24/7 highlighted the quality of the Penguins organization, their thorough, metric-based approach to player evaluations, and lowlighted the Caps as a multi-national asylum of players led by a fat coach with fan-level coaching skills and a GM most concerned with scarf fashion. Better to be lucky than good, I guess, since the fortunes of the teams have reversed since the Winter Classic, due mostly to injuries on the Pens side and the 18 wheeler turning radius of Dave Steckel.
But the cliche tells us that every crisis is an opportunity, and the injuries to Crosby, Malkin, and others for extended periods have allowed the Pens to assess the quality of their farm system. It’s been much better than any of us thought…including Dan Bylsma. Dustin Jeffrey is emerging as a "right place, right time" player, despite possessing neither overwhelming physicality nor the speed that gives Bylsma a hard-on (Was Bylsma fast as a player? I wonder if he was slow, and that has given him a complex. Also, I love how in the first episode of 24/7, Bylsma revealed how little a fan of Jeffrey he was by repeating back what Ray had just said about bringing Jeffrey up, adding extra emphasis on "1 game". Ray immediately suggested further discussion off camera.)
Letestu, up with the team the whole year, has proven himself a capable 3rd line center with good speed and underrated skill, and was given a 3 year cap friendly contract as a reward.
Dmen Lovejoy and Engelland improve every day. (Their styles of play are similar to Michalek and Orpik, respectively, providing them with excellent role models)
Despite his lack of size, Chris Conner is capable of holding his own physically, but hasn't really made a dent in scoring, which is the only asset that will keep him in the big leagues.
Nick Johnson is a winger with size and hockey smarts in the Dustin Jeffrey mold, who hasn't been able to stick with the team despite playing at an acceptable NHL level every time he is called up, though his current injury has prevented him from making a mark.
Likewise with Tangradi, whose concussion prevented him from making his mark. Perhaps another year in the minors is needed.
2011-12 Personnel and Salary Cap Issues. So what happens next year, when (fingers crossed) Crosby and Malkin are back to full health? Already Pens fans are penciling in Jeffrey as a winger with Crosby and Neal, and salivating over a Kunitz/Staal/Malkin line. Cooke and Letestu plus Johnson, perhaps, on the 3rd line, and Rupp/Vitale (a tougher, less skilled version of Letestu)/Adams/Asham providing 4th line depth (Assuming Rupp, Adams, and Asham are re-signed, which is likely). Talbot and Dupuis are goners--Talbot is overpaid and hasn't produced in 1.5 seasons, while Pascal "Two"puis was mocked by the coaching staff in 24/7 because his typical postgame evaluation rhymed with "Du". RFA Tyler Kennedy is an interesting case. He has provided consistent scoring since Crosby and Malkin went out, but his physical gifts far outstrip his hockey sense. He will want Cooke money at minimum, and I'm not sure the Pens will go for that.
One reason the Pens may not be willing to pay, beyond their assessment of Kennedy's skills, is the salary cap. If you were to pay Kennedy 1.9, give Rupp and Adams marginal raises, resign Jeffrey for Letestu money, and keep Asham (who will resign at same price to prove himself to Pens), plus keep all 7 Dmen signed to 1-way contracts, with a 61.4 salary cap, the Pens will only have approximately 750,000 left over. Likely lines would be:
EXTRA: Asham/N. Johnson
The problems with this lineup are evident, but cap space makes signing a quality top 6 winger or Kovalev near impossible financially.
The Superstar Conundrum. Beyond this, however, let's talk about team dynamics. With the superstars back, will Jeffrey and Kennedy be able to play at the same level? They will have reduced ice time and will play less during critical game moments.
Playing with superstars can mean padded stats, elevated status in the media, and a lucrative contract. It could also mean the destruction of your confidence as a player. Superstars are a pain in the ass to play with--Peyton Manning yells at kids during Super Bowl week and blames his linemen after losses. Michael Jordan destroyed some of his own teammates' confidence in practice. Lemieux had Zubov and Naslund summarily dismissed for whatever reason, for dismal returns.
