Thirty-three games left starting tonight. Some thoughts on things to look for in the second half of the season, dudes…
It's been a week since the Pens last played, so just to refresh your memory, here's a recap of the last game prior to the All Star break…
A Blues-Pens Stanley Cup Final would make for some unbelievable hockey. Not sure the boards in either building would be left standing the way those two teams play. And we would all hate the hell out of David Backes.
Just throwing this out there as some discussion of it has come up. The Pens have three big names up for extensions starting this coming summer. They can at least begin talking to Crosby and Staal about extensions as they each enter into the last year on their current deals. They'll also have to sign James Neal, who is a restricted free agent. Neal's RFA status works in the Pens' favor because it limits Neal's leverage (basically, a holdout, which I don't think he really wants to do. Don't want to go down that road with Shero and Lemieux). Neal's on pace for about 45 goals and 80 points, which would blow his previous career highs of 27 and 55, respectively, out of the water. But that doesn't mean he'll be demanding $6-7 million a year. Well, he may be demanding it. Doesn't mean he'll get it. Again, his leverage is limited.
The market for guys like Neal (combination of age, contract status and production) is probably somewhere between that of James Van Riemsdyk's extension (cap hit of $4.25 million/year starting next season), and Bobby Ryan current deal (cap hit of $5.1 million/year). Neal's produced more than JVR, but not quite as much as Ryan. Shero didn't trade Goligoski (a much more valuable commodity than some ever gave him credit) for a season-and-a-half of Neal, and Shero has proven to be masterful at getting free agents to take less than market value to stick around. Expect Neal's contract to come in around a cap hit of $4.5 million, maybe a little higher.
Three or four more years of this? Yes, please.
The Dichotomy of the Concussion Issue, Part 87564. Lost in all the hoopla over Crosby's situation the last few couple of weeks was the revelation on January 20 that Arron Asham has indeed been out with concussion-like symptoms as well. That's twice in less than a year that he's missed time with a concussion or "concussion-like symptoms."
It was a little bit tough to see former Penguin Nick Johnson in the rookie contingent for the All Star Game. Johnson's numbers aren't exactly eye-popping (6g, 10a, 16 points in 45 games) and he's getting about 14 minutes a night, so it's probably not like the Pens gave up the next Markus Naslund. And given that he just turned 26 years old, Johnson was getting dangerously close to the Official Aleksey Morozov "Prospect/No Longer A Prospect" Age Line. But would it have been nicer to see Johnson not lose a roster spot to keep Steve MacIntyre? Yeah.
That said, this probably won't be the last time we see this happen *COUGH*EricTangradi*COUGH*. Good teams become good and remain good because they build depth, and opportunities to shore up the team in the short term may allow some of that younger depth to become expendable. *mumblemumble*CarlSneep*mumblemumble* This is especially the case when the younger players with greater pedigree begin to emerge quicker than expected – guys like Simon Despres, for example. This usually serves to push other prospects a little further down the depth chart and make them a bit more expendable. And it's usually beneficial for both sides. The team gets a chance to solidify its status as a contender this year and the player usually finds an opportunity he may not have had previously. Now, where the hell did I save that image of Brian Strait?
Some early trade deadline thoughts, dudes, as we're less than a month away from that Hockey Holiday. But first, keep in mind that much of what the Pens elect to do at the deadline is contingent on the status of Sidney Crosby AND possibly Jordan Staal. Staal SHOULD be back before the deadline, but the way the last 13-14 months have gone for the Pens, we're not taking anything for granted.
Sometimes the best deals are the deals you don't make. And sometimes the best moves are the moves that other teams make, and that doesn't always include trades. Elliote Friedman mentioned in his "30 Thoughts" column that Carolina's decision to sign defenseman Tim Gleason to a new deal was a win for the Bruins because it takes Gleason – long believed to be the best defenseman available at the deadline – off the market. Rumors were rampant that both the Flyers were hot after Gleason as a potential replacement for Chris Pronger. The Rangers were also rumored to be in the mix for Gleason.
So how does this help the Pens? Well, first, what goes for the Bruins also goes for the Pens; neither the Flyers nor Rangers will be getting Gleason. Second, there may be no other team in the East with 1) the depth on defense at the NHL, AHL & prospect level that the Pens have 2) coupled with the potential ability to add salary at the deadline (again, depending on what happens with Crosby, what the potential LTIR cap savings would be and whether Burkle and Mario want to add salary).
Would the Pens look to add scoring at the deadline? One would think. It sounds strange given that the Pens are currently the 7th highest scoring team in the league. But a look deeper into the numbers reveals that the Pens are being carried up front by Malkin, Kunitz and Neal, and they all play on the same line. Pascal Dupuis has tailed off in recent weeks. Tyler Kennedy has six goals. Steve Sullivan has been very solid on the power play, but below average at even strength. Jordan Staal was scoring goals before he got hurt, but he wasn't setting up much in terms of offense (six assists…SIX ASSISTS?!). No, no one's expecting him to be a set-up man, but on a team that's already short one playmaking center, he's probably not going to be the guy to fill that void and make guys like Dupuis, Kennedy and Sullivan markedly better than they've already been this year.
The Pens may need to add offense simply because short of some unbelievable first-round upset, the Pens would likely meet either the Rangers or the Bruins in the second round. You can't expect a team carried mostly by one scoring line to beat either of those two teams in a seven-game series. Sorry, you just can't. Thomas and Lundqvist are tough enough to beat this year. Chara would be out there for every shift Malkin's line takes. Tortorella would do the same with the Girardi-McDonough pairing, and he'd probably find a way to get Callahan on Malkin every time as well. The 2009 playoff run showed just how important it was to be able to rotate three reliable forward lines in the postseason.
Shero has added to meet foreseeable playoff needs before. He acquired Hal Gill at the deadline of the 2007-08 season, knowing that Gill would help if the Pens met Jaromir Jagr and the Rangers that year, and they did. Jagr had three goals and four assists in that five-game series, but was held off the scoresheet twice, including the elimination game. Kunitz and Guerin were other examples – relatively under-the-radar moves that paid dividends to meet system needs and shore up scoring depth. If he thinks some additional scoring depth needs to be added to give this team a shot, he'll do it.
But that's a few weeks away.
Bring on the Leafs.
Let's go Pens.
Holy guitar solo.