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 Unexpected Playoff Exit Only Adds Drama

The Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated in six games by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

I know, it still sounds awful and I’m still distraught about it.

I’ve been trying to find the positivity in a losing series in which the Pens gave up 11 power play goals and three shorties and Marc-Andre Fleury gave up 26 goals with a 4.63 goals against average and a .834 save percentage.

I found that, if nothing else, the Penguins’ hatred of the Flyers grew in those six games and so did mine. It may seem like a small positive – if a positive at all – but the intensity that rivalries inject into sports adds about as much drama as you can dream up.

That’s why we watch sports, after all. The drama of every shot, every hit and every swing of a bat, stick, racket or club can keep fans on the edge of their seats because of what is at stake. It’s supremely entertaining because sports is the ultimate reality show. You never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes, the odds are pretty good that you can guess what may come next, but there is no sure thing in sports, as in life.

The Penguins’ postseason was a great example of that unpredictability. They went into the playoffs as the odds-on favorite to bring home the Stanley Cup. Sports Illustrated featured a cover line that read “Who will stop the Penguins?” on the NHL playoffs preview issue (pictured right).

Sidney Crosby was healthy again, Evgeni Malkin had won a scoring title and Marc-Andre Fleury was playing the way he did when he won the Cup in 2009. Pittsburgh Tribune Review Pens beat writer Josh Yohe wrote a blog entitled “10 Reasons Penguins Can Win Stanley Cup” even before the Penguins really turned it on with Crosby’s return. But once the regular season ended, it all collapsed at the hands of the Penguins most hated rival.

This is a theme not uncommon to sports.

If you’re a Yankees fan, it was reasonable to guess that after Enter Sandman boomed from the loudspeakers, Mariano Rivera was going to jog out of the bullpen and sit down the next three batters to win a ball game.

Then without warning, Rivera slipped on the warning track while shagging fly balls and tore his ACL, leaving his career in jeopardy.

If you were a fan of the “old” Tiger Woods – which coincidentally was the young Tiger Woods – you could be almost certain that he was going to win a tournament if he went into the final day of a tournament at the top of the leader board.

But then Tiger got into a car accident, some strange events unfolded and now he hasn’t won a major or much else since.

It’s the drama of not knowing that drives a fan. It’s all about hope. It’s that hope for “the feeling” you get when your team wins at the risk of getting “that other feeling” when your team loses. I hoped the Pens would oust the Flyers from the playoffs. It didn’t happen. I hope the Steelers can make a decent run at a Super Bowl this year, but maybe they won’t. I’m willing to put in all the enthusiasm I can to root for my teams even though I’m risking major disappointment. I’ve bought into the risk vs. reward just like most fans out there.

So even though the Penguins lost to the Flyers, it only fueled my desire to see the black and gold take the ice next season and defeat the orange and black and hopefully the Penguins share my sentiments. I’ve accepted defeat and disappointment this season because I know a Cup might come next season in dramatic fashion. Flyers in 6 wasn’t the end of the world, it was just part of the evolution of the rivalry. Maybe Pittsburgh will face Philadelphia in the postseason next year and the rivalry will be even more intense. That’s what I’m hoping at least, because in sports, you never know and that’s what makes it great.

Mike Milbury “What a Child”

Mike Milbury has done it again.

And when I say “it” I mean he has again said something thoughtless, rash, hateful, hurtful and unintelligent regarding some aspect of the National Hockey League. This time it was about Sidney Crosby.

What a surprise.

Earlier today, Milbury joined 94WIP’s Angelo Cataldio and The Morning Team to discuss the Sunday’s Pens Flyers game that nearly resulted in Philadelphia’s head coach Peter Laviolette attacking Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato. Laviolette’s anger was brought about from a heavy hit on Flyers forward Danny Briere at the end of the game, which ultimately ended up injuring Briere’s back and resulted in a 10-player brawl.

Minutes before the hit and brawl, Pens captain Sidney Crosby was involved in an altercation with Brayden Schenn of the Flyers. Crosby gave Schenn a shot at the end of a play and then started off toward the Pens bench. Schenn followed from behind and crosschecked Crosby, knocking him to the ice. No penalties were assessed on the play.

