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February 22, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: NHL, Olympics should divorce.

I am not at these Winter Olympic Games. Full disclosure: I have never been at an Olympic Winter Games.

This is noteworthy only because it feels important to acknowledge that being at an Olympic Winter Games seemingly could change my mind, but I suspect not.

I hope the NHL is done with the Olympic Games.

Admittedly, this is a totally territorial view. The NHL is home to the finest hockey players, and these athletes have wanted, will want, and probably should receive the opportunity to represent their respective countries at probably the world’s most magnificent sporting event.

However, John Tavares’ season-long skate toward Elite Player status was halted by a season-ending left knee injury to at the Olympics ­– and that is not fair to New York Islanders ownership, management, coaches, players or especially their fans.

Injuries are part of hockey.

Tavares may have been injured in an NHL game.

He was not, though.

Neither was Paul Martin, who looks to be out a month – the Penguins will not know for sure until he is evaluated by team medial personnel in Pittsburgh – with an injured right hand.

Tavares and Martin are not the only players that will leave the Olympics and not return to NHL hockey clubs that are paying them.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is now on the record about no committing to sending NHL players to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games:

“There are mixed views among the owners,” Bettman said to NBC Sports.

“There are lots of quotes going in both directions. It’s a real balancing act. Coming to the Olympics is a lot of fun when we are here, and the hockey’s fun. … But it requires us to shut the season down in the middle. It’s a break in momentum. It’s at a point in time when the NFL has stopped and it’s really our time. And our teams come back in different shape. We’ve had five players who are pretty banged up already from this tournament. Some NHL teams have sent 10 players and some have sent two and some teams are going to come back more well-rested than others.”

Players, and thus union leadership, feel strongly that the NHL should be involved with future Winter Olympic Games. Any push by the NHL to make the Sochi Games the last to feature NHL players will be met with a stern labor battle.

I suspect there are a lot of hockey fans that want to see NHL players at Winter Olympic Games. To them, I offer this dose of reality: Winter Olympic Games are absolutely not about the fans.

They are about the athletes.

Also, they are about the wow-gosh advertising fees that broadcasters in many countries pay to show the Olympics.

Those big fees were being paid before the NHL first sent its players to the Winter Olympic Games in 1998.

The men’s ice hockey tournament being staged in Sochi has sparked buzz on Twitter and Watch Parties at bars. If only any of that translated to anything substantial for the NHL.

It does not, and will not.

NHL players at the Olympics do not spark ticket sales in non-traditional markets such as Florida, Nashville, Dallas or Phoenix. NHL players at the Olympics do not benefit local broadcasters, such as Root Sports Pittsburgh, for whom the Penguins are a big money maker with advertisers.

Heck, NHL players at the Olympics was not even enough to get the league’s national broadcast partner, NBC, to broadcast arguably the most anticipated hockey game in four years for a casual North American sporting audience. That thrilling USA-Canada semifinal was not broadcast live on the network that will air the Stanley Cup Final in June.

Local NBC affiliates like WPXI pay good money to carry NBC’s Olympic programming. WPXI not only could not broadcast the USA-Canada semifinal, but it, like others, could not even show highlights.

Over the last two weeks, the NHL players at the Winter Olympic Games have been not easily found on cable while NBC prime-time programming has focused on ice skating, skiing and X-Games sports.

How is any of that good for the NHL?

February, the one month the NHL basically owns in America, has mostly passed without weekend games that are important for probable sellout-revenue and big local TV numbers.

How is that good for the NHL?

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin – the two signature NHL stars – have spent the past two weeks absorbing daggers to their respective professional reputations.

How is that good for the NHL?

The men’s hockey in Sochi, save for a few games involving Team USA, has mostly been a brand of plodding wall-play dominated by defensive schemes that, on the bigger international ice surface, lends itself to low-scoring snooze fests.

How is that good for the NHL?

The Winter Olympic Games are not good for the NHL.

The Winter Olympic Games are gripping and great and usually once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for participants.

Crosby has participated twice now. He will be 30 when the next Winter Olympic Games come around, and the hope here is he watches them on off-nights from Penguins games.

NHL players have gone to five Winter Olympic Games, including ones in the United States, Canada and Russia. The NHL has sent its players to Winter Olympic Games in all three zones, so to speak.

Basically, the second best NHL tournament played every four years has been covered.

The Winter Olympic Games does not feel special anymore. It feels forced. It looks unnecessary.

What seemed like a winning proposal – NHL players on the Olympics stage – has become a marriage that has run its course.

There were some good times, but an amicable split is best. The NHL, at least, needs to be on its own for a while – and that will still be true four years from now.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

February 17, 2014
by Josh Yohe


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Yohe: Understanding what drives Crosby

