Wednesday, February 8, 2012

In Shero We Trust: My Faith in Our Nation Diverted to Pens General Manager Until February 28 -- or Longer, Depending How Things Go Around Here

Well, jags and jagettes, disappointment may lay heavy in our hearts, as the Penguins eight-game winning streak came to an unfortunate and, even worse, pedestrian (by action standards) end after the Pens' 1-0 loss to Toronto on the Friday before this post began. I'm sure Paul Martin and Zybanek Michalek were thrilled, though, to find a Village People lookalike in Leafs go-to dickhead Mike Brown, who can star in their upcoming homoerotic production.

That all said, as the hockey season pushes onward, that momentous day of frantic bargaining and bartering, hustling and bustling, and buying and selling draws closer. I speak of none other than the NHL trade deadline, due to arrive 3:00 p.m. on February 27, no doubt with its plethora of depth moves, player swaps, salary dumps, and blockbusters, as well as nauseating amounts of Pierre McGuire talking and his polished heading blinding viewers.

I think any jag with a half-functioning brain -- mine is at about 60% or so, thanks to years of alcohol glory -- will agree that Ray Shero has, all told, done well with trades, particularly at the deadline.

You don't have to go far into his tenure to see the beers of his brewing (that's a yinzer idiom for "fruits of one's labor"). In 2006, Shero's first year, Pittsburgh became the only destination Chuck Norris would never dare visit due to the arrival of Gary Roberts, a pivotal leader and physical component to their return to the playoffs in 2006-2007 and run to the finals the following year.

The following year, I was forced for the very first time to shit a brick and shout an array of flagrant language without the influence of alcohol. Seeing that the team looked poised to make that next step, Shero shipped off perennial underachiever Erik Christensen, local favorite Colby Armstrong, never-will-be Angelo Esposito -- who, of course, is still making $65,000 a year as an AHL filler -- and a first-round pick to Atlanta for Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis.

Sure, that treasonous fuck Hossa bailed on the Pens during free agency, but nevertheless, Shero was able to evaluate the team properly and push them to the finals with a blockbuster deal that, in the long run, cost the Penguins nothing significant.

Besides, Dupuis is still a valuable contributor to the club, and Hossa simply set himself up for perfectly poetic misery as he got to watch Crosby and company heave the Cup at Joe Louis. Anybody who still believes the Pens got 'fleeced' and not the other way around can wander Atlanta looking for a hockey game until somebody points to Winnipeg on a map -- which, knowing this country, will probably take a couple hours and several careful scannings of Wikipedia before the discovery that it's not in Europe -- because this move only hastened the already looming possibility of the team moving away.

Benedict Arnold turned on Washington and the revolutionaries and got to watch them capture victory. His Slovakian compatriot, Benedict Hossa, met similar fate in the summer of 2009.

Let's get over our tendency to focus on just the big deals, though. Let's not forget some of the other influential moves that helped the Pens win it all.

Behemoth defenseman Hal Gill, a personal favorite for answering the question "'Pop' or 'Soda'?" with "Beer," provided another tough veteran presence that helped to solidify the Pens penalty kill. On top of that, he gave them an actual intimidating force unlike Zybanek Michalek who brings a welcome mat on the ice with him to invite the other team's forwards in front of the Penguins' net.

Still not convinced? Well, that's probably because you're a stupid contrarian prick who has a handle bar mustache, wears tight jeans, and ironically sports a baseball hat despite lacking even the strength to get the ball from the pitcher's mound to first. Maybe you'll have more success patronizing and condescending to it.

If you insist, however, that you aren't an insufferable fuck who plays bongo drums for some avant-garde folk band and spends the bulk of his or her time complaining about city drivers despite your propensity for disregarding all known traffic laws on your bike (yeah, you're supposed to stop at those red things; that's probably why your bike is totaled and your frail, protein-deficient body will be encased in plaster for the next sixth months), then I have some more for you.

Namely, two more great acquisitions made by Shero: Chris Kunitz and Billy Guerin. Kunitz's hard-nosed work in the corners and relentless forecheck opened up ice for Crosby and let the skill do the work. Today, he is filling in the same role on Evgeni Malkin's line, brining a physical piece to the unit that Malkin has lacked since Ryan Malone was absurdly overpaid -- in term, at least, if not in salary as well -- to lie in the hot Florida sun and get hurt a couple times a year. This keep only goes to show shrewdness in Shero re-signing him, too.

