Friday, 28 March 2014

Preview: Penguins @ Blue Jackets 28/3

Form Book

Columbus Blue Jackets 

37-29-6, 80 Points, 4th in Metropolitan Division. 20-13-3 at Home. 5-4-1 in Last 10

Last Game: Detroit 2-4 Columbus, 25/3  

A pair of first-period power play goals for the Blue Jackets were cancelled out by a brace from Red Wings winger Gustav Nyquist. A disputed Cam Atkinson goal (see below) and a Ryan Johansen empty netter sealed the points for Columbus.


46-22-5, 97 Points, 1st in Metropolitan Division. 20-14-3 on Road. 4-5-1 in Last 10

Last Game: Penguins 2-3 Los Angeles

After goals from Chris Kunitz and Taylor Pyatt - Martin Jones somehow allowing the burly winger's shot to roll over his shoulder and in - erased a 2-0 Kings lead, Los Angeles took the lead for good on a heavy slap-shot from defenseman Drew Doughty. Pens center Brandon Sutter harshly had the tying goal disallowed for goaltender interference.  

Previous Meeting: Penguins 5-3 Blue Jackets, 29/12

James Neal had a hat-trick and the Pens scored three power-play goals as Pittsburgh won their fourth game in a row this season over their new divisional rivals. 

Team Stats & Rankings

Blue Jackets                              Penguins  

2.76  (14th)  Goals For Per Game          3.03  (5th)      
2.69  (14th)  Goals Against Per Game      2.48  (11th)
1.06  (11th)  5-on-5 For/Against Ratio    1.07  (10th)
17.3% (18th)  Power Play                  23.7% (2nd)
82.1% (14th)  Penalty Kill                85.6% (4th)
29.4  (20th)  Shots For Per Game          30.2  (14th)
30.7  (21st)  Shots Allowed Per Game      28.8  (10th) 
-1.3          Shot Differential Per Game  +1.4

Stat Leaders Comparison

Penguins                                        Blue Jackets

Crosby        96          Points        54      Johansen
Crosby        34           Goals        29      Johansen
Crosby        62          Assists       36      Wisniewski
Niskanen      +32       Plus/Minus     +12      Nikitin/Tropp
Crosby       22:04      TOI Avg (F)   18:45     Dubinsky
Niskanen*    21:16      TOI Avg (D)   24:30     J.Johnson

Probable Starting Goalies

Penguins: Marc-Andre Fleury - 34-17-3, 2.37 GAA, .915 Save%
Jackets: Sergei Bobrovsky - 27-19-4, 2.47 GAA, .919 Save%

EDIT (14:30 GMT): Bobrovsky (illness) is still not feeling 100%, according to @RobMixer, so Curtis McElhinney (9-9-1, 2.75 GAA, .909 Save%) will start. Ratings(as of 23/3)

Penguins                                                 Kings
Neal      60.7    5-on-5  Offensive Rating (F)   35.6    Tropp
Sutter*   31.2    5-on-5  Defensive Rating (F)   34.2    Jenner
Neal      62.9       PP Offensive Rating (F)     25.7    Letestu
Glass     40.4       PK Defensive Rating (F)     67.0    Calvert
Niskanen  23.4    5-on-5 Defensive Rating (D)    25.2    Nikitin
Bortuzzo  68.1       PK Defensive Rating (D)     19.0    Schultz

*Among active players.

What To Expect

Both teams are coming off games where they were on the opposite sides of contentious goals. Last night, Brandon Sutter was judged to have pushed Kings' goalie Martin Jones into the net along with the puck, so his potential game-tying goal was chalked off. It should not have been. The rule on goaltender interference states that a goal should be allowed if the attacking player is 'pushed or otherwise fouled' into the goalie. Drew Doughty's repeated cross-checks to the back of Sutter surely constituted 'otherwise fouled'.

Columbus' Cam Atkinson's goal against Detroit was allowed to stand even though he knocked the net off its moorings. Officials judged that Red Wings' defenseman Brendan Smith had shoved him into the net, rather than it being Atkinson's own action.

Generally speaking, the Pens competed well against a superior 5-on-5 team last night in the Kings. They got a pair of even strength goals and allowed two, though one was virtually a power play goal as it was scored moments after a penalty expired. What would have been good to see was the energy that the team played with after Sutter's disallowed goal throughout the whole game, not just for the last nine minutes of the third period.

Where Pittsburgh really fell down was in the special teams match-up, where they should really have held an advantage. The power play went 0-for-7, and generated few quality scoring chances, and the current failings of the penalty kill were exposed twice: one official power play goal for Los Angeles, plus the one scored seconds after the penalty ended.

Both the Pens and Jackets are slightly above average even strength teams, but again, the Penguins' special teams are streets ahead in results terms. Going up against Columbus' 18th ranked power play should give Pittsburgh's penalty killers a chance to get some confidence back, but Bylsma really needs to split up Orpik and Scuderi as a shorthanded pairing. Surprisingly, Robert Bortuzzo has been the Pens' most effective goal preventer when a man down. I'd like to see him play more minutes on the penalty kill.

And despite his great play as a 19-year old rookie, Olli Maatta looks like he could use a rest. Bylsma should scratch him for at least a game while he still has seven healthy defensemen. Unfortunately, Marcel Goc's injury last night may well mean Deryk Engelland's services are required up front against Columbus.

