Saturday, April 30, 2011

GTOG Pens Season Recap Part 1: The Defense Report Card

By Finesse

[Follow us on Twitter]

At some points during this season it looked like the Pens had four #1 caliber defensemen and at least two incredibly promising rookies.  At other points, it looked like Kris Letang was in meltdown mode, Paul Martin was in no-man's land, Brooks Orpik was homicidal, and Matty Ice hadn't yet made any friends in Pittsburgh (see: Five, Game).  But despite some of the lower moments, any and all success that this Pens team had this season is due in large part to the defense, an incredibly solid mix of veterans in their primes, potential stars coming into their primes, and young guys who could ultimately make Ray Shero look like a genius.  Oh, and the top 4 are signed through 2014.

Some numbers:

- Tied for 6th in goals against per game at 2.39
- Tied for 5th best shots against per game at 28.7
- First in penalty killing at 86.1% (conveniently, I will not discuss the playoffs)
- First in references to having a "Norris Trophy candidate" who ultimately had as much chance of winning it as we do of watching another second of Real Housewives of New York.

The Pens' defense had its rough moments, especially in the Tampa series, and especially when Martin St. Louis had the puck.  But GTOG thinks that Ray Shero has built something that not a lot of other teams have: A Stanley Cup caliber defense.

Because people like lists of arbitrary rankings that they can scroll through, here is a report card on the Pens' D after the jump....

Brooks Orpik: "The Foundation"

We've never built anything in our lives, but I imagine that if you talked to someone who does that sort of thing, he or she would tell you that you need a solid foundation.  You'd still have no idea how to build a foundation, but at least you know you'd need one.  And that's what Brooks Orpik is for the Pens.  He's the Foundation of the defense because he's always there, he's always solid, he doesn't make excuses, he scares women and children, and, don't discount the importance of this last factor -- he's been here since the beginning.  As fun as it is to bring in big name free agents, it's even more fun to see your own guys grow from being accused of trying to be the "sofffesss" D in the league by their own coach to being the veteran rock on a Cup contending team.

Dass not sofff
His numbers?  1 goal, 12 assists, +12 in 63 games.  But no one cares about that.  Oprik seems to have worked on shoring up the weakest part of his game -- he now has the confidence in his ability to stand guys up at his own blueline rather than playing it safe and backing down.  It's a welcome, and noticeable, improvement.  The only issue with Orpik is "slotting" -- we're not sure whether he should be a team's best defenseman or it's fourth best, and we're not even sure where he ranks on the Pens.  But he's one of our favorites.  No one ever comes to your new house and exclaims, "Dude, that's a sick foundation."  But they'd know if it wasn't there.  Grade: B+

Kris Letang: "The Candidate"

If you think about Letang's game, the phrase "candidate" is the perfect way to describe it -- he's trying to be something and we all think he can be that something .... but he isn't that something and there is a chance he never will be.  Shero locked Letang up last season at $3.5 million/year through 2014 and for the first 40 games of the year, it looked to be the biggest bargain in the league.  The return on the Letang investment that we were getting at the beginning of the year is equivalent to what the ROI would have been on Mike Comrie if he had scored 50 goals instead of, ummm, one.

But something started happening over the second half of the season.  Just as Letang was getting bathed in adulation, his teammates started dropping like flies.  His mates on the power play?  All hurt.  His partner Orpik?  Missed 19 games.  The Pens' best penalty killer?  Suspended for attempting to kill other human beings instead.  But rather than simplify his game in an attempt to calm the team throughout the turmoil, Letang appeared to take the burden of doing everything on the ice upon himself.  And, not surprisingly, he couldn't.  Because no one can.

He started playing 28 minutes a night.  When the Pens couldn't generate offense, which was very often, he started pinching.  He let lesser players on other teams get under his skin.  P.K. Subban has a condo in Letang's cerebellum.  Sometimes he showed off like a kid at tryouts for a team coached by his dad.  We admire him for caring and for trying harder than anyone else to save the season.  But to get the most out of your abilities, sometimes you have to do less.

Taking on the world
Letang is 24 years old with a cap-friendly contract.  There may be only one or two defensemen in the league who you would trade Letang for straight up.  And I can't even think of them off the top of my head. he, gulp, overrated?

He is touted as an incredible offensive talent and at times he skates so beautifully that he looks like the instructor at a hockey camp.  But lets do some math: His shooting percentage last year was 1.7%.  This year it was 3.4%.  And if only about 10% of his shots actually hit the net, that means he scored on roughly 0.5% of his attempted shots.  Of course I didn't use a calculator, but the point is the same and it's not about the percentage -- it's that he doesn't actually score goals.  It's unfair to hold defensemen to the same offensive standards as forwards -- their percentage is obviously going to be lower because they are shooting from farther away, but come on.  Also, he's been the one constant on a power play that was bad with Sid and Geno and historically dreadful without them.