Billy Guerin, meanwhile, brought leadership qualities as well as a crafty and refined skill set that the Penguins desperately needed, all for a fifth-round pick. Besides the pure class he displayed that endeared him to the city -- hell, he only played here for two years when you think about it -- he continues to make his mark within the organization as a scout, staying close to the game and helping the Penguins find and integrate new talent.

So, I think this resume most certainly speaks for itself.

Naturally, there have been some minor fizzles as well on this road of great success. That lumbering oaf Alex Ponikarovsky never did jell in the Penguins' system, for instance, nor could he score a fucking goal to save his life, which may explain his short-lived time with the team.

Kovalev's return to Pittsburgh, expected by fans to propel him back into 2000-like form, turned out to be like throwing $2.00 of regular unleaded in a Geo Metro. That said, just as with the gas, the trade cost the Pens little and until an extensive shitting of the bed, it seemed as if the team would yet again find themselves in the second round of the playoffs.

Keep in mind, however, that, during both these seasons, there was a general consensus that the Penguins were not as strong as contender as they had been in year's past. The trade deadline is just as much about what moves a GM decides against, and Shero, in this jag's opinion, evaluated the market well to minimize potential long-term damage to the team.

And lastly, before I run out of American Light here (the economy has hit me hard, too, ok!?), let me discuss briefly the cases still to be decided, revolving around two players: Eric Tangradi and James Neal.

Kunitz's play has sort of rendered Tangradi's value a bit moot in hindsight, but at the time, getting him was a major piece of the deal that sent Whitney out to Anaheim. So far, things have been tough sledding for Tangradi at the NHL level. His performance has steadily improved in the AHL, but as with many young forwards here, it looks unlikely that he will ever get the shot he needs without even more extensive injuries to complimentary players. So we'll see where it goes from here.

The other deal is the trade that saw Goligoski head out to Dallas with Neal and Niskanen coming in return.

After a shaky start, Matt Niskanen has been a regular in the lineup and seems to have better adjusted to the Pens' system. Depending on price and term, he may be a player that gets locked up by Shero -- all depending, of course, on what Shero does, or can do, with those second-pairing cap leeches Martin and Michalek. Throw Despres and Lovejoy into the mix, and you have quite a battle for those bottom four spots in the back. Despres, I imagine, will work his way up to the second pairing, so I could see Niskanen sticking around with the thought that he'd be a long-term fifth or sixth defenseman.

Then, you have of course the prized possession of the trade, James Neal. After a very slow start as a Penguin, Neal has caught fire this season -- playing with the best player in the NHL, by no coincidence -- and put up nearly 30 goals, already eclipsing his career high in a season. Really, at this point, there isn't much to argue against Neal; he's scoring like a machine now that he's playing with somebody who can make space and feed him the puck. At this pace, he'll reach a little more than 40 goals, doing better than even I thought he would (I saw him at about 30-35, given that he's still young; granted he could still finish at level, but let's hope not).

Some larger questions still loom, however. First, can Shero re-sign him, and for how much? Furthermore, will he continue to produce in the playoffs as he has in the regular season? Bottom line is, the Pens want the Cup. Nothing else is acceptable at this juncture. So we'll have to play the waiting game, but the loss of Goligoski certainly seemed miniscule right now with what Neal is bringing to the team.

Ok, finally, let's get into the Penguins' needs at the deadline.

What else could these fuckers possibly want?

Great question, rhetorical self, as any team's deadline approach is always dictated by their playoff hopes and shortcomings. Chuck K, your prognosticator of all sports happenings, sees the Pens looking to add in three potential areas:

1) Complimentary Irritants

Listen, far be it from me to knock Cal O'Reilly. He's a professional hockey player; that fucking owns like Maiden live. He's agile, quick, a hard worker, and actually has a dose of skill to make use of those physical qualities.

On the other hand, Chris Conner was all those things, too, though a bit smaller. My point is, the Penguins, I imagine, will likely stay quiet -- relatively speaking -- during this year's frenzy. If they are going to add pieces, big or small, then they need to start cutting the team out of the same cloth as they did in 2007-2009. That is to say, they have to get back to that Shero staple: being "a tough team to play against."

Gill, Ruutu, Roberts, Talbot, Cooke before those fuckheads in the media demonized him -- their time on the ice signified that that next shift was going to be a miserable, frustrating experience for the opposing team. You fuck with us, we'll put your ass prematurely in your grave.

