Marc-Andre Fleury, My Favorite Goaltender

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I heard about Marc-Andre Fleury before I saw him. Literally, I heard thousands of fans chanting his name before I had seen him play.

In October 2003, I was driving back to my home at the time, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which sits atop a hill about three city blocks from the former site of Mellon Arena. I was listening to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ radio broadcast of a preseason game versus the Los Angeles Kings.

People from Pittsburgh will be able to visualize: I was coming from I-579N, getting off at the Sixth Street exit and heading toward Fifth Avenue. You come off the exit ramp, drive around a bend to a traffic light, and you’re staring straight at the parking lot where the Civic Arena used to be.

I’m listening to the radio broadcast of the game, and the Pens were predictably losing 2-0 to the Los Angeles Kings, but the 2003 Penguins losing wasn’t newsworthy. The story was that the Penguins’ not-yet-19-year old goaltender was making his NHL debut.

I’ll get to back to what this meant to the franchise in a moment, but this is why this game will forever be seared into my brain:

During a Hockey game, fans make a number of very distinct sounds when certain plays happen. Even a diminished home crowd such as the one that watched this October 2003 preseason game makes these noises.

If the home team almost scores -especially if they whiff on an empty net, or the puck trickles through the away team’s crease – the sound the crowd makes is more of an “OHHH!”, as if to say “Dammit, we were so close,” or “Aw, shit”.

When the home team’s goaltender makes a great save, the home crowd makes more of an “AHHH!” sound. It’s nervous relief combined with wonder.

I stopped at the red light in front of the Civic Arena, about to turn right to go toward Duquesne, and I’m listening to the game. I swear to God, the “AHHH!” noises coming from inside the Civic/Mellon Arena were louder than the radio broadcast in my car. I could hear the crowd as clear as day appreciating the franchise’s newest teenage savior.

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There probably weren’t 5,000 people in the arena for that preseason game, which the Pens would go on to lose 3-0. Marc made 46 saves behind one of the worst rosters in contemporary NHL history. Here’s CBC’s recap of the game, if you didn’t click on the link above:

Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury did everything in his NHL debut — except get the win.

The 18-year-old netminder stopped 46 shots, including a penalty shot, in a 3-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Friday night at the Igloo.

Eric Belanger, Trent Klatt and Zigmund Palffy scored for the Kings, who were coming off a 3-2 loss to Detroit on Thursday night. Palffy and Klatt added assists in the win.

Cristobal Huet had a much easier time in the other goal, making 11 saves for his second career shutout.

Fleury, the first overall pick in June’s NHL entry draft, was spectacular between the pipes for the Pens, but was saddled with the burden of seven Kings power plays.

And that’s been much of Marc’s story in Pittsburgh: he has often played exceptionally-well behind an atrocious or indifferent defense, and his efforts would largely be forgotten or underappreciated.

A lot of people who jumped on the Penguins’ bandwagon in 2013 or whenever have no idea what Marc has meant to the franchise. He was Hope at a time in which the franchise had none, with the team having recently parted out players like Alex Kovalev and Marty Straka while the specter of Relocation loomed large.

The 2003-04 season was the lowest point in 20 years for the Penguins, dating back to the season before Mario was drafted, and prior to Sid Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury was the light at the end of the tunnel signalling a better future.

I’m here to educate all of the newer and fair-weather fans: the franchise has been blessed to have drafted Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s been everything Penguins fans could have reasonably expected and more.

I’m not a naive fan. I recognize that Marc’s time in Pittsburgh is quickly coming to an end. The fourteen years since the team took him out of Cape Breton have flown by, and like Marc himself, I wish there was a way to keep him in Pittsburgh for the duration of his playing career. But the writing appears to be on the wall, for as I write this Matt Murray is set to start his 6th consecutive game for the team and has seemingly cemented his place as the team’s starting goaltender moving forward.

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But there are so many fans, both educated and otherwise, who can’t wait to see the team cut ties with Marc Fleury, as though he’s some albatross. Penguins fans and NHL trade-deadline junkies alike can’t come up with enough circle-jerk scenarios that land Flower on a Western Conference pretender in exchange for a top-flight defenseman or winger and a cascade of Cap Space.

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I’ll tell these groups two things right now: there isn’t a player that the Penguins are going to get back who is going to be more-impactful than Marc. And the Penguins absolutely cannot get back a better human being or teammate.

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 Marc has watched Matt Murray, correctly or incorrectly, wrestle his job from him. And by all accounts, he has been as positive and supportive as one could reasonably expect.

Is Marc pleased that some snot-nosed 21-year old punk has taken his position as the team’s top goaltender, just as the franchise for which he’s toiled under is experiencing a rebirth under Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan? Fuck no. Marc is very highly-competitive, even by the standards of a professional athlete. But I’ll get back to all of this at the end of the article.

I want to write a bit about all of the misconceptions related to Marc Fleury, as I feel he’s taken a disproportionate amount of criticism for the team’s underwhelming playoff performances between 2010 and 2016. 

Let’s start with the one-the-nose stuff, since Flower’s critics tend to be obtuse and thicker than wet cement:

The Penguins were still the underdog when they played the Detroit Red Wings for a second time in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final. Advanced stats geeks will tell you that the 2007-2009 Red Wings were a generational possession juggernaut.

The Red Wings took a 2-0 lead in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final. Flower defiantly told the assembled media in Detroit following Game 2 that the series was nowhere near over. Then Pittsburgh, with Flower in goal, beat Detroit four out of five times. To cap it off, Marc made one of the best saves in Stanley Cup Final history:

That’s Marc making a dead-to-rights save on Nick Lidstrom – Detroit’s Best Player, Captain, and Reigning Norris Trophy Winner – in the waning seconds of a Game 7.

For all the praise someone like Patrick Roy gets for being a Money Goaltender, I challenge anyone to come up with a more-clutch scenario. The opponent’s best player has the puck on his stick, with a point-blank opportunity in the final seconds of Game 7 of a hotly-contested, rematch Cup Final. If I wrote that as Fiction, it would be derided as being too unrealistic.

And that’s not to denigrate Patrick Roy. He was great. But Marc Fleury has also been great. Lots of great goaltenders – Hank Lundqvist, Braden Holtby, and Carey Price, to name a few – can go their entire careers without winning or even appearing in a Cup Final. 

It sometimes seems like endless bouquets, probably rightfully so, are thrown at certain goalies for their excellence in the regular season. Lundqvist is a key example. But when their teams fall short in the postseason, the shortcomings are perceived to be those of the team rather than a fantastic goaltender’s inability to win in a clutch situation.

