Penguins Season Preview: Wings

It’s finally here, we are actually previewing the actual guys who will be donning the Pittsburgh Penguins sweater this year. Back on Monday we previewed the goalies, on Tuesday we shifted our focus to defense, today we are talking wingers, and then the centers, before finally making our BOLD predictions for the year.

We’ve attempted to look at each player from a point/counterpoint perspective–that’s not to say that we are going to totally disagree on each player, far from it, we want to examine both the statistical expectations for each guy AND express our “feel” or read of the player.

We hope you enjoy and we would love for you to get back to us with your thoughts and feelings. If you haven’t read them yet, please check out our series on Advanced Hockey Statistics: Goals Versus ThresholdPoints per 60 Minutes, and Player Usage Charts (including Corsi numbers). Get the business after the jump.

Okay I’m going alone except for Mike’s synopsis on Kuni and Nealer. If you need to be “solid down the middle,” as all those who wax poetic about hockey are wont to say what good are wingers? For years that was a valid argument in Pittsburgh: when the Penguins first rose back to prominence in 2007 their best winger was Ryan Malone, and nobody cared. After he flew the coop for Tampa and ridiculous money it was not until the 2008 trade deadline and the acquisition of Marian Hossa that anyone cared about a single winger in the Penguins organization. But now that’s changing–since 2009 and the acquisition of Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin wingers have come to be an important aspect of the Penguins roster. And no year was more important for Penguins wingers than last year.

After a snake-bitten campaign in 2010 James Neal emerged as possibly the best winger in the game. Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, and Matt Cooke all posted career highs in points. The next generation has descended upon us in grand fashion: with Beau Bennett exceeding even the highest expectations, Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffrey fighting for a role in the top 6 and better depth at the Wilkes Barre-level than we’ve seen in years. The Penguins are no longer structured solely for the purpose of “strength down the middle” they have strength throughout the entire front end. Enjoy our preview of the Pens’ wingers after the break.

THE STARTERS:

CHRIS KUNITZ

CHRIS KUNITZ

Mike: Chris Kunitz had a record year last year in goals, assists, and points. He also put some hurt on with 180 hits. I think the best part was his OGVT (career high of 8.6) and his GVT (career high 12.5). All of this without Crosby for most of the season. I think if 14 keeps working and produces like last year alongside a healthy Crosby, he has another career year. It’s simple: keep on keepin’ on Kuni.

Andrew: What can really be said about Chris Kunitz? He’s steady as they come in the offensive zone: he’s averaged more than half a point per game throughout his entire career (except for his 2003-04 rookie campaign), any time he’s played more than 70 games he’s scored at least 50 points, he always takes the tough in your face assignments, and he’s just a good hockey player. I’ve written about this before, but the only problem with the Koon is that there isn’t two of him: he is the perfect linemate, the perfect chemistry to play with both Sid and Geno. He clears up the front of the net and lets those guys do what they do best, make flash plays.

JAMES NEAL

JAMES NEAL

M: Another case of continuing to do work. He doubled his previous career GVT (19.0 last year, 9.8 in 2011). If that wasn’t enough,  look no further than the 40 G, 81 PTS last year. Hopefully Nealer continues to produce… (this is where we lost Mike, sorry about that)

A: Surely the other winger on the Malkin-Neal line is literally the biggest variable in the Penguins lineup but I see Neal’s campaign this year as a variable too. Point blank Neal was the best pure winger in the league last year, but is he actually going to do that again this year? He was in a contract year last year, now he’s got his money. And as I wrote above, he is not going to get the same level of line chemistry that he got last year (more on that below). I’m also simultaneously amped and afraid of Neal’s new role as the “rover” on the power play. Technically he played “rover” last year, but now he’ll occupy more space further from the net. Giving a guy with a shot like his even more room with the puck seems smart, but he is not very good in the defensive zone and the Pens did get exploited for several shorties last year with a highly seasoned veteran on the point. The Pens power play fortunes likely rest with Neal, we’ll see what happens.

PASCAL DUPUIS

PASCAL DUPUIS

As with Kunitz and Neal, Dupuis posted career numbers last year, but also like Kunitz, its almost just the expectation or business as usual that he should do that. But that does nothing to explain just how good Duper was last year: unlike Kunitz who improved on his previous best marks by 1 goal and 1 point, Dupuis increased his goals by 5, his assists by 10 and his overall points by 15, at the age of 32! Guys don’t get that much better at old age! And that’s to say nothing about his 17-game regular season scoring streak that will carry through into the new season! Perhaps the best and most surprising facet of Duper’s season last year was his defense: his DGVT of 6.5 is the highest mark of any forward on the team (even including the departed Jordan Staal). Overall his net GVT of 19.2 was the second best on the team behind the best player in the world last year, Evgeni Malkin. Duper’s the man, what else can I say.

