Pittsburgh and the Mystical Winger: A Penguins Tale of Lore

Do you like bad fan fiction? Do you like hockey?

If you answered “yes” to both of those questions, this post is for you!

 

There is a fairy tale that has been told in Pittsburgh for some time now.

It is a chronicle about one man in search of eternal glory – not only for himself, but for his people and his small, but loyal army. His name was Ray Shero and he dreamt of drinking from a hallowed cup, the most precious of trophies and the most coveted of possessions among his peers. And he wanted to drink from this great Cup more than once, for he was a great wizard, deserving of great riches and heavenly wealth.

But to achieve this, some thought, Shero would have to find a man first. Prophecy foretold that this man would one day arrive in Pittsburgh, through no easy means, and find great comfort and success on the wing of Sidney Crosby, the vaunted White Knight.

But to speak of Shero’s vaunted White Winger, one must first understand Crosby.

Crosby was no commoner, himself. He had already fulfilled a prophecy, one which named him “The Next One.” At the age of 18 and in his first NHL season, he had already salvaged a dying Penguins franchise and a wilting National Hockey League. He did this with the help of a great 66, called “Le Magnifique” by some and Mario Lemieux by all.

But even though Lemieux and Crosby brought the NHL back into the public’s favor after a devastating lockout in 2004-2005 and saved the Penguins franchise from bankruptcy and relocation, there was still work to be done.

For you see, the Penguins still existed, but only barely. Even with Crosby finishing sixth in league scoring with 102 points (39 goals, 63 assists) and a runner-up bid for rookie of the year, the Penguins still finished second from last in the NHL with 58 points. Even Lemieux couldn’t help his ill-gotten team, for he had grown old by then and could no longer carry the remaining weight of the franchise on his shoulders.

The team’s mediocrity didn’t last, though. The very next season, they finished second in the Atlantic Division with an astounding 105 points. Crosby had grown into the vision the hockey gods had projected. He led the NHL with 120 points (36 goals, 84 assists) and won the Hart Trophy, becoming the youngest player and only teenager to win a scoring title. Crosby was also named the league MVP and received the Lester B. Pearson Award as the most outstanding player, becoming the seventh player in NHL history to earn all three awards in one year.

In 2008, Shero found himself pulling strings at the trade deadline. His army wasn’t quite legendary, but it was something to behold. It was the best in the East. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury were all as formidable as anyone in the league and no one doubted the team’s greatness. But it seemed that they lacked a key piece to make them the best in all of hockey.

And that piece existed.

He was skating and shooting and scoring in the land of Atlanta, a land long forgotten by the hockey gods. It, perhaps, was shunned because of one evil winger that played there. Unfortunately, for Shero, he was the thought to be that piece. He was Marian Hossa, who later became known as the Dark Winger.

“We must have him,” Shero thought. And so he worked his great magic and the Penguins sent Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a first-round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for the heralded Hossa, as well as Pascal Dupuis.

Hossa helped carry the mighty Guins to the finals that season. But victorious the team was not. For unbeknownst to the Penguins and Shero, Hossa was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He was a shape shifting evil doer, hell-bent on personal success with no connection to the mortal world.

He was not a team player.

So the Penguins lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games. Driven by only his greed for personal success, Hossa departed from the Land of Steel for the Hell of the Midwest – Detroit, in search of glory of the evil variety.

Without Hossa the following season, the Penguins repeated as Eastern Conference champions. They crossed into the darkness of Detroit once more, this time besting the Redwings in seven games to capture the Cup in a valiant effort that will live in lore forever.

They drank from Lord Stanley’s fabled Cup, but some say it was against the will of the hockey gods. You see, although Detroit may be an evil land, it had become the home of the hockey gods, thus earning the city the name “Hockey Town.” The gods had built their sanctuary in the midst of the downtrodden city around them and that sanctuary was known as “the Joe.” It was the Joe Louis Arena, the oldest arena in the NHL. And because the Penguins seized the Stanley Cup on Game 7 in the Joe, snatching it away from the sanctuary of the hockey gods, they were cursed, doomed to never reach the Finals again.

But legend had it that if the Penguins were to find the White Winger, one man pure and devoted to the game and its fans, a captain of his own domain so incorruptible that he could endure a terrible team for years and still remain up-beat; only then could the Penguins return to the Finals and hoist the Cup once more.

In the coming seasons, the Penguins were tremendous. But as remarkable as they were, the playoffs became their Achilles heel because of the hockey gods’ curse. Once 82 games of regular season had elapsed, the Penguins lapsed. And for the three years following the Cup victory, the Penguins were ousted in either the first or second round of the playoffs.

