Monday, March 17, 2014

Injuries aside, two troubling trends emerge from Penguins getting humiliated by the Flyers

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

The Pens were humiliated by the Flyers this weekend, and while the end result -- two regulation losses -- is completely understandable given that the Pens were missing their 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th (if we're still counting Dupuis) best players, there are two especially troubling takeaways.

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1. Unfortunately, the Flyers are petty good and they are schooling the Pens when it comes to forward depth.

The Flyers have 9 good forwards (Hartnell, Lecavailer, Giroux, Simmonds, Schenn, Couturier, Voracek, Read, Downie), which puts them ahead of the Pens on raw numbers of good NHL players.  But more importantly, the Flyers' forwards actually slot into proper roles.  Sean Couturier plays against other teams' best players, and he does it effectively and for barely any money ($1.75M cap hit through 2016).  Brandon Sutter, on his finest day, floats harmlessly around the neutral zone and plays the other teams' worst players to a draw.  It's commonplace to hear the announcers say "Couturier is really getting under Malkin's skin" or "the Flyers are getting Couturier out against the Crosby line as often as possible."  Have you ever heard anyone say that about the Pens?

"Sutter is really getting David Krejci off his game here, Doc."
"Edzo, Steven Stamkos is having a hard time finding open ice out there with Sutter in his grill all game."
"What a smart play by Sutter to frustrate Claude Giroux and bait him into taking a bad penalty."
"Doc, Edzo, Marcel Goc is in Phil Kessel's head.  HE IS IN PHIL KESSEL'S HEAD, DOC AND EDZO!!!"

Primary responsibility lies with Crosby and Malkin.  They need to do a better job not being thrown off their game by guys like Couturier.  But it'd be nice if the Pens could do that to other teams' best players.

Then you go to the fourth lines, where the Flyers have similarly horrible players compared to the Pens.  The primary difference, however, is that the Flyers' scrubs (particularly Zac Rinaldo) can actually get under the skin of the opposition.  The Pens' scrubs, particularly Tanner Glass and Taylor Pyatt, don't actually bother anyone on the opposition and are in the conversation for actual worst player in the entire NHL.  A conversation with each other.

2. For a team supposedly so deep on defense, this team is not that deep on defense.  Any team is going to struggle when its top two defensemen are out, but the marching orders given from Pens' management to the local media has been to spread the propaganda that the Pens are swimming in defensive depth.  There are just so many NHL-ready defensemen, we can't even play them all!!!

Hogwash.  (MILESTONE ALERT: GTOG's first successful use of the word "hogwash").

Orpik and Scuderi, grizzled NHL veterans who are supposedly so rock steady that it's unfathomable to consider replacing them with younger defensemen who might actually be on the upswing of their careers, have been mud all season.  Bob Bortuzzo is our favorite player on the Pens to root for, but he isn't a very good defenseman.  Deryk Engelland isn't a very good defenseman, and he's not even fun to root for.  And at some point, we all need to collectively get together and agree that Simon Despres isn't ever going to be what we all thought he could be.  I'll circulate a dial-in number.

That leaves us with Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta, both of whom are outperforming their contracts, but don't really have the pedigree or experience to simultaneously be the top defensive and offensive pairing

And we're supposed to buy the idea that a 6'4", 225lb, 22-year old Brian Dumoulin is a stud-in-waiting even though he can't crack the lineup over these guys?  The guy is huge and was drafted 5 years ago.  What are we waiting for?  Same for Phillip Samuelsson.

The Pens are desperately in need of an infusion of new energy, especially young energy.  Instead we get Bob Bortuzzo taking bad penalties, and a 64-year old Deryk Engelland on the 2nd power play unit.  If Dumoulin and/or Samuelsson can't get a look over these guys, then either management is doing something wrong, or the notion that this organization is swimming in defensive depth needs to be put to bed.  Because this past weekend, the defense was barely treading water.

Of course the Pens defense will be better (hopefully much better) if and when Martin and Letang return.  It's just that if they don't return, or if someone else goes down, those holes may not be any easier to plug than the holes at forward.

If the Pens have to go into the playoffs with anything resembling the roster from yesterday, it's going to be a short spring.  But there is reason for optimism -- Letang, Martin, Neal, and Kunitz are all skating.  The Pens only hope is that for the first time in years, everyone gets fully healthy just as the playoffs are starting.  Only if that happens, and only if everyone stays healthy, do the Pens have a decent shot of getting through the East.  And maybe we should hope the Pens haven't yet hit rock bottom.  Being underdogs might be just what this team needs.


  1. I agree with the point about forward depth, provided we keep in mind that the Flyers starting goalie is Steve Mason and their blue-line ain't exactly all that. What would you rather have - the Pens lack or forward depth or the Flyers lack of blue-line depth and tenable goaltending? Genuine question.

