Lacing Up: Kennedy's Crossroads
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: Flashback to summer 2011. Word had just trickled through that the Penguins had withdrawn their offer on one of the summer’s most coveted Unrestricted Free Agents. Jagrwatch was over. The disappointment of missing out on Jaromir Jagr struck hard. But before we even had time to react, Shero and company announced that they had re-signed Tyler Kennedy for a 2-year deal at $2 million per, and acquired UFA Steve Sullivan. Could these two guys (whose salaries probably came out of the money the Pens had initially offered to Jagr) be as productive in combination as Double-J was alone? At this point, Sullivan was coming off a pretty strong playoff performance with Nashville, and he came relatively cheaply for a veteran plug-in. Also, Kennedy was coming off a career year (21-24-45) where he was one of only a few Penguins to tip 80 games played in the forgettably injury-plagued season. Matt, at that point, what were your thoughts on the Kennedy signing?
Matt Paul: Josh, that’s not the easiest of questions, as hindsight has a tendency to skew opinions. That said, I can’t recall being firmly in his corner at that point, though I do believe I understood the signing. As you said, options were limited and Kennedy was a young, affordable player who had shown some promise during the injury plague of the previous season. But what I recall saying at the time is that Kennedy’s numbers from the year before needed to be examined in context. His 21 goals, 24 assists, and 45 points came largely as a result of increased ice time and an increased role on the power play. Logic tells you that when you play more, your numbers will inflate to a degree. Some said he proved capable of handling a scoring line role. I said he proved nothing other than being capable of filling in when injuries strike. If we fast forward through last season, I think that held true. With Crosby absent for a large portion of the season and Staal out for 20 games, Kennedy didn’t take advantage of an opportunity to fill in the void and force his way into a permanent scoring line role. Sure, he battled a few injuries himself, but his stats (11-22-33) were far from impressive for a player who found the back of the net 21 times a year earlier. But, as we know, Josh, not all players are cut out to be scorers. Kennedy has settled into what appears to be a permanent home on the third line — but has he done well enough as a checker to be given the benefit of the doubt moving into this season (assuming there is a season)?
Josh: As we move into this season, $2 million seems pretty steep for those statistics. Playing devil’s advocate, I did think that TK had a nice stretch of play in the playoffs. He scored much more often… but then again in that series, everyone scored more than often. Beyond the statistics, though, I know Kennedy definitely brought a different gear in the playoffs than he did in the past regular season after recovering from his concussion issues. He does play a physical game, and has shown the occasional flash for the ability to score. He’s not a highlight reel goal-scorer and likely never will be, but he has shown the potential to be one of those guys who gets a gritty goal once in a while. Turning to your question, I’d say that Kennedy does occasionally have stretches where he plays to potential. But he has not been consistent. However, it looks like with things the way they are, we’re just going to hope for the best with Kennedy for the time being. With the close of this season, Kennedy will be a Restricted Free Agent, and one would think that he may elicit some interest from other teams. Considering that Kennedy likely won’t be taking a pay cut away from his $2 million salary this year and that big names like Malkin and Letang will be up to re-sign soon as well, what do you need to see from TK to make him a lock to be a Penguin beyond 2013? May he be well on his way out anyway?
