Winning the Parise Battle Loses the War?

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.

So, it brings us to Parise.

Continue reading “Winning the Parise Battle Loses the War?”

The Penguins Are A Bad Team

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.”

Matt Niskanen:

“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?

Get real.

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.

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”

Pens Preview: Sidney Crosby

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Then, of course, the Hedman hit.

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

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

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

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

Sid’s stat line from last season:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My God.

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

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

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

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

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

Then the symptoms returned and he shut down again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome back, Sid. We missed you.

9/17: Griggsy’s Gripes

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:

 

Sullivan-Malkin-Neal

Kunitz-Staal-Kennedy

Cooke-Letestu-Dupuis

Jeffrey-Adams-Asham

 

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….

Pens Preview: James Neal

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.

Not pictured: Everyone's unreal expectations of James Neal

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)

79GP, 22G, 23A, 45P, +7, 66PIM, 212S, 10.4S%, 5PPG, 5PPA, 0SHG, 0SHA, 3GWG, 17:30TOI

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

77GP, 31G, 28A, 59P, +15, 82PIM, 225S, 13.7S%, 4PPG, 9PPA, 0SHG, 0SHA, 18:17TOI.

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).

Let’s go Pens.

7/23: Griggsy’s Gripes

Welcome to Griggsy’s Gripes 2: Electric Boogaloo. It’s the only chance I’ll get to say it, so I couldn’t pass that up. Apparently, quite a few people decided my first attempt at this was worth reading. I thank you all for that, very much. Hopefully, there will be no sophomore slump. Anyways, without further ado, this is what I’m griping about this week:

->The weather blows! I know, I know. All of you are either so sick of the weather yourself, or so sick of hearing others complain about it. But I can’t help but complain. And if you’re wondering why, it’s because I can’t get away from the heat. When I’m outside, it’s a killer. But inside, it’s even worse. That’s right, I don’t have air conditioning in my house. Fans aren’t helping. And the one-room A/C unit in the house only helps so much, because I can’t possibly stay in that one room all day. Hell, I can’t stay in there for more than two minutes if I want to be productive at all.

It also doesn’t help that I am a fat guy who sweats when it’s 12 degrees outside. 95+ degree weather is like the Ninth Circle of Hell for me. The only good thing? Maybe I can sweat off a couple (hundred)

pounds as I sit here. Can’t hurt, right?

->This is my first real chance, so please allow me to gripe (and praise) the relevant moves in NHL free agency. Obviously, Jagrwatch was the most captivating story in our world. Jaromir Jagr would’ve helped the Penguins. Without question, he would have had an impact skating on one of the top two lines for the team. But, by choosing the Philadelphia Flyers, he simultaneously cut all positive ties with his past in Pittsburgh and chose the worst possible team for himself as a player. OK, maybe a little hyperbolic, but I say that with good reason. The Flyers got rid of their two best natural centers (Mike Richards and Jeff Carter), while the Penguins are getting their two best centers back from health issues. Jagr may very well be able to play at an average to good level in orange and black, but he will never do as well as he could have in black and gold.

The Penguins, rebuffed by Jagr, chose to go with Tyler Kennedy and Steve Sullivan as their two Top 6 right wings. It puts a lot of pressure on those two gentlemen, and they may not be able to live up to that. Both have clear flaws that may hold them back, and by proxy, hold back Crosby and Malkin. Kennedy has been inconsistent throughout his career in the NHL, with the only exception the last three months of last season. Can he keep up that hot finish, or will he slip back into that inconsistent style that he couldn’t shake for so long? Sullivan is older, has a checkered injury history, and is undersized. He’s certainly got statistics that show he could be perfect alongside one of the talented centers, but the question marks are worrisome. Will he work out like Mike Comrie did in ‘10-’11, or will he work out like Petr Sykora did in ‘07-’08 (and beyond)?

The Pens also let a handful of role players walk away. Chris Conner, Max Talbot, Eric Godard, and Mike Rupp all left the Penguins, with all but Godard going to rival teams. Godard, while useful in his role during his time here, won’t be missed terribly. This was reinforced when the Pens signed enforcer Steve MacIntyre to a two-way deal shortly after Godard signed with Dallas. MacIntyre will be shuttled frequently between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre, something the team couldn’t do with Godard. Conner moved on to the Detroit Red Wings, lowering the team’s average age significantly. While Conner was lauded in some circles for being plucky and tenacious, he had no place on the Pens’ roster going forward. He wasn’t skilled enough for a Top 6 role, and wasn’t a long-term fit in a Bottom 6 role, due to size issues. He’ll likely make a bigger impact in Detroit, but that’s because the fit is much better than it ever would’ve been here.

