So, here we are. We’ve all made it here. Where is “here,” exactly? That is both something easy and difficult to answer.
“Here” is nothing more than the second round of playoffs in the 2015-2016 season. The Penguins have made it through round one with, what some may call, remarkable ease. “Here” is waiting to find out if the next round will be against another rival – the Flyers or Capitals (as of this writing, the Caps-Flyers game had just begun. EDIT: It will be the Capitals).
“Here” is also a much more…amorphous term. “Here” represents a location or destination. Moving on in playoffs is not a unique sentiment or goal. Every team wants to make playoffs and then progress as far as possible. Getting “here,” however, is something different for this Penguins team. “Here” isn’t simply the 2nd round (or Conference championship or even the the Finals themselves). “Here” means the transformation of the Penguins into this team, this style of play, this everything.
To understand how the Penguins got “here,” we need to look at a journey they collectively took. For some of you, none of this will be new. Let’s take a trip back in time. Not to the distant past. Not to the explosion of the stars from which we were all created. Let’s take a trip back to the grand old days of 2010.
Maybe this is a shock to you, but…*psssst* The Penguins are not going to win the Stanley Cup this year. They never were going to. This season was lost years ago when the at-that-time management and coaching group continually drafted poorly (or not at all courtesy of trading away picks for rental players). Can’t continue to draft only one positional depth and waste those talents year after year and be a legitimate team year in, year out. They gambled and went all in on 2013 and Dan Bylsma and his “system” lost the gamble.
In one off-season and 2/3 of a played season, Jim Rutherford and his company have done A TON to wash out the stink of the Shero/DB years but it will take at least one more to get this to be Mike Johnston’s and Jim Rutherford’s team. Too many bad personnel on continuing contracts coming into this year. Just enjoy what we have – which is a Pens team that is, for the first time in years, fun to watch.
If by some miracle the Pens make it out of the 1st round, consider it a rousing victory. Anything beyond round 1 is gravy. GMJR has done a lot of great things – trading away Neal for a more reliable, less problematic goal scorer, bringing in Perron, getting Ehrhoff on the cheap for a year, giving Mike Johnston an opportunity in the NHL, etc. He addressed immediate needs at the draft AND addressed depth. Jim Rutherford did more FOR the Penguins in less than 1 calendar year than Ray Shero did in the last 5.
And, imagine that, not being a xenophobic assclown opens up the possibilities in terms of personnel. Amazing who you can find when you open yourself to the possibility that people with European sounding names might actually, you know, be capable players.
So, Ottawa, you have fun with Ray Shero when you inevitably hire him to replace Bryan Murray. Enjoy when he hires Dan Bylsma, too.
Is Mike Johnston perfect? No. No coach is. Babcock has his faults. Quennville makes boneheaded decisions. No coach is -perfect-. Because HCMJ has made some weird choices and mistakes does not magically make him a failure. He’s a rookie coach. He needs to learn, too. Hell, you bunch of goat pokers gave Dan Bylsma 5+ years to learn and defended him to the ends of the earth. Many of you still defend him.
Dan Bylsma was the exact perfect guy to come in AFTER the Therrien regime. He more-or-less allowed the players to play up to their abilities. 2010 was excusable – two deep Cup runs and Montreal caught lightning in a bottle. 2011 can be thrown out because of devastating injuries. 2012? That was probably the best Pens team headed into playoffs and that series vs Philly was lost ENTIRELY on the back of Dan Bylsma.
I know, the players need to play, but that was entirely a failure of leadership from the coaching staff to keep that team glued together. And, of course, we know what happened in 2013. The loss to Boston was truly, truly embarrassing. And we’re not even going to talk about how Iginla was used, the picks for Douglas Murray, and the absolute refusal to try anything at all different against the Bruins.
Last year was, to the surprise of nobody who had been paying attention, another laughable failure. Shero’s abject REFUSAL to fire DB was his undoing. He had to prove, above all else, that Ray Shero was right. Just as Dan Bylsma was more concerned with proving that Dan Bylsma was right. It was no longer about what’s right for the team. It became what was right for Ray and Dan. The team paid the price.
So, the poor drafting continues and the trading away of valuable picks continues and the young players who did get drafted languish in the AHL or get shipped out for nothing or get lost to waivers. And Shero refused to fire Bylsma until there were no other options.
Mario and Burkle had to step in and fire Shero. And “allow” the new GM to fire Bylsma. And I am PERFECTLY OK with how he was handled. His stubborn fuckery cost that team years of the prime of so many star players. Let him twist in the wind and miss out on a job or two.
