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Pens Push: Neal on my prediction, Asham on his Mario Moment, and Bylsma on his leaders.


Some quick hits after the Penguins’ 3-1 victory over Montreal at Consol Energy Center on Thursday night:

= RW James Neal’s response to my telling him that I predicted him to score 17 goals this season: “That’s brutal. I’ve never scored less than 20.”

I attempted to fall on the sword, admit the error of my ways, and perhaps even take credit for providing him some inspiration – except that it was clear he hadn’t read the blog post of my annual goal predictions.

“Maybe I won’t talk to you anymore,” Neal said.

I sat down next to him, not sure how to take that comment. I offered to Neal that he could call me out upon scoring his 18th goal, which at this point might come before C Sidney Crosby returns (not really). I said he could say, No. 18 was for the jerk with long, graying hair!

“I might do that,” Neal said, smiling.

As I report in the Friday’s print edition, there are no talks on a contract extension between Neal’s agent, Pat Morris, and Penguins GM Ray Shero. That doesn’t mean Shero plans on letting Neal, an impending RFA, go anywhere.

“Like any other player we’ve wanted to sign we’ll find a way to sign him,” Shero said, “and we’ll find a way with James as well.”

= D Brooks Orpik, in his first game since April, and coming off a re-aggravation of an abdominal injury that required offseason surgery, played 4:24 on the PK against Montreal. He only played 17:54 overall, so that means about 25 percent of his ice time was on the PK. So much for the HE’S NOT REALLY READY, HE’S JUST PLAYING BECAUSE (D KRIS) LETANG IS OUT theory.

= RW Arron Asham said his fist-pump goal celebration is indeed tribute to Penguins legend Mario Lemieux.

“You didn’t notice that last year in the playoffs?” he said.

I shrugged then asked if he would pull out any other variations of Lemieux’s graceful goal celebrations.

“No, those other ones are his,” Asham said. “But I’ve been doing this one, and I hope he’s OK with it.”

Season is not a month old, but I’d say Asham and D Ben Lovejoy are neck-and-neck for this season’s “Good Guy” award.

= How to dominate a game without registering a shot: deliver a hit, recorded two apiece of takeaways and blocks, go 13-for-21 in the circle, and play 3:25 of your 21:30 shorthanded to help limit the Canadiens to six shots four man-advantages.

Me, beating a rented mule: C Jordan Staal is really, really good.

= Late Monday night, after a 2-1 loss at Winnipeg, a second straight regulation loss, the Penguins were without a handful of key players, facing a next-night game at Minnesota, with excuses ready at their disposal.

Now they are 5-2-2, and looking like a good bet to get through this treacherous October (13 games) in decent shape, with Crosby (concussion) and C Evgeni Malkin seemingly soon to return.

“First of all, I think the game against Winnipeg, our start, wasn’t indicative of our team and the way we want to play,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “The leadership of our group responded the next game – Staalsy, (LW Chris) Kunitz, (D Paul) Martin, (D Zbynek Michalek) in particular. These guys just came back with a superb effort in Minnesota, played really well.

“That was a big game for us. You’re looking at the possibility of tough nights, back-to-back, losing some games – and getting that win, that team win, the way we won it, was big leadership from our key guys in our group.

“That (was) built on tonight. We had a little more jump in our step coming into this game.”

Not sure the last time a coach has won the Jack Adams Award in consecutive seasons, but Bylsma should be the clubhouse leader at this point in the young NHL season.




Author: Rob Rossi

Rob Rossi is the lead sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has been called many names, but “Rossi” is the one to which he most often responds. He joined the Trib in November 2002 and was promoted to the columnist role in July 2014. Previously, he had covered the NHL’s Penguins (2006-14) and MLB’s Pirates (2006), while also working on beats associated with the NFL’s Steelers (2005-06) and the NCAA’s Pitt (2004-06). He has won national and local awards for his coverage of youth concussions and athletes’ charities. Also, he is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association executive committee and the Pittsburgh chapter chair. Raised in Crafton and Green Tree and a graduate of West Virginia University, he has covered a Super Bowl, All-Star Games in baseball and hockey, the NCAA basketball tournament and over 100 Stanley Cup playoff games, including the Cup Final twice. Oh, and his sports reporting has led him to brief chats with Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen; so that’s pretty cool. He is a regular contributor on TV with WPXI, Root Sports Pittsburgh and TSN. Also, he is the authorized biographer of Penguins star Evgeni Malkin.