Ryan Johansen is the Jackets' most obvious goal threat with 29 on the season. Brandon Sutter having to center the second line in Evgeni Malkin's absence, coupled with Goc's injury, leaves the unedifying prospect of leaving Johansen and other double-digit goal scorers like Artem Anisimov (19), Cam Atkinson (19), RJ Umberger (18) and Nick Foligno (18) up against a checking line that could be centered by an under-performing Craig Adams.

One positive from last night's game was seeing points from Goc, Taylor Pyatt, Jason Megna and Brian Gibbons, with all four players providing some much needed energy. Bylsma could do worse than upping Gibbons' and Megna's ice time.

On paper, the Penguins have a good shot of sweeping the season series and sealing a playoff berth in the process. But the Pens' recent energy and performance levels, along with the seemingly never-ending stream of injuries (the team have lost a league-high 455 man games to injury, not accounting for Goc) mean there is room for doubt.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Preview: Kings @ Penguins, 27/3

Form Book

Los Angeles Kings 

42-25-6, 90 Points, 3rd in Pacific Division. 21-12-3 on Road. 7-3-0 in Last 10

Last Game: Los Angeles 5-4 Washington (SO) 

LA came back from 3-1 down to take the lead in the third-period, only for highly touted prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov’s first career NHL goal to tie the game with 42 seconds remaining in regulation. Jonathan Quick stopped Kuznetsov and Eric Fehr in the shootout while Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter scored to win it for the Kings.


46-21-5, 97 Points, 1st in Metropolitan Division. 26-7-2 at Home. 5-4-1 in Last 10

Last Game: Phoenix 3-2 Penguins

After twice trading goals in the first period, the Pens were unable to find an answer to a Mikkel Boedker goal midway through the second period. Phoenix’s winner came just as Jussi Jokinen stepped back on the ice after serving an ill advised retaliatory penalty taken in the offensive zone. Recently porous defensive pairing Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik were on the ice for that goal and Shane Doan’s earlier power play goal.

Previous Meeting: Penguins 4-1 Kings

Jussi Jokinen had three points (1G, 2A) and Jeff Zatkoff stopped 30 shots as three Penguins goals in the first period chased Jonathan Quick early.

Team Stats & Rankings

Kings                                     Penguins  

2.38  (27th)  Goals For Per Game          3.04  (5th)      
2.07  (T-1st) Goals Against Per Game      2.47  (10th)
1.25  (5th)   5-on-5 For/Against Ratio    1.07  (10th)
15.1% (25th)  Power Play                  24.4% (1st)
83.0% (11th)  Penalty Kill                85.8% (2nd)
31.6  (7th)   Shots For Per Game          30.1  (14th)
26.4  (3rd)   Shots Allowed Per Game      28.8  (9th) 
+5.2          Shot Differential Per Game  +1.3

Stat Leaders Comparison

Crosby        95          Points        59      Kopitar
Crosby        34           Goals        25      Carter
Crosby        61          Assists       37      Kopitar
Niskanen      +31       Plus/Minus     +27      Kopitar
Crosby       22:01      TOI Avg (F)   21:02     Kopitar
Niskanen*    21:14      TOI Avg (D)   25:59     Doughty

Probable Starting Goalies

Kings: Martin Jones - 10-5-0, 1.90 GAA, .923 Save%
Penguins: Jeff Zatkoff - 12-4-1, 2.55 GAA, .915 Save% Ratings

Penguins                                                 Kings
Neal      60.7    5-on-5  Offensive Rating (F)   27.8    Gaborik
Sutter*   31.2    5-on-5  Defensive Rating (F)   73.2    Toffoli
Neal      62.9       PP Offensive Rating (F)     12.7    Gaborik
Glass     40.4       PK Defensive Rating (F)     32.5    Stoll
Niskanen  23.4    5-on-5 Defensive Rating (D)    60.4    Martinez
Bortuzzo  68.1       PK Defensive Rating (D)     53.0    Voynov

*Among active players.

What To Expect

Dan Bylsma cancelled practice on Wednesday, and several veteran players called out the team for a lack of pride and passion after the defeat to St Louis. That should mean legs will be fresher. Whether that translates into a better effort against the league's best defensive team remains to be seen.

If this season's earlier meeting is anything to go by, expect Sidney Crosby to see a healthy dose of Kings' defensemen Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin along with old adversary Mike Richards. With Evgeni Malking out of the lineup, LA can sit on Crosby, meaning someone else will need to step up to relieve the pressure. Secondary scoring has not been a strong point this season, so if Crosby is held off the scoresheet (he had an assist last time around) the Penguins might struggle for goals.

Los Angeles are one of the best even-strength teams in the NHL, but the Penguins hold a big advantage on special teams. The Kings also make a habit of outshooting their opponents, while the Penguins have been inconsistent in that area lately. I think the Pens need to get on the board early and often - as they did when they chased Jonathan Quick in the first period back in January - to make the Kings have to open up a bit.

In a spot of good news, the Pens have just recalled winger Beau Bennett from his conditioning assignment with Wilkes/Barre, so hopefully we will be seeing the back of Taylor Pyatt soon.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Penguins Third-of-a-Season Review

A Tale of 1/3 of a Season

A third of the Penguins' season is in the books. The Pens have played 16 games and sit atop the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference with a 11-5-0 record and 22 points. New Jersey have the same number of points, but Pittsburgh have an extra regulation/overtime win, giving them the tie-breaker at this early stage.