To stop the rambling and get to the bottom line:  Letang may have taken 10 steps forward at the beginning of the year,  but he took 5 steps back at the end.  Result: a net gain.  We are lucky that Letang is a Penguin.  So Kris, settle down, let your teammates share the burden, and we guarantee that next year, you won't always be mentioned with the qualifier, "a Norris Trophy candidate at the beginning of the season."  Grade: B

Paul Martin: "The Prime Minister"

Like a real Prime Minister, Martin is cerebral and savvy, but we're really not sure how much power he actually has.  Seriously, does anyone know how Canada's or Britain's government works?  In England, for example, a long-in-the-tooth 28 year old bald guy just got married to a hot brunette at noon on a workday in front of one million people while dressed like a Canadian mounty.  How are we supposed to make sense of that?

Just recently, a similar sense of confusion settled in about Paul Martin's season.  For the first 82 games, he was my favorite player, no matter how much Artistry's friends tried to denigrate him.  He moves the puck, he plays smart, and he kills penalties.  And, memo to the rest of the Penguins, he doesn't take penalties.  He had 16 total penalty minutes this season in 77 games.  As far as I'm concerned, on a team that took unlimited ridiculous penalties this season, that makes him our best penalty killer, if not our best player outright.

Some, if not many, will complain about his contract -- five years, $25 million.  But as Artistry explained so brilliantly just last week, it's completely worth it.  Do yourself a favor and read that, but to summarize:  If the Wings, Pens, and Hawks have taught us anything over the past three years, it's that you need mobile and versatile defensemen.  It's a fact.  And it's also a fact that they don't come cheaply.  If you want defense on the cheap, you end up with Niskanen/Lovejoy/Engelland and you end up with Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim running the Princeton offense behind your net.

But an honest assessment requires us to also acknowledge that Martin's level of play slipped, especially in the last three games of the Tampa series (didn't everyone's?).  He ended up being a +1 in the series, but was noticeable for the wrong reasons several times.  No one is perfect, and a couple bad moments at a time when everyone on the team was having bad moments doesn't erase what in many ways was an outstanding first season.  Grade: A- 

[Sorry, Artistry.  You can have your friends email me to complain].

Zbynek Michalek: "The Second Piece"

You need guys like Zbynek Michalek to win Stanley Cups.  If you doubt that, just watch the 2009 Cup highlight video and pay attention to Rob Scuderi.  Even if you don't doubt it, go watch Rob Scuderi for fun.  Michalek blocks shots, kills penalties, gets the puck out of the zone (at least until the fifth game of the playoffs), buries a slap shot here and there, and does the thing you want most out of your defensemen: stay under the radar (Kris, are you paying attention?).

Shero opened the checkbook for Michalek in the offseason, to the tune of five years, $20 million.  That's more than Orpik and Letang.  But in the eyes of GTOG -- completely worth it.  See description for Martin, above.  

Michalek was not perfect this season.  After he pumped in 5 goals in something like 15 games, Bylsma was convinced that he was the new Paul Coffey and gave him unlimited time on a power play that clicked at about 2.5% ever since.  That's not Michalek's fault though -- what's he supposed to do...say, "no thanks, coach.  I'll sit this PP out"?  He also ended up with an even plus/minus, not good enough on a team that was second in the NHL in wins.

We are perfectly content with Michalek's role, his salary, and his level of play.  We look forward to the next four years of sitting on our comfortable couches tweeting while he is laying his life on the line in front of a slapshot in the 10th game of the season in Miami.  Grade: B

Ben Lovejoy: "Babyface"

For Lovejoy, this season will be remembered for one thing, and one thing only.  His goal, and then his face, on HBO's 24/7.

When Orpik broke his hand, Lovejoy came into the lineup and was absolutely sensational.  He quickly surpassed Engelland on the depth chart, despite Engelland having a 50-game head start.  He is strong in his own zone and has a quiet but surprising amount of offensive ability, to the tune of 17 points in 47 games, most of which were played without Sid and Geno.  

If there is one thing he lacks, it's a mean streak.  In fact, he may even apologize to opposing players when he bumps into them.  Along with Niskanen, he was noticeably the Pens' weak link in the playoffs -- it seemed like he was on the ice for every Tampa goal.  (But remarkably, and I'm still trying to understand how this is possible, he only ended up as a minus in ONE of the seven games, and that was Game 4, which the Pens won).  Rarely do young defensemen perform at their peak powers in their first exposure to the playoffs, so we won't grade him too harshly.

Lovejoy is making $525,000 per year over the next two years.  For a solid third-pairing defenseman who is only going to get better, that's quite a bargain.  But next year, Ben, just be a little angrier.  Grade: B

Deryk Engelland: "The Destroyer"

Let's be blunt.  Deryk Engelland was ruining people's families during the first half of the season, before the rest of the league realized that they don't want to fight him.  Colton Orr's wife probably took the kids and was completely moved out by the time Orr even got home from the game in which Engelland knocked him out.