So, here we are. The Pens are going through what should have happened last season if DB/RS had been fired after the BOS series. So, instead, because of Shero’s hubris, we wast, effectively, two more years of these players primes. There is no guarantee they would have won any more Cups, but you would at least be trying something different in the primes of the career arcs for these players.
So, enjoy what we’re seeing now, especially the play of the “new” Marc-Andre Fleury, and try to keep the jam levels low. They’re not winning a Cup this year. But there is a LOT to be excited about and, frankly, it’s mostly thanks to the miracle Rutherford has been able to create since June. #RealTalk over and out.
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.
With some of my thoughts and feelings out about the “Shero Draft Strategy,” I wanted to discuss a few thoughts I’ve had regarding the Pens going forward into free agency.
I, personally, don’t buy into the Ryan Suter stuff. I honestly think it’s a bunch of smoke and mirrors from Camp Shero to get teams like Detroit to bite first and hardest on Suter, leaving Parise to the Pens. Believe me, there are going to be plenty of suitors for Suter and Parise. In my heart of hearts, I think the Pens win the Parise sweepstakes as long as Shero doesn’t try to grossly low-ball him. Crosby and Parise being friends helps matters, certainly, but Parise really seems to fit the mold of what Shero and Bylsma have said the team needs – aggressive, skilled forwards with size.
Suter has stated he wishes to remain in the Western Conference, and I don’t think he’s going to bend for that. More importantly, I feel it would be folly for Shero and the Pens to go after him at the expense of the rest of the team. To land Suter, it will, according to most reports, take somewhere between 6 and 8 million per season. For ANY person who has been paying attention to the lunacy of the general Penguins’ fandom this season, paying a defenseman more than 4 dollars is apparently akin to genocide and will be met with scorn. Unless that player has a kitschy nickname or luxurious hair, in which case those players are safe. Paul Martin has become public enemy number 1 among the majority of (thoroughly uneducated, ignorant) Pens fans. Without fail, the first thing they mention about Martin is his $5M price tag. When pressed, the vast majority are unable to define WHY Martin “sucks,” but will gladly, gladly tell you time and again how “he needs to be better for $5M.”
Hold on to your hats if the Pens sign a guy like Suter for 6-7M/year. He’ll make one questionable turnover and the Consol Energy Center will burn to the damn ground. With that said, I think it’s clear that the Pens should not pursue Ryan Suter. I do, however, feel they should go after another defensive free agent…
Here’s usually where the wheels come off and people start spewing things like “BAD FAN!” at me. I’m just going to say it.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are a bad team.
I discussed, at length, the problem the team is facing with injuries right now. I had posed the question to Twitter (from my personal account) after the Rangers game and got mostly the same responses as always. I asked “what is the expiration date on the injury excuse?” That has been sitting in the fridge for a year now. It has to go bad at some point, right? Unless that excuse is made of the same material that Twinkies are made of, the excuse has gone stale and is no longer valid.
We’ve hit that point.
It is time to throw the injury excuse in the bin and come to terms with the fact that this team is grossly, grossly underperforming. Do I deny that injuries have played a role in this underperformance? No, I don’t. The dangers of hockey are vast and injuries happen. They happen to everyone. Yes, the Penguins now lead the NHL in man games lost (I believe it was 210 as of last night), but they have a great team in the minors and a wonderful pool of young talent to rely on to fill roster spots for 10-15 games.
I understand that there’s no player who can fill Sidney Crosby’s spot, except for maybe Evgeni Malkin, but the team has done relatively well without Sid. For the sake of comparison, last season’s team went without Sid or Geno (or many others) from February onward. The team from last spring played with undying heart and grit. They weren’t a skilled team, but they never, ever quit playing. They never looked defeated, no matter the obstacle. They continued to play through the injuries. They went into every game knowing that they had to keep goals against to two or fewer. They knew they would have to win puck battles and fight for every inch and every opportunity.
Where’s the grit and determination with this squad?
If you could play last season’s team vs the team we’ve seen for the last month, I’d lay good money on last season’s team winning a 7 game series.
After last night’s embarrassment to the New Jersey Devils, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen had finally had enough and spoke up (all credit on quotes goes to Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette).
Orpik had the following to say:
“The accountability in this room has to be a lot better. We aren’t reacting to adversity very well right now. You can’t feel sorry for yourselves.”
