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January 28, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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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


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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

 

 

January 21, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Marshall FACTORS in Niskanen.

(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 a as-we-think-of-it basis. Enjoy.)

 

THE FACEOFF FACTOR: MATT NISKANEN 

With a plus-25 rating this season, good for first in the NHL, Matt Niskanen is providing some punch for the Penguins at both ends of the ice. GM Ray Shero’s idea not to trade him last summer is looking very good.

Plus/minus is a subjective statistic, but some advanced metrics show Niskanen’s true value to the Penguins, who have played only three games with their four highest-paid defensemen in the lineup.

The Penguins have scored a total of 104 goals at even-strength situations. That ranks fourth in the NHL. Niskanen has been on the ice for 47 of those goals. He is first among all Penguins players, better by 3 than overall scoring leader Sidney Crosby.

Look at it this way: Only two defensemen in the league has been on the ice for more even-strength goals for ­– Chicago’s pairing of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, each with 55.

Niskanen is in good company, but his defense has proven more impressive.

The Penguins have allowed 94 goals against in all even-strength situations. Niskanen has only been on the ice for 25 of those goals – and that during 800 minutes of ice time.

Niskanen is on the ice for a lot of even-strength goals, but 65 percent have gone to the Penguins. He leads the club in that area, ahead of winger Chris Kunitz (62 percent) and center Evgeni Malkin (54 percent).

He finds himself in good company as his goals for percentage ranks him tenth in the NHL among players with at least 46 games played, only 7 percent behind league leader Anze Kopitar at 72 percent.

None of this is to suggest that Niskanen is a Norris Trophy contender, but he certainly has provided two-way stability for the Penguins during a season that has featured repeated injuries to members of the defense corps.

Remember, the Penguins have 78 man-games lost to their defense corps alone. That is almost a full season.

Given the importance of defensemen to coach Dan Bylsma’s system, Niskanen has been a big reason the Penguins have remained atop the Metropolitan Division since mid-November despite playing mostly without two of their top-four defensemen.

Niskanen is viewed by coaches as the fifth defenseman when all players are available. So far, he has played a lot more like a No. 1.

 

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

>> Oh, those Penguins and that quickly deteriorating defense: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5448040-74/penguins-panthers-goals

>> Josh Yohe starts the notes with a look at Robert Bortuzzo: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5448042-74/bortuzzo-penguins-dupuis#axzz2r0DMHOoz

 

Yohe has practice Tuesday. Guessing it will be a long and particularly harsh one given Bylsma’s rare show of public dissatisfaction Monday night.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

January 19, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Olympics turned Crosby iconic, hence his “C.”

At no point this season will Sidney Crosby not wear a “C.”

Crosby, the Penguins captain, will fill that role for Canada’s men’s ice hockey squad at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next month. Hockey Canada announced Crosby’s captaincy Sunday morning.

Crosby, 26, scored the golden goal for Canada at its Vancouver Games four years ago, beating United States’ goalie Ryan Miller in overtime.

That might have counted for something on this topic.

Surely, though, Canada did not lack qualified candidates to captain its Olympic squad. That list probably started with Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, a two-time Stanley Cup captain for the Blackhawks and the consensus best player for Canada at the Vancouver Games.

However, and this is a not an objective view, Crosby most deserved the “C.”

Unlike, well, anybody, he has carried the flag for this sport over the last 10 years. It was his fresh face the NHL banked on after becoming the first league to lose an entire season (2004-05) because of a labor dispute.

The narrative in and around Pittsburgh is that Crosby’s arrival changed everything, including the Penguins’ push for new arena funding that was going nowhere. By his second season, he was on his way to a scoring title and MVP, the Penguins were headed for the playoffs, Mellon Arena was packed and TV ratings were up – heck, even former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell acknowledged that was a lot of momentum to argue against state and local financial help for a new hockey arena in Pittsburgh.

Consol Energy Center, as Mario Lemieux once said, should be considered “the House Sid Got Built.”

Crosby did not build the NHL, but he has played a significant role in getting it mainstream attention in the United States.

The Penguins were picked for the first Winter Classic for a reason.

Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins are playing in a third outdoors game for a reason.

Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins are regulars on NBC national broadcasts for a reason.

Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins are a huge story when they do not win the Stanley Cup for a reason.

Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins have highlights shown on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” for a reason.

Sidney Crosby.

Most hockey fans have a polarizing view of the Penguins for a reason.

Sidney Crosby.

Crosby is the biggest star in Penguins history.

He might be the biggest start in NHL history.

The league is more prominent now than ever because professional sports are a bigger business now compared to when Wayne Gretzky and Lemieux starred.

Crosby has been the face of NHL business for nine seasons.

How big is Crosby’s reach?

Well, do a Google search on his surname and “concussion,” but be prepared to spend weeks reading articles on that topic.

If all of this seems a bit over the top – well, ask a Canadian about Crosby. His name is the one among hockey players that a casual U.S. sports fan probably knows, but in his home and native land Crosby is part of popular culture.

In Canada, Crosby is Peyton Manning in terms of how he is marketed and his profile. (Hey, Canadians do not see cardboard cutouts of Drake at Tim Horton’s.)

Unlike Manning, who does not play an Olympic sport, Crosby produced a moment that will live forever for his country. He was a young, vibrant history maker on that day – and hi-def footage of that golden goal will forever keep Crosby looking that way to Canadian hockey fans.

The Olympics – that one moment – carried Crosby from “Kid” to icon.

It also guaranteed he would be captain for Canada’s next Olympic squad.

How could he not?

Think of hockey and Canada and what you know.

Sidney Crosby.

 

LINKS N’AT

>> Marc-Andre Fleury is different, though you wouldn’t know it by his regular-season play: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5410413-74/fleury-season-penguins#axzz2qm9ePK5b

>> Josh Yohe reports on a couple of Western Pennsylvania’s own who avoided serious injury in Florida: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5444729-74/antonio-san-trocheck#axzz2qm9ePK5b

>> Jonathan Bombulie’s Read-Always AHL Penguins notebook: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5410303-74/harrington-points-baby#axzz2qm9ePK5b

>> Columnist Joe Starkey includes hockey in his Hall-of-Fame thoughts: http://triblive.com/sports/joestarkey/5410406-74/hall-johnson-jimmy

>> Bob Cohn looks at Ryan Mill’s growth as the Penguins’ voice fella: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5405074-74/mill-barbero-penguins#axzz2qm9ePK5b

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

January 16, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Geno, Ovi and the good news for Russia.

Maybe they really have made nice?

Reasonable are the doubters who believe Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin have only put aside their longstanding feud because Russia needs them to be good with one another so they can be great at the Olympics to be staged next month in Sochi.

Malkin has never denied that he would go above and beyond to win gold at these particular Games. Neither has Ovechkin.

However, these eyes have observed a few scenes that would indicate Malkin and Ovechkin are getting along better than at any point in an oft-tumultuous past.

About a half-hour after his Capitals were humbled at home by the Penguins in November, Ovechkin sent somebody to the opposing dressing room to pull out Malkin so they could chat. Malkin did not hesitate to go.

The Capitals were not humbled on Wednesday night, though they did blow a third-period lead in a 4-3 loss to the Penguins at Consol Energy Center.

Malkin, who set up Olli Maatta’s winning goal with about two minutes left, spent about 15 minutes after the game chatting up Russian-born/American-raised Olympic gymnast Nastia Liukin.

(More on her here by our Jerry DiPaola: http://triblive.com/sports/nationworldsports/5410922-74/gymnastics-liukin-olympic#axzz2qX4ffJUr)

There was no indication that Malkin had any intention of halting his Russian chat with Liukin. Seriously, a gathering that included his teammates, coaches and bosses watched approvingly as he kept Liukin laughing.

These are the moments when one simply stays away and allows whatever will be to be.

Except that Dana Heinze, the Penguins head equipment manager, had a message:

Ovechkin was in the hallway outside the dressing room, and he wanted to talk before the Capitals boarded a charter bus.

Malkin cut off his conversation and headed to meet Ovechkin.

(Full disclosure: Liukin followed.)

This is, if nothing else, progress for the only Russians to go 1-2 in an NHL Entry Draft (2004).

Often entire seasons seemed to pass without pleasantries exchanged between Malkin and Ovechkin. Occasionally – OK, more than that – over Malkin’s first two seasons in the NHL, he and Ovechkin seemed intent on physically preventing one another from finishing Penguins-Capitals games.