Talbot left for the Philadelphia Flyers, signing a 5-year deal. The Penguins would never have signed Talbot for that term, based on injury and inconsistency. His signing in Philadelphia made for a divide within the ranks of Pens’ fans. Some supported Talbot, stating that it was simply a business decision. Some hated Talbot, stating that it’s unforgivable for a player to leave the Pens to play for the hated Flyers. Originally, I was in the middle, not choosing a side. After hearing interviews Talbot gave after the fact, I firmly moved into the hate category. If the Philly contract was the highest-paying one, I would have understood. But he confirmed what had been reported at the time of the signing, which was that he left deals with other teams on the table that offered more money. According to Talbot himself, he signed with the Flyers because they gave him the best chance to win a Stanley Cup. That makes it a non-business decision. Unforgivable, indeed.

Lastly, Mike Rupp left the Penguins for the New York Rangers. There was no way to keep Rupp, as many teams (reportedly nearly half the league) had made offers with great financial terms and with more length than Ray Shero was willing to offer. It just upsets me seeing Rupp in a Ranger sweater, for obvious reasons. However, don’t expect to see Rupp live up to those contract numbers. I am a firm believer that Rupp maxed out his play on the ice with the Penguins. There are some guys who are perfect in smaller doses, but struggle when over-exposed. Rupp’s age, physical style of play, and penchant for taking penalties all don’t translate to doing well with bigger minutes.

Speaking of the Rangers, Glen Sather is still a joke. He signed Brad Richards to an absurd contract of 9 years and $60 million. For a guy with injury risks, and inconsistency issues, that contract is unfathomable. Which, of course, means he fits in perfectly with the Rangers.

Looking around the Eastern Conference, the Sabres and Capitals overpaid for decently talented players; the Flyers and Rangers appeared to rearrange deck chairs on their own personal Titanics; the Devils and Islanders didn’t really do much of anything impactful; the Lightning and Bruins kept their teams relatively the same, which isn’t a bad thing for them; the Canadian teams didn’t do anything overwhelming, which is a bad thing for them; the Hurricanes improved slightly; the Panthers overpaid to hit the salary floor; and the Jets’ only big move was taking the franchise from Atlanta to Winnipeg.

If you made me rank the teams from top to bottom, I would go: Boston, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Washington, Buffalo (and that is where I draw the line of conference title contenders), Philadelphia, New York Rangers,

Carolina, Montreal, New Jersey, New York Islanders, Toronto, Florida, Winnipeg, Ottawa.

I await your criticism for that list.

->So, where does this leave the Penguins roster, heading into next season? The seven defencemen and two goalies are pretty much set (assuming that Orpik gets healthy prior to October). As for the forwards, I don’t see Tangradi or Jeffrey starting the season with the big club, nor do I see MacIntyre at the NHL level right away. So, the lines (in my mind) are as follows:

Neal-Crosby-Sullivan

Kunitz-Malkin-Kennedy

Cooke-Staal-Asham

Dupuis-Letestu-Adams

This can change, based on what happens at training camp, but those lines are what I would want to see headed into opening night.

Anyways, enough hockey…

->Job-hunting is the most frustrating process known to man. Or, well, known to me, at least. I have an Economics degree, but I might as well just not have a degree at all. Anything in the field requires experience that I don’t have or licensing that I can’t get due to financial problems (yay, student loans). So, my search must expand outward. So, I end up at a disadvantage against people in their own chosen field. I can’t even tell you how many applications I’ve put in and how many resumes I’ve sent out without getting an in-person interview. I don’t think I’ve had a single in-person interview in 2011. For someone with a fairly high IQ that has a college degree, it makes me feel really worthless at times.

I’ve had friends tell me about job opportunities in other parts of the country, but I just don’t think I can do it. I love Pittsburgh. My family’s here, my closest friends are here (with very few exceptions), the area is beautiful, this is just ‘home’ for me, as hokey as it sounds. The roots are too deep for me to pull them out, even if just for a brief length of time. So, I really keep hoping that something will appear out of thin air for me to jump all over and make it my career. Fingers crossed.

->I wanted to avoid talking about the NFL lockout, because millionaires and billionaires fighting over millions of dollars does nothing for me whatsoever. However, the stunt that the owners pulled on Thursday night made me sick. They purposely voted on their own proposal (which of course, passed easily), knowing that the Players Association would never agree to it. They pulled a PR power play to win the public opinion, getting fans back on their side with the tired angle, “We’re trying to get something done. Why aren’t they?” It’s ridiculous.

