The final calendar month without hockey this offseason has faded in the rear view mirror. College and high school football have begun. The NFL’s regular season starts in 48 hours. The first-round series loss to Tampa seems like a million years ago for some reason. Thankfully, the NHL Network is no longer rubbing salt in that wound and has at least progressed to replaying the conference finals games all day.
At some point this week, players will begin filtering in to Pittsburgh for the eventual start of training camp the following weekend.
(Late edit: Aaaaaaaand, just like that, breaking news. Sidney Crosby is going to meet with the media tomorrow at 12:30 at Consol Energy Center. Look who’s probably already in town and whose brain handled the flight into Pittsburgh just fine. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?! MAYBE HE’S COMING BACK!! MAYBE HE’S RETIRING! ZOMG!)
We’re excited for camp if for no other reason than the fact that this offseason can’t come to a close quickly enough.
I’ve probably mentioned this before, but this offseason did little more than vacillate from the sublime to the ridiculous. So much for that break from the crazy second half of the season. There was the season coming to a screeching halt after the 3-games-to-1 lead over Tampa slipped away. There were the Breakup Day interviews, marred by still-stunned expressions on the faces of players.
There was the draft, which drew its fair share of criticism, some of it justified. There was the run-up to free agency, which saw the immediate pushing of Kovalev out the door, the departures of Talbot, Rupp and Godard. There was JagrWatch. Lost in some of that, the great work Shero did getting Kennedy and Dupuis back under what seemed to be ridiculously-low, cap friendly deals in terms of market value.
Then, quiet. Nothing.
For the better part of several weeks, there was really nothing going on. Sure, there was Mike Kadar’s random field trip to Russia to oversee some of Geno’s rehab and the ensuing shenanigans. But really, other than that it was quiet until mid-August when all hell broke loose with random Crosby rumors.
That’s all behind us now, thank God. From some of the more reliable accounts on Twitter, tomorrow’s media scrum with Sid is shaping up to be little more than him likely re-iterating what we already know – still not cleared but getting there, no timetable, yadda yadda yadda.
If that’s all that turns out to be, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not the news we all want to hear, but it’s at least an indication that things are progressing. Besides, one good thing that came of the rash of Crosby rumors a few weeks ago were some well-written, down-to-earth articles by the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman here:
and Sean Conboy of Pittsburgh Magazine here, who took the time to go directly to one of the doctors currently working with Crosby for some input on concussions in general:
You can read the articles for yourselves, but here’s a quick summary:
even the experts are still learning about the proper ways to deal with these things,
the fact that you had four concussions when you were “playin’ ball for North Hills back in the day” doesn’t mean relative shit as compared to Crosby, and
the cases of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, David Booth and Patrice Bergeron have revealed the best way to ensure a healthy return to the ice AND to diminish recurrence of another concussion is to be very patient, ensuring the player doesn’t come back until all symptoms are clear. In some cases, this may be a 12-to-18 month process.
(Tangent: I know it makes for better theater, ratings, hits, etc. for some in the media and non-Pens fans to heap all the blame for the very possible end of Marc Savard’s career at the feet of Matt Cooke. But the reality could be that Savard - who suffered three concussions prior to The Cooke Hit – never had the benefit of patience, time and doctors who ensured his symptoms were completely clear before allowing him to take contact. Those concussions were diagnosed in 2000, 2001 and 2004, when things weren’t handled quite the same way as they were with Bouchard, Booth and Bergeron. Worth noting.)
But back to Sid and the Pens. We’ll see what tomorrow brings as far as news, but here’s also hoping it brings a bit of closure to this saga and re-focuses things back on the rest of this Pens team. Sid’s awesome, Sid’s swell and every Pens fan wants him back out there as soon as his health makes that completely possible. But the rest of this team is pretty damned good, too. It’s time to start turning some attention to those guys.
So here are some very early pre-camp thoughts, dudes, on some issues facing the Pens.
ZOMG MAYBE NO SID TO START THE YEAR??!! NOW WHAT?!
Relax. We’ve been here before.
I cite that clip above not ONLY to get that stuck in your head for the next week (don’t say I never did anything for you), but also to take you back to the 2007-08 season when that commercial was king on Versus and one night in January, Sidney Crosby went for a ride, slid 20 feet across the ice and feet-first into the boards one night against Tampa, causing him to suffer a high ankle sprain, an injury he never really recovered from until the 07-08 playoffs.
(Tangent: Why is it always Tampa that manages to knock him out for an extended time? What did Sid ever do to Tampa? Tampa is awesome. The NFL Bucs & those vintage orange-and-white uniforms. Mike Alstott. And as LCS Hockey (www.lcshockey.com) used to say back in the day, they have lightning bolts on their pants. Don’t make us hate you, Tampa.)
