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…
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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
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
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.
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:
If ever there was a deadline pick-up that caused more elation, then frustration, then more elation, then abject hatred, then more (un)conditional love followed by even more anger and hostility than James “The Real Deal” Neal, I do not remember who this individual was or why we were so excited and then hate-filled.
I know I have said some unkind things about the general Pens’ fan base before. I don’t have a problem with bandwagon fans. I don’t have a problem with “new” fans because everyone has to start somewhere. I do, however, have a problem with ignorant and/or senseless fans. I’m not saying people should not get emotionally involved with the game and let their emotions sometimes get the best of them. If everyone watched the game from up on high and took themselves completely out of the game it wouldn’t be fun. Sometimes we say things in the heat of the moment or we make comments about a player because of one thing or another. James Neal has shown so many people need to be on mood stabilizers. In the span of 27 games Neal went from savior and to villain. I’ll be first to admit that, yes, he did need to put a few of his chances in the back of the net, but he was also one of the few players on the depleted roster generating offense and making the most what was being offered.
I, personally, was a fan of James Neal while he was coming up with Dallas. I never imagined the Pens would be able to peel him away from Dallas. I likened him to Jamie Benn in the Dallas organization and it would take a gross overpayment to get him out of there. Shero was able to get Neal and Niskanen for Alex Goligoski. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Goose and I thought he was unnecessarily shat upon by many fans, but I would make that trade every single day of the week. It was a good hockey trade, too, as Dallas was in desperate need for a puck-moving offensive D-man, and Pittsburgh was in need of legitimate top-6 forwards to play with those guys named Crosby and Malkin, once each got healthy.
And therein lies the rub. Neal wasn’t brought in to be the entire offense and to carry the team. He was brought in to play alongside one of the top line centers and make space, rush the net, bang bodies, and clear a path for the star players all the while keeping the opposing teams honest because he isn’t afraid to shoot and you disrespect his skill at your own peril. The argument has often been made that Staal could play top-line center for just about any team in the league. He was afforded, unfortunately, that opportunity for about 1/3 of the season this year, and while he had a productive year, he clearly was out-of-place. Neal-Staal-Kovalev was not exactly the line anyone had expected, nor was it the line one needed to worry about defending. Neal complements the center, Kovy played without any hustle, and Staal was the scoring threat on the line.
Maybe in NHL from EA Sports that line would put up unlimited goals and be a combined +28498, but in the real world the player styles are a little too different to make things work. Need I remind everyone, Mark Letestu was playing top line center minutes. That’s how messed up it was. Was Neal’s season with Pittsburgh simply a culmination of too many unkind variables? Maybe. Did people, on the whole, have unrealistic expectations about what he could bring in ~20 games? Absolutely. Neal came up playing with defensively minded and “safe” coaches in Dave Tippet and Marc Crawford. Moving to Bylsma’s style and system is a hard transition. I feel people lost sight of that fact. There are other variables, too, in the mix. Neal’s off-season training is with none other than Gary Roberts. I have my concerns that the training regimen is a little too harsh or too rigid. Steven Stamkos, too, trains under Roberts and both he and Neal had the same issues — fading down the stretch. The work rate is there, but the skill level drops off some from earlier in the season. May be from wearing down, may be from other things. Perhaps this is all just baseless conjecture, too.
With all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at the season by the numbers (outright, combined between Dallas and Pittsburgh)
We’ll start with the obvious stuff. Playing 79 games is no small feat, especially given the game Neal plays. If you need a reminder as to what that looks like, just watch this video a few times and then imagine what that will look like with Sidney Crosby and, potentially, Chris Kunitz. My God.
To bang bodies like he does and go to the dirty areas for goals, it takes a toll on one’s body. The upside to the Roberts School of Domination is that it does allow Neal to play that way and not become so overly worn down that he needs to take time off and that his body heals quickly. The downside, as mentioned above, is that constant pounding like that can have a long tail and maybe cause a drop off in pure skill plays.
Offensive production, too, is impressive, if a little skewed. 45 points in 79 games is about .6 points per game. Not bad production at all. 22 goals in 79 games puts him squarely in the mold of 1 goal every 3-4 games. Would like to see that tick up to the goal per 2-3 games, but I’ll take 20+ goals regularly. 23 assists is nothing to sneeze at, either. It should not be lost on anyone that his goal production AND assist production are nearly identical. He is scoring, but he’s also setting up the scoring.
