The Penguins Problem: Injuries

What in the name of sweet baby Jesus is wrong with the Penguins?

I’m not saying it to be a troll or being ironically detached from things. I’m saying it because I legitimately don’t know what is wrong with this team, nor do I know if there is any way to “fix” what ails them. There are a number of avenues to explore, and I don’t know if any are correct, let alone defining one as singularly accurate. This is my attempt to sort out my thoughts and get some things out there in the hopes that it generates some discussion. By all means, feel free to disagree with every single thing I say and give me an alternate argument. I am no Andy Sutton, I’m just going off what I can see and what I know from my own life experiences.

Injuries.

Yes, we’ve been down this road before. There is no “fix” for injuries. They are a part of sports, especially hockey. Unfortunately guys get hurt. It does appear that the Penguins have been hit extra hard by the injury bug over the last few seasons. Collectively, I feel, this is due to a few major factors, including, but not limited to: coach Bylsma’s grinding system, ineptitude of league offices/on-ice officials, and the sense of wild west justice in the NHL.

I do feel Bylsma’s system is more demanding, physically, on the players which puts them in more contact and breaks down the body a little quicker/harder. It isn’t a direct one-to-one comparison, though. Bylsma’s system results in more short-term injuries or needing a game or two off to rest. The Penguins have been dealing with major, profound injuries to important players (and some role players, too).

Sidney Crosby was hit twice in the head and missed nearly a full calendar year. Was under every microscope in the world and, as the face the of the NHL, (fairly or unfairly) needed to be protected a little bit. Returns to game action to all the fanfare deserving of someone of that caliber…and then gets clocked in the head by David Krecji’s elbow and Krecji doesn’t even get penalized. Sid goes back on the IR.

Kris Letang gets absolutely leveled by Max Pacioretty. There was no penalty on the play. Even by the most liberal interpretation, it was a violation of Rule 48. Letang returned to game action and scored the OT winner, but has since been on the shelf with concussion symptoms. Pacioretty was eventually suspended 3 games and then proceeded to go on TV and bitch and moan about “the way the wind is blowing” in the NHL. Apparently he doesn’t agree with the wind blowing in the direction of not hitting a guy who isn’t looking in the side of the head. Go figure. I wonder if he has an opinion on not letting up on a hit in/around the stanchions?

Robert Bortuzzo, much like Letang, was hit in the head by a renowned sack of monkey shit, Zac Rinaldo, and there was neither a penalty on the play NOR supplemental discipline from the all mighty office of Brendan Shanahan. Bortuzzo, thankfully, has finally recovered and been returned to Wilkes Barre-Scranton as of January 7, 2012.

I want you to remember, there were no penalties called on those hits. These are not the type of injuries that are the result of Dan Bylsma’s system. These injuries are the direct result of neither players nor officials policing the game. If ever you need an example of just how poorly managed the game can be, look at the Penguins-Islanders brawl from Feb. 11, 2011.

I completely understand that there will always be a human element to the game, especially when it comes to officiating. It’s an unenviable job. Much like the weatherman, you never really hear about what a great job a referee does. The negative is what one hears about. However, it has become so bad on a night-in-night-out basis with the on-ice officials that it truly has made me miss the days of Bill McCreary’s mustache. At least you knew what you would get with McCreary (let them play until late, then make yourself the center of attention by calling some bullshit). Is it so hard to err on the side of caution and call penalties on plays like those? If you keep penalizing the offending teams they will eventually stop doing it (or, at worst, those players will no longer get ice time).

Matt Cooke was vilified, justifiably, for playing recklessly and putting his team at a disadvantage. He has since changed his playing style and has been hit in the head with cheapshots multiple times this season, all have gone unpunished.

The wild west system of justice the NHL has doesn’t work. If you hit a guy cheaply you had to answer the bell. Now? Well, it’s hard to say. You need to have guys on the roster who can play. You can’t have a Steve MacIntyre or Eric Godard on the ice regularly because they are a hockey abortion on skates. The role of the enforcer is gone. When Brian Burke has finally given up and demoted Colton Orr (not without wailing lamentations about truculence and the direction of the NHL) you know times have changed.

Now you have players of all levels running around and taking liberties with others because there is no accountability. There’s no way to tell what will or won’t be penalized. There’s even less idea about what hits will and will not be reviewed and disciplined further. If I were a player I’d take every opportunity I got to weaken an opponent by taking out a star. Even if you do get penalized, the notion of a “make up call” and ebb-and-flow officiating effectively renders penalties non-deterrents. Brendan Shanahan was given the keys to the castle and given a mandate to clean up the league and put his foot down. He may, in a sense, actually be worse than Colin Campbell. At least we all knew Colin was completely incompetent and had his wheel of justice. We have no idea what to make of Shanhan. Make a stink about a hit on TSN and he might look at it. Play in a non-traditional market or employ a demon like Cooke and it’s apparently free rein on cheapshots against you.

If you can’t protect your own players/teammates with a tough guy you need to be able to count on the league holding psychos accountable. The league is not doing their job.

