Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What the Pens should do when Sidney Crosby returns

By Finesse

With Sidney Crosby's return imminent, the discussion is shifting to much more important things like, What songs will they play at CONSOL to ruin some of the standing ovations he will get?  When will Jeremy Roenick advocate that someone should punch him in the head?  Will we ever stop saying the 2010-11 Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins* should always have an asterisk?

(Something by My Chemical Romance, April 4th, No)

But the most important question, other than Crosby's health, is who he should play with.  There is great consternation about breaking up the Neal-Malkin-Kunitz line, and there are suggestions that Jordan Staal should move up to Sid's wing.

Our position on this is as clear as it is noncommittal: Nothing should be set in stone.  If you go into a playoff series against Laviolette's Flyers or Tortorella's Rangers with a mentality of, "these are our lines, we're not changing them, do what you can to try to stop it," chances are they will figure something out by Game 2.  You have to be flexible, you have to be unpredictable.

But above all, you have to maximize the return on your players, and that's why steadfast refusal to break up Geno's line, or a plan to consolidate Staal and Crosby just doesn't make sense.  A healthy Pens' lineup has an embarrassment of riches, so long as it's used properly.  Here are 4 reasons why the Pens should consider breaking up the Malkin line and leaving Jordan Staal alone, along with our proposed lines at the end.

4. The real difference maker is James Neal.

With all due respect to Chris "Hands" Kunitz, the real magic of the Pens' top line is the chemistry between Malkin and Neal.  Kunitz is as solid of a winger as there is, and gets more out of his skill set than almost any player in the league.  But he is not having some breakout career year.  He's on pace for 57 points, less than the 60 points he had in Anaheim in '06-'07 and about the same as the 55 points he was on pace for last year before Sid got hurt.

But he's just so handsy...
Nor is Geno having a classic breakout season -- it's more like a return to form, at least statistically.  Based on the eye test, Geno is as dominant as he's ever been, but numbers-wise he's on pace for 114 points.  His career high is 113 points in 2008-09, and he wasn't playing with anyone close to James Neal (an aging Petr Sykora?).  And his real takeoff in December is just as likely attributable to his knee finally getting 100% as it is to being paired with Kunitz.  The point is, Geno is capable of magic no matter who he is with.

James Neal is the wildcard.  He's a beast, the best winger the Pens have had in a long time, save for the dalliance with Marian Hossa in 2008.  He's on pace for a 78 points (38 goals).  That's a breakout season for sure, and it's not something you want to mess with.  So, don't.  Leave James Neal with Malkin, a guy who demands more defensive attention than any player in the league.

(As Dejan Kovacevic pointed out in Tuesday's Trib, Neal's scoring pace is slowing -- 3 goals in 16 games.  Kovacevic is a proponent of the carve-it-in-stone approach for Malkin's current line, but 3 goals in 16 games is exactly why you don't want to be inflexible).

Much more after the jump...

3. Kunitz-Crosby is what chemistry is all about

Before the Pens traded for Hands in 2009, all you heard was "winger for Sid."  You still hear it, now that James Neal appears to be the "winger for Geno," but here's what Sid has done since the Pens have acquired Kunitz: 15 goals in 24 playoff games in '09, 51 goals in '09-'10, and a 64 goal pace in '10-'11 pre-concussion.  So what if the "winger for Sid" has turned out to be a guy who helps Sid score 60 goals instead of a guy who Sid can set up to score 40?  The bottom line is the same: problem solved.

Good chemistry.
Kunitz is the kind of player who will be about the same no matter who he is with.  If he played 80 games with Sid and Geno, he'd probably have 60-65 points.  If he played 80 games with Staal and Dupuis, he'd have around 50.  He's a sparkplug guy who will fit wherever you put him.  But when you put him with Sid, you maximize the return on the most valuable asset in the entire sport.

Bad chemistry.

2. Moving Staal to Sid's wing helps no one

Jordan Staal is a center.  A 6'4" pterodactyl who will politely put his shoulder into you, move you aside, and take the puck directly to the net.  He will also clear you out from in front of Fleury, eat up space deep in the Pens' zone, and otherwise generally dominate the entire middle of the ice.  He's not a winger.

But let's say you experiment with Staal on the wing, and the best-case scenario happens -- he has great chemistry with Sid.  This doesn't really give the Pens anything that they don't already have.  Instead, it would just consolidate it in on place, and leave the rest of the team worse off.

We know what Crosby is capable of in a best-case scenario -- a 65 goal pace.  He did it in 2010 without Jordan Staal on his wing.  We don't know what Staal's best-case scenario is, but this year he is playing at a 38 goal pace, and he's doing it with guys like Dupuis, Sullivan, Cooke, Kennedy, etc.  We are as big of Staal fans as there are -- he's manhandling The Onus, after all -- but to think he is capable of scoring at significantly better than a 38 goal pace is to dream too big.

So if moving Staal to Sid's wing: a) wouldn't help Crosby do anything he hasn't already proven he is capable of doing without Staal; b) wouldn't result in Staal significantly increasing his scoring over anything he is already producing now; and c) would leave the Pens with Joe Vitale or Dustin Jeffrey centering a line for 12 minutes a night, why do it?