Let's look at some positives and negatives before dishing out some just-for-fun 16-Game Awards at the end.

Things I Like So Far

Road Warriors

Pittsburgh are the best road team in the league right now, going 8-2 in 10 road contests so far. They have been able to come out and set the tone early, quietening the hostile crowd by scoring the first goal in every road game to date, netting at least one first period tally in each. Their only road losses have come in New Jersey and in Sidney Crosby's Winnipeg debut.

A stinker of a second period cost two points in Winnipeg, despite Crosby's pair of first period goals. The Penguins' indiscipline cost two points in the Prudential Center - they were assessed 12 minor penalties (including some dreadful calls by the officials) - despite the penalty killers holding New Jersey to just 2-for-10 on the power play. And let's face it, the Devils' neutral zone trap has been giving the Pens (and the rest of the league for that matter!) palpitations for years. And let's not forget the evergreen Marty Brodeur - check out this robbery of Chris Kunitz if you missed it.

There are a number of other traveling highlights. Special teams play has been solid too. The power play has 11 road goals at a 28.4% clip; the penalty kill has conceded goals in only 5 of the 10 games. Of James Neal's 11 goals, 7 have come on his travels. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been lights-out on the road, winning 5 of 6 starts and posting a .939 save percentage and 1.82 goals against.

With the Pens having a heavy dose of road games early on, and with only a .500 record at Consol Energy Center so far, their road performance has been the key to leading the Conference.

Fast Starts

As well as scoring first in every road game, the Pens have taken the lead in 13 of their 16 games, winning 10 of those contests. This shows the importance of getting that first marker, but perhaps more important than merely scoring first is scoring early. Twelve of those goals have been scored in the first period (Brandon Sutter had the temerity to wait until 2:27 of the 2nd in the 5-1 win over New Jersey on February 2nd!), either taking the opposing crowd out of the game early or firing up the usually quiet Consol crowd.

Quick strike first period dominance has typified Pittsburgh's start to the season. They have 18 first period goals, against only 6 conceded. They have scored inside the first five minutes of 9 games, including 5 goals scored before the two-minute mark. This is a team built to score, so the quicker they can light the lamp, the better. If they can maintain this trend, opposing teams will be forced out of the trapping schemes that have flummoxed both the Penguins players and the coaching staff over the last few seasons.

The Blueline

I think everyone has been impressed - and a little surprised - with Paul Martin's improved play. He leads the team with 25:37 of ice time per game and trails only Kris Letang for points among Pens' d-men. Martin has 2G-7A to this point, playing mostly alongside Brooks Orpik as a shut-down pair, and has looked masterful in quarterbacking the top power play unit since taking over for an injured Letang. Sure, you'd love to see him with a positive +/-, but hey, that's a stat that doesn't tell you anything of note.

So far, the Pens have used nine different defenseman because of injury or roster wrangling. Martin, Letang, Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland, Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo, Dylan Reese and the now-in-Anaheim Ben Lovejoy have all appeared on the blueline. Highly touted defensive prospect Joe Morrow was also called up before the February 10th Devils game, but was sent back to Wilkes-Barre the following day.

Each player has contributed something meaningful, either through scoring (Letang, Martin), physicality (Orpik, Engelland), solid two-way play (Despres, Niskanen) or simply stepping in admirably when better players have gone down injured (Bortuzzo, Reese). The Penguins currently rank a respectable 10th in goals against per game. What looked like a weakness down the stretch last season has been a strength this year.

Things I'd Like To See Now

Geno: Score A Goal!

This might seem a little harsh on a reigning Hart Trophy winner who has 18 points in 16 games, but Evgeni Malkin only has 3 of the Penguins 52 goals. He needs more!

I'd like to see Malkin net a couple pretty soon for a few reasons. First, Geno is no small part of James Neal's hot start to the season, but at some point, defenders are going to start keying more on Neal (assuming it's possible to stop his super-quick release!). If Neal's goals dry up for any length of time, Geno's going to have to pick up the slack. The fact that he only has 50 shots so far, only the 23rd highest total in the league, is a little strange.

Second, great centers like...oh I don't know...Sidney Crosby...make the players around them better. Clearly, Malkin has done a great job getting Neal the puck, but guess how many goals Geno's left wingers have so far this year when playing on his line? Precisely zero. None. Alright, none of Eric Tangradi - now departed to Winnipeg for a 7th round pick - Tyler Kennedy, Zach Boychuk, Tanner Glass or Matt Cooke are exactly Zach Parise, but you could be forgiven for expecting a couple of goals from that group. In fact, only Cooke has a point playing with Malkin - a solitary assist. Part of the blame for the position's lack of production has to fall on Geno. Being more of a goal threat himself - or even just shooting the puck more - would surely create opportunities for linemates to bang home rebounds.

And the third reason is best covered below...

Man In The Box

Hopefully, this is a problem that will right itself soon, but too many undisciplined penalties are going to cost the Penguins games sooner or later. One would hope that all the silly, bonehead penalties were got out of the system in the 12 minor debacle against the Devils.

