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?”

Post Draft, Pre-Free Agency

With some of my thoughts and feelings out about the “Shero Draft Strategy,” I wanted to discuss a few thoughts I’ve had regarding the Pens going forward into free agency.

I, personally, don’t buy into the Ryan Suter stuff. I honestly think it’s a bunch of smoke and mirrors from Camp Shero to get teams like Detroit to bite first and hardest on Suter, leaving Parise to the Pens. Believe me, there are going to be plenty of suitors for Suter and Parise. In my heart of hearts, I think the Pens win the Parise sweepstakes as long as Shero doesn’t try to grossly low-ball him. Crosby and Parise being friends helps matters, certainly, but Parise really seems to fit the mold of what Shero and Bylsma have said the team needs – aggressive, skilled forwards with size.

Suter has stated he wishes to remain in the Western Conference, and I don’t think he’s going to bend for that. More importantly, I feel it would be folly for Shero and the Pens to go after him at the expense of the rest of the team. To land Suter, it will, according to most reports, take somewhere between 6 and 8 million per season. For ANY person who has been paying attention to the lunacy of the general Penguins’ fandom this season, paying a defenseman more than 4 dollars is apparently akin to genocide and will be met with scorn. Unless that player has a kitschy nickname or luxurious hair, in which case those players are safe. Paul Martin has become public enemy number 1 among the majority of (thoroughly uneducated, ignorant) Pens fans. Without fail, the first thing they mention about Martin is his $5M price tag. When pressed, the vast majority are unable to define WHY Martin “sucks,” but will gladly, gladly tell you time and again how “he needs to be better for $5M.”

Hold on to your hats if the Pens sign a guy like Suter for 6-7M/year. He’ll make one questionable turnover and the Consol Energy Center will burn to the damn ground. With that said, I think it’s clear that the Pens should not pursue Ryan Suter. I do, however, feel they should go after another defensive free agent…

 

Continue reading “Post Draft, Pre-Free Agency”

Pens Preview: Marc-Andre Fleury

I have been known to be something of a “Fleury hater” for many years. I don’t like the term “hater” because that implies a complete and total illogical dislike of a player for reasons that cannot be logic’d or discussed. When I would discuss Fleury’s previous disappointments I would do so with facts and figures and it usually got people to either get real quiet or jump on the “well, I’m a better fan because I don’t criticize players on my team” wagon. This season was truly a tale of two players. I’m happy to say he shut me the Hell up and did his job. With that, I give you the Pens Preview: Marc-Andre Fleury.

Amazing how much leeway having your name on the Cup nets you when dealing with critics.

Do goaltenders get unjust criticism and unjust praise? Yes, they do. Much in the same way quarterbacks in the NFL get unjust criticism and undue praise (Trent Dilfer, circa 2000 Ravens, I’d like a word), but it is also part of the job and position. A goaltender has to be mentally tough. There is so little room for error and every movement and mistake is magnified because of being the only player of that position on the ice for your team. Mistakes often lead to goals. Many goals lead to losses. Thus, goaltender mistakes are the cause of losses, thus the goaltender is the cause of the loss. Anyone who watches any sport knows that very rarely can one man be blamed, wholly and exclusively for a loss. Poor goaltending is one of those areas where you can point to a specific instance for a loss.

If that doesn’t begin when I time stamped it, skip to the 8:50 mark. If you want to see a bad goal, that is a bad goal. It’s a bad technical goal because of not having his stick in position and from leaving a gaping hole between his pads and it was an atrociously bad goal because he allowed that with less than two minutes to play in a tie game in the 3rd period. A goal that should never, ever, ever be allowed by a professional goaltender is bad enough, but they happen. To allow Scott Gomez’s eyebrows to score that goal late in a game and lose in the same manner (i.e. atrocious goaltending) to the team responsible for eliminating you from playoffs the year before? Yikes. You’d think you’d be able to get up for a game like that and show you put the previous season behind you. At the start of the year? Nah, the Flower had none of that. I was one of the lone voices in 2010 indicating he was a major weakness on a lazy team and everyone called me a bad fan and how I didn’t know what I was talking about. Well, his 2011 season started off exactly as his 2010 season ended.

