Pittsburgh Penguins Notebook – February 17th, 2012
By Joe Depto (@PensDeptoTFP)
The Pittsburgh Penguins roller coaster ride seems to be coming to an end. From December 29th, 2011-January 11th, 2012, the Penguins went on a six game losing streak that placed the team under the microscope like nothing else has since Michel Therrien was fired. The team responded with a white hot eight game win streak that lasted until the first of this month. In their previous seven games, the Pens have gone an even-keeled 3-3-1.
Despite the balance of wins/losses on-ice, the Penguins have reached a point in the season where they must determine their identity just as much as style of play.
Tomorrow’s clash against rival Philadelphia could be a sneak-peak at a first round matchup in the eastern conference. Looking ahead to Tuesday, the Penguins host the conference-best New York Rangers – a game that could be considered a must-win if the Penguins hope to throw their hat in the Atlantic division race. And the elephant in the room? February 27th – the day when all NHL contenders look to bolster their roster with keen trades with other NHL teams. Here’s my take on the latest from the 412 area code :
Arron Asham’s potential return to the lineup is bigger than you think.
Arron Asham practiced with the team’s third line (alongside Matt Cooke and Dustin Jeffrey) in today’s practice. Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma believes there is a very strong chance Asham could return to Pittsburgh’s lineup either tomorrow in Philadelphia, or in Buffalo on Sunday. Asham is never going to be confused for a Sidney Crosby return – he won’t even be mixed up for a key top six addition like the team is hoping to add a week from Monday. But Asham gives Dan Bylsma’s systematic style of gameplay an ace in the hole of sorts – strong skating and plenty of grit to boot. The Manitoba native won’t play on either facet of special teams, and won’t be relied on for offensive numbers. However, in a physical contest against the Flyers, Arron Asham will test his opponent’s meddle and stamina each and every shift – a quality not every player in Pittsburgh’s bottom six can boast having.
I think Cal O’ Reilly is the odd man out – in more ways than one.
Cal O’Reilly was a n0-risk, all-reward acquisition for Pittsburgh. Because he was claimed on re-entry waivers, his hit on Pittsburgh’s wallet was minimal – as in well under a half a mil minimal. It made sense, too. Jordan Staal was reeling with an injury still (more on number eleven in a minute), O’Reilly and Pens GM Ray Shero had a strong familiarity with one another, and sound two-way play is always welcome when Dan Bylsma and his well-rounded gameplay ideologies are behind the bench.
For all intensive purposes, O’Reilly isn’t going anywhere – yet.
But today, in practice, while the other roster players were practicing on their potential lines for the weekend – O’Reilly skated with Sidney Crosby and assistant coach Tony Granato. If Arron Asham returns this weekend, I expect O’Reilly to be a healthy scratch. And if that’s the case, the return of a certain number 87, Tyler Kennedy, or a deadline day acquisition at forward could have O’Reilly back on the waiver wire as fast he came. Two more quick Cal-related thoughts – I think Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fans should be drooling over the hypothetical possibility of O’Reilly clearing waivers and playing in the AHL for a Calder Cup run, and I think the apostrophe key on my keyboard is currently crying uncle.
Jordan Staal is back – and in a big way.
I always find it hilarious when Pittsburgh sports fans are quick to bring up Staal’s name in potential trade talks this time of year. Here’s the easy response – he isn’t, and shouldn’t be, going anywhere, anytime soon.In the post-lockout era, few NHL stars (and yes, I consider Jordan Staal a star player), return from significant injuries/surgeries a better player. Tim Thomas returning from hip surgery in his late 30′s to further reach into the elite echelon of goalies is one example.
Jordan Staal is another.
Staal dodged a bullet in a big way when he crumpled in a heap back in January. His knee has recovered successfully. He’s also less than two years removed from a plethora of lower body injuries – most notoriously a foot infection in 2010. But like Thomas, the time off and successful medical treatment may have made Jordan Staal the better player in the long run. Even dating back to his junior hockey days, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Jordan Staal reach this strong of skating ability. The defensive and neutral zone wizardly remain intact, as well. His face-off numbers still place him among the best of NHL centers in that regard.
And the offensive criticisms he’s faced since being converted to center his sophomore year in the league? Consider them bunk.
Before his injury, Staal was on pace to flirt with 30 goals. If Pittsburgh adds a nice two-way forward with some soft hands to the mix at the deadline (and Staal remains the team’s second line center – due to Crosby’s status remaining in flux), he’s a hot streak away from cracking the 25 goal barrier. Sure, the assist numbers aren’t there yet, but 24 points in 37 games playing with mostly grinder types and the always perplexing Tyler Kennedy is nothing to sniff at.