Early in the season, and in some games since, it's been evident that frustration with in-game events or  performance has led to downright stupid penalties. Malkin has been a prime culprit, averaging close to two PIMs a game, with the vast majority being as a result of frustration, either with the opposition, the officials or himself. The sooner he starts scoring goals, the fewer penalties he'll take.

Even in the Buffalo game on Sunday, Crosby took an unnecessary cross checking penalty, followed by Tanner Glass being pinged for delay of game after using his hand to win a face off. Buffalo tied the game on the ensuing 5-on-3. Bad penalties usually come back to bite you. Chris Kunitz was fortunate Buffalo didn't take advantage of his dumb retaliatory slash late in the 3rd.

Only ten teams have been shorthanded more often but, as I saw someone on Twitter say the other day, the penalty kill might be good, but they shouldn't have to keep proving it!

Secondary School

Basically, there's only so long Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Kunitz and Dupuis can carry the rest of the forwards. Brandon Sutter has 6 points, Matt Cooke five. The group consisting of Kennedy, Boychuk, Glass, Joe Vitale, Craig Adams, Dustin Jeffrey and 2010 first round pick Beau Bennett has combined for 3 goals and 7 points in 76 man games.

Some of these guys escape criticism because of their defense-first role, but Ray Shero's patience can only surely last so long for players like Kennedy. See Lovejoy to Anaheim and Tangradi (1 goal in 45 games) to Winnipeg for reference. And it would be nice to see Tanner Glass add to the grit and hits with some scoring soon.

1/3 Season Awards

Hart Trophy

Winner: Chris Kunitz

There are a number of worthy candidates for this, with Neal's 11 goals and Sid's 24 points being the obvious numbers to look at. Martin's play has already been discussed. Joe Vitale continues to hit the ice like a man possessed game in, game out and has been dominant in the face-off circles. And Pascal Dupuis? Well Duper will always be a Duperstar. He just plays the game the right way. And playing alongside Sidney Crosby will always help!

But Kunitz is simply playing at a level above his previous history. Never has he come close to averaging a point per game over a completed season. And yet here he is, tied for second on the team with 7 goals, third in assists with 12 and second in points with 19. He has two game winning goals, three power play goals and is +11.

Kunitz plays a physical, effective game. He finishes checks hard, creates havoc on the forecheck and is a pest in front of the net. He's the sort of player that creates space for others, but also has an eye for goal himself.

Oh yeah, and he also became the first Penguins player since that quite good guy who wore #68 - you know the one, Jagr or something, look it up - to have a four-goal game. Not bad.

Runners Up: James Neal, Joe Vitale, Paul Martin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis

The rest of the awards are a bit silly, given that it's pretty obvious who the Pens' best goaltender, defenseman etc are, but in brief:

Art Ross: Crosby, 24 Points

'Rocket' Richard: Neal, 11 Goals

Norris: Letang. Runner Up: Martin

Vezina: Fleury. Runner Up: Tomas Vokoun

Selke: Dupuis. Runners Up: Brandon Sutter, Vitale, Craig Adams

Calder: Despres. Runner Up: Bortuzzo

So, there you have it. One man's view of 16 games. Make of it what you will and Let's Go Pens!

Comments are welcomed and appreciated!


Sunday, 20 January 2013

Penguins Game Review 1/19/13: Pens 3 @ Flyers 1

So that's what defense looks like? Where as nothing would go right defensively for the Penguins in 'that' series back in April, the team delivered a defensive gem Saturday to defeat the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-1.

Pittsburgh would have been hard pressed to get their campaign off to a better start. Their team speed led to a number of good scoring chances, outshooting Philadelphia heavily early on. Tyler Kennedy tipped a Paul Martin (more on him later) shot past Ilya Bryzgalov at 4:40 of the 1st. The PK units (more on them later) killed off a Philly power play after Dustin Jeffrey was pinged for slashing ten seconds later. Then - in what's sure to become known as 'The Neal Play' when the two hook up throughout the season - Evgeni Malkin won a face-off cleanly back to James Neal, who whipped a shot from the top of the left circle into the far corner to open up a two-goal lead after only 7:20.

Philly got back into the game in the 2nd, after Brooks Orpik got caught pinching. Scott Hartnell was forced wide down the left wing by a resurgent Martin, but delivered a dandy of a saucer pass which barely evaded Chris Kunitz's covering stick and landed squarely on the tape of Claude Giroux. The new Flyers' captain made no mistake, sliding the puck under Marc-Andre Fleury to cut the Pens' lead in half.

The rest of the way, despite Philly holding a shots lead in the final two periods, the Penguins looked pretty comfortable right up until Kunitz shoveled the puck into an empty net with 11.2 seconds left. There were a couple of heart-in-mouth moments - which undoubtedly would have seen the puck in the Pens net last April - but they survived.

5 Key Points

1. Paul Martin plays well? Is that allowed?

If you take a cursory look at the plus/minus column, Martin is on pace to finish with a -48 rating. So, back to last year's turnover-prone horror show then? Well, no. Not even slightly. Despite some people on Twitter trying to blame him for the Flyers goal, he actually defended it as well as possible. Perfectly positioned to cover Orpik's pinch on the left side, he forced Scott Hartnell out wide, allowing Kunitz to get back to at least contest the slot with Giroux. Hartnell made a fabulous play which beat not only Martin, but Kunitz and Fleury as well. No shame in that.