The current Penguins squad lacks this ingredient. Adams, Vitale, Park, O'Reilly, etc. all contribute to a skilled group, but technical ability and good team play still needs to be tempered with a firm kick in the taint for the other side.

Boston didn't win the cup last year shying away from contact, and neither should the Pens. Plus, if you go into a playoff series against cheap shot artists like that spineless motherfucker P.K. Subban, along with that whole collection of Habs assholes, then you'll need to be ready to administer on-ice justice where necessary. As Jordan Staal's skate incident taught us, the refs won't care or be competent enough to do it themselves.

This piece, I would argue, is not only what I would like to see most, but also appears most possible to come to fruition by February 27.

2) Another Scoring Winger

This demand is always popular amongst Penguins fans, a natural consequence of having two incredible and one very good center. The problem is, additional scoring is something sought all around the NHL from free agency to the deadline, so the market is almost always running at a premium.

Having seen Shero's approach in the past, he won't mortgage any major pieces to the future for a scoring complement, especially in a rental deal, simply because the Penguins are not in that needy of a position. Getting Hossa was amidst different circumstances, with the team's top wingers being Malone, Sykora, Armstrong, and a cone that somebody pushed down the ice.

As usual, if this route is taken, look for the Penguins to add a more established veteran or perhaps a known, though reasonable, commodity that may be underachieving some in the given year. For instance, no Bobby Ryan, no Jeff Carter, no Hemsky, etc. I'll get into individual targets later.

3) Defensive Stalwart

I am usually on board with the Penguins' management and their approach. I am still not convinced, however, on the NHL's evolution, as propelled in large part by the Penguins, that is eliminating the "stay at home" defenseman. I'm not saying that, in today's game, the team can rely on somebody utterly inept with the puck. That said, I think NHL teams still benefit from having a mindful, dedicated, and hopefully physical defender in their lineup.

As much as you could argue that Michalek, Martin, Lovejoy, Niskanen and Engelland have all those qualities, I'm hard-pressed to putting their defensive skills on par with Scuderi and even Mark Eaton in some cases. Though far from flashy, those two were able to keep opponents at bay with great stick work, blocked shots, and solid gaps.

On the current roster, Engelland indeed brings a physical game, which supports his cause, and the Michalek and Martin duo can move the puck better, but it doesn't excuse their damn-near constant mental gaffes and inability to muscle the Cal O'Reillys of the world away from the crease -- or, for the love of fuck, stick check them even.

Despres, I would argue, is actually the best option for the team, especially long term, to infuse the team's back with a much-needed dose of simplicity and, as Pierre would drool on about, "hockey sense."

Regardless how it shakes out, I don't see the Penguins working this angle. Maybe Shero will read this post, though, and change his mind. But I ain't gonna bet a case on it.

Whom can they go after?

Alright -- time to go over some jags yinz could potentially, though probably won't, see in a Pens uniform come March. With the exception of Allen, all of these players have been connected to the Penguins in some way via the wildly speculative media. Allen I added as an interesting look, though, to reiterate, he is perhaps the most unlikely candidate on this list to join the team.

1) Travis Moen
Age: 29; 47GP - 9G - 7A - 16P; -3

2) Dominic Moore
Age: 31; 52GP - 4G - 15A - 19P; -10

3) Hal Gill
Age: 36; 49GP - 1G - 7A - 8P; -9

Knowing what happened last time the Penguins brought in hockey's equivalent of "Big Show," some fans and media jags have been clamoring about a possible return for the towering defenseman.

At Gill's age, though, the three years or so that have passed could have substantial effects on his ability. He hasn't been particularly popular around Montreal as the season has gone on, either. Regularly logging 25-30+ shifts a game earlier in the year, Gill has seen his time cut by Randy Cunneyworth.

There can be a lot more factors at play here, though, than the potential decline in Gill's performance. A new coach, a different direction, a lost season -- these could all be reasons for a veteran to get less time on the ice, particularly when the team has Kaberle, Georges, and that cock-grasping ass nugget Subban to put out there.

The thing that actually makes Gill more practical of an option for the Penguins, if they would pursue defensive help, is that his age and expiring contract would likely let the Penguins acquire him at a lower cost than other such players on the market.

