Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Dear God, Bob Bortuzzo. Pens defeat Maple Leafs, 3-1

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

In January of this year, we said that 2013 was going to be the year of Bob Bortuzzo.  Because of organizational stubbornness, we were wrong for 11 months.  It turns out we were right all along.

Most efficient agitator per minute in the NHL
Bob Bortuzzo was a complete tour de force, so deep inside Toronto's head that their city council called an emergency meeting to enact legislation prohibiting a second NHL team in Toronto to protect their citizens from having to see Bob four more times every year.  Even the NHL Department of Player Safety wants no part of him.
It was extremely encouraging to see the Pens' young defensemen play with such poise last night.  Maatta is the anti-Orpik, stepping up with regularity on puck carriers to prevent screened wrist shots through his own legs.  Dumoulin has a knack for not being very noticeable, which is an excellent trait for a young defensemen.  Despres isn't playing like a guy afraid to get benched every shift.  And Samuelsson, despite some obvious first game jitters (especially with the puck), looked decent in getting his feet wet at the NHL level.

We're not ready to declare that the Pens are set for a generation on the blueline, but Ray Shero's plan to have a lot of options on defense appears to be working.  This plan is a journey, however.  It is not a destination.  Shero has to take these assets and maximize them for the playoffs this year and his most marketable asset now -- Matt Niskanen -- is playing himself into one of the single most valuable deadline trade chips in the entire NHL.  As we said this weekend, he's a 27 year old pending UFA who will likely command at least $4 million/year on the open market (especially with a rising cap).  There is actually a reasonable chance that any impending Niskanen trade will be -- gasp! -- an actual hockey trade between two teams trying to make the playoffs.  Will we be spending the rest of today figuring out which 2nd line-caliber forwards in the Western Conference the Pens should be targeting?  Yes, yes we will.

More after the jump, including praise for Brandon Sutter...

- Credit where credit is due for Brandon Sutter.  He was pretty decent last night and even asserted himself physically rather than relying on his traditional move of apologetically giving the puck to the nearest opposing defenseman.

Any contribution from Sutter instantly makes the Pens a much, much better team.  Joe Vitale has been a difference maker on that line.  He can't score, but he makes other things happen.

Not a coincidence that Joe Vitale is in this picture.
- Paul Steigerwald (who had a strong game, IMO) made the point last night that Jussi Jokinen has done a great job this season when asked to play center, which is his listed position.  And Steiggy is right.  If and when the Pens are fully healthy, and if and when the Pens consider forward targets in any Niskanen deal, there is no reason they should limit their thinking by the current slotting of their forwards -- it's more important that the Pens get the right type of player than the right position.  The only thing the Pens don't need is a top-2 center.  Everything else should be in play because the Pens have tons of flexibility up front if the can get one more highly competent forward.  Consider: Jokinen has played well with Malkin, but it's not like they have irreplaceable chemistry.  Dupuis isn't scoring, and might be better served adding instant credibility to a lower line.  Sutter is a mediocre third line center, but could be a good 4th line center.  Bennett isn't good enough to play with a bad center on the lower lines.

So really, with Niskanen playing so well that he could conceivably command a top-6 forward in return, the Pens' best bet to boost their bottom 6 might be by re-slotting from within.  Get a top 6 winger so your top 6 is New Guy, Crosby, Bennett, Kunitz, Malkin, Neal, have Jokinen center a 3rd line with Dupuis, and put Sutter on the 4th line.  Or get a center who can play 17 minutes on the third line with Dupuis, keep Jokinen with Geno, and put Sutter on the 4th line.

The Pens are a very good team with Dupuis on the 1st line and Sutter on the 3rd line.  They might be a great team with Dupuis on the 3rd line and Sutter on the 4th line.  This may seem greedy, but it should come as no surprise that teams that win the Cup are usually pretty stacked.

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