Mike Milbury had plenty to say about both Crosby and the bench fight between Laviolette and Granato.

“It’s not totally uncommon,” Milbury said of Laviolette’s behavior at the end of the game. “I can remember being on such a perch, or at least trying to climb over the boards to get at somebody to make a point. And I thought Dan Bylsma should have taken off his skirt and gone over there.”

If that was ignorant and idiotic enough, Milbury added “Little goody two shoes (Crosby) goes into the corner and gives a shot to Schenn. Schenn was late to the party, he should have turned around and drilled him right away, but I guess better late than never,” Milbury said. “So you know, Crosby gets cross-checked, big whoop. He said after he came back from his 35th concussion, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m not going to get into this scrums, I’m going to stay away from that stuff.’ He couldn’t help himself because there’s a little punk in Crosby. He’s not the perfect gentleman. He’s not the sweet kid you see in interviews with his hat pulled down over his eyes. I’d say screw him, hit him.”

Where do I begin?

First and foremost let’s review who Mike Milbury is. The best start is to Google his name. The first entry to come up is his Wikipedia page, as expected. But the next few go something like this “Mike Milbury charged with assault of child.”

Yes, if you didn’t know that already, Mike Milbury allegedly hit a 12 year old. “Brookline police Capt. Tom Keaveney said Milbury, an assistant coach on his son’s team, allegedly grabbed, threatened and shook the opposing player as the teams were shooting around following a Dec. 9 game at a town-owned rink.”

Fortunately for Milbury, there wasn’t enough evidence to bring criminal charges.

But regardless what happened in court, it’s clear that Milbury is a joke of a human being. He was a goon as a player, piling up penalty minutes and nothing else. Oh and he also ruined the New York Islanders as the GM before he “stepped down” from the position. That should be sufficient back ground for now.

It’s clear that Milbury has no idea what “restraint” is. He says that he remembers climbing up on a perch like Laviolette and trying to “get at somebody to make a point.”

Yeah, he should remember doing that, because once during a game he climbed over the glass and attacked a fan who hit one of his players with a rolled up program. That incident led to the NHL installing higher glass to prevent goonism from morons like Milbury spilling over into the crowd.

There is a link to a story and video from NESN below. You can see him in the top-left part of the video at the 36 second mark.

http://www.nesn.com/2009/12/thirty-year-anniversary-of-mike-milburys-shoe-incident-at-msg.html

This isn’t the school yard and you aren’t nine years old Mike. Attacking someone to prove a point? Apparently your parents taught you nothing and I hope you don’t teach the same to your children.

Telling Dan Bylsma to “take off his skirt” and physically engage with Laviolette is one of the stupidest things I’ve heard lately. Whatever the situation is, it is NEVER ok for a coach to get violent during a hockey game. Laviolette was fined $10,000 for standing up and yelling. Can you imagine what the NHL would have done if there was a physical confrontation? You’d be looking at suspensions at the most critical time of the year, heading into playoffs. That wouldn’t help anybody.

Milbury is entitled to his own opinion, however wrong I think it might be. But what he said about Crosby is unforgivable. “He said after he came back from his 35th concussion…”

Are you kidding me? Concussions and headshots are the biggest topics in hockey right now. With the changes to Rule 48 and Brendan Shanahan dealing out suspensions on video, it’s unfathomable to hear that someone as close to the NHL as Milbury can make light of Crosby’s situation. Crosby has done more for the game than Milbury ever has. He’s the face of the league and like him or not, he generates revenue and makes the game more interesting.

Sure, Crosby is not the perfect gentleman. He will never win the Lady Bing trophy. But it’s pretty hypocritical for Milbury to be at odds with a player that isn’t the perfect gentleman. Sure, Sid may jaw at the refs and opposing players, but he never assaulted a 12-year-old kid…(allegedly).

And it’s not like Sid doesn’t get hit. Other players will continue to target him because it’s hockey. Everyone gets hit. I didn’t take a whole lot of exception to Schenn crosschecking him because Crosby started it. He knows it and Schenn knows it. It wasn’t to the head and Sid probably bought it a little bit. It seemed to me like no harm, no foul.

