Time for Ray Shero to Cash In and Go Sarging
January 17, 2013 Leave a comment
(UPDATE: Before I could get this article finished, the Pens Waived Brian Strait. That really clears up the picture on Defense, but fortunately for me, it does not invalidate this entire article. The team is down to eight Defensemen, with no urgency to make additional moves, but that is not to say that Ray Shero will not pursue external options or upgrades.)
I have this thing about Loose Change. I have a big “Tip Bucket” that I took from one of my prior employers back when I was a full-time bartender, and if I see a handful of change at the coffee shop or the laundromat, I pounce on it like a loose puck in the goal-crease. Every time I come home, I empty my pockets and toss whatever Loose Change I happen to have collected into the bucket. 60 cents here, 15 cents there, etc. It all adds up.
Every now and then, when the bucket starts looking overly-full, I take it to the bank or the grocery store and turn the Loose Change into Bills. Sometimes it’s $25 or so, sometimes it’s around $40 or $50, and occasionally it even approaches $100. The point is, what seems like a fruitless task becomes a boon when I turn a bucket full of coins into a new Sher-Wood Nexon 8 or a month’s Gym Membership.
What “Showtime” Ray Shero has been doing on the Penguins’ Defense is the same as collecting Loose Change. Since inheriting the role of General Manager in Summer 2006, Showtime identified the obvious: the roster was positionally-strong at Center and at Goaltender, but was somewhat-thin on Defense and at Winger. Being that quality NHL Defensemen are the most sought-after (and thus expensive) commodity on the Market, Showtime has made it his business to round as many of them as possible.
As I wrote in a recent article on this Quality Problem, Showtime has turned what was once an Organizational Weakness into a massive strength. He has successfully leveraged the Penguins’ Organizational Depth in Defense on several occasions, most notably turning Ryan Whitney into Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi along with turning Alex Goligoski into James Neal and Matty Niskanen.
The Time Has Come for Showtime to once again turn a handful of quarters into a Dollar Bill, as your powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins have a somewhat-glaring hole in the lineup: Veteran Power-Play Quarterback/Top-4 Defenseman.
While I think there are a number of NHL Players who could fill this role for the team, everyone reading this knows that there is one player in particular that I have in mind. Below, I will get into the obvious reasons for re-acquiring old friend Sergei Gonchar:
First, let’s consider why the addition of a Veteran, offensive-minded Defenseman would be a good idea at this time.
Any fan following the Penguins since the start of their abbreviated Training Camp, or perhaps since last year’s flame-out in the Playoffs against the Flyers, has likely noticed that:
1) The Penguins currently have a glut of bottom-pairing defensemen. Coach Dan “Disco” Bylsma will obviously deploy Kris Letang as his Number 1, and seems intent upon using Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin as a “Shut-down” pairing. The next step is to find a partner for Tanger who optimizes his game.
On the third pairing, the team seems very comfortable with Matty Niskanen and Deryk Engelland entering Saturday’s game at Philadelphia. Nisky has shown in my view that he is capable of handling top-four responsibility, but due to their similarities he and Tanger are not optimally-suited to playing together at Even-Strength. The fact that both are right-handed does not help, either. At this point, it seems the team would prefer to keep Nisky with Engel, given their familiarity with each other.
Beyond those two, the team has options in Ben Lovejoy, Brian Strait, and Robert Bortuzzo, but at this time none of those players are probably ready for full-time top-four duty on this year’s Penguins’ team. Bort and Straiter have minimal NHL experience, while Lovejoy would not seem to be an ideal complement to Kris Letang’s game. All three are subject to Waivers, meaning that all 29 other NHL teams would have the opportunity to Claim them if Showtime tried to send any of them back to Wilkes-Barre.
2) Coach Disco is sky-high on Simon Despres, and with good reason: you see 6’4 Defensemen who skate like him about as often as you see snow in August. But as impressive as he was in the Playoffs against Philadelphia, and as good as he has looked for Wilkes-Barre and in Training Camp this season, Simon is still a little under-cooked. At the NHL level, he appears a bit prone to mental mistakes and a little soft in coverage.