Initial reaction was one of hysterics, wailing and gnashing of teeth, or so they say. But at some point, Geno Malkin stood up, looked quietly around the locker room (cue dramatic music)
took stock of things, shrugged his shoulders, said “I’m score” and promptly took over the league. In the remaining 36 games that season, Malkin scored 24 goals and 30 assists. It was our first look at the Beast Mode version of Malkin, a level he surpassed the following year when he turned Joe Corvo into a blubbering pile of goo on national television.
I can think of about 29 other teams that would love to have to settle for Evgeni Malkin as their new first-line center if Crosby can’t start the season.
That leads to…
THE REST OF THE CENTERS
This is something that’ll likely have to sort itself out at camp to some degree.
Chances are good that if Crosby is unable to start the season, Jordan Staal likely moves up to center the second line. Yes, it pulls him away from that third-line, shutdown role, but that role of his really doesn’t become essential until the postseason anyway. For now, get him in with the top six forwards.
Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey will give the Pens some flexibility there. Letestu wore down over the latter half of the season in part because his role increased as injuries mounted and then his struggles to return from his own knee injury. But when he was healthy, he proved capable of generating some offense.
Jeffrey remains a bit of a wild-card due to his own knee injury. He may not be ready to start camp, but he was expected to be cleared to resume skating a few weeks ago and could be ready sooner than initially expected. If it looks like he can back during camp or shortly thereafter, he’s another player who could factor in and contribute among the top lines at center.
WHERE DOES SULLIVAN FIT?
Pretty much anywhere on the wings. Sullivan has his injury concerns, but he could easily be cast in the same role as Pascal Dupuis. Sullivan is a versatile winger who has enough skill and speed to play as a wing on the top two lines, but also has enough grit to play a lower-line role as well.
Wouldn’t be surprised to see him spend more time than usual on the top two lines, though. No knock on Dupuis, but Sullivan is quicker and has better hands. He’s also got better sense of the offensive zone, so there may be chances for him to get behind defensemen in the transition and capitalize from those chances.
He’s also good at getting to open areas of the ice once the play is set up, something we should see lots of on the powerplay.
30 goals. That’s Neal’s stated goal per the recent videos on the Pens website, and playing most of this season with the likes of Malkin and – here’s hoping – Sidney Crosby should help him hit that target.
Neal’s story has taken a decided back seat to Crosby’s concussion, as has most everything else with this team this summer. But there may not be a player who can afford a bad start less than Neal, outside of maybe Matt Cooke. And I say that only because we all know what a “bad start” for Matt Cooke likely means.
I’m an unabashed fan of Neal, so I’d like to see him get as much time with Malkin as possible during camp. His first audition to the team couldn’t have gone much worse, but lots of things were unsettled and that was hardly an ideal situation to walk into last year. He generated chances and got good shots to the net; he just didn’t bury anything. Look for that to hopefully change this year as he’s got people around him that opposing defenses will have to respect.
This one came to light after the Pens held their post-draft prospect camp, and it may pick up some steam now that the prospect tournament is about to kick off. But Eric Tangradi’s presence on both generated some speculation about his ultimate future with the Pens, to the point that some believe this training camp is a “make or break” thing for him.
I don’t know if I’d go that far.
Yes, it feels like Tangradi’s been in the system forever, but he’s only 22 and won’t turn 23 until February. He was a 2nd round pick of the Ducks in the 2007 Draft, but last year was just his second pro season. Maybe we got accustomed or even a bit spoiled as we’ve seen other players in recent years step in and make an impact with relatively minimal time spent in the minors, but by most measures, it’s still pretty early for him.
Here’s a rundown of that draft. Not sure if this is the greatest metric to use, but take a look at how the rest of that second round has panned out so far.
Outside of Subban and the soon-to-be-hated-all-throughout-Pittsburgh Wayne Simmonds, no one there is setting the world on fire yet.
Tangradi started slowly last year but was coming on in Wilkes-Barre (18-15-33 in 42 games) when injuries at the NHL level necessitated his call-up. He was starting to really play well when unfortunately his season was basically ended by the elbow of Trevor Gillies. Gillies’s punk-ass antics not only robbed Tangradi of a chance to further his development at the NHL level, but also cost him the chance to contribute to the AHL team in the Calder Cup playoffs because of a roster technicality.
Furthermore, Tangradi’s contract status is very favorable to the Pens. He’s in the last year of a deal that’ll run a cap hit of just under $850,000. He’s a restricted free agent at the end of the year, so his leverage is limited.
There are elements of his game that need work – his skating, for starters. His play away from the puck was getting better last year. All of this is typical of a player who is still developing.
On a team with few impact-caliber wingers to speak of among its prospect ranks, Tangradi will likely be given every chance to succeed here & then some. If he has a tremendous camp and plays the way a top-line winger should play, great. Keep him here. If not, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to see him start the season in Wilkes-Barre and assert himself as a leader there.
Back next week with thoughts on the defensemen, NHL 12, the start of camp and whatever else comes up.
Play us out, Tom Petty and Axl Rose.