffs despite Pittsburgh being terrorized in front of the net.

Alex Goligoski: A

Still ended up leading the team in goals by a defenseman despite the mid-season trade to Dallas. Capable of a minus-5 or a four-point game any given night.

Matt Niskanen: C-minus

Once acquired for Goligoski, Niskanen began his tenure with some impressive work before suffering a decline. The playoffs were not kind to him.


Marc-Andre Fleury: A-minus
Brent Johnson: A

Fleury is downgraded for his woeful October. After that, he was probably one of the five best goalies in the NHL. He was easily the team MVP and an argument could be made of the league. Johnson is the ideal backup. He knows what it takes to win games consistently, having formerly been the No. 1 guy in St. Louis, and it was through his efforts that Pittsburgh survived October when Fleury struggled.

Overall, these units received higher grades than the forwards. That's not a surprise; once Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin went down, this team prevented goals a lot better than it did scoring them.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Grading the Penguins: The forwards


Everyone else seems to love doing this grading thing, so I figured I might as well give it a shot. This segment will be on the forwards. The defensemen and goalies will be in a later edition.


Sidney Crosby: A-plus

In his half-season, Crosby was on pace for his finest season ever in the NHL. It took several weeks, if not longer, before he was caught in the goals and points department. He finished 18th and 32nd in those categories (32 goals, 66 points.)

Evgeni Malkin: C-minus

Suffered through injuries but even prior to that, played at a subpar level yet was still fifth on the team with 37 points in 43 games. Does not always bring 100 percent effort. Was not helped by having a coat rack and a bar stool as his linemates.

Jordan Staal: C-plus

Missed training camp and the first half of the year. Came back on Jan. 1 only to immediately be thrust into "the guy" role. Finished with decent offensive numbers (11 goals, 30 points in 42 games) considering the circumstances. Continued his strong defensive play but disappeared in the playoffs. Must improve faceoff percentage.

Max Talbot: B

A key cog of the league's top penalty killing unit. Energy player who has been described as the "heartbeat of the team." Provides modest offensive numbers at best, but his goal scoring was down slightly from the norm. Good rebound from last season, however, which was interrupted by injury.

Mark Letestu: B

Fared admirably with limited ice time, notching 14 goals (sixth on the team) and 27 points. Was thrust into the No. 1 center role because of injuries and was in over his head. Promising future nonetheless.

Mike Rupp: C-plus

Never one for putting up big numbers, Rupp came close to matching his career-highs set a year ago when he scored 13 goals and 19 points. Had nine and 17 this year playing primarily on the effective fourth line. Has a tendency of taking poor penalties or getting burned defensively.


Chris Kunitz: B

Struggled to stay healthy for the second straight season but topped Penguins forwards not named Crosby with 23 goals and 25 assists. His placement on a top line is debatable but he again provided strong forechecking abilities to create space for his teammates. Proved capable on the power play in front of the net but disappeared in the playoffs again (10 goals in 78 career playoff games.)

Pascal Dupuis: B

Definitely not an ideal top-line winger but has some chemistry with Crosby. Was one goal shy of matching last year's numbers (18-20-38 last year, 17-20-37 this year), which is kind of impressive since he wasn't alongside Crosby for half the season. Excellent penalty killer netted four shorthanded goals.

Tyler Kennedy: A-minus

Smallish, gritty winger ended up being Pittsburgh's biggest offensive threat. Enjoyed a breakthrough year with 21 goals and 45 points (topping career-bests of 15 and 35.) Pretty much the lone Penguin who's going to look to shoot first rather than pass. Management might've been split 50-50 on keeping him (he's a restricted free agent) but certainly played his way to a new deal, if not a bigger role in the offense after stepping up his play late in the season (14 goals, 23 points over the last three months.) Seven power play goals tied for second on the team.

Matt Cooke: D-minus

Massively downgraded because, well, you know. His forechecking - when it's clean - and penalty killing abilities saved him from an F. Pittsburgh very much missed him in the playoffs.

Craig Adams: A

Tough one to grade, but you know what you're getting from Adams and he's graded in that niche. Effective fourth-liner, very good penalty killer. (I know I say that a lot, but Pittsburgh didn't lead the league in PK% for no reason.)

Arron Asham: B-minus

Performance in the playoffs improved his grade. Appeared in only 44 regular-season games partly because of injuries and was not all that effective except in spurts.

Chris Conner: B-minus

Played bigger than his size (listed at 5-8, 180) and often won battles against larger players (which is basically everyone in the league.) Provided plenty of energy and speed but not enough offense to justify keeping him in the lineup come playoff time.

Alex Kovalev: F

Re-acquiring him was a low-risk, high-reward gamble that didn't work out. At all.