But when your star player gets hit after the whistle, it’s the other players’ and coaches’ responsibility to deal with the situation. Bylsma sent out his fourth line –the checking line – to send a message that you can’t hit Crosby like that. It’s a team standing up for itself. The Flyers responded with the scrum after the hit to Briere. Again, that’s standard hockey. Hell, even Laviolette screaming at the Penguins’ bench was warranted, to a degree. He could have kept a little more control rather than climbing up on the boards, but it never got physical.

Mike Milbury doesn’t understand diplomacy and talking things out. He doesn’t believe in playing by the rules and he doesn’t believe in civilized society. He may continue to talk and voice his opinion, but if NBC knows what is best for the network, Milbury will be uttering the rest of his comments under his breath from the comfort of his home while collecting unemployment.

Pittsburgh Tribune Review Penguins reporter Josh Yohe said it best in his tweet this afternoon.

Josh Yohe ‏ @JoshYohe_Trib

“Milbury is entitled to his opinion, but the mocking of Crosby’s concussions is inexcusable and should cost him his job. What a child.”

Sidney Crosby: So Far Soooooo Good

A less-than-amazing shot by yours truly.

It is common knowledge that when healthy, Sidney Crosby is one of (if not the best) hockey players in the world. And just to remind you why this is common knowledge, let’s take a quick look at what Sid has done so far after his second return this season.

Tonight marks the fifth game back for Sidney Crosby after he suffered a neck/head injury in only his eighth game this season. Since his comeback against the New York Rangers on March 15 in Madison Square Garden Sid has been nothing short of extraordinary, as usual. In the four games back, he has notched nine assists, is a plus-7 and has won 50.7 percent of his face offs. Sure, the goal scoring hasn’t been where he would like it to be, but there is no doubt that will come. If you look at the chances he has had to score goals so far, he has been absolutely robbed.

But let’s focus on the assists right now.

Sid has become a specialist in distributing the puck. He is a pass-first player right now, and with the guns he has around him, no one is complaining. On the power play, he has mostly played the point, but Dan Bylsma allows his PP to rotate around the offensive zone so there is constant movement, so it’s not uncommon for Sid to end up next to the net, on the half wall or in the slot. Regardless of where Crosby ends up, he is always finding a passing lane to the player that has the best position for a shot on goal. Much of the time, Crosby will take a quick look and then play the puck blindly to one of his teammates, to the dismay and astonishment of the penalty killers around him. Two such plays were in New Jersey and in the last game against Winnipeg.

You can see that even after losing his footing and getting pounded from behind by a defender, Sid is cool as a cucumber and sends the puck the width of the ice to Geno, who no one but Sid knew was there.

http://video.penguins.nhl.com/videocenter/console?hlg=20112012,2,1090

In the above link, there are a few things to note. Check out how quickly Sid acquires the puck with his head up and finds a teammate instantly for a quick shot on net. This happened twice with Tyler Kennedy when Sid was below the goal line, a la Wayne Gretzky. In a different situation, Sid finds Evgeni Malkin to his right on a 6-on-5 delayed penalty situation. Crosby has a clear shot to the net, but he knows there is a howitzer a few feet away from him at a different angle to the goaltender. The goalie was square to Crosby when he gets the puck, so Sid changes the angle to a different teammate. It is brilliant, unselfish hockey.

Speaking of Tyler Kennedy, let’s address the line that Crosby is on during 5-on-5 play. It is a nontraditional third line of Matt Cooke, Sidney Crosby and Tyler Kennedy. In the four games that Sid has been back, his line-mates have been filling the net. Cooke has four goals since Crosby’s return and Kennedy has two. Before Crosby’s return, Cooke had gone eight games without a goal, then notched four in his next four. Kennedy had gone 18 games without a goal before burying two in one night. These two players were in the right position and regardless of where Crosby was, he put the puck on their tape with precision.

