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August 25, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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London Rookie Tournament Roster

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Miles LIberati (battalionhockey.com)

Miles Liberati (battalionhockey.com)

Miles Liberati’s timing looks to be pretty good. The Cheswick native has earned a look from his hometown team at a time when they could really use his services.

Liberati, a 6-foot, 195-pound defenseman, is coming off a career year for the North Bay Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League, recording 11 goals and 38 points in 67 games while playing on the team’s top D pair. He was drafted by Vancouver in the seventh round of the 2013 draft, the Canucks elected not to sign him by a June 1 deadline, making him a free agent.

A few years ago, the Penguins would have been a terrible team for him to join. They had so many high-profile defense prospects that he could have easily been lost in the shuffle. Now, through trades, graduation to the NHL or prospect attrition, they lack organizational depth on the blue line.

A 20-year-old like Liberati, who played his youth hockey with the Pittsburgh Viper Stars and Junior Penguins and went to Central Catholic for two years, could definitely get his foot in the door.

That’s what he’ll attempt to do at a four-team rookie tournament in London, Ontario on Sept. 11-13. He is one of 26 players on the rookie roster released by the team Tuesday.

 

Here’s the rookie tournament schedule:
Friday, Sept. 11: Penguins vs. Montreal, 4 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 12: Penguins vs. Ottawa, 4 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 13: Penguins vs. Toronto, 7:35 p.m.

Here’s a closer look at the roster.

GOALIES
Tristan Jarry (6-2, 194, 20): A good prospect coming off a shaky development camp.
Matt Murray (6-4, 178, 21): The sixth-best goalie prospect in hockey, according to ESPN.com.

DEFENSEMEN
Mickael Beauregard (6-3, 193, 20): A physical defender who had a combined six goals, 30 points and plus-27 rating over the last two seasons with Gatineau in the QMJHL. Went to Boston development camp the last two seasons. A contract contender.
Nat Halbert (5-11, 178, 19): Coming off a very good year for Blainville-Boisbriand in the Q.
Miles Liberati (6-0, 195, 20): Cheswick native known as a good skater with some offensive upside.
Matt Murphy (6-2, 208, 20): Moves on from development camp to rookie tournament in his quest for a contract. A big, mobile kid.
Derrick Pouliot (6-0, 208, 21): Not much left for him to prove against this level of competition.
Harrison Ruopp (6-3, 192, 22): Looked pretty decent at development camp. Physical defender needs to become an AHL regular soon.
Clark Seymour (6-4, 220, 22): I’ve said it a million times. I like his size, physicality and first pass. Like Ruopp, though, now’s the time to take a step forward.
Evan Wardley (6-2, 217, 21): A physical force who had 24 fights in the last four years with Seattle in the WHL. Did a brief stint in Wheeling at the end of last year.

FORWARDS
Josh Archibald (5-10, 176, 22): He’s got speed and grit. Needs to show some production.
Tyler Biggs (6-2, 205, 22): Physical winger from the Kessel trade seems to be recovering from partially severed Achilles. Skating in Cranberry.
Jean-Sebastien Dea (5-11, 175, 21): Creative, undersized center looked good at development camp.
Sahir Gill (5-11, 185, 23): Third-year pro out of Boston University was excellent for Wheeling as a rookie, saw some AHL time last year. A play-making center by trade.
Kameron Kielly (5-11, 181, 18): Junior teammate of Daniel Sprong in Charlottetown coming off a good 18-year-old season.
Adam Krause (6-3, 210, 23): A big forward out of Minnesota-Duluth who had an impressive cup of coffee with Wheeling at the end of last season.
Jaden Lindo (6-2, 211, 19): A modern power forward the Penguins like. Has to keep improving.
Ty Loney (6-4, 208, 23): The star of the development camp scrimmage looking to get his rookie season off to a good start.
Matia Marcantuoni (6-0, 200, 21): Banged up a bit at development camp. Will have a chance to show off his skating-based energy-line style.
Bryan Rust (5-11, 192, 23): The captain of this group. Close to the NHL.
Conor Sheary (5-8, 175, 23): Should dominate this level of competition.
Dominik Simon (5-11, 176, 21): A good taste of North American competition for a promising 2015 draft pick.
Daniel Sprong (6-0, 180, 18): So talented. It will be fun to see how he looks when the real bullets are flying.
Oskar Sundqvist (6-3, 209, 21): If he’s healthy off hamstring injury, he has a legit shot to stick in the NHL to start the year. Big, stead, two-way center.
Scott Wilson (5-11, 183, 23): Had to watch development camp due to offseason wrist surgery. His speed and grit should play well in this group.
Anton Zlobin (5-11, 209, 22): Coming off a season lost due to shoulder surgery, he’s a mystery prospect.