As it stands now, I fully support Donald Fehr and support a work stoppage if it means the NHL gets serious about player safety and subsequent discipline for violations. These are not the injuries that occur because of Dan Bylsma’s system. These are the injuries that occur because of the systemic failure of the league to protect its most valuable assets: the players.

With the injuries have come numerous other problems. The injuries can be overcome by replacing players. Sure, there’s no true way to replace a Crosby or a Letang, but when you have Malkin and young studs like Simon Despres (who can fill in and get some invaluable NHL experience) you can maintain. What you cannot do, and I fear this is what is happening to the Pens, is allow the seeds of doubt and inevitability to germinate in the brain. From what some of the players have been saying over the past few weeks, I am deeply concerned this is a team that has given up on themselves. Starting with the Flyers (three games ago) the Pens have looked like a team completely incapable of competing, let alone winning. They looked like a competent team for the first 10 minutes against the Rangers and then fell apart.

After Deryk Engelland was suspended for his hit on Chicago’s Marcus Kruger (a dirty hit, but no less of a hit than what Niklas Kronwall does nightly) Brooks Orpik was asked about his opinion on the NHL’s discipline. His response: “I think we have strong opinions, but they aren’t going to change the suspension.” While Orpik may not have an objective opinion of things, he also carries weight with the team and often speaks the truth when none other will.

Likewise, Matt Niskanen had the most telling quote after the Pens 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. When asked about the injuries that keep happening (in this case, Pascal Dupuis and Arron Asham), Niskanen replied “I can honestly say that I’m not surprised. That’s the way it’s been going. We’ve just had some really, really bad luck.”

If ever there were two quotes you didn’t want to hear, those would them. Those are the thoughts of a team that is up against the wall and admitting defeat. They are morphing into a “can’t win, don’t try” mentality.

Last season’s team was ravaged by injuries, even worse than this current team, and the 2011 Penguins would annihilate the 2012 Penguins if they played one another. Last season the team lacked skill, but they stayed in games with pure determination and will. This squad? They look disinterested and demoralized. They look like a team that knows they’re outmatched. Last year’s squad knew they were outmatched but refused to let up. This squad routinely takes a period (or more) off each game.

But how do you fix it? Do you change coaches? No. This isn’t entirely a coaching problem. Bylsma has them playing and then something happens and they quit. Do you make a blockbuster trade? Maybe, but there’s no promise that works and you may end up doing more harm than good. Do you bench players or make a stink in the press? Possibly, but then you come across as petulant and the agenda-driven NHL will ensure you never are the benefit of the doubt regarding penalties and player safety.

I’m no Andy Sutton, but I don’t see a fix for this, and certainly not an easy fix. This team has not been able to compete with top-tier teams this season and there’s no reason for it. Yes, they were decimated on defense by injuries, but that doesn’t excuse only being able to generate 4 goals combined in the last three games.

Malkin and Neal have been playing their collective balls off. Kunitz, too. These are top line players. Having them play 1st line minutes is not having them play above their level. Pascal Dupuis has been the surprise of the season and has been filling in admirably. Jordan Staal, too, has been having a phenomenal offensive year. Kennedy has missed time with injury, but is generating chances. Steve Sullivan has been relegated to 3rd line duty, but is still a heads-up type player. Joe Vitale has never, ever quit on a shift. Neither has Adams or Cooke.

This is not a popgun offense, but it sure looks like one.

Can you really point the finger entirely at Letang missing time? I agree that he may be the most valuable player on the team (who does not get the proper recognition he deserves), but can we really make that case? The Pens generate offense from the defense and with the defense in complete shambles…perhaps.

These are dark times. No idea how this team can ring up 8 against Buffalo, 3 against the Blackhawks, 4 against the Jets, and 4 against the Hurricanes…and then 2 against the Flyers, 1 against the Devils and 1 against the Rangers.

There is no fix to a problem that cannot be identified. And there certainly isn’t a fix to a mental problem.

The Eastern Conference…According to Griggsy

Griggsy is back with a vengeance and laying the law down once more with his Eastern Conference, as well as Stanley Cup, preview. I don’t think I can say anything more than what I said before. The man is a beast. A complete and total beast.

On today’s slate, I’ll tell you how the Eastern Conference should unfold. Again, I’ll give you a quick overview of the team, a key player to the team’s success (or failure), and give best- and worst-case scenarios for the teams’ seasons. Afterwards, I’ll give you my predictions for the Eastern playoffs, tell you who will be facing the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals, and tell you who’s taking home the chalice.

Without further ado….

Eastern Conference

Continue reading “The Eastern Conference…According to Griggsy”

Pens Preview: Matt Cooke

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

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

Matt Cooke 2010-2011 general stat line:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugh.  Just ugh all around.

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

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

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

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

October: PHI, TBL

November: DAL, NYR

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

January: DET

February: BUF, CHI

March: OTT.

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

October: MTL, TOR, PHI, TBL

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

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

January: TBL, BOS, DET

February: BUF, CHI, SJS, CHI

March: BOS, EDM, OTT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s go Pens.

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