Sunday, July 30, 2017

Wing Problems -- the Hockey Kind, Not That Time I Ordered the Ghost Chili Sauce and Fire-Hosed the Server With Vomit; That's Still Being Handled in Court

Hey jags and jagettes, we're keeping the IROC Z28 rolling here at Sports Unfiltered, because who in Pittsburgh uses the train, and dealing today with some wing issues the Penguins will have moving forward into next season. Alas, not the wing issues resulting from my sandblasting a server at a local watering hole with the byproduct of violently hot wing sauce; in fact, the court precludes me from sharing those details. That said, my air-tight defense that nobody should be served the hottest of sauces after downing 14 Duquesne Pils drafts, even if I did go back in the kitchen and demand it, will no doubt absolve me of any surrounding legal troubles.

No, instead today we will take a look at the situation on flanks of the Penguins lines for the 2017-18 season and a problem that has historically remained a foreign concept to the team: there may be too many qualified players at the position.

While Rutherford makes his rounds trying to secure a pivot on the third-line, presumably organizing the first 19-way trade in all of professional sports, the coaching staff will have to take a look at the guys on the outside. The first on-ice practices to come will help answer of these questions without too much deliberation, but as that date still lies off in the distance, let's investigate what Sullivan and company can do with a Numbers Crunch Sponsored by Duquesne Pilsner (sponsorship still pending).

NUMBERS CRUNCH

Sponsored by Duquesne Pilsner (sponorship still pending)  

Currently, Big Jim and the boys are out on the hunt to maintain the same "down-the-middle" dominance that the Penguins have translated into three Stanley Cup victories since that gangling, long-limbed Thunder Bay behemoth Jordan Staal joined Crosby and Malkin by surprising opposing teams that he could shoot, let alone stand up straight, despite being unable to handle the puck successfully through the opening of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, which -- to be fair -- most locals would measure at somewhere around two by three inches, if their driving were any indication.

Team Photos: Rutherford (2017), Staal (2009)
Missing, then, is the painfully myopic, dreadfully predictable narrative of "who Crosby is going to play with" during the upcoming season, his carousel of linemates having finally come to a stop, it seems -- though admittedly by a means more akin to removing land mines by stepping on them than anything that required careful planning. 

Sean Connery will not be partaking in the effort.
The more pressing matter, outside of Riverboat Jim's endeavor to find another guy at center, is how the slew of available wingers should be utilized through all four lines and, moreover, whether Rutherford can slap a deal together that helps to free up cap space and bring some other assets back. To this end, let's look over the current options, as well as some salary information.


Most notably, a number of contracts will demand attention when the season closes, and there is a real possibility that the team will find itself in another run of arbitration hearings, all of which could play into how things develop this year. That said, the organizational goal remains winning the Stanley Cup now, especially while the Crosby-Malkin-Letang core is at or near its peak and Rutherford can still read his text messages without needing a Jitterbug. For that reason, the team is going to keep the players it feels can best deliver them another championship before it makes moves to secure any of its future contract situations, long-term consequences be damned. I was going to remark that Rutherford probably wouldn't be alive to deal with them, anyway, but it appears he has some cabal with Paul Bearer (who, ironically, has passed) in order that may extend his life well into 2039-2040 season.

 

To simplify this whole affair, let's divide the team's options into two different categories: guarantees and possibilities.

Guarantees

#1: Phil Kessel - #1"B" RW alongside Evgeni Malkin

Let's face it: Kessel isn't going anywhere, and not because he is some fitness-defying folk hero who has never met a processed meat product he wouldn't eat. His contributions to the two latest Stanley Cup victories ought not be overlooked, but Kessel hits 30 as the season starts this year, and you have to hope that the speed and hands don't fall faster than a large pizza left unattended in his presence. 

Ultimately, the team will encounter difficulty moving a $6.8 million / yr. contract that ties him up through his 34th birthday; few teams will risk taking on an aging prima donna who will just start complaining when he is given too much ice time, too little ice time, and when he believes somebody on the bench tried to steal his fried imitation foodstuff. 

Phil Kessel attempts to explain -- yet again -- the private sphere of space for his Easy Cheese and Funyuns that musn't be broken.
That said, 30 is hardly a death knell for a player who doesn't commit much to the game outside of the his offensive performance, so I would actually expect Kessel to have a bit of an improved year in scoring goals over the last. Beyond that, his passing game is highly overlooked -- his 47 assists were a career high -- and he did manage nearly a point per game in the playoffs. Right now, the man can still play, and with the Penguins trying to maximize success with their main three stars, the team won't let him move, barring some incredible hockey trade that is unlikely to materialize throughout the season.

#2: Patric Hornqvist - top-9 RW, rotated regularly

Conversely, Patric Hornqvist embodies the spirit of hockey: hard-working, tenacious, and relentless in the tough spaces on the ice. With only one year remaining on his contract, along with the way Sullivan and company preach playing the "right way," Hornqvist will undoubtedly stay on as a vital component to the team's overall identity.

