The Penguins Problem: Injuries

What in the name of sweet baby Jesus is wrong with the Penguins?

I’m not saying it to be a troll or being ironically detached from things. I’m saying it because I legitimately don’t know what is wrong with this team, nor do I know if there is any way to “fix” what ails them. There are a number of avenues to explore, and I don’t know if any are correct, let alone defining one as singularly accurate. This is my attempt to sort out my thoughts and get some things out there in the hopes that it generates some discussion. By all means, feel free to disagree with every single thing I say and give me an alternate argument. I am no Andy Sutton, I’m just going off what I can see and what I know from my own life experiences.

Injuries.

Yes, we’ve been down this road before. There is no “fix” for injuries. They are a part of sports, especially hockey. Unfortunately guys get hurt. It does appear that the Penguins have been hit extra hard by the injury bug over the last few seasons. Collectively, I feel, this is due to a few major factors, including, but not limited to: coach Bylsma’s grinding system, ineptitude of league offices/on-ice officials, and the sense of wild west justice in the NHL.

I do feel Bylsma’s system is more demanding, physically, on the players which puts them in more contact and breaks down the body a little quicker/harder. It isn’t a direct one-to-one comparison, though. Bylsma’s system results in more short-term injuries or needing a game or two off to rest. The Penguins have been dealing with major, profound injuries to important players (and some role players, too).

Sidney Crosby was hit twice in the head and missed nearly a full calendar year. Was under every microscope in the world and, as the face the of the NHL, (fairly or unfairly) needed to be protected a little bit. Returns to game action to all the fanfare deserving of someone of that caliber…and then gets clocked in the head by David Krecji’s elbow and Krecji doesn’t even get penalized. Sid goes back on the IR.

Kris Letang gets absolutely leveled by Max Pacioretty. There was no penalty on the play. Even by the most liberal interpretation, it was a violation of Rule 48. Letang returned to game action and scored the OT winner, but has since been on the shelf with concussion symptoms. Pacioretty was eventually suspended 3 games and then proceeded to go on TV and bitch and moan about “the way the wind is blowing” in the NHL. Apparently he doesn’t agree with the wind blowing in the direction of not hitting a guy who isn’t looking in the side of the head. Go figure. I wonder if he has an opinion on not letting up on a hit in/around the stanchions?

Robert Bortuzzo, much like Letang, was hit in the head by a renowned sack of monkey shit, Zac Rinaldo, and there was neither a penalty on the play NOR supplemental discipline from the all mighty office of Brendan Shanahan. Bortuzzo, thankfully, has finally recovered and been returned to Wilkes Barre-Scranton as of January 7, 2012.

I want you to remember, there were no penalties called on those hits. These are not the type of injuries that are the result of Dan Bylsma’s system. These injuries are the direct result of neither players nor officials policing the game. If ever you need an example of just how poorly managed the game can be, look at the Penguins-Islanders brawl from Feb. 11, 2011.

I completely understand that there will always be a human element to the game, especially when it comes to officiating. It’s an unenviable job. Much like the weatherman, you never really hear about what a great job a referee does. The negative is what one hears about. However, it has become so bad on a night-in-night-out basis with the on-ice officials that it truly has made me miss the days of Bill McCreary’s mustache. At least you knew what you would get with McCreary (let them play until late, then make yourself the center of attention by calling some bullshit). Is it so hard to err on the side of caution and call penalties on plays like those? If you keep penalizing the offending teams they will eventually stop doing it (or, at worst, those players will no longer get ice time).

Matt Cooke was vilified, justifiably, for playing recklessly and putting his team at a disadvantage. He has since changed his playing style and has been hit in the head with cheapshots multiple times this season, all have gone unpunished.

The wild west system of justice the NHL has doesn’t work. If you hit a guy cheaply you had to answer the bell. Now? Well, it’s hard to say. You need to have guys on the roster who can play. You can’t have a Steve MacIntyre or Eric Godard on the ice regularly because they are a hockey abortion on skates. The role of the enforcer is gone. When Brian Burke has finally given up and demoted Colton Orr (not without wailing lamentations about truculence and the direction of the NHL) you know times have changed.

