#78: In Defense of Sid Crosby I

sidinjured

(UPDATE 7/9/16: The Penguins have since won the 2016 Stanley Cup and as I write this, Sid Crosby is celebrating – by which I mean working on his Backhand One-Timer or something – with his 2016 Conn Smythe trophy.

I am leaving the article up with two comments, one directed to Dejan/Sports Writers and one about the article itself:

1) The point I took 2000 words to make is that it’s freaking irritating as a Hockey Player, particularly one as proud as Sid Crosby, to have someone in the media question your effort and by proxy your integrity as a Hockey Player.

Sid is too dignified to respond to criticisms from the media most of the time, so I thought the least I could do was point out what I saw as obvious, which is that Sid was playing injured (broken hand/wrist) on a team with no scoring depth under a coach that has shown little ability to adapt at the NHL level. The results weren’t there, but his effort wasn’t in question.

Journalists have a job to do, but I think that in this instance that Dejan either let his emotions get the better or him, or sought to deliberately provoke people rather than report. 

2) In retrospect, Dejan’s entire take is hilarious and indicative of the entire fanbase’s mindset at the time. His comments/shots at Sid tapped into the psyche of the Yinzer, in that the Crosby-era Penguins were seeing their tremendous potential squandered under the Shero/Bylsma regime and fans were furious about it.

He will tell you otherwise, but I’ve been reading Dejan Kovacevic since 2002, and I know this: he’s a fan. He loves the Penguins in a way that he does not love the Pirates or the Steelers. Dejan was as frustrated as most other Penguins’ fans in Spring 2014 that the team was again sputtering in the early rounds of the playoffs.

The 2016 Cup Run has basically washed this bitterness from the collective mouth of the Pens’ fanbase, but I’m not going to pretend 2010-2015 didn’t happen. Spring 2014 was possibly the nadir of the Crosby era, and of course the end of the Shero/Bylsma era. I thought this piece was worth leaving up for historical perspective.)

I incited a minor Twitter war when I made a comment in response to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review/TribLive columnist Dejan Kovacevic’s article, “Embarassed? Not Penguins”. I was less-than-thrilled with a few of the opinions Dejan submitted, and I felt something needed to be said in defense of Sid Crosby in-particular.

My view is that the Penguins, like anyone else, are subject to due criticism. But being a huge Penguins’ homer, I view undue criticism of the team, and a few players in particular, very unfavorably.

I have no problem with the majority of the article. The Penguins have played inconsistent and often uninspired hockey for most of the 2014 Playoffs.  But I take issue with Dejan singling-out Sid Crosby, who in my view is playing through a mid-body or soft-tissue injury, for poor performance. I consider it undue criticism to cite a player for underwhelming play when he’s clearly struggling through an injury.

This is the remark I made in response to Mr. Kovacevic’s column:

I think it’s irresponsible for @Dejan_Kovacevic to call out Sid when he is obviously injured

Casual or ignorant fans can easily latch onto the idea that Sid is simply “not trying hard enough”. It’s the classic situation of blaming the best player when a team fails to meet expectations. When a respected columnist such as Dejan suggests that the team’s captain might be giving less than his best, it fuels the wrong kind of fire.

This is the main excerpt from Dejan’s column that tweaks me:

Crosby has to be better, even if he’s playing through some kind of injury. He’s out there getting star minutes. He has to be a star.

That’s very easy to say or write. Play better, dummy. Dejan admits that Sid is injured, but the tone of his article is that Sid, like the rest of the team, has this untapped reservoir that they aren’t reaching due to lack of desire. That may or may not be true in the case of some players, but in my opinion, Sid is giving absolutely everything he has. My view is that lying on the goal line trying to block a Benoit Pouliot wrister ala Doug Glatt is about as much as a player can reasonably be expected to give.

I am not going to pick apart Dejan’s column point-by-point. For the most part, I enjoy his columns and agree with much of his insight. I agree with the overall theme of his most-recent column, which is that the Penguins need to find an emotional charge from somewhere if they hope to advance past the Rangers. But I think it’s poor form when a columnist with Dejan’s access cites Sid’s recent play without throwing up a huge asterisk.

Dejan is right in this regard: for the Penguins to get to where they want to be, Sid has to be better. The 2014 Penguins are not a deep team, and Sid is clearly the engine that makes the team go on-ice. The team and the coach all know this. Rolling out a column that suggests the team’s captain is satisfied with his below-standard play is inappropriate, in my view.