  1. sjb says:

    Hey Rob, why don’t you direct some of that misplaced love you have for your man crush Staal, for Vitale, who played an even better game last night. Between him, Park and Sullivan, the Pens have really added some quality players this season.

    Oh, and from one long hair to another, lose the glasses…I kinda get the Hanson bothers look thing, but it ain’t working for ya. Especially with the tie and sweater ensemble…too much going on there.

  2. Justin says:

    Again……I am not saying that Staal is a poor player. He is a fantastic checking center. The point is that you are not really reaching for the stars if you are targeting a checking center with the #2 overall pick in the draft when the draft has several 1st line – franchise talents in it.

    Pens blew it by not drafting Toews (who by the way was a finalist for the Selke last year). Toews has scored 30+ goals twice as well as 24 and 25 goal seasons. He is also a gifted playmaker and has captained a Stanley Cup winner.

    There is no debate here. What possible argument is there for the Pens being better off with Staal?

  3. Yatch says:

    Nice job with the telecast last night.

  4. Brett says:

    That’s fine and good saying we should of signed Toews but where do you come up with the money to resign him? After already having Malkin and Sid and knowing they would be top line centers. I think Staal was the right choice at the time. Even in juniors he wasn’t a big points guy. There is something to be said about planning for the future.

  5. Brian says:

    The argument for the Pens being better off with Staal than Toews is that a 1-2-3 center combination of Crosby-Malkin-Toews might be awesome on your NHL 12 team, but that’s not the way to build a consistent winner in the real world. Plus his $6.3mil cap hit is more than $2 mil higher than Staal and that isn’t exactly friendly for the Penguins the way the team is structured.

    You only wish we had Toews because our REAL top centers are hurt. If we had him and he were the one with a concussion, you’d wish we had Backstrom. Or Kessel. Or Giroux. But I doubt you were complaining about not having Toews when the Penguins were winning a Stanley Cup. In a series that was turned by a shorthanded goal from a certain center who apparently isn’t good enough.

  6. Nathan says:

    If the pens had drafted towes instead of staal they would have 3 first line centers and would not be able to fit them all in under the cap. Staal is a excellent 3rd possibly second line center who shuts down other lines and scores timely goals and is a MASTER on the penalty kill and o yea we can fit him under the cap.This isnt a fantasy league its the NHL.

  7. Joe T says:

    The argument for Staal over Toews is that we already had Crosby and Malkin and NEEDED a shot-down defensive type center, not another ‘goal guy’. Plus, can you imagine trying to re-sign Toews along with Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and Letang? I know Staal’s not cheap, either, but you sign Toews and you have to bring the Rico Fata’s of the world out of retirement to fill the roster under the cap.

    Pens did the right thing, and Staal is a gem.

  8. Steve H. says:

    Have to agree with Justin’s take on Staal vs. Toews. In hindsight, Toews is the superior player in nearly every respect. That said, Staal has definitely had his moments with the Pens. In fact, there have been times when he has truly been dominate on the ice, but there are many others where he looks slow, which in addition to his lack of natural scoring and playmaking abiliity, simply don’t justify a #2 overall draft selection. Don’t get me wrong, I love Staal’s defensive contributions — remember the key shorthanded goal against the Wings in Game 4 of the Cup Finals in 2009 — but I don’t think the guy is ever going to be an elite #1 or #2 center in the NHL. He reminds me a lot of a guy like Joel Otto — a big, defensive minded center who plays against the other teams top line, and chips in around 20 goals or so a season. Again, nothing wrong with that especially on a Pens’ team that has Sid and Geno as its top 2 centers, but I can’t imagine anyone who if they had the opportunity to do all over again would have drafted Staal ahead of Toews. Can you imagine the Pens with Sid, Geno and Toews? Scary good!

  9. Jared says:

    Wait a sec…nobody who knows hockey is going to say that Staal is awful. But people are saying that (a) you don’t draft even exceptional checking centers #2 overall and (b) paying $4 million for a player that’s not looking like he’s ever going to be more than a checking center may not be the wisest thing in a salary cap world. Both of those points are legitimate.

