The Curious Case of Marc-Andre Fleury

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You knew it was coming, what you probably don’t know is the conclusion that is still percolating in my brain as I begin this piece. By this point both Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero have weighed in on Fleury’s future and it certainly seems like he will play out at least the remainder of his current contract in Pittsburgh. And that is probably for the best.

You could blame me for being easily susceptible to suggestion but after reading the following two articles my hardline stance on Fleury is changing. We start with the master Mike Colligan, as usual he stepped up with a far better piece than anyone else could write about what happened to the Penguins and what the franchise should look to do now moving forward. One line really sticks out:

At age 37, Vokoun won’t be able to handle the demands of a full 82-game season and should be the backup — even if the over-the-top comments from Bylsma were a little out of line.

I don’t know, I’ve ignored that excuse in the past, and maybe it is just because of my unhealthy appreciation for Colligan, but his comments triggered for me something that former contributor Andrew pointed out to me over the weekend: Vokoun’s starts have been decreasing for 4 straight years.

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Good goalies tend to be able to play into their very late 30s or early 40s at a high rate, and Vokoun, once and for all and long overdo, has proven himself a good goaltender, but even with that said, in the best of circumstances he would need to platoon his games, you can’t call on him to make 70 appearances next year, and if the Penguins don’t have a proven NHLer to back him up, it is impossible to predict what would happen.

The second piece that has influenced my thinking on Fleury comes from Seth Rorabaugh, he summed up the role of Vokoun and Fleury playing together as such:

The Penguins platooned Vokoun and Fleury this past season over a shortened 48-game schedule. That resulted in them merely being the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference. (Emphasis is his)

Maybe, just maybe, the Penguins actually do need Marc-Andre Fleury. They need a proven commodity to shoulder the weight of the regular season. I do not view the Penguins goaltending situation as particularly dire: I’m interested in seeing what Jeff Zatkoff really has at the NHL level and Eric Hartzell could prove to be a quality long-range project, if he comes back to the organization. But those guys aren’t ready to make crucial starts against division rivals for a team that has expectations of winning their division, winning the conference, and more.

Since Fleury’s seeming demotion before Game 5 of the Conference Quarterfinals the excuse I have given for trading him is that so many teams need a goaltender that can merely get them into the playoffs that they would take Fleury without worrying about whether he can play IN the playoffs or not. And maybe that’s what the Penguins need to do as well. We as fans need to accept that Fleury has never let us down in the regular season. We need a guy that can make 50-60 starts a year, finish 95% of the games he starts and be a team player. I have no doubt that MAF would be able to fulfill that better than most players.

Now with that said, it would still be completely unacceptable for the Penguins to ignore what Tomas Vokoun has done for them over the past year. It’s one thing to say that Vokoun merely outplayed Fleury in net during the playoffs. It’s another to say that he was the Penguins’ best player, which in most games he really was. You have to give him the opportunity to succeed and compete for his playing time. But as it stands, there’s not too much I can say that will be sufficiently different from this piece I wrote just before the playoffs started.

At this time Vokoun is absolutely the more well-known commodity. He’s going to play well, regardless of the circumstance. What we also know about him though is that he has a history of injuries, he’s 37, and he understands what his role is with the Penguins. Given those considerations maybe MAF is a little more valuable to the Penguins than we give him credit for.


Riding the Trade Letang Train

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In the first days after the Penguins were eliminated from the playoffs Mike and I set out to evaluate players and determine whether the Penguins should hold onto them or if they should at least be entertained as tradeable (or simply not brought back if they are pending free agents). At this time it seems unlikely that we’ll get that post finished (for a myriad of reasons) but here is what we had to say about Letang (Mike’s thoughts are first, mine are in the part that is cleverly titled “Andrew’s addendum”:

Kris Letang – I’ve had my suspicions about 58 since the Pens so ungracefully bowed out of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the first round against Philadelphia. Offensively, he’s a stud. He’s constantly in the conversation about top-producing defensemen in the NHL which is great. But here’s a question that I’ll be asking a lot (and so should you): is that what the Pens need? He logs a ton of minutes every night; he nearly matched Chara in Game 3 in terms of minutes logged. The difference is the shutdown. Zdeno Chara shuts people down (as evidenced by Crosby and Malkin combining for 0 points this series). Letang gives up what seems like a breakaway every other game. Sure he can “recover” because of his speed and conditioning, but I’d rather see defenseman who doesn’t give up that break and just retreats and forces that defender to dump and chase into a corner like Bylsma’s system calls for. He did a piss poor job of quarterbacking the powerplay most of the season. It was covered by the unreal play of the Pens’ forwards, but was brutally exposed by Boston. He’s going to ask for a ton of money this offseason (keeping in mind that his comparative counterpart Erik Karlsson earned a contract for 6.5 mil a season. Think about it.)