Looking deeper into the goal scoring, and this is specifically dealing with his time with the Pens, he wasn’t as disappointing as people made him out to be, but it was a little bit of a letdown when only one goal is scored when he was able to do that 21 other times with Dallas. On a more positive note, in the two games (playoffs included) where Neal scores a goal, the Pens went 2-0.
After being acquired by the Pens, Neal was a minus player 7 of 20 games. In those 7 games, the Pens went 5-2. As a neutral player, the Pens went 3-5. As a plus player, the Pens went 4-1. No real discernible pattern emerges from looking at the trend line. Unlike a Michalek or even a Cooke, looking at +/- doesn’t hold any type of forecast for the Pens and probability of winning or losing outside of “when your top player is a + you typically win.” Simply put, Neal was a minus player 7 times and a neutral or plus player 13 times. Given how few goals the team was scoring once he was acquired, I would say that’s pretty solid two-way play for a guy not necessarily known for being a pure two-way player, like Jordan Staal.
What is mystifying about Neal is if you look at his entire season of production by month.
October: 5G, 5A, 10P, +6
November: 5G, 6A, 11P, +6
December: 3G, 5A, 8P, -1
January: 7G, 1A, 8P, 0+/-
February: 1G, 1A, 2P, -4
March: 1G, 4A, 5P, 0
April: 0G, 1A, 1P, 0
How a player can go from being an absolutely dominant force for the first four months and then become a snakebitten corpse in the point production is truly something to wonder. Is it possible that fatigue was setting in? I believe that was a contributing factor. Add in the fact that he was playing in a new system and playing with guys who were in way over their respective heads attempting to do more than they ever should have been expected to. It was a dangerous combination of things that all came to head and caused many shortsighted fans to call for Shero’s head because Neal didn’t score 30 goals in 20 games.
Additionally, none of the games this season were offensive blowouts to possibly skew the numbers. Neal only had one 3 point game all year (11/18 – DAL v SJS). All others were 2 or fewer points.
Also, for the record, Neal had an assist and was a +1 in the 5-2 romp vs the Penguins, when this memorable moment occurred:
Remember how Sid went on an unreal point scoring tear after that game? Oh, those were the days. It became even funnier that the Pens picked up Niskanen along with Neal to bring it all full circle.
There is no one team which Neal has dominated against, either. That is less of a concern as the majority of his games came against Western Conference teams the Pens will only see one or two times each year. He did, however, prove to be a shootout ace. I know everyone liked to make jokes about how he could only score goals in the shootout, but as long as regular season games are determined by a skill competition, I’ll gladly have him on the team. I had jokingly commented during the season that Neal needed to take a page from Ovechkin’s playbook and cherry pick past center read and wait for the home run passes from Michalek or Martin and just score on breakaways by pretending it’s a shoot out attempt.
Seriously, though, I’ll never forgot him making Brodeur look like a fool in this attempt:
As far as playoff performance went, well, I think we all remember the work that Neal put in each game. He didn’t have an atrocious game all series (the worst coming in the 8-2 loss, in which he was a -2 with only 1 shot on goal). In game 7, when all the chips were down, he did manage 6 shots on goal. It wasn’t for lack of trying or effort. Of course, we all remember game 4 of the series and the absolutely insane and prophetic talking of Paul Steigerwald and Bob Errey.
Another aspect of Neal’s game is the time spent in the penalty box, or, more appropriately, the lack of time spent in the penalty box. He racked up only 66 total minutes in penalties all year, 19 of which came in a single game vs. Edmonton. Throw out the game vs EDM and he had 47PIM in 78 games. That is impressive, given the totality of the game being played and the fact that he is solid defensively, too.
Ultimately, Neal is only in his 4th year in the NHL. He’s still an incredibly young, up and coming talent. He played with stars on the Stars and put up great numbers. He played with chumps and guys out of their element in Pittsburgh and put up not so great numbers. We could see what type of skill he had when the shoot out rolled around, but you can’t always count on playing to the SO each game. If one truly wants to evaluate whether Neal was an excellent pick-up, especially given the depth we had on D and how Goligoski became expendable, I suggest you wait until after he gets a full training camp in with the team. We can revisit his performance with the Pens once the All-star break rolls around next season. People have been willing to forgive players like Fleury and Letang for every misstep “because they are young and have a lot to learn.” The pendulum swings that way with Neal, too. He’s a young buck who, frankly, is playing better hockey than can be expected from such a young guy who has been part of a somewhat crummy organization since being drafted.
We won’t really know how the trade worked out until the end of next season. Neal getting to play with guys like Sid and Geno could be exactly what he needs to be a 30+ goal scorer and 60+ point getter. Or maybe he just doesn’t fit the Pens system (I disagree, I think he is the perfect definition of what it means to be a Pittsburgh Penguin) and we’ll go our separate ways. I expect a big year out of him, provided Sid and/or Geno are healthy.