Three games. No goals. Two assists.
What’s wrong with Sidney Crosby, you ask?
I’ll be the first to admit that Crosby hasn’t been his dominant self in these Olympics, that the lightning bolt speed, precision passes and otherworldly work along the boards haven’t been especially evident in Sochi.
But really, we’re all missing the point here.
Partially because of this era, and also because of the way Crosby is wired, we can’t measure him on statistics. Legends of hockey’s past are measured on statistics, but they played in a different time.
Follow me here.
Historically speaking, we’ll only be able to compare Crosby to Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. He’s fourth behind those two (and Mike Bossy) in NHL all-time points per game. Crosby is also arguably the most hyped and publicized player of all time.
He’s the player of his era, much like Gretzky and Lemieux were. All three are much different, but how we must judge Crosby is radically different.
When you think of Gretzky and Lemieux and their respective greatest international moments, you think of the 1987 Canada Cup, right?
You think of Gretzky leading the tournament in points, and of Lemieux scoring and astounding 11 goals, including four in the final two games against Russia. Great stuff, with Gretzky nearing the end of his prime and Lemieux entering his.
Now, let’s take a look at the final score of the three games involving Russia and Canada at the 1987 Canada Cup.
6-5, 6-5, 6-5.
That’s right, 33 goals in three games.
Fast-forward 27 years. Can you imagine any game the remainder of these Olympics being played at a 6-5 clip? Did you watch Canada play Finland today? Both teams were trying to win 2-1. Only one managed to pull it off.
Perhaps a better example is when the United States played Russia on Saturday. The U.S. team is blessed with speed and does nothing but attack. Russia offers Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk.
And we got four goals out of that game until the shootout.
But, you see, we still remember Wayne and Mario putting up points whether their team was winning or not. They were savants that way, really. Honestly, Lemieux probably would have put up seven points against Norway if he felt like it. Maybe more. That’s how he was. He craved producing points, and Gretzky did also.
This brings us back to Crosby, who is entirely different. Those early round blowouts feel like all-star games. Mario and Wayne put on shows in all-star games. They loved it. Crosby stinks in all-star games. It’s not what makes him tick. It’s not real. Now, the games start to matter.
Has he been great? No, certainly not. But what exactly do you expect him to do? What has Jonathan Toews done in this tournament? How about Patrick Kane? What have Ovechkin and Malkin done since that first period of their first game?
Zero points, that’s what.
The game is different now. Defense rules. Allowing infractions to go uncalled rules. Goaltenders have never been better. Scouting reports have never been better.
Hockey, in essence, has minimized star power. Take the NHL’s current season, if you will. One man (Ovechkin) is on pace to surpass 50 goals. One man (Crosby) is on pace to surpass 100 points.
Think about that.
Listen, I could recommend some strategies that will ignite Crosby. And, in fact, I will.
= He played 10 minutes through the first two periods. What is Mike Babcock thinking? Either he’s trying to keep everyone happy, or he’s displaying the height of arrogance, letting the world know that Canada is so deep that it can roll four lines with no drawback. Either way, it’s insane. Great players need lots of ice time. Ryan Getzlaf is terrific. He isn’t Crosby.
= Crosby is at his very best when he receives the puck with speed in the neutral zone. It’s during these times that he draws penalties, creates opportunities for his wingers, and scorers many of his goals. The defense that Finland played today – calling it passive wouldn’t be a stretch – never allowed Crosby time to maneuver with speed. Also, the Canadian defenseman, none of whom have played considerable time with Crosby, don’t know when to give him the puck. I counted three times today when Crosby skated with passion through the neutral zone, clearly wanting the puck, and did not receive it. That will come with time, though there is only so much time in such a tournament.
= Leave him with Kunitz. Seriously. He’s the creature of habit in a world of people who are creatures of habits. Canada put Jamie Benn on Crosby’s left wing. The only time I noticed Benn all game was when he crosschecked a Finnish defenseman from behind late in the third period. Nothing was called on this play, which is typical. The officiating was very NHL-like today, as in, stars were being restricted throughout with no penalties being called. That doesn’t help Crosby either.
Aside from these thoughts, my ultimate suggestion for the restless Canadian faction of people expecting more from Crosby is to be patient.
Maybe he won’t lead the tournament in scoring. Maybe he isn’t producing points the way legends before him did.
But remember this about Sidney Crosby: He isn’t a man of statistics. He’s a man of moments.
His highest career goal total isn’t etched in our minds. But that shootout goal in Buffalo is.
His highest career point total isn’t something that every Canadian kid remembers. But they sure remember the Golden Goal.
I couldn’t tell you, off the top of my head, how many goals he has scored in personal matchups with Ovechkin. But we all remember that breakaway in Game 7 in Washington, when Crosby stripped Ovechkin, buried a shot and announced that the hockey world was his.
How many power play points has he produced in his career? I don’t know. But I still remember everything about that night when he returned from a concussion against the Islanders. You do, too.
Crosby is a man of moments. We can’t measure him any other way.
Will he have his moment in this tournament? It’s tough to say. Tournaments like these aren’t really made for stars to shine. His own country, more than any other, likes it that way. It’s all about the team, eh?
But the coach of the team has to ride Crosby, and I expect him to sooner rather than later.
I’ll never forget an answer from Mike Babcock to a question I asked about Crosby one month following the 2010 Olympics.
“The thing about Sid,” Babcock said, “is that he seems to have a magic about him.”
That’s just it. And you never know when magic will appear.
The Russians feel it’s their birth right to win this tournament, and make no mistake, the Americans have clearly been the best team in Sochi.
Meanwhile, the Canadians have looked lifeless and a tad slow. They don’t look like champions right now, and their captain doesn’t, either.
But before we dismiss mighty Canada, and before we dismiss its captain, we must realize that moments remain in this tournament, and he hasn’t had his yet.
Crosby, you see, does not dream of points or pretty goals. He dreams of the moment. We better not sleep on that.

- Yohe

February 14, 2014
by Josh Yohe


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Yohe: Bylsma, Miller and the conversation

Jonathan Quick is the winner. Ryan Miller is the backup.

