#22: On Character
April 19, 2012 1 Comment
– Winston Wolf, Pulp Fiction
I held off on writing a scathing summary of Game 3 (my Twitter buddy, Serbian Reactionary Dejan Kovacevic, more than covered it). I had a three-minute, foaming-at-the-mouth verbal thrashing ready for three-fourths of the players who suited up for the Penguins for Game 3 of this first-round playoff series; in fact, it’s easier to single-out the Pens’ players who I didn’t think warranted a tongue-lashing: Matt Niskanen, Tyler Kennedy, Brooks Orpik, Brent Johnson, Craig Adams, Steve Sullivan, and the headliner of today’s article, the continually-underrated (now former Penguin) Jordan Staal.
Staal, pictured above with a freshly-broken nose, is the emotional barometer and heartbeat of the Penguins. Whereas most of us went to college, at age 18 Jordan started suiting up for a professional hockey team. He has literally grown up before our eyes, and he better than anyone encompasses the contemporary Pittsburgh Penguin: hard-working, poised, talented, and most of all, possessing plenty of Character.
When people were burning bridges in Pittsburgh and blowing up social media following the Game 3 embarrassment, for once I restrained myself. While most outsiders are impressed with the Penguins because of their array of all-world talent, real Penguins’ fans should be equally impressed by the culture of composure and high-effort cultivated by “Showtime” Ray Shero and Coach “Disco” Dan Bylsma.
If there is one thing you need to know about this team, it is that they absolutely do not fold when the going gets tough; they turn around and rip off an 11-game winning streak (http://www.penguins101.com/2012/03/17/pittsburgh-penguins-run-win-streak-to-11-after-scorching-new-jersey-devils-5-2/) or they win Four of Five games against the Detroit Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Stanley_Cup_Finals). This is a resilient group, even compared to other notoriously-gritty professional hockey players.
If you thought this team was going to lay down, even after the debacle in Game 3, shame on you. There is too much Character in their locker room for that. Even if they don’t come back from the 3-0 hole they’ve dug themselves, they are not going to roll over and die because of a few substandard performances. (UPDATE: The Pens lost in six games, but they certainly went down swinging.)
It was laughable when Rangers’ coach John Tortorella called the Penguins “entitled“, because Showtime and Disco have instilled a culture of blue-collar hard work and toughness on the current Penguins’ roster. While haters want to depict the Penguins as the spoiled rich kids who whine when they don’t get their way, the reality is that the Penguins are a hard-nosed, tenacious bunch working under two men who have had to grind their way to their respective stations in life. Showtime and Disco have worked to impart a grinder’s mentality into a team possessing some extraordinary talents:
Character is something you have or you don’t. It’s what separates a team of dirtbags, sissies, and floppers like the Vancouver Canucks from a team like the Penguins. Character is what makes 29 NHL fan bases jealous of Pittsburgh Penguins’ fans, while 29 NHL fan bases erupt into raucous cheers every time the Vancouver Canucks lose (and causes 1 NHL fan base to set their own city on fire after key losses):
On the Culture of the Pittsburgh Penguins
Like most Pens’ fans, what disgusted me most about the Game 3 loss was not the score itself, nor the fact that Claude Giroux continued to abuse the Penguins like a sorority girl abusing an open bar tab. What bothered me most was that the Penguins played the game like the Philadelphia Flyers, which is to say, when all else fails, start taking runs at people:
That is the culture of the Philadelphia Flyers: if you can’t beat ’em, beat ’em. They’re like the villain teams from The Mighty Ducks movies. That culture starts with Bobby Clarke and his Broad Street Bullies mentality and trickles down to anyone who wears an orange sweater. The city of Philadelphia loves their athletes tough and vicious, results be damned.
In contrast, The Pittsburgh Penguins’ franchise, for those who don’t know, is built on Class and Dignity. The enduring legacy of Mario Lemieux is the culture that he set. It’s a culture that dictates players conduct themselves with similar Class and Dignity as Lemieux himself did. Otherwise, a player will simply find himself playing somewhere else.