As I wrote on Twitter:

Because a stat line of minus-3, 30% face offs, and 25-second shifts is obviously normal for the Best Player in Hockey

That’s not Sid’s standard. It’s not even close. Believe me, he knows it. The tack that Dejan took in his column – that Sid could simply turn it up a few notches, and that he was opting to give less than his best in the NHL playoffs – offends me because of the disrespectful subtext: that a dignified hockey player such as Sid Crosby would dog it under any circumstances, particularly these.

Almost all hockey players, especially those at the NHL level, do not know how to give less than their absolute best. They routinely play through pain that would cower lesser men. Sid is no exception, but I apparently need to remind some people that Sid ate through a straw for two months last year before returning to play the 2013 Playoffs in the Hannibal Lecter bite-collar:

sidteeth

sidteeth2

Let’s agree based on recent precedent that Sid is willing to play through pain and injury. Is criticizing him in various local media for not playing better while clearly injured really the most appropriate stance to take?

It must be incredibly frustrating to be Sid Crosby and to know that you are playing well-below your personal standard during the most-critical part of the season. But it must be doubly frustrating to have a local writer imply that your mediocre play stems from lack of will.

Can the team play better? Certainly. Can the team give more? Maybe or maybe not, at least not without deviating from the game-plan that Dan Bylsma and his staff have constructed. But Sid is out there giving everything his body will allow. I think in this scenario, praise and support would be much more appropriate than swipes at his integrity as a hockey player.

Maybe I should have a better sense of humor about this, but questioning an NHL player’s commitment at this time of year, particularly Sid’s, is really offensive to me. Sid Crosby is far too classy to dignify any assaults by the media, so I’ll take the role I usually take against unwiped Flyers and Bruins’ fans and defend his character.

He’s playing hurt, and he’s refusing to complain about it. That’s extremely noble.

As for getting “Star Minutes”, anyone watching can see that Sid is bailing out early on shifts. As per Eliotte Friedman, Sid’s shift average was down nearly 10 seconds per shift in Game 4 of the Columbus series. He played 19:36 in Game 1 versus the Rangers, and 19:48 in Game 6 against Columbus. Right now his body, for whatever reason, is simply not allowing him to sustain pressure in the Offensive Zone as he has in the past. He’s taking brief swings at the opposition and heading quickly to the bench, because right now, he has to.

Sid’s playing 1st-line minutes, yes, but who would you rather give those minutes to in a must-win environment: Sid Crosby at 50%, or some combination of the Penguins’ bottom-six? Dan Bylsma must have thrown up in his mouth when he saw Brandon Sutter hobble off in Game 6 against Columbus.

Sid also lacks his trademark explosiveness. He’s practically slogging through the Neutral Zone as he’s receiving outlet passes. Anyone watching can also see this. Again, this screams “back/sciatic injury” to me.  Most impressive to me is that despite the loss of his acceleration, he’s continuing to impact games with his hockey IQ and his passing, which Mike Colligan of the Hockey Writers noted in his article, “What’s Wrong with Sidney Crosby?

My sudden ally Don Cherry of Hockey Night in Canada also mused that Sid has a back injury of some sort. Based on personal experience, I would have to agree. The only thing worse for a hockey player than debilitating pain in the knee, hand, or hip is when a problem with your back steals your ability to separate from opposing players. If you ever have the chance, ask Mario Lemieux about that.

It’s easy to feel sympathetic for an injured player when the injury is highly visible. We all wince when a player takes a puck off the face, and most of us feel pangs of compassion when we see bags of ice or soft casts on a wrist or knee. But when a player has a less-obvious injury – such as a concussion, or as I believe Sid currently has, a moderate spinal injury or sciatic nerve impingement – some people raise eyebrows. It’s as though some people need to see the blood or the bone poking through to take an injured player at his word.

(Update: despite his insistence to the contrary, it was confirmed that Sid had a hand/wrist injury. He might have also had a mid-body injury or nerve impingement. Only Sid and the Pens’ training staff could say for sure.)