How did this happen? Well, I guess I should have known last week. Allow me to tell a quick story.

The Penguins played in Buffalo last Wednesday. Before the game, a large number of Buffalo reporters circled around Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who is the man in charge of Team USA. It immediately became evident that the Buffalo reporters were convinced that Miller was the clear choice to start for Team USA. Question after question followed about Miller’s brilliance four years earlier in Vancouver. It was as though Quick didn’t exist. Some reporters even mentioned the fact that Bylsma’s Penguins chased Quick in the first period against the Kings a week earlier.

Surely, it was Miller’s job.

No, it wasn’t. And I should have known then, for two reasons.

I had the opportunity to speak with Bylsma after the Buffalo reporters had touted Miller the clear starter. To put it lightly, Bylsma appeared completely miffed that reporters would be so dismissive of Quick, a former Stanley Cup winner and widely considered one of hockey’s finest goalies. I joked that I should show up at that evening’s game wearing a Quick jersey. Bylsma seemed to be amused by this. At that moment, it was pretty clear that Bylsma, at the very least, wasn’t sold on Miller being his starter. I strongly believe Quick was the choice when the NHL season began, though Miller’s outstanding play and Quick’s trouble with injuries may have evened things.

Later that night, I witnessed more compelling evidence that Miller wasn’t going to be the guy. I just didn’t realize it at the time, but now, it makes sense.

After the Penguins handled Miller and the Sabres, 5-1, I wrote my game story from the media lounge, which happens to be located near the Sabres and Penguins locker rooms. After writing my article, I left the lounge in an attempt to visit the bathroom. However, as I opened the door to walk across the hallway, I ran into Bylsma and Miller. The two were have a conversation, and it looked serious. Very serious. I didn’t want to eavesdrop – OK, actually I did want to, but I didn’t want to be a jerk – so, instead of walking past them, I simply executed a U-turn and sat in the media lounge for around five minutes. Two of the most important figures in American hockey were having a serious conversation, and I didn’t feel like my intrusion was appropriate.

After a good five minutes, I figured the conversation was over. It’s not like they wouldn’t be seeing each other in Sochi in a couple of days anyway, and the Penguins team bus had already been prepared to depart. Assuming the coast was clear, I again departed the media lounge. And again, as I walked around the corner, I encountered Bylsma and Miller, deep in conversation.

At the time, I may have misinterpreted what was going on. I’m a big fan of Miller’s work, and sensed for weeks that perhaps he would be the American starter. But seeing Bylsma so miffed by the assumption that Miller was the clear choice over Quick made me wonder. Looking back, I suspect Bylsma may have delivered some news to Miller that he didn’t want to hear. I could be wrong, of course. Maybe Miller wasn’t informed that Quick would be the starter until he arrived in Sochi. But I’m starting to begin otherwise.

It gives you an appreciation for how difficult the Olympics are for players, coaches and general managers. I assure you Bylsma possesses enormous respect for Miller. But Quick is clearly his choice.

I wish I knew what was said in that conversation. I suspect it was pretty compelling stuff. Next time, I’ll eavesdrop.

Hope you’re all enjoying the Olympic hockey so far. Great stuff.

- Yohe

February 12, 2014
by Josh Yohe


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Yohe: Olympic men’s hockey predictions

Good day, hockey fans.

The way I see things, there are five teams – Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the United States – that legitimately can win the gold medal in the Men’s Olympic hockey tournament. Finland is probably the weakest of those five teams, though I wouldn’t completely count them out.
And then there are the other four.
Let’s be honest, here. Any of these teams could win it all. Canada has overwhelming talent; the Russians can score like no other team in this event and will be playing as though their lives depend on it; the Swedes are deceptively good and display no apparent weakness; and the American team is better than you think, fast and equipped with strong goaltending.
So, who does one pick?
There’s no right or wrong answer. Picking these tournaments is so difficult. It’s basically where hunches, logic and luck intersect.
So, here’s what I like and don’t like about the big boys. Predictions at the end.

CANADA – Most consider them the favorite, and for good reason. John Tavares is their fourth center, for God’s sake. That’s pretty scary. They’ve done it before, they showcase the world’s greatest hockey player, and their depth is unquestionable.
But there are problems. Would you trust Carey Price in a big game? How about Robert Luongo? OK, Luongo won the gold four years ago. True. But was he great that game? Did he look comfortable? Could you see him doing it again? Goaltending is a huge problem for the Canadians, in my view. I don’t trust either of these guys, and Mike Smith doesn’t figure to get a chance.
Plus, like the U.S., Canada doesn’t have a good history of winning on bigger ice surfaces.
Given the big ice surface, and how important special teams figure to be in such an even tournament, Canada should be utilizing P.K. Subban. Instead, Drew Doughty will run the power play along with Shea Weber. I have no problem with those two – both are terrific – but Subban is a better power play artist and would be more dynamic on the big ice. It’s a mistake if he doesn’t play.
On paper, an awesome team. But there are questions.

RUSSIA – No matter who you’re cheering for, you’ll surely agree that no team will be more interesting to watch than Russia.
This team is blessed with talent, conflicted by its personalities and perhaps united – or divided – but the extraordinary pressure it is under. In 2010, their Olympic performance was embarrassing. No one knows what to expect this time.
Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin are Russia’s best players. They’ll play together. Will they thrive? No one knows. I suspect Malkin may defer too much to Ovechkin at times, which isn’t a good thing. Malkin is at his best when he is clearly the best player on the ice, so I’m not sure that I like this duo together as much as everyone else. But maybe I’ll be proven wrong. The fact that Ovechkin and Malkin possess a really complex relationship doesn’t help the matter. Or maybe it does. I just don’t know about this team.
I don’t particularly like Russia’s defensive group, though Sergei Bobrovski between the pipes is intriguing.
Could they win it all? Oh yeah. Could they implode? Oh yeah.