Great regular season success followed by despicable postseason defeat was a curse that Shero’s people had great trouble enduring.

At the start of the 2010-2011 season, the Penguins believed they could triumph despite the curse and the lack of the White Winger. The hockey gods feared they were right. So in the midst of Crosby’s greatest season ever, the gods sent a lightning bolt crashing from the heavens during the nationally televised Winter Classic. It struck Crosby in the form of a David Steckel hit to the head. It was a hit that sent shockwaves throughout Shero’s kingdom.

Some foretold he may never play again. He missed nearly two full seasons, but by power of magic and great strength, he became the man he once was.

From then on, the Penguins and its fans realized they indeed needed the White Winger to succeed. This had everyone going on “watch.”

First it was “Jagr watch.” That wasn’t to be. Jaromir Jagr, once a masterful winger for the Penguins in the days of the first and second Penguins Cups, succumbed to dark sorcery and chose evil over good. He signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in the summer of 2011.

The following summer, Crosby’s good friend Zach Parise became the next prospective winger for the Penguins. “Parise watch” was in full force and many Pittsburgh faithful believed the ex-Devil’s captain would bring his talent to the Penguins and vie for a Cup. But once again, the hockey gods vetoed the suspicions and cast him to the great north of Minnesota, where he collected a king’s ransom.

So the final White Winger watch brings us to modern times. Rumors were whispered across the hockey landscape that the Penguins were closer than ever to finding him. Truth be told, the Penguins signed a winger, a captain, who many thought would fulfill the prophecy. He was Brenden Morrow, a veteran captain of the Dallas Stars. He was a born leader and would be valued because of his insight into the game and his gritty style of play. He had long been a bastion of good will in a town where the hockey gods had not been kind to in quite some time. He was pure of heart and remained upbeat in an unsuccessful hockey town.

After quick consideration, the Penguins faithful decided he was close enough to the prophecy. He played the wing. He probably wouldn’t supplant the outstanding wingers Crosby already had (Dupuis and Chris Kunitz) but he would fill the second-line role that was needed badly.

The visions had changed scripture and it was no longer Sid’s winger, but the second line’s winger that would fulfill prophecy. Dreamers fell back down to earth and realists realized something great: This Penguins team was now built for a deep run in the playoffs.

After the addition of the mountain-of-a-man, troll defenseman Douglas Murray a day later, reality now became the prophecy. Shero had found his pieces. The missing rook and the absent bishop were now on the board and Pittsburgh was more than capable of a checkmate against any team in the league.

But there had been another winger in the land of hockey, one of great value. His name was Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla. He hailed from the west of Canada for many years and donned a “C” on his chest and a “C” over his heart. Some soothsayers claimed that he was that mystical winger who could fill the void in Pittsburgh. This, of course, was before it was filled by Morrow, so it could no longer be.

But the days following the Morrow signing, these same oracles still whispered about Iginla’s interest in Pittsburgh. Most folk responded to these whispers with “delusions of grandeur! For Shero is done. He has finished his work, so let us be merry now without conjecture and speculation from fools with unnamed sources.”

The doubters were right. On a dark Wednesday night, as the newly acquired Penguins traveled toward their new kingdoms, the oracles confirmed that Iginla had indeed agreed to become a Boston Bruin. Penguins fans were not pleased, but certainly not worried. Although the Bruins would be their toughest playoff adversary, Iginla’s addition would certainly not guarantee a Pittsburgh demise.

“So be it,” they said. “Let Iginla skate for Beantown. It shall make no difference.”

So Penguins fans laid their heads to their pillows and began to dream new dreams. These were dreams of a tougher Penguins team, one that could score and skate and deliver blows to the opposition. They would have been nightmares had they been dreamt by fans of any other team.

But while they all slept, the great Shero was wide-eye and sharp minded in his quarters. His phone in hand and wit ablaze, he conspired in the early morning hours, working magic not seen in Pittsburgh since 1991, when another great wizard GM by the name of Craig Patrick clouded the minds of the Hartford Whalers management and usurped Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings in exchange for Jeff Parker, Zarley Zalapski, and John Cullen.

Shero had landed Iginla.

With a flick of his wand, Shero sent a 2013 Penguins first round draft choice and prospect forwards Kenneth Agostino and Ben Hanowski to Calgary in exchange for a future hall of fame right winger. Presumably, Flames GM Jay Feaster had been rendered deaf and dumb with zero chance of cognitive ability. The forwards he acquired are both C-rated NCAA players and according to scribe Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, neither was listed in the top ten best prospects within the Penguins organization.