That’s totally fine, because he’s 22 years old and has an extremely-bright future in front of him. In fact, had the NHL and NHLPA managed to agree to an 82-game schedule, I would have totally been on-board with handing Simon a spot in the Penguins’ Top-6 Defensemen and letting him make his mistakes early with the intention of getting him battle-tested and polished by playoff time. Unfortunately, the truncated 48-game schedule does not allow for a forgiving learning curve.
It is also worth mentioning that Simon can be sent to the AHL without having to Clear Waivers. Another year of development/dominance at that level would probably be best for all concerned.
3) I am not enough of an NHL talent evaluator to know exactly why Lovejoy has fallen almost completely out of the Penguins’ plans, but Coach Disco’s continued disuse of him is too obvious to ignore. Equally as glaring is how the much less-experienced Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo have both surpassed Lovejoy on the Organization’s Depth Chart.
I am a fan of Lovejoy’s game and I think it’s obvious he can contribute at the NHL level, but he places no higher than the 8th or 9th option in the Penguins’ plans. Since he is subject to Waivers and the team could potentially lose him for nothing effective Friday, it behooves Showtime to pursue a trade (which I am sure he has already been working on, even if it is nothing more than a Mark Letestu-type deal for a mid-round draft pick).
4) The Penguins’ current Power Play configuration, with James Neal at the point, Kris Letang as a safety-valve, Chris Kunitz in front, and Sid and Geno both along the right side, is like a Garbage Plate: it is delicious because there are so many good ingredients involved, but frankly, it is a mess.
My thoughts on the matter were reflected in this recent article by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Dejan Kovacevic. I am not arguing with Coach Disco’s assembly of the current Power Play, because I think he is trying to assemble a puzzle without all of the pieces.
The 2013 Penguins’ roster currently lacks a true 1st-Unit Power Play Quarterback. Sid and Geno are obviously capable of distributing the puck, and Tanger is provides very capable play at offensive zone Blue-Line, but the team currently lacks a traditional top-unit Point-Man. This has led to experimentation with Sid, Geno, and now James Neal running the point or playing extremely-high in the Zone, and I think it is fair to say that this is not the most-effective way to use any of those exceptional players.
Also, an understated loss from last year’s squad was veteran winger Steve Sullivan, who was quite skilled at bringing the puck up the ice during the Man-Advantage. While this seems like a simple enough task, much like a Kick Returner in football, it takes a particularly-poised and talented player to be able to fill the role. While Kris Letang and especially Geno have shown talent for this in the past, it is a better use of both of their respective skill-sets if they can set up in the Offensive Zone without exhausting themselves lugging the puck.
No Defenseman presently on the roster is going to fill the Power-Play Quarterback role. Make no mistake: Joe Morrow will be a top-unit Power Play Quarterback in the near-future, but not as soon as May 2013. This is a problem that the team should be seeking to address externally, and with the shortened season, sooner would be better than later.
Given all the above points, it seems fair to think that the Penguins could benefit from the addition of a veteran NHL Defenseman as a one year stop-gap until Despres and Morrow are fully-developed. The obvious solution to me seems to be investigating the options for re-acquiring Sarge.
How would Sarge benefit the 2013 Penguins?
If you recall, Showtime and Sarge’s agents failed to come to an agreement in the Summer of 2010 because Sarge wanted a three-year contract, while Showtime would only offer then 35-year old Sarge at two-year deal. This prompted Sarge to sign with the Ottawa Senators within minutes of the Noon EST July 1st opening-bell, and prompted Showtime to fill the void by signing Defensemen Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.
Two-and-a-half years later, we now see how that worked out. Big Z and Paul did not prove to be ideal fits with Coach Disco’s dual puck-retrieval defensive system, while Sarge has remained a pretty-productive player for both Ottawa and Magnitogorsk Metallurg or the Kontinental Hockey League. At times last year, especially on the Power Play, he effectively partnered with eventual Norris Trophy Winner Erik Karlsson.