65GP, 62GS, 56:51TOI, 36W, 20L, 5OTL, 143GA, 2.32GAA, 1742SA, 1599SV, 918SV%, 3SO

In the first 10 games played by no. 29, the Pens went 4-6 (the team’s first win came with Brent Johnson between the pipes) and Flower allowed 28 goals on 219 shots. One of the team wins was on November 6 when Fleury was pulled after 6:56 ice time when he allowed 2 goals on 5 shots. Within the first 10 games he was boasting a killer .845 SV%. It makes one wonder how he finished with such stellar numbers and how he became THE most important player down the stretch when he started out so rough.

Thankfully the Cup isn’t awarded in October or November. Thankfully Dan Bylsma found his spine and benched Fleury as he continued to cost the team games and valuable points. Everyone made jokes and comments about the playoffs don’t start in October, but every point matters. Need I remind everyone just how crucial a few of those lost points were at the end of the season? One more point and we would have won the Atlantic division. Really, though, I feel the season and turnaround in MAF’s game came hinged on him being benched and getting his mind straight. That little win streak and Crosby’s unreal point streak helped from mid-November helped, but sometimes things come together as they need to. In this case, Flower got sat down and the team started getting together.

I will say this – I am glad that Fleury was garbage to begin the year and Johnny played out of his mind because I had the best Halloween costume I’ve ever made:

Looking at the stats, it was a pretty impressive season overall for Marc-Andre. Started 62 games, no major injuries, had excellent relief in Brent Johnson, posting a 36-20 record and, more importantly, a .918SV% and 2.32GAA. A .918SV% was good enough for 15th overall in the NHL and the 2.32 GAA placed him 9th in the NHL among goaltenders. Either way you slice it, Fleury finished the season as a top-half of the league goaltender. It is imperative to note how the defense played, too, down the stretch. Flower and his D reliably held opposing teams to 2 goals or fewer per game. Sadly, Fleury’s very, very bad start caused his stats to be a little less impressive.

More importantly, and this is never really shown in the statistics, is the quality of the saves and the importance of the saves. In 2010 MAF was known for giving up soft and poorly timed goals. To start 2011 he was also giving up the same poorly timed and soft goals. He gave up bad goals. As the season moved on he made BIG saves. He made important saves. He eliminated the back-breaking and painful goals (like the one to Gomez linked above). He made the saves that a big time goaltender needed to make. Previously he wasn’t making those (less some huge saves in the ’09 Cup run). Even though the end result was not what we had all hoped, “history stops everything.”

Sadly the Pens’ popgun offense was not enough to overcome Fleury playing out of his mind and allowing two goals or fewer regularly from about January onward. In December and January he only had one game where his save percentage was below .900 (12/26 vs OTT). Month by month, 29’s SV% was as follows:

October: .863

November: .931

December: .931

January: .942

February: .899

March: .916

If you are partial to seeing things in action instead of on paper (or on a computer screen), just take a look at this:

And the Shootouts. How could we ignore the shootouts? Everyone joked about the Pens going to so many shootouts as the season went on, but the goaltender is the most important part of the shootout. By record, MAF was 2nd best in the NHL in Wins in a shootout (with 8). Overall in the SO, Flower had an .842SV%, facing 38 shots and allowed only 6 goals. A truly, truly astonishing feat, considering how the modern shootout is stacked against the goaltender. And, of course, we can never forget that we got to see some of the flourish that goes into the shootout preparation. Roll that beautiful bean footage:

Overall, Flower performed statistically better at home, but had a disproportionate amount of losses (largely due to the early season) compared to road games. At home, 29 showed a .924SV% and a 2.17GAA. On the road he posted a .911SV% and 2.51GAA. In overall wins, he posted a .940%, whereas in losses he posted a .880%. The old adage of “the team that scores more goals wins,” but the goaltender plays a vital role in that bearing true. If Fleury was having a bad game, there was typically a loss attached to it. When looking at save percentage with regard to days of rest between games, Fleury showed to be much better as an active goaltender than one with substantial time between games. When playing two games back to back he averaged a .925%; with 1 day of rest he posted a .915%, but with 2 days of rest he kipped up to a .938%, but with 3 or more days off he dropped terribly to .894%.