Much as the team did with Guerin, Kovalev, etc. in the past, conditional deals could be put into place to align the assets sent to the Canadiens with Gill's contribution to the team. Varying conditions, including how far the Penguins make it and how many games Gill plays, could limit what the team loses if he ends up sitting in the press box or they meet an early end to the season, especially considering that he would play with the Penguins for only that year.

4) Bryan Allen
Age 31; 55GP - 0G - 7A - 7P; Even

Here's a guy who draws interest from Chuck K because he plays the game much like Gill, but without the added age and decline in his game -- of any significance, anyway.

At 31, Allen may be looking to cash in just one more time before hanging up the skates, so it's really hard to say what his long-term plans are. His current cap hit is $2.9 million, which the Pens could easily afford when prorated for how far into the season it would be.

As I already said, the Penguins insist upon swift defensemen who are steady with the puck. Accordingly, I don't think they'll look to replace anybody on the blue line with a player of Allen's caliber. At the same time, should they have a change in heart, I don't think Allen would be an unreasonable consideration. It would require some movement elsewhere and depend upon the market for Allen, because a third-pair defensemen will not earn close to $3 million on this roster, but it would be comparable to the money Gill pulled in after his trade here (particularly given the climb in the cap and some inflation).

Regardless, you have to appreciate the game Allen plays when the playoffs roll around. The NHL may strive to generate offensive by any means necessary, but when teams are drudging their way through the 90th game of the season, they know how victory is achieved: running the other team into the motherfucking ground and putting them through the goddamn boards. At 6'5" and 226 pounds, logging about 20 minutes a night, Bryan Allen is exactly the kind of player who can make the big block, damage Hartnell's brain more than it must be already, and tough out every last second in a big game. Too bad he'll end up elsewhere.

And perhaps it's not a bad move in the long run, I suppose. I really like Despres, especially if he can harness his size a bit more and apply it on the ice. He's the long-term fit for the Penguins in the top four, potentially ending up on the top unit alongside a guy like Letang. If he gets better and can work his way back into the lineup, the defense could be better off than expected, though they're still gonna play those rocket scientists on the second pairing.

Intriguing Name to Throw Out There to Attract Viewers and Give Something for People to Bitch About, But Will Almost Certainly Never Come Close to Donning a Penguins Uniform

Sam Gagner
Age: 22; 47GP - 13G - 23A - 36P

Well, this whole nuance about Gagner was much more interesting before the prick decided to register eight points in a single fucking game, and then six more over the next three, skyrocketing his total -- for yinz non-mathletes there -- from 22 points to 36 on the season.

Despite this surge, Gagner still seems to be trailing the expectations scouts, and surely the Oilers, had when he was drafted sixth overall in 2007. After an up-and-down rookie year that saw flashes of brilliant skill -- just search for any "Gagner shootout" videos to see his incredible go-to move -- Gagner seemed to have plateaued, registering 41, 41 again, and 42 points during the next three campaigns.

This season was progressing onward no differently, with Gagner on pace to tally only 42 points in 82 games (which he would not have reached due to injury) before his hot streak and the ensuing statistical anomaly. Given the accelerated development of high-end talents like Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and this year's first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, it was conceivable -- again, pay attention to the title of this section -- that Gagner could be moved to bring in assets elsewhere for the Oilers.

If you look back at the scoring winger portion of this goddamn perpetual post, the Penguins make their way into this conversation as a cap-tight team that does not want to meet the demands for the market's most-coveted forwards. Accordingly, if they are going to look for some help putting the puck in the net, then they would have to consider players who, for whatever reason, have some reduced value.

As a restricted free agent this summer, the Oilers will have a number of choices to make regarding their future -- all the more so as Hall and Eberle's entry-level contracts are set to expire after next season. With the right circumstances, I could have seen the Penguins looking into Gagne, and giving him a chance in a Tyler Kennedy-like role, in which he could make more use of his skill.

I was originally going to counter my own argument by mentioning that he seems to gravitate more to playmaking than scoring, but it's been rendered moot, anyway, by his latest explosion of points.

No, NHL GMs aren't dumb -- for the most part, that is -- but that doesn't mean that the stat line doesn't play a role in trades. Gagner's breakout will also make his case greater for the Oilers to keep him, meaning the cost will rise accordingly to convince the team to part ways with him. Let's not forget as well Gagner's 'signability,' as his contract would eat up space made, at the very least, by Sullivan, Asham, and MacIntyre's departure. These factors, when compounded, really make this an unlikely, though interesting, scenario.

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