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: The East, In Review

The NHL regular season is over, and the Gripes has returned to look back at how well (and poorly) my predictions went for the 2011-12 season. I already weaved my way through the West. This time, a look back at the East.

Eastern Conference

15. Montreal Canadiens (78 Points, 5th–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 12th in East, 4th in Northeast

Why I Didn’t Go Far Enough: I knew the Canadiens were due for a downturn. I just didn’t know the downturn would be on an epic scale. Everything went wrong. Carey Price didn’t play well enough, the team couldn’t get consistent goal-scoring, and the defense was never able to come together. Off the ice, things were a mess, too. An assistant coach was fired right before a game, the head coach was fired, the GM pulled a player from a game (in the middle of it) to trade him, and then finally the GM himself was let go. It’s a messy situation, to say the least. The new broom coming in will sweep clean, but it was too late to fix them this season.

14. New York Islanders (79 Points, 5th–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 9th in East, 4th in Atlantic

Why I Was Too High On Them: I knew the offense would be there. I knew the defense would be average at best. I just happened to think that the goaltending situation would be figured out quickly, mainly due to the inevitable Rick DiPietro injury. The injury happened, but Evgeni Nabokov was hurt for a time, and that made the team struggle too much. It also didn’t help that the four teams from their division finished with 100+ points each. It’s a tough division for a team like this one, and that led to their downfall in the standings.

13. Toronto Maple Leafs (80 Points, 4th–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 10th in East, 3rd in Northeast

Why I Overrated Them: I mistakenly thought that the Maple Leafs would finally figure things out in goal. That is the big reason why this team fell apart down the stretch. They had the scoring, and played serviceable defense. The goaltending never gave them a chance, though. And this will be a weakness for a while for them, it appears. It would also help if they could get a couple decent centers. But that isn’t what killed this season for them. The men between the pipes did that.

12. Carolina Hurricanes (82 Points, 5th–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 7th in East, 3rd in Southeast

Why I Was Dead Wrong: The team struggled mightily right out of the gates. Paul Maurice was fired (again). The team continued to struggle. They never could find consistency in any aspect of the game. Nothing very exciting to talk about with this squad. Moving on.

11. Winnipeg Jets (84 Points, 4th–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 13th in East, 4th in Southeast

Why I Was Right, Sorta: The Zombie Thrashers ended up close to where I expected them to, but got there in a very unexpected way. I expected them to struggle all season long, never get it together, and finish in the bottom of the standings. Instead, they played amazing at home (especially early), and a lot of early-season home games got them up the standings for a long time. Eventually, the team’s play started to slip, too many road games caught up with them, and they plummeted out of playoff contention. The team’s home ice advantage will help them in the future. But it didn’t help them enough this season.

10. Tampa Bay Lightning (84 Points, 3rd–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 4th in East, 2nd in Southeast

Why I Was A Freaking Idiot: I thought that the team’s goaltending would hold up. Big surprise that 97-year-old Dwayne Roloson and career backup Mathieu Garon couldn’t get it done. Stamkos and St. Louis got it done for them, but they couldn’t prevent pucks from going in their own net. This is a team that could recover quickly, but they need to fix the massive hole in goal.

9. Buffalo Sabres (89 Points, 3rd–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 5th in East, 2nd in Northeast

Why I Was A Freaking Idiot Again: This team just could not right their ship until it was far too late. This team was in last place in the conference in the middle of February. Miller couldn’t lift up the team when he was healthy. The high-priced acquisitions struggled to assimilate. And the best players on the team didn’t play like the best players. They made a late charge, and nearly made the playoffs, but they didn’t deserve that, honestly, and they just fell short.

8. Ottawa Senators (92 Points, 2nd–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 15th in East, 5th in Northeast

Why I Must Hang My Head In Shame: Ottawa actually slid back at the end of the season. They would have made me look worse otherwise. The team really came together, and did so quickly. Craig Anderson played well early, the offense provided enough scoring, Erik Karlsson became a household name, and the Sens rose to the top of the East early on. They started to slide down the standings as the season went on, though. This may be leading to a quick exit from the playoffs. But they earned their spot in the playoffs.

7. Washington Capitals (92 Points, 2nd–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 1st in East, 1st in Southeast

Why I Might Want To Quit Predicting Things: The Caps struggled early in the year, leading to a coaching change. And removing Boudreau for Dale Hunter actually proved to be a terrible decision, because Hunter has proven not to be an NHL coach. The team has had struggles and injuries, especially in goal. It also didn’t help that Nick Backstrom was out half the season, and Alex Ovechkin had a massively inconsistent season. They pulled it together to make the playoffs, and ultimately, their performance in the playoffs will dictate whether the season is a success, but they definitely haven’t put themselves in a position to win in the playoffs.

6. New Jersey Devils (102 Points, 4th–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 11th in East, 5th in Atlantic

Why I Really Suck: I felt like Martin Brodeur was done. I was wrong. He played well enough, with a good defense in front of him, and the Devils got a ton of offensive support. This isn’t your older brother’s Devils team. Kovalchuk, Parise, Clarkson, Elias, and Sykora all scored more than you expected, and Adam Henrique made a huge impact in his rookie season, filling in for an oft-injured Travis Zajac. All of this led to a strong showing for the team, and a record that would have landed them in first place in the other two divisions.

