An Encouraging Finish and Thoughts Going Into Next Season

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An Encouraging Finish and Thoughts Going Into Next Season

Postby Henry Hank on Wed Apr 19, 2006 3:27 pm

It was evident to anyone that this Pittsburgh Penguins team finally started to come together in the last quarter of the season. They were more competitive and they played better as a team. The proof is in the pudding:

Record in the 19 games after the trade deadline: 8-9-2
Goals per game in that span: 3.37
Goals against per game: 2.89

Prior to that stretch, the numbers looked like this:
Goals per game: 2.86
Goals against: 4.14

That's a significant difference, especially on the defensive side. The most telling stat is that in the first 63 games, the Pens held their opponent to one goal two times and had no shutouts. In the last 19 games, they held their opponent to one goal or less six times, including two shutouts.

Why was this the case? I don't think there's any coincidence that this happened after defensive liabilities such as Recchi, Jackman, and Tarnstrom were shipped off. Not to mention the addition of a smart player like Hilbert and improved play from Gonchar, Whitney, and Orpik. Beyond that, they played together as a team; there was actually signs of team chemistry. Again, I don't think there's any coincidence that this happens after one Mark Recchi is traded.

Of course, an important question is, why should these last 19 games matter and the other 63 shouldn't? Well, it's not so much that the first three quarters of the season don't matter, but I think they hold less significance. This team changed wildly from the beginning of the year to the end. The team that opened the season was vastly different from the one that finished. Of the players on the opening night roster, guess how many were still around as of last night's game? TEN: Sergei Gonchar, John LeClair, Josef Melichar, Brooks Orpik, Konstantin Koltsov, Rob Scuderi, Ryan Malone, Sidney Crosby, Sebastien Caron, and Andre Roy. So less than half of the original roster even made it to the end. That's a crazy amount of player turnover from beginning to end. That's why I don't put much significance into those early games. The current team is very, very much different.

Personally, and I'll admit that I'm an optimist, but I think the ~.500 record in the last quarter of the season gives hope that this team can compete for a bottom playoff seed next season. My logic is this: if this current group can play about .500 hockey for a decently long stretch of time as they are, they're going to be even better once you figure Evgeni Malkin and hopefully at least a few additions into the equation. While I know Malkin is not a guarantee to be here, all signs put to it being more likely than not. Here's a recent quote from the head of the players union in Russia: "The main question is an agreement between Russia and NHL, which, I'm sure, will be signed by fall and will be favorable for both parties." Malkin will be here, and he'll make a huge difference in all areas. He instantly gives the team a second threat behind Crosby. That's going to help on even strength and the power play. He's a good defensive player and can win faceoffs. That helps penalty killing and team defense in general. He's a huge talent, and while he may not put up the numbers Sidney just did, I wouldn't put it past him.

If there's one area this team needs to improve most, it's penalty killing. It was the one area that was consistently a problem all year. The Pens gave up 113 power play goals. While the power play was effective, they only scored 94 in comparison. When you consider 16 short-handers against compared to 13 for, that's a -22 on special teams alone. Special teams are huge. Philly's the only playoff team to be minus on special teams. The Pens absolutely must do something about the penalty killing. Of course, taking less penalties would help a lot too. I'd hope that Malkin will boost the PK, as should the return of Max Talbot. But mosts important is coaching. They need to really pound that out in training camp.

Obviously, team defense was a major problem as well. They improved by the end of the year in terms of goals allowed, but they still allowed too many shots. This is going to take a team effort. They're going to need to upgrade the D. They're going to need to work on their system. Malkin should help. Hopefully, Fleury improves. One area that I don't see as a big problem is offense. They had no trouble scoring goals in the last couple months of the season. Adding Malkin is only going to help.

Now some random thoughts:

- I don't see LeClair returning. He's not committing to playing next season, and it was curious that he started the game on Crosby's line. That tells me he's leaning towards retirement and was placed in the starting lineup in case that was, in fact, his last game. I think the only way he plays next year is if he gets traded to a Cup contender. Otherwise, I bet he retires. If he wants to play, I'd welcome him back; he's still an effective offensive player at the very least.

- The biggest priority this offseason is MALKIN, MALKIN, MALKIN, closely followed by an upgrade on defense. They need to bring in at least one legitimately good defensive defenseman who can play physically. A right-hander, like Cory Sarich for example, is preferable, but they need to take what they can get. Rob Scuderi and Eric Cairns must be pushed out of the top six. Far below those in terms of importance would be a good two-way third line center who can win faceoffs. I'd love Jeff Halpern. Even Jan Hrdina would be welcome. Faceoffs are an area this team must improve at. A guy like that also would go a long way toward improving the PK and D. Finally, it would be nice if we can sign a winger like Samsonov, Afinogenov, or Sykora to play with Malkin. I don't consider that to be a pressing need, though. Like I said, this team has had no trouble scoring. The defense needs to be addressed before the offense.