Statistically, it was a very good year. 143 goals allowed was the fewest he’s allowed when playing 50 or more games. Likewise, 2.32 is the lowest GAA he’s ever had in his NHL career. It was also his best save percentage (again with a minimum of 50 games). The only area where he was a “disappointment” was only having 3 shutouts on the season, which was an uptick from last season when he only had 1, but a drop from the two seasons prior, both in which he had 4 shut outs.

It truly was a magical year for Marc-Andre. He started off poorly, got benched, took his benching like a man, earned back his starting job and then kept the team in so many games. I fear there will be a little bit of a drop off next season, but I’m hopeful he can play consistently, as that has always been an issue until this year, and keep doing what works for him. It is so hard to really evaluate a goaltender just by looking at a stat line because, as mentioned above, there are intangibles surrounding the quality and timeliness of saves and making a big save to swing momentum or deflate another team. This year, MAF had “it.” The element to his game that had been missing was rediscovered and hopefully he doesn’t lose it again. Looking ahead to next season, here’s how I see the major statistics breaking down:

67GP, 65GS, 57:03TOI, 38W, 17L, 4OTL, 136GA, 2.41GAA, 1715SA, 1579SV, .911SV%, 5SO.

I expect a good year out of MAF. I fear he may have a little bit of up-and-down play. He’ll tick those SO numbers up because he’s got an all-world defense in front of him most of the night, but I think will have a very slight fall off from this season’s numbers because he’ll have a little more offense in front of him and he can gamble on things like the pokecheck and/or getting off his leash and attempting to play the puck (Marc, please stop – stay in the crease, don’t try to play the puck. Hextall and Brodeur you ain’t).

Oh, how silly of me, I forgot the most important stat: 1 B-Boy pose

Let’s go Pens.

 

 

 

Pens Preview: Tyler Kennedy

Tyler Kennedy. Tyler effing Kennedy. Be honest with yourself for a few minutes. Think to the start of the season. Raise your hand if you expected Tyler Kennedy to be one of the best offensive weapons down the stretch.

It’s OK. I’ll wait.

I know I didn’t expect much out of Kennedy beyond what we got used to seeing from him – solid, if unspectacular offense, no PK, no PP, and the occasional oddity in behavior, such as licking one’s stick. Previously Kennedy’s strongest year in goal scoring came in 2008-2009 when he netted 15 goals. He also produced 20 assists for 35 points with a +15 rating and 171 shots on net. Overall a pretty impressive stat line for a 3rd line player. He took a step down in production the following year, but so did the rest of the team, to be frank. 2010 saw him drop to 13G and 12A. Not nearly as impressive or as good as any had hoped, especially given he was playing with the same line mates.

And then 2011 happened. Let’s take a look at the year that was and what we can expect from Tyler Kennedy……….Kennedy

Lick stick, kiss Cup.

Tyler Kennedy, though actually a center, has been a mainstay as one of the Pens players on the right wing on the third line. We all like to make our jokes and comments about the wings and lack of depth therein, but Kennedy has been a fixture at the position for four years now and has his name etched on Lord Stanley’s fabled Cup. Kennedy has consistently played with Jordan Staal and Matt Cooke and the three combined to be a dangerous line, mixing grit, speed, and skill. Unfortunately, we got to see what Kennedy looked like on the top line this year. Even more disappointing, it wasn’t alongside Sidney Crosby, but instead alongside Staal…or Letestu..or Neal…or Kovalev. It was a weird year. I still feel like I need to sleep off that hangover.

When the rest of the team was shrinking (and I never thought I would say these words), Kennedy stepped up and put the team on his back. If not for TK, Fleury, and killer defense from Z, Martin, and Orpik the team doesn’t make playoffs. Haters gonna hate, but TK can high step his way to S&T Bank with Jerome Bettis and his new $2M contract per year for the next two years. Let’s take a look at 2011 from a statistical perspective.

