Thursday, January 17, 2013

2013 Penguins Preview: 10 Things No One Else Will Tell You

By GTOG Staff

We're not going to lie. We're about as excited as we ever get in January. As long as we're making Top 10 lists about hockey instead of lining up the Top 10 Possible Starting Times For The Next CBA Meeting At An Undisclosed Location or Top 10 Things Rob Rossi Just Made Up About Labor Law On Twitter, things are fairly fantastic. Seriously, you had us at "The Penguins are playing the Flyers and Rangers this weekend in games that should have playoff-level intensity."  So let's get right to it.  Here are 10 Things No One Else Will Tell You about the 2013 Pittsburgh Penguins.

10. Dan Bylsma has about 12 weeks to Get to His Game.

Let's be real. That 2009 Stanley Cup has Michel Therrien's sofffff, sweaty fingerprints all over it. Since that magical run, Bylsma has been at the wheel for three consecutive playoff disappointments.  He's won only a single series over that span. There is nothing quite like watching him do his "Sid, you ready? Good. You're starting" routine, but if we see another early exit in April, Disco's job can't be secure. You don't squander 4 years of this group's prime and come out the other side unscathed. Not a chance.

Still feeling pretty good about himself.
How can Bylsma turn his playoff fortunes around? Start by not over-thinking it. If something doesn't work, try something else. If Fleury is leaking pucks, play Vokoun. Don't invent a new position for James Neal so you can squeeze your top 5 guys on the first power play. We're not looking for the Higgs boson here.  Is it possible that Dan Bylsma is kind of like that kid in elementary school with the enormous trapper keeper and perfect handwriting and sick organizational skills who, when you peeled away all the layers, really wasn't that smart? We hope not, but it's an open question. We're rooting for him.

9 more things, after the jump...

9. This is the year of Bob Bortuzzo 

Or Dylan Reese. Or Simon Despres. Or Brian Strait if he clears waivers. One of these young, unproven defensemen is going to have to make a mark on this team, because in case you haven't noticed, the Penguins have only four guys we could bear to watch come over the boards in the final minutes of a Game 7 without having a stroke.  And one of those guys is Paul Martin (more on him later).  If Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland are who we thought they were, i.e. serviceable but limited 3rd pairing defensemen, we need a new Piece to complete the picture of a contending team.  That's a certainty.

Maybe Ray Shero can package some of his defensive prospects for a Top 4 guy before the deadline, but do not count on it. Last we checked, everyone is looking for a Top 4 defenseman.  That includes our chief competition, the Flyers and the Rangers. Maybe Shero outwits the competition and nabs a Keith Yandle, but we're not holding out hope that there are splash deals to be made for defensemen in this market unless somebody overpays. Your move, Bob.

Meet Bob.
8. For relaxing times, make it Dustin Jeffrey time.

What is it about Dustin Jeffrey's high hockey IQ, his 6'3, 199 pound frame, and his knack for scoring at big moments in NHL games that disqualified him from a tryout on the Malkin-Neal line during Wednesday night's scrimmage? Are we still pushing this Eric Tangradi thing? Really? You'll recall earlier that we asked Dan Bylsma not to overthink these things. Just look at Eric Tangradi. Stop waiting to see what isn't there. You've got a quiet but compelling Dustin Jeffrey standing right in front of you, waiting to blossom.

It's not that we don't think Beau Bennett's hands may one day end up in the Smithsonian, because they might, and we have an idea for a beautiful exhibit.

But Bennett isn't ready, as the Pens just acknowledged when they sent him to WBS on Thursday.  Go with the the guy who scored 12 goals in 66 NHL games on lines with people not named Malkin and Neal, and watch him pot another dozen in the next 48.

7. Any hope we had for Kris Letang to mature died the minute he signed with a KHL team 12 hours before the lockout ended.

If Dan Bylsma was the kid with the super-organized trapper keeper and too-big-for-his-wrist digital watch, Kris Letang was the kid who waited until the teacher was looking directly at him, and only then threw a textbook at little Bylsma's head. The thing is, he still IS that kid. His judgment hasn't improved! At all! If not Sergei Gonchar, who we feel a certain nostalgia for but are not convinced is the right fit for this particular incarnation of the Penguins, couldn't we use a veteran nominal No. 1 defenseman just so our actual No. 1 defenseman has the freedom to be insane? Because it's possible Kris Letang is a little bit crazy. For real. What a talent though.

