Lacing Up: Are The Penguins Too Talented?
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: Good morning Josh. As we begin our conversation, we’re just four days, seven hours, and 43 minutes away from the start of the NHL season, but who’s counting? So, with this being our last take at “Lacing Up” before the season starts, it seems fitting to provide our loyal readers with some of our completely irrelevant predictions. Hey, everyone else does it, so why can’t we…right?
Last evening, as I traveled home from work, Shawn Roarke of NHL.com was a guest on Mark Madden’s show. His take on the Penguins was that they have no positional weaknesses (including Marc-Andre Fleury), but that their abundance of high end talent could be problematic. With so many highly skilled players, he asked, is there enough puck to go around? It’s a valid question, and one that I presume doesn’t come up much around the league — but with the Penguins, it very well could be true.
So, Josh, what’s your take? Is having too much talent a bad thing for the Penguins
Joshua Neal: In short, I’d say no. And the one thing that I can point to most prevalently is the issue of injury. Three of the four “big guns” you mentioned there have missed huge stretches of games due to injury within the past two years. It’s not something you can plan to happen, but having depth throughout the depth chart as well as talent in different places across the top can help lessen the blow if one of those guys should happen to go down.
This Penguins team does seem to have a lot of skill along the top. No matter who ends up as the last man in on the top-6 (which Bylsma says will be situational, per Dejan Kovacevic), I think that the Penguins have an argument about having perhaps the most solid top two lines in hockey. But you have to get two other lines out on the ice, as well. The talent of the top two lines needs to be complemented by strong defensive play, solid forechecking, and intelligently executed system hockey.
That’s where my guy comes in. He won’t be muttered much in the same breath as Crosby, Malkin, Neal, or Letang. But his specific type of talent, lockdown defensive ability, could really make some things happen for the Penguins. That player is Brandon Sutter. With no disrespect to Jordan Staal, Sutter has the potential be one of the best defensive forwards the Penguins have seen in a number of years, and he can do it right now. Matt, with the defense being the one area that seems to be of main concern, can the third and fourth line stoppers help the blue liners? Can Brandon Sutter’s style of play unlock some new systemic possibilities for the Penguins this year?
Matt: There’s no question solid third and fourth lines can help patch a porous defense. Sutter might not be the best defensive forward we’ve seen in a long time, as Staal was really good — but he might be the most talented forward in Pittsburgh in years who is fully committed to the defensive aspects of the game. Sutter seems to relish the role of shutdown defender and, as we’ve said before, likely won’t try to sacrifice his defensive game to become more involved offensively, as Jordan Staal did.
Since we’re on the topic of defense, let’s take a look at the blueline. At the time of this conversation (Tuesday morning), Simon Despres is getting serious consideration to spend considerable time on the top pairing with Letang, while Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin make up the shutdown duo and Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland comprise the third pairing. Is that a good enough group? I called them porous earlier, but is that fair of me to say without seeing them play yet this season?
Josh: Matt, the Penguins announced via their twitter feed yesterday that Bylsma sees Orpik and Martin as playing in a shutdown pair. I’d be lying if I said I saw this as anything short of a disaster.
Perhaps I’m being a bit of a catastrophist, but Orpik and Martin don’t seem like the best pairing for that job. Maybe the simplification of Paul Martin’s role will make the game a bit more straightforward for him and help him have a bounce back year. I do expect to see an improvement in Martin this year compared to last. And although I have always been fond of Orpik as a player, he’s not getting any younger, and it’s hard for me to defend the number of times he takes himself out of plays by trying to throw a devastating hit. Sure, it gets a Subway Sandwich of the Game or two, but it also ends up in the back of our own net when he misses. I have my reservations about how that pairing will work, but Dan Bylsma makes a lot more money than I do, so we will see how it works out.