James Neal: D

Hate to give that low a grade but I have no choice. The talent he possesses is obvious. He can create space, he has a good shot. But the "he just needs a good center" excuse could last only so long. Missed far too many golden opportunities and didn't score at nearly a high enough pace.

Dustin Jeffrey: B

Playing crap minutes, with crap linemates, Jeffrey flourished about as much as he could. Was often mis-used, then a knee injury ended his season.

Eric Tangradi: Incomplete

Spent most of the season in the AHL and part of it with a concussion after Trevor Gillies' cheap shot. His development suffered as a result, but he was cited as the key reason Pittsburgh scored its one postseason power play goal. Just about as mis-used as Jeffrey.

Mike Comrie: Incomplete

Injured in the second game of the season. It affected him until it became bad enough that he had surgery that kept him out of the lineup for months. Once healthy, Bylsma refused to play him. When he did, it was in the wrong kind of role.

Eric Godard: C-minus
Brett Sterling: B-minus
Nick Johnson: B-minus

Godard became expendable and suited up for just 19 games but did fight more than he did last year. Sterling and Johnson were injury replacements who fared adequately and should receive consideration for future employment.

That's a lot of names, but the Penguins went through a lot of forwards. I didn't even include some who played a handful of games. In a later post, the defense and goalies.

Myths busted: A Penguins postmortem


I'm a big fan of the Discovery Channel show Mythbusters, and not just because of the scorching hot Kari Byron, who is at least 10 times hotter now that she's pumped out her kid. The Pittsburgh Penguins could star in an episode of Mythbusters, and not in a good way.

For instance, there is a myth the Penguins are a high-scoring team. They're not. There's a myth that Jordan Staal can be a No. 1 or 2 center on any other team. He can't.

At best, those two myths would get "plausible" ratings by Jamie and Adam. And that's only if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are healthy.

Those two players were not healthy this postseason. That led to a glaring and elephant-in-the-room type weakness that the Penguins cannot score consistently without those two. Pittsburgh did a very admirable job in playing as well as it did in the second half of the season without their two guns (I could call them their two big guns, but that implies the Penguins have small guns when in fact there is a lack of firepower elsewhere.)

I made repeated jokes on Facebook and Twitter that the shootout was "helping the offensively-challenged Penguins win games since 2005." I posted the numbers in a previous post, and I'll go ahead and repeat them here: Pittsburgh won seven of its 10 shootout wins after Crosby and Malkin left the lineup. Seven out of 23 wins, compared to three shootout wins out of 26 overall pre-Crosby concussion.

Staal did virtually nothing to help the Penguins win their first-round playoff series. At least not offensively. He had one goal - albeit a semi-big one that tied Game 6 at 2-2 early in the third period - but that was it. He's a shutdown center who's capable of 20-some goals a season, but it now seems folly to expect anything greater from him.

The rest of the lineup, is, frankly, a joke. This is a problem, I believe, with the philosophies of general manager Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma. I drunkenly ranted about this the other day but it bears repeating. Shero and Bylsma, rather than look for skilled players regardless of their defensive or forechecking abilities, would rather "make their team tough to play against" by adding forecheckers. Grinders, muckers. If you don't forecheck and play ferocious defense, you don't play.

After two consecutive failed postseasons in which goal scoring - finishing - was a significant issue, that strategy now seems flawed. It's one thing to win that way when Crosby, Malkin and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury are performing at all-world levels as they did in 2009 (or to a lesser extent, in 2008.) But if any of the trio struggle - as two of them did in 2010 - or are injured - as in this year - then the Penguins will be hard-pressed to make any kind of noise in the playoffs. Their ceiling will be one series victory a year, at best two.

Simply put, this team doesn't have enough talent, nor enough depth.

Sometimes there are options available. Bylsma stubbornly refused to make any lineup changes after Game 5 or Game 6, despite a power play that was one for 30 heading into Game 7. He left Eric Tangradi in the press box. Ditto Mike Comrie. Tangradi's presence was a key factor in Pittsburgh's sole power play goal of the postseason. Comrie was the only healthy Penguin with even one 30-goal season under his belt, let alone multiple.

I assume all voting for individual awards such as the Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year are concluded before the start of the postseason. That's a good thing, because as good a job as Bylsma did in the regular season - leading the Penguins to their second-highest point total ever, nearly winning the division title despite playing half a season without Staal, then the second half without Malkin and Crosby - he seemed to do just as poor a job in the postseason. His bullheadedness with sticking with "his type of guys" and ignoring players who actually have some semblance of skill was just as big a factor in the Penguins blowing a 3-1 series lead for just the second time in team history.

I'd be remiss if I didn't expound upon the job Bylsma did. The Penguins tremendously overachieved in the second half. Earning home-ice advantage - not that it did any good - missing as many man-games as they did, and who they did (some teams lost more games, but none were nearly as significant as a Hart Trophy winner and a Conn Smythe winner) was a fabulous achievement. And it was a sweet ride.