5. Philadelphia Flyers (103 Points, 3rd–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 8th in East, 3rd in Atlantic

Why I Kinda Missed, But Kinda Didn’t: I felt like the Flyers hurt themselves a bit short-term in the offseason, trading away proven players for a younger and deeper team in the future. The future happened to be right now. This is a good team, especially offensively. So many players that are capable of scoring up and down the lineup. The defense, however, is thin, which could create a problem. And the biggest problem has been in goal. They spent a ton of money to bring in Ilya Bryzgalov, and he has been inconsistent, at best. He needs to get his act together for the team to go anywhere in the playoffs. In the meantime, he did enough to get the team into 5th spot in the East, which is nothing to look down at.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (108 Points, 2nd–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 2nd in East, 1st in Atlantic

Why I Just Missed: The Penguins played well for most of the season. Any team that finishes with 108 points doesn’t get there by accident. Malkin and Neal played well together all season. Fleury had a great year between the pipes. And Kris Letang would have been a Norris finalist, if he was healthy all season. Add in Sidney Crosby at the end of the season, and the team is a huge threat going into the playoffs. They only fell short of the top of the division because the team ahead of them ran away and hid with the lead.

3. Florida Panthers (94 Points, 1st–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 14th in East, 5th in Southeast

Why I Missed By A Mile: The Island of Misfit Toys found a fit together in south Florida. They did it by committee, and it worked. Well, it worked well enough to get them the championship in a weak division. I don’t know that it will work in the playoffs. I don’t know that it will work next season, but this year, Kevin Dineen’s team found their way to the playoffs.

2. Boston Bruins (102 Points, 1st–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 3rd in East, 1st in Northeast

Why I Was In The Right Church, Wrong Pew: Boston looked like the best team in hockey during the month of December. That allowed the team to coast to a division title. They did not look great all the time, though. And without Tuukka Rask down the stretch, due to injury, Tim Thomas proved to be human, and an old human at that. This may not bode well, long-term, both in the playoffs and in future seasons. But for this year, the #2 seed is a good place to be.

1. New York Rangers (109 Points, 1st–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 6th in East, 2nd in Atlantic

Why They Exceeded My Expectations: I thought they would be decent, with a good defense, and very good goaltending. Instead, they ended up great, with a great defense, and fantastic goaltending. Lundqvist will win the Vezina. McDonagh and Girardi played at a high level. And the team got enough scoring. They will need more scoring in the playoffs, but for the regular season, they got enough.

So, what have we learned from looking back at the East? I got very little right. I maybe should give up on this predicting stuff.

Screw that. I’ll see you next season.

The Gripes: The West, In Review

Six months ago, yours truly stepped up to the keyboard and boldly predicted the way that the NHL’s conferences would shake out over the course of 82 games. Now that everything has played out, has Mr. Gripes proved to be a prognosticator extraordinaire? Or will Mr. Gripes be hanging his head in shame? Let’s find out, first looking out to the West.

Western Conference

15. Columbus Blue Jackets (65 Points, 5th–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 15th in West, 5th in Central

Why I Was Correct: Things started off rough for the Jackets, and they never got better. James Wisniewski’s suspension at the start of the season really hamstrung the defense, getting the team off to a slow start. Steve Mason proved to truly not be the answer in goal for the future. Jeff Carter proved to be a horrible fit in Columbus. And with the things that occurred at the trade deadline, Rick Nash appears to be on his way out in weeks. This franchise sure looks like a mess going forward. No surprise that they finished DFL this year.

14. Edmonton Oilers (74 Points, 5th–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 13th in West, 5th in Northwest

Why I Was (Mostly) Correct: The Oilers’ deficiencies and strengths were as predicted. They struggled in goal, got inconsistent play on defense, and had decent offense that was streaky at times. The youth of the Oilers, especially on the front end, keeps gaining experience, and they looked brilliant at times. At other times, they looked overmatched. This could be a good team, if they get the defense and goaltending figured out, but since they haven’t yet, the bottom of the standings is where they continue to land.

13. Anaheim Ducks (80 Points, 5th–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 7th in West, 3rd in Pacific

Why I Was Wrong: Plain and simple, they were the worst NHL team west of Columbus for the first half of the season. They dug themselves a massive hole, and it cost Randy Carlyle his job. Bruce Boudreau came in, and the team had a massive turn-around in the second half. But the massive hole couldn’t be un-dug. So, the team landed here, and they have a lot of work to do in the offseason to fix the issues that exist.

12. Minnesota Wild (81 Points, 4th–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 9th in West, 2nd in Northwest

Why I Was Right AND Wrong: I knew the Wild would fall short of the playoffs this season. But I expected them to contend much longer than they did. At the same time, I never expected them to be the top team in the league in late November. So, basically, the Wild were better AND worse than I expected them to be. I don’t know what to make of them because of it. No clue at all. But if they get Zach Parise in the offseason, look the hell out.

11. Colorado Avalanche (88 Points, 3rd–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 12th in West, 4th in Northwest

Why I Was Fairly Correct: The Avalanche hung in there the entire season, but they could not get over the hump and stay in the playoff race at the end. And they truly just fell short. They couldn’t get enough scoring, enough defense, nor enough goaltending to elevate the team into the postseason. There are a lot of positives that the team can take out of the season, but they will need to grow as a team to take it to the next step next season.

10. Dallas Stars (89 Points, 4th–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 10th in West, 4th in Pacific

Why I Nailed It: They were actually a little better than I expected, in terms of their point total. But they probably could have used one more scorer in the lineup. It was the concern coming into the season, once Brad Richards moved on to the New York Rangers. Kari Lehtonen played well throughout the season, and the defense was decent. One more offensive talent may have made the difference.

9. Calgary Flames (90 Points, 2nd–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 11th in West, 3rd in Northwest

Why I Was Close (But No Cigar): I knew Kiprusoff would play too much. I figured Iginla wouldn’t be able to score enough. But I didn’t expect them to get nearly enough support from the team’s roleplayers. Kipper played well, but the fatigue did show at times. It didn’t help that his backup was out with an injury for a very long stretch. But this team may be stuck in this rut, because they don’t have a lot of cap space (assuming there still is a cap after this offseason). It will be extremely tough to fix things, short of a major roster overhaul.