Even though Crosby has played only 12 games this season, he is averaging 1.75 points per game. That puts him on pace to score 38 points this season (and believe me, those won’t all be assists). And one most fun to examine is where Sid ranks in assists this season. He has 19 and ranks 217th in the NHL. But that is still better than 655 other NHL players right now. This counts players that may have played even fewer games than Sid, but still, interesting to note.

Once again, it’s the status quo in Pittsburgh for Sidney Crosby and in a word it simply means: Greatness.

Game 20 of Remaining 29: Nashville at Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Penguins: 45-21-6 (96 points)

4th in the Eastern Conference

VS.

Nashville Predators: 42-23-8 (92 points)

5th in the Western Conference

What a matchup. There are so many intriguing story lines for this game that I don’t even know if I can cover them all. First, let’s talk about the goalies. This is a battle of the two top wins leaders in the NHL. Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Pekka Rinne have 39. Something has to give. This game also features the third best penalty kill in the NHL (Pittsburgh at 89.0 percent) and the best powerplay in the NHL (Nashville at 21.6 percent) battling head to head. Once again, something has to give. Finally, this is only the fifth game after the return of the Penguins most skilled player, Sidney Crosby. To shadow that, this marks the return of  Alexander Radulov, possibly the most skilled player for Nashville. Tonight will be a battle of great defenses, solid goaltending and consistent scoring. Twenty games back I predicted the Preds to take this one, but it very well could be a toss up at this point. My prediction: Pens LOSE.

My final 29 prediction record: 8-11

Game 18 of Remaining 29: Pittsburgh at Philadelphia

Pittsburgh Penguins: 44-21-5 (93 points)

4th in the Eastern Conference

 

VS.

Philadelphia Flyers: 41-22-8 (90 points)

5th in the Eastern Conference

 

 

As a Penguins fan, I’m always looking forward to this match up. Philly is our rival, period. After consecutive wins in the Atlantic Division against the Rangers and Devils, the Pens are surging like never before this season. Eighteen games ago, I couldn’t have predicted Pittsburgh rolling like this, but then again, I couldn’t have predicted that Sidney Crosby would be back either. My prediction: Pens WIN.

My final 29 prediction record: 7-10

Game 16 of Remaining 29: Pittsburgh at New York Rangers

Pittsburgh Penguins: 42-21-5 (89 points)

4th in the Eastern Conference

VS.

       New York Rangers: 44-18-7 (95 points)

1st in the Eastern Conference

 

 

 

 

 

For the Pittsburgh Penguins, there hasn’t been a bigger game this year. A win will put them within four points of the first place Rangers. A loss will send them back back eight points from the Rangers. Catching the Blue Shirts would probably be an insurmountable task if they lose this one. But let’s remember, this game marks the return of Sidney Crosby. All-star blueliner Kris Letang may also be coming back for this game. If I had known these details, I may have picked this game differently 16 games ago. However, I didn’t. I’m picking the Pens to LOSE in this one, well at least I did back then. I really hope I’m wrong, but all I can do is wait and see.

My final 29 record: 6-9

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.

Pittsburgh Penguins Remaining Games Predictions

For the Pittsburgh Penguins, tonight marks the starting point for the final three months of the regular season. There are 29 games remaining before potential playoff time and I have made my predictions. Are they bold? I don’t think so. Will they be exact? Probably not. Will they give you something to think about?

Absolutely.

In the remaining games, the Pens will face only four teams that they haven’t seen already this season (Nashville, Anaheim, Columbus and Phoenix). But for the other 25 teams left on the schedule, the Pens should be able to put together some type of game plans based on their prior familiarity. That’s exactly what I did. Here are some key points to consider:

  • Against the remaining familiar teams this season, Pittsburgh has a total record of 19-18
  • Its road record against these teams is 8-11
  • Its home record against these teams is 11-7
  • Pittsburgh has 17 games remaining at home
  • They have 12 games remaining on the road
  • Pittsburgh has a record of 6-9 against Atlantic Division opponents
  • The Pens will play Atlantic Division opponents 11 more times this season
  • Of the remaining familiar teams they will face, Pittsburgh has the worst record against New Jersey (1-5)
  • Of the remaining familiar teams the Pens will face, they have the best record against the Islanders (4-0)

Now before I go any further into my predictions, I wish to make one point. Although I want to stay optimistic about the return of Sidney Crosby, it’s hard for me to think that he will be back before the playoffs (should Pittsburgh reach the playoffs).  In an earlier post, I predicted a hypothetical situation in which Crosby would return to game action on February 29 against the Dallas Stars.