The veteran D-man actually produced one of his best games in a Penguins uniform. He utilized his excellent skating to command the ice more aggressively. He blocked three shots with his active stick - something which will particularly have pleased Dan Bylsma. Add to that his shot that TK redirected for the opening goal, and his interception - by standing strong in the neutral zone - of a Flyers pass to set up Kunitz's empty netter and you have arguably the team's best performer. Long may it continue!

2. Marc-Andre Fleury: Wall-Flower

Fleury was shelled for 26 goals in the playoff loss. He looked tired, and out of his zone, regressing to the overactive style that hindered him early in his career. Saturday, he looked calm, assured and made a number of crucial saves, including some sequences he simply would not have made in April.

The most pleasing thing was how easy he made most of his saves look. Fleury seemed still for most of the night. Sure, he made some trademark side-to-side stops and flung himself on a couple of loose pucks, but gone was the overcompensation; no sliding outside the post and getting beat far side.

What looked like a routine save in the 3rd summed his performance up. Dustin Jeffrey made a brain-dead cross ice pass in the defensive zone, which was picked up and shot wide by a Flyer. The puck came back off the end boards, straight to the stick of Eric Wellwood, who shot the puck hard on net. Straight into an immobile Fleury's chest. A great read and great positioning. Outstanding.

3. (Penalty) Killing the Demons

In April, the Penguins flat-out could not stop the Flyers from scoring with the man advantage. At times it looked like they could score at will.

Last night, the Flyers had five power play chances. The Penguins killed all five. The PK units looked nothing like they did back in April. Indeed, the personnel have changed considerably. Jordan Staal is in Carolina; Zbynek Michalek in Phoenix. So, Bylsma used a plethora of players - including the outstanding Brandon Sutter - to kill penalties, taking advantage of stoppages of play to keep the forward pairs fresh. In fact, Bylsma kept a good rotation of players going all game - key in a compressed season - with only Dustin Jeffrey getting less than 10 minutes of ice time.

Good penalty killing starts in net, and Fleury was perfect, stopping all 11 of Philadelphia's man advantage shots. But the units as a whole seemed to spend less time running around the ice chasing Flyers or the puck, concentrating on protecting and collapsing around the net when necessary.

Most intriguingly, both #87 and #71 saw time with the PK units. This is sure to create huge mismatches against opposing power plays in the future, particularly if Malkin continues to strip the puck from opponents apparently at will.

4. Unsung Heroes

Penguins fans are going to get to like Brandon Sutter very quickly. He looked like he had been part of the team for years last night, adding an outstanding defensive presence. He also dominated the faceoff circle, winning 57% of his draws. Faceoffs have been a problem for Pittsburgh, but with Sutter, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin's increased success in this area, this will soon be eradicated. All Pens centers (Crosby, Malkin, Sutter, Jeffrey) won over half their faceoffs.

And a special mention must go to Craig Adams. Just in case anyone didn't know, NBC's coverage team made sure it was clear he's a Harvard grad. This has nothing to do with his hockey smarts, but he certainly used his head in the 3rd period. A Flyers shot finally snuck past Fleury and was heading straight into the net. Adams, back-checking hard, arrived in the crease just in time to stop the puck crossing the line and cleared it away, preserving the 2-1 scoreline. Awesome.

5. Players Under Scrutiny

It has been noted before that some of the players in Dan Bylsma's lineup have got something to prove. Eric Tangradi is getting another chance to stick in the top-six. Simon Despres - Bylsma's favoured son it would seem - is in the lineup despite concerns over his development; Bryan Strait is now an Islander since he was sent down not Despres. And I think everyone was surprised when Jeffrey got the nod on the fourth line over Joe Vitale.

Jeffrey didn't have a great game outside of the faceoff circle - where he was excellent, winning 5 of 8 - taking an unnecessary penalty and making some errant passes, so we'll see whether Vitale gets a chance against New York tonight.

As for the other two, Despres played alright and wasn't particularly obvious, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, Tangradi was virtually anonymous, which is not. If Tangradi cannot get himself into games playing alongside the reigning MVP and a 40-goal scorer, it can only be a matter of time before Beau Bennett hears his phone ringing in Wilkes-Barre, or Ray Shero pulls the trigger on a trade for a proven scorer. That will be a shame, but Tangradi needs to find the net, and soon. 

Final Thoughts

Two points are important in any season, but in a schedule slashed to 48 games every point is at a premium. Add that every game will be played against Eastern Conference opposition, and winning in regulation, thus keeping the extra point for a regulation tie away from rivals, becomes even more valuable. That the Penguins were able to hold on to a slender lead through more 50 minutes of play speaks volumes to their improved defensive play last night.

And beating the Flyers will always feel great anyway, right?


Comments very welcome.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Hockey Is Back!

A Late, Late Show: Penguins Season Preview 

So, less than two hours to go (hence no links in here today, apologies) to the first puck dropped in anger in the 2012-13 (well, 2013 anyway) NHL season. Excitement is high, at least on this blog. The Penguins kick off a jam-packed slate of action at 3 p.m. ET in, of all places, Philadelphia, against bitter intrastate rivals the Flyers. This gives the Pens an early crack at revenge for the ignominious way the Flyers dumped them out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs all the way back in April 2012. That series gave rise to a number of questions that Dan Bylsma will want the team to answer early and often. With the game fast approaching, there's just about enough time to look at a few key areas in preview of the Pens' season.

