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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What? Wow! Really? Jarome Iginla is headed for the Steel City

This post was originally written on Friday, March 29.

It was early Thursday morning and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. As I scrolled down on my Twitter timeline, numerous Pittsburgh hockey reporters, as well as national reporters, were speaking of possible line combinations for Jarome Iginla and various Pittsburgh Penguins players.

“This doesn’t make sense,” I thought. “Are they saying what WOULD have happened?”

Before I took a long shower, TSN had reported that the Boston Bruins had agreed to terms with Iginla. In exchange for the veteran winger, Boston would send center Alex Khokhlachev, defenseman Matt Bartkowski and a first-round pick to the Calgary Flames.

I was hardly surprised about Boston acquiring the long time Flames captain.Since Iginla had to waive a no-trade clause, he had reportedly drawn up a short list of teams he would play for. It was believed that list was comprised of Pittsburgh, Boston, the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks. And since Pittsburgh had already acquired a veteran winger in Brenden Morrow, they probably had taken themselves out of the hunt.

There was a flood of tweets, more than one hundred since I had been away from my computer. But as I scrolled farther down on my timeline, I started to see “breaking news.” My heart jumped up into my throat and my eyes became the size of pucks. That’s when I found the tweet that confirmed my excitement.

Bob McKenzie's Tweet

I wanted to call every Penguins fan I knew, but it was around 2 a.m. so I figured it wasn’t an option. So I texted every Pens fan I knew and gave them the best news they could wake up to.

But the truth is, I was completely happy with the Penguins before they landed Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla. They were in the midst of a 12-game win streak and earlier than week, Penguins GM Ray Shero acquired Morrow and bruising defenseman Douglas Murray from the San Jose Sharks.

Morrow was a captain for the Dallas Stars for seven years. He had played 835 games in his career, all with Dallas, and he had scored 528 points (243 goals and 285 assists). The 34-year-old winger wasn’t a prolific scorer, but he brought experience (clearly), grit and a net-front presence. Morrow played a solid defensive game and he forechecked relentlessly.

Those attributes were the only thing missing in the Penguins offense. They would beat teams because they played an up-tempo game and usually scored a ton of goals. Grinding games out wasn’t quite their forte.

The other net-front presence they were lacking was that in the defensive zone. I can easily say that the worst area for the Penguins was in their goalie’s shadow. They were having trouble clearing guys away from the crease and greasy goals were on the ledger in almost all of their losses.

Murray was a pick-up to solve that deficiency. He looks like he’s skating in taffy but when Murray posts up in front of the net, there’s no offensive player in this league that can move him. He’s 245 pounds of angry muscle. If you’re loitering on his property, don’t expect to stay standing.

Pittsburgh lacked some grittiness, net-front presence and defensive zone muscle. They solved it with Morrow and Murray, and lost only peanuts in the process. They were as square as a postage stamp.

But just because something is seemingly perfect doesn’t mean you can’t improve upon it. That’s why Shero continued to pursue Iginla, even after he’d added some great pieces.

The 35-year-old Iginla might not be as fleet of foot as he once was, but there’s no denying what he’ll bring to the city of Pittsburgh. The man has amassed 1,095 points (525 goals and 570 assists) in 1,219 career games, all with Calgary. He’s a six-time all-star, has two “Rocket” Richard Trophies, one Art Ross Trophy, one Lester B. Pearson Award, one King Clancy Memorial Trophy and a Mark Messier Leadership Award.

Iginla has bagged all those points and all that hardware basically despite his team (with the only exception being 2003, the year Calgary lost in the Stanley Cup Finals). The Flames just haven’t put the talent around Iginla to contend much. He’s never played with a center even close to being as talented as Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

And you can’t underestimate the toughness he brings, either. He has only missed one game in the last six seasons, and that was on Wednesday when he was held out because of the trade. He has 831 career penalty minutes and he’s not afraid of the fisticuffs: Iggy has dropped the gloves 62 times in his career.

It’s not clear yet where the Penguins will insert Iginla in their line scheme. He’s a clear fit with Crosby on the first line because the two already know each other well and have solid chemistry; he set up Crosby for the Golden Goal in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

But coach Dan Bylsma told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis line “is one of the best lines in hockey right now” and “I think we’re going to continue to see those three guys play together.”

