Wednesday, October 5, 2011

GTOG NHL Season Preview Part II: The Penguins

By GTOG Staff

[Check out our league-wide preview in Part 1 here and the preview podcast here.  And make sure to spend the season with us on Twitter.]

If you want a Pittsburgh Penguins 2011-12 Season Preview with tired cliches and soul-crushing number crunching, you've come to the wrong place.  But if you want your Pens' season preview to be a patty of hardcore analysis sandwiched between a thick slice of emotion and another slice of stream-of-consciousness with a helping of The Onus on the side, then buckle up.

All aboard.
As we discussed in Tuesday's podcast, it's hard to treat the beginning of this season the same way we've treated the start of other NHL seasons because of the enormous question mark and potential dark cloud hanging over the league -- just how fat is Dustin Byfuglien?

Nice mits.
The real question, of course, is what is the deal with Sidney Crosby.  We learned recently just how bad things got for him during the first 8 months of 2011 -- he felt foggy, dizzy, and distant from his own self.

But in the month since his unprecedented press conference, during which he was referred to as a vestibular Ferrari, the news for Sid has been nothing but positive. He's skating.  He's skating fast.  He's skating REALLY fast.  He's "symptom free."  He's "progressing." He's "getting paid $8.7 million."  Interest was piqued when it was announced that he would accompany the team to Vancouver -- would he be cleared to play for the opener?

At GTOG, we're not pessimists, but we are cautious with our Ferrari.  We wouldn't loan it Dustin Byfuglien, for example.  So that's why we would like to tell Pens' fans and hockey fans everywhere: relax.  Sid will be back and he will reach levels close to, if not equal to, his Fall 2010 level.  Why are we so confident?  Because we want to be.  Given that Sid will rise again, what's the rush?  Here's our nonmedical opinion: when Sid is proclaimed ready by Dr. Ted Carrick, the "chiropractic neurologist," the Pens should wait 3 weeks and then send him back to Dr. Michael Collins, the more classically trained neurologist at UPMC.  When Dr. Collins clears Sid to play, wait another 2 weeks.  Then, when Sid is itching to get on the ice, wait another week.  If it's after the New Year before that happens then, well, Happy New Year.

So now that Sid is out of the way, here are the other story lines we'll be watching, after the jump...

James Neal could be so disappointing that he makes people stop thinking Ray Shero is So Smart

We don't actually believe that will happen, but in every nonsensical sentence there is a grain of truth: if James Neal doesn't play well for the Pens this year -- and we mean 25 goals well -- then some of the bloom will come off the Ray Shero rose, even if it's just a petal.  That's because Alex Goligoski, the guy Shero gave up for Neal, tore sh*t up in Dallas last year and appears primed to do it again this year.  (Someone find us the odds of Gogo making the All-Star game and we'll take the bet).  Now, anyone who follows the site closely knows that we think the Pens were right to trade Goligoski -- you can't afford to pay your 5th defenseman the type of money he would have commanded.  But we can quibble with the return.

Great trade.
Neal was wildly disappointing for the Pens last year, even if you factor in the Big Injuries and the fact that he was playing on a line with a 60-year old man who hijacked Alexi Kovalev's face and Mark "Even I don't know why I was on the ice at the end of Game 7" Letestu.  Alexi Ponikarovsky was also wildly disappointing.  Jordan Leopold was a non-factor.  Matt Niskanen is like a worse-Jordan Leopold.   Chris Bourque was, well, yeah, you know.  Shero has made enough great moves (Hossa/Dupuis for nothing, Guerin, Kunitz, signing Cooke, Kennedy, Dupuis, Staal, Letang, Adams, Fleury - we could go on endlessly- for less than market value) that even if Neal underachieves, Shero is still playing with house money (and lots of it).  So while we wouldn't be overly critical of Shero if Neal fails, we'd notice.

Having said all that, pencil Neal in for 26 goals and 32 assists.

The Joe Morrow Chronicles

Joe Morrow, whose name sounds like a drunk yinzer trying to say "tomorrow," made jaws drop during the preseason.  He's 18 years old, but he played with the poise of someone ready to step in and contribute today.  However, don't let that fool you; his preseason performance doesn't mean he's actually ready, it just means he's better than a lot of guys on other teams trying to make NHL rosters. The more interesting question is whether he's better than a guy on the Pens who is trying to make an NHL roster: Simon Despres.  We aren't expecting either of them to get the rookie 9-game call-up (the amount of games a rookie can play in a season without accruing a year toward free agency), but if it happens, don't be shocked if it's Morrow, not Despres.

"Younz goin' dahn t'da game joemorrow?"
Chris Kunitz's Hands

When this website was created, Chris Kunitz was a borderline villain, with hands harder than Rex Ryan at DSW.  But then, something happened.  During the Pens' long winning streak, Kunitz developed not just soft hands, but the softest hands.  His hands are softer than a cotton ball wrapped in Jose Reyes's batting title.  Pillows fall asleep on Chris Kunitz's hands.  Microkunitz is coming out with a new X-box for the holidays.  You get the point.  We like Chris Kunitz.

Dustin Jeffrey vs. Mark Letestu

When everyone is healthy, there is a serious logjam at the bottom of the Pens' roster.  Assuming that 10 guys are must dress (Sid, Cooke, Dupuis, Kennedy, Kunitz, Malkin, Neal, Staal, Sullivan, Adams), that would leave two spots for six guys: Asham, Letestu, MacIntyre, Park, Vitale, Jeffrey.  Joe Vitale isn't getting a spot because of Rule of Life 716(b)(1)(A): "He whose name isn't even on Page 1 of a Google search for his own name shall not start for the Penguins."  MacIntyre shouldn't get a spot, but we fear he might on too many nights.  Park is virtually costless and whether he plays or not shouldn't really matter.  When healthy, Asham should play -- he's a force, as we've described over and over again.