1. Forwards

Ray Shero opted to take advantage of a high value on center Jordan Staal, a key member of the club for a number of years, trading him to Carolina in June. In return, Pittsburgh received center Brandon Sutter, prospect defenseman Brian Dumoulin and the 8th overall pick in last year's draft. With the pick, Penguins' management selected another defenseman, Derrick Pouliot, adding to a strong prospect pile at the position.

Staal's departure may have removed a very talented player from the organisation, breaking up the 'Big Three' in the process, but he was always likely to want to be the top-six player his size and ability demanded. This was never likely to be in Pittsburgh with a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin around, so when Staal turned down a 10-year $60m extension, Shero really had to move him to get a good return. The organisation are apparently very high on Sutter, who has a reputation as an excellent two-way player with outstanding defensive smarts. Staal's defensive play had started to waver a little towards the end of his time in Pittsburgh, so Sutter should provide an upgrade to the third line, where Staal was never really suited. He also had a big performance in Wednesday's intra-squad scrimmage, with a goal and two assists and a tally in the shootout as well.

Crosby looks set to be flanked by long term linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis - he of the 25-goal breakout season in 2011-12 - with Malkin a lock to play with 40-goal scorer James Neal and... Well, that's the primary issue. Who sticks as the last top-six forward? 2010 first-round pick Beau Bennett has been sent back down, so it looks likely that Eric Tangradi, who arrived from Anaheim promising much, but has yet to deliver anything of note (40 games, 1 goal), will get the nod. Tangradi still apparently has a lot of upside, but he's going to have to get off to a good start to stay on the second line with Bennett only a phone call away in Wilkes-Barre.

The third line will feature Sutter and stalwarts Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. This line has the potential to be one of the best in the league, with all three players able to score and play with grit. Kennedy could easily see time in the top-six, and Cooke needs to reintroduce at least a little aggression to his game, but this line should be great to watch and combined for four goals in Wednesday's scrimmage. That leaves Joe Vitale, Craig Adams, Dustin Jeffrey and newcomer Tanner Glass to fight it out for a fourth line berth. Vitale's and Adams' value on the penalty kill makes them certainties, and Glass' 246 hits for Winnipeg a year ago will add some much needed sandpaper. Jeffrey will probably be the odd-man-out, but he is a serviceable player to see time on the third or fourth line.

This is a forward group who contributed to a NHL-high 273 goals a season ago. That was without Sidney Crosby for the lion's share of the season. Sure, Shero missed out on signing Zach Parise, but adding a fully fit Sid is like signing the best free-agent on the market. Crosby and Malkin - coming off an MVP 109 point season - together and healthy is the best possible news the Penguins could have had.

2. Defense & Goalies

The single biggest reason the Penguins lost to the Flyers in April? Woeful defense. This was a team wide problem, though it is easier to point the finger at some players more than others. Marc-Andre Fleury looked beyond help in that series, but that was in no small part due to him having appeared in 67 games, itself a result of sub-par play from backup Brent Johnson. In Johnson's defense, it was his play the previous season that allowed the club to shake off a terrible first few weeks from Fleury. Hopefully, Fleury will come back stronger for the humbling experience. But if he struggles, then Shero pulled off, in my view, one of the masterstrokes of his tenure as GM this offseason, signing Tomas Vokoun to a 2-year deal, worth $2m a season. Vokoun has been one of the best goalies in the league during his career, and could easily be a number one for some teams. He has a reputation as a great locker room guy, and should be able to help mentor Fleury.

It is worth pointing out that, despite what some say, Vokoun is not in Pittsburgh to unseat MAF. He is there to take some pressure and some workload off his shoulders. A fresh, fit Fleury is still one of the game's best, though he still has untidy games and makes mental mistakes, but then, who doesn't?

Now, the goaltending was only part of the issue in the run-in and playoffs. The defense in front of the net was downright terrible at times. Kris Letang is emerging into the All-Star caliber player everyone thought he would be, and Brooks Orpik is a defensive force. Those two are the nailed down, top-quality blue liners the Pens possess. It is the others in the corps who have question marks. With Zbynek Michalek's shot-blocking gone back to Phoenix, that leaves Paul Martin, Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy, Simon Despres, Matt Niskanen and Robert Bortuzzo as the six men looking for four spots. Martin had an abysmal year last time around, but because of his $5m salary, he will play until he is traded or bought out (or actually plays like he is capable of, as shown when he was a Devil). Niskanen is quietly turning into the player that makes the trade that sent Alex Goligoski to Dallas for him and James Neal look like the bargain of the century. A solid defender who plays the PK well and can chip in offensively, his play solidifies the top-four caliber players.

The other players are interesting. Engelland played last year when Bylsma wanted grit; Lovejoy when he wanted smooth skating. It appears that Engelland will play, which is great, but despite Despres getting a lot of negative press for his work ethic, fitness and production, he will likely keep Lovejoy out of the lineup. Bortuzzo played well in a limited role last season, and keeping eight defensemen active gives Bylsma and Todd Reirden some flexibility should anyone not perform. Whatever happens, they can't be worse than last April. Can they?

