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.

 

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