Saturday, April 28, 2007

Penguins By The Numbers - Part Two the Forwards

Well our defensemen discussion brought some good ideas of possible fill ins on the Penguins blue line...some notables: Andy Sutton, Scott Hannan, Vitaly Vishnevski, Brent Sopel, Kimmo Timonen, Cory Sarich and Aaron Miller. I am not sure which direction Ray Shero is going to go, he could look to fill the defensive need via trade, but most likely is going to bring in some one through free agency. I will discuss some of the above names when I get to the Free Agency "By the Numbers."

Today we will look at the Penguins forwards and discuss cost and who will be staying with the team.

Let's go started...

Sidney Crosby - signed through '07-'08 and brings a cap hit of $3.7 Mil. (Of course it is hard to predict his actual hit based on bonus payments) What can't this kid do? He has already broken 100 pts in each of his first two seasons, won an Art Ross Trophy and is the potential Hart Trophy winner. Crosby is the closest thing to a Penguin for life that they have on the roster. Ray Shero will discuss long-term contract with Sidney Crosby in July. The team cannot negotiate with him until after July 1st. I can envision the wording of any new Crosby contract stating that he will be the team's top paid player under the terms of the existing CBA...terms that dictate that no player can make more than 20% of the total salary cap for any team.

Evgeni Malkin - signed through '08-'09 and brings a cap hit of $3.834 Mil. Malkin cooled off a bit down the stretch, but there is no denying that he is a dynamic talent. He is the likely Calder Trophy winner, which is awarded to the league's top first year player and should evolve into a top two line center in the NHL. Malkin will be fine, he showed us only flashes of what he can be when he is completely comfortable and confident...something that he wasn't fully this past season. Malkin will be a dominant player in the NHL and will be one of the Penguins cornerstones for quite some time.

Jordan Staal - signed through '08-'09 and brings a cap hit of $2.2 Mil. Staal wowed the hockey world as he made the Penguins roster at the age of 18. Many thought he would be sent back to his junior team in Peterborough, but the young center gave the team no choice but to keep him. He went on to score 29 goals, 7 of which were short handed - a record for first year players. Staal looks as if he could be better than his older brother Eric and may end up being better than Evgeni Malkin...a great situation to be in if you are the Penguins. This is the player that will make it hard for the team to keep Malkin as they both approach free agency down the line. Michel Therrien calls him: "Scary good!"

Mark Recchi - Unrestricted Free Agent - Recchi had a good year playing almost exclusively with Sidney Crosby. He will probably not be given that opportunity very often if the Penguins resign him. Recchi is a good mentor and leader to have around, but he may not have a place on this team if Gary Roberts is retained. Recchi has said that he will work from now on with one-year contracts and will fill any role that the team envisions for him. If I had to place odds upon his return I would set them at 60-40. Recchi started here and will most likely end his career here.

Ryan Malone - signed through '07-'08 and brings a cap hit of $1.375. Malone has shown glimmers of the talent that he possesses, but he is very inconsistent. Malone is popular because he hails from the Pittsburgh area, but I can't see him getting another chance next season. Ray Shero came close to trading him a couple of times this past year, and I think he will get the offer he has been waiting for this summer. Malone may still blossom into a good NHLer, but it is going to have to be with another team. He is great at killing penalties, but that isn't enough for a player who is going to make $1.45 Mil during the coming season...say good-bye to Ryan Malone.

Jarkko Ruutu - signed through '07-'08 and brings a cap hit of $1.15 Mil. I think that Ray Shero envisioned a little more scoring out of Ruutu, but the Finnish agitator did everything he was asked this season. He occasionally took penalties at the wrong times, but will be a great compliment to the "stars" once again next season. He is so tenacious that he was quoted in Russia's Sport Express as saying he would hurt Malkin in the World Tournament if he had too to secure victory for Finland. Win at all cost guys are hard to come by...

