Lacing Up: Where Does "The Big Dog" Belong?
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: In keeping with the tradition of discussing individual players, Matt, let’s talk about Eric Tangradi. Once a shiny prize in the Ryan Whitney-to-Anaheim trade that also brought Chris Kunitz to Pittsburgh, the mention of “Tangradi” in times since has been an undeniably polarizing one. A physically gifted forward, Tangradi lives up to his billing as “The Big Dog,” standing 6-foot-4 and weighing in at 232 pounds. He’s found a lot of success at the AHL level in past years as a goal scorer and power forward. However, some fans (including myself) have become a bit disconcerted with his inability to make the big jump to being the top-9 or even top-6 forward he was tabbed as at an early age. The time’s either going to come soon, or it’s not going to come at all. Am I right, Matt? Or are there other reasons why Tangradi hasn’t made that definitive, permanent leap to the NHL?
Matt Paul: Josh, I think there are a handful of reasons for Tangradi’s failure to grab the bull by its horns with regard to a full-time NHL gig. He has size, but has only recently begun to use it. He has skills, but doesn’t necessarily think the game at a high enough level to keep up with the stars of the NHL. And then there’s his skating, which is improving, but still average at best. I also think Tangradi cared too much about having fun (and I should mention good, clean fun) earlier in his career, which cut into his training time and slowed his development. It seems, however, that Tangradi has come to realize his limitations and his weaknesses and has spent the past few seasons and offseasons working on improving. His efforts appear to be working, as he’s on a roll to start the AHL season. I think you nailed it though, Josh. We recently discussed the “Kennedy Crossroads.” Well, consider this the “Eric Intersection.” He needs to make the jump now or he could put himself in line to be a career third/fourth liner, or worse yet, AHLer. But, Josh, is it really that uncommon for a bigger power forward type to develop slower than the speedy, skilled guys? I seem to recall Ryan Malone stepping into the NHL at age 24 and no one batted an eye. Likewise, Kevin Stevens didn’t become an NHL regular until he was 23. Are those different times, or are power forwards a different breed?
Josh: I think it’s a combination of those two. Yes, especially with Stevens, those times were different. Since his time, the rules adjustments has made the game much faster from an individual speed standpoint – considering the two line pass and the races to the corner where the goalie is unable to play the puck due to the trapezoid restriction. With regard to time, I think that power forwards have always been and will always be a different breed. It’s an art form, for sure, and not one that is easy to learn or to perfect. Part of Tangradi’s individual problem, I believe, is the Penguins’ system as a whole. For a league with increased speed, the Penguins’ gameplan, even when compared with other teams that play under these newer NHL rules, is one predicated on speed. You’ve mentioned Tangradi’s oft-criticized flat-footed skating style, and while it is improving, the Penguins’ system is not one conducive to slower skaters, especially in the top-6. However, as you’ve mentioned, Ryan Malone worked very well, albeit in Therrien’s less speedy system. I think part of the trick to getting Tangradi going might be giving him a shot in one of those specialist roles. Ice time means a lot, especially upper line ice time. Power play time could be a good opportunity for him to develop skills in front of the net, too, which has benefits that go far beyond individual statistics. Could you see Tangradi getting these opportunities with Pittsburgh this year? Is it time to see whether we’ve got the potential or not so that we know how to adjust for future years?
Matt: I’ve always been one who believes players have to earn their promotions. Of course, there are exceptions, such as elite prospects like Crosby and Malkin, who simply grab the bull by the horns and have a big role from the start. With Tangradi, things are — and should be — different. He’s not been given much time with a legit scoring center. Then again, what has he done to earn it? Some people might point to his one goal in 40 games and say he can’t score if he is skating with Craig Adams and Joe Vitale. And I agree. That’s a difficult line to be producing offense from. But hockey isn’t just about scoring. It’s about defending. It’s about hitting. It’s about making smart decisions with and without the puck. And it’s about doing what the coaches ask and doing it to the best of your ability. Tangradi hasn’t always been the best at these areas. In fact, at times he has been pretty bad in some/many of them. What we began to see last season was a new Tangardi, one who was determined to show the coaching staff that, if not on a scoring line, he’s still worthy as a third or forth line NHLer. And, to me, when the light bulb comes on and a player realizes he has to work hard to make his breaks, he is on the right track to taking advantage of his skills. Josh, to get to your question, the answer is yes, I do think Tangradi will get some prime opportunities with qualities linemates this season — of course, that assumes there is a season. It might not be right out of training camp, or even during the first half of the season. But I think, with time, he’s going to prove valuable to the Penguins, who could use his big frame and his soft hands.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton “Baby” Penguins coach John Hynes had the following to say in the Tribune-Review last week: “He’s getting his goals the way he’s going to need to get his goals in the National Hockey League,” Hynes said. “He’s getting pucks in. He’s a dominant factor in the offensive zone. He’s moving his feet. He’s attacking the net. The way he’s playing now is the same game he’s going to have to play at the next level.” That, to me, is nothing but a positive sign. Josh, if Tangradi earns a prominent role, do you see him more as a third wheel on a line, or a guy who has the potential to be a legit offensive contributor?
Josh: I think at first, the prior, then the latter. To me, Tangradi’s combination of hands and size make him unlike many other guys in the league. However, I think the capacity in which the Penguins will find him most useful is first in simplifying his game and not worrying about the handsy plays. Right now, the Penguins lack a legitimate net-front presence both on the power play and in offensive possessions where we look for a screen or deflection. I can point to a very low goal total for defensemen since the exodus of Gonchar two seasons ago as the evidence for that. Part of the problem is that our defensemen often shoot the puck off target, however, I recall a dearth of screened goalies and point-shot goals since Gonch left town. Don’t get me wrong, I think Kunitz and Cooke are two guys that play bigger than their size and create some problems in front, but Tangradi is massive compared to them. You certainly can’t have a sniper like Neal as your net-front guy, and if there is a role where Tangradi will find himself useful and “luck into” the occasional stuff-in goal, it’s parked in front of the net. Your hearkening to Ryan Malone speaks volumes, I think, in several ways. First, the Penguins really haven’t had a power forward of his ilk since he left. Billy Guerin was at the twilight of his career and provided some useful similarities while working the real estate around the net, but that still wasn’t quite the same role that I’m talking about. I don’t think Tangradi will be a Tomas Holmstrom level net-front guy, but I think he’s definitely got that kind of size and strength with better hands. Learning the art of the position will take ice time with top guys who will be able to sustain zone time and also some sustained power play time as well. One thing I will say is that if we do have a season, at this point it will obviously be abbreviated, and I think that there is perhaps no better time to tinker with lines and give prospects a look. Matt, any closing words on “The Big Dog?”
Matt: Josh, I suppose you have a point about no better time to tinker with lines than in a shortened season, as the whole thing will be off-kilter from the norm. Then again, it might be that reason that keeps the team from tinkering too much and going with players who already have the trust of the coaching staff. As I said above, though, I tend to agree with the philosophy we have seen from Bylsma: don’t hand anyone anything and make everyone earn their additional ice time. Knowing that is how he operates, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tangradi start the season on the fourth line, only to work his way into a role on the wing of either Crosby or Malkin. As you said, he won’t be the second coming of Holmstrom, but he might just prove to be servicable in front of the net and good otherwise. If I had to pin numbers on him in a scoring role, I’d hope for 20 goals and 20-30 assists. If he can accomplish that, he’ll be right on par for what the Penguins need from the third forward on a line.
We’ll see you next week, when we lace ‘em up again!