Bye for now,
jb

 

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August 24, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Burned Down

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Conor Sheary (wbspenguins.com)

Conor Sheary (wbspenguins.com)

In its 2015-16 NHL prospects rankings, ESPN.com had the Penguins dead last in the league.

Corey Pronman wrote that there wasn’t even anyone close to the Penguins when he was deciding who should be in the bottom spot and that the team had “burned its system to the ground” in an effort to win now “through deals of top picks and prospects.”

Whether you want to agree or disagree with the ranking, I think I can explain where it came from.

First, Kasperi Kapanen (29th) and Scott Harrington (84th) are ranked among the top 100 prospects in all of hockey, as per the list, so their exodus in the Phil Kessel deal obviously hurt the Penguins’ position.

Second, the Penguins have some decent prospects that are a little too old to boost their overall ranking.

Example No. 1. Montreal Canadiens prospect Charles Hudon is ranked 42nd on the top 100 list. He’s a 5-11, 178-pound forward who had 19 goals and 57 points in 75 games (0.76 points per game) for Hamilton in the AHL last year as a 20-year-old rookie.

Conor Sheary, meanwhile, is a 5-9, 175-pound forward who had 20 goals and 45 points in 58 games (0.78 points per game) for WBS last year as a 22-year-old rookie.

Their skill sets are very similar. Their production is too. The two-year age difference accounts for the big gap in prospect status. Sheary wasn’t even listed among ESPN.com’s top 10 Penguins prospects.

Example No. 2. Detroit’s Axel Holmstrom is ranked 33rd on the top 100 list. He’s a 6-1, 198-pound center who had 10 goals and 20 points in 44 games for Skelleftea in Sweden last year.

Oskar Sundqvist is unranked in the top 100 and is seventh on the Penguins’ top 10 list. He is a 6-3, 209-pound center who had 9 goals and 19 points in 41 games with the very same team, Skelleftea in Sweden.

Holmstrom gets the accolades because he’s two years younger (and he has an awesome name).

I’m not saying this is an injustice. If two players put up the same numbers, you’d take the 18-year-old over the 20-year-old every time. What I am saying is that the Penguins don’t have those young players to boost their organizational rankings, largely due to trading away a couple of first-round picks.

They dealt a 2015 first-rounder to Edmonton for David Perron. The pick ended up going to the New York Islanders, who took Mathew Barzal, who had 57 points in 44 games for Seattle of the WHL as an 18-year-old last year. He’s ranked 13th on the top 100 list.

They dealt a 2013 first-rounder to Calgary in the Jarome Iginla trade. It ended up with the Chicago Blackhawks, who picked winger Morgan Klimchuk, who scored 34 goals as a 19-year-old in the WHL last season. He’s not in the top 100, but he’s a good prospect.

The Penguins have a high-upside forward prospect in Daniel Sprong, who is ranked No. 43. They have a high-end goaltending prospect, Matt Murray, who is No. 6 on the goalie rankings. Add Kapanen, Harrington, Barzal and Klimchuk to a prospect pool that has a handful of NHL-ready guys like Sergei Plotnikov, Brian Dumoulin, Scott Wilson and Adam Clendening, and all of a sudden, the organization doesn’t look so bad.

Instead, the loss of Kapanen, Harrington, Barzal and Klimchuk — and the fall down the organizational rankings that comes with it — is the price a team pays for trying to win now.

Bye for now,

jb

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August 21, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Sergei and the Tryouts

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(blues.nhl.com)

(blues.nhl.com)

When the Penguins announced last week that they were inviting Sergei Gonchar to training camp, it got me thinking about tryouts.

By my count, 70 players with NHL experience were invited to camps on tryout contracts last season. I included the full list after the jump if you’re a hockey nerd and want to see the whole thing.

— Only nine of those 70 players actually made it to an NHL roster (Jamie McBain, Simon Gagne, Raphael Diaz, Shane O’Brien, Ilya Bryzgalov, Ryan Carter, Scott Gomez, Jordin Tootoo and Dan Carcillo).

— Only five of those nine made it to the NHL with the team they were in camp with (Gagne, Diaz, O’Brien, Gomez and Tootoo).

— Only three of those five were regulars in the lineup (Diaz, Gomez and Tootoo).

Look at that and do some sketchy math and you could conclude that Gonchar has a 4.3 percent chance of becoming a regular with the Penguins.

There’s a little more it than that, of course.