8. Los Angeles Kings (95 Points, 3rd–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 2nd in West, 1st in Pacific

Why I Swung And Missed: This team had all the talent to win their division (and in fairness, they were only two points short of winning it). But they clearly had big struggles in reconciling talent with performance. It just never happened for them on the ice, at least not for long enough stretches. They have been coming on of late, making them a potential playoff threat. And with Jonathan Quick, the team absolutely could get rolling if he is playing well. But in a purely regular season sense, the team was an underachiever.

7. San Jose Sharks (96 Points, 2nd–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 4th in West, 2nd in Pacific

Why I Was (Mostly) Wrong: San Jose decided to flip the script on me. Usually, they sit at the top of the conference all season long, finishing impressively. They typically follow that up with an underwhelming playoff performance, typically leading to an early exit. This season, they instead ended up struggling in the regular season, sitting on the wrong side of the playoff cutoff line very late into the year. They managed to pull it together, finding their way to the #7 seed ultimately. But they definitely did not look good doing it. Antti Niemi especially has not engendered confidence, despite a decent stat line. The real test for this team has always been the playoffs. Maybe starting their playoff run in an abnormally low spot will propel them to a big run.

6. Chicago Blackhawks (101 Points, 4th–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 5th in West, 2nd in Central

Why I Just Missed: Chicago never really threatened in the conference this season, due to struggles in goal, health issues for star players, and maddening inconsistency. When the Hawks played to their talent, they were able to beat any team, and they most often did just that. But when the goaltending struggled, or when Toews, Kane, and Sharp were out with injuries, the team struggled against just about any team. Despite all that, they finished 3 points short of gaining home ice advantage in the playoffs.

5. Detroit Red Wings (102 Points, 3rd–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 3rd in West, 1st in Central

Why I Was (A Tad Bit) Wrong: It’s hard to say that the Red Wings underachieved. They set a record for most home wins in a row. They looked like one of the best teams all season long. They were mediocre on the road, but a lot of good teams play well at home and a little less well on the road. The reason why I was a little off had much more to do with two teams that overachieved (ones that will be discussed shortly). The Red Wings are still one of the best in the West, and they showed it throughout the season.

4. Nashville Predators (104 Points, 2nd–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 6th in West, 3rd in Central

Why I Was A Little Off: I expected the Predators to play well this season. But not quite this well. They played well early in the season, and at some point, GM David Poile decided to go for it. And that meant bringing in Andrei Kostitsyn to play with his brother Sergei, bringing in Hal Gill to shore up the defense, and bringing in Paul Gaustad to add more depth to the team. That helped the team climb up the standings, nearly into the top spot in the division. It also helped that they have Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, and Pekka Rinne, all making it very tough to score goals against them. The real test for them will be in the playoffs (as they really went all-in this season). But yet again, Barry Trotz has brought his team to a high level, higher than even I expected.

3. Phoenix Coyotes (97 Points, 1st–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 14th in West, 5th in Pacific

Why I Couldn’t Have Been More Wrong: The team overachieved massively throughout the season, in just about every phase of the game. Dave Tippett’s coaching certainly had a big influence, but the forwards played above their heads, allowing the team to finish in the top half of the conference in goals per game. The biggest overachiever, however, was between the pipes. Mike Smith took control of the goaltending situation for the team, and never looked back. He really finished the season strong, catapulting the team into the top spot in the Pacific Division. If his strong play continues, the team may continue its strong play well into May.

2. Saint Louis Blues (109 Points, 1st–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 8th in West, 4th in Central

Why I Didn’t Go Far Enough: I felt I was bold in suggesting that the Blues would make the playoffs. Turns out, I was far too conservative. Ken Hitchcock was installed as coach early in the season, and once he came in, the team sky-rocketed up the standings. Hitchcock’s defense-first philosophy fit in well with the roster of the Blues, and it certainly helped the goaltending tandem behind them. Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak had career seasons in their platoon roles. This may cause problems for the playoffs, for obvious reasons, but it brought out the best in the goalies during the season, and that helped the team stay ahead of worthy challengers from Nashville, Detroit, and Chicago.

1. Vancouver Canucks (111 Points, 1st–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 1st in West, 1st in Northwest

Why I Got This One Right: Short and sweet on this one. Vancouver has the most talent, top-to-bottom, in the conference. Their division isn’t very good. They played the most consistent of any team in the league. No surprise, the cream rose to the top.

So, what have we learned from this look at the West? Some teams made me look like a genius. Others made me look like a blithering idiot. The biggest lesson: Don’t try to make money picking teams’ finishes in the NHL.

Message Received

By now nearly everyone has read the article from Dejan Kovacevic. If you haven’t, here’s the short version:

Sid loves Pittsburgh and wants to play but is not cleared.

That wasn’t what people, including the folks at Hockey Night in Canada, were talking about. They were, instead, talking about the other odds and ends in the article. I don’t want to say these parts were hidden, but they were NOT the main purpose of the article. Kovacevic noted that some players, and the locker room as a whole, were sort of lost at sea. The locker room had become troubled by Sid’s absence and a few players held a private meeting about naming a temporary captain while Crosby recovers.

Thus the fallout began. Hockey Night in Canada tackled this, among other outlets, but the whole story is not being told. We’re never going to get the ugly, stinky details of it. And it isn’t OUR business to know who said what. We are not a member of the Penguins organization, no matter how entitled we feel. We will never know, with any degree of certainty, about who was in this alleged meeting, when or where it took place, etc.

As far as we know, Craig Adams came out and said no such meeting ever took place and that’s all we need to know.