Once the playoffs began, however, Pittsburgh's sheer lack of skill came to the forefront in a very negative way. The Penguins didn't once score more than three goals in a game against Tampa Bay in seven tries. They were held to two goals over the last two games, including the deciding shutout in Game 7.

The Penguins have a great number of free agents in the offseason. Some should be retained. Most of them are those third- and fourth-line grinders who lack actual ability to create plays and/or score goals. Shero needs to face up to the fact that he needs to add talent and not just sandpaper.

The salary cap doesn't help Shero. There's an awful lot of money tied up in Crosby, Malkin and Staal. Plus the defense corps. Shero has shown quite a bit of creativity in the past and he's going to need to work his magic some more, because this team, as constituted, is not capable of long-term success.

Crosby and Malkin might not miss the postseason at the same time again. Or they could both be absent as soon as next year. There is no Plan C if that happens. That has to change.

The better team won the series between Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. The Lightning had many more stars and their role players out-did Pittsburgh's. Goalie Dwayne Roloson out-dueled Fleury, who was hung out to dry on numerous occasions either by porous, lazy defense or the inability to generate any kind of offense.

That will easily happen again unless Shero and Bylsma decide to go after playmakers and not just grinders.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Two Game Sevens, Two Different Feelings

by NiNY

Two games into the now-four game first round game seven docket, and we saw two very different games.

In the salad course game, Philadelphia crushed Buffalo, chasing Ryan Miller in the process. The game, for a game seven, was flat and relatively staid. This likely has a lot to do with the control the Flyers exerted over the Sabres.

The main course game, however, was a different story.

The seven games of hockey the Canucks and Blackhawks just treated us to constitutes a tremendous series. This one had it all. The rise and fall of heros. Villainy. Intrigue. Heartbreak. Hell, this series brought an entire city of human beings right up to the precipice of mass suicide. And game seven was a perfect microcosm of that whole thing.

Luongo, so maligned over the last week, stepped up and had a very strong game. It certainly helped that his defense kept the Blackhawks at bay for most of the game. And, his detractors will point to the tying goal as further proof that he can't come up big in the big moments. But the fact is that he won the game and, more importantly, he corrected many of the issues in evidence over the preceding three games (limiting rebounds, staying on his feet longer, etc.)

The Canucks showed little regard for class after the game, in some comments from some of their players. But, A) Canucks and B) I suppose, when one blows a 3-0 lead and squeaks by with the smallest of margins, one has to do what one can to restore one's dignity, if not swagger.

In the final analysis, this was a heavyweight matchup. I frankly can't see any other potential series in the West being as good - though I'll be happy to be proven wrong on that - if my heart can handle it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Time for a change


(Warning: Profanity-laced tirade, possibly fueled by a case of Yuengling, incoming.)

I'm not going to call for the heads of Penguins general manager Ray Shero or head coach Dan Bylsma, but it's time for them to start rethinking how they build a hockey team.

Basically, this is what they need to do: Add skill, in Shero's case. Play skill, in Bylsma's case.

The Penguins are on the verge of blowing a 3-1 series lead (anyone who thinks Pittsburgh wins its series with Tampa Bay is delusional) and there are a variety of reasons why. What it comes down to is this team simply has no idea how to score a fucking goal.

Yeah, whatever. I know all-world talents Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin aren't in the lineup. They were in the lineup last year too when the team couldn't score, and it's because their supporting cast sucks donkey ass.

Yeah, whatever. I know they won the Stanley Cup in 2009 with a similar cast. That cast was actually better than the shit out on the ice right now.

Injuries happen. Who knows, Pittsburgh might not have Crosby and Malkin in the lineup should the Penguins somehow reach the playoffs next year. Got to have someone else who can at least be mildly competent in the offensive zone instead of just grind, and cycle, over, and over, and over, until you lose possession and the other team clears the zone. It's real tough to win games when you have all your offensive eggs in two players. During the regular season it's doable with the shootout but not in the playoffs.

Bylsma doesn't like to play certain players because, apparently, they're not "gritty" enough. They don't play the body enough, or some such bullshit like that. Fuck that. You don't win a game by out-hitting your fucking opponent. You do it by scoring more goals.

Hey, I like Pascal Dupuis. I like Max Talbot. Chris Conner's a nice little lightning bug with a great work ethic.

But for fuck's sake, if they're the ones carrying the offense, we're fucked. And look, a Game 7 that I doubt anyone in Pittsburgh expects a positive result from.

If they don't grind, they don't play. What the fuck kind of thinking is that? When the power play is 1 for a million, and has been shit for several years now, why don't you try and instill more offense in the fucking lineup instead of adding yet another fourth-line shithead to the roster?

You're telling me Alex Tanguay couldn't have been had? Kris Versteeg was what, too expensive in a trade? Ray Whitney had less value than Mike Rupp?

