Before I get fully underway, I first want to apologize upfront for the title being slightly misleading. I want it to be clear, from this moment forward, that I am a big supporter of the “do whatever you have to in order to land Parise” line of thinking. Keep that in mind as I walk through this. The points are a little…scattered and can possibly be accompanied by someone making a farting noise. Just some thoughts I have on the matter. Take them for what you will.
Here we stand, on the eve of one of the great hockey holidays – free agency. Tomorrow at noon many players across the NHL will become unrestricted free agents and can gleefully sign with any team willing to grossly, grossly overpay for their “services.”
Of course, some teams have already started the holiday. Yes, I’m looking at you, Calgary Flames and Dennis Wideman.
The Penguins have their own free agents needing taken care of, but there is one name most associated with the Penguins and tomorrow’s potential frenzy: Zach Parise. I’ve written before about the Pens’ pursuit of Parise, and I feel that the Pens WILL sign him. The signing, however, comes with plenty of risks, but also plenty of rewards.
Many have said that the Pens should put all of their respective eggs into the basket of signing Ryan Suter. While I agree with those people insofar that Suter is a tremendous player, I don’t feel he is the “answer” the Pens are looking for. Granted, neither is Parise, but there isn’t one singular player that can “fix” the team. It is my belief that the Penguins, generally speaking, have the correct defensive personnel currently on the roster and within the system to achieve success. With Niskanen signing his two-year deal, the defensive depth is solid. Additionally, with the likes of Strait, Bortuzzo, and potentially Despres being ready for a major role with the team, there is no “need” spend ~7 million for one defender. Even less reason to do so when the team is so deeply stocked for the next decade with skilled, potential star defensemen.
That said, goal scoring was NOT the team’s weakness during this year’s playoffs. What ultimately lead to the Pens’ demise was a movement AWAY from defensive play. The 2012 Penguins went the route of the 2008 and 2009 Washington Capitals. All offense all the time. And, much like the Caps, the Pens went down in laughable fashion. The forwards stopped backchecking. The defense was constantly (and preoccupied with) moving north and pinching. The goaltending, while left hung out to dry regularly, was abysmal. It was a complete team failure on so many levels, and that doesn’t exclude the coaching and front office.
Tyler Kennedy. Tyler effing Kennedy. Be honest with yourself for a few minutes. Think to the start of the season. Raise your hand if you expected Tyler Kennedy to be one of the best offensive weapons down the stretch.
It’s OK. I’ll wait.
I know I didn’t expect much out of Kennedy beyond what we got used to seeing from him – solid, if unspectacular offense, no PK, no PP, and the occasional oddity in behavior, such as licking one’s stick. Previously Kennedy’s strongest year in goal scoring came in 2008-2009 when he netted 15 goals. He also produced 20 assists for 35 points with a +15 rating and 171 shots on net. Overall a pretty impressive stat line for a 3rd line player. He took a step down in production the following year, but so did the rest of the team, to be frank. 2010 saw him drop to 13G and 12A. Not nearly as impressive or as good as any had hoped, especially given he was playing with the same line mates.
And then 2011 happened. Let’s take a look at the year that was and what we can expect from Tyler Kennedy……….Kennedy
Tyler Kennedy, though actually a center, has been a mainstay as one of the Pens players on the right wing on the third line. We all like to make our jokes and comments about the wings and lack of depth therein, but Kennedy has been a fixture at the position for four years now and has his name etched on Lord Stanley’s fabled Cup. Kennedy has consistently played with Jordan Staal and Matt Cooke and the three combined to be a dangerous line, mixing grit, speed, and skill. Unfortunately, we got to see what Kennedy looked like on the top line this year. Even more disappointing, it wasn’t alongside Sidney Crosby, but instead alongside Staal…or Letestu..or Neal…or Kovalev. It was a weird year. I still feel like I need to sleep off that hangover.