Looking ahead, assuming the stars are playing and the situation is normal, I expect the following out of Neal
For good or bad, I feel the spotlight will be squarely on Mr. Neal this season. Let’s hope it is all for the good and we have the long-term solution and replacement for Kunitz on Sid’s wing (or we keep both Koon and Neal…my God…bodies will be banged, history will be made).
For those of you who know me, even remotely well, you know that Zbynek Michalek is my favorite player in the NHL. Not just my favorite Penguins player, but my overall favorite player in the entire NHL. I feel the need to address this notion of being a complete and total fanboy for no. 4, as it will be difficult to take a purely objective view of his play and what he brings to the team. I am going to try, but you may have to excuse some fanboy squealing.
When July 1, 2010 rolled around I don’t remember any people other than myself and one or two others banging the drum that Shero needed to sign a defenseman from the Phoenix Coyotes named “Zbynek Michalek.” Everyone recognized the last name because of Milan Michalek, currently a forward for the Ottawa Senators, known for scoring at least one unreal goal per season against the Pens. As a Western Conference player in a market not known for TV exposure, many Pens fans had no idea who or what a “Zbynek Michalek” was.
As the season began everyone was quick to write off both Michalek and Martin as busts because of spending $9M combined on the two. While I agree that the initial sticker shock is high, it really is a bargain when one considers the deals that defensmen got on the open market THIS July. Christian Ehrhoff was signed by the Buffalo Sabres to a 10-year, front loaded contract with an annual cap hit of $4M. While I understand the differences in the game being played by Ehrhoff and Michalek, the money comparison is…wow. If you really want to have a laugh, look at the contract that James Wisniewski was signed to by the Columbus Blue Jackets. 6 years at $5.5M per year. The talking heads in Pittsburgh have crowed that Paul Martin is a bust and overpaid (I completely and totally disagree, but that’s for a later post). Wisniewski finished the season as a -14 all while having recorded 51 points. Let that sink in for a minute. He finished a -14 while recording 51 points (only 10 goals). While Wis may be able to help CBJ’s PP (he did post 29 points on the PP last season), is it worth 5+ million?
As mentioned, I understand the differences in the games and responsibilities of the players are different. If one simply looks at the +/- rating of a player or a point total it can be grossly misleading. Michalek is a prime example, as his career +/- rating is -22, but you can clearly see where the numbers become skewed. -20 and -13 seasons with Phoenix will certainly move the numbers in that direction. As a stay-at-home defensive d-man, though, it’s respectable to hover around neutral +/- most seasons. For the sake of comparison, Brooks Orpik’s career +/- is a -1, and he’s played most of his career with guys like Crosby, Malkin, and Fleury, all of whom have a HUGE impact on +/- rating. Now that some comparisons have been made and my fandom has been brought to light, let’s take a look at the season of “Big Z,” Zbynek Michalek.
Much like with Mr. Cooke, the stats do not tell the whole story. Michalek was hurt in the 3rd game of the season against the New Jersey Devils and missed substantial-but-not-season-crippling time. In his first three games as a Penguin, the Pens went 1-2, both losses coming when Z was a minus player. The lone victory came against the Devils and Michalek finished as a neutral in +/-, but only played 7 minutes and change. Z returned to action a few weeks later against the Dallas Stars, where he also was a minus player in a losing effort (the only reason that game is remembered is because of a certain Sidney Crosby getting into a fight with a certain Matt Niskanen). From here on out, it no longer became a coincidence that Michalek being a minus player typically translated into a Penguins loss.
After returning from injury the Pens records W/ Michalek in the line-up:
As a MINUS player: 6-14
As a neutral rating: 17-12
As a PLUS player: 20-1
When combined, when Michalek is neutral or a plus player, the Pens record was 37-13. I’m glossing over the OT records for the sake of simplicity. I’m just going straight win-loss, not factoring in loser points for the team. It is hard to deny the value of a player like Michalek, even though he doesn’t show up on the score sheet regularly. For the chattering class, though, it is easy to overlook how important players like Michalek are because they don’t put up James Wisniewski or Kris Letang like numbers on offense. With a guy like Michalek, it becomes difficult to review them outside of +/- rating, because these types of players do not put up huge offensive numbers, and in the age of Youtube there aren’t many highlight videos of shot blocking and boxing out opposition.