He’s right. That line has three of the NHL’s top-13 scorers and the chemistry is mesmerizing to behold. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

The best option would probably be for Iginla to drop down to the second line to play on the right side of Malkin. James Neal usually plays on the right wing, but he wouldn’t have any difficulty switching to the left considering that is his natural position anyway. That would drop Morrow down to the third line to play with Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke.

That set up would make the top three lines quite possibly the best in the game. It would contain two top lines of pure scoring with deep talent and the greasiest, grittiest and most defensively-sound third line in hockey.

What a matchup nightmare.

Yahoo Sports hockey blogger Greg Wyshynski probably put it best: “The Pittsburgh Penguins are an all-star team. They’re something you’d create in a video game. They’re all the hockey cards you don’t throw away.”

The Penguins might not have needed Jerome Iginla, but they got him, and if they don’t win the Stanley Cup this year, they might go down as the biggest disappointment in NHL history.

No pressure.

Paul Martin’s Handling of Head Injury Clouded by Poor Performance

Earlier today, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Josh Yohe tweeted some disturbing information about Penguins defenseman Paul Martin:

Josh Yohe ‏@JoshYohe_Trib:

“Pens D Paul Martin just told me that he played the first three games against the Flyers with concussion-like symptoms.”

 “Martin said nothing to trainers until after Game 3. At that point, he was shut down for the rest of the series.”

 “Martin is fully recovered from the concussion and is working out every day in Minnesota.”

“Martin said the concussion took place at some point in Game 1, but he isn’t sure precisely when.”

Yohe later elaborated on Martin’s injury and prospective future with the Penguins in a story you can see here.

In Yohe’s article, he quoted Martin saying the following:

“I wasn’t feeling well during Game 1,” Martin said. “But I never said anything to the trainers. I didn’t feel well in Game 2. Then, after Schenn hit me in Game 3, I felt really bad but still finished the game. The next night, I felt worse. I talked to our trainers then, and told them about the symptoms. That was it. They shut me down.”

“The whole thing was tough,” he said. “I took a test and supposedly did fine. But with what had happened with Kris and with Sid’s (Sidney Crosby’s) problems, I think they were being overly-cautious.”

This should upset every Penguins fan.

My No. 1 criticism of the NHL the past couple of years has been the epidemic of concussion problems that has struck pretty much every team in the league. The main problem I’ve had is how the league has been inconsistent with its punishment of head shot offenders. I’ve also taken issue with the fact that players have not changed how they hit others on the ice; head shots are still happening at a high rate and both the league and its players need to make changes to make the game safer.

But in Paul Martin’s case, I’m not mad at the league nor an offending player.

I’m upset with Paul Martin.

Martin plays on a team that has been at the forefront of the concussion debate for two years. Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby spent two seasons dealing with a head injury and as the face of the league, he garnered plenty of attention for it. He was part of the reason the NHL adopted changes to Rule 48, the rule that deals with the penalization of head shots.

Not only did the Penguins have to suffer through a slow recovery from Crosby, they also faced a similar situation with star defenseman Kris Letang. Letang suffered a concussion on Nov. 26 after taking a big open ice hit from Montreal Canadians forward Max Pacioretty, but returned later in the same game. His symptoms became worse over the next few days and he ended up missing 21 games because of them. Later in the season, he dealt with concussion symptoms yet again after taking a hit to the head by Dallas Stars forward Eric Nystrom.

So the fact that Paul Martin played through the pain and tried to ignore concussion symptoms over a three-game span baffles me. He, as well as every other NHL player, is surely aware of how serious a head injury can be. If not treated properly, it can lead to permanent brain damage that may cause major problems for the rest of a players life — and eventually end it. One only has to look as far as Pat LaFontaine, Scott Stevens, Eric and Brett Lindros, Michel Goulet, Brian Bradly, Nick Kypreos, Adam Deadmarsh, Jeff Beukeboom, Matthew Barnaby, Paul Comrie, Keith Primeau and Marc Savard to understand how devastating a brain injury can be — not to mention the death of Derek Boogaard in 2011, which was caused by an accidental drug and alcohol overdose while he recovered from a concussion.