When the rest of the team was shrinking (and I never thought I would say these words), Kennedy stepped up and put the team on his back. If not for TK, Fleury, and killer defense from Z, Martin, and Orpik the team doesn’t make playoffs. Haters gonna hate, but TK can high step his way to S&T Bank with Jerome Bettis and his new $2M contract per year for the next two years. Let’s take a look at 2011 from a statistical perspective.
In terms of actual play, Kennedy was one of the healthier players this season by appearing in 80 games and all seven playoff games. Equally, he was one of the best forces on offense (though his defensive coverage was a little lacking) by generating 45 points, which was good enough to rank him 4th overall on the team in point production. Likewise, Kennedy was third on the team in goal scoring, placing only behind Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz (Sid with 32 goals, Kunitz with 23, and Kennedy with 21).
It’s hard to deny that Kennedy became an offensive force this past season, but was it because of playing top-line minutes or was it because coach Bylsma pulled him aside for a length of time during an optional practice in which TK was the only player to dress and took the opportunity to coach him up a little? Maybe it was a little from both of those columns. Statistically, yes, Kennedy had his highest TOI average of his professional career, but it wasn’t a drastic change. In 2009 he averaged 13:46 in ice time, which dipped to 12:35 in 2010, but ticked up to 14:32 in 2011. Realistically, TK only played about one minute more per game than he previously was averaging (though, I admit, those numbers are slightly skewed because he played less with Sid and Geno in the line-up and more when those two were lost for the year).
Was the uptick in offense because of more ice time? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Was it because of Bylsma’s pep talk one day? Could be part of it. Was it playing with talent better than Cooke and Staal (even though he continued to play with Staal at times)? I would say that was largely the case. While I love Cookie and the Gronk, we aren’t exactly talking about world caliber playmakers and offensive juggernauts who need to be respected at all times when on the ice. When playing with guys like Neal or Kovalev or Letestu or Jeffrey, yes, Kennedy became a much more viable threat because he was no longer THE offensive threat on the line. Amazing what happens when the talent has been spread out a little.
234 shots, however, is an incredible number. The only player to shoot more than TK was Letang, and he only had two more shots on the season. More astonishing is that TK learned to take different and better shots instead of the attempts he was known for, almost all of which sailed ~4 feet wide of the cage OR went straight into the goaltender’s chest. He did still post 21 goals and have a shooting percentage of 9. We can joke all we want, but watch this again and thank your lucky stars that he signed at $2M, especially when compared to some of the other deals signed this year.
What can you say? The man learned how to score goals on the rush, cleaning up garbage, from unreal angles, and by getting in good positioning to accept passes for one-timers/making the goaltenders move. He also, in classic Penguins and Bylsma fashion, bangs bodies. Sweet baby Jesus does he go out there and bang bodies. I think we all remember seeing him on 24/7, too, being a vocal leader and trying to get the rest of the team ramped up and playing.
Bang bodies. Score goals. You want to know how important TK was? This video should raise a few red flags as to just how important he was:
“5 goals in 7 games.” “A power play goal.” Remember when we used to score goals on the PP? I know, you have to go back a while to see one of those. Oh, wait, whoops, he also scored the one and only PP goal the Pens scored in the playoffs. Like I said, we all like to make jokes about TK and there was lots of doubt surrounding him, but he was statistically one of the best players on the team, both in the regular season and the playoffs. TK was tied for 2nd on the team in PPGs with 7 (Kunitz also had 7, Sid, of course, had 10).
Why is it accepted that Chris Kunitz is a legitimate top-6 forward and deserving to play with Sid without question, but Kennedy’s season was a complete fluke? I don’t think it was purely coincidence that both Kennedy and Kunitz had oddly similar statistics. The only major difference was efficiency with shots. Kunitz was far more efficient with his shooting, but that’s also a product of the type of player. While I agree that Kunitz is a top-6 forward and is a perfect complement to Sid, I would love to see Kennedy get an extended look on Sid’s wing. We’ll never know unless we try.
