Lacing Up: It's Time For The Role Players To Roll
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Joshua Neal: Matt, each offseason, Ray Shero tends to make some minor moves to tweak the Penguins roster, bringing in “specialists” that offer the Penguins something that they could use in on-ice situations. Often times, he brings these role players in on short contracts. Steve Sullivan came over from Nashville after his first season in a long time without severe injury issues. On a 1-year deal, Shero hoped that Sullivan would be a master-distributor and Powerplay quarterback. Sullivan’s speed added the ever-present threat of him sneaking in behind the defense for a breakaway. Sullivan himself would probably admit that he is a one-way player. As skilled of a skater and passer he was touted to be, he offered little to no physicality with his small stature, and his goal scoring touch took quite a while to come around. In fact, even before Crosby’s return, Sully wasn’t even being used on the first powerplay unit. Unfortunately I’ll always remember the weak defensive play on the neutral zone that led to Claude Giroux’s goal only seconds into Game 6 last year with Philadelphia. However, I think that for the investment, Sullivan gave the Penguins a bit of pop on offense. I do think, however, that allowing Sully to head for greener pastures and a greener wallet was probably the right call. Matt, what are your thoughts on Sullivan with regard to how he worked with the Penguins, and with regard to why he won’t be here this year?
Matt Paul: Josh, I think you might be a bit off on Sullivan, as he was the team’s fourth most used player with the man advantage. Even with Crosby back, Sullivan’s average PP TOI/G was fifth best on the team. He was a first unit power play specialist who often got lost at even strength. I don’t he was brought in to be much more, though. The year before, the Penguins had really struggled while up a man or two, finishing the season 25th in the league, clicking at 15.8%. Last year, with the addition of Sullivan, the Penguins finished 5th, clicking at 19.7%. Sullivan’s 21 points with the man advantage ranked third on the team and 41st in the league. Long story short, he did precisely what he was brought in to do: enhance the power play and help to bring it back to respectability. He’s gone, however, because the Penguins were set on waiting for Parise and didn’t want to jerk Sullivan around. While I’m sure Shero would have entertained the thought of bringing him back once Parise signed in Minnesota, he instead told Sullivan to take the offer from Phoenix that might not exist in a few days or weeks. All that said, Sullivan is an aging, injury-prone (though interestingly healthy last season) player whose roster spot might better be filled by a young, developing player. Likewise, the Penguins chose to let Arron Asham and Richard Park depart for similar reasons. Will they miss the team-first, intimidating Asham?
Josh: Those stats definitely make Sullivan look better than I remember him, and even a better bargain that I had thought. The awakening of James Neal as a “finisher” certainly helped the Penguins powerplay unit as a whole too. I’ll tackle Asham first, being that he’s the one that has stayed in the NHL, moving one step closer to completing his tour of duty in the Atlantic Division by joining the Rangers. I think that as an unrestricted free agent or not, Asham signed his ticket out of town with the cheap shot he took on Brayden Schenn in the playoffs. The dramatics were high last year toward the end of the year, with John Tortorella and others around the NHL claiming that Penguins stars Crosby and Malkin decried the evils of goonery and dirty hits in the league, while players like Matt Cooke (before his “cleanup”) and Arron Asham took the same kind of cheap shots against other players. While Asham mostly played within (or along the edge of) the rules in his physical style, the blatant cheap shot on Schenn probably made the decision to let him walk much easier. Asham brought the Penguins mainly an element of toughness, but also had a hot goal-scoring hand in the playoffs in 2010 against the Lightning before an early exit. Asham did have a surprisingly heavy slap shot and light the lamp on a few occasions, but his main value was in being an intimidator. I’ll personally never forget Asham sending Jay Beagle to the ice before gesturing the “Lights Out” move that made him all the more of a villain against our rival Capitals. As we have discussed, Tanner Glass is the presumable replacement for Asham’s roster spot, though they play a bit of a different style. Matt, your thoughts on the speedy, sneaky veteran Park?
Matt: Great points on Asham. At the time of the Asham cheapshot on Schenn, I thought he ruined any chance he had of returning to the team, no matter how well he was liked in the room or what he brought to the table as a versatile fourth liner. Park, on the other hand, didn’t really do anything to force the team to let him go. Then again, he also didn’t do a whole lot to make a case for the team to keep him, either. Park’s a solid veteran guy who is comfortable going games a stretch watching the press box, then stepping in on the fourth line and contributing on the penalty kill. That said, he’s a dime-a-dozen player who easily can/will be replaced with a last minute signing or possibly a training camp invite (assuming those exist this season, with the expectation of an abbreviated, one-week camp). My gut feeling is that, had Park not signed overseas, his chances of returning to Pittsburgh were high. Like I said, he didn’t do anything wrong — but he’s just not the type of player a team springs to sign quickly, as it’s generally known that he, or others like him, will be available on the cheap at the last minute. Moving along, Josh, we have one last player to discuss, and he likely is the one who will be missed the most, if not for his up-and-down play, then for his personality and his epic KO of Rick DiPietro in the infamous brawl with the Islanders a few years back. BJ, as they call him, has been practicing with the Penguins at Southpointe, but the addition of Tomas Vokoun has assured he won’t be a Penguin next season — but the man still loves the city and plans to make Pittsburgh his permanent home. Will you miss him, Josh, and if he doesn’t find a gig as a player, might he be invited to work for the Penguins in a Bill Guerin kind of way?
Josh: Brent Johnson will always hold a special place in Penguins fans’ hearts, mainly for the things you’ve mentioned. Up until last year, BJ was a relatively reliable backup. For any fans who watched HBO’s 24/7, Brent Johnson was one of the most vibrant and entertaining personalities on the show with his quick, off-the-cuff opinions and for his veteran presence in the locker room. Johnson’s practicing with the Penguins signals to me that he’s still interested in being involved in hockey in some way, shape, or form, though I’d have to say that his days in the NHL are probably at their end. Doubtlessly, Johnson is probably one of the Penguins that shares the closest bond with Fleury, and whether in an official or unofficial capacity, he could be useful to Fleury and Gilles Meloche. For a man to stay in the league as long as Johnny has been able to, a man has to know his hockey, and it’s sure that BJ does. I wish Brent the best and hope we hear his name in the future in some hockey capacity, specifically with the Penguins if that’s what’s in the cards for him. Matt, anything to wrap up on?
Matt: Josh, not a whole lot more to say about the lesser named departed. Role players come and go, and while many develop into fan favorites, the reality is, they’re generally “dime-a-dozen” types. Unfortunately for Johnson, his departure from the Penguins comes at a time when he’s making Pittsburgh his permanent home. That’s the game of hockey — whether we like it or not. Until next week, when we discuss a new, yet-to-be-determined topic…