Lacing Up: Taking the Ice
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 Well, Matt, we’re having a conversation here that I wasn’t so sure we’d be having. The 2013 NHL season is set to begin, and we can really get down to some hockey talk without saying “when or if the lockout ends.” It’s a good feeling. But rather than basking in the afterglow of the completed CBA, the Penguins and 29 other NHL teams realize there is some work to be done both on and off the ice in order to gear up for the rapidly approaching slate of games. All indications (at the time of this conversation) are that it will be a 48-game season, which I would have opted against in favor of 50 games, mainly because of the reduction in the proportion of games within the division. With 7 games against each of our 4 in-conference opponents, throwing clunkers in against the Islanders or Devils won’t help us keep pace with the Rangers or Flyers. An extended cold streak in a 48-game season could be dooming. By the same token, a hot streak could really solidify positioning within the division and conference. Everything carries more weight. If nothing else, it will certainly be a wild ride.
Let’s talk about the personnel who will be taking us along on this wild ride. There are the constants: we know Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will be centering the top 2 lines. We know it is a virtual certainty that James Neal will be Malkin’s finisher after the season that he had last year. I’d like to see the Kunitz-Malkin-Neal line stay together, but I understand that may not be the direction that Bylsma goes. Perhaps one of the things I’m most excited about is the new arrival, Brandon Sutter. I can’t say enough about this guy, and I really think he’s going to find his way into Penguins fans’ hearts. A third line of Cooke-Sutter-Kennedy could be very effective. I’m not a huge Kennedy fan, but I think a role as a checker it may really help him find his game. The defense is certainly an area of concern. Beyond Letang, there are question marks everywhere. Orpik isn’t getting any younger, Martin has struggled, Michalek is gone, and while Niskanen had a good year last year, his consistency is something I’m not sold on yet. These are just very cursory observations. Matt, how about a projection of lines along with a bit of discussion on guys that you expect to take larger roles, guys you expect to have different roles, and how you expect these pieces to work together in about a week and a half?
Matt Paul: Josh, it’s a good feeling having hockey back, is it not? Let me clarify one thing before I get into a direct response to your question. As of this keystroke (Tuesday morning @ 9:33), there is no definitive plan for a length of season or a breakdown of games. Forty-eight games seems most likely, with a January 19th start date — but I’m skeptical of the seven games against each division rival proposal. I feel like the NHL is smarter than this (though that seems to be a strange comment following an embarrassing lockout) — but time will tell.
Anyway, with regard to lines, Bylsma made it clear Monday that the Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis line will be reunited, leaving Malkin and Neal without a left winger. An interesting thought, and one that seems to be gaining some steam in many circles, is the notion of playing Cooke in the void left by Kuntiz with Malkin and Neal. Let’s analyze a bit. Both left wingers are undersized for the amount of physicality they utilize. Both have good wheels, hit hard, and can keep up with the big boys. Kunitz has a bit more of a scoring line pedigree than does Cooke — but Cooke spent some time with Crosby last season and fared well, totaling the best numbers of his career. That would leave room for Eric Tangradi to hop onto the third line with Sutter and Kennedy. Then, as the season progresses, maybe the two flip-flop based on performance.
What’s going to be interesting is seeing how camp works. While there are expected to be a few camp invitations from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the entire camp roster won’t exceed 25 players, according to Bylsma, meaning young players will have a difficult time proving their way onto the squad. Tangradi might have a leg up on, say, Beau Bennett, based on experience, but I’m not ruling out a surprise from the speedy playmaking winger. Do you think Bennett has a chance, Josh? Any other prospects and/or minor leaguers you feel could earn a roster spot?
Josh: Tangradi indeed may have the leg up on Bennett as far as experience goes. But as I understand, Bennett is a much better skater. If there’s one thing that will help a player find the ice for the Penguins (or for any team for that matter) it’s skating ability. By many accounts Bennett is progressing, but I don’t look for him to carve out a spot for himself just yet. It would certainly be nice to finally see a player we drafted make that jump to being a winger, since Shero seems to have such great luck with developing defensement we just haven’t seen many wingers as picks and even fewer coming up to the big show.