Let’s take a look month-by-month at how TK stacked up.
October: 2G, 2A, 4P, +3, 0PPG
November: 2G, 4A, 6P, -3, 0PPG
December: 1G, 5A, 6P, +5, 0PPG
January: 2G, 4A, 6P, 0, 1PPG
February: 7G, 2A, 9P, -6, 4PPG
March: 5G, 5A, 10P, +3, 1PPG
April: 2G, 2A, 4P, -1, 1PPG
Clearly the loss of Sid and Geno allowed TK to step up, but that is evident when one looks at his role on the PP after both had been lost. Sid goes down in January and Geno was ailing, TK gets put on the PP and scores a goal. February? No Sid, lose Geno, TK scores 4 PPGs and scores 3 others. March? 4 goals even strength and another on the PP. Hell, he even managed a PP goal in April where there were only a few games. Maybe, just maybe, Tyler Kennedy was a missing piece on the power play for the last year or so. If nothing else he is what the PP is lacking – unadulterated greed. Kennedy takes shots like a bro at a party. He doesn’t pass up an opportunity to take a shot, something the PP has been severely lacking.
Games in which TK scored a PP goal the Pens went 5-2. Not a bad record. When a plus player, the Pens went 14-6. As a minus player, the team went 9-12. When neutral, the team’s record was 26-14. Combined as a plus or neutral player the Pens went 40-20. When the stars are plus players the team does well. Imagine that. Even when looking at individual teams and divisions, TK’s production was pretty evenly spread and equal throughout. He performed the best against the Atlantic division, but that is solely because of playing more games against those teams. For what it’s worth, his performance was actually disappointing vs Atlantic teams given how many more games were being played.
Tyler Kennedy had an absolutely unreal year in 2011, and I don’t feel it was by chance. Looking to next year, assuming Kennedy is given his opportunity to play with the stars and get some PP time, I think we can expect another great year from no. 48. My prediction for next season:
If ever there was a deadline pick-up that caused more elation, then frustration, then more elation, then abject hatred, then more (un)conditional love followed by even more anger and hostility than James “The Real Deal” Neal, I do not remember who this individual was or why we were so excited and then hate-filled.
I know I have said some unkind things about the general Pens’ fan base before. I don’t have a problem with bandwagon fans. I don’t have a problem with “new” fans because everyone has to start somewhere. I do, however, have a problem with ignorant and/or senseless fans. I’m not saying people should not get emotionally involved with the game and let their emotions sometimes get the best of them. If everyone watched the game from up on high and took themselves completely out of the game it wouldn’t be fun. Sometimes we say things in the heat of the moment or we make comments about a player because of one thing or another. James Neal has shown so many people need to be on mood stabilizers. In the span of 27 games Neal went from savior and to villain. I’ll be first to admit that, yes, he did need to put a few of his chances in the back of the net, but he was also one of the few players on the depleted roster generating offense and making the most what was being offered.
I, personally, was a fan of James Neal while he was coming up with Dallas. I never imagined the Pens would be able to peel him away from Dallas. I likened him to Jamie Benn in the Dallas organization and it would take a gross overpayment to get him out of there. Shero was able to get Neal and Niskanen for Alex Goligoski. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Goose and I thought he was unnecessarily shat upon by many fans, but I would make that trade every single day of the week. It was a good hockey trade, too, as Dallas was in desperate need for a puck-moving offensive D-man, and Pittsburgh was in need of legitimate top-6 forwards to play with those guys named Crosby and Malkin, once each got healthy.