As a fan, I am sick and tired of it all, but I am now insulted by the owners more than anything. To think that people wouldn’t realize this move for what it was, it’s a slap in the face of me and any other fan that has a couple of brain cells. Of course, the problem is that too many fans don’t have the brain cells necessary to realize it. So, this just might actually work. Not good.

One last bit of irony from this move is the fact that there was one owner who abstained from voting. That owner was Al Davis. At first, I thought he was just looking out for himself, as always. But, was he actually making a statement about how he knew this was just a PR move? Hmm.

->A dream of mine has died. The last planned space flight for NASA has come and gone. When I was a young boy, I dreamed of being an astronaut. When I got into high school, that dream morphed into being a rocket scientist. As I started college, Aerospace Engineering was my original major. My goal was to be a part of NASA, and while there, I wanted to figure out how to colonize either the moon or Mars. I wasn’t able to make it as an engineer, but I still had the dream that someone, maybe one of my smart former classmates at Penn State, would be able to make this possible. As funding keeps getting cut, and space flight gets de-emphasized in the United States, it seems like this will never happen, at least not in my lifetime.

It’s not just my dream in particular about colonizing another planet that depresses me, though. It’s the fact that so many people’s dreams are dying. There are so many men and women who looked to space as the next frontier. The space program in the United States has been getting declining funding for years and years, and this may be the death knell for the program. It’s tough to come back from this, and I get the feeling it never will.

->Another dream of mine, however, is very much alive and kicking. The Pittsburgh Pirates are in contention for the playoffs! Headed into their weekend series against Saint Louis, they are tied for first place in the National League Central division. The last time they were in first place this late in the season, I was 9 years old. I feel like this is an alternate universe I’ve stumbled into. How is this happening? To be honest, it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.

First, the pitching staff, especially the starters, are pitching completely above their heads. I’m not a stat geek, so don’t expect mentions of xFIP or BABIP or any “IPs”. But suffice it to say that Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Paul Maholm, and Charlie Morton aren’t nearly as good as their performances suggest. And James McDonald, the one who has a ton of natural talent, has struggled to find consistency the entire season. Over the course of the season, these guys are so likely to regress to their actual talent level. At this point, if you’re a Bucco fan, you have to hope that this regression doesn’t fully happen. If it does, goodbye first place.

The other half of the pitching staff, the bullpen, has been just as impressive, with just as little natural talent. Evan Meek, the Pirates’ lone all-star last season, has been injured and/or ineffective all of 2011. So, without Meek, who’s been getting it done in the bullpen? Joel Hanrahan’s been great as the closer, but he hasn’t done it alone. He’s had help from Jose Veras, Chris Resop, Daniel McCutchen, and Tony Watson. Look at those names again. And then pick your jaw up off the floor. It’s unreal that this squad has done so well together. They are getting reinforced now. By Joe Beimel and Jason Grilli. Yep, I said those names as reinforcements. The bullpen has really benefited from great starting pitching, allowing them to have less innings to fill, less pitches to throw, and less pressure to feel. If that doesn’t keep up, though, there may be trouble for the relief corps.

The one thing the Pirates can’t control is their opposition in the NL Central. And on paper, the three teams in contention with the Buccos should be far ahead of them. The Saint Louis Cardinals have Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, a resurgent Lance Berkman, and a good pitching staff. The Milwaukee Brewers have Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, among many talented players. The Cincinnati Reds have great hitters, and they won the division last year. Somehow, none of these three teams have run away with the division. If you cheer for the black and gold, it’s a major worry that one of these teams will get hot, and run away with things in the next month or so.

Now, this is going to sound strange, but the weakest aspect of the Pirates may be their saving grace down the stretch. With how great the pitching has been, the hitting has been awful to an equal degree. Outside of Andrew McCutchen, and occasionally Neil Walker, the offense has been inconsistent at the best of times. They are getting nothing out of right field, first base, catcher, and shortstop. They are also not getting nearly enough out of third base and left field. That’s 75% of the hitters, not counting the pitcher’s spot. So, you’re surely wondering, how is this a good thing? Simply, they can’t hit this poorly the entire season. Even if the pitching does come back to Earth somewhat, the offense can make up for that with even a slight improvement.

Ultimately, what’s my gripe here? It’s unlikely that the Pirates will win the division, and it’s no guarantee they’ll finish above .500 for the first time in nearly two decades. As much as I’ll be cheering for it to happen, it’s a tall order to turn things around to the tune of 25 extra wins from last season. And the gripe comes in here: These players, this manager (Clint Hurdle, love the guy), this team deserves to end this generation-long funk in 2011. It will really suck if they can’t get to those goals this season, because some will view the season as a failure. They deserve better than that this year.

I really hope they can prove me wrong, because I’ll be happy to call myself out right here come October….

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