Whatever. At least I have only one more playoff game to pay for this season.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Thursday running commentary

OK, I'll hold a chat this evening to talk/make wisecracks about tonight's NHL playoff action, which features two Game 4s (Montreal-Boston and San Jose-Los Angeles) and one Game 5 (Vancouver-Chicago.) Join in if you wish, or just read the archive later to get a taste of things I say on Twitter. It goes down around 6:45 ET p.m. Hopefully I remember how to run the thing, because it's been a while.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Two sides to every coin


Raffi Torres zero, Bobby Ryan two games, Jarret Stoll, Chris Kunitz and Steve Downie one game each.

That's the recent list of players who appeared to commit violations that required the NHL clown unit disciplinary committee to make its presence known during the Stanley Cup playoffs. By many accounts, Torres' hit on Brent Seabrook - who will miss tonight's Game 4 as a result - was technically legal. By many other accounts, even some of the same, Torres should've been suspended anyway.

The other penalties I personally can live with, though Downie's douchery in the past should've cost him more. At the same time, I'm kind of thankful Kunitz received only one game. I don't recall if Kunitz was ever suspended as a Duck but he's had no run-ins with the NHL's clowns higher-ups as a Penguin. His hit was Matt Cooke-esque and while Kunitz is a fierce, big hitter, he never crosses the line. I can only think that since he's been filling Cooke's role as linemate of Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy that the aura of Cooke possessed Kunitz.

Anyway. The league might or might not have gotten it right on each of these decisions. But isn't it about time to point the finger elsewhere?

I'm talking about Donald Fehr, the NHL players association, and, well, the players.

The NHLPA is not blameless here. The players themselves need to start taking the issue of player safety to heart. Start teaching respect for your fellow man.

If you see a player's numbers, don't hit him. If you see him involved, with his head down, with another player in a battle for the puck, don't try to kill him.

If you see a player coming at you, don't turn your back to him so you get creamed into the boards. Don't duck your head in high-traffic areas because you think that little action will help you get to a puck 15 feet away.

The league doesn't seem to be getting very much right when it comes to discipline but the players seem content with the actions of their peers. There remains confusion on certain issues - namely the Torres hit on Seabrook, which, if it didn't receive further discipline, it shouldn't have even been a penalty, should it? He either violated Rule 48 or he didn't. And if he did, he did it for the second time in a few weeks.

There isn't confusion on throwing elbows at opponents' heads. Don't do it. There shouldn't be confusion on launching yourself at an opponent's head with an elbow raised. Don't do it. Even the NFL is frowning on that kind of hit, and they want to make their players go through a longer, more grueling season.

We can't blame just the NHL any more for failing to mete out appropriate discipline. We need to start blaming the players too for not caring about the well-being of others. The PA needs to start cleaning up the game just as much as the league.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You don't want to be concussed, so stop trying to concuss everyone else.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Testing the waters

I'm pondering the idea of one or multiple nights during the playoffs, maybe starting Wednesday, of Cover it Live chats/running commentaries rather than clog my Twitter feed with them. If people are interested, I'll try to do that and people are free to join in.

A confession of sorts


At the risk of sounding like a spoiled fan - for I know there are a number of fan bases who'd love to trade places with me - I have to admit that I'm not really all that sure if I want the Penguins to advance past the first round of this year's playoffs.

It's not that I'm hoping they lose; I was thrilled after Game 1 and just as pissed off and dejected after Game 2. But I think I have legitimate reasons, justifications even, for as short a playoff run as possible. (As usual, the pocketbook is one.) Here are the rest.

First off, this team cannot win the Stanley Cup without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Nor am I sure they can win without Malkin in the lineup. Even with a healthy and effective Crosby, Pittsburgh becomes a one-line team that opponents will try their best to lock down.

Crosby's continued absence is the bigger reason I'm not anxious for extended spring games. I'm still not convinced - and I'm not sure anything can change my mind - that it's a good idea for Crosby to return to hockey this season. First, I'm a little concerned that for as long as he's been skating in non-contact practices, Crosby has yet to be cleared for contact. I'm trying to remember the timeline Brad Richards went through when he had a concussion and his was much quicker. Of course, everyone recovering from concussions is different.

I don't know if there's a valid comparison point just from skating in non-contact drills to being cleared for contact or not. Part of me wonders if the team is intentionally keeping Crosby out because management also thinks it's a bad idea for him to return, but they also don't want to rule out the hope of a return. Another part of me thinks the first part is as dumb as John Steigerwald.

Considering Crosby has missed over three months, I can't imagine who thinks it'd be a good idea to thrust him into the heat of a playoff series. The current one features noted philanthropist Steve Downie on the other side; a recently-concussed star plus Downie = baaaaad tidings. Anyone the Penguins could face in the second round is likely to be just as unfriendly (Alex Ovechkin, Mike Richards, Chris Pronger, Scott Hartnell, Hal Gill off the top of my head.)