All is good right now, Ovechkin said.

He might not be lying, either.

It was Ovechkin, back in November, who pulled me aside to ask how Malkin was doing during his season-opening slump. I had specifically pressed Ovechkin about that Malkin slump, and he had a message to deliver me away from a group of my fellow reporters.

“Tell Geno he will be fine,” Ovechkin said.

Relay that message I did, also telling Malkin that Ovechkin predicted Malkin would score two goals in that November game.

“Two?” Malkin said, his eyes widening.

“No, Alex (is) lying.”

A couple of weeks ago, Malkin confided that he expected to play on a line with Ovechkin at the Olympics. This was a new development, as previous Team Russian plans had those two on different five-man groups.

This conversation led to another one about Malkin’s post-slump surge – 9 goals, 20 assists in 17 games – and he did not hesitate to mention that Ovechkin, too, had slumped before ripping off what is now 57 goals in his past 68 games.

There have been times over the last eight years, whether we have talked for Trib articles or our book project, when Malkin would not mention Ovechkin’s name to me.

Malkin and I did not speak after this Penguins’ victory on Wednesday.

The good news, if you are and avid Russian hockey fan – or president Vladimir Putin – is that Malkin and I did not speak because he was having a long chat with Ovechkin.

And maybe Liukin, too.

Either way, Malkin probably chose wisely.

 

LINKS N’AT

>> Ovechkin believes he and Malkin will be a “good” line in Sochi. Uh, ya think? http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5422820-74/ovechkin-malkin-olympics#axzz2qX4ffJUr

 

>> Josh Yohe said nothing was wrong with the Penguins that really Maattaed. GAMER: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5410932-74/maatta-penguins-capitals#axzz2qX4ffJUr

 

>> James Neal did not play against the Capitals, but he has time to heal before the Penguins’ next game: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5410940-74/penguins-sutter-wing#axzz2qX4ffJUr

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

January 15, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Invitation to a hockey party.

It’s been a long time since we rocked and rolled.

Wait, I’m not even a Zep guy, and this is a Boss Day, no?

OK, so it has been a bit since I filed a blog entry, but I have a valid excuse. Josh Yohe was with the Penguins on their trek through Western Canada – and I was busy working on my Ron Burgundy look, much to the horror of lovely local lady hockey bloggers.

Actually, I did do some writing last week as part of Sean Conboy’s second Hockey Party Round Table for Pittsburgh Magazine’s online site.

Read here: http://www.pittsburghmagazine.com/Best-of-the-Burgh-Blogs/Pulling-No-Punches/January-2014/Mega-Roundtable-Part-III-Should-Ray-Shero-Wheel-and-Deal-at-the-Deadline/

Thanks to Sean – whom I still believe to be the finest young wordsmith to emerge from the local sports scribbling scene in some time – for his hard work in making that thing click.

Also, for not minding me ripping off his concept – kinda, sorta – for a story on Alex Ovechkin that will run Wednesday in the Tribune-Review.

Somebody one said imitation is a sincere form of flattery, but I like to think shameless stealing is even more flattering.

 

>> The Penguins’ fourth line at practice on Tuesday featured Simon Despres and Deryk Engelland as the wingers.

Yeah.

Then again, a year ago, the Penguins were still four days from playing their first game.

Yeah.

 

>> An interesting piece here from another good buddy, Pierre LeBrun, on the Olympic-break impact on the trade deadline: http://espn.go.com/blog/nhl/post/_/id/28775/olympic-break-creates-two-trade-deadlines

How much is this on Ray Shero’s mind?

He is not one to tip his hand. That said, when I brought up the Olympic-year dynamic a couple of weeks ago, Shero did say it changes things regarding the trade market.

Remember, he set the market last season by swinging deals for Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jarome Iginla in a span of about a week.

This season teams are dealing with a lower cap, but that has been slightly dealt with because of many teams being able to use LTI designations for players that have missed large chunks of time. (Apparently, cramming 48 games into about 100 days, playing a full postseason and then cramming more games into a season that includes the Olympics – well, apparently, this is not good for the human body, which still breaks down.)