Andrew’s addendum: if you aren’t a woman do you actually like Kris Letang? And if you are a woman do you actually like him as a hockey player? Be honest. He’s infuriating in the defensive zone, he’s scary in the offensive zone, and he isn’t what the Penguins need on the power play. As such the Penguins should do the right thing and sell high on the guy. I don’t think the Penguins could even get so lucky as to convince Letang to think about a $6.5 million/year deal (he’ll want at least $7mil), there’s too much talent built up behind him that is atrophying each day (ahem, Simon Despres), and he doesn’t have the composure necessary to ever be a truly all-time great defender. As such, in my book he’s just another hockey player, the Pens need to move him or else they can at best hope to see him walk away for nothing after next year (the worst case is he signs long-term and fails to live up to his contract).

He’s one of probably only three defensemen in the whole NHL who can bear the mantle of being “the face of a franchise” (along with Erik Karlsson and PK Subban), and he’s the only one of those three that is likely to hit the open market anytime soon (admittedly Subban will be an RFA after next season again, but he is on what is known as his “bridge contract” similar to what Letang will be ending next year, to bridge between his entry-level deal and the big money he would expect to make as an elite veteran of the league). Whether you like Kris Letang or not, he carries a level of panache that his “better” contemporaries like Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara, Ryan Suter and even teammate Paul Martin don’t have. And that makes him more valuable to teams in need of an identity than he is to the Penguins, who are still identified by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and all the other explosive offensive players and outputs. So with that said, the time is right to trade Kris Letang.

We know that the best venue to do that would be at the draft. For one, the Penguins SHOULD make it a priority to earn a first (or at the very least a second round pick, more on that later) back in this so-called legendary draft. Secondly, they’ll never be able to sell AS HIGH on Letang if they don’t trade him at the draft. Waiting for the trade deadline could be problematic: some teams would only offer on Letang as a “rental” which would obviously be a low return for the Penguins. And few teams that would be willing to pay the full price for his services tend to be buyers at the trade deadline (although I can think of one exception to that, which will be discussed later, like in a separate post).

So we know who the trade target is, we know when the trade should go down, the question that seems really important to us though, is what can the Penguins actually get in return?

The single most important thing for the Penguins to get in exchange for Kris Letang would be a stay-at-home Top 4 defenseman (and if he happens to shoot right-handed that’s a big plus). One of the biggest holes in the Penguins last year was that they only had three “Top 4” defensemen: Letang, Martin, and Brooks Orpik, and assuming that HCDB sticks to his word about utilizing Simon Despres in that role next year, the Penguins will still need one more player to fill out the Top 4. Given that Martin, Despres, and Orpik are all left-handed shots, a righty would be good to fill out the pairings.

With that said, one team stands above all the others to fit that need: the Colorado Avalanche, specifically, they would need to give up Erik Johnson. He’s a hulking 6’4” 236 lbs, he shoots right, he has understated offensive skills, he was part of the US Olympic team that won silver in 2010, he’s signed for another 3-years at a very agreeable $3.75 million and he’s younger than Letang. In the same way that Brandon Sutter was essential to the Jordan Staal trade, the same can be said of Erik Johnson in this trade, he fills the need and there are only so many teams that can offer the same return.

434px-Erik_Johnson

Of course the treat with the Avalanche is that they have the first overall pick, and they are very unlikely to exchange that AND Johnson for Kris Letang. Instead, the Penguins would likely need to settle for the first pick of the second round, which most people contend will still be a great, potential all-star pick. From there the Avs would likely need to include include a second roster player. Certainly our preference would be for a guy who has long been discussed as an ideal fit in the Penguins system: David Jones. He’s very much in the vain of Chris Kunitz or Pascal Dupuis except younger, and bigger. That’s about all you need to know.

An interesting variable could be Seymon Varlamov. He’s only 2 years removed from being exchanged from Washington to Colorado for a first round pick, but he’s also coming off of his worst season in the NHL, and he still hasn’t quite proven if he is a cornerstone piece for an NHL team. Nonetheless, if he were to come to Pittsburgh he could make Marc-Andre Fleury expendable, or at least eligible for a contract buyout. Of course, if MAF becomes available, why not trade HIM to the Colorado Avalanche where he would have the opportunity to be the pet project of his childhood hero Patrick Roy (the new coach of the Avs). Of course, if you’re talking about the Penguins trading a franchise goalie and a franchise defenseman then it doesn’t seem so unreasonable to ask for that first overall pick now does it?