The longer Pittsburgh lasts in the playoffs, the higher the chance of Crosby making a return. Four months rusty. In games where every little inch, every last effort can make or break the season. Being his team's sole source of offense. A target on his back anyway, and an even bigger one with his recent injury. All apologies to Jeremy Roenick, I do not believe teams will take it easy on Crosby. I think they'll go the opposite way and try and pop him in the head even more than normal.

I've said it before and I'll keep saying it. We saw what happened to Marc Savard when he returned to the playoffs against Philadelphia. If the Penguins advance, and that has become a big if, the Flyers are a likely opponent.

I love what the Penguins, under Jack Adams candidate Dan Bylsma, have done this season without their two big guns. But their current style of play is not actually conducive to winning in the playoffs. OK, they're playing great defense and that's how you win, but you have to score sometime. Pittsburgh led the NHL in shootout wins, tied with Los Angeles with 10. It had the third-fewest regulation/overtime wins among the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams. I'm too lazy to look up the numbers before and after Crosby left the lineup, but I'm betting they're even more startling.

(OK, I lied. Here they are: After Crosby's last game on Jan. 5, seven of Pittsburgh's 23 wins were in a shootout, compared to three of 26 wins with Crosby.)

So the Penguins have found ways to win. It's been fun. But at this point, I just want to play it safe with Crosby. I want to hit the Reset button and start anew next year. Get Crosby healthy. Get Malkin healthy. Teach James Neal how to find an open spot in the net. Try again next year.

And hope to hell that the West wins the Cup again, unless Montreal can pull off three miracles in a row.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Instant analysis


Here's a quick preview of storylines we can read about Thursday as Day 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs is officially in the books.

--Marc-Andre Fleury will never give up a goal.

--Neither will Roberto Luongo.

--Steven Stamkos is a playoff choke-artist who will never score.

--Alexander Semin will lead the league in game-winning goals.

--Mike Fisher (two goals, three points) will win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

--Games 3 and 4 of the Detroit-Phoenix series should really just be played in Winnipeg, since the Coyotes are three games away from being moved.

--King Henrik? More like Henry the jester.

--Who needs Sidney Crosby when you have Arron Asham?

--Patrick Kane wishes he had a dime for every shot he had that didn't go in.

--Phoenix just needs Paul Bissonette in the lineup. Or at least tweeting from the bench; that could distract the Red Wings.

--The Ducks will get nasty when they're losing. (Oh, wait, this happens all the time.)

--Corey Perry hopes the Hart Trophy balloting has been completed after posting a minus-3 in Game 1.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Wild Win, Fire Coach, Start Over Again

by NiNY

*UPDATE* Assistant coach Dave Barr and video coach PJ DeLuca also fired. And thank goodness. Clearly the video coach was the problem this season.

What a frustrating season.

And the effort the boys put forth in last night's finale crystalized my frustration. That was a great 3-zone effort. They played like that for a while, and got into playoff position as a result. But, whether too thin, too weak, not enough leadership, ill-coached, whatever, that train eventually stopped sailing and the wheels came off like nothing I'd ever seen from the Wild. So, last night served to remind us that they CAN play the way they need to in order to win games, they just, for whatever reason, didn't.

Now the introspection begins anew for the Wild.

With the announcement that Todd Richards has been fired as head coach this morning, it's time to start wondering things like "Were the last two seasons worth it?" And "Will this be a 'careful what you wish for', if Fletcher replaces Richards with a defense-first coach?"

Russo touched on this, and it's something I've kicked around a bit too, but there's an argument that these two years were going to be rough no matter who the coach was. Transitioning from such a specific system/mentality under Lemaire, and with the cupboards as bare as they were thanks to Risebrough, it's arguable that only Lemaire himself could have made the Wild competitive (read: screwed up their draft position just like he did for the Devils this season).

So, maybe this transitional period had to happen for the Wild to move on. And, if that's the case, then Richards was destined to be the scape goat. That's kind of a bummer for him, but coaches have a way of getting another kick at the can in the big leagues.

And, let's be honest: Richards was set up to fail this year. From Leipold, to Fletcher, to the players (Madden), the playoffs was set up as an expectation for this season for the Wild. Funny how, coming into a season, the legit playoff teams don't ever have to talk about making the playoffs as an expectation - it's just assumed that they're going to make the playoffs. You never hear Detroit saying, "I think we're a playoff team this year."

Here's what I said about hiring Richards back in June, 2009:

"I like this move. I like that it meshes with what Fletch has said he's looking for. I like that it allows him a bit of familiarity with the key person on his staff. I like that Richards will be a hungry, young coach. I like that, if anything, coaching "at home" will add more pressure to him, not less - I don't think he'll just be at Manny's every night letting people buy him drinks and stuff. I like all of those things.