Which brings us to today.

Iginla is everything the hockey gods have spoken of and everything prophecy has written of the White Winger. Although he may not be Crosby’s winger, he is a veteran scorer and man of virtue and good faith. He has said he will assume any role that is asked of him and that is why many believe he is the man foretold to undo the gods’ curse.

But we must all remember the fickle whims of the hockey gods. Those whims change at the drop of a puck and we may never truly know what they desire to be. It does appear they are still angered by Shero and his mighty plan, however, for they have once again struck down the great Crosby, this time by casting a whirring puck from the stick of Brooks Orpik into Crosby’s face, breaking his jaw and casting his teeth into the land of wind and ghosts.  We do not know when he will return to Shero’s army.

We also do not know if he or Morrow are the men who the prophecy spoke of. They each fit the description, but it seems of Iginla more so. Once the regular season closes, only then will we know if Iginla is the winger who will return to Cup to Pittsburgh.

So it was written, so it may be.

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Kings Show Why Penguins Should Move Staal to Wing

The Los Angeles Kings are a game away from winning the Stanley Cup. They’ve been winning in dominating fashion, most notably because of their intense forecheck along the boards, where they plaster opponents and recover the puck.

One main reason that forecheck works so well?

Left Wing

Dustin Penner 6-4, 249 lbs.  —> 3G 8A

Dwight King 6-3, 234 lbs. ——> 5G 1 A

Right Wing

Dustin Brown 6-0, 209 lbs. —> 7G 10A

These guys have shown what big, physical wingers can do and they’ve done it in the postseason.

Remind you of any CENTERS on the Penguins roster?

Jordan Staal 6-4, 220 lbs.

It’s just a thought experiment, but think about the work that Staal does on the forecheck. He’s a big, physical player anyway, so why not move him to the wing alongside Sidney Crosby? He’ll score even more, get more ice time and he’ll be pleased that he’s no longer a third-line guy. That would give him more incentive to stay with the Penguins, making him easier to sign. And think about how loaded the top-two lines would look:

Neal-Malkin-Kunitz

Staal-Crosby-Dupuis

That’d be fun to watch.

Getting bigger on the wing is something the Penguins should be looking to do anyway.

Look at the Penguins current wingers.

LEFT WINGS
NO. NAME AGE HT WT SHOT BIRTH PLACE BIRTHDATE
24 Matt Cooke 33 5-11 205 L Belleville, Ontario 9/7/78
14 Chris Kunitz 32 6-0 193 L Regina, Saskatchewan 9/26/79
26 Steve Sullivan 37 5-8 161 R Timmins, Ontario 7/6/74
25 Eric Tangradi 23 6-4 221 L Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2/10/89
RIGHT WINGS
NO. NAME AGE HT WT SHOT BIRTH PLACE BIRTHDATE
27 Craig Adams 35 6-0 197 R Seria, Brunei 4/26/77
45 Arron Asham 34 5-11 205 R Portage La Prairie, Manitoba 4/13/78
9 Pascal Dupuis 33 6-1 205 L Laval, Quebec 4/7/79
18 James Neal 24 6-2 208 L Oshawa, Ontario 9/3/87
12 Richard Park 36 5-11 190 R Seoul, South Korea 5/27/76

There isn’t exactly a wealth of size there.

And I know, Dan Bylsma‘s system is based more on speed and mobility. But it couldn’t hurt to have a few bigger guys that can turn the puck over and offer a physical presence on the ice. We already know that Staal skates pretty well for a big man. He fits the mold of the system and he also fits the mold of what the Kings are doing right now.

I’m certainly not the first one to suggest this. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovecevic suggested this move earlier this year.

I’m just saying now that there’s tangible evidence of how the move could work out.

Penguins Add Depth, Experience Between the Pipes

Although most of the hockey talk in Pittsburgh right now is regarding the uncertainty of Jordan Staal’s future with the Penguins, the organization made an interesting roster move in the goalie department that I think should garner plenty of attention: the signing of veteran goaltender Tomas Vokoun.

The Washington Capitals traded Vokoun, an impending unrestricted free agent, to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a seventh-round pick in the 2012 NHL entry draft. The deal is for two years and worth $4 million.

I was pleased to hear that the Pens made a move for a backup goalie, but the price of the contract seems a bit higher than one would expect. Not only will Vokoun make $1.4 million more than previous backup Brent Johnson, he will also make more than every other backup goalie in the NHL in the 2012-13 season.*

*There are currently 14 backup goalies who are either restricted or unrestricted free agents this offseason, so Vokoun’s contract may not end up the biggest by the time next season rolls around.