Last year, after Matt Cooke threw his last head-high elbow and was suspended for the duration of the Penguins’ season, rest assured he had a meeting with Mario in which it was made very clear to him that Cookie’s cheap shots were making Mario look like an asshole and a deluded whiner. How can Mario be a clean hockey/anti-concussion advocate if he signs the paychecks for the League’s Number One head-hunter?
Mario seemingly hates nothing worse than being portrayed as a hypocrite or as being low-class, except the fake dollars they make you buy at strip clubs and low-fat anything.
When Mario publicly cock-slaps Gary Bettman for running a shitty garage league in which Trevor Gillies and Michael Haley can draw NHL paychecks for bull-dogging rookies and fighting goaltenders, only to have Matt Cooke turn around and do the same thing, that makes Mario look like a hypocrite. Mario is extremely dignified, and there is nothing more insulting to a Man of dignity than being perceived as a hypocrite.
(NOTE: Maybe the Islanders would make the Playoffs more often than once every 10 years if they conducted themselves with a measure of Class and Dignity. Go watch that video link above and tell me with a straight face that the Isles are currently a stand-up organization.)
This year, Matt Cooke found Hockey Jesus and has been an excellent contributor for the Penguins. He set a career high in goals and has been a model citizen. If he was a Philadelphia Flyer, he would probably continue to be a detested head-hunter and a filthy player. But because he’s a Pittsburgh Penguin, and subject to the culture of Class and Dignity set by Mario, he had to become an effective checker and a point-producer. I’m thankful every day that I grew up in the latter culture.
On Game 4
I recently wrote an article called “On Highs and Lows” (https://jackhasspoken.wordpress.com/2012/04/12/on-highs-and-lows/). It was meant to brace everyone for the possibility of a maniac Playoff series between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Now, no one would have likely predicted that the Pens would follow an 8-4 drubbing on national TV in Game 3 with a Steelers-over-Eagles 10-3 Win in Game 4. Having said that, it’s not like this is the first time something like this has happened:
(And yes, it always comes back to Mario. Always.)
I hope every Penguins’ fan breathed a sigh of relief and enjoy the Penguins chasing Ilya Bryzgalov, only to then absolutely punish Sergei Bobrovsky and force the Flyers to go back to Bryz for Game 5. However, please keep in mind that this was just one game, and that the team is still down 3-1; the odds are not in the Penguins’ favor. It doesn’t matter if they won Game 4 10-3 or 4-3, as long as they won, but their entire season is Friday Night in Pittsburgh for Game 5.
Try not to get too high or too low, because This is Not Over.
On Jordan Staal
(UPDATE: Jordan Staal was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes, where he promptly signed a 10-year, $60 Million-Dollar deal. He was a great Pittsburgh Penguin, but being traded to the same team as your brother and making $6 million per year is about as close to a happy ending as you get in professional sports.)
(UPDATE 2/22/15: the Penguins have basically been a lost franchise since they traded Jordan Staal at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. I covered this experience at length in my article “What do you mean the Pens traded Jordan Staal?”
Mercifully, management finally seems cognizant of the gaping hole Staal’s departure left in both the Penguins’ lineup and locker room, and as I edit this is looking to rectify the situation by reacquiring Staal. I am not religious, but it’s possibly I’m praying on slutty party beads like they’re a Rosary. Updates to follow.)
Staal popped in two goals in the Pens’ losing effort in Game 3, and as you’re hopefully aware he notched a Hat-Trick against the Flyers in Game 4. If not, you can read the game recap here: http://sports.yahoo.com/news/penguins-rout-flyers-10-3-023059450–nhl.html.
Like most Pens’ fans, I’m guilty of waxing poetic about Sid and Geno and even Flower and Tanger (understandably so) to an overbearing degree, but I rarely take the time to give Jordan Staal his due for his steady excellence. While 17-year old girls and NHL General Managers get uncomfortably aroused any time Staal’s name is mentioned, I’ve managed to continually underrate the value of a former second-overall draft pick and future Selke Winner and NHL All-Star. No more.
