Tuesday, May 3, 2011

GTOG Pens Season Recap Part II: Grading the Forwards

By GTOG Staff

[Read our grades for the defensemen here]

When History looks back on the 2010-11 Pens' season, it will look to this post and say, "that was too long."  But it is without question that, particularly for the forwards, the 2010-11 season was one of the most tumultuous in team history.  Consider:

- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal, undoubtedly the deepest group of centers in the NHL, played a total of two games together.

- Aaron Asham was the Pens' leading scorer in the playoffs.  In other news, the Pens were eliminated in the first round.

- When Dustin Jeffrey got hurt, the Pens' Stanley Cup chances took a big hit.  And no, we aren't kidding.

- We got deliriously excited when the Pens' traded for a 39-year old winger who hasn't really been effective in six years, whose team was willing to trade him for a 7th round pick and likely feels completely satisfied with the return.

- The "scoring winger for Sid" never played with Sid.

- The Pens did not win a single game in which they were trailing entering the third period (See, Rossi, Rob.)

- In February and March, Chris Kunitz was in the conversation for best left winger in the Eastern Conference.

To summarize: It was the best of times, but mostly, it was the worst of times.  Here is the official GTOG Report Card:

Craig Adams, "The Navy Seal"

We wonder if Craig Adams has a good explanation for his whereabouts this past weekend, because we're pretty sure he just killed Osama Bin Laden. When Adams was claimed by the Penguins off waivers from the Blackhawks in March 2009, no one outside of the organization - and quite possibly no one on the team - had any clue that we were getting the guy who inspired the character of Maximus in "Gladiator."  Adams is 4th line heaven: a valiant penalty-killer, a thunderous forechecker, a sacrificer of limbs, and, come playoff time, even a clutch goal scorer.  He's durable, responsible, and, we're guessing, extremely punctual.  The line Adams centered with Mike Rupp and Arron Asham got well-deserved attention in the playoffs as perhaps the Penguins' best.  His $550,000 cap hit made him arguably the biggest bargain on the team, and Ray Shero will likely make re-signing Adams a priority.  Here's hoping he doesn't big-time us this off-season by signing a seven-figure deal with some team that figures they're one elite killing machine away from a Stanley Cup.  Grade: A

Every forward's grade, after the jump...

Arron Asham, "The Outsider"

When the Pens brought in Arron Asham last summer, we had two entirely distinct reactions.  The first was visceral, and it involved feelings of contempt, disgust, and nausea.  The second involved thinking Asham had just scored some goals (4) for the Flyers in the 2010 playoffs and that it was curious they'd let him walk.  Then we remembered that they're the Flyers.  Even though we hated the idea of the guy, we recognized that it made sense to buy low ($700K) on a player with sharp elbows and a history of raising his game in the postseason.  Ray Shero did the same thing with Mike Rupp the year prior.  It's exactly the kind of low risk/high reward signing that reflects Shero's approach to building around a young and very expensive core.  Asham's regular season was truncated by injuries, and they weren't really injuries that made us feel bad for the guy, but rather injuries that made us wish we just hadn't signed Arron Asham.  You know, it always looked like he just pulled his calf muscle or something and didn't really feel like exerting himself too much.  He never smiled, but he never frowned.  It never really seemed like he cared.  Then came the first round of the playoffs in Tampa Bay. 

3 goals in 7 games
That's what you call acing the final exam to save your grade. Grade: B

Mike Comrie, "The Recreational Hockey Player"

1 goal, into an empty net, in 21 games. Sushi with Hilary Duff. And that about does it.