FINLAND – I include Finland in the list of contenders because of the great Tuukka Rask. In case you missed last season’s Eastern Conference final between the Penguins and Bruins, I’ll let you know that Rask played some of the most magnificent goal that any of us have ever witnessed. It was a remarkable performance, and while there may have been some luck involved, let’s take nothing away from Rask. He is among the greatest goalies in hockey and has proven capable of entering “the zone.” And when he does, you don’t beat him.
That said, I don’t love Finland’s chances. They always play good team defense and will again, I’m sure, but there isn’t a ton of talent up front. I just don’t see them matching the offensive work of the other four teams mentioned in this space.
Still, Finland is the team nobody really wants to play. The Fins possess a strong international history and a seriously strong goaltender.
A factor? Sure. A dark horse? Yeah. Winning a medal? I’m thinking it’s unlikely.

SWEDEN – Good luck finding a weakness here. Seriously.
Sweden hasn’t received a significant amount of buzz entering this tournament, and that might be a mistake. This team is so skilled, so steady, so impressive on paper. Henrik Lundqvist will be Sweden’s goalie, which is a pretty good place to start. He isn’t having his best NHL season, but the guy is terrific and has plenty of international experience.
Do the Swedes have some issues to contend with?
Well, sure.
Nick Lidstrom is retired, and that takes away a historical edge. I like their blue line, but it’s not without possible problems. As great as Erik Karlsson is – and I truly do love watching him play – could he be a defensive liability in a tournament where one mistake could cost you a medal? Absolutely.
Sweden isn’t the youngest team, either. Many of its important players – Daniel Sedin, Lundqvist, Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson – are on the wrong side of 30.
The Swedes aren’t an old team, but they won’t win because of young legs.
I really, really like this team. Definitely a worthy medal contender. Will losing Henrik Sedin have a negative impact on his twin brother? Could be a big deal.

UNITED STATES – What an intriguing team Dan Bylsma has at his disposal.
One must assume the goaltending for the United States will be excellent, no matter if Ryan Miller or Jonathan Quick is between the pipes. I’d be comfortable with either one, though I believe Miller will ultimately be the guy chosen. He was great four years ago in Vancouver, has been great behind an awful Sabres team this season and probably has earned the opportunity to fight for the gold medal once again.
I love a lot of things about this team. The Americans don’t possess the best centers or blue line, but they do showcase the finest wingers in the tournament. Consider this list: Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, Ryan Callahan, Max Pacioretty, Dustin Brown, T.J. Oshie, JVR, Blake Wheeler…holy crap, that’s a great group. Speed, grit, scoring – it’s all there.
I like the blue line, too. Ryan Suter was made for this tournament. Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson, and Paul Martin? See any weaknesses there? Neither do I.
America’s problem is at center. There’s not a ton of offense there. Either Ryan Kesler or David Backes need to score. They can, but defense is what they do best.
It’s a very well rounded team.

OK, enough is enough. You want predictions? They aren’t confident once, by any stretch. But here they are.

GOLD MEDAL – United States

Am I being a homer? Maybe a little. But in all honestly, I love this team. It’s an exceptionally fast team, built for big ice, and the goaltending will be spectacular. It’s also a hungry team. What happened four years ago still hurts a lot of these guys. There is something to be said for that kind of motivation. When all looks so even, pick your home country. Right?

SILVER MEDAL – Canada

I think Canada will be undefeated headed into the Gold Medal game. They’ve found themselves in a very comfortable group, and the talent is pretty overwhelming.
I do believe, however, that the United States matches up well with Canada. Sidney Crosby doesn’t like playing against Backes. Look it up. Kesler could drive him nuts, too. Sid’s the best player in the world, but it will be tough for him to dominate against the Americans given how they are built.
And I’ll take Miller over Luongo/Price any day.

BRONZE MEDAL – Sweden

A really strong team that could beat anyone. But I don’t think they’ll pull it off. Still, a team very much worthy of a medal.

FOURTH PLACE – Russia

If they get to the gold medal game, they’re not losing. But I don’t think they’ll make it that far. I know how talented they are. I also know they don’t have much depth and that playing under the kind of pressure they’ll feel is nearly impossible.

FIFTH PLACE – Finland

I say Finland makes it to the quarterfinals but simply doesn’t have the firepower to beat the big boys.

I fear many will disagree. Hey, it’s not easy. But those are my picks. Let’s enjoy the tournament. It should be something very, very special, no matter who you’re rooting for and no matter who wins.

- Yohe

February 5, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Marshall FACTORS in Sutter’s shutdown defense.

(Note from Rossi: Jesse Marshall, a local hockey blogger, has agreed to share his unique brand of analytical insight on this blog. His contributions will appear on an as-we-think-of-it basis. Enjoy.)

>> THE FACEOFF FACTOR: Sutter on the Shut Down

Brandon Sutter was tasked with the job of filling some very large skates when Jordan Staal was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

However, a quick comparison of the numbers show that Sutter hasn’t just filled the role of third-line center for the Penguins; he’s putting up defensive numbers that place him among the NHL’s elite – players that might find their names mixed among Selke Trophy nominations this season.