I think the most likely place we’ll see some guys from Wilkes-Barre making an impact is at the blue line. It’s certainly the area that needs addressing. While many are oozing over Joe Morrow and Simon Despres, I think we will be seeing a healthy dose of Bortuzzo and Strait. And I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I think I may prefer it to seeing Lovejoy out there. Nothing personal against Lovejoy, he just hasn’t really progressed as I’ve expected him to. Then again, I had written Matt Niskanen off and he had a surprising year last year. I think we may see some very small doses of Morrow, and probably a bit of Despres. It’d be nice to see Bennett just so we could see what he looks like on the ice with the big guys, though I’m not thinking he’ll be doing a whole lot in the way of making impact just yet.
The Penguins have a roster that a large portion of shared in the 2009 Stanley Cup. That experience means a lot, but those guys aren’t getting any younger. The guys like Cooke, Kunitz, Dupuis, and Adams have played important roles for the Penguins, especially in the absence of Crosby, Malkin, and Staal during periods of injury. Should we expect the same steady contribution from them? Should we expect a drop off? Or could these guys be in for even better things with Crosby and Malkin both being present in the lineup?
Matt: Josh, someone who gets pushed under the rug in terms of prospects often is Brian Dumoulin. He’s a big, strong, and capable young defender, who might just get a look on the Penguins’ relatively soft blueline.
As for the veterans, I think it’s fair to assume that most, if not all, will fail to improve on career years. That said, we’re not necessarily talking about a decrease in quality of play, but rather a shift of role and a deferral to a now healthy Crosby. In Adams’ case, however, we likely are to see a downgrade in his overall play, as age is creeping up on him as he nears the end of his career. Still, all four mentioned players seem primed and excited to begin the shortened season.
Let’s hit one last note before we sign off for the week. Tell me about your visions of the goaltending duo. True platoon? True starter/true backup split? Somewhere in between?
Josh: I think it falls somewhere in between. Fleury’s fatigue last year showed. And you can’t blame the guy for being tired when the defense was hanging him out to dry – for a large stretch of the season he was stopping 3 or 4 primo scoring opportunities per game due to continual defensive breakdowns. While it’s nice that a 48-ish game slate will not carry the same demands as a traditional full season, there will be nights where Vokoun is the guy who steps in to spell him out. I’m thinking that a realistic split of time will end up somewhere around Fleury playing 30 games to Vokoun’s 18. Obviously, things like travel, off-days, and things will come into play and the occasional “spot-start” may happen. But that’s where I see the number of games being distributed.
Let me restate – this deal may be one of the most retroactively intelligent-looking deals that Shero has ever made. We have to wait to see the on-ice product, but in theory I don’t think the Penguins goaltending situation could look much better. Now let me go knock on the nearest piece of wood. Vokoun is not Dany Sabourin, he is not Mathieu Garon, he is not Brent Johnson. And with all respects to Ty Conklin, he’s not him either. Vokoun is a starting goaltender that really solidifies a goaltending tandem. Matt, do you think he’ll see that much ice? Or am I short-selling him?
Matt: That sounds about right, Josh. Vokoun is not your average backup goaltender. He’s a man who has spent plenty of years starting, and likely would be starting this season (albeit probably on a bottom-tier team) if he hadn’t chosen to sign with the Penguins for two years. Without a doubt, he’ll be capable not only of spelling Fleury when he’s tired, but pushing him when he’s not playing his best.
As you said, this may prove to be Shero’s best free agent signing to date, especially considering the crunched season and Fleury’s fatigue issues in the past. A 30 to 18 split seems about right, as it isn’t quite a platoon, nor is it a true starter/backup relationship. That said, this team is Fleury’s, and he’ll be their go-to man once the playoffs roll around.