In a shortened season, a poised veteran is suddenly a very valuable commodity. Teams do not have times to allow young players to make mistakes and learn on-the-job. A poor stretch of play from an inexperienced rookie could be the difference between a team like Pittsburgh finishing 1st or 6th in the Conference.
Perhaps the greatest benefit Sarge brings to a team on-ice is the sense of calm he provides. Nothing phases him. Irrespective of the score or the brutality of an aggressive forecheck, Sarge dutifully breaks the puck out and provides composure and the play expected of a top-four defenseman. While his composed demeanor aggravates some fans who want him to show more fire, he would again provide a very steadying influence on a still-tempestuous Penguins’ squad.
From a logistics standpoint, he would obviously fix the alignment problems the Power Play has had since his departure. Sarge plays the point, Geno slides down the right wall for the one-time shot, Sid hovers near the right goal-line, James Neal opens up as a screen-option in the slot, and Kris Letang covers the weak-side point. Easy Money.
At Even-Strength, Sarge is not the dominant force he was in his prime, but he is still capable of top-four minutes. While he is not the gritty “net-front presence” that pundits like Pierre McGuire love, Sarge aids any team by increasing its Time of Possession. Rather than excelling at taking the puck away from the other team, a puck-possessor like Sarge helps any team by keeping it away from the opponents, much like offensive talents such as Sid and Geno do. Claude Giroux is not going to put up four and five points against the Penguins if he is spending the entire game chasing while Sarge helps the team play keep-away.
It’s worth mentioning that Sarge is Geno’s Best Friend and Mentor. Never a bad idea to keep the reigning Art Ross/Lindsay Award/Hart Trophy Winner happy. Beyond that, he’s obviously a popular, known commodity in the Pens’ locker room, and a noteworthy Penguins’ star in his own right.
This is not like an impassioned plea to re-acquire Chris Thorburn or something; I am talking about bringing back a perennial All-Star and former foundational player of the franchise whose skills happen to address a major on-ice deficiency.
It is my opinion that the removal of Sarge from the roster has contributed to the Penguins’ inability to escape the 1st-round of the Playoffs since winning the 2009 Cup. There were other factors, for sure (notably the Crosby/Malkin injuries in 2011), but I think his value to the team both on-and-off the ice may have been underestimated. Given the logjam currently on the Penguins’ defense, it would behoove to Showtime to thin the herd a bit while potentially improving the club’s fortunes.
How Realistic is Re-Acquiring Sarge?
A Gonchar-to-Penguins rumor made the rounds on the internet back in late December, for many of the same reasons I presented above. The key difference in my opinion is that the Pens wanted to see what they had with Simon Despres. I stand by what I wrote above: Simon is going to be a top-four guy as early as next year, but he is still a bit green at the NHL level. The Black-and-Gold game did nothing to alter this opinion.
I think given the team’s depth and options, Showtime is going to opt to return Simon to Wilkes-Barre if he can find a veteran to pair with Kris Letang. Again, given the familiarity and the logic above, Sarge would seem to be an ideal target for Showtime if he were elect to go after a veteran defenseman. Accommodating his pro-rated $5.5 million Cap Salary under the prorated $70 million Salary Cap would not be an issue.
The next question is if Senators’ Manager Bryan Murray would be inclined to move Sarge, which he seemingly would not. However, consider the following:
1) Ottawa played much-better than anticipated last year, in what was expected to be a full rebuilding year. Sarge was certainly instrumental in their success, but the current Ottawa team is still very young and is not even the favored team in their own Division; they may not even be the second-best team. Despite their promise, they are not an overly-realistic favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2013. If Murray could move a soon-to-be-38 year old pending Unrestricted Free Agent for assets, he would have to consider that.