Frankly, his stats will never amaze, quietly tallying another 19 goals during regular season and only nine points during the playoffs, but his scoring the biggest goal of the entire season points to the type of character he delivers and why he'll remain on the roster -- even if Sullivan throws darts blindfolded to determine where he fits in.

Another point worth your attention: a lot of media coverage pushes another exhausted viewpoint that his "wear n' tear" or "rough n' tumble" style may limit his ability to play at the highest level more quickly. It should be noted, though, that Hornqvist -- who will turn 31 mid-season -- has only played 579 NHL games to this point, and I would argue that games in this league are immensely more demanding physically than in any other.

 By comparison, Crosby, despite recurring injuries and concussion setbacks, has played 782, despite being slightly younger. Hornqvist, meanwhile, has always played 70 or more games except in two seasons: 2012-2013, when he played 24 of the 48 games in the lockout-effected year, and 64 in his first year with the Penguins. Accordingly, concern that he won't survive the rigor of his playing style should be allayed until his upcoming contract negotiations, where such issues will surely emerge in discussions.

#3 Ryan Reaves - bottom-9 RW w/ occasional shifts in top-6 to widow / orphan opposing player's family

I think it's safe to say that Ryan Reaves was brought in to add a dynamic element to a sometimes predictable power play, while also chipping in some important goals at even strength.

No shit, assclown, that wasn't sincere. Reaves was acquired because Crosby demanded they get somebody to cover him on the ice, between slurs in speech and random fits of staring at nothing, and so that anyone who might look to bend the rules against Crosby -- whether you agree with the strategy notwithstanding -- will have to consider the potential of being impaled with Reaves' stick or fist.

#4 Bryan Rust - top-9 RW / LW, based on injuries and whatever Sullivan reads into that fortune cookie he got with his order Hunan Pork the night prior

Bryan Rust stands out in that he is an amalgam of several different players on the wing: he has some of Hornqvist's grit and dedication to the "tough areas"; he has some of Kessel's speed; and he possesses some puck skills to boot. His shooting percentage rose this year to 13.6%, which is well above the league average, even if only calculated for forwards; for comparison, the Washington Capitals forwards registered 13.4% this past season.

This boost in goals (15), points (28), and shooting percentage have coincided with more time on the ice, presumably more confidence, and have made Rust a primary cog in Sullivan's "wheel o' linemates," where he assuredly spins a device much like the Wheel of Fortune that determines line combinations outside of certain exceptions.

Best yet, Rust is only 25, so he still has time to develop the finer points of the game that will continue to show up on the ice and, hopefully, the score sheet. He'll be playing for a contract this year as well, albeit as a restricted free agent, so expect him not only to have a good season, but also to be a piece the Penguins will be relying on.

#5 Jake Guentzel - #1 LW alongside Sidney Crosby

16 goals in 40 regular season games; 13 in 25 playoff games -- what else is there to say? Finally -- for fuck sake, finally -- we can stop asking, "Who is the player that will best fit with Crosby?" and move on from this tired narrative that could be answered before with, for some reason, Colby Armstrong and Pascal Dupuis.

He's 22 and he's under his entry-level contract for another two years. Accordingly, the Penguins will ride this fucker out and then likely try to land a reasonable bridge deal for both parties, as Crosby and Malkin will be 32 and 33 at that point, and then be ready to evaluate their long-term plan as the team transitions.

#6 Scott Wilson - bottom-6 RW / LW, with some shifts on the top lines as needed

Wilson's stats provide less intrigue than Rust's, but he is, in part, viewed in the same light nevertheless: a player who "does things right," gets to the "dirty areas," and for whom you can check the box for every other coaching cliche that gets its fanfare in the standard hockey press conference and media scrum.

He has shown flashes of puck skill -- again, nothing incredible, but still noteworthy -- and for that reason he can always be moved forward if needed. He will most likely be and anchor wing on one of the bottom two lines, but be sure that the Penguins intend to keep him.

#7 Josh Archibald - fourth-line energy guy

This man has taken many forms -- most recently, perhaps, being Joe Vitale -- but he is a necessity around the league, in particular for teams that emphasize speed like the Penguins. He's the energy guy, the spark plug; the man who is caged up on the bench until being unleashed on the ice for 26 seconds at a time until his grand total of time on ice gets up to about eight minutes.

With parts moving over the summer, expect Archibald to be given every opportunity to stick with the main club this year on the wing. Statistically, there isn't much to go on, but you don't get time in the playoffs because the coaching staff doesn't like you -- injures be damned. So keep a look out to see how Archibald fits in this year.

Possibilities

#1 Sign and Trade of Conor Sheary
An unsigned free agent out of UMass-Amherst, Conor Sheary impressed mightily during the regular season, tallying 23 goals and 53 points in only 61 games, all of which seemed to be overlooked due to Guentzel's breakout season. The only misfortune for Sheary is that he faltered in the playoffs, only managing seven points and having to sit in the press box for a few games throughout. 
Advanced statistics would aid in this effort (but guess what, I don't get paid, so you can fuck right off if you think I'm going to start diving into the Sabermetrics equivalent of hockey), but the eye test verified it easily enough: Sheary also struggled terribly in his own end during the playoffs as well. Whether this event occurred due to fatigue or the changing dynamic of the game when the playoffs begin is hard to say. 