With 663 minutes of even-strength hockey played this season, Sutter has only been on the ice for 16 of the Penguins 104 even strength goals-against. That number ranks second among players that have played at least 40 games for the Penguins this season. Joe Vitale leads at 13.

This number also puts Sutter among some of the league’s elite defensive centers. He is 16th overall and one better than Anze Kopitar (Los Angeles) and Logan Couture (San Jose), both of whom are among the projected contenders for the Selke that is annually awarded to the top defensive forward.

Some perspective on these numbers: Sutter is allowing 1.56 goals-against for every 60 minutes of even strength ice time he records. Staal was allowing 2.83 goals-against per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time his final season for the Penguins, 2011-12.

Sutter’s also been just as valuable on the penalty kill. In fact, 44 percent of the team’s even-strength ice time belongs to him, trumped only by checking forward Craig Adams and shutdown-pairing defenseman Brooks Orpik, just over 50 percent each.

Coach Dan Bylsma has used Sutter in a multitude of scenarios this season with a wide variety of partners along the way. (The Trib has reported him playing with 13 different wingers.)

With other teams consistently lining up their big guns against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Sutter has seen less of a workload against top line units than other third-line centers. In fact, according to some advanced quality of competition numbers that are based on possession statistics, Sutter is facing opponents that aren’t half as staunch as what Crosby and Malkin see on a regular basis.

The Crosby/Malkin lines are seeing time against the top units of other teams, whereas the Sutter unit has been paired against the oppositions’ third lines in most scenarios. So, while more goals might be expected of Sutter in these instances, he’s only scored two less goals than Jordan Staal has this season, with approximately 100 less minutes played at even-strength and virtually no time on the power-play for the Penguins.

That being said, the Penguins have an in-house defensive specialist on their third line, and when the playoffs roll around that’s goes quite a long way. Remember, Staal – though he scored some big goals along the way – was primarily playing a defensive, shutdown role for the Penguins on their run to the Cup Final in 2008 and their Cup win the next season.

Jesse Marshall is co-founder of Faceoff-Factor, a site that breaks down the Penguins by using nontraditional methods such as the study of advanced statistics. Read his work at www.faceoff-factor.com. Follow him on Twitter @jmarshfof

 

LINKS N’AT

>> Chris Adamski delves into the unlikely speedster in arguably hockey’s biggest spot: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5524450-74/gibbons-crosby-nhl#axzz2sTev6XPf

>> Adamski also notes that Sidney Crosby is not worried about where he’s staying in Sochi: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5524451-74/games-penguins-bylsma#axzz2sTev6XPf

 

Josh Yohe in is snowy Buffalo, and will have all your information on this icy Wednesday.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

February 2, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Michalek never asked for trade from Pens.

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The other team plays too.

Indeed, that is not a popular view among the masses after a Penguins’ loss; but there are two clubs on the ice for most NHL games.

Most applies because their two other losses since New Year’s Day – at home to Florida and at Dallas, both last week – the Penguins appeared to no-show.

They showed against the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday. The Coyotes were just better.

Players knew it, too.

That is, perhaps, why their postgame comments were a lot more about what Phoenix did – “They played a pretty tight game,” said Sidney Crosby – than what the Penguins didn’t do.

“Just because we’re ahead of them in the standings, even if we play well doesn’t mean we’re going to win,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “I thought our energy level and compete (level) was pretty high. It was good.”

It was, and Niskanen is among the Penguins’ most publicly vocal critics when he senses lapses in energy and competitive spirit and execution.

The Coyotes have struggled of late, but they were a top-10 team through December.

A good team that hits a bumpy stretch – wait, that happens in a salary-capped NHL?

The Coyotes lost eight games in regulation in January.

The Penguins lost two.

This was their third regulation loss of the New Year.

Chill, folks.

Watch the Super Bowl, follow our Alan Robinson on Twitter, and take a day from presuming the Penguins will lose their first four playoff games because they aren’t winning 9 out of every 10 games.

Here ends the preaching.

 

>> That said, Sidney Crosby looked a bit off-put as he sat on a bench in the visitors’ dressing room on Saturday night. He generated five attempted shots against the Coyotes – as many as the combined total of wingers Chris Kunitz and Brian Gibbons.

Crosby is human.

No, it’s true.

Anyway, Crosby is human – dude was even spotted sipping a milkshake on this trip ­– and no human dominates this defensive NHL every night.

He has two goals in the last nine games.

He also has eight points over that slump.

That, dear readers, is how one wins a scoring title. Average nearly a point per game when things are going poorly.

He’ll be fine.

 

>> Goodness, Rossi, do you have anything nasty to say?

Yep.

Colds are lousy.

Colds that last about four weeks – colds that probably aren’t just colds – are really lousy.

Thanks to the Coyotes team doc for a last-minute examination before the game Saturday. Oddly, that has been required twice in my 12 years at the Trib. The other time was at the start of a baseball series in Phoenix.

 

>> Good for you, Zbynek Michalek.

He never wanted to leave the Penguins. His decision, in July 2010, to uproot his family and move from the Phoenix area to Pittsburgh was not without careful consideration.

Even after a rough second season with the Penguins, Michalek wanted to see his four-year contract through.

The Penguins, though, had come off an embarrassing loss to Philadelphia in Round 1, one that made their overall defense look suspect (at best), and GM Ray Shero approached Michalek for a list of teams to which he would accept a trade.