Most of the 70 tryouts were camp bodies who fully expected to be sent to the AHL. Example: Tom Kostopoulos knew he wasn’t making the team in Pittsburgh last fall. He came to camp to get ready for the season as the captain with WBS.

Others were longshots who knew they were longshots, but gave it a try before heading to Europe. Example: Enforcer Kevin Westgarth took a crack at the Edmonton Oilers roster, didn’t make it, and went on to play with the Belfast Giants in the British league.

So it’s probably more useful to compare Gonchar to players in a similar demographic — ones well older than 30 with hundreds and hundreds of games of NHL experience. I’ve picked out eight: Simon Gagne with Boston, Ilya Bryzgalov with Minnesota, Ruslan Fedotenko, Scott Gomez, Tomas Kaberle and Mike Komisarek with New Jersey, Ryan Whitney with St. Louis and Francis Bouillion with Montreal.

Of that group, Gagne, Bryzgalov and Gomez played in the NHL. Only Gomez became a regular.

Therefore, I have come to the conclusion, using a highly scientific method, that Gonchar has a 12.5 percent chance of being a regular with the Penguins this season.

Bye for now,

jb

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August 21, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Teasing the Crosby Sunday story

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Crosby

Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media

The following is an excerpt from my story on Sidney Crosby, reported around Nova Scotia, that will appear in your Sunday Tribune-Review:

Gaetan Tremblay, 49, also of Cole Harbour, met Crosby when the latter was a teenager. Tremblay handles Crosby’s equipment and ice procurement during the summer.

At the end of workouts, it’s Crosby who returns the nets to storage spots and gathers pucks, Tremblay said. He later told a story of Crosby, early in his career, refusing to drive his car too often because he feared exceeding the lease’s miles limit.

“I was like, ‘They might give you double what the car’s worth anyway because they can resell it to someone and say, ‘Sidney Crosby drove this,’ ” Tremblay said. “But that’s the type of guy he is.”

Gaetan was a trove of information and stories. He told me how Crosby and his family used to deliver newspapers. He laughed how a story involving Crosby, Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon and Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald eating fish and chips (and irritating their trainer, Andy O’Brien) made the local paper. He gave me a really, really good sense of the perception of Crosby up there.

Crosby, as I explain Sunday, is not fancy.

“I’ll never say he’s cheap; he’s frugal,” Tremblay said. “He has no problem donating a couple million dollars to a kids’ hospital, but he won’t go out and spend $100 on lunch when he can get it for $10.”

Tremblay has known Crosby since 2001, when Crosby played for the Dartmouth Subways, and has seen him change quite a bit over the past 14 years.

“Every summer when he’s come home, he’s grown,” Tremblay said. “It really started over the last couple of years; he’s looking to give back to the community. He gives back a lot anyway. He’s focusing on his career now but also on helping other people in their careers, helping kids and mentoring people.”

The story measures more than 2,500 words — lengthy even for this beat reporter, who’s never met an inch count he can’t exceed. Photos are by Chaz Palla, the only Harley Davidson-riding vegetarian I know. They are, predictably, really good.

Crosby let us tour his lakefront house and attend a pair of private workouts. We met many, like Tremblay, who’ve helped shape Crosby and are proud to call them their own. We sat in Crosby’s childhood living room with his parents, Troy and Trina, and sister, Taylor.

One of my favorite interviews, though, was definitely Tremblay.

Hope you’re able to read the story.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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August 20, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Dominate the state

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When it comes to producing NHL players, Pittsburgh is kicking the heck out of Philadelphia right now.

This realization came to me while watching the Penguins’ informal preseason skate at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex this morning. Four Pennsylvania-born players from other NHL teams joined the Penguins for the workout. Three of them — Brandon Saad, Stephen Johns and Vince Trocheck — are from the Pittsburgh area. The other, Eric Tangradi, is from Philly.

Expand that look to the entire NHL and the balance is even more lopsided in favor of the west.

Eleven Pennsylvania natives played in the NHL last season. From the Pittsburgh area, you’ve got Saad, Trocheck, Mike Weber, R.J. Umberger, Henrik Samuelsson, Dylan Reese, Ryan Malone, Nate Guenin, John Gibson and Matt Bartkowski. From the Philadelphia area, you’ve got Tangradi. And that’s it. So I asked Tangradi about it.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the Mario Lemieux effect,” Tangradi said. “We had some superstars in Philly, but I don’t know if we had any guys where you look back and say, ‘I want to play hockey and be like him.’ There wasn’t a Mario Lemieux presence. Growing up, yeah, I had Eric Lindros for a couple of years and the Legion of Doom and all that, but there was never really that appreciation for skill in hockey the way Mario played it.”

