Saturday, 19 January 2013

Hockey Is Back!

A Late, Late Show: Penguins Season Preview 

So, less than two hours to go (hence no links in here today, apologies) to the first puck dropped in anger in the 2012-13 (well, 2013 anyway) NHL season. Excitement is high, at least on this blog. The Penguins kick off a jam-packed slate of action at 3 p.m. ET in, of all places, Philadelphia, against bitter intrastate rivals the Flyers. This gives the Pens an early crack at revenge for the ignominious way the Flyers dumped them out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs all the way back in April 2012. That series gave rise to a number of questions that Dan Bylsma will want the team to answer early and often. With the game fast approaching, there's just about enough time to look at a few key areas in preview of the Pens' season.

1. Forwards

Ray Shero opted to take advantage of a high value on center Jordan Staal, a key member of the club for a number of years, trading him to Carolina in June. In return, Pittsburgh received center Brandon Sutter, prospect defenseman Brian Dumoulin and the 8th overall pick in last year's draft. With the pick, Penguins' management selected another defenseman, Derrick Pouliot, adding to a strong prospect pile at the position.

Staal's departure may have removed a very talented player from the organisation, breaking up the 'Big Three' in the process, but he was always likely to want to be the top-six player his size and ability demanded. This was never likely to be in Pittsburgh with a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin around, so when Staal turned down a 10-year $60m extension, Shero really had to move him to get a good return. The organisation are apparently very high on Sutter, who has a reputation as an excellent two-way player with outstanding defensive smarts. Staal's defensive play had started to waver a little towards the end of his time in Pittsburgh, so Sutter should provide an upgrade to the third line, where Staal was never really suited. He also had a big performance in Wednesday's intra-squad scrimmage, with a goal and two assists and a tally in the shootout as well.

Crosby looks set to be flanked by long term linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis - he of the 25-goal breakout season in 2011-12 - with Malkin a lock to play with 40-goal scorer James Neal and... Well, that's the primary issue. Who sticks as the last top-six forward? 2010 first-round pick Beau Bennett has been sent back down, so it looks likely that Eric Tangradi, who arrived from Anaheim promising much, but has yet to deliver anything of note (40 games, 1 goal), will get the nod. Tangradi still apparently has a lot of upside, but he's going to have to get off to a good start to stay on the second line with Bennett only a phone call away in Wilkes-Barre.

The third line will feature Sutter and stalwarts Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. This line has the potential to be one of the best in the league, with all three players able to score and play with grit. Kennedy could easily see time in the top-six, and Cooke needs to reintroduce at least a little aggression to his game, but this line should be great to watch and combined for four goals in Wednesday's scrimmage. That leaves Joe Vitale, Craig Adams, Dustin Jeffrey and newcomer Tanner Glass to fight it out for a fourth line berth. Vitale's and Adams' value on the penalty kill makes them certainties, and Glass' 246 hits for Winnipeg a year ago will add some much needed sandpaper. Jeffrey will probably be the odd-man-out, but he is a serviceable player to see time on the third or fourth line.

This is a forward group who contributed to a NHL-high 273 goals a season ago. That was without Sidney Crosby for the lion's share of the season. Sure, Shero missed out on signing Zach Parise, but adding a fully fit Sid is like signing the best free-agent on the market. Crosby and Malkin - coming off an MVP 109 point season - together and healthy is the best possible news the Penguins could have had.

2. Defense & Goalies

The single biggest reason the Penguins lost to the Flyers in April? Woeful defense. This was a team wide problem, though it is easier to point the finger at some players more than others. Marc-Andre Fleury looked beyond help in that series, but that was in no small part due to him having appeared in 67 games, itself a result of sub-par play from backup Brent Johnson. In Johnson's defense, it was his play the previous season that allowed the club to shake off a terrible first few weeks from Fleury. Hopefully, Fleury will come back stronger for the humbling experience. But if he struggles, then Shero pulled off, in my view, one of the masterstrokes of his tenure as GM this offseason, signing Tomas Vokoun to a 2-year deal, worth $2m a season. Vokoun has been one of the best goalies in the league during his career, and could easily be a number one for some teams. He has a reputation as a great locker room guy, and should be able to help mentor Fleury.