Teams have less cap space than at any time in recent memory. Only a few clubs are not realistically in the playoff hunt. There are fewer rental players to be had because clubs mostly sign their better young players to longer-term deals.

All of those factors impact what should be an interesting three-week run to the Olympic break, and that last week before the trade deadline (March 5).

It’s that time of year where one should assume nothing other than expecting to be surprised.

Also, as Shero said to me the morning he acquired Iginla, “There’s no sleeping around the trade deadline.”

Sigh.

Grrr.

Argh.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

January 12, 2014
by Josh Yohe


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Yohe: Thoughts on Scuderi’s comments

Good evening, hockey fans.

I’ve received considerable feedback – some positive, some negative – regarding last night’s game story in Edmonton because of Rob Scuderi’s comments. Here’s the article: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5368876-74/penguins-game-malkin#axzz2q1LTFMO5
The veteran defenseman wasn’t impressed with his team’s play to the point that he compared them to the Harlem Globetrotters on two separate occasions.
Some have suggested that Scuderi should have remained silent, given that his recent play hasn’t been top notch.
Others think a veteran, critical voice is just what the Penguins need.
I’m with the latter.
Listen, Rob Scuderi is a good NHL defenseman. He and Brooks Orpik haven’t been great during the past couple of weeks, but history says they’ll find their respective games shortly.
The truth is, Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma brought Rob Scuderi in for times like these.
Make no mistake, the Penguins aren’t dealing with any serious adversity. In fact, they’re running away with the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference while finding themselves on the short list of Stanley Cup favorites. Nothing wrong with that.
But Scuderi is a smart man, and he knows good habits are developed during the regular season. He learned that during the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup run, when they did things the hard way, using a hot stretch merely to qualify for the postseason before winning it all.
Scuderi also surely had his opinion on such matters sculpted in his time with the Los Angeles Kings, when he won a Stanley Cup while playing for a team that most certainly will never be compared to the Harlem Globetrotters. The Kings won with defense and mental toughness.
When I spotted Scuderi sitting by himself in the locker room, I was curious as to how he might respond to the Penguins’ performance against Edmonton. It was a brutal game for the Penguins, who turned the puck over seemingly at will, took foolish penalties and blew defensive assignments.
I loved Scuderi’s response. The look in his eye, which I can only describe because the interview wasn’t captured on video, was of an intense, angry hockey player. Although the Penguins don’t lose often, players like Scuderi don’t accept losing.
You have to appreciate that.
His tone was that of a concerned father. He knows, as well as anyone, how physically gifted the Penguins are. He knows teams with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang shouldn’t lose very often.
But, you see, Scuderi also knows that those players shouldn’t be content to win simply because of their talent alone. And while I assure you that Scuderi did not mention one player by name in our article, I certainly sensed his words were directed toward the Penguins best players.
Letang did not play a strong game and Malkin took a remarkably foolish penalty, one that clearly altered the game.
Scuderi saw this, and he didn’t think much of it. He signed with the Penguins to win a championship and believes that part of his responsibility is saying something when it needs to be said.
Nothing wrong with that.
Billy Guerin used to do it. Orpik still does.
There is nothing wrong with the Penguins leadership. Crosby is a good captain, and no one will ever question this team’s effort. Bylsma’s teams always, always play hard.
But last night, against one of the league’s worst teams, the Penguins put forth a horrendous performance. Scuderi thought the Penguins put the show before winning the game.
He has won two Stanley Cups and is an unquestioned veteran leader. If he believes there is a problem, maybe there is.
And maybe the time to fix it is now, not April.
So for everyone who is referencing Scuderi’s recent play, which hasn’t been terrific, consider this: One of the reasons Scuderi is with the Penguins is to be a leader. When he spoke up last night, he was being a leader.
Rob Scuderi knows how to win Stanley Cups. If Pittsburgh hosts a parade in June, moments like when Scuderi called out his teammates shouldn’t be overlooked.
The man knows how to win, after all. Many of the Penguins stars have won a Stanley Cup. But they haven’t won the Cup since Scuderi left town.
Perhaps that isn’t a coincidence. And perhaps that 2009 team learned a lesson or two from The Piece along the way, too.

January 6, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Last-minute cases for Neal, Kunitz.