Now, I also understand why Martin didn’t tell trainers about his concussion symptoms until they were debilitating. In professional sports — particularly in hockey and football — players are taught to have tough-guy mentality. They want to go out there and prove themselves, even if it comes at their own physical peril. After all, nothing says you’re a team player more than playing injured and team players get paid and respected.

And for Paul Martin, he had even more incentive to play injured than most players. He had a terrible year, one of the worst in his career. He wasn’t playing at a level anywhere near where a $5 million-per-year player should play. Because of his let-down season, Martin felt that he needed to play, regardless of injury, to prove that he was better than his season had shown. Going into the postseason, Martin had already begun to hear rumblings from fans and media that the Penguins should trade him in the offseason.

Yohe illustrates that here:

Martin was aware of negative talk from local fans and media outlets, and admitted this may have affected his performance.

“Coming from New Jersey,” Martin said, “it isn’t a fishbowl like Pittsburgh is. All it takes is for someone to write an article and people can jump on board. It’s hard to ignore it. When you’re a player, you notice things. I take pride in my job, and when people are telling you that you aren’t doing your job well, you don’t like it.”

Here’s another telling Martin quote from Yohe’s story:

“Do I think the same team is going to be back in Pittsburgh next year? No. But I hope I’m one of the guys who is back. I want to prove to myself and to reestablish to everyone the player that I am.”

Fans, other players and team management want to see players doing everything they can to prove themselves. Unfortunately, that mindset is quite valued. This tweet from Yohe proves that point:

“Obviously Martin’s judgment can be questioned for playing with the symptoms. Can’t question his commitment to the team, though.”

Martin may have thought he was helping the team by playing injured, but he was potentially doing the exact opposite. The old saying goes “Loose lips sink ships,” but when it comes to head injuries, it’s the sealed lips that hurt the most. No team will ever benefit from a player that is unable to get back onto the ice because of a devastating head injury. It looks like Martin got lucky because he doesn’t seem to have any long-term symptoms of his head shot.

It’s tough to say whether or not Martin will be in a Penguins sweater next season. Many people agree that he should be traded, but his high price tag will make it tough for Penguins GM Ray Shero to move him after the terrible season he had. Pittsburgh has plenty of depth in the AHL that could take Martin’s place next year, but if the Penguins can’t move him and are unwilling to eat the remainder of his contract, he may be on the blue line in Pittsburgh for another year. Ultimately, that will be what saves Martin from being traded, not his ill-advised effort to play through a head injury in the post season.

If Martin is a Penguin next season, I’ll expect him to be better on the ice.

But I’ll expect more from his decisions off of it.

Offseason 2012: First Crosby Rumors of the Year

Yesterday, Pittsburgh sports radio pundit Mark Madden told listeners on 105.9 the X that he heard Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby reportedly wants a deal worth $125m over 14 seasons, equating to $8.92 million per year. The Penguins and Crosby’s agent can officially begin negotiations on July 1, leaving one year remaining on Crosby’s current contract.

Considering that he makes $8.7 million now, the dollar amount is a bargain for the Penguins — especially if the salary cap goes up after the next collective bargaining agreement.

The obvious point to consider is the contract length. Fourteen seasons is a long time — an entire career for most hockey players. But more importantly, it’s a long time to sign a player with concussion problems.

The Penguins nor their fans will forget the agonizing days during Crosby’s recovery. We didn’t know if he would play again in the 2010-2011 season or EVER AGAIN. And then after his second setback in this year’s regular season, doubts were at an all-time high regarding Crosby’s ability to take hits without re-aggravating concussion symptoms.

I remember asking myself if this was something Penguins fans would have to go through every season until an early Crosby retirement. How long could the captain possibly last in the NHL if he couldn’t take an occasional hit up high? Whether the NHL cracked down on head-shots or not, the accidental hit would still undoubtedly occur.

But fortunately Sid recovered from his second head-shot and was able to play in the final 28 games of the season including six playoff games. In that span, he still collected 37 points with eight goals in the regular season and eight points and three goals in the playoffs.

Those were numbers posted by a guy coming off of a brain injury with far less time on the ice practicing his craft before hand. Now that he’s completely healthy again by all accounts (including his own), he has the opportunity to conduct a full offseason without distraction.

