In the year 2010, the Penguins and their fans had to ask themselves, what comes next? After your 21-year-old captain lifts the Cup, the fall can be steep, the climb back to the summit long and arduous. As they sometimes like to say on our favorite reality show, it's been quite a journey. Now, as we prepare to ring in the New Year, GTOG pauses to reflect and consider, what have we learned?
1. Sidney Crosby has no competition.
Two months ago, no one thought we'd be here. HBO was previewing its 24/7 Penguins/Capitals series by proclaiming Alex Ovechkin "the best player in the universe." Steven Stamkos was edging his way into the conversation with his goal-per-game pace and wicked snipes from the perimeter. People were caught thinking, hey, maybe Alex Semin really is worth $6 million a year. Yet here we are. As of this writing, Sidney Crosby has a 24-game scoring streak and leads the league with 61 points in 37 games. Stamkos is second with 50. What does this mean? Hockey Prospectus points out a couple of things you may already know: i) Crosby is dominating the scoring race while being deployed as his team's defensive stopper, starting most shifts with a faceoff in his own zone; and ii) Crosby is the only truly elite scorer in the league taking regular shifts without a complementary superstar on his line. Now here's something you may not know: if you take the greatest single-season scoring performances by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and normalize them by assuming the same number of goals scored per team per game (regardless of era), this is how they compare to Crosby's projected totals this season:
Wayne Gretzky, 1985-86: 166 pts. in 82 games
Mario Lemieux, 1988-89: 172 pts. in 82 games
Sidney Crosby, 2010-11: 149 pts. in 82 games
There is an argument to be made that Ovechkin has already peaked. Crosby's somewhere eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, thinking about how far he has to go.
2. Ray Shero knows more than you.
Look, nobody's perfect. Nils Ekman didn't work out. But in his 5 years at the helm, Pens' general manager Shero has done exactly what he said he would do: he built a team that can contend for the Stanley Cup year in and year out. And this is Shero's finest hour. Consider:
i) His oft-debated roster philosphy has been validated. Jordan Staal hasn't played a game this season. Evgeni Malkin has only really been Geno for about two weeks. Yet the Penguins are among the top 5 teams in the league in scoring. Does anybody still think the Penguins should part with a core player in favor of a goal-scoring winger?
ii) He knows who to lock up and who to let go. How's that Kris Letang contract looking? Does the $3.5 million cap hit through 2013-14 for the Norris Trophy candidate sound reasonable to you? Maybe you wish you had Sergei Gonchar on the books for $5.5 million a year through 2012-13. They're living that dream up in Ottawa.
iii) He knows what coach to hire. We always liked his record. But until HBO took us behind the scenes for a closer look at Danny Bylsma, we had no idea, and neither did you. What a stud.
iv) He knows how to develop players. The Penguins system isn't exactly brimming with elite prospects, but Shero is bringing along the youngsters we do have the right way: with patience and consistency. Eric Tangradi isn't bumping a veteran like Aron Asham out of the lineup based on his pedigree; he'll do it when he's rounded out his game and he's ready to play top 9 minutes for a Stanley Cup champion. When players like Dustin Jeffrey are rewarded with spot duty for Penguins, they know they'll be playing in precisely the same system they use down on the farm in Wilkes Barre.
v) Shero is the guy you want at the trade deadline. He gets his man. Marian Hossa. Pascal Dupuis. Bill Guerin. Chris Kunitz. Yeah, he traded for Alexi Ponikarovsky, but what did that really cost the Penguins? Maybe you see a hall of fame career for Luca Caputi. Ray Shero knows better than you.
The rest of what we learned in '10, after the jump...
3. The Penguins are the Fifth Avenue Bullies.
They lead the league with 38 fighting majors. We're constantly harping on their tendency to drop the gloves at virtually any time in the game, regardless of the circumstances, even if a fight could be exactly what the opposition needs to find a spark. But with Eric Godard, Mike Rupp, and a certain rookie defenseman in the lineup, it's almost unfair to try to kill the Penguins' fighting spirit. Derryk Engelland's New Year's resolution: Punch people in the face harder.