Google tells me this is a picture of Joe Vitale.
So our proposed solution is simple.
Like everything, however, that shouldn't be carved in stone.  The main concern with this approach shows why it is such a luxury -- how do you get Staal 20+ minutes a night?  Enter Bylsma.  Play him on the PP, play him with Sid and/or Geno at the end of periods and after penalty kills, play Sid and Geno together when matchups dictate.  But whatever you do, don't carve it in stone.

1. Don't forget who is walking through that door

The Pens aren't getting back an ordinary player.  They're getting back the best player in the world, their captain and a guy who, by all indications, is a great teammate.  He's not going to disrupt team chemistry by taking away someone's ice time and he's not going to be perceived as a diva if he wants to play with wingers who can keep up with him.

The Neal-Malkin-Kunitz line has seemed untouchable at times this season because of how heavily the Pens have relied on it.  But when Sid is back, the Pens won't have to rely on that line to bail them out game after game.  And if you make the subtle change of moving Kunitz to Sid's wing, it's not like Geno is going to fall apart.  The guy won the Conn Smythe trophy with Ruslan Fedetenko and Max Talbot as his wingers.  He'll manage fine with Sullivan and Neal.

If Sid stays healthy, the Pens are like a billionaire deciding which luxury car he wants to bring with him on the 200-foot yacht to the Maldives.  But in deciding, there is one thing they shouldn't forget.

Sid is a Ferrari.  You don't fill him up with 87 Unleaded.


  1. This may be the greatest post I've ever read.

  2. Amen x5.

    This discussion has happened on this board before, and I have absolutely no idea why you are the only people in Pittsburgh saying it.

    I would add that the "ZOMG greatest line ever" hasn't even looked good for at least the last week, maybe longer. They looked like crap tonight against Toronto: worst game I've seen them play together in quite a while. Neal's been invisible, except when he's making bad turnovers. Geno's back to "cute" hockey, trying to stick handle through 3 guys himself and not using his line mates. (Hands never changes: he just does his thing.)

    Maybe this is just my impression, but Geno seems to be playing his "take the easy way" brand of hockey. Complacency? Boredom with teams they've played the last few games? I'll forgive him because he's been so good this year - and, hell, if he wants to go at 70% when the team is winning, fine. He could probably use a bit of rest before the playoffs. Ditto for Neal.

    Point being - this is a perfect time to shake things up. And, you know, get the best player in the world geared up.

  3. Brandy,

    You're right that we have written about this before -- just thought the announcement of Sid's actual return was a good time to think it through even more fully.

    I wouldn't worry too much about Geno. He does this sometimes, but then he'll flip back into full-gallop mode and start dominating again. And it's not like he's been taking much off the table recently, just not bringing quite as much to it. That line has been carrying the team for so long. Nice to see the Staal line take over for a few games.

  4. I'm inclined to believe the decrease in production from 14-71-18 has more to do with teams selling out defensively against them than some indication that their chemistry has dried up and blown away.

    Malkin Neal and Kunitz have combined for 19 points during this seven-game win streak. Not awful, but certainly not dominant like they were earlier this season. Yet the Pens are averaging nearly 4 goals/game during the streak (27 goals in 7 games). The secondary scoring has come alive in large part, I believe, because teams have decided they're going to devote most of their defensive resources to prevent Geno's line from being the one that beats them.

    So with this in mind I get excited about a line with Staal on Crosby's wing because it creates another unit that has incredible scoring ability. Now defenses can't put their checking line AND top D pairing out against Malkin and company. The third and fourth lines won't have any big time scoring threat but they'll get chances by virtue of playing against opposing team's inferior defensive players.

    (not to shamelessly plug my terrible blog, but there's a a couple of posts over there regarding Sid's return and its impact on the lineup.)

    1. Please, shamelessly plug away. We completely agree that the Malkin-Neal-Kunitz chemistry is real and that a couple of quiet games are expected, particularly as things tighten up down the stretch. But we also think last night's game against Toronto is the perfect illustration of why you need to keep Staal at center.

      If and when we play teams with really deep lineups in the playoffs, we'll be dealing with opponents who can match up against two threatening lines. You will not find anybody who will match up well against three. Staal took over that game by doing what he does best: controlling the middle of the ice in every zone. If Sid comes back, almost by definition Staal will have the opportunity to do his thing against third-pairing defensemen. That will just be deadly in a 7 game series. Take that arrow out of the Pens quiver and we're needlessly handicapping ourselves.

      That is not to say, as our post suggests, that Staal shouldn't also play shifts on Sid's wing and/or on the power play. This is a fluid situation, but it's always about the matchups. That's what wins Cups.

      Case in point: the 1991 Penguins had Kevin Stevens, Joe Mullen, and Jaromir Jagr on the roster. Who played on Mario's wings? Mark Recchi and, wait for it, Phil Bourque. That's balance.

    2. Great article and analysis. I have a question though. With Sid back and everyone healthy I assume Kunitz would not be on the first Power Play unit. Is Neal able to provide the net front presence that Kunitz does?

  5. That's a very real concern. We've always maintained that there is no Supreme Law that dictates that Sid and Geno have to be on the PP together, but that's easy to say from the outside. Much harder to do that if you're actually the coach balancing egos/ice time, etc.

    But the answer to your question is no. Neal is not the same guy in front of the net as Kunitz, and that can be a concern. But nor is Kunitz as good as Neal from 15 feet out. These are good problems to have. We'll probably have to do a post on this soon.