I love Craig Adams as much as the next guy (and none can love that man more than Griggsy), but he’s doing his job here. He’s a respected member of the team AND is the team’s representative for the Player’s Association. The last thing the PA, especially Donald Fehr, wants going into the back half of the season prior to CBA negotiations is talk of disaster and turmoil in a marquee franchise locker room. The league and PA both need Sidney Crosby and the team, even the image of the team, undermining Sid or his leadership is bad messaging going into labor negotiations.

By no means am I a tried and true journalist. I’ve had a long history with “New Media” journalism, but even that has been touch and go. I do know enough about how the industry works, though. Kovacevic is not some hack writer or some blogger looking for hits. He’s a legitimate sports journalist with a long history of good, reliable reporting. There is a process a story must go through and many hands must touch it before it finally goes live. I am certain that Kovacevic disclosed all of his anonymous sources to his editors and various supervisors and everything was checked thoroughly. He is allowed to withhold those names. He doesn’t OWE us anything.

He is protecting the individuals. Perhaps it was a lapse in judgement by the players who held the meeting, but that doesn’t mean Kovacevic gets to play the role of public avenger. Imagine he runs the story with the names of those players. Everyone turns against them and it creates a bigger problem. Then the team becomes more insulated and allows fewer and fewer press in the locker room. Those players who held the meeting are outsiders on the team and must be traded before the cancer grows. Will other teams take a chance on a “locker room cancer?”

Just because we want to know every dirty little secret about this team doesn’t mean we’re going to get it. If you want Kovacevic’s head on a plate for running the story I think you need to take off those rose-colored glasses for a few minutes.

This meeting happened. They can deny and say all the right things, but this meeting happened. Deal with it. It happens to everyone. Last I checked, the Pens were a pretty God-awful team for a few weeks and completely shot themselves in the foot during that stretch. This meeting was needed, if for nothing else than to maybe light a fire under a few people (not Sid).

So, the story runs and the players do what in response? They ALL wear the Captain’s C at practice. They do something as a team, showing support. They all get it together. The fans all place C’s on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. The team and fans have come together again. And the Pens start winning again.

For better or worse, the team may have needed that crisis moment. For as bad of a team as they were for weeks prior, this Pens team just showed what it means to be a -good- team. They faced adversity and used a teachable moment to rise up to the challenge. Maybe it’s only temporary, too. We’ll just have to wait and see how things go, but it looks like the message was received.

9/3: Griggsy’s Gripes

Griggsy is filling the void while I am crotch deep in packing and boxes and insanity. Ol’ Walt is heading off on Wednesday and it’s likely I will not be around until the following weekend at the earliest, but first – Griggsy. Also, thank baby Jesus for football. Here we go.

 

———–

 

I’m finally back. The Gripes have returned. Your long national nightmare is over. OK, maybe you didn’t miss me quite that much. Regardless, I’ve climbed back into the saddle, and the Gripes will come riding out with me.

Before that, though, a word of congratulations to the esteemed head of the site. Very happy to see Walt get the job he’s richly deserved for a long time. I’m very happy for you, man, and I hope all goes well in the next phase.

Alright, enough with the kind words. It’s time for griping:

->I am sick of hearing about Sidney Crosby’s concussion. I am sick of hearing about Sidney Crosby’s recovery from his concussion. I am sick of people speculating about when (if) Sidney Crosby will be healthy enough to come back. I get that it is the 87-ton elephant in the room, if you’re a Penguin (or NHL) fan. But with all the speculation, the non-stories, the non-updates, etc., It’s driving me insane. I don’t want to hear anymore.

Look, it’s clear that no one knows anything about this. The Penguins, the media, the fans, Crosby himself, none of us. We are all clueless about how severe the concussion was. Or was it multiple concussions? None of us know how long it’s going to take for all the symptoms to go away. We sure as hell don’t know how it’s going to effect him when he gets back on the ice to resume his career. Whenever that may be.

Let me repeat that again: No one knows anything about this!

So, everyone needs to stop speculating. Until he’s cleared to be on the ice, practicing, able to take hits, the speculation needs to completely stop. I don’t want to see, hear, or read anything about it anymore. Please. For the love of Mario, just stop!….

->Craig Adams had an appendectomy a couple of weeks back. My best wishes to him. Also, no truth to the rumor that he cut himself open and ripped out the appendix with his bare hands, with only a bottle of whiskey to numb the pain. That’s completely untrue. Craig Adams doesn’t feel pain….

->The faint “beeeeeeeeeeeep” you hear in the distance? That’s the Pirates’ season flat-lining. The viewing will be held this weekend. The funeral? It’s 8 losses away….

->I am fresh off one of the worst vacations possible. Two cars and six people started out of the Pittsburgh area for a trip to the beach for a wedding, originally scheduled for August 27. In order, this is what happened: A tire blowout on Car #1, followed by that car’s battery dying on the side of the highway (3 hours into the trip); My body completely betraying me for the entire trip in multiple ways; Car #2 getting stuck in the sand in the Outer Banks; Car #2 getting pulled over for speeding the next night; Car #2 getting totaled the day after that in Georgia (long story, don’t ask); An earthquake knocking a pipe off-track for one of the sinks in the beach house; The threat of a hurricane looming for a week; That threat eventually leading to the wedding being moved up two nights; Having to strap most of the luggage to the roof of Car #1 because an additional two people had to be fit into said car; Running like crazy to get away from the storm in time on Friday; On said run, Car #1 nearly loses another tire because 4 of the 5 bolts are sheared off without anyone knowing; And finally, after getting back to the starting point, Car #1’s battery dying again when we head out to take me back to my house.

Worst trip ever? Probably not. And I’m sure you could send me stories of your trips from hell. But holy hell, I had to laugh most of the time, just to keep myself from crying….