As for the trade rumors? Ask anyone in the know – as much as I’ve lauded Jordan Staal in this column, Ray Shero covets him more. Expect to hear contract extension talks for the Thunder Bay native before you hear his name on the trade block.
Ray Shero has his work cut out for him on deadline day.
Penguins fans want Paul Martin traded for a nice return. Penguins fans want Eric Tangradi traded for a nice return. Penguins fans even would love to see the currently injured Tyler Kennedy moved out of town for a useful draft pick. Penguins fans play too much NHL 12.
Here’s the rub, Pittsburgh – it’s not going to be easy. Paul Martin has certainly seen his share of inconsistencies and less than desirable play this season – there’s no getting around that. And his annual five million dollar cap hit is a bit of an albatross for Ray Shero as he moves forward with James Neal contract negotiations in the offseason. The more I watch Paul Martin, the more I see the need for his contract to be moved – but if I can see that, so can the suits in the press box, and so can the scouts in the seats.
This isn’t Ryan Whitney we’re talking about. Despite what you think of him, Ryan Whitney was still fairly young. Whitney had upside for a team that emphasized finesse more than what Pittsburgh does. Whitney wasn’t about to turn 31.
Given Paul Martin’s salary, injury history, and completely erratic “evolution” in play from period to period (how’s that for a euphemism, hockey fans), I think Martin would have to be involved as a “throw-in” on a team that sees itself as a “cap floor” team next season. That’s not to suggest Martin is an awful player, but the price tag isn’t a good fit for the Pens moving forward, especially considering their premium blue line organization depth.If Ray Shero can move Martin on February 27th, he’ll do so. But if you’re expecting Martin’s place in another jersey in the ides of March to be a lead pipe-lock , you could be sorely disappointed.
The bottom line – his value isn’t the same as it was in June of 2010. Not even close.
Tangradi is more of an enigma. He’s still 22, and I’m not sure the desire to move him would be as strong in the fan base if there weren’t such colossal expectations and the presence of an expiring contract.
However, the hype is a two-way street. If there was none, other GMs wouldn’t bite.
The double-edged sword with Tangradi continues once the tape on him starts to roll. Power forwards certainly take longer to develop, but there’s no denying that his skating issues are a major concern moving forward as long as Dan Bylsma’s system is in place. Bylsma’s system has won a championship. Tangradi’s intangibles might not coincide with that. I think you know where I’m going with this one.
Enough about the deadline for now, there will plenty of columns, tweets, and chit-chat from yours truly on that in the coming days. But before we land this ship, one more thing about trades…
The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t getting Rick Nash
Ever since Ray Shero acquired Marian Hossa in 2008, the expectations around deadline day have been high. In the past, the Pens have been expected to throw their hat in the ring with every non-Kovalchuk prize of a winger addition when this time of year rears its’ head. Before last season, it would have been hard to argue too many who found that type of chatter to be relevant to the Penguins’ needs at wing.
Acquiring James Neal last year changes all of that.
Neal’s current annual cap hit is 2.875 million – a bargain for his stellar production this season. His chemistry with Evgeni Malkin and willingness to play through pain and adversity while still producing at a strong offensive clip has more than won over the locker room and fan base. Make no mistake about it, keeping the 24 year old Neal in black and gold long-term will likely be a massive priority for Shero and company this offseason.
How does this have an impact on preventing the team from acquiring Rick Nash? Nash is under salary through 2018 at 7.8 million per season. Neal’s contract/cap hit will be a significant jump from this season to the next. Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal’s contracts both have them becoming UFA’s in 2013 (Crosby’s extension will be especially unique). Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are both scheduled to be UFAs in 2014 and both will require all-world money. If we really want to keep looking down this road into the future, Marc-Andre Fleury’s deal is up in 2015.
Rick Nash would require more than one of those players to have their place in Pittsburgh’s future become compromised due to the extensive nature of his contract. Furthermore, Nash’s hit on the present isn’t much less of an impact – Columbus GM Scott Howson will be looking for a return to help the Blue Jackets in the present as much as the future. I can’t see any way Pittsburgh can cater to both of those needs without sacrificing the front office qualities that allowed them to have sustained success as an eastern conference contender.
I’ve heard the argument of placing Sidney Crosby on LTIR to free up the cap space. Two major flaws of that argument : why anyone would want to deny the best player in the game a guaranteed spot in a contender’s lineup is beyond me. And what is a GM expected to do with the lengthy contract after the season ends? Trade it at the draft just months after acquiring it? That’s not the way deals work in the NHL, folks.
The bottom line – in the salary cap era, trading for Nash would compromise the chances of Lord Stanley returning to the steel city – both now and later.
You can follow Joe Depto on Twitter at @PensDeptoTFP