And therein lies the rub. Neal wasn’t brought in to be the entire offense and to carry the team. He was brought in to play alongside one of the top line centers and make space, rush the net, bang bodies, and clear a path for the star players all the while keeping the opposing teams honest because he isn’t afraid to shoot and you disrespect his skill at your own peril. The argument has often been made that Staal could play top-line center for just about any team in the league. He was afforded, unfortunately, that opportunity for about 1/3 of the season this year, and while he had a productive year, he clearly was out-of-place. Neal-Staal-Kovalev was not exactly the line anyone had expected, nor was it the line one needed to worry about defending. Neal complements the center, Kovy played without any hustle, and Staal was the scoring threat on the line.
Maybe in NHL from EA Sports that line would put up unlimited goals and be a combined +28498, but in the real world the player styles are a little too different to make things work. Need I remind everyone, Mark Letestu was playing top line center minutes. That’s how messed up it was. Was Neal’s season with Pittsburgh simply a culmination of too many unkind variables? Maybe. Did people, on the whole, have unrealistic expectations about what he could bring in ~20 games? Absolutely. Neal came up playing with defensively minded and “safe” coaches in Dave Tippet and Marc Crawford. Moving to Bylsma’s style and system is a hard transition. I feel people lost sight of that fact. There are other variables, too, in the mix. Neal’s off-season training is with none other than Gary Roberts. I have my concerns that the training regimen is a little too harsh or too rigid. Steven Stamkos, too, trains under Roberts and both he and Neal had the same issues — fading down the stretch. The work rate is there, but the skill level drops off some from earlier in the season. May be from wearing down, may be from other things. Perhaps this is all just baseless conjecture, too.
With all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at the season by the numbers (outright, combined between Dallas and Pittsburgh)
We’ll start with the obvious stuff. Playing 79 games is no small feat, especially given the game Neal plays. If you need a reminder as to what that looks like, just watch this video a few times and then imagine what that will look like with Sidney Crosby and, potentially, Chris Kunitz. My God.
To bang bodies like he does and go to the dirty areas for goals, it takes a toll on one’s body. The upside to the Roberts School of Domination is that it does allow Neal to play that way and not become so overly worn down that he needs to take time off and that his body heals quickly. The downside, as mentioned above, is that constant pounding like that can have a long tail and maybe cause a drop off in pure skill plays.
Offensive production, too, is impressive, if a little skewed. 45 points in 79 games is about .6 points per game. Not bad production at all. 22 goals in 79 games puts him squarely in the mold of 1 goal every 3-4 games. Would like to see that tick up to the goal per 2-3 games, but I’ll take 20+ goals regularly. 23 assists is nothing to sneeze at, either. It should not be lost on anyone that his goal production AND assist production are nearly identical. He is scoring, but he’s also setting up the scoring.
Looking deeper into the goal scoring, and this is specifically dealing with his time with the Pens, he wasn’t as disappointing as people made him out to be, but it was a little bit of a letdown when only one goal is scored when he was able to do that 21 other times with Dallas. On a more positive note, in the two games (playoffs included) where Neal scores a goal, the Pens went 2-0.
After being acquired by the Pens, Neal was a minus player 7 of 20 games. In those 7 games, the Pens went 5-2. As a neutral player, the Pens went 3-5. As a plus player, the Pens went 4-1. No real discernible pattern emerges from looking at the trend line. Unlike a Michalek or even a Cooke, looking at +/- doesn’t hold any type of forecast for the Pens and probability of winning or losing outside of “when your top player is a + you typically win.” Simply put, Neal was a minus player 7 times and a neutral or plus player 13 times. Given how few goals the team was scoring once he was acquired, I would say that’s pretty solid two-way play for a guy not necessarily known for being a pure two-way player, like Jordan Staal.
What is mystifying about Neal is if you look at his entire season of production by month.