4. Don't doubt Geno.
Penguins' fans spent last season and much of the early part of this one wondering what happened to the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Evgeni Malkin looked during the team's surge to the Stanley Cup like maybe he, not Crosby, was the best player in the world. 36 points in 24 playoff games is approaching Gretzky/Lemieux level stuff. Then, suddenly, his production dropped to just over a point per game. That doesn't happen. Certainly not to a 23-year-old thoroughbred like this. It was a fairly common sentiment among hockey fans and media that Malkin was playing hurt, or tired, or maybe just sulking. Whatever. A few weeks ago, Bylsma gave Geno a few games off to heal a banged up knee and who knows what else, and bang, 10 points in the next 5 games. With Matt Cooke and Max Talbot on his wings. Granted, we know a few players who could produce like that with those guys riding shotgun, but their names are Lemieux, Jagr, and Crosby.
5. Was Marc-Andre Fleury's contract a mistake? Final answer.
Wondering if Ray Shero miscalculated when he signed Fleury to a $35 million contract and missed out on the new NHL paradigm of paying relative peanuts for goaltending and loading up everywhere else (See Chicago and Philadelphia)? Your answer has likely changed with the seasons. Doubts lingered after Fleury looked overwhelmed by the moment a little too often in June 2008. In the spring of '09, you were an idiot for even asking the question. By the spring of '10, as seeing-eye wrist shots made their way with startling regularity through, around, and underneath his pads, you probably changed your mind again. Then, the start of this season was nothing short of a disaster for the Penguins' netminder. Now? Now he's the backbone of a team that's won 15 of its last 18 games. So, to sum up, the answer to the question has been, at various times, Possibly, Hell no, Maybe, Looks like it, Absolutely not. Our final answer? We gave it to you in August. It hasn't changed.
6. The blueline is a gold mine.
When the Penguins devoted $9 million in cap space over the summer to lock up Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to long term contracts, the Penguins instantly upgraded the top 4 of their defense corps to rival any in the league. That was like adding two aces to a staff that already had a potential Cy Young winner (Kris Letang) and a consistent 200 inning warhorse who throws high, inside heat (Brooks Orpik). And those are just the headliners for the team's tremendous organizational depth along the blueline. GTOG criticizes Alex Goligoski all the time, and so do you. But check your emails from 2008 and 2009. Guarantee you were saying the same things about Kris Letang. Goligoski has all the tools, and if you don't believe that, watch what happens if Shero ever puts him on the market. Gone in 60 seconds. Engelland has been a revelation, and Ben Lovejoy has top 4 upside. But wait. We're not done. Simon Despres is the team's top prospect, and if this preseason and training camp was any indication, he's not just going to play at the NHL level, he's going to excel. The list goes on: Ulf Samuelsson's boy Philip, Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo, Nicholas D'Agostino. That's depth. You really can't have enough NHL or potential NHL defenseman, but if Shero smells a Cup at the trade deadline, this is one area where the Pens can deal.
7. Free agents will be lining up.
In today's NHL, not everybody can make a million dollars. With the salary cap in place, teams with two or three big money players already on the roster (read: contending teams) need to fill out the lineup with productive veterans who are willing to take less money for a shot at the Cup. Considering the Pens' track record with that kind of player (Matt Cooke, Craig Adams, Aron Asham, Bill Guerin, and Gary Roberts to name a few), classy management from the top down, fan loyalty, the new arena, a livable city, their commitment to long term success, and, from what we've seen on HBO, a great locker room culture, the Penguins should be turning people away next July.
8. Jordan Staal doesn't need to play on the third line.
The playoffs may be a different story. But for now, Chris Conner and Mark Letestu have joined Tyler Kennedy to create a Buzz Line that keeps constant pressure on what are typically the other teams' third pairing defensemen. That's invaluable, and their impact will be even more pronounced if a healthy Staal can rekindle the magic of his rookie season on Geno's line.
9. The Penguins look better in uniform.
Just wait for the Alumni Game.