Michalek’s response was that he wanted to remain with the Penguins.

Still, Shero began talking trade with interested clubs, and took two to Michalek at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. One of those clubs was Phoenix, where Michalek had previously found a home as a shutdown defenseman.

Michalek, again insisting he would prefer to stay with the Penguins, told Shero that between the two teams he would prefer Phoenix.

The deal was struck, and Michalek again became a Coyote.

So, indeed, good for him for that goal on Saturday night – it had to be bittersweet.

Michalek was always pleasant and thoughtful during our interactions over two seasons. That probably wasn’t always easy for him, because during that second season he became a popular punch bag on the local talk-show circuit.

Free agency is a gambler’s paradise, but only a fool counts on it to build a championship contender.

Shero knows that. It is why most of his roster-shaping moves come at the NHL trade deadline.

That is March 5, by the way.

All is really quiet regarding the Penguins.

 

LINKS N’AT

>> You probably watched, but read anyway. The GAMER: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5499282-74/penguins-games-crosby#axzz2s8S39lpA

>> Jonathan Bombulie’s Never-to-be-Missed weekly repot on the AHL Penguins: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5499226-74/skate-baby-blade#axzz2s8S39lpA

>> Evgeni Malkin’s next trip to Russia will be unlike any he’s taken before or will take after, and Sochi could be where he cements his place in hockey history: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5499269-74/malkin-penguins-olympics#axzz2s8S39lpA

>> Finally, columnist Dejan Kovacevic is headed to Sochi for another round of Olympics coverage. He’s your local guy with Games experience and he’ll be burning up Twitter soon enough. Starbucks, though, he might not easily find. His column of what to look for from the Games: http://triblive.com/sports/olympics/moreolympics/5410625-74/sochi-olympics-games#axzz2s8S39lpA

 

(Seahawks 26, Broncos 24. Defense wins championships even in this NFL).

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other.

Rossi

 

January 31, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Letang absence not trade-talk related.

LOS ANGELES – Kris Letang is sick.

That is the official stance by the Penguins, anyway.

He did not look sick Thursday morning, as Letang was – per usual – one of the last skaters off the ice after a practice. He showed no symptoms – pale skin tone, fatigue, congestion-impaired breathing or talking – that generally come with the common cold or flu while speaking with teammates in the visiting dressing room after the Penguins’ 4-1 victory at Staples Center.

Several Penguins players, when pressed Thursday night, politely declined to share any reasons as for why Letang did not play against the Los Angeles Kings; though each said he behaved normally in the morning practice – specifically, doing individual stick work long after most players had gone to the dressing room.

Letang is among the most prideful, hardest working players on the Penguins. There normally would be absolutely no reason to believe something was afoul regarding his not playing. That is especially true because he has a history of migraine headaches that come on strong.

Still, the feel from being around the Penguins on Thursday night was that great effort was being taken to protect the reason Letang did not play.

Coach Dan Bylsma said he was battling an illness, and that the illness did not start Thursday.

The only thing seemingly for sure is that Letang was not removed from the lineup because of trade talks involving him. (Still, good job going straight to that presumption, Twitterverse. Sigh.)

The word – based off conversations with Penguins management and a few other team personnel around the NHL – is that Letang is not being shopped, and that GM Ray Shero is not all that interested in hearing offers involving him.

 

>> One great thing about covering a game in Los Angeles is getting to catch up with people in the NHL world that have their ears close to the ground on potential developments, especially trades. Spoke with some of those people on Thursday, and here is their consensus regarding possible Penguins trades:

Don’t hold your breath waiting for one.

Their read, so far, is that Shero wants not part of rental players, doesn’t like the extreme sellers’ market that exits, and, most crucial, he lacks the salary-cap space to make a big-splash move.

Nobody would rule out a big-splash move – an actual hockey trade – by Shero this summer, pending just how far the Penguins go in the Stanley Cup playoffs. (So, dream, babies, dream.)

Anyway, only passing this along because it is consistent with other information passed along in recent days.

As always, things can change fast regarding trades, but it just does not sound like the Penguins are in on a lot as of Friday.

The trade deadline is March 5, but NHL rosters are frozen from Feb. 7-23 for the Olympics.

 

LINKS N’AT

>> Captain American is about to be named. Even if it’s not him, the Kings’ Dustin Brown will be a crucial leader in Sochi: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5499119-74/brown-kings-bylsma#axzz2rx53zmfZ

>> So, maybe the Western Conference teams don’t match up well with the skill of the Penguins? Nah, couldn’t be, right? GAMER: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5499125-74/penguins-kings-period

>> Mommaaaah. Oooh. Oooh. Oooh. NOTES: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5499131-74/penguins-players-mothers#axzz2rx53zmfZ

>> The new practice facility jumped a hurdle: http://triblive.com/news/adminpage/5505876-74/penguins-development-cranberry

Off to some part of Arizona; be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

 

 

January 28, 2014
by Rob Rossi


No comments yet - you should start the discussion!

Rossi: Marshall FACTORS in Penguins’ possession.

(Note from Rossi: Jesse Marshall, a local hockey blogger, has agreed to share his unique brand of analytical insight on this blog. His contributions will appear on an as-we-think-of-it basis. Enjoy.)