Mostly I like that this was done now and not later. Because I think the team is ill-equipped to play this style and win games this season."

This is a league where 53.3% of the teams make the playoffs. Other than in meterology, name another industry where finishing in the 53rd percentile is "success". Simply making the playoffs shouldn't be an accomplishment for an NHL team. It should be an expectation....that you can finish better than 47% of the other teams. You'll know when the Wild's a good team when they don't have to talk about making the playoffs as an expectation for the season no mo.

So, we head into the off-season - hosting the draft in June - right back where we were, for all intents and purposes, when Lemaire walked away and Riser got the axe two seasons ago. We've got some kids (granted, some more and some better ones than we did two years ago) who we might give shots to next year. We've got a goalie and a decent defense corps. We've got a couple 2nd liners playing on the 1st line. And a bunch of 3rd and 4th liners playing on the 2nd through 4th lines.

We have one 9th overall pick and, at this point, a 10th overall pick to show for our failure to finish in the top 53% of the teams in the league the last two seasons. Oh, and that 9th overall pick got dinged for not-one-but-two concussions this season.

Ten years of mediocrity. Zero years of glory. Zero years of abject failure - the kind from which little green shoots (in the form of top two or three picks in the draft) emerge to give hope for the future.

Ten years of small runs of good play that are ultimately swamped by larger runs of ineffective play. Ten years of hoping this career third liner can thrive in hockey-mad Minnesota and become the 2nd liner he always hoped he'd be. Ten years of hoping for a Norris-winning season from a defenseman with shoddy defense skills that can carry a patchwork offense to that "two or three more wins" that means the difference between counting balls in the lottery and playing (however fleetingly) for Lord Stanley's Cup.

Ten years of being told we're the model franchise, the model fan base, the model rink. Ten years of having sunshine blown up our butt, while the league only tosses us the odd European game, draft and 'nationally-televised' game on Versus in terms of actual respect. Not that we've earned it.

Ten years of swatting away the "Minnesotans First!" crowd. Ten years of putting up with the false bonhomie of the "State of Hockey" shtick, which was basically methodone to keep us compliant during this protracted period of mediocrity.

When you look at it from the 30,000 foot view, it's really been a pretty unremarkable ten years for the Minnesota Wild.

And, yet, there is hope.

We might have to take a couple steps back to put ourselves in a position to realize that hope, but there is.

We've got an enviable core of 2nd and even 3rd liners. Yes, they're a little expensive, but shedding cap space wherever we can this summer is undeniably a good thing in any event. We've got a good goalie. Yes, he's a million bucks too expensive, but it is what it is, and that million bucks means he's our guy at least for a couple more seasons - so it's good that he's good. We've got a couple high-end offensive defenseman. Yes, one of them is the best trade bait we have so maybe he doesn't come back next season. I still believe we've got a good GM. We've got an owner who was willing to spend money on the team. Didn't get him a winner, but, hopefully that portends well for his expenditure approvals down the road.

And we are a good fan base. And we do have a great building.

So there's hope. Into each life a little rain must fall. Well, we've been floating around for our forty days and forty nights. It's always darkest right before dawn. Tomorrow's another day. Good things come to those who wait. Time will tell.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Poetic justice


Seems fitting, doesn't it?

As dreadful as Minnesota's season was - there was that brief flirtation with postseason play, then of course that catastrophic finish - the Wild players have at least something to hang their hats on. The former Minnesota team will be just as miserable.

I'm not gonna lie: I wish Dallas had won.

I wish a few things. I wish I could've gotten more production from a few Dallas players to win me a fantasy hockey title, and I hoped the game went to overtime. I wanted to see if the Stars would pull Kari Lehtonen for the entire five-minute frame. Also, for some reason, I don't like Chicago, so I would've liked to see the Blackhawks miss the playoffs. I don't even have a valid explanation for my dislike; they kept the Flyers from winning the Stanley Cup last year, that should get them a lifetime pass in my "like" column.

I think it's because of Eddie Olczyk and that goal song they play in Chicago, both of which I used to like.

Anyway, my big regret is the game not going to overtime. A possibly-little known rule is that if you pull your goalie in overtime during the regular season and you are scored against (except for a delayed penalty situation), you forfeit the point you gained.

In Dallas' case, that wouldn't have mattered. They had to win the game before the shootout. That actually almost would've been a better - or perhaps, bitter is the word - way for the Stars' season to end. A win but not the right kind of win.

I don't know if Minnesota fans are overjoyed at keeping their ex-team out of the playoffs with Sunday's 5-3 victory. It hardly removes the sting of finishing 13 points out of eighth (with it feeling like 33) but at this point in the year, teams that are out get to play spoiler.