Lost the custody battle, too.
After the flashy start, filled with fights, one-punch knockouts, and admiring tweets from Biz Nasty, Engelland trailed off, like many rookies do.  He was never bad, but he was never great.  He left the door open just enough to be surpassed by Lovejoy, and apparently Matt Niskanen as well, although we're not exactly sure what Niskanen did to deserve that (we'll get to that later).  

To drop a cliche bomb on you, Engelland is what he is -- a 29-year old journeyman defenseman who plays his ass off, is likable, and performs admirably when called upon.  You can never have too many of those guys in your organization, but you can have too many of them on your major league roster at the same time.  That's why in a perfect world, Engelland should be rotating in and out of the lineup as the Pens' 6th best defenseman, bringing a physical presence to the lineup at an affordable price, and thankfully enabling the coaching staff to not have to dress guys like Eric Godard to do the fighting.  That should be the case next season.

Engelland is not the future of the Pens' defense, even though he is signed through 2014.  That's Letang, Lovejoy, Despres, Ulf Samuelsson's kid, and some other people.  But he is a big part of the present, and that's a good thing.  Grade: B

Matt Niskanen: "Yeah, he's OK"

No way to sugar coat this one: Niskanen was BAD in the playoffs.  The worst guy the Pens had on the ice, except for every time Kovalev stayed on the ice for longer than 10 seconds.  He doesn't seem to have any discernable skill that is better than the rest.  He's just ok.  Although he did make a nice pass on the Staal goal in game 6.

To anyone slamming Niskanen or Ray Shero for bringing him in, you have to remember: he isn't here to be Alex Goligoski.  He's just here to be a serviceable 3rd pairing defenseman.  Goligoski was a luxury -- an underpaid 5th defenseman who had the talent to quarterback a power play but who very shortly would be commanding a salary way higher than what you can afford to pay your fifth best defenseman.  Niskanen, on the other hand, is just a body -- an affordable third-pairing guy with enough pedigree (a first-round pick in 2005) to deserve a little more leeway than some other third-pairing guys.  He can, and very well might, get a lot better for the Pens.  It isn't easy coming to a new team and fitting in right away.  Remember Sergei Gonchar?  It can take time.

The highlight of Niskanen's season was in a 3-2 loss to Toronto when Pierre McGuire, borderline masturbatorily, called him "Matty" no less than 14 times and reminded us that he was from Minnesota like a politician reminding us that his daddy worked in a "mill" of some sort.  

There is still some slack on Niskanen's leash.  Give it some time.  Grade: C

Alex Goligoski: "Someone else's conundrum now"

Early in the season, we thought Goligoski might need to be sent to the minors.  Later, we called him Bobby Orr on steroids.  Then, we had absolutely no regrets about trading him.  Then, we started tweeting about how we really missed him in the playoffs.  It's been a roller-coaster with GoGo.

We miss you.  But no regrets.  We think.
All throughout, we never said Goligoski wasn't a good player or couldn't become a great player.  In fact, that's what was so frustrating about him -- from an offensive standpoint, he could be as talented as any defenseman in the league, and it says here at GTOG that he is better offensively than Letang.  But he still left something to be desired.  

We don't regret trading him, but it just isn't as lopsided of a deal as we first thought.  Goligoski immediately became Dallas's best defenseman, or close to it (not looking it up).  But let's be real -- that wasn't going to happen here.  He isn't better than any of our top 4 guys, and we could not have afforded him past next season.  Would you have been happy seeing him walk for nothing after next year?  Doubt it.  Ray Shero is paid to make hard decisions.  He made a hard decision.  Will it work out?  Time will tell, but we'd still take that chance, even if we really really really could have used him on the PP in the playoffs.  Grade: B

Andrew Hutchinson: "Some guy"

Andrew Hutchinson played 5 games this year and was a -3.  He had one assist.  He's 31 years old.  The Pens went 4-1 in the games he played.  If you think I'm writing any more about him, then you don't have any idea what this site is all about.  Grade: Seriously?

Corey Potter: "That other guy"

Corey Potter played in one game.  The Pens beat Ottawa 5-1.  As far as I'm concerned, he had the most successful season of any Penguin.  Grade: A+

Huge Game.
Brian Strait: "He's supposed to be good, right?"

Strait played in 3 games.  The Pens went 1-2.  He played close to 40 minutes this year and had 2 total hits and 2 total blocked shots.  Ok.  Grade: Whatevs.

If you've come this far, then you're willing to go a little further.  First, check out our season recap podcast.  Then, in similarly epic fashion, we'll be recapping the Pens' forwards later this weekend.  Stay tuned.  GTOG.

1 comment:

  1. Well put. I agree with everything you've said, especially the stuff about Niskanen and your little dig on Kovy. In fact, I agree with you so much I started to think I wrote this thing, except the part about Martin. Not that I don't agree, I just find him so boring I couldn't have come up with a full paragraph.