Poor Kimmo.
6. Keep in mind Tomas Vokoun's groin.

Are we all aware that Penguins' goaltending savior Tomas Vokoun is coming off a severe groin tear? That doesn't sound good.  The Internet says such injuries have a pretty high rate of recurrence, and Vokoun is 36-years-old, sooooo. Keep that in mind. The bottom line on the goaltending situation remains the same: our fate is still tied to Marc-Andre Fleury, and our confidence in him has been badly shaken. If he can't deliver a playoff performance worthy of a top 5 goalie this year, with Vokoun providing liberal relief and after only about 30 regular season starts, you have to doubt if he ever will.

5. Either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin will break the record for points in a 48 game season.

The record is 70, and it's held by two men.

About to be interviewed in Scott Burnside's grandma's basement.
4. Brandon is not related to the other Sutters.

Yes, technically he is Brent Sutter's son and the nephew of Brian, Darryl, Duane, Ron, and Rich. We're talking about his game. He doesn't look like those other Sutters. Not that they weren't good players, but Brandon is a new model entirely. No one should get carried away by what we saw in an intra-squad preseason scrimmage, but one thing is undeniable: this kid is way better than we thought. The hands. The reach. The stride. The way he planted himself in front of the net. And the moxie. Brandon Sutter came out of Carolina almost fully formed, yet with room to grow. What an acquisition.

Sutter Brothers - no relation.
3. The Jordan Staal trade may go down as Ray Shero's best.

When news broke last summer that Jordan Staal had rejected a 10-year, $60 million offer from the Penguins, one thought went through our minds: We're completely screwed. Either Staal would leave after the final year of his current deal and the Pens would get nothing in return, or Ray Shero would have to sell him for 50 cents on the dollar. Who would pay full price for a guy the Penguins absolutely had to trade?

Jim Rutherford.
We were stunned at the return from Carolina, an organization clearly desperate to make a splash. And that was before we got a load of Sutter on Wednesday night. Looking at Sutter alone, this was a coup for Pittsburgh. Staal could average 2 ppg this season, and we'd feel the same way. Think about the cap implications: if Staal had taken the Pens' offer, they'd have only $8 million in cap space available going into a summer when the cap goes down to $64 million, Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis become free agents, and signing Geno and Letang to extensions is the priority. A new Letang contract would have been totally impractical. Now they have both $12 million in cap space and our hero Sutter.

Next factor in the two young defensemen Pittsburgh got in the deal. Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot gives the Pens two more trade chips, or else their presence will allow Shero to part with other young D in a trade. Directly or indirectly, this team is going to improve at the deadline because of that Staal trade.

2. Paul Martin is going to kill it this season.

We're only sort of kidding.  Really, how well does Martin have to play this season for the consensus to be that he exceeded expectations? We're guessing he just has to avoid dropping his pants and taking a dump in the crease, and he's basically there. The so-called shut down D pairing of Martin and Brooks Orpik will be awful if we end up with the Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik of 2011-12. But early indications are maybe, just maybe, the picture will be different this year.  Maybe they can keep it simple and we'll see a renewed focus on team defense, because we'll need to send Martin out there for his 25 minutes a night. There's no avoiding it under the circumstances.

Must Love Dogs and Defensive Zone Lapses.
Can you imagine this defense without Paul Martin? Who are you going to run out there? Letang, Niskanen, Orpik, Lovejoy, Engelland, and Bobby Bortuzzo or Shaky Simon Despres?  The second smartest thing Ray Shero did this summer was acknowledge that he wouldn't trade Martin if he couldn't get a legitimate top 4 defenseman in return. He couldn't, so he didn't. The bet here is the Pens rely on Martin more than ever, for better or worse, til buyout do us part.

1. The Penguins are not the Stanley Cup favorites, so shut up already, Las Vegas.

Odds-makers list the Penguins as 8/1 favorites to win the Stanley Cup this season, which begs the question: were odds-makers on an extended bender that began before Game 1 of last spring's Flyers-Penguins series and caused them to lose all recall of what transpired in said series?  Because we have news for you, odds-makers.  It wasn't good.  All the Penguins have done since then is trade their Norse god/center Jordan Staal and perhaps their best defensive defenseman Zybnek Michalek, let go the guy who quarterbacked their power play (Steve Sullivan), signed a 4th liner to replace another 4th liner, and brought in a 36-year-old goalie recovering from a severe groin tear to back-up the thoroughbred goalie who gave up 30 goals in the aforementioned cataclysmic playoff series.