Matt: Consistency and effort. It’s that simple for Kennedy, who has shown considerable flashes of quality hockey — even flashes that have had me questioning whether he might actually be that scoring line winger. But as I said above, any player can produce more when his role and ice time increase. In Kennedy’s case, he needs to give it 110% each and every shift, as he isn’t the most physically gifted player on the ice. He’s on the smaller side, he’s not the best skater, and he doesn’t have the best accuracy with his shot or pass. He also doesn’t think the game very well, often choosing to shoot the puck when a pass makes more sense. It’s because of this that he often is referred to as a momentum killer. When the puck hits his stick, it’s as if he has one thing on his mind: shoot. And, while there is nothing wrong with shooting — you have to shoot to score, after all — there are high percentage shots and low percentage shots. Kennedy’s specialty, it seems, is in finding a way to always put himself into a low percentage shooting area. As a result, he either misses the goal and turns over the puck or he fires it into the goalie’s glove for a faceoff. Either way, he kills any momentum gained. That said, what he does have is tenacity. When he’s on his game, he’s as solid as any third line winger in the game in terms of gritty, agitating, puck control play. But he can get into deep funks that make you question why he’s in the NHL, let alone skating on a third line with expectations of being one of the best in the game. Do you think having your boy Brandon Sutter as his center will make any difference in his game, or do you think a return to a cycle system for the third line would have a greater impact?
Josh: Excellent point to bring Sutter in, as I do think his arrival will have an impact on Kennedy. In a lot of ways, having Sutter, who is more one-dimensional than Staal (and I mean that in the most complimentary way), will simplify the game for his linemates. Sutter centering the third line is a given, and let’s say Kennedy and Cooke run his wings. We’ve discussed in past conversations Sutter’s outstanding defense, which has a contagious effect with teammates. I’m not a huge proponent of plus-minus being the best indicator of a player’s value, but in Kennedy’s case where lots of his time comes at even strength, I think this is telling. In 2010-2011, without the services of Jordan Staal for much of the season, and then being put into a more demanding scoring role, we mentioned his 45-point season. That year, Kennedy clicked in at a +1. Last season, where Staal was healthy and centering his line, Kennedy’s scoring did decrease (as you’ve mentioned, in many ways due to decreased ice time) but he registered a +10. To avoid being misleading, Staal is certainly a better scorer than Sutter and had an outstanding season, which contributes to that number. But when we install Sutter, who by all statistical accounts is better defensively than Staal, the margin probably stays relatively the same. This return to a true third line mentality could be the simplification that Kennedy needs. Sure, it would be great to see him dump in the occasional goal, and I would like to see a 12/15-goal season (if his numbers are extrapolated to 82 games, as it looks like the season will be shortened, granted that we have one) but expect him to once again be a double-digit plus player. Matt, do you think that perhaps despite his small stature, a return to a traditional third line role could show some of Kennedy’s value as a pesky checking defender? Or is this just wishful thinking on my part?
Matt: I don’t think that’s wishful thinking at all. Like I said, when he is on his game, he’s among the best in the league at what he does. It’s when he tries to break from his role and expand his repertoire to scoring winger or playmaker or whatever that he becomes much less effective. What I always liked about Kennedy is that he is fearless. He’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done — but, again, that is when he is on his game. So what causes him to get into funks where he loses his game? Turthfully, I think, as I mentioned above, it’s when he tries to go beyond his means. With Sutter as his center, my hope — and it appears yours, as well — is that the third line will, once again, be focused on a defensive/checking approach. Hopefully that approach also involves puck control by means of cycling, but it remains to be seen if Bylsma is comfortable with this idea. Regardless, if he can focus more on being a pest and preventing his opponents from scoring, as odd is this might sound, I think his own offense might improve. But, as fans, one thing we need to be cognizant of, and I’ve mentioned this on numerous occasions within this discussion, is that Kennedy is not and will not be a scoring line winger. At this point in his career, I am confident Kennedy has reached his ceiling. That’s not a bad thing, either. Every team needs its role players, and when he focuses on his job, Kennedy is worth his weight in gold. But, as our headline says, this is Kennedy’s crossroads. Can he break the mold of being inconsistent over the course of a season, from being invisible for half of the season, then productive for the other half? If so, he’s a guy worth keeping around. If not, he’ll prove himself to be in the “dime-a-dozen” category, in which case it likely would be cheaper to replace him internally (possibly with a guy like Eric Tangradi, if he doesn’t work out on a scoring line) or externally by way of free agency. And for that, we’ll need to utilize a wait-and-see approach.