The last time he was able to do that was the summer before 2010-11. And if you remember that season, you remember why he’s the best player in the NHL. In 41 games, he had 32 goals, 34 assists and was on pace for 64 goals, 68 assists and 132 points. And during that span, he had a 25-game point streak in which he notched 27 goals (including three hat tricks), 24 assists, and 51 points.

To me, there’s no debate about whether or not to give him this contract. It’s a great big, bold, double-stamped YES.

Sure, there’s risk involved. But there’s always risk involved in a collision sport like hockey. Any player’s career could end on opening day this fall — especially if the NHL doesn’t start to crack down more on hits to the head. But when you’re dealing with the best player in the world, you give him what he wants.

If Crosby stays healthy, the Penguins will sell out for at least 14 more seasons and probably have a chance at the Stanley Cup for all of them. As Madden said on his show, that contract “gives the Penguins a license to print money.”

Penguins GM Ray Shero could also go a different route by offering Crosby more money, but fewer years on the contract, so his past concussion problems wouldn’t be as big of a liability.

I’m guessing Crosby would be a lot less receptive to that idea. If the whole issue was about money, Crosby would ask for a lot more money, not just $228,571 more per year. Sid is financially set for life, he doesn’t need more money.

It’s the length of the contract that’s the primary issue for Sid.

And let’s say that Shero did offer him fewer years and more money and Crosby doesn’t accept. Do we really want there to be negotiation issues and possible bad blood? What if he holds out and there’s a ton of drama and uncertainty. I wouldn’t expect that to happen, but you never know when you’re dealing with a player’s livelihood, especially one with as much popularity in Pittsburgh as Sidney Crosby. Contract negotiations can be a real pain and create real distractions. Crosby doesn’t want that. Shero doesn’t want that. The fans don’t want that.

Signing Sid for forever for whatever amount is a good deal for Sid, the Penguins, the city of Pittsburgh and the NHL.

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.

Decision Time for Penguins GM Shero

At this point in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season, general manager Ray Shero should be asking himself a few questions.

First and foremost, when is Sidney Crosby coming back?

Crosby has been feeling better lately. He is skating almost every day and he says that his previous balance issues have subsided. However, Sid is still suffering from headaches. He says they’re getting more tolerable, but that isn’t good enough. He needs to be symptom-free before he is cleared for contact in practice. Then, it will probably take a few weeks so Crosby can find out for sure if he is able to take contact without his symptoms returning.

Unfortunately, that’s a big “if.”

One option Shero could do is place Crosby on long-term injured reserve. Doing so would free up significant cap room for Shero to make a big deal before the trade deadline a week from now. Long-term injured reserve would also mean Sid would not be eligible to come back in the regular season, but he would be able to return for the playoffs.  There are only 23 games remaining in the Penguins regular season, which spans seven weeks. I’m not sure it’s likely that Crosby can become symptom-free, cleared for contact and return to game action in seven weeks.

Look at Sid’s previous recovery period. On September 7, 2011, Crosby and his doctors held a press conference to announce that he had made significant progress from his previous concussion and at that point, he was nearly symptom-free. It took 75 days after that press conference for Sid to return to game action. Even if the Penguins announced tomorrow that he was symptom-free, 75 days after that would be April 30. At that point, Pittsburgh would be well past the regular season, which ends on April 7.

Hopefully, Sid’s latest recovery won’t take him that long. But even if it took half that time, that would leave only six games remaining in the regular season. But could those six games make a huge difference in the Penguins’ playoff seeding?

Absolutely.

Those six include games against the Flyers, Bruins and Rangers. All of which are currently ahead of Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference standings.

But right now, this team has shown it can win score without Sid. More importantly, it has shown it can win without him.

So that brings Shero to his next question, should he assume that Sid won’t be back for the regular season, place him on LTIR and make an acquisition?

Shero has always been one of the biggest movers and shakers at the trade deadline, previously acquiring guys like Marian Hossa and Chris Kunitz. He also added tremendous talent when he acquired James Neal from Dallas last year (as well as a solid defenseman in Matt Niskanen).

But Shero’s deals haven’t all been peaches and cream. Neal was basically a bust last season. Sure, he’s showing his true colors now, but he didn’t score much last year and that’s why the Pens were ousted so quickly in the first round of the playoffs. Last year, Shero also added former Penguin Alex Kovalev. He turned out to be just as unproductive as Neal.