    As far as #2 - you can't make that argument and just ignore the logistics of the NHL. Dumoulin isn't up because, even if he's better than Engelland (which admittedly wouldn't be hard), he doesn't have to go through waivers. Shero wants 10 guys capable of playing defense in the NHL on the Pens and Baby Pens roster. And they need it, seeing as Samuelsson and Dumoulin both did come up. You send somebody down to call Dumoulin up, you lose that guy, since they are at the cap for number on the roster. When Brooks and Engelland (and maybe Niskanen) are gone next year, they'll be up full time. Letang, Scuds, Maatta, Martin as your top 4. Borts, Dumoulin, and Despres as your bottom 3. Barring trades, of course, or resigning Nisky, our Pouliot making the team at some point in the season. The organization needed to hold on to all of those assets long-term. The fact that the Pens blue-line depth is really young and still on the bubble doesn't negate the fact that it exists. And let's remember that we lost Brian Strait and Ben Lovejoy - who both have played significant minutes for their respective teams - for nothing because of the logjam on the blue line. And once PM and Tanger went down, trading one of those assets, which they might have done, wasn't prudent.

    This does, though, bring up another major issue with this organization: you are both calling for an infusion of youth. But the organization is extremely cautious with its young players. Too cautious. And DB's major flaw as a coach is his absolute investment in "hard-working veterans" over young up-starts. The organization completely stymied Despres' development (and Bortuzzo's) so Deryk Engelland could play a marginally competent 10 mins. In other words, even if they got young guys, they wouldn't play them (Despres and Bortuzzo) or put them in the best position to succeed (Bennett) - regardless of the flaws those players have. You can't put a player who is still learning, play them only sporadically, and kill their confidence by putting them in the press box for two weeks every time they make a mistake.

    So if you want to criticize the organization, criticize them for that. Conservative choices, excessive loyalty, and a system so complex it doesn't allow for adjustment and makes the least of players instead of the most.

    1. The difference between the Pens and Flyers right now is not as great as the overall standings indicate.

      In their last 28 games...

      The Pens are 17-8-3. The Flyers are 16-9-3. The Pens have given up 79 goals. The Flyers have given up 83. The Pens have given up 14 PP goals. The Flyers have given up 15. The Pens have scored 88 goals. The Flyers have scored 91 goals. If you had to take one roster, you'd take the Pens because of the high-end talent, but we can't act like the Pens don't have the same questions marks on the blue line and in net that the Flyers do. Is Fleury more reliable in the playoffs than Steve Mason? It's not 2009 anymore.

      If the Pens are not dressing their 6 best defensemen out of fear of losing Deryk Engelland on waivers, that's poor asset management. If Dumoulin is better than Engelland and he's stuck in the AHL, that's bad asset management. Crosby and Malkin are healthy and in their prime. You find a way to play your best players, and if that means you lose a 32 year old journeyman in the process, hey ... that's what all those other young guys are for: depth. And if Dumoulin isn't better than Engelland, that's an entirely different, but equally troubling, problem.

      Here's a crazy idea to solve both problems: Cut Taylor Pyatt. That way you can call up some younger player with the potential to infuse the team with at least some of the new energy it needs, and dress Engelland at forward where he is not worse than Taylor Pyatt. No one is worse than Taylor Pyatt. If Dumoulin bombs, send him back down and you still have Engelland.

    2. You aren't going to get any argument out of me about Pyatt. I'd rather they call Zach Sill up. Don't know why they haven't. We need an agitator. I'm assuming they want Pyatt's size, but when you suck, you suck, big or small.

      You miss my point about the defense though. It isn't about losing Engelland, per se. It's about not having enough competent bodies to make it through the playoffs when your two best defensemen look to be out for quite a while. And Engelland can be sort-of competent. The sheer number of bodies matters - a lot. That's not bad asset management: it's good long-term planning. (That said, lord, I can't wait until next year when he's gone and Bylsma isn't making decisions based on how he can get "good guy" Engo 10-15 min. a night.)

      And healthy, I'm actually fine with the Pens blue line, now and in the future. I don't have question marks about defensive personnel. I have question marks about the Pens defensive system, which is entirely too passive, and coupled with an offensive system based on stretch passes that most guys aren't skilled enough to make and are completely predictable. It's the forwards I have questions about, and coaching.

      That said - throw out the numbers you want on the Flyers. I do think they are a good team that had an abysmal start. But to compare those numbers when the Pens have 328 man games lost to injury and the Flyers have 39 - total, all season - how much does that actually say? And in talking about depth, I do think the Flyers have some players that fulfill roles that the Pens haven't been able to find - particularly Simmonds and Couturier. But they were also offensively incompetent when Giroux was struggling to get back into form after his injury. So for all the useful forwards they have, they couldn't score when their one true game-breaker was struggling.

    3. Underrated aspect of the Flyers when it comes to playing the Pens is that for whatever reason, mainly since the Talbot/Jagr stuff, they have an uncanny ability to get the Pens off their game. For the several years before that, it was the Flyers who would do stupid things. Now it's the Pens.

      Healthy or not, that's not a matchup I want in Round 1. They're playing well, and have absolutely no fear going against Crosby or Malkin. Of all the potential Round 1 matchups, which could still be anyone other than Boston, I want them the least.

    4. Agreed completely. And Toronto. They've had a hard time against the Leafs for years, for other reasons. Those teams are the fastest, and our defensive schema is to back up and let the skill players get as much speed as they want through the neutral zone. I wish other teams gave Sid and Geno as much space as we give others.