Marc has won a Cup, appeared in another, and positioned his team to win a third. The guy has flat-out won a ton of games, playoff and regular-season alike. And that’s a big reason why he’s my favorite.

Marc is no different than any other NHL starting goaltender, except that maybe his highs are higher and his lows are lower. Unfortunately, his ten-bell robberies don’t earn him any more credit than routine stops from the outside, and that has been the basis of his criticism.

Every goaltender lets in bad goals, and admittedly Marc probably lets in as many as any NHL goaltender. These are the best players in the world competing against each other, and sometimes someone is going to the shorter end of the stick. But Marc also makes saves that no one else can. Like this one. And this one. And all of these.

In 2017, Marc Fleury is maybe too athletic for his position. Contemporary Goaltending has become extremely economical and positional, and in this regard many NHL goalies (including Matt Murray) are better than Marc. The modern NHL is a league in which five players help clog shooting lanes, with the goaltender minimizing movement. Marc has matured a great deal in this regard and become a better positional goaltender, but this is and never was his forte.

In fact, had he come into the League five years earlier, I suspect Flower would be viewed much-more favorably by casual fans and the at-large media. As an example, Marty Brodeur won the 2004 Vezina Trophy with a Save Percentage of .917, which would be a decent or even below-average  year for Flower. Meanwhile in 2016, the three Vezina finalists had Save Percentages of .922, .930, and .933, respectively.

This again isn’t to denigrate Marty Brodeur, but to point out how expectations and the position have fundamentally changed. 2004 Vezina Winner and nailed-on Hall of Famer Marty Brodeur would be a statistically below-average starting goaltender in 2017. Marc has not only kept up but improved greatly as a goaltender, and still the expectations for excellence have surpassed his statistical performance.

But Marc has been very good, and it seems like most people look to poke holes in his overall performance rather than celebrate his accomplishments.

To wit, much of the national media likes to cherry-pick Marc’s worst moments, such as his ill-conceived forays out of his net and the 2012 playoff flame-out against the Philadelphia Flyers. They haven’t watched him game-in, game-out every year like I have, and the outside perception is that he’s this head-case that has single-handily prevented the Crosby-era Penguins from ringing off a fistful of consecutive Cup runs.

Winning One Stanley Cup Championship, or even appearing in one Cup Final, is unfathomably difficult. But it’s the annual expectation of the Pittsburgh Penguins management, ownership, and fan base, not to mention intrigued outsiders. And that expectation has created a negative misconception relative to what Marc Fleury has helped his teams accomplish.

On the other hand, Marc gets relatively-little credit for reinventing his game at the onset of the 2014 season, and carrying his team through the dying days of Disco Dan Bylsma and the regrettable Mike Johnston era.

I’ll take a moment to specifically address the 2012 playoff series against Philadelphia:

I had just moved to Wilmington, NC from Pittsburgh, and I didn’t have a ton going on in my life socially at the time. So I watched every minute of that series like a hawk, and Marc inarguably let in some bad goals. But that was a team-wide collapse for which Marc has taken undue criticism.

The Penguins coach, Dan Bylsma, let the Flyers drag his high-flying skill squad into the mud. The Flyers were able to dictate the tone of the series, getting the Penguins away from the dominant, record-setting 5-on-5 possession game they had played for most of the season and turning the series into a penalty-filled Special Teams battle. Credit to Philadelphia for taking the wheel, but shame on Dan Bylsma for not getting a handle on his team or adjusting his tactics in any way.

As I write this, Dan Bylsma, who I like and respect, is struggling to keep his team competitive in Buffalo. He would kill to have Marc Fleury playing goal for him.

A number of Penguins’ players – notably Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, Aaron Asham, James Neal, and the basically-useless Craig Adams –  lost their damned minds during that 2012 series, taking a ton of unnecessary penalties and putting their goaltender in a position to fail. If you read the Box Scores from the series, it reads a lot more like a team that emotionally-collapsed rather than a goaltender who self-immolated.

The defense didn’t do great work, it should go without saying. Kris Letang didn’t help matters by spending the bulk of the series in the Penalty Box and forcing Matt Niskanen to pick up his slack. Paul Martin was injured for half of the series and diminished when he was available. Deryk Engelland played to his capabilities, but he absolutely should not have been in the top-6 of a team with Cup aspirations.

And since we’re talking about it, let’s re-examine Ray Shero’s role in orchestrating this nightmare scenario. He girded up his fourth line with the likes of Adams, Asham, and Joe Vitale, a collective possession black-hole at the NHL level. His absurd strategy of having Sid/Geno/Staal/Neal account for 80% of the scoring looks worse with each passing day. He took a Pittsburgh Penguins “soul” and wrapped a Philadelphia Flyers shell around it, and a consequence was the 2012 series loss to the Flyers.

I like Ray Shero, and I supported him for a long time. But as I write this, he currently has his New Jersey Devils team dead-last in the Eastern Conference. I would argue that the nucleus of Sid, Geno, Jordan Staal, and Flower won in-spite of Ray’s roster-building as much as they benefited from it.

Marc certainly played his part in the Penguins’ 2012 playoff loss. Eight goals against in back-to-back games is horrid. But that was a team-wide collapse, barring a few exceptions (Malkin, Niskanen, Jordan Staal) that Marc has taken disproportionate blame for.

You can watch this preposterous series compilation and form your own opinion. But I think a lot of people, including his coach and general manager, scapegoated Marc pretty unfairly.

Marc got yanked again after Game 4 of the 2013 Eastern Quarterfinals, as the organizational slant was to blame Flower for being psychologically-frail rather than look at Bylsma’s inability to adjust his tactics or Shero’s decision to disrupt chemistry and over-stuff the roster with aging, plodding veterans like Doug Murray and Brenden Morrow (note: the Jarome Iginla trade was still a great one).

With Marc mostly watching from the bench, I unfortunately have to remind Penguins fans that the team got absolutely taken to the wood-shed by the Boston Bruins, getting shut-out in the 2013 Eastern Final. If that’s not an indictment of the coach’s inability to adapt, rather than a goaltender who barely played, then I don’t know what is.

Those two playoff series are the basis upon which the national media has built much of their Marc Fleury narrative. The narrative seems to be that Marc Fleury is a playoff choker and a mental case, but the truth is that he owns two Cup Rings and has won nine playoff series behind an often-porous defense and frequently over-matched coaches in Bylsma and Johnston.

The national media rarely mentions that Flower nearly stole a 2013 series against Tampa Bay – Sid and Geno were both out with injuries, Mark Letestu centered the 1st line, and James Neal had one goal in 20-odd games for Pittsburgh – or that his composure prevented the Columbus Blue Jackets from upsetting the 2014 team in the 1st round.