I have recently read and heard much more-pointed attacks on Sid than those opined in Dejan’s recent column. But unfortunately, Dejan’s suggestion that Sid has another gear that he’s simply refusing to hit was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The notion that Sid isn’t giving his all offends me as both a hockey player and a Pittsburgh Penguins fan.

I am highly biased. I love the Pittsburgh Penguins, and have since I was young. I am prone to defend the Penguins’ superstars, as you can read elsewhere on this blog. I take issue with Dejan’s assessment that Sid is half-assing it. Sid Crosby is one of the most competitive people in sports. Even if Sid were inclined to take shifts off, the Eyeball Test verifies that he has a hitch in his giddy-up.

Most of you reading this are also highly-biased. The Penguins, and Sid Crosby in particular, are lightning rods. Most NHL Hockey fans have an extremely-strong opinion one way or the other about both Sid and the team he plays for, and these opinions cloud tend to cloud the truth. Just for a moment, put your own biases aside and consider the rough data:

Does Sidney Crosby look like himself?

Does he have a reason to suddenly play at half of his ability?

Have his many of his raw statistics – Goals, Plus/Minus, Faceoff Win Percentage, Shots – drastically and suddenly fallen off since, oh, I don’t know, April 3rd versus Winnipeg?

Sid has thick skin. He’s been picked apart since he was 14. But having a local writer question his level of play while most evidence points to a significant injury is something he shouldn’t have to endure. Since neither the Penguins nor Sid, admirably, will not own up to his injury, I defended him. I am sure it will not be the last time.

Jack

 

Most informed observers will agree that the Penguins took a downturn following the Olympic break in mid-February. This makes a good deal of sense because a number of Penguins represented their respective countries at the Sochi Games. This idea is well-covered by Mike Colligan of the Hockey Writers in his article, What’s Wrong with Sidney Crosby?”

I’ll be lazy and let Mike Colligan’s

 

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#33: What do you mean, “The Pens traded Jordan Staal??!!??”

(Note: Get used to this.)

I cleared my schedule to watch the NHL draft, because that’s me. Rather than going to the bar and blowing $80 on Cabo Wabo or 1800 Silver, I went to the gym, which has TVs on all the cardio machines. This is what I posted on my Facebook prior to leaving for the gym:

Watching the NHL Draft, because that entertains me even more than girl-on-girl

Ray Shero’s Game Plan:

1) Sign Jordan Staal
2) If Jordan Staal won’t sign, trade him for, in order: Zach Parise, Bobby Ryan, Keith Yandle, the Carter-Columbus Platter (young NHL player, high draft pick), Nail Yakupov

It turned out to be the now-infamous “Carter-Columbus” Platter, which means a promising young NHL player under salary control and a high-draft pick, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, a quick visual:

I am 45 minutes into a “cardio” workout on an elliptical machine, having gotten to the gym promptly in time for the start of the draft. Rivets of sweat are cascading off my beach-bronzed body. Usually, I am unbelievably sexy, but based on the looks I’m getting from random Friday-night gym goers, I look like an escaped mental patient.

Ordinarily, the elliptical machine would not be a strenuous workout for me, but I am feverishly grinding the pads of the machine like I’m trying to stomp coal into diamond. I keep catching the handful of girls behind me on the treadmills are gawking as I try to break the pistons on the machine; I would describe their collective facial expressions as half-terrified/half-aroused.

Matt Dumba has just fallen to the Minnesota Wild at the 7th Overall slot when suddenly, Pierre Maguire gets that giddy, sexually-excited tone usually reserved for moments when Brayden Schenn is taking off his shirt. Something big is happening involving the Carolina Hurricanes, picking 8th Overall, and the host team Pittsburgh Penguins.

I can see it before it happens, the same way I presume your life slows down five seconds before an oncoming semi-truck is about to careen into your sub-compact car. I almost want to wince, like if someone told you he was going to punch you in the face and you absolutely had to stand there and let him.

The Penguins’ crew, spear-headed by Rejean alias “Showtime” alias “Ray” Shero, is approaching the stage. Mario, as always, is a model of class and dignity, but he has a smirk on his face like he was at Blush until 5Am with his buddy Marc Bergevin and Ron Burkle’s credit card. This momentarily calms me, though my sweat has turned ice-cold.

Showtime is calm, which further calms me, but he delivers the news like an upbeat doctor telling you your favorite aunt has just died: Jordan Staal has been traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin, and the 8th Overall Pick.