- Guys probably considered to be on the bubble are Ouellet, Surovy, Christensen, Kolanos, Koltsov, Rita, Nordgren, Murley, and Endicott. I think you can scratch the last three off immediately. They don't bring enough to be in an NHL lineup. I think Koltsov has carved his niche and should have pretty much wrapped up a spot. Hopefully, out of the other five guys, at least one can emerge as a first or second line winger. I like Christensen's chances. The rest I could do without.

- I look for Fleury and Whitney, above all, to step their games up to the next level next season. Orpik's another guy I see improving, but I thought he was pretty solid by the end of this season. Almost every game, I saw him make some nice defensive plays.

- I see Talbot and Welch without a doubt being on the opening night roster. The only other guy from WBS I'd like to see making it is Christensen. Put him on Sid's or Evgeni's wing and he'll score some goals.

- Here's hoping the Pens get a little luck with the draft lottery tomorrow. Whatever happens, at least we know we're adding another great prospect to the organization.

Well, I hope those of you who read ALLLLL of that appreciated my insight. I'd be interested to hear from those of you who aren't as optimistic as me, and why. Why does this last quarter season run not matter?
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Postby tluke53 on Wed Apr 19, 2006 4:08 pm

Very nice post.

I really couldn't disagree with anything that was said. I seem to be in the minority here, but I don't think the Pens are going to spend much money during the offseason. I have noticed some posters speculate about high level defenseman and/or forwards. With the team up for sale, it doesn't make cense to add anymore payroll. I would love to see some more talent brought in, but I don't think it is going to happen.

As you said, all efforts should be made to get Malkin to Pittsburgh. George Bush will probably have troops in a Iran over the summer. Perhaps they could do a special mission for us. :wink:
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Postby Henry Hank on Wed Apr 19, 2006 6:53 pm

Here are some stats since the trade deadline...

Sidney Crosby: 10 G, 23 A, 33 PTS, +7, 26 PIM, 2 PPG, 12 PPA, 0 SHG, 2 SHA
Colby Armstrong: 10 G, 10 A, 20 PTS, +12, 18 PIM, 4 PPG, 1 PPA, 2 SHG, 0 SHA
Sergei Gonchar: 5 G, 14 A, 19 PTS, even, 18 PIM, 4 PPG, 7 PPA, 0 SHG, 2 SHA
Andy Hilbert: 7 G, 11 A, 18 PTS, +8, 16 PIM, 3 PPG, 4 PPA, 0 SHG, 1 SHA
Ryan Malone: 7 G, 9 A, 16 PTS, +1, 23 PIM, 2 PPG, 3 PPA, 3 SHG, 2 SHA
Ryan Whitney: 4 G, 11 A, 15 PTS, +4, 14 PIM, 2 PPG, 5 PPA, 0 SHG, 0 SHA
John LeClair: 7 G, 7 A, 14 PTS, -7, 12 PIM, 3 PPG, 5 PPA, 0 SHG, 0 SHA
Michel Ouellet: 3 G, 4 A, 7 PTS, -5, 2 PIM, 1 PPG, 1 PPA, 0 SHG, 0 SHA
Tomas Surovy: 3 G, 4 A, 7 PTS, -3, 23 PIM, 1 PPG, 1 PPA, 0 SHG, 0 SHA
Konstantin Koltsov: 2 G, 4 A, 6 PTS, even, 2 PIM, 0 PPG, 0 PPA, 1 SHG, 1 SHA
Josef Melichar: 1 G, 5 A, 6 PTS, +4, 16 PIM, 0 PPG, 0 PPA, 1 SHG, 1 SHA
Jani Rita: 2 G, 2 A, 4 PTS, -3, 2 PIM, 0 PPG, 0 PPA, 0 SHG, 0 SHA
Eric Boguniecki: 1 G, 2 A, 3 PTS, even, 4 PIM, 0 PPG, 1 PPA, 0 SHG, 0 SHA
Brooks Orpik: 0 G, 3 A, 3 PTS, +2, 22 PIM, 0 PPG, 1 PPA, 0 SHG, 0 SHA
Rob Scuderi: 0 G, 2 A, 2 PTS, -2, 8 PIM, 0 PPG, 0 PPA, 0 SHG, 0 SHA
Andre Roy: 1 G, 0 A, 1 PTS, even, 59 PIM, 0 PPG, 0 PPA, 0 SHG, 0 SHA
Eric Cairns: 0 G, 0 A, 0 PTS, -1, 71 PIM, 0 PPG, 0 PPA, 0 SHG, 0 SHA

Marc-Andre Fluery: 773 MIN, 6-6, 2.87 GAA, .902 SV%, 1 SO
Sebastien Caron: 357 MIN, 2-3, 3.19 GAA, .902 SV%, 1 SO

I think this is a good indicator of who stays and who goes. Only a handful of guys were minuses in this stretch. LeClair especially was poor in that regard. While I like the offense he provides, I think I'm leaning towards not wanting him back. He's a defensive liability. Of course, +/- doesn't always tell the tale.