In retrospect, that was much too bold of a prediction.

Sid still needs to get rid of the remaining concussion symptoms to even be cleared for contact. Then, he would need time to recondition (again) and become game ready. If you look at the timeline of his last return, the remaining amount of games won’t allow for a regular season return. Once again, I hope I’m wrong.

So the predictions I am about to make are all based on a Crosby-less Pittsburgh hockey club. If Sid were to return at any point in the regular season, my predictions would certainly change. But since we have no way of knowing, I’ll move forward without the Pen’s captain.

  • I predict that in the final 29 games, Pittsburgh will put together a record of 17-10-2, earning them 36 more points. In this span, Pittsburgh will go 11-5-1 at home and 6-5-1 on the road.
  • In this scenario, Pittsburgh will finish the season with a final record of 47-29-6 with a grand total of 100 points. (Last season, the Penguins finished with a record of 49-25-8, earning a total of 106 points. One-hundred points overall would have pegged Pittsburgh in the sixth playoff spot last season.)
  • Here are the remaining games Pittsburgh will win at home: Winnipeg (twice), Anaheim, Rangers, Tampa Bay, Columbus, Toronto, Florida, New Jersey, Islanders and Philadelphia.
  • Here are the remaining games Pittsburgh will lose at home: Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Boston, Nashville, Philadelphia and the Rangers (OT/SO).
  • On the road, the Pens will beat the following teams: Montreal, Buffalo (twice), New Jersey (finally), Philadelphia (finally) and Boston.
  • On the road, Pittsburgh will lose to the following clubs: Philadelphia, Dallas, Colorado (OT/SO), Rangers, Ottawa and the Islanders.
  • The longest remaining winning streak for the Pens will be a string of four games starting Feb. 19 at Buffalo, and will continue with wins against the Rangers at home, Tampa Bay at home and Columbus at home. The streak will end in Dallas on Feb. 29 against the Stars.
  • Pittsburgh will not lose more than two games in a row for the rest of the season.

I made these predictions by using a few different methods. First, I examined all of the teams the Penguins have already played and closely looked at how they did on the road and at home against these teams. Overall, the Pens are a much better home team than they are on the road against the remaining familiar teams this season. They are 11-7 at home, compared to 8-11 on the road.

For example, I believe Pittsburgh will start the month of February with a fourth straight win against Montreal. In 23 career starts against the Habs, Marc-Andre Fleury has a 13-8-1 record with a 3.32 GAA and .887 SV%. I like those odds, so I gave Pittsburgh the win.

Another example is how I picked the remaining games against the Devils. New Jersey has owned Pittsburgh this season and has not lost to the Pens at home. I predicted wins in both of the remaining games against the Devils because I don’t believe there is any way that the Penguins can keep losing to this team. There have been some close games against the Devils this season and I think that there is so much game film that is rife with mistakes, Pittsburgh will be able to identify why they keep losing to the Devils.

And finally, I went with my gut. I’ve seen enough Penguins games to get a good feel for how this team will work out. It’s obviously not a science, but so much of sports comes down to intangibles; it’s not always stats that tell the story.

You may not agree with all my choices, but regardless of your opinion, you can check out my running track record that I will update after each game the Penguins play. So keep coming back to Polish Pedro’s Sports and Such and see how I’m doing. Feel free to make fun of my downfalls and congratulate me on my triumphs.

But no matter what happens, the remaining three months of the Penguins regular season should be as exciting as ever.

Here’s Waiting For You Kid

On September 7, 2011, the Pittsburgh Penguins held a press conference to update the media and hopeful fans about the progress of their star captain Sidney Crosby. By this point, the concussion Crosby suffered on January 1 was old news. It had been a long seven months of hopeful anticipation for Crosby, the Penguins organization and fans of both. There had been setbacks in his recovery and no one was quite sure if Sid would ever lace up his skates again. But this press conference had a positive atmosphere. In fact, Dr. Ted Carrick – the Director of the Carrick Institute in Cape Canaveral, Fl. and one of Crosby’s neurologists – made an announcement that eased everyone’s worry. He said Christmas had come early for the young superstar.

