The Distance to Here: A Penguins Retrospective

So, here we are. We’ve all made it here. Where is “here,” exactly? That is both something easy and difficult to answer.

“Here” is nothing more than the second round of playoffs in the 2015-2016 season. The Penguins have made it through round one with, what some may call, remarkable ease. “Here” is waiting to find out if the next round will be against another rival – the Flyers or Capitals (as of this writing, the Caps-Flyers game had just begun. EDIT: It will be the Capitals).

“Here” is also a much more…amorphous term. “Here” represents a location or destination. Moving on in playoffs is not a unique sentiment or goal. Every team wants to make playoffs and then progress as far as possible. Getting “here,” however, is something different for this Penguins team. “Here” isn’t simply the 2nd round (or Conference championship or even the the Finals themselves). “Here” means the transformation of the Penguins into this team, this style of play, this everything.

To understand how the Penguins got “here,” we need to look at a journey they collectively took. For some of you, none of this will be new. Let’s take a trip back in time. Not to the distant past. Not to the explosion of the stars from which we were all created. Let’s take a trip back to the grand old days of 2010.

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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”

The Deep End of the Fan Pool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gripes: First-Round NHL Playoffs Preview

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

Western Conference-

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

Prediction: Canucks in 6

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

Prediction: Blues in 7

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

Prediction: Coyotes in 7

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

Prediction: Predators in 7

Eastern Conference-

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

Prediction: Rangers in 5

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

Prediction: Bruins in 5

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

Prediction: Devils in 6

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

Prediction: Penguins in 6

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

The Gripes: 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.

All Things In Time

Wow. That month went by fast.

Since the last update, and that was late October, business has picked up around these parts. The good news: I have really settled into my job and there’s much less insanity surrounding the day-to-day life. I’m still perpetually behind the 8-ball, but that happens. Contrary to popular belief, teaching does not afford a large amount of free time. The last few weeks have been a non-stop barrage of research paper drafts and workshops and staying at school until 7 p.m. I wish I were joking, but it is common for me to be at school, either grading papers or tutoring, until 7 at night.

I don’t want that to be taken as bitching and moaning, though. I love my job. I absolutely love what I do. I am very, very happy with my life right now. All the things I’ve wanted for years — the things I’ve shown patience and sacrificed for — are all coming about in fair turn. I am looking forward, though, to going back to Pittsburgh for Christmas. I did not make it home for Thanksgiving, as our break from school was shortened (we had school on Wednesday, which was poo), but I plan on being in Pittsburgh for a prolonged time at Christmas (read: 2-3 weeks, depending on travel days). This semester is coming to a close very fast. This week coming up is the last traditional week for my juniors (who are taking senior-level courses) because they all have college finals the following week. I’m proud of the work I’ve been able to do, especially with a shortened time frame. These kids lost out on over 6 weeks of instructional time and (most) have risen to the challenge.

Griggsy, too, has undergone some changes. He’s also found himself amongst the employed. Sadly, his employment is largely keeping him dead to the rest of the world. Hopefully he, too, will get settled in and can find a few minutes to share with us his stories.

So, that Sidney Crosby guy is pretty good, right?

 

 

I will be the first to admit, and many saw, that I was wearing thin on patience with Sid prior to his return. I was conflicted because I’d been willing to give him the time and space needed to recover and didn’t want him rushed back, but at the same time he really needed to get into the game. He either was going to play again or he wasn’t, and he needed to make the choice. Thankfully he chose to get back in the game. I cannot even imagine what it was like for Sid, though. Someone with that level of drive and competition having to sit on the sideline all that time…and then get close to return but always consider if another hit like Steckel’s happens it could be the end of the career. I didn’t envy his position, but at the same time, he needed to get back for numerous reasons.

He needed to get back simply for the moral victory to show that concussions can be recovered from if handled properly (I’m looking at you, Boston). He had to come back for the people of Pittsburgh who waited for his return patiently. He needed to get back for his teammates. He needed to get back to lift the NHL. Like it or not, he is the face of the NHL. It’s nearly impossible to market Ovechkin lately, and there really isn’t a player you associate with the post lock-out NHL more than Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin.

But Sid came back. And he made the whole hockey world sit up straight. Much like Tupac, all eyes were on Sid. And he didn’t disappoint. After not playing in a competitive hockey game for 320 games Sidney Crosby returned, on a relatively calm November night, and scored two goals and registered two assists against the New York Islanders. And the world was back in balance.

Of course, there are some who say he came back too early or that he needed to get a stint in Wilkes-Barre to get up to game speed, but I think everything happened as it needed to for Sid. He came back and scored on his first shot. It couldn’t have happened any other way. Of course, the naysayers and roustabouts all had a field day with the second game vs St. Louis, but the team is more than Sidney Crosby and it was a failure as/of a team that ultimately lost that game. And then things seemed like they should be against the up-and-down Ottawa Senators. Good teams like the Pens should completely manhandle bad teams like the Islanders and the Senators. They should find themselves in solid competition against teams like the Blues.

It all comes down to playing a full game. There needs to be preparation for each game. There need to be smart plays. There needs to be passion, too. Sometimes the Pens go a little light in those areas because they are a gifted team with a LOT of top-tier talent. Sometimes they get the wake-up call, sometimes they don’t. Thankfully it’s a long season and when playoffs roll around it isn’t a one-and-done system.

Tonight the Pens face off against Montreal. Presumably Brent Johnson will be in the cage. The magic is gone from Johnson’s game. Let us hope that he can recapture it and get back to the level we know he can play at, otherwise this could be an incredibly long season for the Flower. All things in time.

The Western Conference…According to Griggsy

Folks, Griggsy is a beast. Just let his analysis speak for itself. Holy crap. This is also the first time I’ve used the “more/jump/split” feature. So…make sure to keep reading after the jump.

 

Holy crap.

With the greatest sport in the world less than a week from puck drop, the Gripes takes a break from normal format and now gives you an NHL season preview and playoff predictions. The Gripes will go back to normal over the weekend. Until then, enjoy this primer for the 2011-12 NHL season. And Let’s Go Pens!

Below are capsules about each team. They will be listed from the bottom of the standings up to the top. I’ll give you my thoughts on each team, a key player for their success (or lack thereof), and best and worst case scenarios for their season. After that, I’ll give you my playoff predictions, culminating with a Stanley Cup Champion being crowned. These are my thoughts. Pick them apart, leave feedback with

who you think will be there, and most importantly, take everything I say with the requisite grain of salt….

Western Conference

Continue reading “The Western Conference…According to Griggsy”

Pens Preview: Sidney Crosby

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Then, of course, the Hedman hit.

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

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

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

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

Sid’s stat line from last season:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My God.

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

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

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

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

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

Then the symptoms returned and he shut down again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome back, Sid. We missed you.

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