80GP, 21G, 24A, 45P, +1, 37PIM, 234S, 9S%, 7PPG, 7PPA, 0SHG, 0SHA, 2GWG, 14:32TOI

In terms of actual play, Kennedy was one of the healthier players this season by appearing in 80 games and all seven playoff games. Equally, he was one of the best forces on offense (though his defensive coverage was a little lacking) by generating 45 points, which was good enough to rank him 4th overall on the team in point production. Likewise, Kennedy was third on the team in goal scoring, placing only behind Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz (Sid with 32 goals, Kunitz with 23, and Kennedy with 21).

It’s hard to deny that Kennedy became an offensive force this past season, but was it because of playing top-line minutes or was it because coach Bylsma pulled him aside for a length of time during an optional practice in which TK was the only player to dress and took the opportunity to coach him up a little? Maybe it was a little from both of those columns. Statistically, yes, Kennedy had his highest TOI average of his professional career, but it wasn’t a drastic change. In 2009 he averaged 13:46 in ice time, which dipped to 12:35 in 2010, but ticked up to 14:32 in 2011. Realistically, TK only played about one minute more per game than he previously was averaging (though, I admit, those numbers are slightly skewed because he played less with Sid and Geno in the line-up and more when those two were lost for the year).

Was the uptick in offense because of more ice time? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Was it because of Bylsma’s pep talk one day? Could be part of it. Was it playing with talent better than Cooke and Staal (even though he continued to play with Staal at times)? I would say that was largely the case. While I love Cookie and the Gronk, we aren’t exactly talking about world caliber playmakers and offensive juggernauts who need to be respected at all times when on the ice. When playing with guys like Neal or Kovalev or Letestu or Jeffrey, yes, Kennedy became a much more viable threat because he was no longer THE offensive threat on the line. Amazing what happens when the talent has been spread out a little.

234 shots, however, is an incredible number. The only player to shoot more than TK was Letang, and he only had two more shots on the season. More astonishing is that TK learned to take different and better shots instead of the attempts he was known for, almost all of which sailed ~4 feet wide of the cage OR went straight into the goaltender’s chest. He did still post 21 goals and have a shooting percentage of 9. We can joke all we want, but watch this again and thank your lucky stars that he signed at $2M, especially when compared to some of the other deals signed this year.

What can you say? The man learned how to score goals on the rush, cleaning up garbage, from unreal angles, and by getting in good positioning to accept passes for one-timers/making the goaltenders move. He also, in classic Penguins and Bylsma fashion, bangs bodies. Sweet baby Jesus does he go out there and bang bodies. I think we all remember seeing him on 24/7, too, being a vocal leader and trying to get the rest of the team ramped up and playing.

Bang bodies. Score goals. You want to know how important TK was? This video should raise a few red flags as to just how important he was:

“5 goals in 7 games.” “A power play goal.” Remember when we used to score goals on the PP? I know, you have to go back a while to see one of those. Oh, wait, whoops, he also scored the one and only PP goal the Pens scored in the playoffs. Like I said, we all like to make jokes about TK and there was lots of doubt surrounding him, but he was statistically one of the best players on the team, both in the regular season and the playoffs. TK was tied for 2nd on the team in PPGs with 7 (Kunitz also had 7, Sid, of course, had 10).

Why is it accepted that Chris Kunitz is a legitimate top-6 forward and deserving to play with Sid without question, but Kennedy’s season was a complete fluke? I don’t think it was purely coincidence that both Kennedy and Kunitz had oddly similar statistics. The only major difference was efficiency with shots. Kunitz was far more efficient with his shooting, but that’s also a product of the type of player. While I agree that Kunitz is a top-6 forward and is a perfect complement to Sid, I would love to see Kennedy get an extended look on Sid’s wing. We’ll never know unless we try.

Let’s take a look month-by-month at how TK stacked up.