Minus the 14 backups without a contract right now, the average salary for backups in 2012-13 will be $1,910,937. And that number is skewed by the $3.7 million due to Nikolai Khabibulin of the Edmonton Oilers this upcoming season.*  If you remove Khabibulin’s salary from the mix, the league average will be $1,788,333 — and that makes Vokoun’s contract $211,667 more than the league average.

*Khabibulin was technically the starter at the beginning of last season until his numbers dropped off in midseason. So if Devon Dubnyk signs a new contract, he will be the starter this year leaving Khabibulin to be an expensive backup (if he doesn’t retire).

Is Vokoun really worth that much money to ride the pine for the majority of the season? After all, the Penguins are ranked dead-last in the NHL in cap room coming into 2012-12, and stars Sidney Crosby and Staal are due contract extensions after next season.

In Vokoun’s 14-year NHL career, he has a .917 save percentage, a 2.55 goals-against average and an overall record of 287-284-78. In his best season, he went 36-18-7 with the Nashville Predators. He was an All-Star in 2004 and 2008 and he is currently ranked 6th in career wins among active goalies with 287.

Even if the numbers aren’t dazzling, I’d say he’s worth the higher-than-average price tag. He has plenty of experience and has always been pretty solid between the pipes. That’s what you need for a guy coming off the bench 20-25 times a season. You only need to look as far as the Eastern Conference winning New Jersey Devils and their veteran backup Johan Hedberg to see how much a crafty veteran can help a team. Vokoun may not prove to be as valuable of a backup as Hedberg has been, but I’d be willing to bet that Vokoun is more than capable of having a better year than Brent Johnson did this year

Johnson went 6-7-2 with a .904 save percentage and averaged 2.63 goals against. At times, he was very good, but his collective work was pretty difficult to watch. He seemed lost and allowed soft goals with regularity. And toward the end of last season, it seemed as if the Penguins had lost all confidence him, allowing rookie Brad Thiessen to make the backup starts for a while. Management said that Johnson was suffering from flu symptoms for a while and also claimed he had an injury — two reasons that sidelined him and necessitated the call up of Thiessen. But I’m willing to bet Johnson’s unimpressive starts played into the reasoning for the call up just as much as his illness and injury.

Johnson’s struggles seemed to affect starter Marc-Andre Fleury down the stretch. Fleury started 64 games and played in 67 this season and he never claimed that he was worn down from playing in that many. But No. 29 certainly wasn’t his normal phenomenal self from the middle of March on this year.

It’s my guess that Marc-Andre was affected by multiple factors. He had to be worn out from playing so much, but I think he may have also felt more pressure to go out there and perform more often because of Johnson’s struggles. He may have been pressing to get wins because he knew that Johnson just wasn’t getting the job done in his absence.

Penguins GM Ray Shero said the move to was to help Marc-Andre Fleury play in fewer games to keep him fresh. Michelle Crechiolo and Sam Kasan, writers for the Pittsburgh Penguins, reported what Shero said on the Penguins website earlier today:

“This is to help Marc-Andre. It’s to help his game,” Shero said. “We still believe in Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s one of the better goalies in the league. But the position is demanding, both physically and mentally. If you can get a quality guy like this that has a track record like Tomas has, mentally it will give Marc a break, but it also challenges him. It challenges Tomas as well. This is the best goaltending tandem we’ve had in a long time.”

In 2009 when Marc-Andre won the Stanley Cup, he started 61 (and played in 62) games in the regular season, notching a record of 35-18-7. He was backed up by the trio of Dany Sabourin, Mathieu Garon and John Curry. The three finished the season with a collective record of 10-10-2. As you can see, there wasn’t much difference in the number of games Fleury played in this season compared to ’09. But Fleury was three years younger and he had a better team playing in front of him. He didn’t have as much pressure on his shoulders to be lights out every night because he didn’t have to be. The defensive core and the team defense shouldered the load more.

Fleury will probably never admit that he was worn out, even if Shero and the rest of the Penguins believe he was. But one thing is apparent, teams that have a great No. 1 and a solid No. 2 have had some outstanding seasons lately.

Last year, it was the Boston Bruins. Tim Thomas was their most important contributor, capturing a Conn Smythe en-route to a Stanley Cup victory. But he also had one of the best backups in the league in Tuukka Rask. Thomas notched 35 victories in each of the last two years, with Rask winning 11 in each of those years, as well.