“GOOD FUCK,” I shout/stammer, a cross between “Good God” and “Holy Fuck”, I think. I say this in a volume that one would usually reserve for talking at the front row of a death-metal concert. I can feel the girls on the treadmills behind me collectively flinch, not sure if I am offering a “Good Fuck” or demanding one. I battle the urge to put my fist through the elliptical machine’s TV screen by gripping the heart-rate monitor handles so hard my knuckles whiten. Images flash through my mind:

It’s like one of those image montages from the end of the Saw movies. While my logical brain is assessing the data and saying, “My, that’s quite a haul we got; that should put us back on the level with the Phuckers”, my body is reacting like it’s going into shock. I am positive I snarled some incomprehensible, profane remarks as I stood there trying to choke the life out of a piece of fitness equipment.

I am well aware of the fact that I am making a scene. Don’t care. There are more important things going on right now. The Pens just traded Jordan Staal. For Real. Not the jerk-off material for a repressed Canadian fan base or the wet dream of an NHL General Manager, but for real. Jordan Staal is no longer a Pittsburgh Penguin.

I prepared myself for this. I wrote an exhaustive analytical piece barely one month ago in which I mechanically outlined potential Staal trade destinations. The writing was even more clear on the wall on Thursday, when Staal rejected a ten-year deal in the neighborhood of $60 million dollars. This was a crystal-clear indication that no amount of money that is going to make Jordan Staal a top-line Center for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and that Jordan would rather fulfill his NHL potential than make insane amounts of money toiling in Sid and Geno’s shadows.

(Note: Not for nothing, click the link above and check out the prediction I made for Carolina acquiring Jordan Staal. Like Cassandra the doomed prophet, I saw this awfulness coming.)

After all five of my senses returned, I grabbed my cell phone and text-bombed anyone who would be even peripherally-interested. I’m fairly sure I texted a few girls I randomly hooked up with 18 months ago (and I’m sure they’re as rapt as I am by the whole situation). I was literally nauseous. I felt like I just sent my kid to college.

(Note: Jordan Staal would have been a freshman when I was a senior. Perhaps I’m exaggerating the age difference.)

Eventually, I became rational again and remembered the deal for what it was: an inevitability. The Pens had played Jordan Staal on borrowed time since the moment the organization drafted him; most of us knew that there was no way three elite Centermen such as Sid, Geno, and Staalsy were going to all finish their careers in black-and-gold. Logically, I think it is a much better idea that Rejean Shero took care of this issue now, selling high on Staal, before it became an out-and-out distraction and eventually a fiasco.

It was just so immediately disappointing because my guts knew that I had already watched my last game with Jordan Staal in a Penguins sweater. Illogical as it is, there was a small hope that Staal would want to hang around and be part of the Sid-Geno Offensive Carnival. Alas, it was not meant to be.

As Shakespeare also says, “An act once done cannot be undone.” In NHL parlance, we couldn’t undo the trade if we found the box of toys Jim Rutherford sent us to be unappealing. I am not going to micro-analyze Sutter, Dumoulin, and Pouliot; those three will be mentioned in the same breath as Jordan Staal for the rest of their NHL careers and possibly longer.

(UPDATE 2/22/15: Brandon Sutter is basically the bane of my existence, while Dumoulin an Pouliot look like they are both going to be very good NHL players. The trade was probably a wash, since Carolina is too awful to take advantage of Jordan Staal’s gifts and Staal’s absence has continued to leave a gaping hole in the Pens lineup, the promise of Dumoulin/Pouliot duly noted.)

(UPDATE 2/22/15: Old quote out. New Quote: “An act once done cannot be undone…but it might yet be mitigated.” As I type this, the Pens are looking to reacquire Jordan Staal.)

From what I know of each, we got an appropriate return for Staal. My knee-jerk assessment is that the trade was B-Plus for Pittsburgh, with points added for Shero sending Staalsy to a desirable situation and team as a final “thank you” for six years of quality service.

(UPDATE: Brandon Sutter is not good.)

While my initial preference had been that Showtime somehow turn Jordan Staal into a top-line winger for Sid (such as Bobby Ryan) and if possible get him out of the Eastern Conference, my suspicion was that it was more realistic to get a Carter-Columbus Platter for him. If Dumoulin or Pouliot play any significant amount for Pittsburgh, this trade was a win for Shero and Pittsburgh.