Most national pundits acknowledge that the Penguins lost to a greatly-superior Rangers team in the 2015 Eastern Quarterfinal, but Flower receives little credit for keeping the punchless Penguins in the series. The Penguins – the damn Pittsburgh Penguins, they of the myriad all-star forwards and scoring titles – meekly bowed out after one win and four 2-1 losses. Marc put up a .927 Save Percentage, and while Hank Lundqvist outplayed him, barely, the Penguins didn’t put enough pucks past Lundqvist for it to merit discussion.

Mike Johnston and his Junior Hockey systems nearly drained the life from the franchise, but Marc Fleury’s steady play allowed the team to maintain a modicum of respect. Marc put up a .921 Save Percentage in 2014-15, holding the fort while Johnston’s inane system and the team’s lack of puck-moving defensemen crippled the offense.

Smarter fans and followers will remember that the Penguins almost missed the playoffs in 2014, and needing a win on the last day of the season, Marc put up a Shutout in Buffalo behind five defensemen.

Something very similar happened in 2015-16, in which Marc put up a .920 Save Percentage for the season and banked much-needed victories until the Mike Johnston era mercifully came to an end. The 2015-16 Penguins simply do not win the Stanley Cup without Marc’s regular-season performance. This fact frequently gets swept aside by critics of Marc and proponents of Matt Murray.

If I really thought about it, I could come up with dozens upon dozens of games in which Flower was a standout for the franchise. Like I wrote at the top of the article, I’ve seen the bulk of them as they unfolded live, and frankly Fleury has had too many stellar performances to remember. But I’ll include some more of those at a later date.

The advanced stats crowd – for whom my contempt grows by the day – loves to cite statistics such as “Expected Goals Against/60” as their argument for why Marc Fleury isn’t a quality NHL netminder. I would take such statistics much more seriously if the geeks espousing them had ever played a meaningful hockey game, but more often than not that’s not the case.

The statistic that supporters of Marc such as myself will cite is Wins, a statistic in which Marc currently sits 17th in the history of the NHL and could easily jump to 13th with more routine work. If he starts three or four more years for a playoff-caliber team, Marc could crack the top-5 of all-time.

Flower’s detractors take a basic, dense stance on this matter, which is that the gaudy Wins total is a result of the teams in front him while the inconsistent individual stats are solely Marc’s fault. These detractors are typically the nerds who want to distill Hockey down to a something you can completely interpret with algorithms and spreadsheets. These detractors usually want to suggest that the juggernaut Penguins of the last decade would have won all of those games with any jamoke beer-league goaltender backstopping them.

But Hockey People – the real, knowledgeable ones, like Pens GM Jim Rutherford – will tell you that you win and lose as a team, and that certain attributes can’t be quantified. I’ll argue all day that the Penguins’ fast-and-loose style of play – combined with Marc’s baptism-by-fire behind the atrocious 2003-04 and 2005-06 Penguins – have suppressed his personal statistics to a large degree. If you throw out his first several years in the League, Marc’s career Goals Against and Save Percentage look a lot better.

Marc-Andre Fleury has always been the ultimate teammate, and that more than his personal statistics will be his legacy in Pitttsburgh. That and the two large pieces of silver hardware for which he is directly responsible. 

When someone like Steve Yzerman or Jonathan Toews sacrifices his personal statistics for the good of the team, it’s seen as commendable or even noble. And that’s what Marc Fleury has done for the bulk of his career: he’s put his team in front of himself, and I challenge anyone to argue otherwise.

Not to keep picking on Jonathan Toews, but if Joel Quenneville reduced his playing time to ten minutes a night – or even made him a regular healthy scratch – I wonder if he would accept a role reduction as gracefully as Flower has. Some are going to fail to see my comparison, but it’s apt.

It’s a team sport, and Wins are the ultimate statistic. It’s about time that Marc was applauded for his huge Win totals, rather than seen as a replaceable cog on the Crosby-era Penguins teams. Maybe after he’s playing and climbing the All-Time Wins list for another NHL team, people – Pittsburghers, especially – will have a greater appreciation for how fantastic his career has been.

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I think the biggest thing working against Marc Fleury the player is that he’s a normal, happy human being. He understands that Hockey is just a game, and he likes to have fun. He has a better overall perspective on Life and the sport’s place within it, and it ends up undercutting him in a way as a competitor.

A lot of hockey players aren’t like this. I’m not like this. Sid Crosby isn’t like this, and Matt Murray isn’t like this. 

Based on what I’ve seen from Matt Murray, he has a huge chip on his shoulder. He quietly fumes, smoldering and never lacking for motivation. And I like that in a player, too. I think what fuels Matt Murray is being overlooked as a fourth-round pick and a relative afterthought. He’s spent his entire career taking jobs from pedigree guys like Marc Fleury, a former 1st Overall and foundation piece of the team. Again, full credit to Matt Murray for creating an opportunity for himself. I’m very glad he’s a Pittsburgh Penguin. 

I also can’t deny the evidence – the eye-test, as well as some of the advanced and traditional statistics – many of which indicate that the team plays significantly better in front of Matt Murray than Marc Fleury. I sometimes scream at the Pens’ defensemen for the apathy they appear to show, watching mouths agape after firing a perfect one-time pass in the slot to an opposing forward for an easy goal.

For whatever reason, the team often plays to the tune of Ringling Brothers music when Marc is in net, yet they look like a sure-fire bet to repeat as 2017 Cup Champs in front of Matt Murray. I can’t fully explain it, but it’s certainly there. I don’t begrudge Matt Murray for taking the ball and running with it, and I think Mike Sullivan has handled a very difficult situation as well as he possibly could. But circumstances are forcing Jim Rutherford to make a very hard decision.

It’s possible, if not probable, that Marc-Andre will be traded by the time you read this. As I write this, the NHL Trade Deadline is looming, and the rumor mill is churning loudly. The situation is becoming untenable, as Flower is (understandably) antsy to play and Murray is entrenching himself into the team’s fabric. If a reasonable trade scenario presents itself, Jim Rutherford will probably pull the trigger. And Marc-Andre Fleury’s 14 years with the team will end overnight.

I have a dream scenario in which the Penguins repeat as Cup Champs in 2017, and Marc plays a pivotal role. And I don’t want that for me. I want that for Marc, because he’s been the ultimate good soldier. Short of that, I hope Marc gets dealt to a Western Conference contender, and I hope he has a chance to prove to both Penguins and NHL fans once-and-for-all that he’s an elite, generational NHL goaltender.

Time will tell. But whatever team employs Marc-Andre in the future will have a first-rate human being in their fold, and a dynamite goalie to boot. It’s disheartening that it’s not likely to be Pittsburgh.