Nevertheless, as the team approaches arbitration with Sheary (August 4), it remains a real possibility that the Penguins could look to capitalize on the value he earned over the course of the regular season to tidy up other areas on the roster, not the least of which being the center position.
If Sheary lands a reasonable contract around, say, $4.5 million, then he will press the Penguins back up close to the cap, where they currently sit under by $6.28 million thanks to some heartfelt goodbyes or expiring contracts. The problem therein is again, of course, "Who is going to play with Sidney Crosby?"

That said, if the Penguins are going to find a viable option on the third-line without needing to perform ritualistic sacrifice that it will come from within the organization, then Sheary is the piece to do it. In reality, they will likely tender his contract, whatever it may be, and then go from there, as the team will need to see more from certain players to come to a decision.

#2 Oh, hey, I'm Daniel Sprong, and I can stickhandle through a minefield blindfolded

Sigh.
"Who is going to play with Sidney Crosby?" 

Well, Sprong may be your answer.

The Penguins feel justified in showing him what it was like at the pro level two years, which burned a year on his entry-level contract before he really got to make an impact in the NHL. And this past season, he was sidelined for the entirety of the year. Now, Sprong has one year remaining on his first deal, which, strangely enough, appears to play into the Penguins favor, as he will not only be hungry to get on the ice and make it to the next level, but he will also be limited in any demands during free agency because his window of play to evaluate ("body of work" is the painful cliche to be tied up in a trunk and thrown into a river) will be limited to 18 games (and two goals) during his first stint and whatever he does this coming year.

His potential emergence will most definitely be a storyline going into camp and will be sure to determine how the Penguins progress with their roster. Without question, though, the kid has got talent -- watch some of these goals, for instance -- but will it carry over to the top level, and will that be enough to push other players out of the picture?

#3 Carl Hagelin ends up in the Monongahela wearing cement shoes
Listen, I'm not one to condone homicide, nor would I ever accuse Jim Rutherford of questionable tactics in his managing an NHL team, but I can't figure out any other way the Penguins are going to make the most out of Carl Hagelin this year, and the most viable possibility seems to be his floating lifelessly in the bottom of a river while chained to several of cinder blocks. 
Hagelin has speed, there's no denying it, which makes him fit the team mold and certainly helps on the penalty kill. However, a $4 million investment, this coming season and the next, is much better spent elsewhere, securing Sheary, for instance, without making the salary seem like a burden.
The easy remark is, of course, a popular one among the media-devouring public: "Trade him!" The reality is, though, that the Penguins more or less would have pull off a salary dump, meaning they would be sending him alongside another asset, keeping part of his salary (which may negate any real value they have in return), or they would be taking on another player with a comparable who may fit in better -- you know, how we got Hagelin (for David Perron) in the first place.

So it seems that the only option is for Jim to hire some of his associates (perhaps his buddy Le Chiffre can help him out) and ensure that Hagelin goes randomly missing for a season -- or at least until they can find a way to work something out that's a little less, uh, nautical.
 #4 Kuhnhackl -- fuck, who knows?
There's been word that Kuhnhackl can play some center, and that the Penguins hope to exploit it, promoting Carter Rowney to the third line.
Now, if the Penguins organization believes Rowney is the solution at that spot, then there ought to be some more word that team management has been going for one too many joyrides with Le'veon Bell and LaGarrette Blount.
Kuhnhackl has been hampered by streaks of inconsistency that have forced him in and out of the lineup throughout the season. Unless the team executives keep on blasting "I Got 5 On It" while making important roster considerations, I would expect his fourth-line merry-go-round to continue.
#5 Zach Aston-Reese Impresses in Camp

The Penguins have never been an ideal destination for major college-to-pro signings because the team's top center and defense positions are usually occupied, and the team couldn't match the salary demands of those on the wing.

That said, the Penguins feel they have a winner in Hobey Baker finalist Zach Aston-Reese, whom they signed from Northeastern after a 63-point season his senior year. Not to mention, he followed this act by playing 10 games for the WB/S Penguins, in which he totaled eight points -- all in all, a decent showing for his first pro experience.

The question with Reese will be his ceiling. Like any prospect, there is potential for the kind of game he plays not to translate completely to the highest level. Among them, however, Reese seems to be the most well-polished, as Jason Mackey notes in his column on Reese's performance, and for that reason, he seems poised as well to fit somewhere in the Penguins plans this year.

Where, though, would he fit?

The Penguins, at the moment, are stuffed with right wings, but if he matches those old coach's standbys ("play the right way" being most prevalent), then he should have a chance to make it into a bottom-six role. From there, he'll have the potential to move forward.

If nothing else, at a reasonable $925,000, at least he won't get lost with Rutherford during a fishing trip.

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