The Vancouver Canucks further illustrate the point. Roberto Luongo has been outstanding the last two years, leading his team to a Stanley Cup Final in 2010-2011 and a President’s Trophy this season. In those seasons, he registered 38 and 31 wins, respectively. And in both of those seasons, he was backed up by Cory Schneider, who claimed 16 and 20 wins. Because both were impact guys, they took the pressure off of each other to perform and kept each other fresh for the long haul.

Will the duo of Fleury and Vokoun be the next great pair in the NHL?

I’m guessing probably not. But that doesn’t mean the two can’t support each other enough to win a Stanley Cup. As I mentioned earlier, Fleury didn’t have the greatest of backups in his Cup victory season, but he still won it.

Adding Vokoun is a step in the right direction, but the team playing in front of the two will ultimately determine how hard the goalies will need to work between the pipes. If the Penguins defensive coverage is as bad as it was in the playoffs this season, then it won’t matter who the two goalies are, they won’t be good enough to lift the Cup next June.

But if the defense can play even slightly better, while Fleury is back to his normal, stellar self with Vokoun being a solid, better-than-.500 goaltender while playing 20-25 games, the Pittsburgh Penguins can return to the glory of ’09.

If all of this will happen remains to be seen, but I’m excited to find out.

Penguins Fans Shouldn’t Fear Offseason Roster Changes

One look at the Penguins roster right now reveals a ton of talent and potential. But one look at the record this core of players has put together in the postseason in the past three years reveals something else: a pattern of poor play despite that overwhelming talent.

There aren’t a whole lot of Penguins fans out there that would say they’d like to see a major change to this roster, but they may not have a choice. Fans and Pens GM Ray Shero should be asking themselves the same question: Can this group of players win a Stanley Cup?

That may seem disheartening to some, mostly because the core of the team is largely unchanged from the team that raised the Cup in 2009 (13 players remain on the roster from the championship team, including Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang).

But as much as Pens fans want it to stay ‘09 forever (as Pens fans previously wanted it to stay 1991 and 1992 before) they need to consider what has happened recently and how that will affect the next few years for the team, especially with the uncertainty of the upcoming collective bargaining agreement in September.

Ray Shero may have to make some difficult decisions this summer because of CBA and that could mean the departure of center Jordan Staal. Don’t get me wrong, he may be just as big a piece as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and I believe the Penguins should do everything in their power to keep Staal. But if Shero cannot figure a way to keep all three, Staal is the odd man out.

Staal has consistently proven over the past few seasons that he is much better than the third line center role he has assumed on this team. Penguins fans undoubtedly have considered themselves blessed to have a team so solid down the middle throughout the entire lineup. But consistency and talent like that comes with a price.

Both Staal and Crosby are heading into the final year of their contracts and Malkin is heading into the next to last year of his. Both Crosby and Malkin are making $8.7 million and both could be seeking raises considering how outstanding they have been. But the same can be said about Staal, and he’s making $4.7 less than both of them. He could easily command first-line center money somewhere else and if he is thinking what’s best for him, Staal may go where he gets first-line time for more cash.

And yes, Staal has been quoted that he would love to stay in Pittsburgh, but if that stands in the way of his becoming a first line guy and making first-liner coin, he may want to consider other options. Whether he stays in Pittsburgh or not rests on Staal just as much as it does on the Penguins.

As much as Pittsburgh loves Staal and as good as he’s been for the Pens, there’s a chance he could be leaving soon. I’m not saying they should trade him, but if he’s going to be leaving once his contract expires anyway, the Pens might as well get some good value for him (which they absolutely would).

One scenario that has been brought up recently is a potential deal with the Edmonton Oilers.  Over the weekend, Dave Staples wrote a column at the Edmonton Journal that brought up the question: Should the Edmonton Oilers consider trading the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Staal?

The Oilers certainly would love to have a young center like Staal that can bring just as much defensive help to a team as he can offense and right now, the primary need for Edmonton is players that can help keep the puck out of their own net.

On the Penguins side, it could also make sense considering they haven’t been able to draft particularly well in the past few years because they have been in the tail end of the draft order. They have some great young talent at defense, but their depth at forward is scant when you look beyond the NHL roster. If they were to receive the No. 1 pick, they could pick up an NHL-ready player like Nail Yakupov and they wouldn’t have to worry about paying him big bucks for a few years after his rookie deal.

Right now, it’s just food for thought and speculation about a potential deal with Edmonton is just that, speculation. Edmonton has not expressed any interest in Staal whatsoever. But if Staal were to leave, regardless of where he goes, Pens fans need to be able to cope with it. Change is a part of hockey and if your team isn’t winning championships with the kind of talent Pittsburgh has, then maybe that change is necessary.

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