Nils Ekman - Unrestricted Free Agent - To say that Nils Ekman was a disappointment this past season is an understatement. Much more was expected of him prior to his injury, a horrible dislocated elbow. Ekman will most likely be allowed to walk. I mentioned him getting another look in camp this coming year in a prior blog, but I was mistaken on his contract status...the $1.1 Mil he was making will be put to use in plugging some of the teams other holes. Nils, we hardly knew you!

Colby Armstrong - Restricted Free Agent - Armstrong has the heart of a lion and showed the hockey world that he is not afraid to mix it up with anyone. He disappointed many with his lack of scoring this past season, but he was really never known as a huge offensive threat...he is a great energy guy, and a great teammate. He may not cash in often, but the ones he does put in are big goals. Armstrong will be on this team for the foreseeable future and should come a bit cheaper than originally thought.

Maxime Talbot - Restricted Free Agent - I absolutely love this player. If I had to choose one Penguin to clone other than Sidney Crosby, this is the guy. Talbot was a much bigger scorer in Canadian Junior hockey than he will ever be in the NHL, but he is the prototypical 3rd line energy guy. He can play Center or the wing and is a great presence on and off of the ice. There is no doubt that Max Talbot will be qualified...he was one of the better face-off men that the Penguins had coming down the stretch. Not to mention his knack for scoring very timely goals...think Ottawa with 1.9 seconds remaining in regulation.

Michel Ouellet - Restricted Free Agent - I am sure that he will be qualified, but I also think Ray Shero would move him if approached with the right deal. I cannot knock Ouellet though, for as much abuse as he has taken, he did end up putting a nice year together. It is just a shame that he is not a better skater because he does have some hands, especially around the net. If only we could splice him with Konstantin Kolstov! I look for Ouellet to be back, but wouldn't be surprised to see him move one. He is known for scoring goals and that is a commodity in the league.

Gary Roberts - Unrestricted Free Agent - Roberts was amazing after coming over from the Florida Panthers and the Penguins would love to keep him. He showed a young Penguins team how to win and what it takes to be a professional hockey player. Many of the Penguins core asked Ray Shero if they could work out with Roberts this off-season, and it is no surprise because he is in great shape for an older player...probably better than some players half his age. The decision to come back to the Penguins will be made more by the player than the team, but I have a feeling he will be back. He seemed to really enjoy himself here and realizes that the team is close to competing for the Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh is not that far from Toronto and his daughter. Based on things I have heard...Roberts signs.

Ronald Petrovicky - Unrestricted Free Agent - Petrovicky played sparingly this past season after having hip surgery during training camp. I wouldn't mind having him back, but I think that he will be allowed to move one. He hits everything that moves and will fight if he has too, but the team was hoping for more than the 6 points that he put up in 31 games. Just like Nils - Petro, we hardly knew ya!

Chris Thorburn - Restricted Free Agent - Thorburn had some ups and downs this past season, but definitely should come back next season. He does have some hands and can score goals in the right situation. There could also be some interest in him around the league, as one scout told me that his team was looking at Thorburn if the Penguins hadn't grabbed him off of waivers from the Sabres early last season. I can see Ray Shero bringing him back at the right price and teaming him with Ruutu or Talbot.

Erik Christensen - Restricted Free Agent - Christensen is a wild card...he could potentially be a top two line player in the NHL, but his inconsistency knocks him down to 3rd and 4th line duty too often. The team will definitely retain this 18-goal scorer because they have to be intrigued with what he has done in spurts. His shot is lethal; he can play the wing and center and is decent in the face off circle. There are games where he looks like the Penguins most dangerous forward and others where he just looks lost. If he puts it all together...look out. I would love to see him get more of a look on Sidney Crosby's line.

Georges Laraque - signed through '07-'08 and brings a cap hit of $1.2 Mil. Laraque was sort of a disappointment since coming over from Phoenix at the trade deadline. He didn't do much fighting, though you can't fight if others will not drop the gloves. He did show some skill in the corners and seemed to cycle the puck well with his line mates. He will probably be on the team next season, but will not dress on a nightly basis. He could be next season's Andre Roy and find himself on waivers before it is all said and done.