Chris Conner, "The Little Engine That Tried"

Chris Conner is 5'8" with skates on, and 180 pounds, maybe if he was carrying Tyler Kennedy.  He's 27-years-old, and he spent much of the past 6 years riding buses in Iowa and Wilkes-Barre.  In Game 6 of the Penguins first round playoff series against Tampa, he had a chance to tie the score on a penalty shot.  With his teammates, the Tampa crowd, and Penguins fans across America all on their feet, Conner wound up, sprinted toward Dwayne Roloson, caught some bad ice, and lost the puck.  Then Chris Conner came back and battled his little butt off in Game 7, just like he did all season long.  There is no better symbol of what the team overcame this season than Conner.  A for effort, kid.  Grade: B

Matt Cooke, "The Devil Incarnate" "The Lightning Rod"

Here's what we learned this season.  First, the Penguins can never complain about anything related to the NHL, officiating, dirty plays, etc. because they "employ" Matt Cooke.  No word on whether that rule also applies to Vancouver, where he played for 8+ years and no one died, or to the Washington Capitals, who acquired Cooke at the 2008 trade deadline, leading Ted Leonsis to blog:
In return we received Matt Cooke, a left wing who is an agitator, a tough sandpaper-like player, who can chip in goals; has lots and lots of energy; and really wanted to play here. The fans and his fellow players will love the way he plays. He is honest, hard-working and cares deeply about his teammates. A change of scenery will help his game and outlook as well. I think this is a win-win trade scenario.
You know what, Ted?  We couldn't agree more.

Second, Matt Cooke is the most evil of the evil, even though, unofficially, there were 11,345 players suspended this year in the NHL.  Third, everyone has conveniently forgotten that Matt Cooke's hit on Marc Savard, which was vicious, dangerous, and probably unnecessary, was actually not illegal.  Instead, it has morphed into an offense as egregious as Burtuzzi's assault or McSorely's stick swing.  Fourth, we hate writing about Matt Cooke.

The beauty of Google images
We don't consider ourselves Matt Cooke apologists.  We are Matt Cooke explanationists.  He deserved his suspensions this year, for the Tyutin hit, the McDonaugh elbow and probably three or four other hits that were missed.  He needs to cut that stuff out.  It's not only dangerous, but it's illegal, harmful to his own team, and makes Greg Wyshynski happier than he should be allowed to be.

But he is far from the worst offender in the history of the league, and even though the polls may support it, he probably shouldn't be burned at the stake during the Pizza Hut intermission report.  The truth is, he's a really effective player and outside of too many major and minor penalties, was having maybe his most outstanding year as a Penguin with 30 points in 67 games.  He was also the best forward on the best PK unit in the league.

Next season, Cooke will probably cause other bloggers to continue using words like "classy" on message boards, which is another way of saying "I've never had a girlfriend."  But he also will continue to lead the Pens' PK, chip in 30-40 points as an effective third line winger, take way too many penalties, and never draw a penalty because he is "Matt Cooke."  On balance?  We'll take it.  Grade: C+

Ryan Craig, "That Guy Named Ryan Craig"

In the first-ever game at Consol Energy Center, Ryan Craig buried two goals in a 5-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.  For a time, we thought we had found the "scoring winger for Sid."  Actually, we didn't really think that, but some did.  The lesson: Read GTOG.  Grade: C

Ryan Craig?  You decide.
Sidney Crosby

Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: "It might have been."
-John Greenleaf Whittier, some guy we Googled

Prior to the 2010-11 season, Sidney Crosby had won an MVP, a scoring title, a Stanley Cup, a Rocket Richard trophy, and a Gold Medal.  But despite all those accomplishments by the age of 23, the first half of the 2010-11 season was the first time that Sid really, truly, completely was living up to the hype.  With the passage of some time, and the relative success of the Pens' after Sid's injury, it's easy to forget just how dominant he was, and just how much the Pens were depending on him.  The guy was scoring at will, whether it was picking corners, banging home rebounds, or deflecting in slapshots that were ticketed 15 feet wide.  With all due respect to Ovechkin's 65-goal season, which was remarkable, the NHL hadn't seen this diverse of a scoring arsenal since Mario was banking pucks in from behind the net. 