October: 2G, 2A, 4P, +3, 0PPG

November: 2G, 4A, 6P, -3, 0PPG

December: 1G, 5A, 6P, +5, 0PPG

January: 2G, 4A, 6P, 0, 1PPG

February: 7G, 2A, 9P, -6, 4PPG

March: 5G, 5A, 10P, +3, 1PPG

April: 2G, 2A, 4P, -1, 1PPG

Clearly the loss of Sid and Geno allowed TK to step up, but that is evident when one looks at his role on the PP after both had been lost. Sid goes down in January and Geno was ailing, TK gets put on the PP and scores a goal. February? No Sid, lose Geno, TK scores 4 PPGs and scores 3 others. March? 4 goals even strength and another on the PP. Hell, he even managed a PP goal in April where there were only a few games. Maybe, just maybe, Tyler Kennedy was a missing piece on the power play for the last year or so. If nothing else he is what the PP is lacking – unadulterated greed. Kennedy takes shots like a bro at a party. He doesn’t pass up an opportunity to take a shot, something the PP has been severely lacking.

Games in which TK scored a PP goal the Pens went 5-2. Not a bad record. When a plus player, the Pens went 14-6. As a minus player, the team went 9-12. When neutral, the team’s record was 26-14. Combined as a plus or neutral player the Pens went 40-20. When the stars are plus players the team does well. Imagine that. Even when looking at individual teams and divisions, TK’s production was pretty evenly spread and equal throughout. He performed the best against the Atlantic division, but that is solely because of playing more games against those teams. For what it’s worth, his performance was actually disappointing vs Atlantic teams given how many more games were being played.

Tyler Kennedy had an absolutely unreal year in 2011, and I don’t feel it was by chance. Looking to next year, assuming Kennedy is given his opportunity to play with the stars and get some PP time, I think we can expect another great year from no. 48. My prediction for next season:

74GP, 23G, 27A, 50P, +9, 42PIM, 208S, 11S%, 9PPG, 4 PPA, 0SHG, 0SHA, 14:41 TOI

Let’s go Pens.

 

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.

Pens Preview: Kris Letang

Kris Letang. Wow. Just…wow. I remember watching him over the course of the season and now looking over his stat lines I am purely mystified by Letang’s season. I am going to do my best to write objectively, but I want to outline some of my biases regarding Kris Letang. I was disappointed in his play down the stretch. I know I am not alone in being a little disappointed with his play, both offensively and defensively, as the year went on. I was also grossly offended by Letang’s play on PP for the 2nd half of the season. Those were my major bugaboos. That said, I liked a LOT of what I saw out of Letang  and hope to see him continue to develop (remember, this will only be Letang’s 5th full-season with the club) and do things the right way.

With that all said and out-of-the-way, I give you Kris Letang’s 2010-2011 season:

Wait, whoops. Wrong film.

Using the Youtube test, you wouldn’t know that Kris Letang actually plays hockey, least of all defense. The first 8 or so videos are all of him giving interviews and funny features because he’s so dreamy. I get it. He’s a handsome fella. I’m confident enough in myself to admit when another man is handsome. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but different strokes for different folks. Really, though, for looking for hockey plays, Youtube isn’t all that kind to him. One of the featured videos is his “fight” with Travis Zajac. I’ve got a few videos, though. We’ll have a good time. Let’s take a look at the numbers:

82 GP, 8 G, 42A, 50 P, +15, 101 PIM, 236 S, 3.4% S%, 4PPG, 20PPA, 0SHG, 1 SHA, 2GWG, 24:02 TOI

The positive side of the stats – Letang played all 82 games this season, ranking 3rd in the NHL. He also played all 7 games in the playoffs. Well, “played” and “being a warm body wearing a skating penguin” are different terms. For right now, we’ll just say he played every game all season. A huge feat and good on him for doing so. Playing the Pens style of play and being a top-pairing defender is hard work and to do so for every game this season, I must tip my hat to Mr. Letang. A job well done.

Equally positive, he finished the season a plus player for the second time. He finished 2009-2010 with a +1 rating. That greatly improved to a +15 this year. 25 of Letang’s 50 points came even strength, helping showcase the + rating as even more impressive. For the sake of comparison (mentioned in Michalek’s write-up), James Wisniewski finished the season with 51 points but a laughably bad -14 rating. While there are obvious differences between the team and talent that both Letang and Wis have to play with, the concept of them being almost mirrored in opposite directions is stunning. It becomes even more stunning when you realize that Wisniewski was just signed to a contract of $5.5M and Letang is on the second year of a four-year contract at $3.5M. For two million dollars less, Letang put up the same point total and was a net +29 compared to Wisniewski. Advantage Shero.