So the real battle is between two guys who fill similar roles: being a guy without a lot of pedigree who the coaches love.  And when we say love, we mostly mean Letestu.  Dan Bylsma treats Letestu like the Bachelorette treats a suitor who just revealed that his father is either dead, dying, or absentee: he smothers Letestu with endless affection and says things like, "I'm really glad we're exploring our connection here at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino Resort in beautiful Las Vegas."

"I'm going to send this picture to my dead dad in heaven.  Let's make out!"
Before his injury, Jeffrey was scoring at a 30-goal pace.  That's right, a 30-goal pace.  Letestu had 14 goals in  64 games, which is solid, but was clearly slipping badly by the end of the season.  The bottom line: More Dustin Jeffrey never hurt anyone.

The Pizza Guy vs. The Second Best Asian Guy Ever to Play for the Pittsburgh Penguins

Speaking of Letestu and Jeffrey, can anyone stock the bottom six like Rejean Shero? The biggest difference between these Penguins and the Pens of the 80's and 90's may be that now we can talk about the 4th line for hours. Who do you like between Joe Vitale and Richard Park? More to the point, who don't you like? Neither! You like them both. See? How do you sit Navy Seal Craig Adams? You don't. How do you sit playoff leading scorer Arron Asham? You might have to. Apparently Steve MacIntyre has to play 40 games by official decree. Somewhere, Richard Zemlak is thanking the hockey gods he never had to try to crack this roster.

Geno ))))))

You can talk about how he's going to score 120 points, win the Art Ross, Hart, and Conn Smythe trophies, and surpass Justin Bieber as the world leader in Twitter followers all you want. We're not saying a word.

Will Paul Martin justify his contract?

You will be hard pressed to find bigger supporters of Paul Martin anywhere on the Internets. In a world where Christian Erhoff is making more money than Sidney Crosby this season, we'll take the Prime Minister's stellar defensive positioning, smooth skating, and generally heady play, even at the inflated price of $5 million against the cap.  (Wait, is this even inflated anymore? James Wisniewski makes more. And please, you don't need to point out that Wisniewski has a 50-point season under his belt. So does Ryan Whitney).  But we're not going to pretend we're not looking for more from him. Not in goals or assists, necessarily, but Martin is a guy with the ability to control the flow of play from the back end. If he can do that more consistently this season -- like Gonchar did in his second year with the Pens -- then maybe people will stop complaining about Martin and save their energy for society's more pressing needs.

The Onus

Finally, what everyone has been waiting for: the semi-annual assignment of The Onus.  Last year when Sid and Geno went down, GTOG assigned The Onus to Marc-Andre Fleury, or as he pronounced it, De Onus.  This year, Geno is primed for an epic season and all signs point to Sid coming back healthy (at some point).  So, who must take The Onus, strangle it, and make it his own? As we see it, there is only one choice:

Crazy Eyes Says: "Take The Onus Jordan!!!!"
We touched on this on the podcast, but let's break it down.  This will be Jordan Staal's sixth year in the league.  In his first four years, he was the clear #3 center (though he was a winger for much of his rookie year).  As a 3rd line guy, he was special.  Great penalty killer, great defense, public personality with the magnetism of a sheet of paper, did anything he was asked, and scored absolutely enormous goals, including the shorthanded goal in Game 4 against the Wings in 2009 to tie the game at 2 and spark the Pens when it looked like the Wings were ready to grab the series by the throat.  The Pens do not win the Cup in 2009 without Staal.  Last season, he missed the first 40 games with a bizarre cocktail of injuries, including a foot infection and a broken hand sustained at practice.  Then, just as he was rounding into form, Sid and Geno went down, along with about 9 other starters, and Staal was suddenly expected to carry the offensive, defensive, and leadership load.  That's a lot to ask of a guy who hadn't skated in 8 months.

"Did someone say leadership?"
But truth be told, Staal was really good last season: he had 30 points in 42 games, almost all of which were played without Sid and Geno on the ice to occupy the opponents' top two defensive pairings.  He finished at +7 at the same time the Pens were playing so many close hockey games that they would have won games by 0.1 goals if that was mathematically possible.

So as he enters his sixth year in the league (at only 23-years-old), he's finally set up to answer the question that we've been wondering for a long time: what is Jordan Staal?  Is he what he has been the first five years, a guy who can put up around 50 points but probably should be no better than your 2nd best center?  Or, is he a guy who was sacrificing for his team, but stands poised now to have a break out year statistically (breakout for him would be 60+ points)?  At 23 and with six years experience, it shouldn't matter anymore that he might be playing behind Sid and Geno: take the reins Jordy, and score 25/35 (at least) no matter who is out there.  Do that, and we might forget that the three picks immediately after you in 2006 were Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel.

With the Pens' lineup fully healthy (hopefully), there is no one player who really carries a true Onus because the team is so deep.  But putting aside Sid's return, which is obviously the lynchpin of the season, Jordan Staal's ability to get even better than he already is, to add a diverse offensive arsenal to his otherwise solid game, and to grab The F***ing Onus like it's a 40 oz. of Olde English at his brother's bachelor party in Thunder Bay is, well, huge.

"I ... uh ... accept ... uh ... The Onus."
[Check out our league-wide preview in Part 1 here and the preview podcast here.  And make sure to spend the season with us on Twitter.]


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  2. Thanks, Charice. That means so much.

  3. charice is trying to take the Onus upon herself.