Wednesday, April 11, 2012

GTOG Pens-Flyers Preview: Assigning The Onus and our predictions

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

Pens-Flyers Preview Part 1: Women of GTOG's Penguins Hotness Rankings
Pens-Flyers Preview Part 2: Tale of the Tape

You're sitting in the White House Situation Room in May 2011.  You're surrounded by your advisors.  A 5-star General is staring you in the face from across the table.  The head of the CIA is next to you, looking at a live feed from a drone on his iPhone 6.  Hilary Clinton is glaring at you in a sharp khaki blazer while holding a manilla folder that says Top Secret.  Joe Biden is talking about Amtrak.  The top Navy commander in Afghanistan is on video chat from Kabul.  He's telling you they're about 50% sure they have Osama Bin Laden's location pinned down in Pakistan.  He has a team of 72 Craig Adamses standing by in two Chinook helicopters ready to go shoot him in the face if you give the order.

That's pressure.

But it's nothing compared to The Onus.

The Onus is not pressure.  The Onus is not a decision.  The Onus is not responsibility.  No.  The Onus is a state of being.

GTOG assigned The First Onus on January 20, 2011 to Marc-Andre Fleury.  Fleury accepted "De Onus," as he called it, but as it is known to do, De Onus got the last laugh when Sean Bergenheim & Co. scored the same goal at least 4 times in the Tampa series and the Pens bowed out in Round 1.  For the 2011-12 season, GTOG assigned The Onus to Jordan Staal, figuring that with Sid's return imminent, it was Staal who had the chance to make the Pens a truly special team.  Midway through the season, The Onus was temporarily reassigned to Dan Bylsma after an injury to Staal, but ultimately stayed with Staal throughout the year.  Staal did with The Onus about all you can hope to do with The Onus -- he survived it.

But The Onus is a survivor, too.  You don't kill The Onus with a good regular season.  The Onus lies in wait and, like the velociraptors in Jurrasic Park, when The Onus looks at you, you can see it's working things out.  There's only one way to kill The Onus.

After the jump, we discuss candidates for The Onus, assign The Onus, and give our official predictions...

4th Runner-Up: Sidney Crosby --  We refuse to even type the one possibility that we all refuse to acknowledge, but the truth is that the Pens are one terrible decision by a curtain-jerker 4th liner on the Flyers away from a nightmare scenario.  Barring that catastrophe, battling back from 15 months of a terrifying injury to lead his team to the Cup is an opportunity for Sid to elevate himself into a stratosphere reserved for hockey immortals.  And, as Kurt Russel said in 1980, "great moments are born from great opportunity."  But we can't give The Onus to Sid for one simple reason -- he's playing with house money.

Third Runner-Up: Marc-Andre Fleury --  Even if a goalie doesn't technically have De Onus, he always has the capability of being so bad that he prevents De Onus holder from actually defeating De Onus.  We're not sure whether Fleury will win this series, or any series, on his own.  But he's not going to lose it.

Second Runner-Up: Dan Bylsma --  You show me a 41-year old coach with a Stanley Cup and a Jack Adams award and I'll show you a guy who should have universal respect.  He has overwhelming love from players, but not from at least two coaches who he will have to beat to get his second Stanley Cup -- John Tortorella and Peter Laviolette.  We've speculated that there is resentment toward Bylsma from some of his peers based on the circumstances surrounding him taking the reins of the league's most well-constructed roster in February 2009.  Backlash against Bylsma, if there is any, is essentially a "they gave THAT guy THAT roster?" mindset grounded in envy and begrudging acknowledgment that he knows what he's doing.

But the issue Bylsma faces is that those very same coaches who appear not to like him are, unfortunately, good coaches.  To get out of the East, Bylsma is looking at Laviolette, Tortorella, Julien, DeBoer, McLean, and Dineen.  (And yes, I'm intentionally omitting the one coach who spent his playing career delivering flying elbows and playing just a few too many practical jokes on his teammates involving heavy use of Vaseline).  Contrast this to the 2009 Eastern Conference playoffs where Bylsma coached against John Stevens, Bruce Boudreau and Paul Maurice.  Stevens and Maurice were nothing more than Bylsma-Lites, all the way down to their glasses and thinning hair.  And Bruce Boudreau would get out-coached by a vegetarian omelette.