It’s easy to overlook Staal given some of his all-world teammates, especially because his game is more meat-and-potatoes than the absurdly talented Sid and Geno. But the reason 29 NHL General Managers go home at night and work out Xbox Trades for Staal is because there is no other player like him in the NHL.
I voraciously devour all things hockey; NHL Playoff Season, with every game now available on an NBC Broadcast Network, is like Christmas in the Spring for me. I literally cannot get enough, evidenced by the rapid weight-loss I’m experiencing watching two games a night on the Elliptical Machines at Castle Fitness (at the gym, I can get audio on the games, unlike at the bar). This setup, with NBC graciously putting every Playoff game on one of their affiliate networks is like that episode of Friends in which Joey and Chandler get unlimited porn:
The point is, I watch a ton of NHL hockey. No one, not even his brother Eric, is a reasonable facsimile of Jordan.
Jordan Staal, having been in the NHL since age 18, was somewhat unfairly slotted behind the Two Best Players in the World. Experiments have been made trying to squeeze Jordan into the the Top 6 forwards, but he is a pure Center; when I am trying to instruct someone on how to play excellent positional Center and how to control the slot down low (Bill: TWSS), I refer them directly to Jordan Staal.
In terms of physical gifts, as you know Staal is a 6’4, 220-lb stampeding bull. The reason I so adamantly describe him as one-of-a-kind is that there is not a big man who skates as well he does; while you have large Centermen like Joe Thornton, Martin Hanzal, and Anze Kopitar who can dominate play in the Offensive and Defensive Zones, none of those players will ever win the NHL “Fastest Skater” award. Smaller defensive Centermen like Dave Bolland skate extremely well and play their positions responsibly, but are not dynamic offensively and can be over-matched when defending bigger forwards in their own zone.
To call him a Power Forward is inaccurate, because Staal is a very effective three-zone player, while most Power Forwards are liabilities on the back-check and in transition. Not to pick on him, but consider (former Penguin)”Big Dawg” Eric Tangradi and his struggles in Pittsburgh’s system versus Staal to determine the difference.
Staal is also not a classic Playmaking Center, but he generates opportunities for his teammates his physicality and tenaciousness. He is not a classic goal-scorer, but he manages to pile up goals by simply overpowering his opponents:
Jordan Staal is a Bull in a China Shop. People like to talk about Geno going into “Beast Mode”, but there are times when Jordan Staal simply can’t be contained. He is capable of putting up a goal-per-game in the Playoffs because he is so difficult to contain right in front of the opposing goal, which is where most dirty playoff goals are scored.
Best of all, like the rest of the young Penguins, Staal has been raised in an environment with an emphasis on Character. Dismissing for a moment the Character an NHL player acquires playing in lengthy, Stanley Cup Playoff runs, the current incarnation of the Pittsburgh Penguins is an environment patterned on the roll-up-the-sleeves personality of their Coach and General Manager. Rest assured, Win or lose his Compete Level will be extremely high, and he’s a threat to make a play at any time.
11 Thoughts on Pens/Flyers
In honor of Staal (and more to the point, me), here are 11 Thoughts on Pens/Flyers:
11.) What angered me most about Game 3 was the selfish nature of the penalties taken by the Penguins; aside from the actions of Aaron Asham (indefensible) and James Neal (somewhat understandable, but still misguided), the momentum-killing penalties taken by Chris Kunitz almost made me put my fist through the television screen. I hate to single-out Kuni, because I really appreciate what he does, but the bullshit Offensive Zone penalties he took in Game 3 continued in Game 4; for the Penguins to have a shot at a rally, Kuni in particular needs to go to lengths to stay out of the box.
10.) Because Flower has been atrocious, no one seemed to notice that Ilyz Brygalov has been very bad until Game 4. His Goals Against Average is 4.96 and his Save Percentage is .844. If the Penguins can protect Flower a bit and Flower can turn in respectable performances in Games 5-7, a rally is possible because Bryzgalov is a ticking time-bomb and a woefully inconsistent goaltender.
