The Deep End of the Fan Pool

I am, by and large, a big personality. Those who know me in real life know that I can be…a little much to take. Those who only know me from online are fairly certain that I am mentally unstable and in desperate need of various medications.

They very well may all be right, but that doesn’t make what I say wrong.

Look, I am by no means an expert when it comes to development of junior hockey players. I know that most who are drafted do not go on to long, successful careers in the NHL. It’s a crapshoot. I get that. I never claimed it otherwise. I am not a professional scout. And in a mildly passive-aggressive retort: Neither are you.

I got a LOT of shit from a LOT of people who like to remind me that I’m not a professional scout. I would like to point out that neither are they. I have my opinions and, generally speaking, they aren’t particularly popular. I have not been shy for the last year-or-so in criticizing general manager Ray Shero’s draft strategy. The defense I hear regularly is “yeah, and look at all the stud defensemen and success they’re having in Nashville.” My response? “Yeah, they’re developing really great talent…which they can’t afford to cheap and continue to flameout in the 1st and 2nd rounds of the playoffs.” I know winning the Cup and making a deep run each year is unreasonable, but the laughable effort the last 3 years from Pittsburgh in the playoffs has been a massive, systematic failure from the very top all the way down.

Routinely I would hear people say “Shero is a ‘best player available’ type drafter.” Bullshit. The 2012 1st round (as well as 2011’s 1st and 2nd round) proved that Shero does not draft the best played available. When the Staal trade came down, I was over the moon. I like Sutter in exchange for Staal. I wasn’t familiar with Dumoulin, but I’ve heard great things. I was even more thrilled with us having a TOP 10 pick with a guy like Filip Forsberg just sitting there…and Ray Shero, almost as though he has an addiction he can’t kick, selects Derrick Pouliot, a guy generally ranked right around where the Pens originally stood at no. 22.

Shero then, again, selected yet another defenseman 14 picks latter with Olli Maatta.

Here’s why I have a problem with this strategy and the borderline ignorance of only using valuable picks on defensemen: The cupboard is completely bare in terms of forward development. Realistically, over the next 5 years, there’s only 2, maybe 3 guys currently in development at forward who could become legitimate NHL talents.

It wouldn’t be a concern if there was ANY depth behind guys like Bennett, Kuhnhackl, and, *gulp* Tangradi. Dominik Uher is about the only depth guy beyond those three who could see NHL action within a few seasons. I know there was a LOT of talk about a guy like Keven Veilleux, but injuries and general lack of spark seems to have tamped that down considerably. I am likely forgetting someone (and, my God, people will only be too happy to tell me about it), but the point still stands that we are choked up with defensemen and continue drafting more and more of them.

If you look at the defense right now, there’s Joe Morrow, Simon Despres, Scott Harrington, Robert Bortuzzo, Brian Strait, Carl Sneep, Philip Samuelsson, Alex Grant, Reid McNeill, and now Maatta, Dumoulin, and Pouliot. Again, I’ve likely missed 2 or 3 guys, but that is immaterial.

So many times I hear people use the argument that “defensemen are the most sought after commodity,” and they are, generally, correct. But for those assets to actually be useful as a commodity Shero needs to pull the trigger and trade them. Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo have shown they are capable of playing in the NHL, but with how things have shaken out, it seems likely they will A: Walk for nothing, B: Get picked off waivers for nothing (assuming they don’t make the team out of camp), or C: will play a regular shift in the NHL night-in-night-out. Why don’t I include option D: Trade them for other assets? Because Shero has shown an unwillingness to trade his precious commodities.

He did pull the trigger on Goligoski, which worked out beautifully, but that still leaves a hilarious logjam both on the Pens and in the development channel. Then he moves Michalek for ANOTHER defensive prospect…after adding a defensive prospect in the Staal trade.

This would really be a truly wonderful thing…if the Pens, from top down, were planning on actually growing and developing the home-grown talent. They aren’t. They sign guys from outside. And they’re making a big push for at least one big time defensive signing while standing in opposition to promotion from within, at least on the foreseeable horizon.

Maybe, one day, far down the line the defensive corps will be guys like Morrow, Pouliot, Maatta, Harrington, Despres…but it doesn’t seem bloody likely, given the history.

It has becomes a relatively well-known fact that I am a “bad fan.” I routinely criticize the team and management. I have high expectations and do not stand for or defend substandard play. When the Pens fall in their well-known pattern of playing lazy defense, or the famous “switch flipping” mentality, I become unbearable. The dealings of Ray Shero have completely sent me over the edge.

I trust Ray Shero implicitly when it comes to getting players signed to cap-friendly, respectable contracts and making trades, but I don’t trust him when it comes to his drafting or moving the defensemen he’s accumulated.

So, of course, I took up the charge of saying the things nobody else is willing to say and thinking the things nobody else is willing to think. I just happen to take to the internet and actually say them for all the world to criticize me. I’m a bad fan because I don’t think everything the team does is wonderful. I’m a bad fan because I don’t like a lot of what the team does. I’m a bad fan because of being critical and having the wherewithal to actually state an opinion that goes against the grain.