    And if we look at how things played out with the Pens roster…if anything, those points become more legitimate. Last year for example…the Pens highest scoring winger was Chris Kunitz, with 23 goals. Kennedy had 21. None of the others broke 20, and of the full time wingers, only Dupuis and Cooke even got into double digit goal scoring. That, my friends, is the definition of a team that is not balanced in terms of offensive credibility.

    And the alternatives back in the ’06 draft were not limited to Toews. The Pens also passed over guys like Phil Kessel (who is well on his way to his fourth 30 goal season and who is signed through 2013-14 at a cap hit of $5.4 million), MIchael Grabner (who is coming off of a 34 goal season and who is signed through 2015-16 at an annual cap hit of $3 million), Claude Giroux (who is signed through 2013-14 at an annual cap hit of $3.75 million), and Milan Lucic ($4.08 million per through 2012-13).

    The flip side, of course, is that drafting is not an exact science, and you’ll always have things like Richard Park being chosen with literally the draft choice before Patrik Elias was picked. So if you want to argue that Staal was just a missed opportunity that has happened to turn out to be at least a great defensive forward, I think that has some logical force. And even more so when we all remember that Central Scouting also had Staal rated as the #2 North American skater that year. But that argument almost inherently admits that you don’t spend a #2 draft choice on a checking line forward…which some people for some reason seem to be reluctant to admit.

    I’ve thought about this since I posted a couple of times after Rossi’s last Staal-related blog…and if the argument is actually that the Pens chose Staal specifically because they already had Sid and Geno and whomever else…well, that really boils down to saying “the team had a chance to draft a franchise type player…and intentionally opted not to do so.” Which I think we can pretty much agree would be the height of irresponsibility. When you draft, you can guess, but you really don’t know who on your team will be there even for the start of the next regular season. As the Pens have conclusively shown, career threatening injuries happen as a matter of course, and what looks like an area of strength may not in reality be one. All things being equal, if you do anything but take the best player available, you’re likely making a mistake.

    Again…is Staal a great third line center? Yes…best in the business in my opinion. Is that the type of player that everyone thinks of when people say “#2 overall draft choice, making $4 million a year?” Absolutely not. So…bottom line for me at least, my thought is “they likely thought they were getting a franchise type player when they drafted him…they instead got an exteremely accomplished #3 center…which is good…but it also means they overpaid, both on draft day and in the contract.”

    Now…there are those that may be OK with overpaying for a player like Staal. There are those that may not be. I’ve said before that I don’t love the use of that much cap space for a #3 center who, as I’ve posted before, is simply not anywhere near being a serious #1 or #2 center. But I can at least justify it internally by saying “wellll…at least by paying that, they’re also getting a guy who has all of those intangibles.” But I also fully grasp that paying for intangibles is a risky proposition when the reality is that your team relies so disproportionately on the center position for offense.

    For what my opinion is worth, I tend to think that the debate should be “are you OK with paying what they do and using that draft choice for the player that Staal is?” I do not (as I have said before) believe that there is any point in framing the argument to make it look like $4 million a year is actually a bargain because Staal is really a lot better than a #3 center…because he is not at this point. The skill set for a great #3 is totally different than the skill set for a great center on a top two line. Staal is epic-good as a #3 guy…but that doesn’t mean he (or anyone else) can translate that to being an epic-good (or even above average) #1 or #2 guy. It is grossly unfair to even imply that he should be considered “worth it” because he’s really a #1C or #2B type of player.

    In short, the question should be “do you want to pay him what the Pens do for what he is?” It should not be “is he a bargain at the current price because of what he is not?”

  10. Skip says:

    I’m a little concerned about Malkin. I’ve had ACL surgery and I never experienced any kind of problem with

  11. Nathan says:

    I agree on all your points jared but when you have guys like crosby, malkin, neal, kunitz, and kennedy in your lineup as the scorers in order to have a balanced team you need guys like staal. 4 mill for a guy who kills penalty and goes against the other teams top line in a shut down role isnt a bad deal. Is orpiks deal (3.75 mil) a bad deal bc his role is similiar but he doesnt score 15-20 goals a year. Were talking about 4 mil for a selke candiate here.

  12. Nathan says:

    I understand that some fans look at a players point total at the end of the year and compare it to their salary and think their being overpaid but hockey is about way more then just goals. Staal is a guy who is 23 years old is in the TOP THREE in the NHL in being a forward who demonstrates the best defensive ability in the game (selke’s award definition). Plus at 23 he has 2 20+ goals seasons under his belt and already has 3 this year (1 short handed). kunitz IS ONLY A 20+ goal scorer and is not top 3 in the NHL in the selke and he makes 3.75 mill and personally i think hes worth every penny as is staal.