Much different story this year.

First Runner-Up: Jordan Staal -- Remember when some were clamoring for Jordan Staal to play on Sid's wing?  How'd that work out?  Now in every preview you read about this series, the biggest strength in favor of the Penguins is their depth down the middle, something we have consistently identified as the reason the Pens are a match-up nightmare and every team is more scared of the Pens than the Pens are of them.

But the problem for the Pens is that the Flyers are one of the only teams in the league with comparable forward depth.  So unless Staal decisively outperforms his counterparts on Philly's third line, he's going to leave a lot of Onus-Slaying burden with Sid and Geno, two guys who are certainly capable Onus-Slayers, but will also spend seven games being leaned on by Philly's over-sized defensemen.

THE ONUS: Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin -- Make no mistake about it, the Flyers are a formidable opponent that could absolutely win this series.  But if you look at the match-ups, there really is no excuse for the Pens NOT to win.  Consider:

- The Flyers have one top-5 player in the league.
- The Pens have the 2 best players in the league.

- The Flyers have a rugged winger who scored 37 goals and is a pain in the ass to play against.
- The Pens have a rugged winger who scored 40 goals and is a pain in the ass to play against (ask Zdeno Chara).

- The Flyers have a goalie with a huge contract and even bigger expectations.
- The Pens have a goalie with a more reasonable contract, but bigger expectations that he's actually lived up to.

- The Flyers have a coach with a Stanley Cup ring.
- So do the Pens.

- The Flyers have great secondary scoring from guys like Jagr, Brier, Simmonds (absolutely terrified of him), Voracek, Read, and (gagging) Max Talbot.
- The Pens have great secondary scoring from guys like Kunitz, Dupuis, Staal, Sullivan, Cooke, and Kennedy.

- The Flyers get solid offensive production from Kimmo Timmonen and Matt Carle on the blue-line.
- The Pens get 70-point-pace offensive production from Kris Letang.

- The Flyers have a 4th line.
- The Pens have arguably the best 4th line in the league.

We're potentially looking at an "everything you can do, I can do better" situation.

Except for one area -- depth on the blue line.  The Pens top 2 defensemen (Letang and Orpik) are as good as you can reasonably expect in the salary cap era.  Same goes for the Pens bottom 2 defensemen (Niskanen, if healthy, and Engelland).  The problem could be in the middle.

Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek were signed to big contracts in the 2010 off-season but, for the most part, have not lived up to expectations.  They haven't been horrible -- you don't have the #1 PK unit and a 106 point season in '10-'11 with no Sid or Geno unless these guys are anchoring a pretty solid defense.  But they haven't been good enough.

If Martin and Michalek had been playing the way they were expected to over the past two seasons, it would be nearly impossible to say that the Pens were not decisive favorites in the East.  They haven't been good enough.  But the thing is, the rest of the roster is so good that Martin and Michalek don't have to give the team $9 million worth of defense.  They just have to get close to it.

We fully expect that they can and will.  They have the physical tools and the motivation (neither has won a Cup).  And they've been much better since Bylsma split them up, allowing them to lean more on Letang and Orpik.  But pedigree, coaching, and line-matching can only get you so far.  At some point, you have to say, "It's the playoffs.  I need to play better."

The funny thing about The Onus is that at the same time it's consuming your life, it actually wants to be killed.  It has a death wish.  The Onus will make you its bitch, but it wants to be dominated.  The Onus has a gluten allergy, but is craving a wheat bagel.  Essentially, The Onus is an opportunity.  You just have to take advantage of it.

"We accept The Onus."

Finesse: At the risk of being overconfident, if the Pens don't win in 6 they'll win in 5.

Artistry: Pens in 6


Pens-Flyers Preview Part 1: Women of GTOG's Penguins Hotness Rankings
Pens-Flyers Preview Part 2: Tale of the Tape

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