Now you have players of all levels running around and taking liberties with others because there is no accountability. There’s no way to tell what will or won’t be penalized. There’s even less idea about what hits will and will not be reviewed and disciplined further. If I were a player I’d take every opportunity I got to weaken an opponent by taking out a star. Even if you do get penalized, the notion of a “make up call” and ebb-and-flow officiating effectively renders penalties non-deterrents. Brendan Shanahan was given the keys to the castle and given a mandate to clean up the league and put his foot down. He may, in a sense, actually be worse than Colin Campbell. At least we all knew Colin was completely incompetent and had his wheel of justice. We have no idea what to make of Shanhan. Make a stink about a hit on TSN and he might look at it. Play in a non-traditional market or employ a demon like Cooke and it’s apparently free rein on cheapshots against you.

If you can’t protect your own players/teammates with a tough guy you need to be able to count on the league holding psychos accountable. The league is not doing their job.

As it stands now, I fully support Donald Fehr and support a work stoppage if it means the NHL gets serious about player safety and subsequent discipline for violations. These are not the injuries that occur because of Dan Bylsma’s system. These are the injuries that occur because of the systemic failure of the league to protect its most valuable assets: the players.

With the injuries have come numerous other problems. The injuries can be overcome by replacing players. Sure, there’s no true way to replace a Crosby or a Letang, but when you have Malkin and young studs like Simon Despres (who can fill in and get some invaluable NHL experience) you can maintain. What you cannot do, and I fear this is what is happening to the Pens, is allow the seeds of doubt and inevitability to germinate in the brain. From what some of the players have been saying over the past few weeks, I am deeply concerned this is a team that has given up on themselves. Starting with the Flyers (three games ago) the Pens have looked like a team completely incapable of competing, let alone winning. They looked like a competent team for the first 10 minutes against the Rangers and then fell apart.

After Deryk Engelland was suspended for his hit on Chicago’s Marcus Kruger (a dirty hit, but no less of a hit than what Niklas Kronwall does nightly) Brooks Orpik was asked about his opinion on the NHL’s discipline. His response: “I think we have strong opinions, but they aren’t going to change the suspension.” While Orpik may not have an objective opinion of things, he also carries weight with the team and often speaks the truth when none other will.

Likewise, Matt Niskanen had the most telling quote after the Pens 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. When asked about the injuries that keep happening (in this case, Pascal Dupuis and Arron Asham), Niskanen replied “I can honestly say that I’m not surprised. That’s the way it’s been going. We’ve just had some really, really bad luck.”

If ever there were two quotes you didn’t want to hear, those would them. Those are the thoughts of a team that is up against the wall and admitting defeat. They are morphing into a “can’t win, don’t try” mentality.

Last season’s team was ravaged by injuries, even worse than this current team, and the 2011 Penguins would annihilate the 2012 Penguins if they played one another. Last season the team lacked skill, but they stayed in games with pure determination and will. This squad? They look disinterested and demoralized. They look like a team that knows they’re outmatched. Last year’s squad knew they were outmatched but refused to let up. This squad routinely takes a period (or more) off each game.

But how do you fix it? Do you change coaches? No. This isn’t entirely a coaching problem. Bylsma has them playing and then something happens and they quit. Do you make a blockbuster trade? Maybe, but there’s no promise that works and you may end up doing more harm than good. Do you bench players or make a stink in the press? Possibly, but then you come across as petulant and the agenda-driven NHL will ensure you never are the benefit of the doubt regarding penalties and player safety.

I’m no Andy Sutton, but I don’t see a fix for this, and certainly not an easy fix. This team has not been able to compete with top-tier teams this season and there’s no reason for it. Yes, they were decimated on defense by injuries, but that doesn’t excuse only being able to generate 4 goals combined in the last three games.