Overall, I trust Shero’s judgment. But what does he need to add to the team to make a legitimate playoff run? Obviously, it never hurts to add scoring to the lineup.

There are a few notable scorers out there that are rumored to be on the trading block soon, the biggest of which is Rick Nash of the Columbus Bluejackets. But even if Sid were on LTIR, the cap room wouldn’t be enough and the Pens would have to take on a six-year contract, with a hit of $7.8 million per year. They can’t afford that.

One name that has surfaced in trade speculation is Buffalo Sabres forward Paul Gaustad. He will become an unrestricted free agent after this season and the Sabres are well out of contention, so there’s a good chance they will want to move him. He brings a cap hit of $2.3 million, which could be affordable for the Pens after moving Crosby to LTIR.

Gaustad is a big net front presence. At 6-feet, 4-inches tall and weighing 225 pounds, he certainly makes a better door than window in front of a goaltender, which is vastly important in today’s NHL. Gaustad is also a solid face-off man. On Sunday against Pittsburgh, he won 16 of his 23 draws.

I wouldn’t be opposed to bringing him on, but remember that the Penguins already have a significant net-front guy. Chris Kunitz earns every penny he makes in front of the net, providing screens vital to the scoring of his line mates Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. I wouldn’t take Gaustad ahead of “Crease” Kunitz, but having them both could be productive.

But in my honest opinion, there’s only one area that Pittsburgh has been awful at: backup goaltending. Brent Johnson is having one of his worst seasons of his career, with a record of 3-7-2, a goals against average of 3.17 and a save percentage of .882. He has been pulled in three of his last five starts.

Johnson has been a popular player in Pittsburgh, especially after he sent opposing Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro crashing to the ice in a rare goalie fight last February.

But with 23 games remaining, the Penguins need to do something to sure up their backup goalie spot. Fleury has already started 47 games and has appeared in 50. If the Flower started in every remaining game, that would put his regularly season total at 70. That would be way too many. Historically, goalies that play in upwards of 60-70 games get too worn down and end up ineffective in the playoffs. When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2008-2009, Fleury started 61 games. Even that was considered too many.

So hypothetically, Fleury should start in about 10 more of the remaining 23 to put him on pace for his Stanley Cup winning season. Pittsburgh cannot risk leaving Johnson to start 13 more games this year.

So what can Shero do?

His first option would be to call up goaltender Brad Thiessen from the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in the American Hockey League. With the Baby Pens, Thiessen is 20-14-2 with a 2.88 GAA and a .885 save percentage. Unfortunately, the 25-year-old goaltender has not started any NHL games in his career. I know that goose egg is worrisome, but it might be worth the risk at this point. Honestly, Johnson couldn’t get much worse.

Shero’s other option would be acquiring a backup from elsewhere in the NHL. It’s tough to predict where backup goaltenders could go, but I think the Pens GM should be looking at all of the non-playoff contending teams and their backup goaltenders for possible deals. This list includes Columbus, Edmonton and Anaheim in the West and Carolina, Buffalo, New York Islanders and Montreal in the East.

Columbus backup Curtis Sanford could be a viable option, but was recently placed on injured reserve with an upper- body injury and is listed as day-to-day. If he were to get healthy quickly, he could garner interest. This season, Sanford has gone 10-13-4 with a 2.52 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage on a terrible defensive team. Like Brent Johnson, he will become an unrestricted free agent after this season and he commands the same $600,000 cap hit.

Or how about someone from the Islanders? They are deep at the position, essentially with way more backup talent than starting talent. They have seasoned veterans Evgeni Nabokov and Al Montoya, commanding $570,000 and $601,000 contracts, respectively. They both also become unrestricted free agents after this season, so it’s probable the Islanders could move at least one of them to clear some cap space.

One other viable option could be third-string goalie Justin Peters of the Carolina Hurricanes. The team has established that Brian Boucher is their solid No. 2 guy, so why not move Peters? Pittsburgh may be reluctant to move any of their prospects in this deal, but Peters will become a restricted free agent after this season and his salary is only $525,000 per season. This season, Peters is 1-3-0 with a 3.65 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. Sure the numbers aren’t fantastic, but in the turbulent world of the NHL, you never know.

Good luck, Ray, I’m glad I’m not in your seat right now.

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