This has been a long article, but Marc’s had a long career as a Pittsburgh Penguin, and too many people need to know how terrific he’s been for the organization on multiple levels. For his humor, his selflessness, his uniqueness, and his massive contributions to revitalizing the Pittsburgh Penguins, Marc-Andre Fleury, the Flower, is my favorite goaltender, wherever he happens to play.

 

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Opinion: Pittsburgh Penguins 2015 Trade Deadline Preview

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(UPDATE: 2/21/15 – this article required an immediate update following the Pens 4-2 win against St. Louis. It may be amended further as developments occur.)

Having gotten a much better and lengthier look at the “Grim” Jim Rutherford/Mike Johnston iteration of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the time has come to take a hard look as the team’s needs approaching the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline. I’ll give a brief evaluation of the job Rutherford and Johnston have done to date, and also take a more-objective look at the Ray Shero/Dan Bylsma teams that represented the organization so well from 2009-2014.

On the 2014-15 Pittsburgh Penguins

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With more than half of the 2014-15 NHL season played, I think it’s fair to give some initial impressions of the Jim Rutherford/Mike Johnston version of the Pittsburgh Penguins, as well as to cite some of the way in which the 2015 team compares to teams from the Shero/Bylsma regime.

First, to get this out of the way: I am not in the habit of criticizing Mario Lemieux, ever, but Ray Shero and especially Dan Bylsma deserved better treatment on the way out the door. While I agree with Mario and Ron Burkle that a change in direction was needed from an organizational perspective, leaving Disco and his staff dangling in the wind for weeks while a successor to Ray Shero was appointed wasn’t a class move.

In any event, the front office was reorganized, with Penguins “organizational” guys Jason Botterill, Billy Guerin, and Tom Fitzgerald named Associate and Assistant General Managers, respectively, under Grim. Former Portland Winterhawks czar Mike Johnston was eventually named Head Coach, and Pens great Rick Tocchet was named to his staff along with veteran NHL assistant Gary Agnew.

Under the mandate of Mario and Ron Burkle, Grim sought to bring in more grit and character. The results have been decidedly mixed, as the Pens have basically been a .500 hockey team since Christmas following a white-hot start. The Power Play, which once clicked at rates nearing 40%, is 0-for-20 as I type this on February 21st.

(UPDATE: the Pens converted 2.5 Power Play against St. Louis, with a Sid Crosby Power Play goal being called off because officials lost sight of the puck. Crosby assisted on a clean Power Play goal to Patric Hornqvist, and Brandon Sutter scored on the tail end of a Power Play.With the win, the team is now 11-11-5 since December 22nd.)

The Penguins are seemingly further away from their goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final than they were one year ago. While the team still looks like a powerhouse on paper, the depth issues – particularly in the bottom-six forwards and on the second defensive pair – have not been resolved.

It’s also obvious to opponents that if they contain Sid Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, no one on the lower half of the roster is going to be consistently able to produce in their stead. When the Pens’ Power Play went cold, the inability of the 3rd and 4th lines to contribute at 5-on-5 became a much more glaring issue, one that new GM Grim may not be able to entirely rectify by the 2015 Trade Deadline.

These are my impressions on the 2015 Pittsburgh Penguins, written about 10 days before the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline:

On Ray Shero and Jim Rutherford

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Due to the ugly nature of their respective dismissals, many of “Showtime” Ray Shero and “Disco” Dan Bylsma’s collective accomplishments have been swept under the rug. While I am in the camp that believes an organizational change was necessary following the 2014 NHL season, I am also of the opinion that both Bylsma and Shero deserved better for all of the great things they achieved.

Also, I wanted to get my thoughts out before one or both men are hired by another organization, which I think is imminent. I think Dan Bylsma is the next NHL coach to be hired, and in fact would be working now if he so wished. I fully expect Ray Shero to be given the keys to another NHL team this summer prior to the 2015 Entry Draft.

In writing this article, I am omitting the Michel Therrien (2006-2009) years, as Ray Shero inherited Therrien and a complete view including the Shero/Therrien years would exceed the scope of this article. The Penguins’ job was obviously Ray Shero’s first as General Manager, and due to a number of considerations – including the coach, financial situation, staff, and team he inherited – Shero’s first three years with Therrien merit a separate discussion.

But the short version is this: no Pittsburgh Penguins team under Showtime and Disco saw such inconsistent levels of success as the 2015 Pens have under Grim/Mike Johnston. Under Disco/Showtime, a three-game losing streak came about as often as the Lunar Eclipse.

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For a long period of time, Ray Shero was seemingly beyond reproach. He won the Manager of the Year award following the 2013 season, so it’s not as though he lost touch at the end of his tenure. It’s also ridiculous to argue that he did not do everything within his power to load his team up at the Trade Deadline every year, often at the expense of organizational depth.

Not that much might have been done with the draft pics Showtime traded away, as the Penguins continued to have the same problems developing non-first round talent under Shero as they did under Craig Patrick. But Ray Shero made sure his juggernaut Penguins’ teams from 2008-2013 had every conceivable advantage from a roster perspective.

As Manager of the Penguins, Showtime had a unique challenge, in that he was given a nucleus of players that most other managers would kill for. Showtime’s challenge, which is now Grim’s challenge, was to properly surround his all-world core with the right complementary players.

We could argue how well Showtime did in this regard, but it’s moot as Mario and Ron Burkle ultimately decided Showtime wasn’t bringing in the right kind of complementary players. I don’t have a great feel for what Jim Rutherford prefers, but I know for a fact that Ray Shero preferred rough guys tinged with a bit of skill.

To wit, here are his primary acquisitions during the Crosby/Malkin era:

2007: Gary Roberts, Georges Laraque

2008: Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis, Hal Gill

2009: Billy Guerin, Chris Kunitz, Craig Adams

2010: Alex Ponikarosky, Jordan Leopold (swing, miss)

2011: James Neal, Alex Kovalev, Matty Niskanen

2012: Cal O’Reilly (rah?)

2013: Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Doug Murray

Showtime obviously thought “sandpaper” first, then looked for guys skilled enough to play with the likes of Sid, Geno, et al. I recall him somewhat begrudgingly re-acquiring Kovy, but Mario obviously vouched for him.

Love it or hate it, Ray Shero had a vision for how he wanted the Pittsburgh Penguins to look. I certainly didn’t always agree with his moves, at least initially, but it was hard to knock the overall results.

Moving on, eight months after his hiring, I have no idea what Grim looks for in a player. He hit a Home Run with the trade for David Perron, but I always have to temper my enthusiasm for his work by recalling the horrible contracts he handed out to Eric Staal, Alex Semin, and Cam Ward, among others.