Letang did take a large number of penalties this past year. With 101 PIM, he nearly doubled his previous season’s record of 51, which doubled that previous season’s record of 24. Deserved or otherwise, Letang needs to take better penalties. Sometimes taking the penalty when you are the only man back and have to take a tripping or interference call to prevent a scoring chance is a good penalty. He did take more of the”good” penalties, but he took a ton of bad penalties to. He also was victimized by incredibly poor officiating and not having any benefit of the doubt because of playing on the same team as Matt Cooke, as we all remember how ludicrous this penalty call was:

No rest for the team which employs a villain such as Cooke. Steigerwald says about “giving the benefit of the doubt” to the officials, and I would agree IF the officials consistently and league-wide called for a zero-tolerance (even though this was a magnificent play and I like seeing these types of plays) on hits to the head (this wasn’t and it was obvious). Instead, Letang was ejected from the game and assessed penalties for playing hockey. Herein lies the debate about banning all contact to the head and how it will soften the game. I, personally, am supportive of an OHL style banning of all hits to the head, intentional, blind side, and otherwise. I like the idea of leaving a little wiggle room in the discipline, but ALL hits are penalized in some manner. Mandatory 2-minute minor with some discrepancy by the officials for majors, misconducts, and match penalties. In a case such as this, Letang would be given a minor (based on what the ref saw) and Josh Bailey would also be serving the minor for roughing. Upon discussion with other officials and/or seeing a replay, the official would have no cause to assess anything more than a two-minute minor. Instead, we are left with a broken system that allows (and encourages) hitting players in the head if they can be expected to see you and if you are in a “hitting zone.” The NHL and NHLPA need to get serious about this and they have done precisely the opposite.

The other important fact that we are overlooking in that video is that Blake Comeau sucks.

As far as point production went, well, there’s where Letang’s season became interesting. Putting 8 goals on the board over the season is admirable for any defenseman. Doing so when so much offense is generated by the D is a little less impressive. Putting up 8 goals when you are the primary quarterback of the power play is abysmal. Just looking at “8 goals and 41A” is misleading, though. The assist stat is HUGE. Putting up 41A, 20 of which came on the PP, is a great number and should be celebrated. Well, it should be considering that 18 of those 20 PPAs came with Sid, Geno, or both in the line-up. That still means he was able to put…2 PPAs on the board without…Sid or Geno.

Wait, what? You mean Crosby and Malkin are important to the PP and the general offensive output? Why I never!

Obviously the PP was a sore spot for Pens fans this season. Is Letang the answer? Honestly, I don’t know. Trying to live up to Gonchar’s legend on the PP is difficult for anyone. There will be a discussion on the PP and what can and cannot be done another time, but for now we’ll roll with what we have on the roster, and Letang is our top PP guy. When looking at the point production on the PP, it becomes clear just how important Sid and Geno are to the success of the PP and how integral it is to have a guy like Letang on top of his game manning the point. Beginning on 1/6 (the first game in the no-Crosby era) and ending in Atlanta, when Mike Comrie scored his only goal of the year, Letang’s PP numbers went as follows: 2G, 9A. He put up 11 points without Sid (and eventually without Geno). Obviously the production dropped off, but not as much as one might think. I believe it was largely due to no 87 or 71 on the ice to finish off the scoring chances AND because of Letang’s terri-bad shooting. We all laugh and joke about Letang’s shooting accuracy, but I lost the ability to laugh as the season went on. It’s one thing if you can’t shoot straight (in my playing days I had a terrible shot) but it doesn’t matter because you aren’t expected to. It’s a whole different beast if you are expected to get pucks on net or at least in the general vicinity. Taking wild shots that swing around the glass and end boards only to be cleared easily is not a means of success.