It is worth pointing out that, despite what some say, Vokoun is not in Pittsburgh to unseat MAF. He is there to take some pressure and some workload off his shoulders. A fresh, fit Fleury is still one of the game's best, though he still has untidy games and makes mental mistakes, but then, who doesn't?

Now, the goaltending was only part of the issue in the run-in and playoffs. The defense in front of the net was downright terrible at times. Kris Letang is emerging into the All-Star caliber player everyone thought he would be, and Brooks Orpik is a defensive force. Those two are the nailed down, top-quality blue liners the Pens possess. It is the others in the corps who have question marks. With Zbynek Michalek's shot-blocking gone back to Phoenix, that leaves Paul Martin, Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy, Simon Despres, Matt Niskanen and Robert Bortuzzo as the six men looking for four spots. Martin had an abysmal year last time around, but because of his $5m salary, he will play until he is traded or bought out (or actually plays like he is capable of, as shown when he was a Devil). Niskanen is quietly turning into the player that makes the trade that sent Alex Goligoski to Dallas for him and James Neal look like the bargain of the century. A solid defender who plays the PK well and can chip in offensively, his play solidifies the top-four caliber players.

The other players are interesting. Engelland played last year when Bylsma wanted grit; Lovejoy when he wanted smooth skating. It appears that Engelland will play, which is great, but despite Despres getting a lot of negative press for his work ethic, fitness and production, he will likely keep Lovejoy out of the lineup. Bortuzzo played well in a limited role last season, and keeping eight defensemen active gives Bylsma and Todd Reirden some flexibility should anyone not perform. Whatever happens, they can't be worse than last April. Can they?

3. Special Teams

In 'that' series, the Penguins killed fewer than half (47.8%) of Philadelphia's power play opportunities, giving up a whopping 12 power play goals in the six games. This was coming off the back of being the top-ranked PK squad during the regular season. A lot of this was due to the Flyers exploiting the Pens' 'tight-box' strategy, with the PK unit leaving too much space on the outside for Flyers forwards to move into. It sounds as if the unit have still been playing the same formation, so this is a point of concern. However, Dan Bylsma has indicated that Crosby might see some time on the kill, which would at least back opposing blueliners off in the closing seconds of a kill, as well as creating shorthanded chances. This is a wait and see proposition.

The power play was the reason the Pens lost in the previous series, in 2011, to Tampa Bay. It went 1-for-35. Pittsburgh also got burned for three shorties by Philly last year. A lot of the defensive frailties of the unit should be shored up by having Letang on the back end, not Steve Sullivan. But there will still be four forwards on the ice, with James Neal apparently being asked to play the point. He will be roving, as I understand it, trying to get 'lost in the mix' so to speak. Kunitz will be in front of the net, and I imagine Crosby will be down low at the goal line and behind the net, where he is undoubtedly the best at what he does, with Malkin working the half-wall. This unit tallied twice in the scrimmage on Wednesday, which is very encouraging.

4. Line Combinations

Here are my predictions for the Pens' lines to open the season:

Kunitz   -   Crosby   -   Dupuis
Tangradi   -   Malkin   -   Neal
Cooke   -   Sutter   -   Kennedy
Glass   -   Vitale   -   Adams

Orpik   -   Martin
Letang   -   Despres
Niskanen   -   Engelland


5. Final Thoughts

The Pens had 108 points last year, with Crosby only playing a small number of games. Yes, Jordan Staal has gone and Paul Martin hasn't. But Sutter arguably makes the team more balanced, and having the best player in the world in Sidney Crosby and perhaps the second-best in Evgeni Malkin, will make them a scary proposition for any opponent.

If Marc-Andre Fleury can play like he did for most of 2011-12, the penalty kill plays like it did for most of 2011-12 and Ray Shero's additions work out - which I have no doubt they will, I really like both Sutter and Glass and Vokoun's a no-brainer - this Pens team should (must?) compete for the Stanley Cup in 2013.


Comments are very welcome, and I will have a full report on tonight's game up by Sunday at the latest.

Let's go Pens!


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