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Of course, Grim also signed Flower to a very good-looking extension earlier in the year, and he did acquire the likes of DP and Horny. The Christian Ehrhoff signing has not quite worked out as planned, but there is still time for that particular move to pay off. The low-cost signings of Blake Comeau, Steve Downie, and Marcel Goc worked to various degrees, but none of them were disastrous additions.

Heading into the 2015 Trade Deadline, Grim realizes as most do that the 2015 Pens are not a Cup-level team as currently constructed. The interesting part will be to see if Grim decides the roster needs a band-aid or major surgery.

On Dan Bylsma and Mike Johnston

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In Spring 2009, after almost three years on the job, Ray Shero removed Michel Therrien as Head Coach and brought promising coach prospect Dan Bylsma up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Many at the time, myself included, thought the move was a stop-gap until a more noteworthy candidate could be found.

History has of course proven this line of thinking wrong, as Dan Bylsma – moving forward referred to as “Disco” or “Coach Disco” – went on to have tremendous success as Head Coach of the Penguins. In addition to winning the 2009 Stanley Cup, Disco is the Franchise leader in Wins and the 2011 Jack Adams Winner. He holds a career Winning Percentage of .653, meaning his Penguins’ teams won over 6.5 of every 10 games played. Most organizations would kill for success of that magnitude.

The reason this article is coming out now is that the 2014-15 Penguins are currently as a crossroads, as the team is woefully inconsistent compared to most of the Bylsma-era Penguins teams. As an example, the current Pens squad finished 5-4-3 in January. The preceding months, though more successful, are similarly-uneven.

Here is the team’s Win/Loss record so far n February. Notice the wild swings on the scoreboard:

Sun Feb 1, 2015 Predators Penguins 2:00 PM FINAL NSH (4) – PIT (0)   Recap
Wed Feb 4, 2015 Penguins Oilers 8:00 PM FINAL PIT (2) – EDM (0)   Recap
Fri Feb 6, 2015 Penguins Flames 9:00 PM FINAL PIT (4) – CGY (0)   Recap
Sat Feb 7, 2015 Penguins Canucks 10:00 PM FINAL PIT (0) – VAN (5)   Recap
Wed Feb 11, 2015 Red Wings Penguins 8:00 PM FINAL DET (1) – PIT (4)   Recap
Thu Feb 12, 2015 Penguins Senators 7:30 PM FINAL PIT (5) – OTT (4) SO   Recap
Sun Feb 15, 2015 Penguins Blackhawks 12:30 PM FINAL PIT (1) – CHI (2) SO   Recap
Tue Feb 17, 2015 Capitals Penguins 7:00 PM FINAL WSH (3) – PIT (1)   Recap
Thu Feb 19, 2015 Blue Jackets Penguins 7:00 PM FINAL CBJ (2) – PIT (1)

As I type this, the Pens overall record is 32-17-9 33-17-9. While that’s certainly not bad, it certainly doesn’t include a historic 14-game winning streak. Hell, not even a 12-game winning streak.

It’s hard for me to use the injury situation on the 2015 Pens as an excuse, considering Coach Disco guided to the 2014 team to yet-another Division title despite handily leading the NHL in Man Games Lost in 2014. Dan Bylsma has a remarkable ability to churn out wins regardless of the roster he’s given every night, and that’s about as much praise as you can heap on a coach.

While I like a lot of what Mike Johnston has implemented – more on this in a moment – it’s hard to overlook the accomplishments and gross numbers the 2009-2014 Penguins achieved.

Mike Johnston, Rick Tocchet

Meanwhile, most had no idea about what to expect from Mike Johnston. My early impression was that he knew enough to let his big dogs off the leash, and that he simplified the systems – particularly Disco’s elaborate stretch-pass breakout in such a way that the team’s defensemen because much more effective. And not that it was entirely his doing, but Marc-Andre Fleury has never been better. Some credit needs to be given to Johnston for helping insulate Flower and indirectly getting his play up to Vezina-caliber.

The early returns were impressive. In 2014, the Pens’ Power Play looked like an unstoppable juggernaut, with Chris Kunitz and newcomer Patric Hornqvist making life miserable for every goaltender in the League. The Penalty Kill, which has become an annual point of pride for the Pens, had it’s now-standard spot among the Top-1o in the NHL. The Pens looked like a dominant contender for the Cup.

However, since the calendar flipped to 2015, the offense – both 5-on-5 and on the Power Play – has been touch-and-go, at best. While there have been positives – notably the play of Flower, the pairing of Kris Letang/Paul Martin, and newly-acquired David Perron – the team is precipitously-close to backsliding.

Particularly distressing is the team’s abysmal record against Divisional rivals, spotlighted by a couple beatings courtesy of the New York teams and Washington, any of whom the Penguins could see in the first round of the playoffs.

Pittsburgh currently sits 4th in the Metrosexual Metropolitan Division due to the team’s strong start. As noted above, the team has been inconsistent at best since the New Year. The season is not lost, but as Sid Crosby said following the team’s 2-1 loss to Columbus on February 19th, “it’s time to get going.”

My take is that the coaching is not an issue. Mike Johnston is encountering the same problem that Dan Bylsma ran into with the 2014 version of the team, minus the horrendous man-games lost situation: the roster needs a number of foundational repairs. Until these issues are addressed, Scottie Bowman and Toe Blake could co-coach the team to similar results.

This is where we will see if Grim Rutherford was the right replacement for Ray Shero. While Showtime and his staff had their shortcomings – notably in Drafting and in finding the appropriate players to surround the Pens’ nucleus with – it can never be said that did not do everything at the Trade Deadline to arm his teams for deep playoff runs.

Grim has now been on the job long enough to see that the changes needed to make the Pens a true Cup contender are significant. Ray Shero knew that the 2014 Penguins team was one that was bereft of depth, as he pushed many of his chips in at the 2013 Deadline. The 2014 Pens – Tanner Glass and Joe Vitale and Deryk Engellend, oh my – were paper-thin, and the 2015 version is not significantly deeper.

It’s simply too much to ask five or six superstar players to carry a squad, a fact that was obscured by the great job Dan Bylsma did at wringing victories out of Penguins teams filled with replacement-level talents. If the current Penguins team wants to go anywhere in the postseason, a fairly-massive retooling of the roster’s bottom-half is likely needed, before another year of Sid and Geno’s prime is wasted.

Pressing Needs

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Pittsburgh Penguins

I’ve beaten this into the ground so much both guys probably think it’s personal, but Brandon Sutter and Craig Adams need to replaced in their respective roles.