MATT COOKE

MATT COOKE

As with the more high profile guys who have preceded him, Cookie Monster posted career totals in goals, assists, and points. His 19 goals is nothing to scoff at, especially given the limited (15:40 TOI/game) ice time that he received. Last year marked the first time in 9 seasons that Cooke played all 82 games (mostly because he didn’t get suspended) and his 44 PIMs were among the lowest on the team. A lot of people have been critical of Cooke claiming that even with his newfound offensive prowess his new game play was less effective than the old Cooke. His 160 hits beg to differ. I’ve never seen a career transformation like Cooke last year, I just hope he can continue with what he started last year.

TANNER GLASS

TANNER GLASS

I can’t pretend to know a lot about Glass but I do know he’s a much more skilled, much younger, and much more useful upgrade over Arron Asham on the 4th line. It seems that the Pens are expecting a lot from him given that they offered him $1.1 million per season to be here: a lot for a 4th liner. He is tough, he’s got lots of fights under his belt, but he is not a brawler. He averaged more than 13 minutes of ice time and nearly 2 minutes of PK time for Winnipeg last year. I see him more in the vain of a Brandon Prust or a Jordin Tootoo, but I don’t honestly know if that’s an accurate assessment.

TYLER KENNEDY

TYLER KENNEDY

I basically said everything I wanted to say about Tyler Kennedy in this post here. But I’ve decided that given the relative quality of Cookie and Brandon Sutter in both the offensive zone and defensive zone it would ultimately make sense to keep TK with those guys, role three lines and not worry about it. TK, as a right handed shot is a natural right winger, and the trick is that Neal really set himself apart when he made the move from left to right wing. As such I think the Pens would do well to use one of the younger, natural left wingers with Neal and Malkin, at least until they pick up a veteran at the trade deadline.

CRAIG ADAMS

CRAIG ADAMS

Last year Craig Adams averaged 11:17 of ice time per game, 2:51 of that time came on the penalty kill. That’s all you need to know about Craig Adams.

IN THE WINGS: There’s one spot open and a place in the top 6 to boot. I think we agree that all of the following guys have the opportunity and the ability to earn the spot, but according to everyone who has been close to the training camp proceedings, none of them have gotten the upper-hand over anyone else. Each has pluses and each has minuses: we’ll probably have a much better feel for where the team plans to turn after the “Black/Gold Scrimmage” tonight.

ERIC TANGRADI

ERIC TANGRADI

Outside of Paul Martin is there any Penguin player more polarizing than Eric Tangradi? To me, Paul-Mart doesn’t even impress as being as difficult to understand as Big Dawg. He’s got everything: the hands, the body, and the nose for the net, at the AHL level. But he looks like a lost puppy at the NHL level. It wouldn’t be a big deal if he had 3 games in the NHL as experience, but he doesn’t he’s got 40 games and a whopping 5 points. No doubt he’s not been given the best chance to succeed (playing minimal, 4th line minutes) but he should have done more with the opportunity. As such I can’t really tell where the Big Dawg sits: whether he’s the best of a bad bunch, or if he’s a bust, or if he’s the next Ryan Malone. We’ll find out this year.

BEAU BENNETT

Probably the most surprising success story of the Baby Pens so far this year. After spending much of the rest of his college career after getting drafted by the Pens hurt, Bennett has emerged as the top scorer for the Baby Pens and what has been especially impressive is his passing skill. I don’t see Bennett making the team this year, he’s too small and he doesn’t have more than a few professional games under his belt. But it is encouraging that Bennett seems ahead of the curve in his development.

DUSTIN JEFFREY

DUSTIN JEFFREY

In 2010-11, after much hem-hawing and hand wringing the Penguins finally brought Dustin Jeffrey up from the minors. At the time he was hand over fist better than any other Baby Penguin, any other AHLer, full stop. And his arrival in Pittsburgh was pretty dramatic too: in 25 games DJ posted 12 points, nearly half a point a game. But then disaster struck, Jeffrey suffered a very similar ACL injury to Evgeni Malkin. Whereas the injury helped to mold Geno into the most dominant player in the league last year, Jeffrey’s recovery took longer, and although he made it into 26 games last year, he only managed 6 points and a -4 rating.

Some sources talk about health being a skill, and that might be the biggest hole in Jeffrey’s game right now. When you play him with top line guys, he scores at will, when you play him on a checking line, he functions as an energy, puck retrieval specialist. He’s killed penalties and he’s got lots of potential, the biggest question is whether he can remain on the ice. If he can, and if he can prove enough left wing positional mastery, there should be no reason why he shouldn’t push Tangradi and Bennett, and quite possible usurp them for the final spot.

And now, Wings:

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One Comment on “Penguins Season Preview: Wings”

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