The stats back up Tangradi’s theory.

Before 2000, there were 10 Pennsylvania-born players in the NHL — six from the eastern part of the state, three from the west and one guy from a place called Alba, which is north of Williamsport and doesn’t really fit into either category.

Since 2000, there have been 21 Pennsylvania-born NHL players — 15 from the Pittsburgh area, five from the Philly area and one from Erie.

That’s a western Pennsylvania landslide.

Now, it’s not a completely cut-and-dried issue. Johnny Gaudreau and Bobby Ryan are from South Jersey, which is more or less a Philly suburb. J.T. Miller is from East Palestine, Ohio but lived in Coraopolis and is basically a Pittsburgh guy.

But if you put all that aside and if you believe Tangradi’s theory, there’s only one conclusion that can be drawn. Mario is beating Philadelphia again.

Bye for now,

jb

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August 19, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Mackey: Bubble hockey with Crosby

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IMG_0616

Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media

ENFIELD, Nova Scotia – Walk down the steps to Sidney Crosby’s man-cave of a basement, turn left, and there’s one of everyone’s favorite childhood memories – including his – there to greet you.

A Super Chexx bubble hockey table. We all have stories, right? Mine include going to Chuck E. Cheese’s in West Mifflin with my dad and pretty much bouncing between that and air hockey, sometimes that football-throwing game with the big and little targets sprinkled in.

I did not travel to Nova Scotia expecting to play bubble hockey. But, presented with the opportunity, I wasn’t about to turn it down.

“Wanna play?” I asked Crosby.

He seemed confused that, in the middle of our time together, I was asking to play bubble hockey. I don’t blame him. I worried for a minute whether I was either going to get laughed back to Pittsburgh or booted on the spot.

Neither happened.

“Sure,” Crosby answered, smiling. “I love that game. Don’t play it nearly enough.”

None of us do, Sid. None of us do.

So we played – but only after Crosby had to open the coin-slot part and retrieve the missing puck.

Like he’s said in interviews, oh, only about 4 million times, Crosby recognizes the importance of a strong start. He scores off the opening faceoff. At this point, I start worrying what I’ve gotten myself into.

Is he a ringer? Are all NHL players just really, really ridiculously good at this game?

I also realize that I was controlling the red team – what I perceive to be Canada – while Crosby had what looked to be Team USA, in blue, although neither is specified.

Felt weird to me. Crosby said since nothing appeared on the jerseys, play on.

Then I score into my own net, more disaster.

I rally for a bit – or at least stop the embarrassing onslaught. Get a couple of huge saves. I joke with Crosby that “I’m getting a Fleury-like performance in goal here.”

Turns out I spoke too soon. Crosby goal from the slot, 3-0. I’m toast.

I did make a bit of an offensive push. Scored twice. Forced Crosby to become upset with one of his defensemen.

“No. 4 here’s roasting me,” Crosby says.

My rally doesn’t last long. Crosby strikes again. The game finishes, 4-2, with USA outshooting Canada, 21-4.

“Allowed two on four shots,” Crosby says of his own performance. “That’s not good.”

Crosby proceeds to explain that he’s really not that good at bubble hockey. He can see that I’m not. He says former NHL journeyman and Penguins player Mike Comrie is the best he’s ever seen at the game.

“It’s a good game,” Crosby said. “It’s fun. Comrie would have won 10-0 against me. He’s incredible.”

There’s plenty more coming Sunday, though nothing about bubble hockey. I’d still recommend spending the $1.50. I promise it will be worth it.

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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August 18, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Plot Summary

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0818151155c-1

While it was good to catch up with Tyler Kennedy at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex this morning, another player joining the team’s informal voluntary preseason workout roster today will probably have more of an impact on the Penguins this season. That’s Sergei Plotnikov.

My first impressions of the 25-year-old left-handed winger: First and foremost, he’s a big kid, looking every bit the 6-2, 202 he’s listed at. Word is he looks like he’s seen the inside of a weight room before too. In other words, it’s a good, solid 202.

I’m no scout and he was skating a few hours after flying in from Russia, so the rest of this should be taken with a grain of salt. On the plus side, he looked to have a hard shot with a good release. On the minus side, his first step did not look explosive. He didn’t look slow at top speed by any means, but I don’t think you’d call him quick.

With Plotnikov in town, now’s as good a time as any to take a look at what reasonable expectations for him for this season would be.

According to the most recent math that smart hockey guys do and display on the internet, the KHL-to-NHL conversion rate is 78 percent. That is, multiply a player’s KHL points per game by .78 and you get what you can generally expect from him the next season in the NHL.