One can imagine a constant flow of chirping, commands disguised as suggestions, screaming for the puck the second you’ve gained control, and other distractions while on the ice and on the bench with Crosby, and perhaps new and exciting levels of confusion while trying to play with Malkin. A young player could easily fold under the pressure, esp. the 4th or 5th time he misreads a Crosby pass or play and has to hear it from both Crosby and the coach.
Wings, Speed, Line Tinkering, and System. The Pens have 8 NHL caliber centers: Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Letestu, Talbot, Adams, Jeffrey, and Vitale. Only Talbot and Adams have demonstrated the ability to thrive at wing, but not in scoring roles. Scoring wingers include: Neal (eventually), Kunitz, Kovalev (for now), Kennedy (sort of), and possibly Nick Johnson and Brett Sterling (doubtful). Kovalev and Talbot probably won’t be back, Kennedy may not be back. So that leaves 6 centers, 1 C/W hybrid, 2 physical scoring left wings, and Cooke and Rupp. That’s 11 forwards. Simply put, the Pens need players who can create/produce from the Wing. Staal did his rookie year, Malkin can probably do it based on pure talent, yet he is one player that would suffer the most from being shuffled around. He thinks he’s better than Crosby, and no one would think of moving Crosby from the premier position of center.
Bylsma’s system, well described here, is based on fluid puck pursuit, which would make you think that being a Center or Wing is superfluous. But with the toughness that Bylsma expects along the boards, it seems like it’s easier to transition from Wing to Center than the reverse, because a center is used to open space, while the winger needs to get down and dirty. Why can’t Staal and Malkin play the C/W hybrid roles that Francis and Lemieux did back in the day? Due to injuries, we just don’t know yet how that tandem would work, though Staal has proven this year that he is not much of a playmaker and should be the one to accept a move to Wing.
One would hope that Bylsma’s overemphasis on speed (favoring burners like Dupuis who have stone hands and barely average hockey sense) and constant line tinkering will be muted by the lesser talented team he has to shepherd to victory. Given that Therrien also changed lines all the time, one wonders if personnel has dictated that strategy—Malkin and Crosby playing the role of rock stars kicking out hot groupies for the flimsiest of reasons.
If the Pens continue with their current lineup, as noted above, at least 25-30 games of line consistency, injuries allowing, should be employed in order to assess line chemistry or the lack thereof.
Wild, Fun Speculation of the Unthinkable.
Just because the Pens won the Cup with the Big Three doesn’t mean it will happen again. Sid won the Cup, but was, to his standards, a relative nonfactor in the Finals. He took it as a personal challenge to improve his game, esp. in response to Malkin’s Conn Smythe trophy. Sid has flourished, while Malkin has folded under the pressure, turning in one subpar season and another headed in that direction before the knee injury. Does Malkin’s superstar status hide the fact that he doesn’t have the discipline or desire to thrive in Bylsma’s system? Should he be traded?
Let me suggest one, just for kicks and giggles: Malkin and Niskanen to St. Louis for TJ Oshie, David Perron, a 1st rd pick, and Jaden Schwarz, their top prospect. The Pens top 2 lines would be Neal/Crosby/Perron and Kunitz/Staal/Oshie. Further, assuming a 61.4 cap, the Pens would have $7mil left over, even after bringing Bortuzzo up and signing RFA Oshie for $3.5 per year. In that scenario, re-signing Kovalev for $3.5 is not out of the question, esp. given that the Staal line is a very skilled, fast, and physical shutdown line. Play Kovy with Cooke and Letestu, perhaps Jeffrey, and you’ve got yourself a skilled, fast, physical team that can play the Bylsma way.
(NOTE: The trade would benefit St. Louis, with top 2 lines of Steen/Berglund/Stewart and McDonald/Malkin/Backes. Plus, the other top prospect in the St.L system is Vladimir Tarasenko, who may be more likely to come to the States to play with Malkin. Niskanen would complement puckmovers Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk)
That leaves Lovejoy, as well as Jeffrey (most likely)and Kennedy as RFA trade chips, whose value can increase the better the play out this season and the playoffs. While that is the best case scenario, their success will force the Pens braintrust to make harder decisions—however, if they tail off significantly, Ray’s job becomes much easier. Kind of weird, huh?