My new soulmate Ryan Wilson of Hockey Buzz has written much about how these two players in particular are crippling the team from an analytic perspective. Sutter routinely gets out-shot and fails to drive play or make his teammates better, while Adams is an offensive cipher who does much of the same.

In defense of both men, as well as occasional whipping-boy Rob Scuderi, I watched all three beast their way through an extended 5-on-3 kill versus Columbus. Craig Adams is absolutely fearless, and will put his face in front of a Shea Weber slapshot if he thinks it will help the team. Sutter is an effective Penalty Killer, has noticeably improved on face-offs, and at times has the appearance of being a contributor offensively. The point is that both players, as well as Scuderi, have positive points and usefulness at the NHL level.

However, both Adams and Sutter are seemingly bulletproof in regard to demotion or healthy-scratching, and it’s hitting the Penguins in the standings. By contrast, the coaching staff seems intent on making an example out of Beau Bennett, despite the fact that he routinely drives possession and generates shots while consistently being saddled with Brandon Sutter.

I’m not alone in this opinion. This article from Pens Labyrinth touches upon many of the same points I’m making about the construction of the bottom-half of the roster. The lack of punch from the lower-lines allows teams – particularly shrewd Divisional opponents – to almost laughably stack their best defenders against Sid and Geno. Teams that see the Pens frequently know that the 3rd/4th lines are not going to make them pay on the scoreboard, so they put their best defensive forwards and top-pairings out against Sid and Geno every single shift.

The result has been the sudden disappearance of the team’s offense. Again, Ryan Wilson of Hockey Buzz has a number of great posts explaining in lay-terms exactly what’s happening in the Pens’ bottom-six, and how it’s impacting the team overall. The Pens are more-than-adequate in Goal Prevention – much thanks to Flower and Tanger/Snake – but the power outage is costing the team points, most recently against Chicago and Columbus on February 15th and 19th.

Picking on Sutter and Adams may seem unfounded, but those two best represent the fundamental problem with the Penguins since 2012: relying on the top-two lines and the Power Play to generate 90% of the offense in a flawed strategy in the modern NHL, especially as the playoffs near and games become tighter. A successful team needs a host of players who can potentially produce at 5-on-5.

Concerning Brandon Sutter specifically, a Cap team with Cup aspirations such as Pittsburgh can’t afford to pay a replacement-level center $3.3 against the Cap and play him 16-18 minutes per night. Pittsburgh simply needs better production and more-consistent play-driving from that position and salary slot. This needs to be remedied if Pittsburgh wants to go anywhere in the playoffs.

I am slightly-more on the fence about Craig Adams. This article from Pens Initiative, for example, argues against most of the points I am making about Adams, and as noted, you can do worse than having a fearless beast such as he for protecting late-game leads. I’m biased in that I’m personally fond of him. You can obviously win a Cup with Craig Adams on your team.

But he needs to be extremely well-protected at 5-on-5, which he won’t be with Zach Sill and Max Lapierre as his linemates. I’ll get to those two in a minute, but it has to be asked if his overall level of play is still acceptable for a 4th line RW on a playoff team.

(UPDATE 2/23/15: the Pens, finally and mercifully, scratched Craig Adams against Florida. The Pens won the game 5-1. The flawed logic that has kept Adams in the lineup past his expiration date – his small salary, his past contributions, and his obvious usefulness as a defensive forward – is finally being rethought.

The question isn’t “Can we win with Craig Adams on the 4th line?”, because the answer is of course. The question is “Can we upgrade the 4th line?”, and the answer is that Steve Downie provides an immediate overall upgrade on Adams, if all 13 forwards currently on the roster are available for use.)

Steve Downie, when he plays hockey and doesn’t get into the sideshow stuff, is an effective lower-line player, which his advanced metrics will bear out:

Dashboard 1

Both the analytical data and the eyeball test confirm that Steve Downie is an uneven player at the NHL level, in that there are somethings he does that almost justify his inclusion on a scoring line. While there are a few things Craig Adams does very, very well, he’s also replacement-level in a number of critical areas.

By contrast, Steve Downie is quite firmly a top-9 forward at the NHL, with a very underrated ability to both get shots on net and to convert on a good percentage of those shots. The HERO chart above also shows that he has picked up Assists at a high rate over the last few years. Both the common and advanced statistics say to me that he’s more than capable of playing with Top-6 talent, and for that reason alone I consider him to be a building-block within the lineup.

Repeat: all of this applies when Steve Downie concentrates on playing hockey and not taking obnoxious retaliatory penalties. If the coaching staff – meaning Rick Tocchet – is unable to corral him here in late February, then it’s probably a good idea to move he and his $1 million cap hit out of a comparable-but-different type of player, as Grim did in moving Marcel Goc for Max Lapierre.

(Check out the terrific work Dom Galimimi does at http://ownthepuck.blogspot.ca/ or follow him @mimicohero).

Downie has seemingly become a bit of a scapegoat, even being healthy-scratched recently, but he’s not the main problem. I think in an ideal world, Downie would be on the 4th line with the option to move-up as needed. He’s certainly a net-front asset on a second Power-Play unit, not to mention a gritty worker on the boards on the Offensive Zone.

(UPDATE 2/21/15: Downie was again scratched for the game on 2/21 against St. Louis, while it will apparently take a minor miracle to push Adams to the press box. If Mike Johnston has moved on from Downie, that’s fine, but a replacement for Adams should still be pursued.)

New York Rangers v Pittsburgh Penguins

Beau Bennett gets picked apart for reasons I don’t fully understand. I guess the perspective is that he maybe has to play top-6 to help a team, and that he underwhelmed in his audition on Geno’s wing in January. But I think unless he’s traded as part of a package to get reinvent the bottom half of the roster, he just needs more time to develop and consistently-better opportunity.

This is a personal preference, but I would never sit a player with clear offensive upside like Bennett. He was among the most-prolific players against Chicago on February 15th, firing nine shots on net and making the play on Nick Spaling’s goal. He’s more than salvageable, even as a future top-six option.

Speaking of Spaling, over time one can see why Grim was so keen to acquire him along with Horny. Spaling makes at least one or two nice plays per game, such as the bump pass as to Geno on this Bennett goal. I’ve heard Spaling called “vanilla”, but I think “subtle” is a better description. As advertised, Nick Spaling does a little bit of everything well, and he’s playable almost anywhere in the lineup. As with Downie, you like him on your 3rd line but you’d love it if he was on your 4th.

Significantly upgrading the 3rd line, and by consequence the 4th line, is probably the most-pressing need for Pittsburgh. Upgrading the third-line center position, and ideally pushing Downie and Spaling down to the 4th line with Lapierre or someone comparable, is probably the best-case scenario.