(UPDATE: Derrick Pouliot is going to be an exceptional NHL player, and Brian Dumoulin will probably be a very good one. One or both may be sacrificed in the interest of improving the Pens’ roster for 2015, especially if Jordan Staal is potentially returning.)

Jim Rutherford and Carolina fans has every right to be happy with the deal, as they got the best player. As I wrote a month ago, I was adamantly against trading Jordan Staal. But as I also said, if Staal had to be traded, I could certainly see the necessity of it. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, he was the team’s fifth or even sixth most-influential player; I can successfully argue that Flower, Tanger, and maybe even James Neal are more critical to the fortunes of the Penguins than Jordan Staal was. Trading Staal is a necessary evil that comes with keeping Sid and Geno and surrounding them with sufficient talent at all other positions.

(UPDATE: Jordan Staal is a much-better overall player than James Neal. I must have been high.)

Following the Staal trade and two additional hours of angst-ridden cardio (damned if I didn’t stay and watch the Pens draft Olli Maatta 22nd Overall on CNBC, my legs burning like your crotch after a fun weekend in Myrtle Beach), a measure of peace came over me. I was ready to just grab a half-price Sonic milk-shake, replace some of the 2600 calories I’d just torched, and have some nice, Sober Friday Night sleep when…

I get a call from Eric, asking me what I think of the Michalek trade.

“Gee Eric, I don’t know I guess it was whhHHHAAATTT????

(UPDATE 2/22/15: the Pens obviously did not add either Zach Parise or Ryan Suter, but I do think Ray Shero made an offer. I kept this section up because it’s fairly amusing, but exists only as a ‘What If?’ in reality.)

(UPDATE: Just after the 30th Overall Pick, The Penguins have traded Zbenyk Michalek for absolutely nothing but Cap Space.)

It was like watching the end of The Usual Suspects. Rejean Shero is an even bigger pimp than I previously thought. He’s freaking Keyser Soze. He’s juggling with one hand for the crowd of his fellow GMs while he concocts Secret Evil Plans right under their noses.

Showtime Shero is creating Cap Space for a Ryan Suter-Zach Parise Double Face Turn. Mark my words, you don’t trade top-four NHL defensemen under salary control for two apples and a flathead screwdriver unless you have a Secret, Evil PLAN.

I wouldn’t pretend to know what goes on in the mind of an Evil Genius like Rejean Shero, but here are the snippets I’ve picked up:

1) Ray Shero is a proud American, assistant GM of the U.S. Olympic team, and huge advocate for USA Hockey

2) Ray Shero spent many years as an assistant GM in the Nashville Predators organization and oversaw the drafting of Ryan Suter

3) Sid Crosby needs a new Left Winger

4) Sid Crosby and American Hero Zach Parise go waaay back:

5) Sid Crosby and American Hero Zach Parise are still cordial:

6) The Penguins are an annual Cup Contenders suddenly storing an inordinate amount of Cap Space

7) The Penguins still have not disappeared Paul Martin and his $5 Million-Dollar-per-year contract

8) Ray Shero is extremely familiar with Ryan Suter from his days as a Nashville Predators executive as well as Assistant GM of Team USA

9) Ray Shero is extremely familiar with Zach Parise from seeing him up-close six times per year as well as being Assistant GM of Team USA

10) Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, according to some, have interest in playing on the same team; most presumed this would be Detroit, but every fan base in creating scenarios in which the twosome would join their team as a package deal

11) The Penguins offer a gorgeous new state-of-the-art arena, nightly sell-outs, and the opportunity to play under the watchful eye of Emperor Mario Lemieux

12) Money is no object to Mario, who has a Black Burkle Credit Card that allows him to spend silly amounts of real money on strip-club funny money, expensive red wine, and NHL players

13) In order to stay competitive in the Atlantic Division, the Penguins have to significantly re-tool their 2011-12 team. While the team was never going to add young assets on par with those Philadelphia added last summer, there are certainly avenues through which to make the team better; not the least of which is selling the attraction of playing with the defending Hart /Art Ross/Lindsay Trophy winner:

And his Sidekick, The Best Player in the World:

Under the careful Mentoring of This Guy (pictured without his Sangria I-V Drip):

The Penguins can still offer something fairly rare: a combination of Organizational Prominence and On-Ice Talent. If you’re an NHL player able to write his own ticket, you want to enjoy going to work every day and you want to play for a popular team in a relevant market. I’m not sure any other team can offer all those things (plus Tuesdays with Mario at Cheeleaders!) in the same way that Pittsburgh can.