Malkin and Neal have been playing their collective balls off. Kunitz, too. These are top line players. Having them play 1st line minutes is not having them play above their level. Pascal Dupuis has been the surprise of the season and has been filling in admirably. Jordan Staal, too, has been having a phenomenal offensive year. Kennedy has missed time with injury, but is generating chances. Steve Sullivan has been relegated to 3rd line duty, but is still a heads-up type player. Joe Vitale has never, ever quit on a shift. Neither has Adams or Cooke.

This is not a popgun offense, but it sure looks like one.

Can you really point the finger entirely at Letang missing time? I agree that he may be the most valuable player on the team (who does not get the proper recognition he deserves), but can we really make that case? The Pens generate offense from the defense and with the defense in complete shambles…perhaps.

These are dark times. No idea how this team can ring up 8 against Buffalo, 3 against the Blackhawks, 4 against the Jets, and 4 against the Hurricanes…and then 2 against the Flyers, 1 against the Devils and 1 against the Rangers.

There is no fix to a problem that cannot be identified. And there certainly isn’t a fix to a mental problem.

Pens Preview: Sidney Crosby

It’s been a while since one of these got churned out. What can I say? Life happened and these take time. It doesn’t excuse it, but it does provide at least a little perspective.

Given the layoff and the change in life style and progress that’s been made, I thought it only fitting to take a look at the season, and what can be expected, of the face of the NHL, Sidney Crosby.

 

Seen here, something that 29 other teams wish they had. Oh, and the Stanley Cup.

 

Getting the first items out of the way – The Steckel hit in the Winter Classic and the Hedman boarding. The Steckel hit has been examined nearly as much as the Zapruder film and has been debated about as much. Personal opinion? I think Steckel intended harm and the hit was intentional. I don’t think Steckel intended to clock him in the jaw, nor get the ball rolling on what amounted to an incredibly difficult brain injury, but I do feel he intended to smack into him while he wasn’t looking and give him the proverbial business. What makes me say so? In large part, the culture of the Capitals, from the owner on down. Ted Leonsis, Bruce “Fuckin’ want it” Boudreau, and just about every player has had an uncontrollable, and sometimes disturbing, fascination with all things Pittsburgh Penguins. Think of all the commercials where a stuffed penguin has been hung by a rope, or the “they’ve [Pittsburgh] got theirs” comments from the owner, Mr. Leonsis, about winning a Stanley Cup. Re-watch “24/7” and see how often coach Boudreau mentions the Pens. More specifically, look at how focused he and the team became on the Penguins during the two teams respective winning and losing streaks. The obsession over the Penguins has gone beyond normal sports rivalry. It became something bigger, something more important to Washington.

Do I feel Steckel is a bad guy who intended to end Crosby’s season? No. I do take Steckel at his post-Washington word and that he never intended to hurt Sid the way he did. I do not, however, believe it was just pure accident or coincidence. Steckel did not need to hit him at all. The play was done and the puck was away from both of them. Steckel was the body in motion pursuing the puck. Sid, however, needed to not spend as much time watching the puck and instead focus on his surroundings. Steckel could have completely avoided contact with Sid. He should have avoided contact. It wasn’t “finishing his check” or even “making a hockey play.” Steckel hit him because he could. He hit him because of the constant barrage and mindset in the Caps’ locker room that Pittsburgh must end. He hit him because he was given a juicy opportunity knowing that he would not have to answer the bell (more on this another time). He hit him because he knew he could and there would be no punishment. He hit him because he could.

We can watch it ten thousand times more. It happened. Nothing we could do about it then or now. It took until Feb. 6, over a month later, for Steckel to have to answer for the hit. And he didn’t even have to answer to Eric Godard or Jesse Boulerice or even Mike Rupp. Hell, he didn’t even have to answer to Chris Kunitz. Tim Wallace was the only player willing to throw down with Steckel. Need I remind you, Wallace wasn’t part of the team at the Winter Classic. He was busy being the Alaskan Crab in Wilkes-Barre. We’ll also note that was his first game up with the big club last season. Sadly, and it had been a disturbing trend, the Penguins were a gutless team without any heart in regards to taking care of the stars. For as gritty as they were and unwilling to quit in games, they allowed the stars to take cheap shot after cheap shot and never do anything about it. Absolute psychos like Steve Downie were effectively allowed to run roughshod over guys like Sid unchecked. The only time I remember a teammate sticking up for Sid (or Geno or Staal) was Kunitz coming after the guy who was cheap-shotting Sid (I believe that was the game in early December). And then the Alaskan Crab takes on Steckel. Bunch of gutless cowards.