I’m a bad fan not out of malice, but out of painful, deep love. I want this team to be successful in every aspect and continually be successful. The current model is NOT one of success. If I wanted a team that played 60 games that were really entertaining, 20 games that were laughably bad, and 2 games that were so-so…I’d watch the Vancouver Canucks.

With the draft said and done, we all turn our eyes toward Free Agency. Next Sunday, July 1, will really be the end result of the last few years under Ray Shero’s guidance. The two names most associated with the Penguins and their collective interests in free agency are F Zach Parise, currently of the New Jersey Devils, and D Ryan Suter, of the Nashville Predators.

A good number of people have already written that Parise is a foregone conclusion to come to Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t be too certain of that. He’s the biggest fish in this free agent class and will have a number of high profile suitors as well as some ludicrous contracts thrown his way. The Penguins, at present, have about $15M in cap space, which is impressive, but about half of that will go to Parise if they wish to sign him. I cannot even fathom what it will take to land Ryan Suter, but signing both is…possible. If the Pens are able to open up a little more cap space, I think both players will be signing here. If additional cap space is not an option, Shero will be forced to pick between the two.

Failure to land either player will be a complete and catastrophic failure on Ray Shero’s part. With trading Staal and Michalek as well as continuing to draft more defensemen, Shero has found himself in the position of having cap space, but also needs to be a big time player on July 1. Failure to land either leaves the Pens down an all-star caliber forward (though I am a big fan of getting Sutter from Carolina) as well as one of the better defensemen on the Pens’ squad from the last two years and 15 million in cap space effectively “unused.” Yes, there are other options, but then Shero may be forced to spend big on secondary or tertiary targets as well as give up some of those coveted defensive assets in WBS.

And so I find myself, again, in the deep end of the fan pool. I’m out in no-man’s land and I’m willing to tread water as long as need be, but I’m fully embracing my inner Randy Quaid from “Major League II.” I’ve fully embraced the snark and criticism…but it takes just one thing – one, small thing – to get me back to being the world’s biggest fanboy. I want this team to succeed. I want them to win every game and every championship for the next forever, but I know that isn’t possible.

The next ten days might truly define the Shero legacy. He’s a brilliant GM when it comes to contracts and trades. I’ve been told for years to trust in Shero and that Shero has a grand plan for all of this. Well, this is when we see what his plan is.

The Gripes: First-Round NHL Playoffs Preview

The most exciting two months in sports gets off and running in short order. Sounds like a perfect time for The Gripes to give you a quick preview of each series, before putting on the prognostication hat and telling you who I think ends up surviving round one. Away we go:

Western Conference-

#1 Vancouver vs. #8 Los Angeles: These two teams have done battle in the past in the postseason. I originally predicted this to be the Western Conference Finals matchup. Jonathan Quick could absolutely steal this series for the Kings, but I don’t see that happening. The talent for the Canucks will prevail.

Prediction: Canucks in 6

#2 Saint Louis vs. #7 San Jose: The Blues overachieved in the regular season. The Sharks underachieved in the regular season. For the Sharks, though, the postseason is all that matters. If they had put themselves in a better position in the standings, maybe I could see them doing damage in the playoffs. But they are running into a disciplined team with a strong system. It won’t be pretty, but the Blues will find a way.

Prediction: Blues in 7

#3 Phoenix vs. #6 Chicago: The Blackhawks have been here and done it before. But Jonathan Toews’ injury concern puts their scoring into doubt. The Coyotes have been here but haven’t done it in the postseason. They have the hottest goalie in the league right now, though, in Mike Smith. I can’t guarantee that he’ll carry them through the playoffs. But he’ll do enough in this series to get the Coyotes to round two.

Prediction: Coyotes in 7

#4 Nashville vs. #5 Detroit: The Predators went for it this season, and sure look like the hottest team in the West coming into the playoffs. The Red Wings limp into the playoffs, looking older and less ready for a tough series. Detroit would love nothing more than to prove everyone wrong once more. They’d have to prove me wrong, too. I’ll take the hot team.

Prediction: Predators in 7

Eastern Conference-

#1 New York vs. #8 Ottawa: This was an unexpected last-minute matchup. The Rangers pretty much led the East from December on, getting to leave it in cruise control for most of the second half. The Senators threatened to steal the Northeast Division title from the Bruins, but fell back at the end. Craig Anderson has shown flashes of brilliance in the playoffs before, but Henrik Lundqvist is the best goalie in the league still. Lack of scoring depth may hurt the Rangers, but not yet.

Prediction: Rangers in 5

#2 Boston vs. #7 Washington: Boston was surely expecting to face the Senators in round one. The Caps managed to sneak into this matchup with a strong final week. Tim Thomas may be on fumes at this point, and if he stalls out, the Bruins are done. I think they survive this series, though, because the Caps are weak in goal, and they can’t take enough advantage of Boston’s weaknesses.