None of the guys I mentioned as being on the bubble did much of anything. They all seem like minor league filler to me. Christensen and possibly Kolanos could be players to consider for next season.

Interesting to see that Caron nearly matched Fleury. I'm not much of a fan of Caron, but I think he's acceptable as a back-up. Thibault simply can't be in the NHL; he's barely played hockey the last three years. He needs to play in the AHL consistently. Some want a new back-up brought in, but I don't think it's practical. We're already paying Caron and Thibault. Caron is a decent goalie who can make the occasional spectacular save.

While Koltsov's numbers aren't impressive, it is worth noting that he recorded 2/3 of his total points during this stretch. I think he's going to be a guy who can chip in 10 goals a season, kill penalties, and create havoc on the forecheck. I'll take it. He has to be doing something right because I was one of his biggest critics before his recent impressive swing.
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Postby Kicksave on Wed Apr 19, 2006 7:20 pm

Ryan Whitney: 4 G, 11 A, 15 PTS, +4, 14 PIM, 2 PPG, 5 PPA, 0 SHG, 0 SHA
Brooks Orpik: 0 G, 3 A, 3 PTS, +2, 22 PIM, 0 PPG, 1 PPA, 0 SHG, 0 SHA


"Jeez, we're screwed on defense next year. I mean not only did Orpik and Whitney show NO progress during the season, they've actually regressed." - Ziggy Stardust
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Postby Jim on Thu Apr 20, 2006 6:54 am

From what I heard on the radio this morning, LeClair said he wants to return to the Penguins. At $1.5m I think it's not a bad idea for the Pens to keep him.
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Postby Ace on Sun Apr 23, 2006 1:01 pm

Excellent post double H,

It was a positive ending to the season, but so was the one prior to the lockout. I am an optomist, but would like to play devil's advocate in that regards. The younglings have meshed well together, so it depends if the organization realizes that or goes wild in free agency like they did last summer. I do believe they will not do so, as a new GM will come in, but he will most likely want to make his mark, and possibly bring in a few guys to show he has a pulse and is looking out for the team.

Leclair returning at $1.5, indifferent really, could be good or bad for the team, its not too much money, and if they can get rid of Roy's $1m then it's even better for the payroll. I was very excited about Roy coming, but he's not the guy i saw play in Tbay and Ottawa.
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Postby Fast B on Sun Apr 23, 2006 1:31 pm

Ace wrote:Excellent post double H,

It was a positive ending to the season, but so was the one prior to the lockout. I am an optomist, but would like to play devil's advocate in that regards.


Just wanted to address this point. The team we had at the end of the 03-04 season was a collection of NHL castoffs and AHL stiffs, nearly none of whom had any future whatsoever with the Pens. It wasn't a disappointment that that sorry bunch was blown up, but you can't expect that to happen this time.

The team didn't finish higher in the standings this year, but this time we ended the season with a group of guys who could play big roles in the immediate future. Guys like Armstrong, Whitney, Welch, Hilbert, and Endicott (just kidding) will probably be here and could have big roles. The way they stuck together in so many meaningless games bodes well for next year. It doesn't mean they'll make the playoffs for sure, but it means - at the very least - they won't start the season 0-9 again.
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Postby Reilly on Sun Apr 23, 2006 2:05 pm

Nring back Kent Manderville
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Postby jmh470 on Sun Apr 23, 2006 3:33 pm

The Pens turned in some good performances down the stretch but they were also playing teams like Florida and NYI who had nothing to play for.
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Postby skullman80 on Sun Apr 23, 2006 3:47 pm

jmh470 wrote:The Pens turned in some good performances down the stretch but they were also playing teams like Florida and NYI who had nothing to play for.


They also played the Flyers/NJ/Rangers as well...
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Postby Henry Hank on Sun Apr 23, 2006 4:40 pm

The only games in which the Pens played an opponent who truly had nothing to play for were the last three games. The first two times they played the Isles, they still were technically in the race. Same with Florida. The Pens officially eliminated them with their 5-1 win against them. So if you want to adjust it, that's still 7-8-1 against teams that were playing meaningful games.
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Postby jmh470 on Sun Apr 23, 2006 5:34 pm

IMO the only times after March 9 the Pens outplayed an actual playoff team were the two games right after the deadline, NJD and PHI. The Montreal win was a mess and the Rags laid an egg against the Pens. The other wins down the stretch were against FLA and NYI, both of which were deflated about missing the playoffs.
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Postby Guido on Sun Apr 23, 2006 7:10 pm

Don't forget about Endicott being demoted during the final few weeks. I believe that getting him out helped a lot. He had so many poor penalties and terrible defensive plays, the team definitely benefitted from his departure
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