October: 5G, 5A, 10P, +6
November: 5G, 6A, 11P, +6
December: 3G, 5A, 8P, -1
January: 7G, 1A, 8P, 0+/-
February: 1G, 1A, 2P, -4
March: 1G, 4A, 5P, 0
April: 0G, 1A, 1P, 0
How a player can go from being an absolutely dominant force for the first four months and then become a snakebitten corpse in the point production is truly something to wonder. Is it possible that fatigue was setting in? I believe that was a contributing factor. Add in the fact that he was playing in a new system and playing with guys who were in way over their respective heads attempting to do more than they ever should have been expected to. It was a dangerous combination of things that all came to head and caused many shortsighted fans to call for Shero’s head because Neal didn’t score 30 goals in 20 games.
Additionally, none of the games this season were offensive blowouts to possibly skew the numbers. Neal only had one 3 point game all year (11/18 – DAL v SJS). All others were 2 or fewer points.
Also, for the record, Neal had an assist and was a +1 in the 5-2 romp vs the Penguins, when this memorable moment occurred:
Remember how Sid went on an unreal point scoring tear after that game? Oh, those were the days. It became even funnier that the Pens picked up Niskanen along with Neal to bring it all full circle.
There is no one team which Neal has dominated against, either. That is less of a concern as the majority of his games came against Western Conference teams the Pens will only see one or two times each year. He did, however, prove to be a shootout ace. I know everyone liked to make jokes about how he could only score goals in the shootout, but as long as regular season games are determined by a skill competition, I’ll gladly have him on the team. I had jokingly commented during the season that Neal needed to take a page from Ovechkin’s playbook and cherry pick past center read and wait for the home run passes from Michalek or Martin and just score on breakaways by pretending it’s a shoot out attempt.
Seriously, though, I’ll never forgot him making Brodeur look like a fool in this attempt:
As far as playoff performance went, well, I think we all remember the work that Neal put in each game. He didn’t have an atrocious game all series (the worst coming in the 8-2 loss, in which he was a -2 with only 1 shot on goal). In game 7, when all the chips were down, he did manage 6 shots on goal. It wasn’t for lack of trying or effort. Of course, we all remember game 4 of the series and the absolutely insane and prophetic talking of Paul Steigerwald and Bob Errey.
Another aspect of Neal’s game is the time spent in the penalty box, or, more appropriately, the lack of time spent in the penalty box. He racked up only 66 total minutes in penalties all year, 19 of which came in a single game vs. Edmonton. Throw out the game vs EDM and he had 47PIM in 78 games. That is impressive, given the totality of the game being played and the fact that he is solid defensively, too.
Ultimately, Neal is only in his 4th year in the NHL. He’s still an incredibly young, up and coming talent. He played with stars on the Stars and put up great numbers. He played with chumps and guys out of their element in Pittsburgh and put up not so great numbers. We could see what type of skill he had when the shoot out rolled around, but you can’t always count on playing to the SO each game. If one truly wants to evaluate whether Neal was an excellent pick-up, especially given the depth we had on D and how Goligoski became expendable, I suggest you wait until after he gets a full training camp in with the team. We can revisit his performance with the Pens once the All-star break rolls around next season. People have been willing to forgive players like Fleury and Letang for every misstep “because they are young and have a lot to learn.” The pendulum swings that way with Neal, too. He’s a young buck who, frankly, is playing better hockey than can be expected from such a young guy who has been part of a somewhat crummy organization since being drafted.
We won’t really know how the trade worked out until the end of next season. Neal getting to play with guys like Sid and Geno could be exactly what he needs to be a 30+ goal scorer and 60+ point getter. Or maybe he just doesn’t fit the Pens system (I disagree, I think he is the perfect definition of what it means to be a Pittsburgh Penguin) and we’ll go our separate ways. I expect a big year out of him, provided Sid and/or Geno are healthy.
Looking ahead, assuming the stars are playing and the situation is normal, I expect the following out of Neal
For good or bad, I feel the spotlight will be squarely on Mr. Neal this season. Let’s hope it is all for the good and we have the long-term solution and replacement for Kunitz on Sid’s wing (or we keep both Koon and Neal…my God…bodies will be banged, history will be made).