3. Special Teams

In 'that' series, the Penguins killed fewer than half (47.8%) of Philadelphia's power play opportunities, giving up a whopping 12 power play goals in the six games. This was coming off the back of being the top-ranked PK squad during the regular season. A lot of this was due to the Flyers exploiting the Pens' 'tight-box' strategy, with the PK unit leaving too much space on the outside for Flyers forwards to move into. It sounds as if the unit have still been playing the same formation, so this is a point of concern. However, Dan Bylsma has indicated that Crosby might see some time on the kill, which would at least back opposing blueliners off in the closing seconds of a kill, as well as creating shorthanded chances. This is a wait and see proposition.

The power play was the reason the Pens lost in the previous series, in 2011, to Tampa Bay. It went 1-for-35. Pittsburgh also got burned for three shorties by Philly last year. A lot of the defensive frailties of the unit should be shored up by having Letang on the back end, not Steve Sullivan. But there will still be four forwards on the ice, with James Neal apparently being asked to play the point. He will be roving, as I understand it, trying to get 'lost in the mix' so to speak. Kunitz will be in front of the net, and I imagine Crosby will be down low at the goal line and behind the net, where he is undoubtedly the best at what he does, with Malkin working the half-wall. This unit tallied twice in the scrimmage on Wednesday, which is very encouraging.

4. Line Combinations

Here are my predictions for the Pens' lines to open the season:

Kunitz   -   Crosby   -   Dupuis
Tangradi   -   Malkin   -   Neal
Cooke   -   Sutter   -   Kennedy
Glass   -   Vitale   -   Adams

Orpik   -   Martin
Letang   -   Despres
Niskanen   -   Engelland


5. Final Thoughts

The Pens had 108 points last year, with Crosby only playing a small number of games. Yes, Jordan Staal has gone and Paul Martin hasn't. But Sutter arguably makes the team more balanced, and having the best player in the world in Sidney Crosby and perhaps the second-best in Evgeni Malkin, will make them a scary proposition for any opponent.

If Marc-Andre Fleury can play like he did for most of 2011-12, the penalty kill plays like it did for most of 2011-12 and Ray Shero's additions work out - which I have no doubt they will, I really like both Sutter and Glass and Vokoun's a no-brainer - this Pens team should (must?) compete for the Stanley Cup in 2013.


Comments are very welcome, and I will have a full report on tonight's game up by Sunday at the latest.

Let's go Pens!


Friday, 28 December 2012

Hanrahan Trade: Mark Melancon

The most experienced player acquired by Neal Huntington in return for Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt, right-hander Mark Melancon has appeared in 147 games across four seasons for the Yankees, Astros and Red Sox. He has some experience in closing games, notching 20 Saves with Houston in 2011, so he can reasonably be viewed as a potential replacement for Hanrahan. If he is indeed to close for the Bucs, he will need to outperform Jason Grilli (recently resigned for 2013-14 at $6.75m and discussed here.) in Spring Training. No small task given Grilli's 2012 performance. He will also need to show that some shaky performances for Boston this season were hiccups, rather than his ceiling.

Here is Melancon's output pitching for Houston in 2011: These are mostly solid, if unspectacular numbers, but with a good strikeouts-to-walks ratio and manageable WHIP. Had he built on this in 2012, Melancon may have established himself as one of Boston's top relievers. Looking at his basic 2012 numbers, it appears as if he had a total collapse in performance this season. Overall, he posted a 6.20 ERA, allowing 8 home runs in only 45.1 innings of work. At a glance, this would make his acquisition by the Pirates appear questionable. Luckily for Melancon - and the Bucs - his ERA and home run totals are particularly misleading. They are heavily skewed by four disastrous April appearances in which he retired only 6 of 18 batters he faced, gave up 5 long balls and had a slugging percentage against of 1.733. His ERA in April was... wait for it... 49.50! Unsurprisingly, the Red Sox optioned him to AAA Pawtucket to see if he could recover his stuff and confidence.

This is where his performance across the rest of 2012 becomes interesting - and makes him much more appealing as a late-inning option out of the Bucco's bullpen in 2013. Melancon terrorized AAA hitters in 21 minor league games. In 21.2 innings, he allowed only 2 earned runs, struck out 27 batters (11.2 K/9), walked only 3 (1.2 BB/9), and posted a matching WHIP and ERA of 0.83. That's pretty dominant. Question is, could he perform adequately in the Majors? The Sox recalled him in June, and he pitched well that month. Passable results followed in July and August, but he was near unhittable in September, with opponents managing only .114/.162/.143 against him. If one ignores his April - and to be fair, A.J. Burnett routinely had his May 2, 2.2 IP, 12 ER debacle against St. Louis conveniently forgotten about by most people - then Melancon had a very respectable return in 2012. To quote myself:
The more you dig, the more evidence there is to be found that Melancon could be successful out of the 'pen for the Bucs. His strikeout rate climbed month-on-month throughout the season, from 4.5 K/9 in April, through 5.9 (June), 7.3 (July), 8.3 (August) to an outstanding 11.7 K/9 in September. This may well be due to increased velocity in his fastball later in the season, though I suspect increased confidence from his time at AAA also contributed.

The increased velocity may have a downside however, as - according to - he has a 'high-effort delivery'. He missed the whole of 2007 after injuring his elbow and undergoing Tommy John surgery whilst with New York. It will be interesting to see if he can continue to throw as hard as he did at the end of 2012 in 2013. Again according to Pirates Prospects, his repertoire is based around a mid-90s mph four-seamer and cutter, with a 12-6 power curve as his stock out pitch. Looking at FanGraphs, he appears to mix his pitches well so as not to be over-reliant on any one, and adds in a change-up now and again.