Sure, there are dozens of teams that would be interested in Letang if he went to market, but the Avalanche seem like a good fit because the Penguins have the ability to address their biggest needs in a trade with them. To this point we have no idea if Letang is headed to market, if he is though expect that Ray Shero and the rest of the Penguins upper management will reap a healthy bounty in exchange for him.

For some other detailed analyses by people who are smarter than me check out Mike Colligan: Part 1 and Part 2. And Andrew Rothey at faceoff-factor.com.


Eight More Years for Evgeni Malkin

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Under the new CBA a player looking to sign an extension with his current team is limited to a term of 8 years. Under the new CBA the maximum value of a contract is limited to 20% of the value of the salary cap for the year in which the new contract will begin. That was all we Penguins fans knew for sure as Evgeni Malkin, his agent JP Barry, his Russian advisor Gennady Ushakov, and Penguins General Manager Ray Shero entered negotiations on a long-term deal earlier this week. Now we know a lot more, to the tune of 8 years, $76 million dollars, a $9.5 million annual cap hit.

And if you don’t think that’s a big concession on Geno’s part, then I’m sorry for you. We wrote all along that Geno’s next deal *OUGHT* to make him the highest paid player (at least cap number-wise) in the league. This deal does not, he will still trail Alex Ovechkin by nearly $40,000/year. This deal leaves more than $3 million on the table compared to what the league maximum $12.8 million/year contract would be for next year. It leaves $5.5 million on the table compared to what the Russian government had offered Geno and other elite Russian players like Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, and Ovechkin to return and play in the KHL. That is a major concession on Geno’s behalf.

Occasionally people seem to think that trading Malkin is a good idea. It’s not. I understand that people view him as quintessentially “Russian,” occasionally hot-headed, occasionally less than 100%. But the numbers don’t lie. Everyone says Sidney Crosby (we agree), he’s won an Art Ross, a Hart, a Ted Lindsay and a Rocket Richard Trophy. Evgeni Malkin is regarded as “one of only two players to challenge Sidney Crosby for the title of the best player in the world” and he’s won the Calder, two Art Ross’s, a Hart, a Ted Lindsay, and a Conn Smythe. Last I checked that’s more. And the most important one is the last one, the Conn Smythe. Think fast: name one really important, game changing playoff goal that Sidney Crosby has scored. Think even faster: name three that Geno has scored.

That’s why Geno got paid, that’s why the season wasn’t even over for a week before the Penguins worked out a framework to keep him in Pittsburgh for 8 more years. He’s the last skater to win the Conn Smythe (and that will definitely continue for another year, it can only either be Crawford or Rask this year) and this team lives and dies with him come playoff time. Since his rookie season in 2006-2007 the Penguins have not missed the playoffs. In that time the team has made three deep playoff pushes (including this year) in each of those efforts Geno has always been the best player for the Penguins (a trend that continued this year). That’s why it’s impossible to trade Geno. If you want to win the Stanley Cup, or at least compete for it year in and year out, you need a superstar game breaker in the playoffs. That is Geno Malkin.


Dan Bylsma Signs a 2-Year Contract Extension

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In a move that is sure to perplex thousands around Pittsburgh, Ray Shero’s highly secretive end of year press conference was a reaffirmation for HCDB and for what is even slightly confusing to me, his staff.

Bylsma as well as defense coach Todd Reirden and offense coach Tony Granato have all been extended for another two years past next season. It really comes down to this: if Bylsma’s best claim to fame was to take the talent of the Pens and “open the spigot” on the offense, while still maintaining the rigid structure of the defense that Therrien had in place, imagine what he could do with the defensive talent of the New York Rangers, who happen to still be looking for a new head coach, and who have a modicum (although not what the Pens have) of offensive talent.

Of course goaltender coach Gilles Meloche was not also extended, according to Renaud Lavoie the decision was entirely mutual and expected. Meloche has been with the team for more than thirty years, he’ll go back to scouting as a final, golden, swan song type assignment.