Overall +/-, in victories Michalek was a combined +22. Conversely, in combined losses he was a -22. The Pens also went undefeated in games when Michalek scored, going 5-0. At home, Michalek was a +3 on the season, while was a -3 on the season as the away team.
Obviously Michalek is integral as a shut-down defenseman. He is placed against the opposing team’s top scorers regularly and he and mate Paul Martin have done an extraordinary job of keeping those scorers in check and keeping Fleury from facing too many primo scoring chances. That said, when there has been a breakdown, both Michalek and Martin have done excellent jobs of recovering and helping out Fleury and/or the forwards who were back in the zone to help. We all remember only too well these moments from the game against the Kings this past season when Michalek saved the team not once but twice in the first period.
In the first case you can see Letang take his man, but nobody was covering Justin Williams. Michalek took away the cross crease play and moved in as Fleury moved out, saving a goal with some absolutely unreal stickwork. In the second play, well, Bob Errey does a fine job of explaining how Michalek played it perfectly. He stuck with the Kings player and prevented him from making a play by separating him from the puck then, either by luck or skill (or both, as it would seem with great players), cleared it from the crease with some help by Vitale showing some hustle. Everyone wet their pants (self included) when Scuderi made a play like that (granted, the stakes were a little higher then), but everyone just kinda goes catatonic when guys who didn’t grow up on the Pens farm do it.
In pure defensive stats, Michalek ranked 27th in the NHL in shot blocking, with 149 shots blocked, had 56 hits, and 14 takeaways. Outside of shotblocking, the stats do not stand out as a killer or league leader, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Being an all around defensive player is what is needed for your top-4.
Zbynek certainly had an interesting year on special teams, too. He was originally never planned to be used on the power play, but as the season went on and the injuries mounted, he became one of the steady hands on the PP, even scoring a PP goal and netting 3 PPA. More importantly, Michalek was a leader on the penalty kill, averaging 3:46 of PK time each game. I feel this would be an opportune time to mention that the Pens finished the season no. 1 overall in PK with 86.1% success rate of killing penalties. For those playing the home game, that is a staggering statistic. It becomes even more terrifying when you realize the Pens were assessed the most penalties in the NHL with 480. The Pens were assessed 374 minor penalties, 74 major penalties, 13 misconducts, 10 game misconducts, a 1 match penalty. All combined for a total of 1388 penalty minutes. The Pens averaged 16.9 minutes of PK time per game.
Let all of those stats sink in for a few minutes. Really. Go get a glass of water, maybe tend to your garden or play with your dog or cat. Think about all the penalties and the fact that the Pens lead the NHL in PK percentage. Even my mind is blown, and I saw every single game.
Allow me to say that I don’t want to discount the efforts of other penalty killers. Craig Adams, Max Talbot, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, and any others I’ve forgotten and/or helped pitch in all worked to create such an absolutely insane penalty kill unit. Of course, it could all be for naught, too, had Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson not been completely insane between the pipes for the majority of the year, either.
I could go into each category, but you will likely tune out, if you have not done so already, by discussing the point production and ratings against each team. Much like Cooke, there is no one team that Michalek excelled against. He played well against just about everyone. Shockingly, his worst numbers came against Montreal and Carolina. Not exactly two juggernauts of offense or skill. Sometimes there are just teams that have your number. Hopefully those things get fixed next year.
I think it is clear just how important Michalek has become to the success of the team. He may not light the lamp too often or lay out too many hits (both of which I expect to see an uptick in next year), but he is a calm, stable presence on the blueline that is sadly undervalued. There is also a clear correlation between his play and +/- rating and the success of the team. He isn’t allowing much to get behind him or his goaltender and he’s allowing the forwards to do their work. In the entire season there was only one game in which Michalek was a plus player (+1) and the team lost – 2/23 vs San Jose Sharks, and even in defeat they managed to salvage a loser point by going to OT.
What to expect out of Zbynek next year? Well, it’s hard to say. Offensively, I do think he will become more involved, both getting a little time on the PP as well as being more certain of his shot and having guys like Malkin and Crosby around regularly to take some unreal first passes out of the zone. Defensively? I really do not know what more you can ask from him that he did not show us this season.
Projected stats (and like Cooke, these are completely a gut feeling, not basing this off any scientific model):
I say expect more of the same from Zybnek with hopefully a little more offense, as he does have an amazing bomb from the point, and hopefully a little more using his size. I expect the shot blocking to remain in the ~150 range, but expect to see the hits go north of 60. Likewise, I expect to see the takeaways tick up toward 20. Not huge improvements, but enough that the overall play will improve above and beyond what I already believe to be a grossly underrated defensive playmaker.