“One goal’s not going to do it. You can pick apart every goal they get, but one goal isn’t going to do it. Don’t care if we got 50 or 60 shots on net. One goal isn’t going to do it.”
“I thought the energy was actually great last night. Once they scored a couple of goals on us, our attitude changed. You can’t hang your head and feel sorry for yourself like that. It won’t get you anywhere.”
“No accountability. We gave up another short-handed goal. We give up breakaways. Another dumb penalty. The accountability has got to be a lot better.”
“We give up a couple of goals, and everybody’s attitude [stinks] afterward. You can see on the ice, our energy starts out great, then they score a couple of goals and instead of getting [angry] and battling back, we just come out flatter and kind of feel sorry for ourselves, hang our heads.”
“We start taking stupid, lazy penalties and start getting off our game plan and doing whatever we want.”
“It felt just like the night before. It’s really deflating. We were in control of the game, then I hit the post on a power play. It was just a huge momentum swing.”
So, by the metrics exhibited by many Pens fans over the course of the last year, saying those things make Orpik and Niskanen bad teammates and bad fans. I know that I don’t always have the most popular opinion, but this is going to ludicrous levels. After Orpik’s comments came out I heard numerous people (we’re talking double digits) saying that Orpik shouldn’t say such things; the team has too many injuries, what more can they do?; Orpik has no business talking about accountability because he’s made mistakes; Orpik hasn’t had a phenomenal year so he has no right to criticize anyone.
Let’s get something straight, people. The Penguins are a bad team right now. If you are saying different, you need to take the rose colored glasses off for a few minutes and look at the team again. Just because the team is bad doesn’t make you less of a fan to say so. I know a lot of people were fans of the God awful X-Generation teams, but that doesn’t mean you were a “bad fan.” Hell, most people use attendance to games involving Ouellet, Koltsov, Fata, etc as a sign of true fandom.
Why must it be a continual pissing match with everyone over who the better fan is?
I’m going to channel my inner Orpik now and do a little calling out of things that just need to stop.
1. Jokes/Insults about people leaving a game early to “beat traffic.”
The jokes are tired and unoriginal. People paid for their tickets (presumably). They can do with them as they wish. If they want to walk through the gate and turn around and leave they are entitled to do exactly that. Grousing about the people leaving early has become a diversionary tactic to ensure we don’t talk about the on-ice product. It has also become another feather in the cap of the “true fans.”
2. The arena is too quiet.
While I agree in principle, I would also like to remind everyone how there’s no happy medium with the people who bitch and moan about this. They complain that Montreal is too loud. They complain that people in Detroit never sit down. They make fun of Washington for being prompted to cheer. There’s no winning with these people about this topic. CEC could crumble to the foundation from fans going nuts and these people would complain that it was too much celebration.
3. “Everything is wonderful”
No, it isn’t. While not everything is doom and gloom, refusing to see that the team is not playing well is as bad as saying they’ll never win another game. Is there some sort of 12 step program for some people? They need to get around to admitting there’s a problem before they can attempt to fix it. Ignoring glaring weaknesses indicates one of a few things. It shows the person as blindly ignorant or so wrapped up in the dogma and bullshit of true “fandom” that the truth is a malleable item that can be twisted to fit their needs.
It is possible to criticize the team and still be a fan. It is possible to WANT the team to win, but know they don’t have the chops TO win. Last year’s playoffs were the start of the schism. I wanted to see the Pens pull out a win in game 7, but I had the gall to say *gasp* on the internet that I didn’t think the Pens had what it took to win game 7. I was called a fairweather fan, a bad fan, that I had no faith in the team. I was told to turn in my fan card and that I shouldn’t be allowed to wear a Penguins jersey ever again.
So, does that mean every player on the Pens fits in that category, too, because they lost a 1-0 game 7 at home and didn’t fit into the expectation and mold created in your superfan mind?
The Penguins are bad right now. There’s been a complete lack of leadership until last night, when Orpik finally had enough. Josh Yohe also reported that the team would be practicing this morning. Clearly coach Bylsma has had enough, too. The team ALWAYS had the day after back-to-back games off. Not only is the team practicing on a Sunday (a rarity), but they are practicing on a Sunday after back-to-back games.
If I were Bylsma I would simply say “Well, in a combined 120 minutes of hockey you’ve scored 2 goals, allowed 6, and played a total of about 25 minutes competitive hockey. Get skating. You should have plenty of energy and legs to skate for a few hours.”