Ray Shero has said that finding a goal-scoring winger for Sidney Crosby is not a top priority, but it is something he will try to accomplish. Shero has stated that he was comfortable with the goal scoring he got for the guys he has, but would like to find someone who could be a long-term solution on Crosby's wing...someone who could grow with Sid. That is easier said than done, but the right guy could be out there. If that player is available, I am confident that Ray Shero will find him.

I will discuss the Wilkes Barre-Scranton forwards who could potentially break into the NHL next season in the prospects part of this series. Stay tuned in the upcoming days for Goaltenders/Prospect and possible free agents.

Keep the comments coming...

Penguins By The Numbers - Part One the Defensemen

This will be the first in a series of blogs regarding the current Penguins roster. I have broken it down into Forwards, Defenseman and Goaltenders...we will give a player capsule, contract status and prospects of the individual being a Penguins next season. I will also look at possible free agent signings, trade options and prospects during this series.

Tonight we begin with the Defensemen. That seems to be where the most question marks linger and where we will most likely see some changes this off-season. With that in mind, let's get started!

Sergei Gonchar - signed through the '09-'10 season and brings a cap hit of $5.0 Mil. The Gonchar signing was lambasted across the league when he failed to live up to expectations during his first season with the team. That all changed in '06-'07, as Sarge found himself among the league's leading scoring defensemen. He actually finished second in the race with 67 pts and will be back next season. Sarge will most likely serve as Evgeni Malkin's landlord again and will be a big part of the Penguin power play. Unfortunately, he is not a huge defensive presence, although he was typically matched against the opposition’s top line this season. He would be best served as a number 2 or 3 defenseman.

Mark Eaton - signed through the '07-'08 season and brings a cap hit of $1.6 Mil. Mark Eaton was just what the doctor ordered through the first 2.5 weeks of the season and then he was derailed by a nasty wrist injury. Eaton missed 35 games then went on to miss another 12 late in the season with a knee injury. The Delaware native never seemed to fully bounce back and he just wasn't the same player. Mark Eaton is a quality stay at home defenseman, but is more of a 3,4,5 guy than a number 1. Eaton will be back but will most likely be used a bit differently after some off-season acquisitions are grafted onto the roster. He is a tenacious shot blocker and taught his teammates how to give up their bodies for the cause.

Brooks Orpik - signed through the '07-'08 season and brings a cap hit of $1.038 Mil. Orpik continued to evolve into the bruising physical presence the team was hoping for when they selected him 18th overall back in 2000. He didn't go for as many "big" hits as he had done in the past, but he improved his overall game and stayed physical. Orpik is improving and will be used on one of the Penguins top two pairings next season.

Ryan Whitney - Restricted Free Agent - Ryan Whitney took many steps forward during the last season. He became a huge part of the Penguins power play and improved upon his defense. His offense is top notch, but he does need to get better with the defensive aspect of the game. Some have mentioned him as a future Norris Trophy candidate, but he will not be considered until he begins to play a more complete game. He is a big kid who could probably play a more physical game, but will be relied upon to score in this line-up. Whitney will receive a qualifying offer from the Penguins who will look to get him signed to a 2 or 3-year deal.

Josef Melichar - Unrestricted Free Agent - Melichar was the lightning rod for much criticism this season on the Penguins blue line. However, was it all deserved? I don't think so, especially when you consider that he is at best a 5 or 6 defensemen and was being cast in a much different role. Michel Therrien used him to offset Sergei Gonchar was Mark Eaton was out of the line-up and was typically matched against the other team's top line. He was also among the team's ice time leaders night to night. Melichar was over matched at times, but did the best he could with his skill set. Look for the team to retain Melichar and use him as a 5 or 6 d-man or for depth.

Eric Cairns - Unrestricted Free Agent - Cairns, who missed most of the season with post concussion syndrome, will not be a Penguin next season. He is a slow skater and does not fit the Shero plan. To be effective he needs to hit and fight...something his ailment does not allow. He may catch on with some one, but it will be a depth position, possibly in the AHL.