->So, college football has started this week. And to be honest, I always feel very mixed at the start of college football season. It’s a strange mingling of excitement and disappointment. Excitement because there are always a lot of entertaining games every year. The Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, and Pac-10 (or whatever they’re calling these leagues now) all have high-level teams that lead to entertaining action week in and week out. Lots of future NFL stars coming out of those games, believe that.

However, disappointment creeps in quick, and the reason is obvious. College football never decides a true champion. Never. The BCS is a joke, has always been a joke, and will always be a joke. I refuse to invest my attention into a sport that doesn’t decide who the best team is on the field. So, I will watch a couple of games when there isn’t something better on, which is mostly in September. Once the NHL starts up, college football gets pushed to the side almost completely. I will continue to watch my alma mater (We Are! Penn State!) and have a passing interest in Pitt and West Virginia, but that’s it.

You have so much potential, college football. But until you fix the big problem, you’ll be nothing more than a minor blip on my sports radar….

->Onto big boy football, the NFL is less than a week away from regular season kickoff. It snuck up on us really quick. Peyton Manning isn’t healthy yet, and Colt fans are in panic mode. Arian Foster’s hamstring is causing much consternation (both for Texan fans and fantasy football owners, but don’t tell Arian that). Chris Johnson may or may not report to the Titans before the season begins. And that’s just the AFC South.

So, with that in mind, what follows is the Gripes’ NFL Predictions:

AFC East-

4) Buffalo Bills (4-12): Ryan Fitzpatrick is a better-than-you-think QB, but he can’t do it all himself….

3) Miami Dolphins (8-8): They are going to be a lot better than most people predict. Not good enough for a playoff spot. But .500 for them is an accomplishment….

2) New Jersey Jets (10-6, AFC Wild Card, #6 Seed): Great defense, and a great 1-2 running back punch. But the passing game still isn’t strong. Good AFC team, but not truly elite….

1) New England Patriots (12-4, AFC East Champion, #2 Seed): Tom Brady is one of the best in the league (still), and he has great pieces around him. An elite NFL team, without question….

AFC North-

4) Cincinnati Bengals (1-15): Probably the worst team in the NFL this season. Andy Dalton is basically being fed to the wolves….

3) Cleveland Browns (6-10): The Mistake by the Lake is actually improving quietly. Scary that they may actually contend again in the near future….

2) Baltimore Ravens (11-5, AFC Wild Card, #5 Seed): They’ve lost a few players, and gotten older in some spots, but they have great players, and will contend all season….

1) Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3, AFC North Champion, #1 Seed): They’ll fight off the Super Bowl loser curse. They’ve gotten faster on offense, and the defense is healthy and deep, despite age….

AFC South-

3T) Tennessee Titans (4-12): Chris Johnson’s holdout is portending bad times this season. They look worse than last season on paper….

3T) Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12): Maurice Jones-Drew has health concerns, there is upheaval at QB, and the D isn’t that good. They will struggle….

2) Houston Texans (10-6): So close again to making the playoffs. But close isn’t good enough. Not enough D to match the explosive offensive talent….

1) Indianapolis Colts (12-4, AFC South Champion, #3 Seed): They are ripe for the taking this season, with Manning’s injury. But they’ll just have enough to hold off the Texans….

AFC West-

4) Denver Broncos (6-10): Kyle Orton is good, or at least good enough to fight off Tebow. The D is still too young and full of holes, though. Knowshon Moreno’s a stud….

3) Oakland Raiders (7-9): McFadden’s very talented, Campbell will be better, but the D can’t be as good after losing Nnamdi. Despite that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them make the playoffs….

2) Kansas City Chiefs (8-8): Last year was a perfect storm. This year is the opposite. Bad schedule, inconsistencies all over the field, and luck last year that won’t be there this year….

1) San Diego Chargers (9-7, AFC West Champion, #4 Seed): I am not as high on them as others. But the talent is there on both sides of the ball. A playoff team, but not a champion….

NFC East-

4) Washington Redskins (5-11): Addition by subtraction helps (McNabb, Haynesworth), but I don’ttrust the QB, and they will still give up too many points….

3) Dallas Cowboys (8-8): They have tons of offensive weapons, the defense does a lot of good things. But it’s a tough schedule, and I don’t trust Romo (health) and Jason Garrett (weasel)….

2) New Jersey Giants (9-7): They and the Cowboys are virtually equal.The Giants look extremely average, and Eli turns the ball over a ton. But he keeps them in games….

1) Philadelphia Eagles (11-5, NFC East Champion, #3 Seed): They proclaimed themselves a “dream team”. But Vick is brittle, the front seven is weak, and Andy Reid is still Andy Reid….

NFC North-

4) Chicago Bears (5-11): I still don’t know how they made the playoffs last season. This season? A massive step back. Bad O-Line, turnovers from Cutler, and the defense falls apart….

3) Minnesota Vikings (6-10): Donovan McNabb is washed up at this point. Adrian Peterson will face 23-man fronts. The defense really lacks playmakers….

2) Detroit Lions (10-6, NFC Wild Card, #6 Seed): Yep, you read that right. The Lions are in the playoffs, baby. Playmakers on D, playmakers on O, soft schedule, it all adds up….

1) Green Bay Packers (12-4, NFC North Champion, #2 Seed): The World Champs (and it pains me to type that) will be back in the playoffs again. And they’ll be much healthier this season….

NFC South-

4) Carolina Panthers (4-12): They have a great backfield (Williams, Stewart, Goodson), but Newton is going to struggle, and the defense isn’t good enough….

3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7): Josh Freeman will be a year better, LeGarrette Blount will get a chance to prove he’s no fluke, but I don’t love the defense. This 9-7 record feels right….

2) Atlanta Falcons (12-4, NFC Wild Card, #5 Seed): They might be the second-best team in the league. The offense will be more explosive, and the defense is just plain solid….