So, no, "favorites" is not a word we would use to describe this team. Are we trying to manage expectations because we prefer to sneak up on people, even though we secretly believe the Penguins are entitled to the Stanley Cup in the same way a king is entitled to his throne or the Bachelor is entitled to hand out his rose? Yes, of course we are. We've got huge plans for this season, so stick with us. LGP. GTOG.


  1. Good to be back!

    I agree with most of your assessment, especially re: Jeffrey and Martin, who I'm not so sure is going to get bought out unless Despres is much better than I expect him to be. And even if we could get a top-4 d-man at the deadline (or even in free agency), you couldn't resign him with Tanger and Geno needing new contracts and no rise in the cap. We need another top-4 d-man, not to swap one for another.

    I already love Sutter, and the forward corps generally looks good. (I bet we see Jeffrey next to Geno before too long, because I'd be shocked if Tangrandi could pretend to even kind, sorta skate with 71 and 18 for too long.)

    My biggest concern was them putting Despres with Tanger, which would be disastrous. Tanger would spend the entire time trying to cover up Despres' mistakes and thus look terrible himself. I'm okay with Simon where he was last year - on the 3rd pairing with managed minutes. He may very well be at the point where only NHL play (and the mistakes that come with it) will advance his growth.

    Fortunately, Nisky played with Tanger during practice today - which intrigues me. I think Nisky can hold his own - and perhaps be better than he actually is - skating beside a Norris-caliber d-man. Tanger covers so much ice, I think he only needs a solid partner, not an exceptional one.

    I also think it's worth pointing out that Orpik is healthy for the first time in 2 years. He was pretty bad last year as well and couldn't be the physical presence he needs to be. By the end of the month - I think people will start to see a really good shutdown pair in him and Martin.

    That said, I think you are too willing to discount this team: even if they aren't favorites, they have a good a shot as any other contender (which I see as Pit, Bos, NYR, LA, StL, Chi, and perhaps Van, if they get healthy in time). Everyone keeps pointing to last year - but as far as I'm concerned, that disaster was never about personnel. It was about a lack of chemistry, the best player in the world having no clear role, a 3rd line center who wouldn't play like one, an exhausted goaltender, some systems flaws, and an inability to control emotion. Most of those issues are not reoccuring.

    (And incidentally, let's get over this idea that Michalek was the Pens' best defensive d-man. He was horrific last year, coming off of injury. He didn't fit with the system and spent all of his time laying down to block shots while the shooter went around him. In fact, I think it was his terrible play that screwed up Martin in the first place. Let's all remember that Martin ended up at like a +9 or something once they put him with Letang.)

    1. Welcome back, Brandy! Good points. Completely agree on Despres. Agree generally about Michalek, but calling someone the best defensive defenseman on the Pens last year isn't exactly like calling him Ray Bourque, given Orpik's injured state, Letang's defensive inconsistency, and Paul Martin's Paul Martin-ness. Last, no one is discounting the Penguins. There are just a number of questions that need to be answered before we think conference finals, let alone Cup. Let's revisit once we get that Top 4 D-man.

  2. i feel like everyone is really underestimating Despres's (?) upside. from what i've seen of him (granted, not as much as everyone else due to my living situation) i think he could become a solid number 2 or 3 defenseman. can't see him ever gaining a number one spot on a team but i mean the tools/potential or whatever you want to call it is there. i would agree probably not this year but let's not start moving our hand towards the panic button just yet. at least that's how it sounds when i read it.

    i think disco dan may just be a bad defensive coach. i don't want to believe that, but we have to look at where we've struggled since the Cup run. i can't believe that it's just been for a lack of talent. i mean, maybe i'm giving ray shero too much credit but he hasn't really made a move i've been upset about other than dealing away scuderi, and that is more of a personal nitpick than a hockey-sense opinion. bylsma has them shooting the puck left and right and geno finally has sid's winger but for all that we are still without a Cup since the house that therrien built collapsed.

    1. To clarify: we think Despres is a great prospect. Doesn't change the fact that we'll be very nervous if he plays Top 4 minutes this weekend.