Plotnikov had 15 goals and 36 points in 56 KHL games last season. Multiply that by .78 and pro-rate it out for 82 games and you get 17 goals and 24 assists for 41 points.

In the NHL last season, 118 forwards had at least 15 goals and 40 points. Six rookies hit those benchmarks. If Plotnikov ends up among the top 120 scorers and top six rookies in the NHL next season(and plays all 82 games), I think most Penguins fans would be very pleased.

More interestingly, take a look at this. Remember Plotnikov’s projected NHL stats? 17 goals and 41 points? Look whose numbers from last season were almost exactly that.

penstop10

Chris Kunitz, who was roundly criticized for the season he had. The difference, of course, is cap hit. Kunitz’s was 3.85 million last season. Plotnikov’s is a $925,000 base salary. His bonuses could bump his pay all the way up to $3.775, but he probably won’t hit them all (20 goals, 60 points, all-star game appearance, etc.), and if he does, no one will complain about the extra charges that would mean for the 2016-17 cap.

Bottom line: The best guess right now is that Plotnikov is a younger, cheaper version of 2014-15 Chris Kunitz.

Agree? Disagree? Do you expect more from Plotnikov? Less? Leave a comment.

Bye for now,

jb

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August 15, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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What events could the UPMC Lemieux Complex host?

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If you’re an NHL player, the appeal of the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex is obvious. It’s a state-of-the-art practice facility.

If you have a sports injury that needs diagnosis and rehab, same thing. It’s a top of the line place for that.

But what about the average hockey fan? What kind of impact will this fancy new place have on us? Here are a list of five events that the new rink might schedule or try to lure to the area.

  1. Rivalry nights. Matt Herr, executive director of the rink, said he’s working on bringing a series of high school hockey rivalry nights to the rink. Get Seneca Valley to play North Allgeheny, for instance, at the new 1,000-seat venue and you’ll probably have an entertaining game to watch that is memorable for the kids playing in it.
  2. Women’s professional hockey. Herr said he has a 7-year-old daughter, which motivates him to make sure the new rink does right by the women’s game. The new NWHL is beginning play soon with teams in Buffalo, Boston, Connecticut and New York. Herr said he’d like to have an exhibition or camp or visit of some sort from women’s pro players. The rink isn’t quite big enough to host a pro team of its own – minimum capacity for the league is about 2,500 or so – but the building was built to accommodate expansion should it ever become feasible, so who knows what happens down the road?
  1. NHL draft combine. The UPMC Lemieux Complex sounds like the perfect place to hold this event, given the medical and hockey facilities in the same building. I’m not sure what the event, which was held at the Buffalo Sabres new practice rink this summer, brings in terms of spectator value, but it makes sense for the new rink to try to host it.
  2. World Juniors camps. Pittsburgh is one of five finalists to host the 2018 WJC. The rink isn’t big enough to host secondary games – Erie is the most likely spot for that; maybe Wheeling or State College – but it would be a perfect place for one of the bigger countries to set up shop during the tournament.
  3. World Cup training camps. When Gary Bettman visited the rink last April, he said it would be a great spot for a country to hold its World Cup training camp. Now that it’s finished, that idea comes into greater focus. It’s easy to imagine a top team holding a camp in Cranberry in advance of the tournament in Toronto in September 2016.
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August 14, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Can Sergei Gonchar still play?

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The Penguins announced today that they’ve signed 41-year-old defenseman Sergei Gonchar to a tryout contract.

I’m headed up to Cranberry for a tour of the new UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, but I wanted to write a quick post to explore one question. Can Gonchar still play?

I did a quick statistical look at the question and came to one conclusion. Gonchar can still play on the power play, but 5-on-5, I’m not so sure.

Gonchar got the third-most power-play ice time for defensemen in Montreal last season, behind P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov. He put up 2.54 power-play assists per 60 minutes. That ranks him 57th in the league, just ahead of Subban and Derrick Pouliot, to cherry pick two names.

To me, that sounds like a player who is still an asset on the power play.

At even strength, Gonchar’s shot percentage with Montreal was 47.5 percent. That means that while he was on the ice, Montreal took 47.5 percent of the shots taken and the opponent took 52.5 percent. That ranks 200th in the league. By way of comparison, the only Penguins defenseman with a worse shots for percentage last season was Brian Dumoulin in a very limited role.

To me, that sounds like a player whose even-strength minutes have to be very carefully managed.

Your thoughts are very much welcome. Leave a comment.

Bye for now,

jb

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