At GTOG, we don't complain about officials and we don't complain about injuries.  They both happen, and in the long run, the law of averages reigns supreme.  If you spend too much time calculating Sid's projected 2010-11 totals, or imagining how dominant the Pens could have been with a healthy lineup in this year's playoffs, then you will drive yourself crazy.  And if you read about his latest concussion setback, which we refuse to link, then you may actually give yourself concussion symptoms.  

But what you should take away from this season, as a fan, is that when you have a chance to root for someone great, don't take it for granted.  Because you never know.  Grade: Incomplete.

Alternate reality....?
Pascal Dupuis, "F-you, Geno."

In 2008, Pascal Dupuis was the Matt Niskanen of the Marian Hossa trade - some guy you had heard of before, but didn't really know anything about.  Three years later, who would have thought that it would be Dupuis who had made the bigger impact as a Penguin, and that it wouldn't even be close?  We aren't dumb enough to say that Dupuis is as good as Hossa, or that it should even be a discussion.  But consider: in the past two years, Dupuis has averaged 17.5 goals; Hossa has averaged 24.5 goals and 19 gigaunits of drama.  Oh, and Dupuis has done it at a fraction of the cost.

It isn't a stretch to say that since 2008-09, Dupuis has been the Pens' most reliable forward.  He kills penalties, he doesn't get injured, and he plays whatever role you ask him to play.  As long as you maintain proper expectations -- you know, that he isn't the "scoring winger for Sid" -- then it's almost impossible to be disappointed with Dupuis.  And 2011 may have been his best as a Penguin.  He, along with Craig Adams, was the forward anchor of the league's #1 PK, and he pumped in a respectable 17 goals while skating as a +16, third best on the team.  The main knock on him this season was the 59 penalty minutes, by far the most of his career.  A result of trying to do too much with a decimated lineup?  Doesn't matter.  Stay out of the box.  Grade: B+

Eric Godard, "The Suit"

It was a rough year for Godsy.  A 10-game suspension, a facial injury at the hands of Terry Carkner in Ottawa, and the lingering effects of one hugely unfortunate sartorial miscalculation.

But there are a lot of people on Long Island who could learn something about honor from Eric Godard.  If you want to know how GTOG feels about him from an historical perspective, check out our Top 10 Penguins enforcers of all timeGrade: B

Dustin Jeffrey, "The Kid"

In this, the Season of Regrets, don't forget this one:  We were robbed of seeing more of Dustin Jeffrey.

Grade: A

Nick Johnson, "The Other Kid"

Nick Johnson's biggest impact on the Penguins' this season was regularly being included on the AGH Injury Report so that FSN/ROOT could count him toward the erotic sounding "Man Games Lost" statistic.  At GTOG, we don't overlook contributions like that.  Grade: A-

Tyler Kennedy, "Shooter"

If we were doing a report card for the last two months of the season, TK would not only receive an "A+," he would graduate to some higher league.  Nobody stepped up offensively this spring the way he did.  Granted, his offensive game is one-dimensional - Kennedy Move, shoot, rinse, repeat - but we desperately needed it.  Whether he can come close to sustaining that level of play over the course of a season, we don't know, and we'll have to find out the answer before committing to him long term.  Grade: B+

Alexei Kovalev, "The Ex"

When a passionate relationship comes to an end and the two ex-lovers see each other again years later, it's common to hear stories like, "well, she looked as beautiful as ever, but it just didn't feel the same."  For Kovalev, change the quote to, "well, she looked 25 pounds heavier, 15 years older, and had to sit down to rest half way around the block, but it just didn't feel the same" and you have a successful analogy.

