The Pittsburgh Penguins Dilemma

Poker chips, large sum conceptJeremy thought this topic would be more interesting than another ROH bashing. I’m not sure his level of surprise when he IMed me this article from Deadspin but he did get me riled up enough to do this article. Here’s my take on their questions.

As I noted back on March 28th, the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to go all in during the trade deadline. I hoped they wouldn’t go bust but here they are. My beloved Penguins went down in flames in four short games in the Eastern Conference Final to the unheralded Boston Bruins. They scored a measly two goals in four games. Two goals might not even allow you to win a game much less a series. I’m going to break this down into a couple of categories for what happened and what needs to be addressed.

The Games

One pivotal moment came in the Penguins first round series against the New York Islanders. Marc-Andre Fleury has been the franchise goaltender since being picked with the number one overall in 2003. He started at the NHL level for a majority of that time. The guy even backed the team that went to back to back Stanley Cup Finals in ’08 and ’09 and winning the later of the two match ups against the Detroit Red Wings. Fleury wrapped up the Stanley Cup victory with a diving save on Niklas Lidstrom. In those years, he had a save percentages of 93.3% and 90.8%.  For those that don’t watch hockey, anything below 90% is bad. Ever since that save though, he has fallen apart in the playoffs starting with a terrible showing when they played Montreal in ’10. He had a save percentage of 89.1%. The hope of playoff success was low in 2011 because Evgeni Malkin had blown his ACL and Sidney Crosby was sitting with a concussion. Fleury could have stolen a series against the lowly Tampa Bay Lighting but he posted an 89.9% and the Penguins got booted in the first round. Last year is when things went to hell in a hand basket. Both the Philadelphia Flyers and Penguins decided that playing defense was no fun so they turned the playoffs into an All Star game by potting goals at a ridiculous pace. Fleury gave up 4.33 goals a game for a 83.4% save percentage. He couldn’t even stop basic shots and when the defense is that bad you need that to happen.

He rebounded from the terrible offseason (I’m going to skip over that whole lock out thing because it isn’t relevant to this discussion) and helped to lead the Penguins to a first place finish in the Eastern Conference. The problems looked resolved with a first game shut out of the Islanders. Unfortunately, he gave up four goals in the next three consecutive games. Fleury’s stats aren’t online now but you can’t win many games giving away four goal. The Penguins did pull out one of the three games. Former starter Tomas Vokoun played Game 5 and never looked back. Vokoun had one bad game though and it was Game 2 against the Boston Bruins. The Pens went down 3-0 in the first period. Dan Bylsma, the Pen’s coach, decided to pull Vokoun and send Fluery back in for the first time in a round and a half. Pens Center Brandon Sutter came streaking down the right wing and sniped a shoot over Tuuka Rask’s shoulder to make it 3-1 with a minute left in the first. Brad Marchand, who scored a goal earlier, came down less than thirty seconds later and floats a goal over Fleury’s glove hand which broke the Pens back. All Fleury had to do was make a damn save on a wrister from about the middle of the circles and the Pens have momentum going into the second period.  The guy let’s a floater go over his glove hand? Christ on a pony.

Game 3 in Boston had a bad moment too. The Pens needed a win. Despite playing well, they played their way into overtime knotted 1-1. The referees called three penalties in the first overtime. Mike “Doc” Emrick, NBCSports play by play man, noted with each penalty how long it had been since that number of penalties had been called in a playoff overtime game. Evgeni Malkin got the third while tired and trying to flip a puck up over the defense of Boston for a streaking, fresh Sidney Crosby. It went over the glass half a rink away. The Pens finished the first OT with some penalty time to kill still in the next OT. They killed the penalty. Later in the period, Malkin steals the puck from Jaromir Jagr, an ex-Penguin, who then clearly hooks Malkin to regain the puck. The Pens didn’t have time to recover as Jagr dished it to Marchand who scored the game winner. Former referee Kelly Fraser was asked whether this call should have been a penalty and he ripped the referees for not calling the penalty. Even my room mate Baby Momma Drama, who was born and raised in Boston, had to admit upon seeing a replay that Jagr committed a penalty. None of that matter though because the referees on ice didn’t call it. The Bruins are up 3-0 and pretty much all hope is gone.

The Coach

Dan Bylsma has been under fire at various points in his tenure in Pittsburgh because he’s at the helm of a team that boasts two of the most talented players in the world, Crosby & Malkin. He won a Stanley Cup after Michel Therrien had been fired in February or March of ’09. From what I’ve read, he has had some innovative strategies that he’s brought into the NHL as far as puck retrieval, especially for defensemen, go.  Ever since then, it seems other coaches have adjusted to his strategies. Last year’s debacle against the Flyers landed Bylsma on the hot seat. Crosby wasn’t playing well against Claude Giroux so instead of getting away from that match up at home when they have the last change, he stuck with it. Malkin was getting frustrated by Sean Courturier but he stuck by that match up too. Jordan Staal, the defensive specialist amongst their elite centers, sat by twiddling his thumbs. It may have been for the “better” considering that the Pens penalty killing, number one during the regular season, which was anchored by Staal was stinking out the joint too. Did Bylsma change strategies on the PK? Nope.