All in all, Melancon is - by far - the most important piece that Pirates' management will be relying on to make the Hanrahan trade a success. Clearly, he has the potential to do very well, with a ceiling at least as high as Hanrahan's was when he arrived in Pittsburgh in '09. The Pirates' staff have done an admirable job in getting the best out of relief pitchers in recent seasons. I see no reason why this shouldn't continue with Mark Melancon.


P.S. Just for reference, I have included Melancon's statistics in NL Central ballparks for the sake of completeness. The sample size is too small (given that Minute Maid Park will be in the AL West next year) to say very much, but these are the stadiums in which Melancon should see the most action in 2013. Enjoy!

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Pirates Trade Hanrahan To Red Sox

So, it'll be Hammer Time in Boston in 2013, not Pittsburgh. Finalized on Boxing Day, the Pirates agreed to send All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan, along with 2B prospect Brock Holt, to the Red Sox in return for RHPs Mark Melancon and Stolmy Pimentel, OF/1B Jerry Sands and 2B Iván De Jesus Jr.

Inevitably, the trade has drawn the ire of some Bucs fans:
Indeed, on the surface it appears that the Pirates have dealt away one of the premier closers in baseball, accompanied by a prospect who has already debuted in the Majors, whilst receiving four players with mostly limited major league experience. Given Hanrahan's expected 2013 salary of around $7m, cynics will be bound to see the trade as a salary dump, symptomatic of the club's financial approach under the ownership of Bob Nutting. Whether this turns out to be the case or not - regardless of the organization's intention - will be determined by the performance of the players involved in 2013 and beyond. A salary dump is only a salary dump in reality if a) the player with the big salary continues to perform at the same level and b) the players picked up fail to make a significant impression.

One can only speculate as to whether Nutting wanted Hanrahan's salary off the books at - if you'll excuse the pun - any cost, or whether GM Neal Huntington genuinely believes he got the better side of this deal. However, we can look at the players and circumstances involved to see how the trade will impact the Pirates in the coming season and the future. Hanrahan is clearly the biggest piece in the trade, so I'll start with him and look at the other 5 in separate posts. He's coming off a second straight season of 35+ saves, something only Milwaukee's John Axford and Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel have managed in the same span. Saves, like Wins for starting pitchers and RBIs for hitters, are the statistic which get people drooling over closing pitchers. The more saves you rack up, the more you're likely to be worth. In fact, relief pitching in general is becoming incredibly expensive. Witness 3-year deals signed by Brandon League ($22.5m, Dodgers), Jonathan Broxton ($21m, Reds) and Jeremy Affeldt ($18m, Giants). (As an aside, both Axford and Kimbrel will likely earn less than $600,000 in 2013, as pre-arbitration players)

Hanrahan's circa $7m for 2013 would be in line with the annual value of these contracts, so for a lot of clubs, keeping him would have been a no-brainer. However, the Pirates payroll projects to be somewhere in the region of $70m next season. That would mean Hanrahan would have been due about 10% of all the money paid to Pirates' players in 2013. That's a lot for 4% of the pitching workload (59.2 IP out of 1433.1). Whilst that's clearly an oversimplification of a closer's role and value, it does put Joel's salary in some kind of perspective. It is also worth noting that there were some clues down the stretch that he may not continue to produce at the outstanding level he has over the last two years. It was noticeable that he allowed more baserunners later in the season, and his control over the course of the year was less than stellar (5.4 BB/9), leading to a lower strikeouts-to-walks ratio (1.86, down from 3.81) despite striking out batters at a higher rate.

In terms of how Hanrahan's departure will affect the Pirates, it seems all but certain that having re-signed Jason Grilli to a 2-year, $6.75m deal in mid-December, the club expect him to take on the mantle of closer. Assuming his performance doesn't collapse, Grilli could be even more successful in this role than Hanrahan. In 2012, the 36-year old struck out an unholy 13.8 batters per 9 innings, had a lower walk rate (3.4 BB/9) and held opponents to a lower OBP (.285) than Hanrahan (.307). He also replicated the Hammer's dominance of left-handed batters, despite a much higher batting average on balls in play (.314 against .172). Clint Hurdle's other option is likely to be Melancon, who has some excellent peripheral statistics but struggled in some high-leverage situations last season. At this stage it looks like Grilli in the 9th with Melancon possibly setting-up in the 8th.

All of this is pure speculation, of course. Joel Hanrahan proved he could handle the 9th inning and ended up as one of the Pittsburgh Pirates' greatest closers, as well as one of Neal Huntington's most shrewd acquisitions. It also seems that he was an outstanding contributor to the city of Pittsburgh and its community off the field as well as being a presence in the locker room. Clearly, his departure is a loss for the city, the club and its fans, but one of the few things the Pirates' management have shown in recent years is an ability to put together a reliable bullpen. Grilli (and hopefully Melancon) should allow that to continue.

As for the Red Sox, they clearly believe Hanrahan will continue to produce at an All-Star level, having already named him their closer, making Andrew Bailey's future uncertain. Well, good luck to them, and especially to Joel Hanrahan. Hammer, you will be missed!