Sunday, February 19, 2012

GTOPG: Breaking Down the Neal Deal; Pens Exposed in Buffalo, 6-2

By Artistry

Even in the midst of his almost completely scoreless Spring 2011 debut with the Penguins, James Neal's skating and overwhelming physical style reminded us of Marian Hossa.  Now more than three years after Hossa rejected a 7 year, $50 million offer to sign with Pittsburgh, Ray Shero gets the last laugh, inking the younger Neal to a more cap-friendly 6 year, $30 million deal.  That's another horse in a stable of five big-time forwards - four under the age of 25 - making some $30 million a year combined.  It's almost enough to make you forget about a defense that gave up 10 goals this weekend. We'll get to the salary cap implications of the Neal contract in a moment, but we begin with the weekend split against the Flyers and Sabres.

- Paul Martin was guilty of at least two more glaring positional errors Sunday in Buffalo.  He got caught in a 2-on-1 down low on a power play and decided to take neither man, leaving Paul Gaustad to score the Sabres' third goal.  On a late-game Buffalo power play, he left tiny little Tyler Ennis all alone in front of the net, then left him alone again to grab his own rebound, making this the first time in NHL history that a defenseman wanted absolutely no part of Tyler Ennis.  It was nauseating.  It validated everything a legion of doubters have been saying about the the Prime Minister.  But the Paul Martin Effect, that phenomenon where Paul Martin becomes the sole defensive scapegoat and focus of fan and media hostility, cannot and must not overshadow the deterioration of the Penguins' team defense.  Paul Martin didn't give up 10 goals in two games.  And he's not solely responsible for putting the team in a 2-0 hole last week against both Winnipeg and Tampa.  This is a team effort.  Watch the tape.  There's Brooks Orpik getting abused by Derek Roy.  There's Matt Niskanen looking like he's been promoted beyond his level of competency.  There's Brent Johnson.  Wait, there goes Brent Johnson to the bench.  And look at this:  Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang finishes the day at -4.  Right there with our buddy, Paul Martin.  The Penguins need to get there house in order defensively, and we're certain they recognize this issue is much bigger than one guy.

On Jagr, Staal, and what James Neal just did to the salary cap, after the jump...

- We understand that people want to believe that it was for the best the Jaromir Jagr spurned the Pens last summer to sign with Philadelphia.  That's human nature.  But if you actually do believe that, you might also think it's terrific that Sidney Crosby's getting a nice long rest.  No, no, no, no, no.  It is not for the best that Jagr didn't line up on Jordan Staal's wing this weekend.  We don't care if Jagr misses some games.  We think we could probably tolerate him setting up on the half boards solely for 30 seconds of every power play.

I know, it sounds crazy.  But really, we would even scratch Richard Park if we needed to.

- With 4 goals in 5 games since returning from injury, Jordan Staal is showing confidence in the offensive zone that we haven't seen from him since his rookie year.  Staal isn't just getting the puck to the net.  He's getting himself into prime shooting space, and he's either scoring or he's catching iron.  He's picking corners.  What's his ceiling?  He has 19 goals in 39 games in an injury-plagued campaign.  He's played in 408 regular season and 67 playoff games, making him possibly the oldest 23-year-old in modern NHL history.  If the Pens don't lock him up before the summer of 2013, we could be looking at an unrestricted 25-year-old, 40-goal-scoring shut down center and proven playoff performer.  What will it take to extend him?  Do it today and you might get him for something in Neal's range. No, he hasn't scored as consistently (yet), but he's a center, a really big center, and a defensive and penalty killing force.  Will he want to test the market?  We wouldn't wait longer than this summer to find out.

- That brings us all the way back to James Neal.  The genius of Shero and his right-hand-man Jason Botterill's roster management to date is that the Penguins have nothing serious to worry about cap-wise until 2013.  The Pens have only 4 players who become unrestricted free agents this summer:  Steve Sullivan, Arron Asham, Richard Park, and Brent Johnson. projects that, with those 4 guys unsigned, the Pens will sit about $5 million under the cap in July, and that's without projecting any kind of a cap increase. If you look two summers ahead, things get a lot trickier, as Sidney Crosby and Staal (as well as Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Craig Adams, and Ben Lovejoy) project as UFA's.  It could get a lot less tricky if the cap goes up or if the Pens can unload Paul Martin's contract this summer, and in a league where a team traded for Scott Gomez, it's possible.  Otherwise, Zybnek Michalek ($4 M) or - I just started getting heart palpitations - Chris Kunitz ($3.75 M) are the likely targets in any cap clearing move.  The nucleus of Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Letang, Fleury and now James Neal remains virtually untouchable.

Beej: Not part of nucleus
Of course, when the CBA expires in September, everything might change.  Who knows what will happen to the cap.  There could be a lockout.  It's not really worth thinking about now, but if Crosby is forced to miss another season of his prime, this time due to labor strife, line up behind GTOG. Because we're storming Gary Bettman's castle.


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  2. The defense has been generally god awful. I've decided that it is mentality as opposed to ability or effort.

    They are reactive rather than proactive. They rarely come out hitting but sit back to see how the game is going to go. And more importantly, they rarely focus on taking away the other team's time and space - because they are so worried about the other team taking away THEIR time and space. They continue to butt their heads into a brick wall instead of BEING the brick wall. Offensive chances come from frustrating the other team - and it's always the Pens getting frustrated.

    The preach offense from good defense but don't practice it. Hence the gazillions of ill-timed pinches, resulting odd-man rushes, and perpetual turn-overs at both blue lines. It's messed with Martin's game especially - but also Z's and Nisky's (more lately). Tanger can usually recover from his mistakes, and Brooks and Engo don't have an inclination to stray from their d-first mentality.

    There's simply no other explanation as to why the same defensive corps as last year is so much worse. Last year, they knew that they didn't have the offense to give up more than 2 and were content to just make sure that didn't happen.

  3. Maybe we can swing a trade with the Senators: Martin for Gonchar.

  4. honestly other than the cup season, they've been giving up the blue line way too easily. the hardest thing for the pens to do is always enter the offensive zone. we need to make it so for opponents.