There is one shopping day left for Hockey Canada, and a couple of can’t-miss wingers are still available for selection.

About a month ago, this space presented an essay about the relationship between reporters and the athletes they cover. Essentially, those words pointed out that reporters never really know these athletes as people.

Nothing has changed to that regard.

Still, every so often, reporters – especially those on a beat that brings us face-to-face with the athletes daily – are made aware, often on deep background, how an athlete feels about something specific.

So, on the eve of the unveiling of a Canadian Olympic roster that is guaranteed to spark debate within the hockey community let this stand as my only thought:

Chris Kunitz and James Neal REALLY want to play for their country next month in Sochi, Russia.

There is no doubt that any Canadian NHL player wants that, too.

However, Kunitz and Neal have never been Olympians, and this is probably the point in their respective careers when they are most deserving.

This is the place where a beat reporter stumps for players he covers, which is something people in my line of work do more often than we probably feel comfortable admitting:

 

>> For Neal, it can simply be about the numbers, and they are better than most people likely realize. He is 26, barreling toward a sixth consecutive 20-goal season to begin his NHL career, and he has scored 78 goals in 144 games since the Penguins switched his left-handed shot to the right side ­– and there is going to be a lot of room on the right side of that international rink in-play for the Olympic tournament.

Neal has 16 goals in 24 games this season, and only Sidney Crosby has averaged more points per game this season.

However, if Hockey Canada executive director Steve Yzerman really needed anecdotal evidence about Neal, he could find it from arguably the best goalie of all-time.

Last season, New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur had this to say about Neal.

“The stick technology has given everybody a good shot,” Brodeur said. “Everybody can fire the puck, and it was not that way when I was a younger goalie. Back then, you went against guys who could really shoot harder than other players, and you had guys with a quicker release than other players.

“The sticks that players use today – you do not need that hard shot as much. The puck flies off these sticks. It used to be that way with slap shots, but you do not really see those anymore. You do not need to crank it up to blast a shot.

“I look at a guy’s release. That is what I think about now as being a great shot. Neal has a great release, one of the best. He will shoot from bad angles, and that is tough because he can get the puck through traffic. He definitely is one of the best pure shooters right now.”

So, there’s that.

 

>> As for Kunitz – well, the Penguins made their case for his Olympic candidacy in a story that ran Sunday. Give it a look: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5332184-74/kunitz-crosby-canada#axzz2pRqXONtn

This quote from Crosby about his chemistry with Kunitz is particularly informative:

“Especially around the net, we read off one another pretty good,” Crosby said. “So, if he’s the one kind of attracting the scrum or loose pucks, I will try to be outside of that in an area where there’s not any guys and just kind of trying to get open.

“It’s a read. It’s not something you can really say, ‘Go here.’ When one of us is drawing attention, the other guy senses it and tries to get open.”

Everybody that plays with Kunitz mentions his fierce competitiveness and tenacity to compete for pucks. That was on display Sunday before Matt Niskanen scored the Penguins’ winning goal against Winnipeg.

Read THE GAMER for a brief description: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5335607-74/malkin-penguins-games#axzz2pRqXONtn

Also, consider this quote from Niskanen:

“Kuni did a good job helping on the (faceoff),” Niskanen said. “It wasn’t a clean win, so he goes in and gets it back to Olli (Maatta).

“That’s a small detail that maybe not everybody sees. Everybody talks about faceoff percentage and everything like that. Sid’s real good at it. He can snap them back clean better than anyone. But when your wingers help out like that – that makes all the difference.”

Kunitz helps out like that on every shift for Crosby, whom Canada will need to be himself, which is nothing short of the best hockey player going to the Olympics, if it wants to again win gold.

 

LINKS N’AT

>> Dejan Kovacevic wants readers to appreciate what the Penguins are doing: http://triblive.com/sports/dejankovacevic/dejancolumns/5335612-74/course-win-goals#axzz2pRqXONtn

>> Home is where the wins are for the Penguins, and other assorted notes: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5335611-74/penguins-games-crosby#axzz2pRqXONtn

 

>> If you’re outside in Western Pennsylvania, get inside, and soon. This blog was filed before 10 a.m., and it is already nasty out what with the falling temperatures freezing everything. Be smart. Be safe. Be warm. Hug somebody. Often, maybe. That is usually good advice, anyway, right?