Prediction: Bruins in 5

#3 Florida vs. #6 New Jersey: The high-scoring Devils take on the tough-minded Panthers. Don’t sleep on this series, although that will be your inclination. Florida’s Island of Misfit Toys has a fair amount of playoff experience, so they will hang in. But the depth of scoring in New Jersey will prove to be too much for Florida to handle.

Prediction: Devils in 6

#4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Philadelphia: The cross-state rivals will be meeting for the third time in five playoff years. Both teams have firepower, both teams have experience, both teams have solid defense. The difference? One team has a proven playoff goaltender. The other has a potential head case that has massively struggled in past playoff seasons. That’s enough reason for me to go with the flightless birds.

Prediction: Penguins in 6

This should be a strong first round, with no series that looks likely to be over in four games. I hope it lives up to that high expectation.

The Gripes: Down The Stretch

The Pittsburgh Penguins are headed down the home stretch of the 2011-2012 season, with just 20 regular season games remaining. After 62 games, the Pens sit in 2nd place in the Atlantic Division, and their 77 points are good enough for 4th place in the Eastern Conference. As of this day, that would set them up to have home ice advantage for their first round playoff series, a series that would likely be against their hated cross-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers.

However, that conference positioning is extremely volatile, especially when you look at their upcoming schedule. You have looked at the schedule, right? No? Too busy worried about what the Pens might have done at the trade deadline? No matter. That’s what the Gripes are here for. This week, an exploration of the last quarter of the Pens’ schedule: by the numbers, and with some of my own spin on what you’d expect the Pens to do as they head into the playoffs.

To start with, here are the Penguins’ opponents, in order (CAPS indicate home game, @ indicates road game):

February: 29- @Dal

March: 3- @Col; 5- PHX; 7- TOR; 9- FLA; 11- BOS; 15- @Nyr; 17- @Nj; 18- @Phi; 20- WIN; 22- NSH; 24- @Ott; 25- NJ; 27- NYI; 29- @Nyi; 30- @Buf

April: 1- PHI; 3- @Bos; 5- NYR; 7- PHI

In terms of the breakdown, there are 11 home games and 9 road games on the schedule. There are three back-to-back sets of games. Four of the games are against the Western Conference. And nine of the games are against the Atlantic Division.

To get in-depth, though, let’s look at the strength of this schedule. Doing some quick calculations, the 20 remaining Penguins’ opponents have acquired 1460 out of a possible 2502 points on the season, making for a .584 points percentage. Comparing them to their three division rivals, this is what we see:

Pittsburgh (20 Games): .584 (1460/2502)
New York (21 Games): .557 (1471/2642)
Philadelphia (20 Games): .567 (1421/2504)
New Jersey (20 Games): .572 (1438/2514)

While not a massive difference, there is certainly a difference that exists between the teams as they head down the stretch. The Penguins will have a slightly more formidable challenge in their remaining games, which will make it more difficult for the Pens to not only catch the Rangers for the division title, but to also hang on to their spot in the conference, which may force the Penguins on the road for the first round of the playoffs.

No big deal, you say? Well, this season, it’s important for the Penguins. Just looking purely at wins and losses, the Penguins are 20-10 at home, and 16-16 on the road. That matters over the course of a seven-game series in the playoffs. Home ice matters, to a sizable extent.

I’m crazy, you say? Why wouldn’t the Pens want to drop to 6th in the conference, where they can take on a weaker team that wins the Southeast Division? I never want to see my team purposely aiming for a lower playoff spot. What happens if Ottawa stays hot, as well as Philly and New Jersey, and instead of getting 6th, the Penguins end up falling all the way to 7th? Well, what happens is that the Penguins will be staring down the barrel of the defending Stanley Cup champions from Boston in the first round. The Bruins will just beat the Penguins up for between 4 and 7 contests. Even if the Pens somehow get through that series, survive and advance, the physical toll taken on them will never allow them to get to the Stanley Cup. Be careful what you wish for, Penguins fans.

So, what do I think will happen in these last 20 games? If the Pens stay healthy, they can survive this rough schedule. I don’t think the schedule will allow for them to catch the Rangers, but the Pens should land in the 4 vs. 5 matchup. The #4 seed has served the team well in past seasons. I like their chances if they land there in April.

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.

The Eastern Conference…According to Griggsy

Griggsy is back with a vengeance and laying the law down once more with his Eastern Conference, as well as Stanley Cup, preview. I don’t think I can say anything more than what I said before. The man is a beast. A complete and total beast.

On today’s slate, I’ll tell you how the Eastern Conference should unfold. Again, I’ll give you a quick overview of the team, a key player to the team’s success (or failure), and give best- and worst-case scenarios for the teams’ seasons. Afterwards, I’ll give you my predictions for the Eastern playoffs, tell you who will be facing the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals, and tell you who’s taking home the chalice.

Without further ado….

Eastern Conference

Continue reading “The Eastern Conference…According to Griggsy”

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