It appears to me that Showtime Shero’s Secret Evil Plan is getting Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, or selected other U.S. Olympians under contract in Pittsburgh. While Plan A involved giving Jordan Staal a ten-year contract and going with the Three-Headed Monster at Center for another decade, the Secret Evil Plan seems to involve stealing as many of the sought-after 2012 NHL Free Agents as possible like Cobra stealing television. What a Sneak!

If you thought everyone hated the Penguins before because they’re “The Most Arrogant Organization in the League“, just wait until Showtime enlists Zach Parise and/or Ryan Suter, collectively destroying the psyches of four or five fan-bases. After all, why not? Fans of the rest of the League already think the Pens are the Purple Cobras and that Sid Crosby is a crybaby – what will they do if the Penguins sign up Zach Parise and Ryan Suter?

They’ll watch, that much I can assure you.

Trading Jordan Staal is a major turn of the page. But this is also a new day for the team, and one without restrictions. For the first time in his tenure, Ray Shero can build his roster any way he wants, without the awkward restriction of the Three-Headed Monster limiting his creativity.

(UPDATE: Turns out the Three-Headed Monster is exactly what the Crosby-Malkin Penguins need to be successful. Repatriating Jordan Staal, or someone truly comparable, has become a major priority.)

Best of luck to Jordan in Carolina, where presumably Marc Staal will join his brothers in two years. Congratulations on your new marriage; try  to have as much fun on your Honeymoon as you did at Eric’s Bachelor Party. Thank you for the six years of service, and especially for the work during the ’08 and ’09 Cup Finals runs. I look forward to watching you live in Raleigh, as well your presumptive run of Selke Trophies after Pavel Datsyuk retires. I hope you and Eric have a great time with the Pillow Fighting, you crazy farm boys.

Let’s Go Pens

BK

Jf

#22: On Character

On Character

Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.”

– 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.)

staal2

(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

JF

Paul Kariya was a Freaking Beast

Perusing hockey-reference.com (a strong indicator of how I spend my free time), I happened upon the career stats for Paul Kariya, former NHL All-Star and dramatic actor (The Mighty Ducks 3, 1998).

I always appreciated Paul because he was drafted to the most atrociously-conceived team in professional sports (a team in burgundy and teal based upon a marginally-successful Disney movie? Playing in the world’s most testosterone-fueled and vicious team sport???), and was pretty much single-handily asked to drag the team to respectability.

Here is a snap-shot in NHL hockey time: during the mid-late 1990s, the dreaded neutral-zone trap started to completely pervade the sport. Additionally, the separation between the Haves and the Have-Nots was increasing by the week; deep-pocketed teams like the Red Wings and the Avalanche were able to pilfer talent from the poor teams because of the economics of the pre-Lockout NHL (circumstances which almost destroyed, among other teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins). The League was getting further and further away from all the positive momentum it created on the crux of the 1993 and 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, in which Wayne Gretzky’s Kings and Mark Messier’s New York Rangers each made  Cup Finals appearances.

Coming out of the 1994-95 NHL work stoppage,  the on-ice product was getting murkier and less entertaining, and the skewed economics were turning the League into a six or eight-team showcase. The League’s under-funded teams typically had to Trap or play otherwise-stifling defensive systems just to compete with the arms races happening in Detroit, Colorado, and Dallas.

In a totally unfair league, the underdog Mighty Ducks of Anaheim managed to sneak into the playoff a handful of times, even if they would be unceremoniously bounced shortly after arriving.  They were able to do this on the backs of their two all-world players: “The Finnish Flash”, future-Hall-of-Fame Right Wing Teemu Selanne, and his good buddy Paul Kariya.