 

>> THE FACEOFF FACTOR: Possession Dip 

One of the more important advanced metrics making its way into the mainstream hockey media is Corsi. It is a statistic that accounts for possession throughout the course of a game or season. Simplified, it is a plus/minus number that tracks shooting attempts on net at even strength.

Think of this outside the traditional understanding of what a shot on goal is; with Corsi, a player receives a plus for any shooting attempt on net while that player is on the ice (missed shots, blocked shots, deflected shots, saves, etc) and a minus for any shot attempt on his own net.

An example: If Sidney Crosby is on the ice for 20 shooting attempts on net by the Penguins in a given game, but is also on the ice for 10 shooting attempts against, his Corsi for the game would be +10.

We would look at this number with the general understanding that Crosby’s line generated more offense and possessed the puck more than the opposition did. This statistic is expressed at a rate of 60 minutes of even strength ice time.

Within this key metric, we can take a look at the dip in offensive production the Penguins are experiencing this year.

At the end of the truncated 2013 season, both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin paced the Penguins with on-ice Corsi numbers of 16.10 and 16.04 respectively. They ranked 17th and 18th in the NHL among forwards who had played in at least 20 games.

Their respective primary wingers, Chris Kunitz and James Neal, weren’t far behind. For 2013, Kunitz was at 12.62 and Neal at 10.85.

The eye test tells us that the offensive production of the Penguins flows through the top two lines. With Crosby, Malkin and their aforementioned partners posting such good possession numbers in the 2013 regular season, the results also reflected in the goals category. The Penguins topped the NHL with 107 even-strength goals last year – a true testament to the number of shots they launched at the net.

This season has been a much different story.

Crosby’s on-ice Corsi has dipped to 10.57. Malkin has dropped low to 5.46. Their linemates have, predictably, suffered considerable drops as well. Kunitz now rings in at 8.61 and Neal at 8.09.

These drops may not seem that significant, but they’ve seemingly affected the Penguins ability to score goals at even strength. The Penguins scored 3.0 goals per 60 minutes of even strength ice time last season, a number that’s dipped to 2.7 this year.

With all expectations pointing to the Penguins being on a collision course with the Boston Bruins this postseason, a quick glance at their numbers show an exaggerated difference in the tale that Corsi tells. The average on-ice Corsi between Brad Marchand, Loui Eriksson, and Patrice Bergeron is 22.60, a number that is triple what Crosby is averaging right now.

While the Penguins may have scored 11 more goals than the Bruins at even strength this year, the Bruins have allowed 32 fewer goals than the Penguins. That is a testament to the possession numbers put up by Boston’s top forwards. It’s hard for other teams to score when they do not have the puck.

So what’s the cause of all this?  Dan Bylsma’s coaching staff adding a focus to defensive zone play has also been mentioned as a possibility, but the Penguins are on pace to allow more goals against per game on average than they did last year.

Injuries might play the biggest role of all. Pascal Dupuis has lead the Penguins in attempts on net each of the last two years, and he has been out for a month and likely will not play again this season.

Also, the Penguins still appear to be in a feeling out process with the return of their stars to the lineup.

We’ll do a temperature check on these numbers later this year. After all, Bylsma’s mantra is 60/40 hockey – 60 percent of the game expected to be played in the offensive zone. Right now, the numbers say it’s more of a 50/50 split.

That is a number the Penguins need to correct heading into the postseason.

 

Jesse Marshall is co-founder of Faceoff-Factor, a site that breaks down the Penguins by using nontraditional methods such as the study of advanced statistics. Read his work at www.faceoff-factor.com. Follow him on Twitter @jmarshfof

 

LINKS N’AT

>> Josh Yohe recaps the Penguins’ blanking of Buffalo: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5487641-74/penguins-fleury-game#axzz2riMIEHmz

>> Chris Adamski with the notes from Monday: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5484610-74/penguins-gibbons-monday

 

Yohe is with the club Tuesday.

Presuming I kick this flu that followed me back from Dallas, I’m headed to California than Phoenix for the road trip.

 

It’s cold, so have some coffee – or tea; always better is the tea – ready for those postal workers.

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

January 26, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: To worry or not about these Penguins.

DALLAS – Sometimes it is more about how they don’t say it.

The Penguins, losers of two ugly games this past week, each against lesser opponents, did well on Saturday night to dismiss any notion they are struggling to find incentive right now.

As of Sunday morning their division lead is 17 points, their conference advantage is at 7 points.

Some perspective on how difficult it is to make up point gaps in an NHL that awards teams points for losing in overtime or a shootout. The Penguins were 5 points from a playoff spot with 25 games remaining five years ago.

They went 18-3-4 to close – earning 80 percent of available points – and made the playoffs by 3 points.

Two more duds over the final two months – or, two games like losses this past week to Florida and Dallas – and the Penguins would not have made the playoffs the year they won the Stanley Cup.

Making up points in the second half of the NHL season is not impossible, but it’s a damn difficult task, and one the Penguins do not face.

Mix that with the elephant in the dressing room – that nothing matters except getting at least back to the conference final, and probably to the Cup Final – and it is easy to assess the Penguins are lacking a bit of urgency.

“I don’t think so,” winger Craig Adams said. “You want to win every game. You don’t go into a game thinking, ‘Hey, let’s just take this one off.’

“But obviously (the) combination of desperation and focus hasn’t been there enough.”

Adams has never played the role of liar.

Some of his teammates, though, seemed not to believe completely the words they offered about stagnancy creeping into the Penguins’ play.