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This is a smart move by Ray Shero, with pressure building on Bylsma and his staff entering what could have been a “lame duck” season, the media and social criticism likely would have been more than anyone could bear. By extending Bylsma the Penguins have clearly made their own statement on what they think of Bylsma and what they plan to do moving forward with him as coach. That *SHOULD* limit the argument as we move forward into next year and hopefully next postseason. But who knows.

We are somewhat surprised that Todd Reirden was given the same treatment. If one of Bylsma’s hand-picked assistants was going to be fired this year, to set a tone or whatever the case may be, you have to figure it would be Reirden. Maybe it’s not fair: there have been different guys who have coached the defense under Bylsma and except for 2009 no one has had much luck, and that seems to be more an indictment of the organizational belief in high-powered offense, or coaching ideology, than it does in defensive coaching. But nonetheless, the results for Reirden are far less spectacular than Byslma or Tony Granato with his vaunted special teams prowess. But then again, this is a message of stability from upper management, and we’re genuinely pleased.

Again just think about what it would be like to play against a Dan Bylsma-coached team, it would be a pain in the ass. This is the right call, although you have to wonder how much longer of a leash the current regime will be given.


When You Point the Finger, Evaluating Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero

dan-bylsma-glareIn the mainstream media everyone has already decided on their scapegoat, Dan Bylsma, and at least in their arguments they seem to have plenty of good cause: 4 years of elimination at the hands of a lower-seeded opponent, the first Penguins coach to be swept in the playoffs in 34 years, a losing record in the postseason since his historic 2009 Cup win. But they are decidedly wrong. If you had wanted to pick this fight with me last year or the previous two years I wouldn’t have argued, but the problem against Boston was not a failure of coaching, it was a failure of the players to listen, or to CARE to execute.  And that’s all fine and dandy, but if you ask me, you have to go up another level to find the culprit behind this collapse.

Yes, in fact, I am talking about Ray Shero. The architect of the most talent laden roster since the inception of the salary cap is the guy that I think is most culpable for this team’s collapse in the Eastern Conference Finals (if you can ever collapse in the Eastern Conference Finals, even if you’re swept and get outscored 12-2, I mean you’re still one of the four best teams in the league right?). And here’s why: he overspent his hand. Now, here us out, we’re not going to pretend that Shero should be fired, and we’re definitely not saying that he hasn’t made some amazing moves: just think about where the Pens would have been if he hadn’t made a move on the “washed up” Tomas Vokoun. But when it comes right down to it, answer yourself this, did his deadline moves work? If you answer yes you must be a Bruins fan. Get the explanation after the jump.  Read the rest of this entry »


Quick Cap: Season Over.

Not much to say. Blame all that you want to: the refs, the ice, the players, the fans, whatever. But the sad reality is Broons are moving on and the Pens can schedule some Nevillewood time. 

We’ll be sifting through this stupendous quagmire of filth that the end of this season brought in the coming days. Thanks for reading this season. Go Pens. 


Gameday Conference Finals #4: @ Boston Bruins

Because if you don't what is there?

Because if you don’t what is there?

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS @ Boston Bruins

TD Garden, 8:00 PM, NBC Sports, 105.9 the X

This could be our last gameday post of the season. This could be the Penguins’ last game of the season. Or the Penguins can win one game, and earn an opportunity to come home and play in front of the home crowd once more. We can’t tell you which will happen. All we know is that the Penguins are going to go out and play one more game against the Boston Bruins.

We can tell you, based on the morning skate, that it looks like Tyler Kennedy will be back in the Penguins lineup and Joe Vitale, mostly due to his completely undisciplined penalty in the first period of Wednesday’s game, will be out of the lineup. Paul Martin did not participate in the morning skate but we doubt he’s out for the game. Mark Eaton skated with Kris Letang during the rushes, don’t know if that means he’s playing, but the Penguins might as well try something. I can’t wait til the next person asks who the goaltender will be.

There’s no safety net now. One loss and a large percentage of this team will never wear the Penguins sweater again. One loss and the team will have to listen to another year of gloating media types talk about how they couldn’t live up to the hype, to talk about how they don’t assign the Stanley Cup winner based on paper (when they were the ones who did it in the first place), to speculation on who could be traded, who should be traded, and who should simply have their employment terminated by the Penguins. One loss tonight and the fans final home memory of this team is booing them off the ice following a 6-1 embarrassment. One loss and we’re going to be bored stiff watching two teams we don’t like play for the Stanley Cup.

And that’s where we are now. One win gives the Penguins one more game. That’s all we are prepared to say at this time.

Never has this statement been more true: the race to one starts tonight. Go Pens.