Lacing Up: A New Beginning
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.
Matt Paul: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end,” sang Dan Wilson, lead singer of 1990s one-hit-wonder Semisonic. What better tie-in to a story than this? The end of 2012 has been dreadful for the NHL and its fans. Hopefully the beginning of 2013 brings about some better happenings like, oh, I don’t know, a hockey season?
Josh, as our readers settle down to read this, we’ll be mere hours from 2013 — that is, of course, assuming the Mayans weren’t right and the world continues to exist beyond December 21. Anyway, we’ve already taken a stroll down memory lane, examining what the 2012 calendar year brought us, so now it’s time to look to the future and explore what might become of 2013.
So let’s take care of the elephant in the room first. When will this $#&*@% lockout end? (notice the money sign to start my obscenity…clever, huh?)
Joshua Neal: Soon. I’ve sworn off this optimism that comes around every time I hear encouraging news about progress being made with the lockout, but when Bill Daly says that hockey will be played in 2013, I feel inclined to believe him, since it’s really the first positive thing I’ve heard from that side of the table. I’m referencing, of course, your article from a few weeks back. While it would have been a really nice Christmas present to have the announcement come in, I think that several weeks after the Auld Lang Syne hangovers fade away, training camps will be ramping up. I wish I had something more concrete to base this on, but the season’s going to have to be wrapped up before Free Agency hits on July 1, right? And Bettman says anything less than a 48-game regular season isn’t worth having. We might have a season on our hands where teams get no longer than two days worth of rest between games at any point, but then again, that’s nothing I’d be opposed to, as watching the games doesn’t get me nearly as tired as it does the skaters.
So, Matt, we’ve spent the better part of the fall discussing the Penguins new acquisitions and key departures. What should we expect to see in 2013 from the Penguins and from hockey as a whole once when they finally makes their long awaited return?
Matt: Good question, Josh, and one I can’t wait to see the answer to. The Penguins made some interesting moves in 2012 that appear to have primed them for a lower salary cap. By having access cap space, Penguins GM Ray Shero could be in a good position to make a key acquisition, either via trade or free agency, by capitalizing on another team’s failure to foresee what was to come. But back to your question. I think we can expect a fired up Sidney Crosby-led team, one that is set to make good on their embarrassing loss to the Flyers last spring. Unfortunately, the area that seemed to plague them the most down the stretch and into the playoffs last season, the defense, is probably in line to be a bit worse off. That said, I think we can expect a trade, as mentioned above, to make improvements to the blueline before the playoffs begin.
Speaking of the back end of the team, how do you think the acquisition of Tomas Vokoun impacts the Penguins in a condensed season?
Josh: I think the Vokoun move, which everyone found a bit trivial (read: less than necessary) when Shero jumped on it, makes a lot of sense now. If this season gets on the rails, let’s say that the 48-game model is what ends up happening. Those 48 regular season games would likely be compressed into about four or four-and-a-half months. Forty-eight games in 135ish days? You better have a good backup goaltender. Or, you could do what the Penguins have done, and just have two starters on your roster. That’s not to say that Fleury’s job is in jeopardy; he’s the unquestioned #1 goaltender. Having another goaltender with solid #1 experience, like Vokoun, will keep Fleury fresh and (in theory) make both of them and the team as a whole lot better.
And that is really good news when we consider that the defense may actually be worse personnel-wise. I will say, though, that the shortened season bodes well for the young defensive prospects for the Penguins. There are a lot of them, and in small doses I think Dumoulin, Despres, Morrow, and Harrington will see time in addition to Strait, Bortuzzo, and Sneep in a platoon-type rotation that will keep each other fresh as well as spelling guys like Letang, Orpik, Niskanen, and Martin from time to time – they’re going to get tired with our schedule as well.
A schedule like this may be a test of depth more so than simple skill for teams. The Penguins certainly have bodies, but those bodies are lacking in experience in exception to four of the names I’ve listed above. The forwards shouldn’t present too much of an issue, though, Matt, right?
Matt: No, I really don’t think they will. Listen, when you can boast names like Crosby, Malkin, and Neal as your go-to guys, everything else should fall into place offensively. Add in proven veterans like Kunitz, Dupuis, and Cooke, and the recipe for success is in place. But, like on defense, depth will be crucial. With many games crammed into a short span of time, injuries and fatigue are likely to happen. By having some youngsters (and minor league veterans) ready to step in and fill the void temporarily (or longer) the Penguins will be in a better position to succeed.
The good news is that youngsters, such as Eric Tangradi and Beau Bennett, and AHL veterans, such as Riley Holzapfel, Benn Ferriero, and Trevor Smith, are having solid seasons. All appear ready and capable of filling an NHL role when called upon. As we’ve seen with guys like Chris Connor and Jeff Taffe, such commodities are invaluable, especially late in the season when injuries mount.
In all, it appears Shero has, once again, done his due diligence in putting together a squad complete with talent and depth. Now we just need a season to showcase it. Any last thoughts before you pop open a bottle of champagne and drink it out of your mini Stanley Cup?
Josh I’m hoping against hope here that this 48-game season gets put together, because I’m excited about what it means specifically to the Penguins and more generally at the league level. I think that due to Shero’s planning, and accurate preparations for the lockout, a lower salary cap, and a deep roster, that the Penguins are an acceptably competitive team for this year and in future years (as they won’t have to shed salary cap space if the cap does get cut, and they’ll also have the opportunity/luxury to pick up guys who fall victim to that attrition). From a competition standpoint, the abbreviated season would really shake things up. Look at a team like Minnesota last year. Even a relatively serious hockey fan probably couldn’t tell you more than about 5 names on their roster. Through the first 20-or-so games of last year, they were #1 in the West. Through the same span, Detroit wasn’t in the playoff picture. An 82-game season allows time for those things to “work themselves out.” A 48-game season is really going to put players, coaches, and GM’s on a hot seat as far as moves to be made. A “cold stretch” in an 82-game season happens once or twice to every team. An equally long cold streak in a 48-game season can be much more devastating. A “wait-and-see” mentality is one that will be a little more scarce at all levels, and I think that pressure will really make matters interesting as we step into 2013.