Penguins Season Preview: Centers

t’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, yesterday we covered wingers, and today 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.

Yesterday we claimed that the Penguins were no longer as dependent on the strength of their centers as they have been in previous years. That does absolutely nothing to change the fact that the lifeblood of the franchise is Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Out this year is Jordan Staal but in his place is Brandon Sutter, if you watched the Black/Gold scrimmage Sutter looked like a more athletic, handsy-ier version of Staal. If we’re honest he isn’t quite on that level but at only 23 he’s a younger (haha because Jordan is 24), skilled replacement for perhaps the finest 2-way center in the game. Filling out the 4th line is Joe Vitale, a hard-nosed, blue-collar gamer that embodies everything the game is meant to be. You can find out everything you need to know about the Penguins just by looking at the centers: they are a microcosm of the team, they are a microcosm of the league, and that’s why we left these guys for the end. As with yesterday, this is mostly my singular perspective, except for Mike’s thoughts on Sutter, which he did very early on before the Black/Vegas Gold game which should be interesting to consider.

SIDNEY CROSBY

SIDNEY CROSBY

Crosby’s success last year is tricky: we know about the 37 points in 22 games, put another way, that’s good for 4.73 ESP/60, an insane number. We know about the injuries he’s dealt with and we know about what a happy, healthy Sidney Crosby means to the game at large. And it’s really hard to fathom how close we really came to losing it all. There are no words to describe what would have happened to the NHL, to us as Penguins fans, to the game around the world if it’s biggest star were to suddenly disappear.

But it seems that the worst is over. Crosby is back, he’s healthy and has had months to work on his overall conditioning. We know that he’s playing with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, the linemates that he’s enjoyed the most success in his career with. And all it can mean is great things for the Penguins.

EVGENI MALKIN

EVGENI MALKIN

What can be said about Geno? Even if you tend to favor him over Sid it was tough to know if he would ever actually rekindle his 2008-09 form. His point production had been dropping for three years, he was coming off a devastating injury. The anti-European Pittsburgh sports media was digging in fast and furiously calling for everything short of his head. And what motivation did we have to believe that even if Geno were able to regain form that he would be that dominant player: without Sid there would be no way to split the opponent’s top defensive players, they could tee up on Geno without a second thought, and who knew what he would even be able to do with the oft-injured Steve Sullivan and snake-bitten James Neal.

And then it got worse: 5 games into the season and Geno couldn’t go. Too much pain, not enough performance on his surgically repaired knee. And even after he got back into the lineup, there just wasn’t much going on: he lacked explosiveness, hell, Richard Park looked to be a more natural fit with Neal and Sullivan. But it didn’t end there. He started to warm up, potting points at an increasing rate. And then he got better, looking dominant in all facets of the game. And then he got better and better and better, literally single-handedly embarrassing the rest of the league in the process.

By the time it was all over Geno won the scoring race by 12 points, the largest margin in decades. He was so far ahead of anybody else for league MVP honors it was a wonder that the league even had to vote. He set a new career high with 109 points, he managed his first 50 goal season. He did all of this in 75 games while his closest adversary, Steven Stamkos played all 82.

Statistically speaking Malkin scored at an insane 3.66 ESP/60 and 5.83 PPP/60. His net GVT of 33.5 is one of the highest marks in the post lockout era of the NHL. But it doesn’t even end there, despite joining the season late, Malkin left the KHL last week as the league’s second leading scorer (he literally missed the first two weeks) and had gone on an incredible scoring streak over the last several weeks where he managed nearly 3 points per game over an entire month of games (in total he put up 65 points in 37 games, certainly playing on European ice does lead to more scoring, but there were also more NHL caliber goalies in the KHL this year).

In sum, the best part about Evgeni Malkin is that there is no reason to expect that anything will be any different this year. He’s in the prime of his career, he’s surrounded (at least on one side) by more talent than he’s ever enjoyed before and now he’s even in a contract year. Deal with it.

BRANDON SUTTER

BRANDON SUTTER

Mike: From everything I can tell here are the important things to take into consideration for Mr. Sutter: realistic expectations. With Staal leaving, all of the girls my age are a’swoonin’ again. But the truth of the matter is that Sutter has some big shoes to fill (both literally and figuratively) for the Pens. For starters, there is nothing, barring injury or positively awful play from 87 or 71 which hopefully won’t happen, that will put Sutter above line three. Keeping with Pen’s tradition, the third line must be gritty and grinders on the forecheck. Sutter doesn’t have that flash on the PK that Staal did, but he does have in 284 career NHL games (as a 23 year old) 3 shorties. I think Sutter’s got a role to fill, and I’m excited to see him embrace it and become a grittier 18. (*Other stats to note: 52 career NHL goals, low-risk on penalties [about 33/season], lots of shots for a 3rd-liner).

Andrew: If you watched the Black/Gold game last night, you should have no trouble understanding that Sutter is basically a slightly younger, more agile version of Jordan Staal. I don’t think he’s got quite the vision that Staal possesses, but I think he has equally as good, if not even slightly better, hands. That’s not to say that he’s going to magically become a 25 goal, 50 point guy like Staal, but he’s posted 20 in the past and playing with Kennedy and Cooke is a vast improvement over Carolina’s third line. Here’s a look at the Player Usage Charts for both Carolina and Pittsburgh:

Copyright PuckProspectus.com

Copyright PuckProspectus.com

VERSUS

Copyright PuckProspectus.com

Copyright PuckProspectus.com

What you might notice is that the quality of competition that Sutter faced last year was dead even with what Staal dealt with here. What you might also notice is that Sutter took even more faceoffs in his own defensive zone than Staal did. Sutter only got the opportunity to take 35% of his shifts in the offensive zone, yet he still put up 17 goals. This is a guy who really has the opportunity to be a game changer on an elite hockey team.

Sutter’s defensive game might be better than Staal’s, he’s probably a BETTER penalty killer, and unlike Staal he seems to slot in as a lifelong checking line center. As a result, I don’t doubt that the Penguins will be unchanged or perhaps improved with Sutter on the third line instead of Staal.

JOE VITALE

JOE VITALE

Here’s what’s up with Joe Vitale, he won 55.7% of faceoffs, the best mark of any Penguins center last year. He DREW 1.2 penalties per game last year, the best of any Pens player. He is the quintessential 4th line center, he’s high energy, he can lay some lumber, and he’s decent in his defensive zone. At least last year he tended to play against lesser opponents, and I don’t really see that changing this year. Nonetheless, Vitale is a great depth guy and in general its just hard not to root for him.

M: [retroactive comment] This. 

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