Hopefully Orpik’s comments serve as a wake-up call. I don’t mind the team losing (not that I enjoy it) if they at least were in the game and competitive. What I do mind is this bullshit we’ve seen for the last 4-6 weeks.
Since Black Friday, the Pens are 9-9. The Pens have managed wins again Ottawa, Montreal, Washington, Carolina (twice), New York Islanders, Buffalo, Chicago, and Winnipeg. They have lost to New York Rangers (twice), Boston, Philadelphia (twice), Detroit, Ottawa, and New Jersey (twice).
Of those victories, only 1 came against a team that was in the playoffs when being played against (Chicago).
Explain to me how a team can be amazinggreatwonderfulnothingiswrong when you cannot win against teams currently in playoff position? How is a team so perfect if they’ve managed to go from 1st place in the entire league to 18th overall in about a month’s time? How did they go from 1st in their division to 4th if they are so magnificent?
Right now the Pens are barely in the playoffs. They are the 8th seed with 46 points. Winnipeg has 45 and Washington has 44. This is a team dangerously close to falling out of playoffs and digging themselves into such a hole that they cannot climb back out.
Good teams beat bad teams. Bad teams get beat by good teams.
The Penguins are a bad team. At least for now. And they’re running out of time to fix it.
Griggsy is back on his game and not a day too soon. It only seems fitting that I finally start getting my feet under me and Chris gets his next round of Gripes up the same day that the Penguins opened up training camp. I am trying to get all of the papers graded tonight so that I can get a post up tomorrow about the Pens (I have two I am working on now), but at least for tonight and part of tomorrow we’ve got the Griggsy’s love.
It’s once again time for the best part of your week. With a lot of goings-on lately, let’s just get right into the gripes….
->Well, that was quite an egg laid by the Steelers against Baltimore. The offense couldn’t stop turning the ball over, the defense couldn’t stop anyone, and there were a lot of players looking disinterested far
too early on in the game. It’s just not something I’m used to seeing from that team, especially against arguably the team’s biggest rival. They looked like it was preseason game number five, basically. And for a team that usually shows a ton of pride in their game, they didn’t show quite as much last Sunday….
->However, there are two additional thoughts I have about the game. First, the Ravens deserve a lot of credit for playing about as well as I’ve seen them play in the last 3 years. It pains me to say that, obviously. But I would be a fool not to say it. They looked hungry, hey looked multi-dimensional offensively, and they looked like a much better team that I expected.
But that brings me to my next point. In the NFL, there are two weeks of the season that tell you very little about the season as a whole, and how teams will play for the entire year. Week 17 is the biggest
misleading week of the year, because teams are either resting players for the playoffs, or playing backups to make decisions for next season. The next biggest in terms of misleading weeks, however, is
Week 1. Some teams don’t come into Week 1 with everything figured out. Some are still trying to figure out new schemes, or are still trying to get the chemistry right to be successful. This is especially the case in this season, where teams only had 7 weeks worth of training time prior to Week 1’s games.
Back in 2003, the Patriots went into Buffalo for a Week 1 game against the Bills. They returned home after Week 1 with an 0-1 record after a 31-0 ass-kicking. At the end of the season, the Bills weren’t the team raising the Lombardi Trophy. New England won it all that year, despite the waxing they took in Week 1.
So, what does that all mean for the Steelers, the Ravens, and the NFL after the first week? Honestly, I don’t know. And neither does anyone else. And that’s ultimately the point. Don’t assume that the 2011
season is over for the Steelers, or that the Ravens will run away with the division and such. 16 games may be the shortest schedule in all of pro sports. But it’s a very long time, and things are going to change in a big way before the season is over….
->I will say this, though. I don’t envy the Seattle Seahawks for Week 2….
->The Penguins’ training camp has opened officially, and excitement is high. Sidney Crosby’s practicing (albeit without contact), and Evgeni Malkin has returned after a disappointing wasted season that was riddled with injuries. There aren’t many open spots on the roster, with many returning players from last season. We all could probably list our projections for the opening night roster, and we’d be able toget it 90% right (or better). The question, in my eyes, is what the lines will look like, especially if Crosby isn’t ready for Game #1 (which is expected to be the case). Everyone has their guesses, and
this is mine, based on both what I want to see and what Dan Bylsma’s tendencies are as coach:
This is assuming that Dustin Jeffrey is ready to go in October. If not, you may see Eric Tangradi, Richard Park, or Nick Johnson get that spot. Hell, I suppose that Steve MacIntyre may get that spot, if Bylsma feels he needs a fighter against Vancouver. Regardless, you can see that there aren’t a lot of guys in danger of losing their spot. Hopefully, there won’t be complacency from any of those guys.