2) Bryan Murray is a realist and a decent guy; if the Pens called about Sarge, he would not demand Evgeni Malkin in return as some Managers would. Murray is classy enough to accommodate Sarge, if Sarge decided he would like a final crack at the Cup with Pittsburgh rather than Ottawa.
(Note: I do not hang out with Bryan Murray or anything, but I pay attention and I know people well. If I made a statement like “Ray Shero tends to err on the side of Conservatism” or “Brian Burke sometimes rubs people the wrong way”, I think it would be accurate within the grounds of making a point. Bryan Murray has accommodated his players to a fatherly degree, such as empowering and possibly over-paying the likes of Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley and handing out No Trade Clauses like Free Candy.)
Lastly, let us assume that Showtime is interested in acquiring Sarge and Bryan Murray is open to facilitating a trade to Pittsburgh for him. What would it take to get Sarge to Pittsburgh?
The first part of the offer would presumably be Ben Lovejoy, who one way or another does not seem to be a part of Pittsburgh’s long-term plans. Benny remains a viable NHL defenseman with 95 games of NHL experience, as well as a fast, puck-moving, right-shot defenseman. He may not figure into Pittsburgh’s plans, but I assure you some NHL teams would be interested in him.
If Lovejoy did not float Murray’s boat, I think it would be acceptable to offer Brian Strait and/or Robert Bortuzzo as part of a trade package. Both players will likely develop into capable stay-at-home style NHL defensemen, and the team would probably like a better idea of what each could bring at the NHL level. But the competition for spots in Pittsburgh is going to be extremely-fierce as soon as August 2013, and the team may not have room for both within their long-term framework. As written above, both are currently subject to Waivers, and could be lost for nothing. It may be an acceptable Business Cost to move one or both now, if the return aids a team with Cup aspirations such as Pittsburgh.
Similarly, forward Dustin Jeffrey cannot seem to find traction in Pittsburgh. While the Pens would like to keep him as an insurance policy against an injury to Sid or Geno, he may be an acceptable loss in the event his inclusion could facilitate a trade for Sarge.
It is not the time to talk about trading Eric Tangradi. If he does not earn the job as Left Wing on Geno’s line, he should be kept on the roster as the 13th forward or used in a trade to acquire a top-six winger. Given the excess assets the Penguins possess on Defense, it would not be practical to move the team’s second-best forward prospect in exchange for a rental defenseman, even if that rental is Sarge.
Lastly, Draft Picks are always an option. I would like to think a second-round pick would help get a deal done, because again we are talking about a pending UFA, but a parcel of picks or even talking about the inclusion of the Pens’ 2013 1st-Rounder is not out of the question. The Penguins remain a team on the cusp of another Cup, and Showtime is usually interested in pursuing anything that enhances his team’s chances of winning.
Personal feelings aside, I think a Sarge-Pittsburgh reunion makes sense on many levels. While Ottawa would not be inclined to give him away for nothing, I think there is a foundation on which the two teams can come to a deal, if Sarge wanted to waive his NTC for Pittsburgh.
Bear in mind that the statuses of Despres, Lovejoy, Strait, and Bortuzzo would not have direct bearing on the re-acquisition of Sarge. While it would be convenient to move out a body before he is lost to Waivers, Showtime recalled Strait and Bortuzzo from Wilkes-Barre knowing that one or both could potentially be lost. As he said last summer prior to dealing Michalek back to Phoenix, he simply has too many defensemen on one-way contracts; now would be an ideal time for a two-for-one type swap, and given the circumstances the team would be hard-pressed to find a better all-around fit than Sarge.
The team could begin the season with Despres on the roster, while jettisoning a player such as Lovejoy for a draft-pick. If Ottawa is highly-successful, they would obviously not want to deal a contributor such as Sarge, but if they falter, the Senators would look to recoup some value from him before departed as an Unrestricted Free Agent. The Pens may not be able to get Sarge before the season opens Saturday at Philadelphia, but I am confident he would remains on their radar as the shortened season progressed and the internal options were further evaluated.
Let’s Go Pens