 

>> Thank your postal carrier over the next few days. Offer him or her a hot chocolate. These cats, man, they’re just tougher than most of us.

 

>> Josh Yohe is in Vancouver, and he will have all the Penguins-related news on the club’s swing through Western Canada.

This does not necessarily mean I am taking the week off, though. More on that (maybe) later; but you may SEE me somewhere.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

January 4, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: The thing about Mario Lemieux…

Mario Lemieux is different. Eight years into covering his hockey club, that is the best I can come up.

He remains the largest larger-than-life presence in a region where the citizens have seen their share of athletic greatness on fields, courts and – certainly over the last 30 years – ice.

The thing about Lemieux is that he has not really been viewed as an athlete for two decades. Seriously, when was the last time somebody talked about something Lemieux did as a player… without also mentioning that he beat cancer, saved the Penguins or stayed to raise his family in Pittsburgh?

There is always all of that to go with any recollections of Lemieux’s on-ice achievements.

His legacy is not what he did as a player, even though he was perhaps the most gifted hockey player, one consistently in the conversations about the best hockey player.

No hockey player – maybe no athlete – ever has had what Lemieux has in this region, though.

Not adulation.

Impact.

Wayne Gretzky has statues of his likeness in Edmonton and Los Angeles.

Lemieux has one in Pittsburgh, but his name is also on 22 “playrooms” – areas in hospitals where children can hang out during hospital stays – throughout the region. The Mario Lemieux Foundation has awarded over $14 million in grants, mostly for cancer research, since its inception.

Lemieux and his wife, Nathalie, have personally donated over $600,000 to the foundation.

The statue?

Lemieux fought that for years, agreeing only at the urging of his ownership group’s investors.

A couple of years ago, while working on an investigative piece into athletes’ charities with Tribune-Review colleague Carl Prine, I spent months digging deep into the dealings of Lemieux’s foundation.

What struck me was how small it is given how big it seems. What stayed with me is how absolutely committed Lemieux is to it.

Reporters go into investigative projects looking for something big and juicy, always because there is anecdotal evidence of something nefarious. Prine and I found some less than honorable dealings by several athletes’ charities, including those directly linked to Cal Ripken and Lance Armstrong.

Regarding Lemieux’s foundation, the best we could dig up was that it had accepted $500,000 in federal and state grants since 2004.

Again, it has handed out over $14 million in grants, with well over 90 percent of that money staying local.

For all the “C” words that have been attached to Lemieux – captain, cancer, Cup – maybe the one that should always come first is commitment.

He came. He stayed. He remains.

He is absolutely committed to doing things on his own terms.

He is the rare person to buy a professional team so he could make his money.

He is the rare celebrity who shines despite avoiding the spotlight.

The question I get most – from readers, from colleagues, from everybody – is, “What does Mario think about…?”

My answer is always the same.

I have no idea.

Mario Lemieux rarely talks about anything in public. He will not grant interviews Saturday after taking to the ice for his foundation’s charity hockey camp.

I hear stories all the time from Penguins executives about Lemieux’s dealing with team matters. Those stories are short, because Lemieux really doesn’t deal with team matters.

Last June, Ray Shero tried to present him with a detailed presentation that supported extending the contracts of Dan Bylsma and his assistants. Shero had wasted his time, because all Lemieux needed to hear was Shero saying he believed in the coaching staff.

Eight years into covering his hockey club, I have come to realize this about Lemieux:

He is different, not because of what he doesn’t do, but because of what he still does.

That, of course, is to defy convention.

 

LINKS N’AT

>> Win No. 11 in a row at home was another case for Chris Kunitz to be at the Olympics: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5335554-74/penguins-rangers-season#axzz2pRqXONtn

>> Josh Yohe reports on the news Penguins, Tyler Pyatt: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5335560-74/penguins-pyatt-friday#axzz2pRqXONtn

>> The Team USA/Bobby Ryan saga, by Yohe: http://triblive.com/sports/nhl/5355123-74/ryan-burke-team#axzz2pRqXONtn

>> Finally – and MOST IMPORTANT – a happy 39th anniversary to Bob and Joanne Rossi. Theirs is the best story to which my name will ever be attached.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

 

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