“The reason this is Christmas is because Sid shouldn’t have any problems in the future…This case is one of the good outcomes.”

At this point, Sid wasn’t out of the woods yet, but it appeared that he was making a tremendous recovery and everyone’s doubts that his concussion may put an end to his career were basically washed away. Dr. Michael Collins, the Director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program had evaluated Crosby just a day before and he agreed with Carrick about the improvement that Sid had made.

“The progress first of all is excellent that Sid will not have any long term problems from this injury. In fact, I’m supremely confident in that issue,” he said. “His data is the best we’ve seen. It is approaching normal limits.”

Thirty-seven days later, Crosby was officially cleared for contact in practice and 39 days after that, he was cleared to play in his first game in more than 11 months. During that return, there were a bunch of things I was looking for. I wanted to see if he could maintain normal shift time on the ice. (He did). I wanted to see if he was still aggressive and adventurous near the net with or without the puck. (He was). But most of all, I wanted to see him get hit. And honestly, I wanted to see him take a rough blow to the upper body. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely wasn’t hoping someone would target his head and cheap shot him, but I wanted to be reassured that he could go through a normal amount of blows during a typical game so that I could be sure Crosby would be the same as he always was while moving forward into the season. I’m sure that Sid himself felt the same urge.

Inside his mind, he wanted the same reassurance I did. After all, until he took some good shots, that doubt would linger somewhere deep down and the “what ifs” would remain. If he proved to himself and everyone else that the concussion was completely gone without any increased chance of return, it would be a weight off of his and everyone else’s shoulders. That would mean the time for worrying and frustration was gone, so Crosby could focus on the goal of winning another a Stanley Cup.

It indeed proved to be an emotional night for Crosby and everyone watching him at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Crosby scored four points with two goals and two assists and it was as though the concussion had never even happened. The city of Pittsburgh was whole again and Crosby was once more the main focus of NHL community.

But that optimism and positivity didn’t last long. Only seven games into the start of Crosby’s season, he suffered yet another setback. Following a 3-1 loss against the Boston Bruins, Sid began to experience headaches and he was shut down by the Penguins once more. Crosby wasn’t quite sure what had caused the return of his symptoms, but he speculated that a hit he took from Boston center David Krejci may have done it.

It remains unclear how badly Sid is feeling and the official report said that he did not suffer another concussion, just concussion-like symptoms. Crosby has passed the baseline testing (an ImPACT test), but he still has a headache and doesn’t feel right.

It is also unclear how long Crosby will be out. Currently, he is not practicing and it feels like his concussion situation has reverted back to the level it reached this past summer, when Penguins fans were supremely worried about the future of the best player in hockey.

Since sustaining a concussion through two hits last year –the first coming from Dave Steckel of the Capitals on January 1 and the second coming from Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning only a few days later – Crosby missed a total of 64 games between now and when he first left the ice, 41 games last season and 23 this season. The first concussion sure was disappointing, made worse by the Penguins’ early playoff exit in the first round of the playoffs, but I always felt that Crosby would fully rehabilitate himself and return to the ice at 100 percent. It looked as though he did, scoring 12 points in only eight games this season. But now, I’m not so sure Sid will ever be the same.

I believe Crosby will return sooner or later from the latest concussion symptoms because I’m an optimistic fan, but I now have a strong fear that any amount of contact may spur yet another re-occurrence of symptoms and Sid will continue to miss large chunks of games in both the long and short term. I’m also positive that Crosby does not want to go through the same strenuous rehabilitative process he went through this summer. Although the specifics of this rehab have never been truly revealed, during the September 7 press conference, Crosby’s doctors explained the process in some detail. “The brain allows you to know where you are in space and where space is in reference to you. In Sid’s case, that was not exactly correct,” Dr. Carrick said. “Areas in space were not in an appropriate grid to where he would perceive them, so we developed strategies to build him a new grid.”