The defense and goaltending are similarly set, so don’t expect to see any “camp darlings” getting an immediate shot in the NHL at any position. But those guys may very well set themselves up to be the
first call-up due to injury. Teams suffer lots of injuries during a typical NHL season. Hell, just look at the Pens’ season last year. So, positioning yourself to get an early call-up is a big deal. The aforementioned Tangradi and Johnson may be two that are at the top of the list, if they don’t make the Pens’ roster out of camp….
->The Pirates finally lost game 82 earlier this week. Around the same time, Neal Huntington got a three-year extension as GM of the team. This may stun you, but I actually think this is a good move for the team. There will be continuity in the organization for an extended period now, and the team is certainly making strides, both at the MLB level and in the minors. Many more prospects, and lots of quality players in Pittsburgh, it’s all leading to a legitimate positive outlook for the Buccos in the future. They may not win a World Series anytime soon. But they will win 82+ games sooner than later….
And on that bombshell, this is where the Gripes sign off….
I have been known to be something of a “Fleury hater” for many years. I don’t like the term “hater” because that implies a complete and total illogical dislike of a player for reasons that cannot be logic’d or discussed. When I would discuss Fleury’s previous disappointments I would do so with facts and figures and it usually got people to either get real quiet or jump on the “well, I’m a better fan because I don’t criticize players on my team” wagon. This season was truly a tale of two players. I’m happy to say he shut me the Hell up and did his job. With that, I give you the Pens Preview: Marc-Andre Fleury.
Do goaltenders get unjust criticism and unjust praise? Yes, they do. Much in the same way quarterbacks in the NFL get unjust criticism and undue praise (Trent Dilfer, circa 2000 Ravens, I’d like a word), but it is also part of the job and position. A goaltender has to be mentally tough. There is so little room for error and every movement and mistake is magnified because of being the only player of that position on the ice for your team. Mistakes often lead to goals. Many goals lead to losses. Thus, goaltender mistakes are the cause of losses, thus the goaltender is the cause of the loss. Anyone who watches any sport knows that very rarely can one man be blamed, wholly and exclusively for a loss. Poor goaltending is one of those areas where you can point to a specific instance for a loss.
If that doesn’t begin when I time stamped it, skip to the 8:50 mark. If you want to see a bad goal, that is a bad goal. It’s a bad technical goal because of not having his stick in position and from leaving a gaping hole between his pads and it was an atrociously bad goal because he allowed that with less than two minutes to play in a tie game in the 3rd period. A goal that should never, ever, ever be allowed by a professional goaltender is bad enough, but they happen. To allow Scott Gomez’s eyebrows to score that goal late in a game and lose in the same manner (i.e. atrocious goaltending) to the team responsible for eliminating you from playoffs the year before? Yikes. You’d think you’d be able to get up for a game like that and show you put the previous season behind you. At the start of the year? Nah, the Flower had none of that. I was one of the lone voices in 2010 indicating he was a major weakness on a lazy team and everyone called me a bad fan and how I didn’t know what I was talking about. Well, his 2011 season started off exactly as his 2010 season ended.
In the first 10 games played by no. 29, the Pens went 4-6 (the team’s first win came with Brent Johnson between the pipes) and Flower allowed 28 goals on 219 shots. One of the team wins was on November 6 when Fleury was pulled after 6:56 ice time when he allowed 2 goals on 5 shots. Within the first 10 games he was boasting a killer .845 SV%. It makes one wonder how he finished with such stellar numbers and how he became THE most important player down the stretch when he started out so rough.
Thankfully the Cup isn’t awarded in October or November. Thankfully Dan Bylsma found his spine and benched Fleury as he continued to cost the team games and valuable points. Everyone made jokes and comments about the playoffs don’t start in October, but every point matters. Need I remind everyone just how crucial a few of those lost points were at the end of the season? One more point and we would have won the Atlantic division. Really, though, I feel the season and turnaround in MAF’s game came hinged on him being benched and getting his mind straight. That little win streak and Crosby’s unreal point streak helped from mid-November helped, but sometimes things come together as they need to. In this case, Flower got sat down and the team started getting together.