Kovalev showed flashes at times.  He scored that sick shootout goal in Toronto.  And....he scored that sick shootout goal in Toronto.  Look, we love Kovy and remember him as fondly as any Penguin from the Ivan Hlinka era.  But if we had given up a draft pick higher than a 7th rounder, the end result would have been that this was a bad trade.  As it played out, Shero gave up nothing to get him, and got nearly nothing in return.  It was a risk worth taking.  The only reason his grade isn't lower is that he played with Mark Letestu and James Neal, a line that had as much natural chemistry as a Tyler Perry movie starring Mel Gibson and Natalie Portman.  Grade: C-

Chris Kunitz, "The Hand Model"

Coming into the season, we talked about Chris Kunitz like he was some kind of liability.  A nice player, sure, but Kunitz's place on Sidney Crosby's wing launched a thousand "We need a winger for Sid" conversations, just as many "How can we move his $3.75 million salary" discussions, and his failure to bury a sufficient percentage of Crosby feeds inspired the nickname, "Hands of Stone."  Well now.  66 games, 23 goals, 25 assists, and 48 points later, we'd say his soft, feathery hands belong in the freaking Smithsonian.

Pregame Ritual
Hands of Fairy Dust gets knocked down a peg for his disappearing act against the Lightning.  Grade: A-

Mark Letestu, "The Teacher's Pet"

Letestu is the kind of teacher's pet who you respect because he tries hard and doesn't show off, but still gets called on just a tad too much to annoy you.  Letestu burst onto the scene in the 2010 playoffs, playing 4 games and tallying one assist.  Apparently Dan Bylsma thought enough of this production to give him nearly unlimited ice time and power play time in the 2011 playoffs, including being the 6th man in the final 90-second scramble while Max Talbot spent what could have been his last game in a Pens' uniform watching the Pens try to score a goal that everyone knew they wouldn't score.

Arguably Bylsma had no choice given the well-chronicled injuries.  And to be fair, Letestu was more than solid during the regular season -- 14 goals and 13 assists in 64 games.  He was also tasked with centering a line of Neal and Kovalev that can't be described as discombobulated because that would imply that it was combobulated at some point during the year.  Letestu is an undrafted rookie who fizzled a little bit in the playoffs -- such is life.  Grade: B

Evgeni Malkin, "The Promise"

When you win the Conn Smythe Trophy at age 22 by scoring 36 points in 24 games and making the Carolina Hurricanes look like a bunch of 8-year-olds, you make a promise.  You make a promise to do more than score 37 points in 43 games.  You make a promise to be great.  Sorry, Geno, but we grade on a curve.  Grade: B-

James Neal, "The Thoroughbred"

We don't much care that a guy reputed to be a goal-scoring power forward only potted a single goal in 20 regular season games for the Penguins.  Because we watched the games, and James Neal passed the eyeball test.  When Neal wasn't busy not scoring, he was running people over, dancing around them, and ripping shots from all angles.  At times, he was simply the best player on the ice.   Unfortunately, Jimmy, you can paint the prettiest picture we've ever seen, but if you then take it and smash it over your own head, we can't give you top marks.  You scored once in 20 games.  Grade: B-

Aced the "chewing of mouthguard" section of the exam
Mike Rupp, "The Lunch Pail"

He's got a limited repertoire, but it's more extensive than you might think. And he always comes to work.  A fairly ideal 4th line wing, and an entertaining Tweeter to boot.  Grade: B+

Jordan Staal, "Thunder god"

When he is slotted as a shutdown center or, perhaps, a winger on a line with an all-world center, he is a force of nature and dominator of men.  As a first line guy expected to carry a team offensively, defensively, and on special teams?  Well then he's only mortal, isn't he?

Staal Turned Down the Role
Staal is the guy many Penguins' fans take most for granted, and that's inexcusable.  The reality is, projected over a full season, he was good for about 60 points this season, which would have been by far the best of his 5 year career.  It's a career that's seen Staal help lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship, score huge goals and kill off penalties in the biggest games, and, in case you forgot this, too, emerge as the only core player who showed up in Game 7 last year against Montreal (with a gaping wound in his foot).  Oh, and he's 22-years-old.  Grade: A

Bret Sterling, "The Awesome Rec League Guy"

When this 5'7" sniper finally decides to stop touring minor league cities and settle down somewhere, he's going to make some lucky group of middle-aged men very happy.  In case you forgot, Sterling scored 3 goals in 7 NHL games this season.  Just get him the puck and have another beer.  Grade: A