We all have to dig deep into our memory banks, but try to think back to when Letang was awesome on the PP and we had Sid and Geno just doing their thing. Did you find it? No, well, let’s jog your memory:

My God. I remember. Look at the play by Letang – making a risky, but incredibly skilled play to keep the puck in the zone, didn’t take a wild shot, cut through the middle and dished it off to Sid. Pavelec just couldn’t do anything. He gambled on challenging Letang but left the next open to a bearing down tandem of Sid and Geno. Letang doesn’t make the pass and we all forget about this play. He made the smart play, using his skill to help the team, and he was a beast. Having Sid and Geno help, too. 18 of 20 PP points came with Sid or Geno not on IR. Without cross referencing the game-by-game stats (perhaps shortsighted on my behalf), I think we can assume the majority of those points come from Sid and Geno being unreal.

Goal scoring. That’s right, I said it. Goal scoring. Kris put up 8 goals. Not bad, but not great, given the opportunities he had. More importantly, as the PP quarterback and shooter from the point, he only put up 4 PPG. That means his even strength goals and PP goals were equal. He was almost completely equal in PP points and even-strength points. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but, again, given his skill set AND being given an average of 4:28 per game of PP time, the numbers should be a little higher. In 08-09, Letang had his best year with 10 goals (but only had 23 assists). This was his best season in points and assists, and his second best in goal scoring. Oddly enough, he wasn’t as weak as we thought, at least statistically.

In February, March, and April combined Letang only had 9 total points. That is inexcusable under any circumstances. It either means he cannot handle the responsibility of contributing offensively as an “offensive defenseman.” I disagree with him being labeled as a purely offensive guy because of the great improvement in his defensive game. Either way, I think he knows he needs to be better, both on the PP and even-strength regarding shooting accuracy and not killing offensive zone time by taking poorly placed shots. When you take 236 shots and only get 8 goals, there’s no longer a discussion or debate.

Defensively, I liked Letang’s game for most of the season. Oh, there were times his defense made me want to rip out my hair and the hair of everyone around me, but he generally was better than the year before, and it’s nice to see that. The +15 rating greatly helps, too. By month, Letang was +8, +4, +7, +3, -9, +0, +2. Outside of February in which he put up a -9 (and we need not remember just how painful February was with no Sid, losing Geno, etc). In Pens victories, Letang was a combined +38 and in combined losses he was a -23. Much like Michalek, there’s something to be said about being involved.In only 4 games all season was Letang a + player and the team lost. The Pens went 32-21 when Letang was neutral in +/-, and were 4-17 when a minus player. Not shockingly, when one of your top-4 defenseman is a plus player the team wins more games than they lose. Who ever would have guessed?

There were times, though, when I wanted to reach through and grab that little stain the hair and smack him around.

What the eff? I don’t even want to think about that play. Moving on.

There were some times, especially down the stretch, when Letang just simply would give up on the play. That doesn’t cut it in juniors. It certainly doesn’t cut it at the NHL. Can’t seem to find any of those on Youtube (go figure), but there were times he would lose his man or just flat quit skating and he’d stand there and watch the opposition score. Perhaps the drag of the season and playing every game had an impact on him. Hell, I can barely dig a hole for a few hours a day without needing rest. He’s out there playing like a maniac and getting punched in the face all the while. Still, if he was feeling tired he should have said he needed a rest. A rested Letang at 80% is much better than a proud Letang at 40%.

Sadly, if you plotted just about all stats of Letang’s on a scatterplot/number line/etc, things would go up through December and then just kinda float back down to disappointment by April.

What can we expect out of the dreamiest player? Well, it’s hard to tell. Assuming Sid and Geno are healthy and Paul Coffey come in to school Danny Bylsma on the PP this Summer, I think we can expect some great things. I also happen to think Letang is potentially the big name possibly -possibly- on the trade block. I don’t expect him to go at the deadline, but if another GM is willing to give up huge assets in exchange, I don’t think Shero will turn down the deal.

Like the others, I expect the following from Kris next season (and this, again, is based on nothing but supposition):

78GP, 12G, 45A, 57P, +13, 88PIM, 201S, 6%, 8PPG, 27PPA, 0SHG, 0SHA, 3GWG, 25:17TOI

I’m gonna lay it down right now – assuming Letang can stay healthy and do his thing without trailing off once the new year rolls around, he will be a Norris finalist. This year he was an All-Star. Next year he’ll be a Norris Finalist.

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