The Piece from Pittsburgh
May 17, 2012 3 Comments
As any Penguins’ fans who didn’t immediately set themselves on fire and/or buy Pittsburgh Pirates’ season tickets the day after the Penguins were eliminated will tell you, the 2012 NHL Playoffs have been fantastic if you’re an uninvolved observer. Lord knows I’m a Penguins’ fan, but I’m even more of a hockey fan. I am not going to miss out on the NHL Playoffs, ever intensifying and always a veritable Christmas-in-Spring, just because the Pens were an early out.
While in the Eastern Conference I’ve had to take rooting interests that I find myself disgusted with (like pulling for the Devils because of my searing hatred for the Flyers, then continuing to pull for the Devils because of my disdain for the Rangers), out West there has really only been one team for me: the suddenly-dominant Los Angeles Kings, who after respectively thrashing the Vancouver Canucks (haha) and the St. Louis Blues are halfway through Phoenix Coyotes. As I write this, the Kings have taken two from the Coyotes in Glendale, and looked highly impressive in both performances.
There’s a lot to like about Los Angeles, as long as you aren’t holding some residual grudge against all the ex-Flyers who have landed in L.A. In fact, when you take the black-and-orange off the likes of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards (who I used to utterly despise), you see some really talented, capable hockey players. Beyond those two, you have the exceptionally-skilled Anze Kopitar, no-longer thoroughly-under appreciated U.S. Olympian Dustin Brown, Vezina candidate/Conn Smythe front-runner/U.S. Olympian Jonathan Quick, and rugged Playoff warrior Willie Mitchell (“UH UH, WILLIE!” 3:00 mark- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qocqqifz6_s )
But aside from those players, I’m on the Kings’ bandwagon for the same reason that all Penguins’ fans should be: the Kings employ the pride of Syosset, New York, Stanley Cup winning defenseman Rob “The Piece” Scuderi.
You remember Scuds, right? The Goalie Whisperer? An integral part of the Penguins’ 2009 Cup run? All-around great guy?
On the off-chance you don’t plan your life around the whims of Mario Lemieux: in July 2009, just days after the Penguins took four-of-five games from Detroit to win the ’09 Cup, Pens GM Ray Shero knew he had some integral players heading toward unrestricted free agency.
While it would be glorious to return your entire Cup-winning team intact, Shero knew the reality of a Cap system is that losses in personnel are inevitable. While Shero wanted Scuderi to return and Scuderi wanted to return to the team (http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sports/penguins/scuderi-is-treated-like-a-king-348043/), the reality is that someone was going to blow him away with an offer too good to refuse. That someone turned out to be Kings’ GM Dean Lombardi, who offered Scuds a four-year/$13.6 million-dollar contract, basically quadrupling his salary and offering him and his young family security in sunny California.
Scuds of course signed with LA, but not before checking back a final time with Pittsburgh (making him basically the Anti-Jagr: appreciative, loyal, forthcoming, likable…I could go on). If I recall, at the time Lombardi pointed out he signed Scuds in large part to help his still-developing Kings’ squad take the next step toward Stanley Cup contention.
Flash forward three years, and Lombardi looks like a genius and a prophet. Los Angeles is buzz-sawing its way through the Western Conference. Playing on the first defensive-pairing with franchise jewel Drew Doughty is Scuds, continuing to fly below-the-radar and chewing up 20 minutes-a-night for a Western Conference semi-finalist.
Penguins’ fans everywhere can’t feel anything but great for Scuds. This is a player who Ray Shero once said this about (courtesy of the Curmudgeon over at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sports/ron-cook/tough-choice-for-scuderi-347370/):
“When I first got here and found out he had a one-way contract, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Shero said. “But he just kept improving. Now, I wish I had signed him for three years instead of two [after the '06-'07 season for a $1.425 million].”
I am not here today to bash the administrative decisions of former Pens’ Gm Craig Patrick. That will likely be my thirty-page MBA thesis, “How to Drive a Business into the Ground on just 1.5 liters of Grand Marnier per day!” But Shero was right; Scuds was so brutal in ’05-06 that he very memorably got Waived along with along with X-Generation luminaries Rico Fata and Konstantin Koltsov. He was a crucial part of a defensive group that Iron Mike Therrien once called, “the Soffest group in de League”:
But as Showtime pointed out, he just got better and better. Scuds is very good positionally, and while his skating has gotten much better, his commitment, compete level, and intelligence in his own zone masks average agility and lateral movement. I do not mean this as a slight; I am trying to show the value of intangibles like Defensive Awareness and the Will to improve, which Scuds has in spades.
The Penguins do not have a 2009 Stanley Cup Banner without The Piece. That’s pretty much irrefutable. Hell, I could make a pretty solid argument that if Scuds was still on the payroll, the team might still be competing in the 2012 Playoffs. “Pieces” like Scuds are invaluable; you can have a 360-horsepower, 428 ci Police Interceptor V-8 engine in the form of Sid, Geno, Tanger, Staal, Flower, and James Neal, but it means absolutely nothing if you have issues with your intake or your suspension.
In non-Shelby GT 500 talk, that means that the support Pieces are just as important as the central ones. You can be a veritable offensive carnival and still be a first-round Playoff out if you don’t have the right complimentary Pieces in place, as Penguins’ fans and personnel are rapidly coming to realize.
If you want my unsolicited opinion, the Penguins were not the 1993 Stanley Cup Champions in large part because Craig Patrick drank a Big Gulp full of church wine, then flipped heart-and-soul Penguin Bob Errey to the Sabres for Mike Ramsey. No disrespect to Ramsey, but when you start tinkering with the seemingly-unimportant Pieces of an intricate or successful construction, you never know what the consequences are going to be. For the ’93 Pens, the consequences were a seven-game loss at the hands of a vastly-inferior team and a nondescript defensive defenseman:
As far as the 2012 Pens are concerned, maybe they don’t get decimated by the Flyers if Scuds on the roster, doing his thing (latter portion of the clip):
But the Penguins’ loss is the Kings’ gain. As history is showing us, NHL Playoff success sometimes comes at the hands of superstars like Joe Sakic or lights-out performances in net by J.S. Giguere. But more often than not, NHL Playoff success is personified by Pieces like Sammy Pahlsson or Willie Mitchell or Fernando Pisani or Ruslan Fedotenko: unheralded players who have a knack for raising their level of play when the stakes are ratcheted up. Rob Scuderi, six wins away from being part of a second Cup-winning team, is very obviously one of these players.
So Penguins’ fans, yes, it’s been a very frustrating experience watching a juggernaut team like the 2012 Penguins bow out so early. But the silver (and black) lining is that one of our own is still competing, and that we still have a horse in this race: The Piece, Rob Scuderi.
(And really, how much is it going to tweak Flyers’ fans if Mike Richards hands the Cup to Jeff Carter after the Kings win? The thought alone of Flyers’ fans ripping apart their cheesesteaks in rage should be enough to get you on the Kings’ bandwagon)
Let’s Go Kings