Zach Sill has out-kicked his coverage and worked his way into the NHL, but I don’t believe a Cup team can have a player with two points in 50+ NHL games as one of their regular forwards, especially if he’s skating opposite Craig Adams. I think you can justify one or the other, but not both.

Frankly, the Top-6/Power Play needs more support from the Bottom-6 forwards both as shorthanded threats against and especially at 5-on-5. Zack Sill is tough and a very heavy hitter, but he’s a player you like better as a depth option than an uncontested regular.

Max Lapierre is obviously new to the team and I don’t have an informed opinion about him, but I was bullish on Marcel Goc.

Marcel Goc got a bad rep for being soft and poorly producing – which landed him as a healthy scratch under Johnston – but he was also skating with Adams and Sill the majority of the time. He may not hit as hard as Max Lapierre, but he was an underutilized asset in Pittsburgh. St. Louis is hosting Pittsburgh tonight, so I may amend this section after viewing the teams head-to-head.

(UPDATE 2/21/15 – I made a point of watching Max Lapierre like a hawk, and while he was obviously revved up to be playing his former team in St. Louis, I saw a lot him running around and not playing his position strongly. I didn’t see him generate much of anything offensively.

Meanwhile, Marcel Goc was mostly invisible, save for a nice shorthanded chance following a bit of lackadaisical play from Geno. In other words, basically the same we saw in 50+ games in Pittsburgh. I guess when you’re talking 4th line centers, there needs to be a limit to your expectations.

Again, this is a stylistic preference, but I would want all four of my forward lines to at least attempt to put a few pucks in the net. The current 4th line seems to be out there to just eat up time while Sid and Geno rest, which is fine, but you would like to a few more scoring chances from them.)

The Top-6 forward lines are not perfect, but between Sid/Geno/Kuni/Horny/Comeau/DP, Johnston can roll two quality units in some fashion. Against St. Louis on 2/21, Kuni skated with Geno and Comeau, and had one of his better games of the season. Horny looked much better skating with Sid than he has with Geno. Blake Comeau is looking like the UFA Signing of the Year. On the whole, the Top-6 is the least of the Penguins’ concerns, just after Marc Fleury.

Unfortunately, many nights the Top-6 is being beaten into powder because they are not better-protected by the Bottom-6 on the stat sheet. The Pens’ most-pressing need is a forward or two who can pose an offensive threat regularly from the Bottom-6, and ideally a Centerman who pushes down or replaces Brandon Sutter.

As for the defense, while not a pressing need per se, the Pens would probably like to acquire someone to skate with Christian Ehrhoff on the second pairing and thus reduce the pressure on the kids. As Grim recently noted, he’s probably not going to be able to upgrade talent-wise on the likes of Derrick Pouliot and Robert Bortuzzo, so barring something crazy the Pens may be better off going with the available personnel.

Having said that, if the team can upgrade on Defense without giving away someone like Scotty Harrington or Brian Dumoulin, it’s worth pursuing.

2015 Trade Wish List

staal

(UPDATE: I must be high, because this was reported by a legitimate source.)

(UPDATE 2/23/15: Ronnie Francis went to his newsboy and had him proclaim that the Canes weren’t moving Jordan Staal. I am one that never says never, so despite this proclamation I’ll continue to monitor the situation closely.)

Almost since the moment he was dealt, I’ve asked for a return of Jordan Staal to Pittsburgh. I think re-acquiring Staal or a comparable player – such as Ray Shero tried to do last year with Ryan Kesler – would fix much of what’s wrong the Penguins.

What Ray Shero realized after he was forced to deal Jordan Staal was that this Penguins team – meaning the Crosby-Malkin Penguins – need another dominant centerman to succeed. Not necessarily Jordan Staal or Ryan Kesler, but someone in that mold: an exceptional two-way player who can easily slide up to Sid or Geno’s line if needed.

The last time I’ll mention it, but poor Dan Bylsma tried to deploy Brandon Sutter in the same way he used Jordan Staal to poor results, forcing him to use Sid Crosby an unnecessary amount in the defensive zone. Sutter struggled mightily in 2013 and 2014 with inconsistent and poor linemates, but at some point we need to stop ignoring the data and making excuses for his substandard shot metrics. He’s a 4th-line center at the NHL level, and paying or playing him like a borderline top-6 guy does not change that fact.

To optimize the usage of Sid and Geno, this Penguins team needs a 3rd line center who can approximate their level of play. Not all-world play necessarily, but at a high enough level to keep teams honest and give Sid and Geno a little room to operate.

Based on the top-heaviness of the team’s payroll, you need to have Sid and Geno unfettered and in the offensive zone as much as possible, so as to maximize their production. To accomplish this, you need a 3rd line that can drive play out of the Pens’ defensive-zone as well as provide a threat on the opposite end. The Pens almost require a player such as Staal or Kesler to get to where they want to be.

So barring some insane scenario in which Carolina goes for a full rebuild, and Ronnie Francis blatantly colludes with Grim to put Jordan Staal back into a Pittsburgh uniform, what are the Pens’ other options?

colorado-avalanche-center-ryan-oreilly

Ryan O’Reilly, AKA Factor, has been involved in trade rumors for several seasons. Like Staal and Kesler, Factor is basically a top-6 guy who rotates between third-line center and scoring-line winger based on need.

Factor makes $5 million against the Cap this year and next. That seems prohibitive, until you realize Sutter makes $3.3 million against over the same term. A creative deal is workable from the Cap perspective.

The Pens of course have a number of elite defensive prospects, which Colorado lacks. I am of the belief that a package of Sutter/Bennett/Dumoulin or Harrington/Pick is enough to get a conversation started.

The Penguins’ goal is to win the Cup. Making a somewhat short-sighted move – such as buying parts of two seasons of Ryan O’Reilly – is the sort of move Grim Rutherford was charged with making. If the Pens can’t resign him in two years, then too bad. The goal is to win now, while Sid and Geno are still at the height of their powers.

While we’re trading with Colorado, let’s talk about repatriating Max Talbot:

talbo2

Max Talbot is still absolutely beloved in Pittsburgh and in the locker room. Quite simply, Talbo has more value to Pittsburgh than to any other team, even if he provides the same fundamental play as someone like Max Lapierre.

With two years left at $1.8 million per season, Talbo’s contract is no longer the albatross it was when he signed with Philadelphia in 2011. Talbo is someone who, in a number of ways, can help Pittsburgh win NOW.