Though he got his due briefly during his heyday, in retrospect Kariya is even more impressive. Check out his Juniors and college stats:

Season Age Team Lg GP G A PTS GC +/- PIM EV PP SH GW S S% TOI ATOI
1990-91 16 Penticton Panthers BCJHL 54 45 67 112 8
1990-91 16 Canada U-18 5 4 8 12 2
1991-92 17 Penticton Panthers BCJHL 40 46 86 132 18
1991-92 17 Canada WJC-A 6 1 1 2 2
1992-93 18 University of Maine H-East 39 25 75 100 12
1992-93 18 Canada WJC-A 7 2 6 8 2
1992-93 18 Canada WC-A 8 2 7 9 0
1993-94 19 University of Maine H-East 12 8 16 24 4

100 points in 39 games? Are you fucking with me?

Sure, lots of NHLers had outstanding Junior careers; it’s almost a prerequisite. But college hockey is much more collective talent-wise and tight-checking; the skill level is much more evenly distributed, and most teams run rigid systems. To have 100 points in a college season is positively superb. Following that up with a 2-point-per-game binge the next season, and Paul must have basically been told by his NCAA rivals, “You’re too fucking good for college hockey, just go to the NHL and leave us alone, Mister, please.”

As I wrote earlier, Paul was forced at a very young age to carry an expansion team largely devoid of support personnel. Go back and look at some of those late-90s/early 2000s Ducks’ rosters and cringe (though make sure you check out Coach Disco’s player profile). The fact that Paul managed to get the Ducks into the playoffs three times in seven years is a credit to his ability to break open games.

Here are the stats from his Ducks’ Career:

Season Age Tm Lg GP G A PTS GC +/- PIM EV PP SH GW S S% TOI ATOI
1994-95 20 MDA NHL 47 18 21 39 15 -17 4 10 7 1 3 134 13.4
1995-96 21 MDA NHL 82 50 58 108 42 9 20 27 20 3 9 349 14.3
1996-97 22 MDA NHL 69 44 55 99 39 36 6 26 15 3 10 340 12.9
1997-98 23 MDA NHL 22 17 14 31 14 12 23 14 3 0 2 103 16.5
1998-99 24 MDA NHL 82 39 62 101 39 17 40 26 11 2 4 429 9.1 2094 25:32
1999-00 25 MDA NHL 74 42 44 86 34 22 24 28 11 3 3 324 13.0 1803 24:22
2000-01 26 MDA NHL 66 33 34 67 27 -9 20 12 18 3 3 230 14.3 1520 23:02
2001-02 27 MDA NHL 82 32 25 57 24 -15 28 21 11 0 8 289 11.1 1822 22:13
2002-03 28 MDA NHL 82 25 56 81 28 -3 48 13 11 1 2 257 9.7 1664 20:17

If you throw out his rookie season (playing on a truly foul expansion team) and ’01-02 (in which he was clearly fighting an injury or his coach, or both), Paul had at least a point per game every season. This was right in the middle of the Trap Era, when he had three neanderthals sticking him in the nuts every shift and Scott Stevens trying to DDT him every time they met.

You may laugh, but his closest comparable statistically was Jaromir Jagr, and Jagr had a lot more support. He certainly was the focal point of the Penguins’ offense, but he always had some combination of Marty Straka, Alex Kovalev, Ron Francis, and Emperor Mario Lemieux to lean on. The Ducks had Paul, Teemu, an above-average goalie in Guy Hebert, and fuck-nothing.

To spite him further, his buddy Teemu dipped for San Jose after the ’99-00 Season. How does one rack up 50+ assists passing primarily to Gary Vaulk, Steve Rucchin, and Oleg Tverdovsky?

Furthermore, this has to be one of the best sequences in the history of the sport:

Seriously, that was fucking Awesome.

As I write this, Paul has 989 points in 989 games. Selfishly, I would have liked to see him sign a one-year deal with the Ducks, eclipse 1,000 points, and finish his career skating on Anaheim’s “2nd line” with Teemu. It sucks that his Hall-of-Fame case is somewhat hurt by injuries and the fact he did not get to spend a lot of time in the playoffs (’02-03 excluded). It is not Kariya’s fault a crap team drafted him, and he certainly did his part to drag his teams to respectability.

Hockey-Reference has Paul ranked as the 63rd best player of all-time, right after Brian Leetch and tied with Luc Robitaille. I think that is about right, and that’s some impressive fucking company. Brian is the greatest American defenseman of all-time, and Luc is the highest scoring Left Wing of all-time. If you want to talk about how tragic the consequences of concussions are, look at Paul Kariya. The man was a freaking beast.