Robert Scuderi - Unrestricted Free Agent - Scuderi is a tenacious penalty killer, and in that lies his value. I am not a fan of his five on five play, but he is one of the best the Penguins while playing short handed. I could see him being retained for depth and used in a 5 or 6 role game to game. I do not foresee the team keeping he and Josef Melichar...if one is signed; it's happy trails to the other. However, Michel Therrien is loyal to a fault and he will most likely lobby to have them both retained.

Alain Nasreddine - Unrestricted Free Agent - Nasreddine seemed to lose his place in the line-up after he missed several games due to the birth of a child. That was unfortunate, because he was leading the team in +/- and was very steady in the defensive zone. Being held out of the line-up seemed to put his game off and he wasn't the same player when he returned. Nasreddine will most likely be retained, if not on the parent club then for Wilkes Barre Scranton, where he has worn the C in the past.

Joel Kwiatkowski - Unrestricted Free Agent - Kwiatkowski made only one appearance for the Penguins after coming over at the trade deadline from the Florida Panthers. I do not foresee him coming back to the Penguins next season. He is mobile and moves the puck well, but he obviously did not fit the Therrien system.

Micki Dupont - Unrestricted Free Agent - Dupont seems to be made for the new look NHL, but he couldn't seem to hold a roster spot this season. Dupont, who played 3 games for the Penguins, went on to have a big year in Wilkes Barre Scranton. Dupont was actually named the team's captain and could sign a deal to stay in that role. He will not be on the parent club next season.

New Arrival:

Kris Letang - signed through the '08-'09 season. Letang looked good in a 9 game cameo with the Penguins, and then went on to tear up the QMJHL. Letang will definitely compete for a position on the Penguins blue line next season and will give the team a third dangerous point man on the power play. Letang also boasts the only right handed shot in the organization, something the team sorely lacked this season.

The Penguins defense was exposed during their opening round playoff series against Ottawa and it is an area that Ray Shero will have to address. The defense was not mobile enough and was beaten by Ottawa's quicker forwards on a regular basis. Changes will be made, but if we had to come up with the Penguins top 6 defensemen for opening night October '07 from the names listed, it would look like this:

Sergei Gonchar - Mark Eaton
Ryan Whitney - Brooks Orpik
Kris Letang - Josef Melichar

Extra: Rob Scuderi, Alain Nasreddine

I could live with the groupings listed above, but it would be the same story come playoff time. Look for Ray Shero to pick up a true number one defenseman, but he could settle for a good 2 or 3 type. The team is deep with offensively gifted defensemen, so the player could be a bit more one-dimensional the other way. One name that has been mentioned in several circles around Pittsburgh is Andy Sutton. Sutton's size and how he uses it against opposing forwards would suit the Penguins, however he does have a history of ankle injuries.

We will see what Ray Shero works out to upgrade this dimension of the team, if last year was any indication, he will do a great job of finding a gamer at the right price.

Stay Tuned tomorrow as we look at the Forwards.


Ryan Whitney had wrist surgery today to alleviate ongoing pain that had gotten progressively worse throughout the season. He will require 6 to 8 weeks of therapy on the wrist but is expected to be available for the start of training camp.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Moving Day...Pens Clean Out Lockers....Crosby Played on Broken Foot!

It was revealed at the end of last season that Sidney Crosby played the final 10 games of his rookie campaign with a separated shoulder...some things never change. The team and Crosby spent today cleaning out lockers, saying goodbyes and making another injury revelation...Crosby played the final 16 games of the season and playoffs with a broken left foot! The injury occurred during a 6-3 victory over the Montreal Canadiens back on March 16th.

"The first two weeks were pretty sore, after that, it started to heal, so it got a little bit better. When we got to the playoffs, it was sore, but it wasn't grueling or anything. I got hit there a couple times after. It didn't help it, but I was fine. It just needs time," said the young superstar of the injury.