The interesting thing to think about is the prospect of Letang and Despres having a serious chance to be paired together. That’s a lot of talent in one defensive pairing, and it could have volatile effects both to the positive and negative. If Despres and Letang develop good chemistry and can both be responsible in their own zone, they could share a lot of prosperous years on the blue line in Pittsburgh. However, if Letang loses focus, as he sometimes tends to do, or if Despres has a rough patch of games, it could be detrimental to his development. By most accounts, though, it’s time to see what we’ve got in him. I’m certainly not opposed to putting him on board with one of the game’s best skaters and most gifted defensemen.
Do I think it’s fair for you to call them porous? When I look at the lineup and see that we didn’t add anything from the outside (aside from Brian Dumoulin, who isn’t NHL-ready at this point), and that we lost a stopper in Michalek, and I look at the Philadelphia playoff series, I think “porous” might be putting it nicely. But I think that the problems may have been located more in system than personnel. Mentioning that, do you expect any system adjustments from Bylsma to adapt to the new personnel both on the blue line and forward? Or do you think that the return of a healthy lineup will just make the same system more effective?
Matt: First of all, let me address the two pairings quickly. Orpik and Martin are an interesting pairing. But what intrigues me is the fact that both realize they need to improve and both seem like stand-up, class act players who own up to their mistakes. Putting them together could be disastrous as you mention, or it could force both to pay closer attention to details given that they’ll be charged with a very prominent and important task. As for Letang and Despres, it’s kind of exciting if you ask me, as I’m looking at this duo as the potential top pairing for the next five years or so. Like you said, if it works, it has the potential to be great — but I also worry about Letang’s ability to help a rookie adjust, considering he, himself oftentimes looks like he’s still adjusting to some degree.
So, with that said, yes, I do expect some changes to the system. Anything big? Absolutely not, as there isn’t enough time in training camp to make an overhaul. But I do think we’ll see Bylsma’s squad focus more attention on sound defensive play as opposed to simply getting north. I think we might see the Penguins focus a bit more on puck control and possession, as opposed to pure octane. Was that the system last season? No, but for whatever reason, that’s what their play resulted in, leaving them to die by the sword in the playoffs.
Josh, we’ve now discussed most of the team — sans goaltenders — but we’re running out of time. As I look at this roster, I see a high-end regular season squad that quite possibly finishes atop the Eastern Conference, if not the NHL. Come playoffs, though, we could be in for a repeat of last season if Byslma doesn’t keep his players in control. I also feel like the defense is ready for the rigors of the first 48, but it’s the next 20 or so that worry me. If they can acquire a legitimate defender to push Engelland to the press box for the playoffs, I feel quite confident a deep run and possibly even the Stanley Cup are in the not-so-distant future.
Let’s hear your prediction, Josh…
Josh: So hard to make any prediction short of a Stanley Cup. Other teams in the Eastern Conference made huge splashes. The New York Rangers were outstanding last year, and they added a big gun in Rick Nash. However, do I expect Marty Biron to be able to spell Henrik Lundqvist as well as he did last year? No. The Carolina Hurricanes added a lot of names, and a player we know firsthand as an excellent player, Jordan Staal. The addition of Alexander Semin is intriguing as well. But despite the Penguins failed run at Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, I think the roster for the Penguins is a solid one, in large part due to health.
I’m knocking on wood, but I see the Penguins as a virtual lock for the playoffs, which, as we all know, makes no guarantees about what comes beyond. Considering that Fleury will (theoretically) be fresher with the acquisition and utilization of Tomas Vokoun, and that the forwards are in a good place, I think the only thing we need to see is the defense return to being adequate in order to make the Penguins a very formidable team. We had about 65 games of pretty good defensive hockey last season, and a lot of people forget that – it’s hard not to when the Flyers embarrassed us so badly. A “return to form” could help the Penguins return to the Cup. It’s certainly what I want to see. So why would I say anything other than that the Penguins will take the Cup this year, beating the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals and taking out the St. Louis Blues in a very close Finals matchup.