1) New Orleans Saints (13-3, NFC South Champion, #1 Seed): The offense has an overwhelming amount of weapons, and the defense still makes huge plays. Very high on them….

NFC West-

3T) Seattle Seahawks (5-11): The fall will be hard for them, despite only losing two more games than 2010. Awful at QB, weaker on defense, especially losing Lofa Tatupu. Not good….

3T) San Francisco 49ers (5-11): Jim Harbaugh has a lot to do to overhaul this team. And he still doesn’t have the QB he wants. He’ll trade up to the #1 spot next season to draft Andrew Luck….

2) Saint Louis Rams (7-9): A lot of tough games on their schedule. They might be the best team in the division by Week 13, but by then, Bradford & Co. will be too far out of it….

1) Arizona Cardinals (10-6, NFC West Champion, #4 Seed): I don’t trust this team a lot, but Larry Fitzgerald will have a huge year, because he finally has a QB who can throw passes within 20 feet of him….

 

2011 Playoff predictions:

Wild Card Week:

NFC) #3 Philadelphia def. #6 Detroit, #5 Atlanta def. #4 Arizona;

AFC) #6 New Jersey Jets def. #3 Indianapolis, #5 Baltimore def. #4 San Diego

Division Round:

NFC) #1 New Orleans def. #5 Atlanta, #2 Green Bay def. #3 Philadelphia;

AFC) #1 Pittsburgh def. #6 New Jersey Jets, #5 Baltimore def. #2 New England

Championship Round:

NFC) #1 New Orleans def. #2 Green Bay

AFC) #1 Pittsburgh def. #5 Baltimore

Super Bowl XLVI: Pittsburgh def. New Orleans, 24-22; MVP- Ben Roethlisberger

->Come on, you couldn’t expect me to pick anyone else, could you?

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….

Odds and Ends

I feel guilty when I do not write. I cannot thank everyone enough for visiting and actually reading the large amount of stuff I’ve since flung at the wall. More importantly, I am extremely proud of Griggsy and everyone who has read and commented on his post. I’m very fortunate and blessed to have a friend in Griggsy and I look forward to his input on many things.

I try to write every night, but there are just times when it won’t happen. Last night was one of those nights. For those who do not personally know me, this is why I have been somewhat hit and miss both on here and on Twitter:

It may look like an Earthy butthole, but it is actually the basin for a pond.

I am building a pond. The area where I am currently digging used to house a swimming pool, but a little lightning and some falling tree took care of that. As you may have gathered, I am not the most adept at this type of work. I can do it and I understand a theoretical application of said work, but when it actually comes down to doing so, well, that’s a different story. I’m also one of the most stubborn people  in the world and refuse to allow anything to get in my way once I’ve put my mind to it. I’ll show that clay and shale and sand who the boss is around here. All that you see has been dug by hand. I’ve been working on it for a couple of hours per day Monday-Friday for the last while. The current measurements are 15.4’x13.2′. It is a rather large hole. The majority depth is about 16-18 inches, and the deeper section in the middle (I will be adding an in-between depth shelf there, too) is a few inches shy of 3′ deep.

If there are days when I do not get something posted here, the above dirt pit is the likely culprit.

In other news, I did get some good news over the course of the week on my ever-present and long-suffering job searching. I did have an interview with a potential job in North Carolina. I am very hopeful for that. I also received a letter from the Civil Service Commission requesting college transcripts. That, too, is an excellent sign. Even if I end up not getting the jobs, I know how much better I feel mentally about even getting the calls and getting considered. Things were pretty bleak otherwise.

I was unaware of how divided the world would become over the final Harry Potter movie being released this weekend. I, personally, was a fan of the books and the movies. I didn’t go quite so far as others about them, but I was pretty involved in the fandom. That was largely what made them so enjoyable; being part of the fanatical madness of being a fan. The books were average-to-good, with moments of really fantastic writing, but were generally just good fun that touched on important lessons, especially for young people. Being part of the community, though, was as enjoyable as reading the stories. Talking with friends, making predictions, looking into the history and allusions being made. Somewhere along the line so much of that got lost because it became trendy to be an unabashed hater and professional grade assclowns to everyone who even admitted to liking the series.

Ultimately, it is a matter of preference and you can choose to read or watch or not do either of those items. Much like I said on the “rules” page – you can have a different opinion and, frankly, I hope you do, but be prepared to make a case. Don’t just hate on it for the sake of irony or because it became the thing to do. I have no problem with disagreement or differences in opinion. I have MAJOR problems when people cannot explain the reasons for said opinion/difference/whatever. I may be very, very, very wrong about something and haven’t seen the facts or a different side of an argument. Make the case. You’ll be shocked to see what can happen when you actually discuss something with someone.

Watching the internet tough guys on Twitter and Facebook just got me all rankled. Seeing the anonymous sniping at people for being excited about a movie coming out. I’ve yet to see it or the first part of the finale, but I will see them both, and hopefully soon. Some people like Harry Potter. Some people don’t. My friend @GeeLyn said it best: “Getting my Harry Potter on. I don’t give a shit if you judge me. We all have things we like. I don’t hate on you for what you like.” I liked that. It’s no different from people trolling Pirates fans for, oh, 18 years of painful loss, or Caps fans ragging on Pens fans for losing at the WC and for Sid being concussed. I know not exactly a 1:1 type comparison, but I think you get the message. It got under my skin, sure, but I just started ignoring it and was able to slough it off. I looked at as being the better person by not engaging in the tit-for-tat type of snark that exists pretty much solely on the internet. 99% of what was being said would never be said in person, especially to someone like me (the irony is not lost on me that I am, in fact, writing all of this on the internet). I just let the haters hate and went about my business.

