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.

C.J. “Stoosh” Jiuliante is well known in Pittsburgh hockey circles, having spent time in the past writing for both Faceoff-Factor and The Pensblog. He may be best known at FF for co-originating “Lacing Up” with Ashley Gallant several years ago. Stoosh rejoins us for this discussion, which we hope will be a precursor to future cameos.

C.J. “Stoosh” Jiuliante: First off, gentlemen, thank you very much for extending this invitation to me and asking me to be a part of this. Ash and I had a great time writing these a few years ago and I’m very honored to once again be a part of something she was so instrumental in creating. So thank you very much.

As Pens fans, this lockout has been doubly frustrating because of one of the major storylines it has already cost us – the beginning of the prime years of Sidney Crosby’s career. Thanks to the cancellation of games through mid-December and the NHL Network playing the “24/7 Capitals-Penguins” marathon seemingly every other day, it occurred to me that Pens fans will have gone two years since seeing Crosby completely healthy. While the 12 points he posted during his abbreviated eight-game return in November-December of 2011 was nothing to sneeze at, his performance after coming back in mid-March was staggering. Fourteen regular-season games. Six goals, 19 assists, 25 points. That’s a per-game average of 1.79 points.
Josh, what do you think we can expect when Crosby and Pens eventually return?

Joshua Neal: Well, Stoosh, first off, we’re glad to have you as a special guest on this week’s “Lacing Up,” as it’s always nice to have some great hockey talk from as many perspectives as possible. To jump right into your question, I think you can expect Crosby to take the ice with a renewed and invigorated sense of purpose and determination. While that sounds cliche, I think that for a lot of different reasons, Crosby and the Penguins are at a make-or-break point with regard to what their “legacy” will be. Two straight trips to the Cup had aroused expectations that the Penguins would be a staple in that role, representing the Eastern Conference like a rite of spring.

However, recent years have brought some harsh realities home for us as Penguins fans. After somehow escaping Ottawa in their 2010 attempt to defend their 2009 Stanley Cup, then Penguins ran into a hot goalie, Jaroslav Halak, and fell to the 8th seeded Montreal Canadiens. The next year, which will live in infamy, is the Crosby concussion year in which Evgeni Malkin also went down with torn knee ligaments. You’ll also doubtless remember the long hiatus of Jordan Staal due in large part to the aforementioned Canadiens series and one P.K. Subban. This past playoff year brought the disappointment of utter defensive collapse and an embarrassing exit at the hands of the rival Philadelphia Flyers. The window to make this Penguins team into the “dynasty” some had whispered after two straight Cup appearances is shrinking, evidenced by the departure of one of the key cogs, Jordan Staal.

Pile these early exits on with a captain who has missed what amounts to a full season’s worth of gameplay, and (perhaps more important, in his case) an entire offseason of training during that span, and you have a team that, like its captain, is assuredly frustrated, motivated, and still highly skilled. Even though hockey forces you to have a short memory, I think in the midst of the lockout, these things may be weighing upon the Penguins as a whole, especially as Crosby approaches his “prime.” Matt, how do you think these factors play upon the minds of the Penguins, as we anxiously await to see when they will take the ice again?

Matt Paul: Josh, that’s an interesting take, and one I think might have some weight to it. I haven’t done my research with other teams and, as is becoming a common reference in “Lacing Up,” my memory is too poor to recall if something similar happened during the last lockout, but there is an impressively-large number of Penguin players in Pittsburgh working out as a team (with a few outsiders, such as Brent Johnson and Ryan Malone). It’s even gotten to the point that I’ve read some players have been angry at their teammates when they don’t make it to “practice” for one reason or another. To me, this is impressive. Sure, these guys need to work out and stay in shape. But there are ice rinks everywhere — yet they choose to remain here together. I would think this bond, this camaraderie bodes well for the team’s future success.

To answer your question, specifically, I think the team’s early exits and injury issues have reminded these players that nothing is guaranteed in life, let alone in hockey. Just when whispers of a dynasty start to swirl, injuries put a sudden halt to the team’s success and result in early playoff exits. For some, such as Crosby, who was forced to watch his team collapse in the playoffs, this has to be weighing on his mind. For others, such as Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, and Chris Kunitz, they’ve got to be thinking their years in the NHL are numbered due to age, and they can’t afford to blow these opportunities — and in this case, lose a full season.

But, Stoosh, the Stanley Cup is something that will be around as long as the league exists. Elite players like Crosby and Malkin won’t. How bad does it chafe, as a fan, knowing that, just as Crosby seemed to be rounding into form, he’s forced to miss more hockey?