It doesn't get much more spoiler-ish than what the Wild achieved Sunday.

(What I wanted most to happen was Jose Theodore to put the puck in his own net, then rip off his Wild sweater and reveal a Stars one underneath, like a reverse Mike Modano from a year ago. Alas, the hope was for naught.)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Credit Where It's Due

by NiNY

The boys sacked up last night. Big time.

Team records for PIMs all over the place. Stoner (stupidly) getting tossed seven seconds in for not having his fight strap fastened was only because Stoner grabbed his stones and fought Peckham seven seconds in, so I'm okay with that.

It was a complete reversal from the wuss-fest in Vancouver Thursday night, and hey...the Wild won. Go figure.

Well, they were playing the Oilers and beating the Oilers is what Minnesota does. But still...

Nice debut from Bagnall. Good grit, didn't crap on the ice. I'm not in love with Noreau yet. And he's getting big minutes in scoring situations (e.g. the power play). But who knows what this team will look like next year so I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I can actually scout, or that you want to read my scouting.

If that ends up being Theodore's last game as a Wild player, I thank him. He came in and did a great job this season in what had to be a major pride-swallowing situation. I hope he finds a situation where he can be a #1 next year.

Finale Sunday against the Stars. It would be nice to carry over this truculence to that game and show the Stars we're not just going to grab our ankles when we play them. Also, a beat down of Ribeiro would be awesome.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Shameful Wild Performance

by NiNY

In sports, I despise quitters.

We all know this season's over for the Wild. We all know it's been a demoralizing experience. We know it's over at least in large part because they're under-skilled relative to the legit teams in the conference and league.

And, to an extent, I can understand (which is not the same as saying I can accept) listless performances. I frankly didn't expect anything else last night in Vancouver. Vancouver is certainly one of those aforementioned legit teams.

But what I did expect was for the guys to continue to show some heart and some balls - for each other, if for nothing else - through the end of the season.

Heart and balls were nowhere to be found on the Wild side of the equation last night. And that is shameful.

Justin Falk, big defenseman, rookie, trying to break in on the team. I have major concerns about him now. Seems a little thin based on the one game, right? Not when that one game included his two utterly disgraceful acts of spinelessness. In a game where the Canucks were only playing for their fans, Bieksa - a defenseman - runs Backstrom (Canucks were leading 2-0 at this point and everyone knows that might as well have been 27-0 given where the Wild is right now) with Falk, all 6-5 of him, standing right there. Not even a blink of an eye.

That ought to have been the type of situation Falk was dreaming of. A chance to show you've got some balls, and are willing to stick up for your guys. Intead? Nada. Nathan.

That would have been bad enough. But when Hansen nailed Butch with, if not a dirty hit, at least one that put young Puddin' Head in danger, Falk was in a position to be a first responder and again, we saw nothing.

Presumably Falk is aware of Butch's recent struggles with the effects of post-concussion syndrome. You'd like to think Falk was feeling shame from completely wimping out earlier when Bax got run. So, his lack of reaction to Butch getting nailed (again, the score/situation itself ought to have rendered Hansen's hit on THAT particular Wild player egregious enough to draw an adverse reaction from the Wild) was simply inexcusable. Unless, of course, he doesn't WANT to show the team he deserves a legit chance at a roster spot.

Obviously, it wasn't only Falk who failed to step up last night. There were other guys on the ice with him and Backstrom and Bouchard during those respective incidents. And the rest of them are just as guilty of not showing up for their team mates.

And that's what's so shameful and telling here. This team has quit. They've quit on the season. They've quit on the coach. They've quit on the fans. They've quit on the owner who pays them. And, most shamefully, they've quit on each other. There's no "we band of brothers" in that room. I don't want to hear any bullshit rhetoric from anyone on that roster about "we have to prove to ourselves" or "we have to play for ourselves" or any of those other trite lines that teams at the end of losing seasons tend to pull out from this sorry collection of athletes.

Minnesotans will put up with a lot of mediocrity. It's what we do. In many ways, we celebrate that leniency amongst ourselves. "Pretty good" is good enough for Minnesotans, even though it's a qualifier for "good" which is something short of "great", much less "exemplary", in most people's minds.

But we put up with mediocrity from our sports teams because most of the time they can still make us proud with their effort and professionalism. The Twins try their little butts off most of the time. We all know they'll lose to the Yankees in the playoffs this year, if they make it. But they're still lovable at least in part because they effort so damn hard.

This Wild team has none of that.

We've taken their measure on the effort and professionalism scale, and found them all (individually and as a team) woefully lacking.

In sports, I despise quitters.

You can break a rule, earn a suspension, hit a guy late, spit on an ump, run around your house in a Nazi outfit and crash your Ferrari (as long as you don't crash it into another human being) and, as long as you play hard, you're still not as bad to me as a quitter. Those other things are bad. But quitting? That's inexcusable.

