Saturday, February 19, 2011

The State of the Penguins

It’s a great day for hockey. Now that football is over and baseball is still over a month away from playing their season it is the grandest stage for hockey. I have been kind of out of it since the Super Bowl with sporadic posts here and there, but it turns out that my actual job require me to do things sometimes so that pulls me away from the blog, which does not pay me with cash.

I figured I would get on here and talk a little Penguins. For much of the season I have basically touched base with the Penguins in my game previews with notes here and there and thoughts but I haven’t really got to go into any great detail with what they are going through now, and what we can expect from the future. This is a dicey situation with a team that is now mostly AHL call-ups and missing a lot of the firepower that they had during the early part of the regular season. Here are a few notes that I have noticed through the past couple of weeks:

-How good is that 12 game winning streak in the beginning of the season looking now? Without that the Penguins would be in a lot of trouble and probably fight just to get in to the playoffs. With the 12 game win streak they are sitting in the fourth spot in the East and are only five points behind the red hot Flyers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Despite the horrid start by Marc-Andre Fleury and the defense taking time to gel and the mountains of injuries this team has been able to play good hockey and put themselves in a position to have another strong playoff run and home ice advantage, at least in the first round.

-Not sure there are many more teams that could go through this adversity that this team has. Look at this roster as currently composed. Most nights the 12 forwards are at least half AHL call ups that wouldn’t be on the team if this team was even close to being healthy. Don’t believe me? Check out the top power play unit in Chicago tomorrow. When Tyler Kennedy and Max Talbot are your go-to guys on the top power play units you know you are pretty banged up. When Disco had this team early in the season he didn’t he’d be trying to set up Zbynek Michalek for one timers from the point. Not that Michalek is a bad offensive player, but not your top choice on the power play for one-timers.

-Despite being out-manned by NHL players on most nights we are getting a great look at the depth this team has. Most teams can’t lose their two best players and still survive at the top of the standings like the Penguins have done. When people talk about Ray Shero they will talk about the deadline deals he makes for NHL players, but the way he has stockpiled AHL talent that can be called on any given night to come up and produce cannot be looked over. Having guys like Sterling, Johnson, Vitale and Craig come up and play at a high level shows what he has done with this team and why he is a top GM in the NHL.

-What is kind of weird about the injury situation is that it is all forwards that are going down for the Penguins. Of the seven defensemen that the Penguins employ on the NHL roster none of them has had to miss extended time due to injury. That has been a huge key to this team. During the off season it was a huge point of emphasis to upgrade the defense, which was the downfall of the team last year. Shero did that and they are starting to really gel together. Michalek has been about as shut down as you would want and Paul Martin has made huge contributions to the lineup both even strength and on the power play. Kris Letang has grown before our eyes and become a top flight defensive hockey player. You want to know what the best part about Kris Letang? The Penguins have him locked up through the 2013-14 season at $3.5 million a year. What a steal.

-It hasn’t been all the defense, however. As good as the defense has been, and they have been good, Marc-Andre Fleury has been even better. After a terrible start to the season MAF has been better than any other goaltender in the NHL. Since November 1st MAF has gone 26-9-2. Not too shabby huh? Stats are never the way you want to evaluate MAF because throughout his career he hasn’t been a stats guy, but this year his stats are some of the best in the NHL. He was awarded for his stellar play with a vote into the NHL All-Star game and has stole games during the absence of Bing and Geno. If the Penguins somehow win the Atlantic then not only do I think that MAF should be the top candidate for the Vezina, but I think he should get strong consideration for the MVP of the entire league. He has been that good this year and has carried this team and more importantly during stretches where he can’t give up more than two goals if the Penguins have a realistic chance of winning.

-On the subject of Bing, this is a tough situation to be in. He was hurt some time ago and diagnosed with a “mild concussion”. Well that was the first week of January and we are now into the third week in February. Sidney Crosby is the best player in the NHL and after watching AO play this year I think there is an even bigger gap in that discussion. To rush Bing back would be both stupid and a snap judgment. The Penguins can’t win the Stanley Cup without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, that is just fact, but brining back Bing early to play and risk another injury is foolish. He is the cornerstone of this team and I would rather him sit as long as he needs to and be 100% ready and have him for eight more years than risk him getting dinged up again and turn into Marc Savard. It is getting to that dangerous point in my mind to just sit him for the rest of the season. If he is still having symptoms over the next week or so then tell him to sit down the rest of the season and get ready for next year. It just isn’t worth it at this point. This team has a core of players that is going to be around for some time. This is still a young team that is just getting into their prime and wasting one of those players, at Bing’s caliber, for one season isn’t worth it. Don’t throw away the future for a fling. Just my thought.

-That being said, it wouldn’t totally shock me to see King Shero stay pat at the deadline. A lot of the players on the current roster are playing well, despite the lack of scoring depth. If Bing is actually done for the year this is a big opportunity to see what the AHL guys have to offer. Next year the roster is going to be healthy and there are a fair amount of players that are in contract years. Here is what next year looks like free agent wise:

Going into this season you might say that you have to keep guys like Dupuis and Talbot because you didn’t have anyone that was sure to break in and perform. With all the injuries we are getting an extended look at guys that could take their spots from within the system. Are guys like Dupuis and Talbot great guys to have on the team? Hell yea. Did they help us win a cup and do what we need to do in certain aspects of the game? Hell yea. Sometimes business moves need to be made and if Chris Conner and Nick Johnson are ready to fill those rolls then it only makes sense. This might be a blessing in disguise for the Penguins that these injuries happen to make some later decision easier in the off season.

-I will be in Chicago tomorrow for the game. If you would like to see some sweet picture and follow my experience then your best bet is to follow me on Twitter here. I will be posting a lot of pictures and game commentary so it will be cool. I mean if you aren’t following me on Twitter already then you are missing out.

As always, leave it in the comments with your thoughts.

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