If Pittsburgh is looking for a gritty character guy for the bottom-six who can chip in offensively, why is Grim not blowing up Joe Sakic’s phone every day trying to bring back Talbo? Again, he has more value to Pittsburgh than to the rest of the League, so while someone as smart as Joe Sakic recognizes that, in the end it’s haggling over a 4th line player. I think a deal for Talbo is entirely within the realm of reason.

Chicago Blackhawks v Toronto Maple Leafs

The mainstream media has been all over Daniel Winnik to Pittsburgh, but I think ultimately some other team is going to outbid the Pens. Frankly, while Winnik would be helpful, I don’t think he will cure what ails the team, especially if the swap is ostensibly Beau Bennett for Winnik. I’ve read in multiple places that the team “likes the idea of Winnik with Sutter and Spaling.” This is disconcerting for all the reasons written above.

berg

The more-interesting pickup for me would be Sean Bergenheim of Florida, who has been repeatedly healthy-scratched. While he obviously has a wart or two in his game if Florida coach Gerard Gallant refuses to play him, his advanced metrics (to say nothing of his playoff pedigree) all seem to indicate that he would be a big help:

Dashboard 1(1)

The advanced stats seem to indicate that Bergenheim has been very effective in the limited minutes he’s been allowed to play. As with Beau Bennett or Marcel Goc, this may be the case of “the eyeball test” obscuring the truth, in that Bergenheim is much more effective than he appears to be.

I’m thinking something like Bryan Rust + 3rd Round Pick gets the Bergenheim deal done. I realize there are Cap issues at play and that Pittsburgh may not be able to add him until Deadline Day, but there are always options – some of which include moving out Brandon Sutter in a separate deal and asking Florida to retain a bit of Bergy’s salary.

On defense, as Grim has pointed out, who’s available that’s going to be an upgrade on Derrick Pouliot or Scotty Harrington? This is not the time of year when higher-end top-4 defensemen are available.

bigz

Having said that, “Big Z” Zbenyk Michalek is available as Phoenix blows up their team. Big Z was a bad fit for Dan Bylsma’s system, but he might look right at home baby-sitting on the second pairing while Christian Ehrhoff or even Derrick Pouliot go freelance.

By the way, if Grim and the Pens are raiding Phoenix:

bod

You probably aren’t familiar with him, but as someone obsessed with Hockey, I have always looked at Phoenix left winger Mikkel Boedker as someone who would excel with Sid or Geno. He skates at roughly 1,000 miles-per-hour and at times almost looks like a younger Marian Gaborik:

He has been an inconsistent producer, and does not seem to be part of Phoenix’s long-term plan. I am of the belief that with a proven passer – let’s call him Evgeni Malkin – Boedker could be a consistent 25-30 goal threat. If I were Grim Rutherford, I would enjoy a fine meal of plain toast and water, and then kick the tires on both Big Z and Bod, just to see what Phoenix GM Don Maloney was looking for in return.

And finally:

jagr

We have to at least talk about this, right?

Assuming the Pens could negotiate a palatable price with Devils GM/Ruler of Hell Lou Lamoriello, where would Jaromir Jagr fit on this team? Would he fit?

Let’s talk for a minute about who Jaromir Jagr is in 2015:

Jaromir Jagr had a late career epiphany in which he decided he wanted to be remembered as an insanely-hard worker who just loves the sport rather than the petulant diva he was prior to his KHL exile in 2008. He is certainly outspoken, but he is not the disruptive locker room cancer he may have been in 2000, 2004, or even 2008.

Here is a snapshot of Jaromir Jagr the player in 2015:

Dashboard 1(2)

In 2015, you’re not getting an elite level of goalscoring from Jaromir Jagr, and that’s fine. He doesn’t skate around people like he used to, and he’s never been much for hitting or shot-blocking.

But even at age 43, Jagr retains his exceptional ability for puck protection, evidenced by his Corsi Against per 60 and his Corsi %. In non-geek, once Jagr gets the puck, most of the time he isn’t giving it back to the other team. His setup skills and Hockey IQ obviously remain razor sharp, and the guy still looks strong as a bull in the offensive zone. He would certainly be a very interesting addition to any team’s Power Play mix.

Jagr is (probably) not going to come here and play on the 3rd line, where as I’ve exhaustively pointed out above the Pens need the most help. He’s also not going to switch to left wing under any circumstances, so you’re talking about a situation in which:

A) Chris Kunitz is traded or moved to Geno’s line, David Perron is moved to his preferred left wing, and Jagr skates on Sid’s line, or

B) Patric Hornqvist is traded in the interest of freeing up Cap Space, and Jagr somehow ends up skating with Geno and Blake Comeau

While I happen to think he would fit fairly well with DP and Sid, I think we both have a better chance of seeing 40 unicorns trampling a litter of leprechauns than seeing Jagr on Sid’s wing. Stranger things have happened, but still.

Trading Horny would be an incredibly-bold move, but if it’s been determined that Sid wants to play with Kuni and Perron and Horny isn’t a great fit for Geno, I suppose it’s within the realm of possibility. I think it’s obvious Horny was acquired to skate with Sid, but that does not seem to be the plan now that David Perron is aboard.

(UPDATE: Johnston had Horny with Sid/DP against St. Louis, and it worked well. I will update again after the Florida game.)

Trading Chris Kunitz and forcing Horny onto a line with Sid and DP would be very hard for the organization to do, but it’s beginning to look like Kuni or Horny are going to eventually need to be sacrificed to the Salary Cap gods in the name of greater forward depth. I like Chris Kunitz a ton, but he’s 35 and has two years remaining at $3.8 million against the Cap. It needs to at least be discussed.

In any event, it would take some creativity to get Jaromir Jagr onto this roster. But I’ve seen both Alex Kovalev and Jarome Iginla skate for the Pens in recent years, so it’s clear that madness can and will ensue on Deadline Day.

(UPDATE: the notoriously-picky Jagr has often preferred to play with less-talented centers, as Jagr is basically a center who plays right wing. If his ego could tolerate it, I have heard of worse ideas for injecting life into the Bottom-6 than acquiring Jagr and putting him with Brandon Sutter. Jagr’s ability to drive and maintain puck possession might even offset Sutter’s inability to do so, especially if Beau Bennett or Nick Spaling were on the opposite wing, and you would always have the option to move Jagr up. Food for thought.)

In closing, I’ve driven a basic point into the ground, which is that the Pens need to overhaul their bottom-six if they expect to get out of the first round of the playoffs. Adding two legitimate third-line players – and possibly a right-shot defenseman to pair with Christian Ehrhoff – should be Grim Rutherford’s focus for the next 10 days. Pens fans will be watching eagerly to see how things unfold.

Jack