  13. Cullen says:

    To Jared and all of the other “Staal is a great #3 but not a top two center” people: he has yet to get a real shot to be a top two guy. A top two scoring center is given a lot more power play time than Staal has been able to get to this point (due to those ahead of him and his defensive prowess, as his special teams ice time goes to the PK). There is a direct correlation between PP ice time and points.

    Toews has had 1st team PP ice time since he broke into the league. I’m not taking away from him at all as he’s obviously a great player. I’m just saying it’s unfair to criticize Staal for something that is basically out of his control.

    Look at him this season: he’s started as a top two center, has been given more offensive minutes, and has been putting up the points. Maybe not elite numbers for sure, but he is proving he is a top two center in the NHL – his scoring pace is much better than Malkin’s last season. He is top 30 points/game among centers so far.

  14. Jay Walker says:

    Joe T: You don’t use the No. 2 pick in the draft on a defensive stopper. That’s just plain dumb. The idea is to get a franchise player there. Toews was the obvious choice and Shero blew it. Sometimes I think he’s related to Neal Huntington. (BTW, Toews is a very good at both ends, not to mention he’s a natural leader.)

  15. Nathan says:

    So let me get this straight a team who had in the previous years the #1(crosby) and #2(malkin) draft pick and drafted 2 franchise elite centers known for scoring needed more offense? Glad your not building this team. Ron white said it best

  16. Mr. K says:

    Wait a second — you draft a lesser player at the second pick in the draft because he might cost a lot of money? I thought only the Buccos did business that way!

  17. Mountain Main says:

    Crosby and Toews = Gretzky and Messier.

  18. Jerry says:

    Actually, Toews wasn’t the obvious choice. The first two teams didn’t think so, and they spend a lot more time on the decision at the time than you ever will in hindsight, Jay.

    Such a dumb argument anyway. I could see getting all worked up about it if the guy never panned out (like at least half of that 1st round), but he helped us win a Cup.

  19. Andrew says:

    Jay did you honestly just compare Ray Shero to Neal Huntington? You are clearly delusional if you believe that. Shero has done more in a few years then most general managers will do in a lifetime. I would even rate him higher then Craig Patrick at this point because he has done all this during a salary cap era. To say Toews was the obvious choice then why did most publications rank Staal higher. I don’t understand how people can rip a guy so much when he is only 23 years old. In Pittsburgh we have become so jaded and spoiled with the likes of Lemieux, Jagr, Malkin, and Crosby who dominated so quickly and so young. Plus that Selke nomination has to count for something or do the people who vote for that award know nothing about hockey.

  20. Ray Boniface says:


    You have a point, but

  21. Ray Boniface says:

    (to continue) Staal is hardly a bust, which

  22. Justin says:

    As far as the salary cap argument (fitting Crosby, Malkin, and Toews under the cap)….the Pens wouldn’t have Staal and probably would not have signed Paul Martin. There is your cap space.

  23. Nathan says:

    Thats assuming he wouldnt want equal or the same amount as crosby and malkin. Different team = different set of negotiations. I understand the whole draft the best player concept but you should also draft according to your needs and the pens at the time did not need another elite offensive center they needed a 2 way center and they got one who is top 3 in the nhl in that category with datsyuk and kessler. Pretty good company if you ask me. Ill never understand fans dislike for staal just like ill never understand why console energy center looks empty with 5 minutes left in a game regardless the score. Its sad when 15,000 jets fan can be louder then 18,000 pens fan who boast a better team,coach, and record.

  24. tomas says:

    Only fans who need something to complain about want to trade Jordan Staal but not Ray Shero. When the Pens finally get healthy and become clearly the best team in the NHL and the favorite to win the Stanley Cup again, most of this “unhappy with Staal talk” will fade into the background.

  25. Jay Walker says:

    Justin: Thank you. If we had Sid, Malkin and Toews, we wouldn’t need much else. That would be Kurri, Messier and Grezky all over again.

  26. Jay Walker says:

    Rossi predicted Neal to score 17 goals and Malkin to score 53. Does he actually get paid to do these things? Where can I sign up?

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