As life moved on from one thing to another, I did become less and less involved with the Potter franchise, especially the films. They were still an important part of life for me. Again, this will likely not come as a shock to most everyone, but I am not the most social person. I enjoy things quiet. I don’t like crowds or dealing with a large number of people at a time. I prefer the country to the city. There are a multitude of reasons why these things may be true. Perhaps another time we can get into the ol’ Walt psychology, but for now, just know that I like it quiet in the world. With being as…not socially awkward, but socially unwilling, as I can be, I found a lot of people with common interests on various message boards and fan sites of the Potter universe. I, as many others have done, was going through some unpleasant times in the late 90s/early 2000’s, and I had a decent support system with many fellow Potter fans. For me it happened to be Potter. I got into it and it was good for me. Some people find that playing a team sport. Others find it being in a band. A wise man once said “the truth, like humour, is where you find it.” We all find our personal truths and what we believe to be important everywhere.

Realistically, I probably contradicted myself 40 times in the above passages. I tend to do that when I write without directive or any sort of pre-writing. C’est la vie. As I put it to a friend of mine, who has gone thoroughly under-appreciated for years because I’m a horrible person, “my ass is completely chapped from talking out of it so much” on this blog. I know hockey talk isn’t for everyone, and I do want to have more of these type of posts (or more like the post from earlier about music). When life happens I will try to keep you all on the up-and-up. I’m in the weird position of deciding how much information I want out there about myself (at least to those who do not already know me). Time will tell.

What to expect over the next week on Avoid the Clap – two more Pens Previews (Letang and a wild card), another round of Griggsy’s Gripes (next Saturday), and a little of this and a little of that.

Thanks for reading or completely glossing over the ramblings. Go Earthen butthole. Go Employment. Go Potter. Go Rambling. Go Pens. Go whatever you like and cheer for.

-Walt

Pens Preview: Matt Cooke

As mentioned before, I am a tremendous fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and of hockey in general. I want to take some time to look at the major players for the Penguins as we get into the thick of the off-season in anticipation of the coming new year. I plan on taking a somewhat in-depth look at the player’s statistics and measure them against various benchmarks. Hopefully I can keep this interesting for everyone.

I wasn’t entirely sure which player to start with when I had originally thought of doing this. I had it narrowed down to a few players, but couldn’t easily decide who should be the first player. I even posed the question to a number of others and there was little agreement there, too. The only player to consistently get “well, that would be a good starting point” type responses is none other than the infamous Matt Cooke. Thus, I give you the Avoid the Clap breakdown and future of Matt Cooke.

Matt Cooke 2010-2011 general stat line:

67 GP, 12G, 18A, 30P, +14, 129PIM, 0PP, 3SH, 2GWG, 95S, 12.6S%

If the above statline looks odd or you have no idea what the numbers and letters me, I’ll break it down for you (and these can be applied to all players from here on out – use this post as a reference if you forget).

GP = games played, G = goals, A = assists, P = points, +/- = rating assigned to a player (+ indicated player was on ice when a goal was scored FOR his team, – indicated he was on ice for a goal against), PIM = penalty minutes (minor penalties assessed 2 minutes, majors, such as fighting, are assessed 5 minute penalties, and game misconducts are assessed 10 minutes), PP = power play goals, SH = Short-Handed goals, S = shots taken, S% = Shooting percentage (success rate of goal scoring vs number of shots taken).

Cooke had an interesting year, to say the least. Cooke effectively put up .45P per game. For a 3rd line player, I’ll take half a point per game production. Hell, guys like Crosby, a rare, generational talent, hover around 1P/per game, which is mind blowing.

Before I fully get into Cooke’s point production and offensive/defensive upside, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: suspensions.

Cooke has a history of playing the game with an edge. I, personally, like what Cooke brings to the rink each night. I like that he’ll knock players on their wallets. I like that he will agitate the oppositions stars and get under the skin of skill guys.  A good, competitive hockey club needs a guy or two like Cooke who can be a complete pest and then crush your soul with a beautiful goal or two. Cooke, however, goes across the line a little too often and puts the team at a gross disadvantage by taking unnecessary penalties and/or being suspended for his play and borderline-to-grossly-illegal hits.

We can think back to his hit on Marc Savard as the beginning of the end for Cooke ever being given the benefit of the doubt.

While the end result is ugly, the hit was legal at the time. I disagree with Cooke for making the hit, as nothing good can come from hitting a guy the way he did, but I also can’t argue or make a case he should have been suspended because he did not break any rules. This hit, however, has given the NHL the carte blanche to allow moral outrage to reign over player’s discipline (more on this later). The outrage over the hit went to plaid and everyone lost their damn minds. Scott Laughlin on the Power Play on NHL Network/XM Home Ice had such a magnificent blood lust over Cooke that even I was amazed, and I’ve often said I wished the world would end. Mike Johnson had to talk him down a few times. Laughlin tried to make the case that Cooke should be suspended even though the hit was within the rules and no penalty could be assessed because Savard was injured on the play. Johnson explained to him that it’s no different than some person being arrested while walking down the street even though the person committed no crime. The bloodlust subsided a little after that, but the undying, raging boner that people had for Cooke never died.

Sadly, this was not the last time Cooke’s name would be in the headlines. Here was Cooke’s final act of the season, as he was levied an incredibly heavy suspension for this hit on New York Ranger Ryan McDonagh:

Clearly, this was an illegal hit to the head. I have no problem with Cooke being disciplined for this hit. Moreover, I have a big problem with Cooke making a hit like that in the first place. There was no need or reason to bring the elbow up and deliver such a hit. If he keeps the elbow down and makes a clean hit it’s a great play by a two-way forward. Instead he picks the elbow up and puts his team at a disadvantage for 5 minutes, gets ejected from the game, and then is punished severely. When the game is tied 1-1 in the 3rd period, you DO NOT make a play like this, especially against a division opponent, even more so when the team has been depleted by injuries the way the Pens had been at this point in the season. This was a selfish and truly idiotic play on Cooke’s behalf.