The teams training staff outfitted Crosby's skate with light padding; no other precautions were taken, so as not to reveal the injury to the opposition. Unfortunately the injury will hold Crosby out of the World Championships.

Crosby also revealed that he and the Penguins might explore a long-term contract, which should be exciting news for Penguins fans. It is obvious that this young man is falling in love with the city that loves him and he would like to remain with this team. He also made it known that he will live with Mario Lemieux and his family next season.

In other news...

The possibility of Gary Roberts staying with the Penguins next season is starting to seem more and more likely. Today Roberts talked a bit about his future and he said that he is considering staying here in Pittsburgh. He spoke of having a great time since arriving in Pittsburgh and really enjoying the atmosphere and playing with the young guys who are going to be stars for a long time. His exact comment about staying in Pittsburgh: "It's an option that I am looking at." Roberts would be a great player to keep around as this team looks to take the next step.

Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar were invited to join Team Russia for the World Championships and could join that team as soon as Monday.

Jordan Staal will join Team Canada. He will play on a team with brother and Carolina Hurricane Eric Staal for the first time in their hockey careers.

Jarkko Ruutu will join Team Finland, while Robert Petrovicky skates for Team Slovakia.

The Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins are tied 1-1 in their first round playoff series with Norfolk. I will be sharing some info about the Baby Penguins with you all during the coming weeks, since they will be played a bit longer. Hopefully they can make a run at the Calder Cup, something that has eluded many very talented WBS teams over the years.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Penguins Regular Season Wrap Up...

The Pittsburgh Penguins accomplished more this season than anyone could have imagined. They have qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2000-01 and flirted with winning their division until the final week of the season.

The Penguins finished the year with 105 points, which represents a 47-point improvement on the 58 they accumulated last season. That turnaround is the 4th highest in league history; it also makes them only the sixth team in NHL history to improve by over 40 points from one season to the next.

The season has been exciting from the initial drop of the puck when the Penguins shut out their cross-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-0 in their home opener. That also marked the first of 8 consecutive wins against the Flyers, something that the Flightless Bird had never done before. We were all given a chance to witness the Evolution and emergence of the assets acquired during the past 6 years of losing. Most of the stories have been nothing short of amazing.

One of the greatest moments of the season occurred on March 13, 2007. That was the day that we all officially learned that a deal had been struck to keep the Pittsburgh Penguins here where they belong. That night will be one of the fondest memories for a lot of Penguins fans and should rank along side the franchises Stanley Cup victories.

The Players

It was a great statistical season for most of the players who pulled on a Black and Vegas Gold sweater. The team produced:

- 2 players with at least 30 goals
- 5 players with at least 20 goals
- 11 players with at least 10 goals
- 5 players with at least 10 power play goals
- 7 players with at least 40 points
- 15 players with an Even or better +/- rating

These statistics pretty much debunk the thinking that the team didn't have enough scoring from the wingers and bodes very well for the future.

Here are some of the great accomplishments we witnessed from Penguin players this season.

Sidney Crosby

Of course any list that talks about Penguin accomplishments has to begin with Sidney Crosby. This young man has truly elevated himself to elite status in the National Hockey league. Crosby put up 6 points on December 13th against the Philadelphia Flyers to put himself ahead in the NHL scoring race and hasn't looked back since. He fended off charges by both Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier to capture the first Art Ross Trophy of his career, making him the youngest winner in league history. He was the youngest player in history to hit 200 points in a career and his 2-season total of 222 is the 5th highest for any player during their first two seasons in the league. Crosby also earned his first Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year award, a prestigious award in the city of Pittsburgh. The sky is the limit for this young man and he is only 19. Imagine Crosby in his prime...