I will say this – I am glad that Fleury was garbage to begin the year and Johnny played out of his mind because I had the best Halloween costume I’ve ever made:
Looking at the stats, it was a pretty impressive season overall for Marc-Andre. Started 62 games, no major injuries, had excellent relief in Brent Johnson, posting a 36-20 record and, more importantly, a .918SV% and 2.32GAA. A .918SV% was good enough for 15th overall in the NHL and the 2.32 GAA placed him 9th in the NHL among goaltenders. Either way you slice it, Fleury finished the season as a top-half of the league goaltender. It is imperative to note how the defense played, too, down the stretch. Flower and his D reliably held opposing teams to 2 goals or fewer per game. Sadly, Fleury’s very, very bad start caused his stats to be a little less impressive.
More importantly, and this is never really shown in the statistics, is the quality of the saves and the importance of the saves. In 2010 MAF was known for giving up soft and poorly timed goals. To start 2011 he was also giving up the same poorly timed and soft goals. He gave up bad goals. As the season moved on he made BIG saves. He made important saves. He eliminated the back-breaking and painful goals (like the one to Gomez linked above). He made the saves that a big time goaltender needed to make. Previously he wasn’t making those (less some huge saves in the ’09 Cup run). Even though the end result was not what we had all hoped, “history stops everything.”
Sadly the Pens’ popgun offense was not enough to overcome Fleury playing out of his mind and allowing two goals or fewer regularly from about January onward. In December and January he only had one game where his save percentage was below .900 (12/26 vs OTT). Month by month, 29’s SV% was as follows:
If you are partial to seeing things in action instead of on paper (or on a computer screen), just take a look at this:
And the Shootouts. How could we ignore the shootouts? Everyone joked about the Pens going to so many shootouts as the season went on, but the goaltender is the most important part of the shootout. By record, MAF was 2nd best in the NHL in Wins in a shootout (with 8). Overall in the SO, Flower had an .842SV%, facing 38 shots and allowed only 6 goals. A truly, truly astonishing feat, considering how the modern shootout is stacked against the goaltender. And, of course, we can never forget that we got to see some of the flourish that goes into the shootout preparation. Roll that beautiful bean footage:
Overall, Flower performed statistically better at home, but had a disproportionate amount of losses (largely due to the early season) compared to road games. At home, 29 showed a .924SV% and a 2.17GAA. On the road he posted a .911SV% and 2.51GAA. In overall wins, he posted a .940%, whereas in losses he posted a .880%. The old adage of “the team that scores more goals wins,” but the goaltender plays a vital role in that bearing true. If Fleury was having a bad game, there was typically a loss attached to it. When looking at save percentage with regard to days of rest between games, Fleury showed to be much better as an active goaltender than one with substantial time between games. When playing two games back to back he averaged a .925%; with 1 day of rest he posted a .915%, but with 2 days of rest he kipped up to a .938%, but with 3 or more days off he dropped terribly to .894%.
Statistically, it was a very good year. 143 goals allowed was the fewest he’s allowed when playing 50 or more games. Likewise, 2.32 is the lowest GAA he’s ever had in his NHL career. It was also his best save percentage (again with a minimum of 50 games). The only area where he was a “disappointment” was only having 3 shutouts on the season, which was an uptick from last season when he only had 1, but a drop from the two seasons prior, both in which he had 4 shut outs.
It truly was a magical year for Marc-Andre. He started off poorly, got benched, took his benching like a man, earned back his starting job and then kept the team in so many games. I fear there will be a little bit of a drop off next season, but I’m hopeful he can play consistently, as that has always been an issue until this year, and keep doing what works for him. It is so hard to really evaluate a goaltender just by looking at a stat line because, as mentioned above, there are intangibles surrounding the quality and timeliness of saves and making a big save to swing momentum or deflate another team. This year, MAF had “it.” The element to his game that had been missing was rediscovered and hopefully he doesn’t lose it again. Looking ahead to next season, here’s how I see the major statistics breaking down:
I expect a good year out of MAF. I fear he may have a little bit of up-and-down play. He’ll tick those SO numbers up because he’s got an all-world defense in front of him most of the night, but I think will have a very slight fall off from this season’s numbers because he’ll have a little more offense in front of him and he can gamble on things like the pokecheck and/or getting off his leash and attempting to play the puck (Marc, please stop – stay in the crease, don’t try to play the puck. Hextall and Brodeur you ain’t).
Oh, how silly of me, I forgot the most important stat: 1 B-Boy pose
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).