Collins added that Sid had suffered a vestibular type of concussion (vestibular meaning the space and motion system of the brain.) “Sid’s vestibular system is better than anyone else’s,” Collins said. “That system makes Sid who he is… At this time, Sid has no vestibular symptoms.”

Crosby, the Penguins and his doctors handled the injury the best way they possibly could. Ray Shero, the general manager of the Penguins reiterated this fact numerous times during that press conference. But even though there was basically nothing else that could have been done for Crosby, his problems are flaring up once again and that’s very bad news.

Many questions were posed to Crosby and his doctors at the press conference, but one in particular caught my attention. Stan Savran, who covers the Penguins for Root Sports Pittsburgh, asked if there would come a point where there would be no evidence that an injury ever occurred and if Sid would be more susceptible to further head injuries, despite his recovery from this one. Collins answered back confidently. “Yes, there will be no evidence that this injury is there anymore. Our research and many others in this field understand that if you have full recovery, the outcomes are far less in terms of recidivism and problems reoccurring. And I expect that to occur in this case,” he said. “I’m very optimistic that we’ll see Sid have a very long and fruitful career.”

Taking that statement into account, as well as knowing that every precaution possible was taken for Crosby, I feel that his fate can only be determined by sheer luck. Now, I really have to question if a prior concussion can increase the chances you’ll suffer another one in the future.

I’ll keep an open mind of course, because I am a Penguins fan and a Crosby fan. So I’ll say that there is still a chance that Crosby is NOT concussion-prone, just unlucky.

There is also a tiny chance that Crosby had never taken a legitimately heavy shot to the brain in his career prior to the Steckel hit. That could indicate that his concussion tolerance was low to begin with and he had actually been lucky throughout all the hockey games he had ever played in before and had not taken any major contact to the head. Sid has said himself that he had never been diagnosed with a concussion before. This scenario is pretty much impossible, however. Hockey is a violent game and there’s no chance, in my opinion, that Crosby was lucky enough to avoid a shot to the head in all the years he’s played hockey. That means that Sid has almost definitely taken hits to his head, but none of them before Steckel’s were hard enough or direct enough to deliver a concussion.

Now that he fell victim to a big enough shot to his brain to concuss him, it seems likely to me that he simply does not have the tolerance to concussions that he did before Steckel. The Hedman hit may be evidence of that. Remember, the shot in the Winter Classic delivered the initial concussion, but Crosby didn’t miss any games because of it. He went on a few days later to play in the very next game four days after the Winter Classic against Tampa Bay. That is when he was hit by Hedman and he didn’t play another game that season. In my opinion, that goes to show that something permanent has occurred inside Crosby’s head. It may not be detectable, but there is some kind of switch that flipped in his brain that he cannot switch back. And hear me right, I’m not talking about some sort of mental fear that Crosby has. That’s not my point at all. I’m talking about a permanent physical condition that cannot be treated and cannot be cured. It is a bell that cannot be un-rung, so to speak.

During the summer press conference, Crosby’s doctors stated that he was “approaching normal.” So hypothetically, let’s say that today, Crosby is once again approaching normal. (Which I believe is unfortunately a little too optimistic.) Initially, it took a total of 75 days after the press conference for him to fully recover and return to action. That would mean that he would be cleared for contact in practice 37 days from now, which would put us at January 21. After another 39 days, he would be cleared to return to games, which would be on February 29 against the Dallas Stars. This scenario would leave only 19 games left in the regular season. In total, he would miss 55 regular season games. Last season, he missed 14 games LESS than that. So hypothetically, this season could ultimately prove to be even more frustrating than the last.

I can’t remember any other time in my life that I’ve ever wanted to be proven wrong so badly.

So I and the rest of the Penguins nation will wait with bated breath. There is no time table and there are no speculations. Again, the Penguins organization will take its time and do this whole thing the same way as before, the safe way and the right way. And hopefully—knock on wood, pull a four-leaf clover, pick up a heads-up penny and walk under a horseshoe—that pays off better than it did the first time.

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