The '10-11 Minnesota Wild is inexcusable.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Most Valuable Leading Scorer


Did I miss something? When did it become a bylaw that whoever wins the NHL's Art Ross Trophy as leading scorer automatically takes home the Hart Memorial for most valuable player? Down Goes Brown joked about this about a week ago, but sadly it's not really a joke. It's reality.

Everyone and their mother seems to have penned in (not penciled) Daniel Sedin for league MVP, presumably because he leads the NHL in scoring. That's all well and good.

But the award isn't for the most outstanding player, or the leading scorer. Sedin is the clear-cut choice for those. The trophy goes to the "player adjudged most valuable to his team."

Remember when Daniel Sedin missed so much time a year ago? Vancouver finished with 103 points. They have 113 now and won the Presidents' Trophy for the first time ever, with the potential to finish with 117. Sedin was a critical part of that success.

But sorry, he's not the most valuable player in the entire NHL. Ever hear of Henrik Sedin? He has 92 points. Ryan Kesler? He has 37 goals. Alex Burrows? Twenty five. Roberto Luongo? He's going to set a career-high in lowest goals against average (2.14) and his save percentage (.927) will be his second-best.

Take Daniel out of the equation and I think the Canucks will still thrive. Not Presidents' Trophy winners, but they'll win the weak Northwest Division.

That's how the Hart Trophy - or, I guess as it should be known from now on, the Hart Ross - should be determined. What happens when you take someone off that team? It's not the best player on the best team.

Corey Perry's torrid pace (seven multi-goal and 10 multi-point games in the last 14 while Anaheim is fighting for a playoff spot) seems to be the only element keeping Daniel Sedin's name from the Hart Ross. Perry has nine more goals than Daniel (50 to 41) and is only three points back of him for the overall lead (100 to 97.) Perry will likely be the only NHLer to score 50 goals this season after three guys did it a year ago.

The detractors can and will argue - validly - that Perry has a strong supporting cast in Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne. Strangely, I don't hear them arguing the same about Daniel with the aforementioned trio. And by the way, Perry has 16 more goals than any other teammate and 19 more points. Daniel has four more goals than Kesler and eight more points than Henrik.

Perry has 11 game-winning goals, Daniel has 10.

There are worthy candidates other than Perry. For instance, why are goalies always shut out of this thing? Since the 1962-63 season, a goalie has been named MVP only three times. Dominik Hasek won it in back-to-back seasons ('96-97 and '97-98) and Jose Theodore won after the 2002 season. That's it, that's the list in the last 48 years.

I hear the "Goalies have the Vezina" argument, which is a load of garbage. Forwards have the Art Ross, the Maurice Richard and Selke trophies. If that's how we judge how good a player is, why even bother with an MVP award?

Four goalies should garner Hart Ross consideration: Marc-Andre Fleury, Tim Thomas, Carey Price and Pekka Rinne. I wrote about Fleury a couple weeks ago so I won't delve into him now. All I'll add about Fleury is the Penguins could go into the playoffs without a currently-healthy body who scored 25 goals or 50 points this season. Yet they might still win the Atlantic Division.

But here's something I want to know: Can you name any member of the Predators other than Shea Weber and Mike Fisher? (Fisher only because he made the headline "Nashville trades for Carrie Underwood's husband.") Nashville will qualify for the postseason - again - on the strength of Rinne, whose GAA (2.14) and save percentage (.929) are second in the league.

Nashville's leading scorer has 50 points (Martin Erat.) That's half Daniel's total. Sergei Kostitsyn paces the goal scorers with 22. That's less than half of Perry's total. Take Rinne out of Nashville's lineup and the Predators will not make the playoffs.

That's the definition of "most valuable."

Ditto Carey Price, who has carried Montreal into the postseason. Price has faced the second-most shots in the league and is top 10 in GAA and save percentage. Montreal's lineup is just about as offensively-starved as Nashville's. (Only Tomas Plekanec, with 56, has over 50 points and Brian Gionta's 26 goals leads the team.)

Instead, voters and fans just seem to want to take the easy way out and vote for whoever leads the best team in scoring. There was even talk of co-MVPs for both Sedins, which is the most absurd idea in the world. If there's a debate between two players on the same team for MVP, then clearly, neither one is "most" valuable. If you take one out of the lineup, there's still the other player.

If you want to talk the Ted Lindsay Award (formerly the Lester B. Pearson), that's one Sedin could easily win. That award is defined as "most outstanding player." It's not the "most valuable."

There's a difference between being outstanding and being more valuable than anyone else is. Daniel Sedin is arguably more outstanding than the rest of the league. He is not the single straw that stirs his team's drink.

That's how the Hart Trophy should be awarded, not just on who's at the top of the points list.