by Tony on 01/15/13 at 04:07 PM ET
Great to be back at KK.
As Paul mentioned on Sunday, I'm scaling back from a daily blog to less frequent opinion-based articles. The day-to-day grind is what eventually burned me out after six years of blogging.
So before we take a look forward with the Penguins, let's take a look back:
April 22nd was the end of an ugly 12-day period for the Penguins. Not in that the Penguins lost to the Flyers in the 1st round of the Playoffs. Unless you're being completely unobjective, you tap your stick to the Flyers, they beat the snot out of the Pens and richly deserved advancing.
It was the WAY they lost.
Horrendous penalty killing, succeeding at only a 47.8% rate.
Going hand-in-hand, the defense as a whole was porous. The Flyers would gain regularly access to the Pens' zone with no problems.
While the Pens powerplay did well, going 9-for-29 for a 31% clip, they allowed 3 short-handed goals.
And finally, Marc-Andre Fleury, albeit with the aforementioned defense doing him absolutely no favors, had a poor performance, with a 4.63 GAA and a .834 Save Pct.
So it's been a looooong nine months for everyone, but particularly in Pittsburgh, with the sour taste in the mouth from that bad loss to the Flyers.
Fast-forward to the present day. Everyone's excited for hockey to resume. A few hockey outlets have predicted that the Penguins are the favorites to win the Cup.
Is it possible? Well sure it is. Not to be a cocky yinzer, but let's face it, with the firepower that the Penguins possess, along with a goaltender that has two trips to the Finals and has won a Cup, it's certainly not an outlandish prediction.
The strengths are well-known. Sidney Crosby is finally 100% healthy, in as much as one can ascertain from the recovery from concussion and neck injuries. As you remember, the last diagnosis on Crosby's injury was a neck tissue injury, not a concussion. But reports and videos over the last several months show a rejuvenated Sid. Of course, we'll see how he fares in game action, but so far, so good.
Reigning Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin (50 goals) and James Neal (40) have developed into quite the potent pair on the Pens' 2nd line. It's still up in the air who will get the pleasure of being the other winger on that line. But having two powerful lines makes the job that much more difficult for the opponent's defense.
So the horses are there. Having said all that, I'm not as confident as others appear to be, at least for right now.
At the time of this writing, the same Penguins' defense that performed so poorly in the playoffs has returned without any additions. Penguins GM Ray Shero made a draft-day trade that could easily be construed as a salary dump by trading under-performing defenseman Zbynek Michalek back to Phoenix for a couple of average prospects and a 3rd round draft pick. Paul Martin, who has faced the wrath of Penguins fan's ire, has somewhat surprisingly been given a vote of confidence from the Penguins, stating that he should rebound from a poor season defensively. In addition, while the Penguins have a wealth of highly-touted defensive prospects, one Simon Despres is considered NHL-ready, and even that is no guarantee at this point. They have some 3rd defensive pair candidates in Robert Bortuzzo and Brian Strait if folks like Ben Lovejoy sputter and/or injuries happen. But overall, I think the Penguins defense as a whole is a significant question mark leading into the season.
Another potential issue going into this season will be the loss and replacement of one-time "core" component Jordan Staal. His draft-day trade to Carolina for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin and the Canes' #1 pick was not surprising in that GMRS, after Staal had rejected a contract extension with the Penguins, had to trade Staal during the draft to maximize the return. But I think it's fair to state that Sutter has some big shoes to fill. You can only see so much on video, but I give Sutter a decent shot of adequately replacing Staal. He's known as a good defender, good penalty killer, and, dare I say, a bit faster with better hands than Staal. We shall see about that one.
And then there is Fleury. MAF won a career-high 42 games last regular season, only one behind Nashville's Pekka Rinne for the league lead. He started 64 games, although nine other goaltenders started more. But by the time the playoffs rolled around, Fleury looked like one gassed netminder, although admittedly the defensive blunders did him no favors. But now with only a 48-game regular season, including seven back-to-back games and many instances of 3 games in 4 days, Shero's proactive signing of veteran Tomas Vokoun looks that much smarter. Because one thing's for sure: The Penguins most likely cannot win the Stanley Cup without a solid Fleury.
There is one last attribute I wanted to touch upon. In years past, in recent years as a matter of fact, the Penguins were known as a pretty tough team to play against. Relentless on the forecheck, better than average team defense, and several players on the roster who provide play the body when need be. I'm not referring to dropping the gloves, although that falls into this category as well, but I'm really referring to physical players. Players like Arron Asham, Mike Rupp, Eric Godard and yes, even Max Talbot are long gone. The Pens signed Tanner Glass from Winnipeg to fill a role such as that, and he is a physical player, although if he drops the gloves he frankly loses more fights than he wins. But overall, it's a fair statement that the Penguins are not as "tough" to play against as they used to be.
By the way, another player who this would apply to is the player formerly known as Matt Cooke. Let me be clear: NO ONE wants to see the dirty, elbow-flying Matt Cooke to ever return. However, the level Matt Cooke plays at now is not his most effective as an NHL player. Don't get me wrong, he was an asset for the Pens last season, with a career-high 19 goals, and most importantly for him, PIM's went down from 129 to only 44, with all of those minor. But Cooke needs to find that happy medium where he regains that legally physical edge, but of course not to the point where he crosses the line and is out of the lineup once again under what will be a very long suspension.
There are some other things that stick in my craw that hopefully the Penguins can improve upon. Most alarmingly, the Pens were dead last in the NHL last season in takeaways. Dead last. Not surprising to anyone who regularly watches the Pens, they were 2nd in the league in missed shots. Of course, you can't score if you don't shoot, but some better accuracy would result in more scoring opportunities. And finally, yearning back to the Rob Scuderi days, the Penguins were in the bottom 3rd of the league in blocked shots. Block more shots, and less get to the goaltender and the back of the net.
Once again, glad to be back.
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Welcome to The Confluence, a Pittsburgh Penguins blog since 2006.
Originally at Blogspot, then at MVN, TheConfluence has over 1500 articles reporting Penguins news as well as jumping on my soapbox to opine constructive Penguins criticism.
I am blogger- credentialed with the Pittsburgh Penguins. My posts are regularly linked by hockey websites such as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Yahoo!‘s Puck Daddy, and I’ve done numerous guest blogger spots on such websites asthe New YorkTimes. I am a retired U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer.
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