9.) Paul Martin is a bad fit for the team’s defensive system. It’s time we all admitted it, and in the off-season efforts should be made to move him out. The Good News is that in limited time, Simon Despres has looked like he could possibly step in and provide some support at the position. Games 5-7 could be his baptism-by-fire.
(UPDATE: Paul has looked good entering
2013 2014 2015 so far. Maybe he is finally healthy. If the Penguins get the real version of Paul Martin, that is like finding a $50 bill on the street.)
(UPDATE 2/22/15: Paul Martin is a top-pairing minute-machine, finding his calling as Kris Letang’s partner in Mike Johnston’s less-complicated defensive system. I am not optimistic about the Pens’ chances of re-signing Martin at the end of the 2015 season, but that’s an article for another day.)
8.) Kris Letang is Vital to what the Penguins do defensively. He covers up so many mistakes that his absence is almost insurmountable, which is why his ejection for fighting Kimmo Timonen in Game 3 was so selfish. The Pens need Tanger on the ice to be successful.
7.) I remind you that Flower was in Vezina conversations prior to this series, and that he won 42 games this year. He has been brutal, no doubt, but he was been given minimal defensive support and been hand-served to Claude Giroux on a number of lengthy Power Plays. He can and will play better in Games 5-7.
(UPDATE 2/22/15: Marc-Andre Fleury has developed into one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, much thanks to his family and goaltending coach Mike Bales. He’s currently the lifesaver that has kept the 2015 Penguins afloat, and was thankfully signed to a four-year, $23 million-dollar extension earlier in the year.)
6.) Claude Giroux looks like the Best Player in the World right now. Sid and Geno need to do something about this. I realize they are being checked into the ground, but if Giroux can put up a six-point night against Flower, at some point Sid and/or Geno should be good for 8 points against the Flyers’ Gruesome Twosome in goal. The Flyers do not ice a defenseman as good as Kris Letang, and their bottom 3 defenders (Grossmann, Kubina, and Lilja) are slow-footed and can be exposed.
5.) Dan Bylsma has not been out-coached; the Penguins have been out-executed. There is no excuse for that many Power Play Conversions by Philadelphia and that many Shorthanded Goals Against. Coach Disco will adjust the Power Play to protect against Shorthanded chances, but the team needs to get back to playing consistent “Pittsburgh Penguins’ Ice Hockey”: Run the Forecheck, Get the Puck North, and Let’s Grind These Bitches Down.
4.) Pierre McGuire is a douche, albeit an insightful and smart analyst. I fully expect him to be caught trying to give Brayden Schenn a handjob between periods. (UPDATE: Cameras did not show Pierre McGuire actually giving Schenn an old-fashioned, but NBC is a family network.)
3.) Matt Niskanen has been impressive, and has helped stem the ineffective play of Martin. Not to continue to pile on Martin, but we need another defenseman who can capably break-out the puck to take some of the pressure off Tanger. The Candyman, Big Z, and Engel do well in this regard given their skill sets, but the Penguins need another puck-moving threat from the back-end. Nisky has been good, and hopefully between he and Simon Despres the Pens can mount some secondary offense from the back.
2.) Jaromir Jagr has basically been a non-factor. Claude Giroux could get a broken rake 55 points, and Jagr would be wise to remember that before he celebrates a tap-in goal or a second-assist on the Power Play. I am so glad Showtime signed both Pascal Dupuis and Tyler Kennedy for less money than he would have paid to Jagr.
1.) This is Not Over.
(UPDATE: the Flyers won the series 4-2, and the series will go down as one of the most-memorable of the Salary Cap era. While it was embarrassing on a lot of fronts, you can never take away the performance Jordan Staal had in trying to keep the Pens in the series. Here’s hoping everyone does the right thing and Staal ends up in Pittsburgh uniform by the 2015 Trade Deadline.)
Let’s Go Pens