All of that being said, I still believe, as the rest of the season proved, that Cooke’s subsequent suspension was a gross abuse of “making up for the Savard hit” and getting some revenge on Cooke. Cooke was suspended for the remainder of the regular season AND the first round of playoffs, which happened to go seven games. Going by the metric the NHL uses, 1 playoff game = 2 regular season games, so that was a 14 game suspension, plus the ten regular season games, giving a total of a 24-game suspension. For the sake of comparison, Matt Martin of the New York Islanders was only assessed a 4-game suspension for this attack on the Penguins’ Max Talbot (sucker punch and attack on a defenseless player from behind – the same type of play that had nearly killed Steve Moore when Todd Bertuzzi leveled a similar hit)

Likewise, Trevor Gillies, in the same game, was assessed a 9-game suspension for a hit as bad as Cooke’s on McDonagh. Gillies charged Eric Tangradi, leveled him in the head with an elbow, and then proceeded to punch him while he was clearly injured and doubled over. Gillies took him to the ice and then mocked him as he lay on the ice recovering from what ended up being a major concussion. Gillies is a professional goon with no redeeming qualities. Martin had been assessed a suspension for a hit on Phoenix’s Vernon Fiddler earlier in the season.  The repeat offender rule comes into play and both were slapped on the wrist for actions that would be considered felonious assault outside of the hockey rink. Matt Cooke was suspended for the equivalent of 24 games because of being a “repeat offender” (and there’s no denying he is a repeat offender, though the legitimacy of some of the suspensions is debatable), but guys like Martin and Gillies, in premeditated intent to injure, were slapped on the wrist.

Ugh.  Just ugh all around.

The bullseye is on Cooke’s back, deserved or not. There is no benefit of the doubt for a guy like him. He has pledged, at the strong urging of Penguins’ General Manager Ray Shero, to change the way he plays. Cooke has pledged to play smarter and not cross that line. I hope he is being truthful. When he plays with an edge, but within the rules, he is an excellent player and his stats bear that out.

In 67 games this season, Cooke was able to net 12 goals and assist on 18 others, giving 30 points on the year. When one looks deeper into the stats, it is even more impressive. He doesn’t have one or two games that skew those numbers. He was a consistent and constant presence on the ice, both offensively and defensively.

In the 67 games played, Cooke had ZERO multi-goal games, which means he scored in 12 separate games, and only had 5 multi-point games (only 2 games were a goal and assist, all other multi-point games were 2 assists), with none being greater than 2 points. In 67 games, Cooke appeared on the score sheet in 27 of them. Fantastic presence and production from a 3rd line player. Also within the stats, of his 12 goals, 3 of them came short-handed (or when the team was killing a penalty and playing with 1 fewer players). 1/4 of his goal output came on the PK. 3 of his assists also came on the PK, indicating that he helped set up 3 other goals by players while a man short. 6 of his total 30 points came while being a man down. Truly an astounding statline.

Cooke’s goals came against the following opponents (team abbreviations used for sake of my sanity; categorized by month):

October: PHI, TBL

November: DAL, NYR

December: BUF, PHX, FLA, ATL (now WPG)

January: DET

February: BUF, CHI

March: OTT.

Using the same system, his offensive output came against the following:

October: MTL, TOR, PHI, TBL

November: DAL, BOS, ATL (WPG), NYR, VAN

December: TOR, BUF, PHX, FLA, OTT, ATL (WPG)

January: TBL, BOS, DET

February: BUF, CHI, SJS, CHI

March: BOS, EDM, OTT

When he plays smart, Cooke has a lot more skill than people give him credit.

Other than Buffalo, there doesn’t appear to be a team that Cooke clearly played well against. He matched up well against a variety of teams and chipped in with timely offense. Likewise, games in which he appeared on the score sheet, the Pens record was 16-9. Timely scoring is a key to victory, and that is something that Cooke clearly provides the team.

Defensively, too, Cooke has been a stalwart. A prime example of what it means to be a two-way player, Cooke once again finished his season with a net positive +/- rating. He finished with a +14 rating, indicating that he was on the ice for 14 more goals for the Pens than against. I will admit, sometimes +/- can be a misleading stat, but it’s hard to deny that a +14 is impressive as a third line player whose responsibility is to give the main offense a rest, bang bodies, and score a timely goal or two to break the opponent’s will.

What will next season have in store for Matt Cooke? Well, it’s hard to say. He is a fantastically consistent player. The majority of his professional years have hovered around 30-35 points, which a few aberrations here and there. Had he stayed out of trouble he was potentially headed for a career year in production. He has also typically been in the 10-15% range on shot percentage, indicating he is not wasting his opportunities to score goals. He has 301 career points, but also 988 career penalty minutes. I can promise you he will eclipse the 1000 mark on penalty minutes, but I would say it is near impossible for him to eclipse the 350 point mark.

Based on previous seasons and what I can expect the Pens’ line-up to look like heading into next year, my projection (and this is based on trends and speculation, nothing scientific) for Cooke:

73 games played, 18 goals, 23 assists, 41P, 88 penalty minutes, 1 SHG, 0PPG, 2 GWG, 108S, 16.7%

If Cooke truly is a reformed man, and I hope he is, I think you will see a big upswing in offensive output. If Cooke goes back to playing the way he did this past year, you can expect him to be suspended a lot and/or scratched nightly. This year has the potential to be huge for Cooke. He can either right the ship and play with the skill we know he has, or he can continue down the road of making stupid plays and put the team in danger. It will be interesting to see which path he chooses. I, personally, think he will play with skill and curb his over-the-line play substantially.

Let’s go Pens.

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