“I don’t know if guy are thinking about that or not,” winger Tanner Glass said. “The goal every night is to come out and play hard, play with urgency. It hasn’t been there.”

Convincing, huh?

The Penguins are 9-4-1 since Pascal Dupuis was injured, and that accounts for about 29 percent of their regulation losses. Of course, when there are only 14 regulation losses, a run like the one the Penguins are on over the last month will mean a lot bigger chunk of the defeats.

Keep in mind – or don’t, since panic is all the rage for fans of the Flightless Fowl – that a lot of the same teams that worry the fan base as potential playoff foes have yet to go on a 9-4-1 run all season.

The Penguins appear to be slipping only because of their absurd 16-2-1 march from Nov. 15-Dec. 21, when they routinely played with no fewer than four AHL regulars in the lineup, and often without a couple of stars and role players.

Perhaps these eyes belong to someone too deep in the forest, as beat reporters can become; but this does not resemble two years ago, when the Penguins seemingly became full of themselves upon Sidney Crosby’s second return from concussion and completely lost their identity over the final six weeks then were Blitzkrieged by Philadelphia in Round 1 of the playoffs.

This DOES look like a team trying to find its identity while playing a stretch with regulars for the first time.

This also looks like a team getting the best shot from every opponent, and perhaps a team not super keen on blowing itself out in January.

Maybe – at least, it should not be dismissed – this looks like a team that really needs its best players to be great every night because there is less depth to this lineup than any of the Dan Bylsma era.

There are 30 games left, and 24 of those will be played after the Olympic break.

If the Penguins look a bit up-and-down in March, then there is something to think about regarding this club’s Cup chances.

It’s not even February yet.

 

LINKS N’AT

>> More of less, as the GAME STORY recaps: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5448253-74/penguins-dallas-loss#axzz2rTjOyg2i

>> Columnist Joe Starkey with a real worthy read about the Penguins’ connections to Herb Brooks: http://triblive.com/sports/joestarkey/5448260-74/brooks-bylsma-herb#axzz2rTjOyg2i

>> Sergei Gonchar’s advice is not to sweat the Olympic threats: http://triblive.com/sports/olympics/moreolympics/5482591-74/gonchar-russia-olympics#axzz2rTjOyg2i

>> NOTES… http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5448254-74/penguins-dallas-shero#axzz2rTjOyg2i

>> Jonathan Bombulies’s Don’t Miss This AHL Penguins piece: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5448095-74/games-despres-blueger#axzz2rTjOyg2i

>> ICYMI, Josh Yohe’s look at the Penguins’ push to get together on defense: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5448186-74/letang-scuderi-penguins#axzz2rTjOyg2i

Check on your neighbors. Offer to shovel your parents’ sidewalk. Wear thick socks. Greet your paper delivery/postal carrier folks with hot chocolate.

Basically, be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

January 23, 2014
by Rob Rossi


No comments yet - you should start the discussion!

Rossi: Habs maybe what Pens need most.

As so-called dream opponents go, the Montreal Canadiens might top the list for the Penguins in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That is not to suggest the Canadiens would prove an easy opponent. They would not, because – and this is something to always remember – the playoffs are about styles, and the Canadiens offer a stylistic challenge to the Penguins.

This is to suggest that the Penguins might benefit from facing such a stylistic challenge early and that beating the Canadiens would require from coach Dan Bylsma’s squad an attention to detail that must be drawn from players for a successful Cup run.

The Penguins were not flawless Wednesday night, but they certainly were focused. They tend to get that way, especially at home, against the Canadiens. That is because they do not like a lot of Montreal’s players – P.K. Subban and Carey Price being Nos. 1 and 2 on that list.

The Penguins played with the right amount of distaste and discipline on Wednesday night. That combination works in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

If you are one of those people wondering if this team has what it takes for playoff hockey, go back and watch how the Penguins looked on Wednesday night. Forget the score, or even the goals, and rather look at Evgeni Malkin’s aggressiveness on the puck, Kris Letang’s quick, short passes and Marc-Andre Fleury’s tone-setting play around the crease.

That was the important stuff that happened on Wednesday night, not a near goalies fight.

 

>> Canada unveiled its Olympic flag bearer on Thursday, and that person is not Sidney Crosby. This is likely how Crosby would have wished.

Carrying the flag at the Olympic opening ceremonies would have required Crosby to miss two regular-season games for the Penguins. Anybody who thinks Crosby would absolutely choose carrying Canada’s flag has never had a conversation with him about the importance of how he is viewed in Pittsburgh.

Crosby is all about loyalty, and loyal people never want to be in a position where they have to pick sides.

 

>> Forward Zach Sill was re-assigned to AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Thursday. Probably not the last from him that will be heard, but the Penguins, when healthy, and they are trending that way, are in a bind regarding players on one-way NHL contracts. Sill is not one of those players, so…

 

 

LINKS N’AT

>> Yohe contributed, but newest #TribHKY teammate Chris Adamski has a notebook that leads with Michel Therrien’s always emotional return to Pittsburgh: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5448135-74/penguins-fleury-coach#axzz2rENLyPBj

>> The story of the latest Penguins’ victory was a matchup that Bylsma made use of against Therrien: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5448134-74/malkin-crosby-penguins#axzz2rENLyPBj

>> Columnist Dejan Kovacevic on trading Letang: http://triblive.com/sports/dejankovacevic/dejancolumns/5448123-74/letang-trade-penguins#axzz2rENLyPBj

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

 

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