Stoosh: I don’t want to say Pens fans are chafed, but this lockout is the equivalent of spending a scorching July day at Kennywood and realizing at about 1:00 PM that you forgot to apply the Gold Bond before you left the house. That horrible imagery aside, if we the fans are frustrated beyond words, Crosby is probably going out of his mind right now given the way last season ended.

To expand on your point, Matt, I get the sense from interviews he’s recently done that the last three playoff exits have reminded Crosby and the Pens just how difficult it is to win the Cup. When they went on that run in 2009, there was a purpose and focus to their game almost night in and night out. That focus, discipline and willingness to sacrifice just wasn’t there as often as it needed to be these last three years. Nowhere was that more evident than the Philly series last year, most notably with Sid. It was the first time in his career that I can recall the Flyers getting under Crosby’s skin and staying there for an extended time.

This isn’t to pick on Crosby at all, as the whole team lost its focus. But the changes in his game were among the most visible. That said, I have to say I like this new, unfiltered version of Crosby. I think a lot of his production last year was the result of someone whose appreciation of the game has deepened, and we saw what he was really capable of when he harnesses it.
What should really put the rest of the league on notice, then, are the sentiments expressed by beat writers who have been watching Crosby skate this fall and teammates who have been skating with him. They’re saying he’s quicker, stronger and faster than he’s ever been. As he enters his prime, he’s getting to the point where he’s no longer adjusting to the speed of the league. The game is slowing down for him now. Given that the same may be happening with Malkin as well, they can’t actually be better than they were through most of last year, could they?

Josh: Frighteningly (for most hockey fans) and excitingly (for Penguins fans) they very well could be getting even better. Sure, it’s nice to read about Malkin putting up banner numbers in the KHL. It’s certainly no garage league, but it’s definitely not the NHL, either. With the recent up-and-down play of Ovechkin as well as Crosby’s injury, Geno has been given a chance to prove what lots of writers have alleged in the past calendar year: that he, in fact, is the “best player in the world” right now. Perhaps a bit of friendly competition between he and Crosby will continue to make each of them better.

A lot of that success can be attributed, though, to what’s happening now, “offseason” workouts. Without NHL games to play in, Sid is getting his work in by doing those intangible things: working on speed, strength, conditioning, etc. Each year, it seems, we’ve seen Sid solidify one aspect of his game. One year it was faceoffs, the next it was perfecting a wicked good slapshot/one-timer the year he won the Richard. Geno followed suit in rehabbing his knee injury, and don’t think his success in Russia means nothing. I’m sure a summer with Kadar has him in as good (or better) shape than ever. In their own ways, I think the Penguins’ superstars are improving from an already alarmingly good level to something we perhaps haven’t seen for, say, about 20 years or so.

My question, then, Matt, is whether or not this level of commitment from the leaders – Crosby with the team in Pittsburgh for workouts, and Malkin getting game workouts in Russia, is enough of a motivational factor that could push the Penguins to being a championship caliber team in addition to having two of the best in the world. Is the lockout itself too distracting for the Cookes, Adams, and Engellands of the world? Or do you think the team will rally around this opportunity to put together a special season worth of hockey, whenever it may come?

Matt: Josh, before I get to my response, let me first give thanks one more time to Stoosh, whose insight is well-respected in the Pittsburgh market. It’s been a pleasure talking hockey with both of you this week, and I look forward to more conversations in the coming weeks/months.

Anyway, back to your question, Josh. We’ve touched on Crosby’s work ethic in previous editions of “Lacing Up,” with mention to him being referred to as “the best fourth liner in the NHL.” Anytime your star player works and trains as if his job depends on it, the results for the team will be positive. When the team’s top two players, who arguably are the league’s top two players as well, share that work ethic, it’s difficult to imagine anything other than success. As discussed above, the role players of the team have no choice but to follow in the lead of their team’s top two players. Again, the fact that so many players remain in Pittsburgh as December approaches shows me that they are dedicated to winning here and that they have a strong bond. Guys like Cooke, Dupuis, Adams, etc. also have an added motivator of knowing that their careers are winding down and that the best time to win is now.

So, to give you a straight answer, yes, I think these players will rally around one another and put together a season that is special. How special? Hard to tell, as I’m unaware of what players from other teams are doing and how dedicated they have been to one another. That said, the playoffs are a given, and assuming Crosby analyzes his performance from the Flyers series last spring (and we know he has), I don’t think it’s too arrogant to think this team will be on the very short list of teams favored to win the Stanley Cup. And I think that’s a real possibility. Now, if only they could play some games, these hypotheticals we’re working in (as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would say) might become realities.