Max Talbot, "We Don't Know What to Think Anymore"

If you have unambigous feelings about Max Talbot, maybe you haven't been paying attention. Sure, he was a Game 7 hero.  But then he disappeared for a season.  Then he came back and stole the spotlight in HBO's 24/7.  He always has been a fun guy to have around.  Then, in marched a bunch of young guys like Dustin Jeffrey, Mark Letestu and Joe Vitale, and we wondered, do we really need Max Talbot anymore?  It would be a huge loss in the locker room, but on the ice?  He played well for stretches, and not so well for other stretches.  Yep, we figured, Max would have to go.  But the playoffs came, and we saw his face before the guys would step out of the runway, and honestly, did anybody look more ready to play than Max Talbot?  Everybody wanted him out there in the last minute of Game 7 against Tampa.  What does that tell you?  Grade: B-

Maybe he was falling down, not celebrating?
Eric Tangradi, "The Baby Giraffe"

Tangradi has a terrific frame and flashes some decent instincts, but it still isn't entirely clear how he'll grow into that body.  He needs to get stronger on his skates and with his stick, and he needs to move his feet more if he's going to have a future among the Top 6 forwards in Pittsburgh.  Grade: B-

Joe Vitale, "The Mineo's Pizza Guy"

What we saw of him - specifically that one game in Colorado - we liked.  Grade: B+

Tim Wallace, "This is Getting Ridiculous"

When you are looking up Tim Wallace's statistics to write a season recap, you realize that it's no surprise that you're writing the recap in early May, not mid-June.  Tim played in 7 games and recorded no points, five penalty minutes, and was a -3.  The Pens went 1-4-2 while he was in the lineup.  But you have to remember -- he was in the lineup in the darkest days of the winter, that stretch in mid-February which included a game against Columbus with a group of forwards that had a combined total of 57 goals in 54 games.  He was even the guy who got stuck fighting David Steckel, mostly because we didn't have any other candidates.  Wallace is a 26-year-old undrafted right winger who has never scored a goal in 24 career games.  If the HBO series taught us anything, it's that someone's first NHL goal matters.  TW, we're rooting for you.  Grade: C

Check back later this week for GTOG's report card on the goalies and team management.  While you're at it, follow us on Twitter.


  1. Nice post
    Looking forward to seeing how Neal and Crosby play together next season.

  2. how is sidney crosby's grade incomplete bu malkin's wasnt?

  3. Anonymous, great question. GTOG uses an extremely complex grading algorithm. We could explain it to you, but that would probably require starting a whole new blog devoted solely to that explanation.

  4. How do so many guys get high grades but the team failed so miserably? Yes, they overachieved as individuals, but this is a team sport, no? I'd think that should factor in.

    Also, Terry Carkner retired quite some time ago. It's Matt Carkner (they're cousins). You should have known that, since he did play for the Baby Pens.

  5. Oh, and I'm one of those Caps fans who was happy to see Cooke come to town, but I was also a Darcy Tucker fan. And Dale Hunter. And Claude Lemieux.

    They're guys you hate to play against but love on your team. Even if a guy like Cooke is scum (which he is) who refuses to back up his antics because of the silly rules in place.

    And Mario is a tool. That's all.

  6. Tim - thanks for the comment. I guess our best explanation is that we don't think the team failed miserably. With the roster they had in the playoffs, they got about as much out of it as they could.

    And it's not surprising that individuals played well, but the team didn't have the same degree of success. The Pens were relying on role players -- and those role players were generally playing their roles well. But their roles didn't include scoring goals, so it's not surprising that the end result didn't match up.

  7. Tim, you can criticize us for confusing the Carkner brothers (I mean, who doesn't know the difference between the Carkner brothers?), but here at GTOG, we value good grammar, and you really need to finish your sentences. You stated, "Mario is a tool" but forgot to add "that we can all use to gain some insight into Transcendence." Next time.