Then, of course, the Hedman hit.

While a stupid play, it looked far less “damaging” than the Steckel hit. Of course, having those two hits in consecutive games will cause some serious injuries and prolonged down time. I’m not even going to get into the same level of detail about Hedman’s hit. It was a bad hit that never should have happened and he knew it. But, much like Steckel, I think part of why teams and players are willing to take the chance of laying a hit like that is because they never have to pay for it. Hedman didn’t have to fight over it. Hell, he didn’t even get the finger pointed at him by most because he’s an otherwise clean player.

Steckel and Hedman both hit the face of the NHL in the head and finished his season (now spilling into a 2nd season) and nothing was done about it. Instead we continued to see more and more hits to the head as the season progressed. Raffi Torres took out Brent Seabrook in the playoffs and nothing was done about it because it was “in a hitting zone.” This hit was made acceptable last year.

I’ve spoken, often at length, about how much of a black eye the 2010-2011 season was for the NHL. It was such a shameful display in no small part because of the work of people like Colin Campbell. The inconsistency and sometimes baffling discipline, or lack thereof, made it acceptable to end someone’s season or potentially their career. Zdeno Chara was allowed to break Max Pacioretty’s neck without any repercussion (and that’s a whole different can of worms I’m not going to open now). I don’t even think I need to mention the events of February 11, 2011 and how insulting the “punishment” levied against the Islanders was to the rest of the hockey world. If there is a God that does in fact love us and look over us, He has given us Brendan Shanahan as league disciplinarian. Colin Campbell was like the old, vested, tenured teacher who couldn’t get fired and had no control over his class, but also didn’t care. God willing, Shanahan will continue to do what he has been doing this pre-season and bring a little law and order to the NHL.

But this isn’t all about how we lost Sid for the season or about how the NHL was a shameful disgrace to the hockey world this past season. This is about what Sid accomplished and what we can expect going forward. And there will be a “going forward.”

Sid’s stat line from last season:

41 GP, 32 G, 34 A, 66 P, +20, 31 PIM, 10 PPG, 9 PPA, 1 SHG, 3 GWG, 161 S, 19.9 S%, 21:55 TOI

I don’t think I need to say or point out how insane those numbers are. 32 goals in 41 games. 66 points in 41 games. A 25-game point streak. +20 rating. 10 PPG and 9 PPA. The man was scoring on every 5th shot he took. The closest we’ll ever get to that level of success is reliably being the guy with the lampshade on his head every 5 shots.

It got to a point with Sid where we, as fans, just didn’t know what to say, think, or do. The man left us speechless with his ability to do so much with so little (at times) on the ice as well as deal with the attention of the entire hockey world every time he did something. The weight of the world rests on his shoulders and he handles it better than most of us do with less responsibility. Every time we thought “well, we’ve seen it all from him. There’s nothing more for Sid to do” he would step his game up and take it to a whole new level and do something to leave us all dumbfounded.

Looking a little closer at the stats, though, doesn’t really show anything that many of us didn’t already know. There were only two teams that kept Sid off the score sheet this season. Dallas and St. Louis did what no other team was capable. Dallas, however, still got Sid on the highlight films.

That had to be a funny reunion when Niskanen was brought in at the trade deadline with James Neal.

It didn’t matter who the opponent was. Sid found a way to get on the board against them. Maybe not every game, but the opposition just couldn’t keep him at bay forever. He was, however, a minus player overall against 7 teams. The Bruins, Stars, Canadiens, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers, and the Blues were all teams against which Sid was a minus player. It does seem a little strange that 3 of the 7 teams are Atlantic division foes. I will admit I find it a little troubling, especially given the goaltending…question marks that were the Islanders, who also brought an end to Sid’s point streak, and the Flyers.