This year, Bylsma changed some of his rigid ways during the shortened regular season and even adjusted his line ups against the Islanders and second round opponent Ottawa Senators. The Isles were quick, so Bylsma plugged in rookie Beau Bennett and Tyler Kennedy and took out slow footed Jussi Jokinen and Tanner Glass. The Senators had a better net front presence so he took out the smaller defenseman Mark Eaton for big hitter Deryk Engelland.

Even though he made some good adjustments, he also made some bad decisions in the Boston series and especially with his remarks Sunday with the Pens packing their bags for the off season. The big get at trade deadline was Jarome Iginla, who has played right wing his entire fourteen year career. Iginla ended up playing left wing for almost his entire time with the Pens because Crosby didn’t want to break up his line and James Neal, Malkin’s right wing, didn’t want to shift back to left wing. Because he was high profile, Iginla had to be put on one of the top two lines so he played with Malkin & Neal in an uncomfortable position. Kristopher Letang is a Norris Trophy candidate and his main skill is his offensive flair despite him being unpredictable at times. For reasons unknown to most hockey observers though, Letang struggles on the power play. Paul Martin, while less skilled offensively, does a great job distributing the puck and keeping a sound defensive position with the man advantage. Martin was never installed on the power play despite it going 0 for 15 against Boston. Nothing that goes O for insert number here deserves to remain unchanged. Lastly comes the remarks in which he stated that Marc-Andre Fleury will be the starting goaltender next year. I’m pretty sure co-owner Mario Lemeiux ordered to have his guillotine blade sharpened when he heard these comments.

The GM

This topic has gotten less press than I have imagined. One of the main complaints during the trade deadline was that General Manager Ray Shero made the Penguins slower in an increasingly faster sport. They traded for Brenden Morrow for their most promising defenseman Joe Morrow and a draft pick. Brenden was the captain of the Dallas Stars but despite this lofty post had been demoted to the fourth line. He played well during the regular season but true to the criticism he slowed down the Penguins and didn’t provide the net front presence that they thought he would. Douglas Murray was added to the defense to add more hitting because of his size. Murray will forever be awesome to me because him and his friends invented the Uber-Tap at Cornell but he was an unneeded addition that kept promising Simon Depres, who is 6′-4″ and 218 pounds, on the bench. Murray is 6′-3″ and 245. Thirty pounds is a big difference and also extra baggage that slows you down. Despres could have held his own against opponents bigger forwards and added speed to the back end. Jarome Iginla was a different case as was noted already. Even though he was out of position, he produced points until the deciding series against Boston. Jussi Jokinen was a late addition when Sidney Crosby broke his jaw the Saturday before the trade deadline. His specialty was face offs and being a versatile winger that can play any of the forward positions. Jokinen fared poorly on face offs and never played well whether he was a center or a winger. Have I mentioned yet that he kept a faster players such as Tyler Kennedy, who didn’t have a great regular season, or Joe Vitale, who was winning 66% of his face offs (52% is considered good), on the bench?

The Offseason

This topic is the one that Deadspin along with every other Penguins fan has started to talk about. The Penguins cleared $5.4 million in cap money last year at the NHL Entry Draft by trading Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes. They then cleared another $4 million off the books by trading Zybnek Michalek back to the Phoenix Coyotes. They added a whole lot of salary in Iginla and Morrow. Malkin & Letang have another year on their contracts but the Pens typically extend their superstars at that time. According to the Pensblog (by way of Capgeek), the Pens could field pretty much the same team next year by not resigning Iginla or Morrow. I’d be fine with letting Morrow go but Iginla still has some gas in the tank.

Considering Ray Shero’s penchant for rolling the dice, which I like but unfortunately the results aren’t always what you want them to be, I doubt that they’ll do anything that mundane. I mentioned the previous draft because it could be another block buster day for the Penguins to clear salary cap. The likely targets for exiting are Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. Letang has another year at $3.5 million and Fleury at $5.0 for the next two years are reasonable numbers. Both are young (26 and 28 respectively) and even though they have their draw backs, suitors will abound because of their upsides. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement allows teams to buy out one contract this year and next. It wouldn’t happen to Letang because he’s too good but it could happen to Fleury but it’s doubtful because of the other reason listed. I could make up fake trades but that’s a waste of everyone’s time. Trading one or both of these players would probably give them room to sign Iginla and maybe some cap room for a trade in season.

I’m sure this story will be quiet until the draft. Luckily, I can sit back and watch the Pirates fall into a black hole after another strong start and extend their consecutive seasons losing to twenty one. Hold on, that is actually worse than getting swept by the Boston Bruins. -Kevin

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