Evegni Malkin

After what can only be described as a cloak and dagger affair to get this young man into a Penguin uniform, he did not disappoint. Malkin missed the first four games of the season after suffering a separated shoulder during training camp in a collision with John LeClair, but started the season strong. He set a NHL record by scoring goals in his first 6 career games, finishing the season with 33. Malkin was named Rookie of the Month for October and November, only the second rookie to capture the award in consecutive months to start a career. Malkin is the leading candidate to win the Calder Trophy as the Rookie of the Year. Malkin leads all rookies in almost every category including: Goals, Assists, Points, Shots, PP Points, PP Assists, and he is tied for Game Winning Goals with 6. This young man is pure talent and should be even more amazing as he gets completely comfortable with the North American game.

Jordan Staal

It blows my mind to think that we were all discussing sending this young man back to Peterborough after his initial 9 game cup of coffee in the league. I am sure glad that we were all wrong. Jordan Staal was probably the Penguin's best defensive player throughout the season and showed a goal scoring touch that most didn't know he had developed yet. Staal led all NHL players with a shooting % of 22.1. Staal was able to set two NHL rookie records during a great freshman season. The first by scoring 7 short handed goals, the second by becoming the youngest player in league history to record a hat trick (18 years, 153 days). Staal finished the campaign with 29 goals and 13 assists and could get himself on the ballot for Rookie of the Year. He is a huge kid and could end up being a monster, the likes of Todd Bertuzzi, once he fills out.

Marc Andre Fleury

MA or the Flower as his teammates call him finally got the chance to be the number one guy in Pittsburgh and he didn't disappoint. Fleury's 40 wins rank him second in team history and make him the first Penguin goaltender to record at least 40 wins since Tom Barrasso set the team record with 43 back in 92-93. MA also posted 5 shut outs and set career highs in most statistical categories. Fleury is quickly becoming a franchise goaltender, just as the team envisioned when they took him first overall back in 2003. This young man is as competitive as they come and hates to lose...he will be a future Vezina winner in this league.

Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney

The Penguins have not boasted two point men of this pedigree since the days of Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy. The two combined for 27 goals and 126 points. Gonchar could find himself getting some darkhorse consideration for the Norris Trophy based on his scoring total and Whitney should be a contender in the near future. These two are vital to the Penguins breakout, especially Whitney, who seems to always make a great first pass out of the zone. The Penguins forwards definitely benefit from having these two on the blue line. Both should be here for at least the next three years.

The Veterans

Mark Recchi sipped from the fountain of youth this season while playing on a line with Sidney Crosby. He provided great leadership and scored some big goals in helping this young team learn how to win. All of the BS that was going on last season went right out the window and Recchi was a model citizen and teammate, helping the young players along in every situation.

Gary Roberts joined the team at the trade deadline and has been nothing short of phenomenal. He brings everything that a team going to the playoffs needs to be successful. Toughness, scoring and above all - Leadership. He has been a great teammate and has scored some big goals in his short time here. The team feeds off of his wolverine-like demeanor and also gets energized by his physical play. He will have a lot to do with any success that the team has in the playoffs.

The Role Players

These guys have been the unsung heroes of the team this season. There are not enough words to describe their contributions. Max Talbot and Jarkko Ruutu have been textbook 3rd and 4th line energy guys all season long. They have played defense in tough situations, killed penalties, agitated the other team and stood up for teammates. They have combined for 20 goals and 30 points, something that probably wasn't expected of them when the season began. These two are not alone...they are joined by the newly acquired Georges Laraque, Colby Armstrong, and Ronald Petrovicky.

The Rest of the Team

The team has gotten contributions from up and down the line-up and everyone has filled a role for the Penguins. Ray Shero wanted to build a team that would not make just one run, but compete for years to come and that is exactly what he did. He has decent depth at all positions on the ice, at least at the NHL level. The defensemen have overachieved to some extent and they will have to be strong during the playoffs for the team to be successful.

The Penguins regular season has been nothing short of amazing and the playoffs are gravy at this point. Though the team has a good opportunity to make a run at a Stanley Cup this season, this playoff year will most likely go down as a great learning experience.

This year can already be considered a success and the future is very bright. The March of the Penguins continues into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and beyond...the years of waiting have paid off Penguin fans get ready for the ride!