With Sid in the line-up, the Pens went 26-15. Within those numbers, in wins Sid had 27 goals and 25 assists. Let me restate that. In 26 victories, Sid had 27 goals and 25 assists for 52 points. In victory, Sid was good for an average of 2 points. In losses, Sid was held to 5 goals and 9 assists, 14 total points. Obviously far lower, but even in losses Sid was just under 1 point per loss.

My God.

Home or away, Sid was an effective player. In 22 home games he was good for 19G and 19A. In 19 away games Sid was able to put up 13G and 15A. It didn’t matter when or where, he always came to play. As we were told this Summer, Sid is a Ferrari.

The man was able to nearly match entire seasons of goal scoring in half of a season. He was on pace for a 60 goal, 125 point season.

And then Steckel happened. Since then, it has been a roller coaster of emotion. Watching the team without Sid…then without Geno…then without Kunitz…and Tangradi…and Dustin Jeffrey…and Asham…and Nick Johnson…and Cooke…and so on and so on. But we watched. We watched. We watched. And we hoped. We hoped to hear that Sid was doing better. We hoped to hear that he was resuming practice. And it didn’t happen, at least not right away. Time marched on and more players were getting hurt and there was nothing new to report. Sid was still on the shelf and would resume practice when the doctors gave him the OK.

Then he started skating. And we rejoiced. And he skated harder and did more. And we hoped.

Then he demolished the water bottle. And we knew he’d be back for the playoffs. We just knew it.

Then the symptoms returned and he shut down again.

And the season ended. The off-season was here. And we didn’t know. We started to get desperate for news. Journalists were writing all types of reports, utilizing those “sources” they had on the inside. There were reports that Sid was going to retire. There were reports of a brain tumor. There were reports that he wanted traded out of Pittsburgh. Every report imaginable was tossed about regarding Sid’s well-being and future career. As the speculation became more and more wild it became apparent that Sid, his doctors, ownership, and management would need to say something.

And then the day came. Sid was addressing the media. Sid’s doctors were giving us the honest look at how things stood. Sadly the press conference (and deservedly so) was overshadowed by the awful tragedy in Russia (personal aside: I was driving from Pittsburgh to Fayetteville, NC that day moving down for my new job…it was surreal to listen to everything unfold on NHL Home Ice – big time respect to the NHL Home Ice radio crew for being professional but deeply emotional all day with all that happened). But we knew where Sid was in his progression. We got to hear about what he went through. We got to hear about the training and work the doctors put him through to basically re-learn spatial understanding.

Sid has been through Hell. Absolute Hell. And all the while he’s had to deal with people dogging him about timelines and retirement and so on. He’s had to deal with people telling him he was weak and needing to toughen up.The man went through Hell and has emerged with the old gleam in his eye.

The man is practicing. He’s going at 100%. The next step is getting him involved in contact drills.

Sidney Crosby will be back this season. You can count on that. When? Well, he’ll be back when it is safe for him to come back. And when he does return? Look out.

We’re all going to be nervous when he does return. That first big hit he takes will make us all cringe. The first time he scores a goal is going to cause babies to be born prematurely. It may also cause babies to be conceived.

Looking ahead, though, here is what I feel we can expect out of Sid (and, again, these numbers are not based on any formula other than gut instinct, which is to say they are based off smoke and mirrors and complete BS)

58GP, 41G, 65A, 106 P, +27, 37 PIM, 18 PPG, 12 PPA, 1SHG, 6 GWG, 206S, 19.9S%, 20:01 TOI, Conn Smythe winner, Stanley Cup champion

I am bullish on Sid coming back with an insane chip on his shoulder and bending the rest of the NHL over and giving it to them rough. Personal guess? I figure Sid will be back in the line-up around Thanksgiving, but I doubt later than Christmas. I think for precautionary and conditioning reason’s he’ll miss about 1/4-1/3 of the season.

Welcome back, Sid. We missed you.

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