Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Pittsburgh Penguins Season Wrap Up 2012/2013 - Take the pieces and build them skywards*

Defenseman Douglas Murray #3
© Picture by Mike Miller of http://pensthroughmylens.blogspot.de/

It's over.  

At first I likley need to apologize to my family, friends and blog readers for my abscence, but you know - playoffs!
When you are an European NHL hockey fan and your team goes into the playoffs you face the serious challange of a "live or die" hockey game every 2-3 days (except your team is forced into a silly, momentum destroying 8 days break) that starts about 2 am in the morning and lasts - when you are lucky and do not face OT - until 5 am.  When you have a regular job like I do, it means you either decide that you are just not THAT much of a fan (not an option) or you sacrifice your regular lifestyle for these special weeks and start a very disciplined sleep schedule. I made sure that I had a lot of rest on off days and learned to calm down myself for an early evening pregame sleep and an effective power nap of 1-2 hours afterwards. I have to say that I managed it this year way better than the years before - more discipline paid out. But still ... during the playoffs there is not much room for more than work, sleep and hockey, hockey, hockey. In a way it is the worst but truely also the best time of the year.  And now it is over ...


But before we look at the painful end let's have a look at the beginning of the season that was equally painful just in the opposite way ... because NO HOCKEY! The high voltage drama of this shortened season made us only too easily forget the nightmare we all went through with the 2012 lockout.
As a really passionate fan I can barely hold myself until it is finally training camp and usually cry hot tears over the introduction ceremony at the home opener (would just be so cool if the Pens would learn how to WIN this damn game, too). It means so much to me because I love hockey, I love my team, I love the other fans I am in close contact with. Late fall and winter is also the hardest time at my job and hockey just makes me happy and keeps me running. So NO HOCKEY was terrible. I am glad that we now have quite some long running agreement and won't face this horror scenario so soon again.


Once the puck was dropped the Pens struggled for a while before they were in full swing and launched into a really enjoyable season that was topped with a brilliant winning streak that lasted all March. 

When the trade deadline came things got even more crazy. We got Brenden Morrow and I thought "Cool, that is not too bad!"
Then we signed Douglas Murray of the San Jose Sharks and since I am a HUGE fan of really gritty, physical defensive that was like Christmas for me and who knows me a little also knows that "Swedish dude with Scottisch roots" has my name written all over. I was (and still am) in immediate hockey love. 
And then came THAT night ... I remember my last tweet was something like "Yeah, I really stopped caring where Iggy goes. Let's move on."  Stupid me! In the early morning hours of the next day I woke up because my cellphone was buzzing on the ground near my bed in a crazy dance. I blinked and thought "What the hell?"  I  grabbed the phone and the first thing I saw was a message from my friend Eileen summing it all up. "You are not dreaming. It's real." For a split second I was "What???" Then my brain kicked in ..... and "OH EM GEEEEEE!" With trembling hands I opened my Twitter account and became witness of the most epic Yinzplosion I have ever seen:
Jarome Iginla was OURS! 


The following Saturday I think I will never forget because I never went faster from heaven to hell in all my sports fan life. When Iggy hit the ice for the first time in a Pens uniform it was just amazing, although we would see right away the problem that would not leave us alone again: Iggy is no left wing and will never be. But at that day it did not really matter. That was JAROME IGINLA IN A PENS UNIFORM *squeeeeeeee* until .... until .... karma showed us her bitchy ugly face.
Like in slow motion I saw how that puck took off and then - being slightly deflected - made a small turn and ... hit Sid straight in the mouth, knocked out a lot of teeth and broke his jaw. What did that poor guy do to deserve all this pain? I have really, really no idea. And what have we done that we never seem to be allowed to really enjoy these great moments of happiness like Iggy's arrival for longer than just a wink of an eye? 


But this team - now with new arrival, faceoff and shootout specialist Jussi Jokinen - knows oh too well how to survive without the Captain and just kept going like Champs when I arrived in Pittsburgh in late April.
I had the chance to watch  the last two regular season games from fantastic seats and I have to say that the amazing comeback of James Neal with his tinted visor was one of the most beautiful live hockey moments I could enjoy until now. 

In the 2nd week finally a huge dream of mine came true:
PLAYOFF HOCKEY IN PITTSBURGH!
And good lord - that is a whole different world. Everybody seems to run around in Pens gear, people are in festive mood and the excitement inside the CEC is phenomenal. I could barely breath when I grabbed my ralley towel and I am not shy to admit that I cried like a baby when the jumbotron first displayed the "THEY CAN HEAR YOU" into the sound of the sirene and the arena practically exploded around me. To be honest ... I would give a lot to go back to this moment right now. The Pens won this game in epic fashion and Flower was fantastic one last time. 


The 2nd game although it was Sid's comback was then sadly a sneak peak of what we would face in the end. Suddenly the Pens turned into a badly organized, low energy, almost careless group of people screwing it up badly. That was not what I wanted to see at my last night in Pittsburgh, but knowing that my team sometimes just blacks out only to bounce back even stronger I was still optimistic. And I kept being optimistic - back in Germany adjusting to my 6 hrs time difference playoff schedule - all the way through the too difficult Islanders series and the much more entertaining Sens series that really felt like finally this team was up for something GREAT! 


But ... not so much. I still have trouble to wrap my brain around what happened in the series against the Boston Bruins. Game 2 was a nightmare - the worst I have seen the Pens full roster playing ever.
Game 1, 3 and 4?  HOW can you hit the goal post so often? HOW can you have a fantastic goalie (Thank you, Tomas!) but the other team has a goalie that plays at the border of humanily possible? HOW can people like Sid, Geno and Jimmy go for a whole series without scoring a single goal? HOW can this wonderful and extremely talented group of amazing men (yes - that's what they were and still are) fail so badly?
The answers are likely a big puzzle that includes irrational but still valid reasons like bad luck and karma as well as more rational ones like coaching issues or wrong on ice decisions of players. Fact is - it happened. We are out. It is over. 


Now we are facing one of the most difficult offseasons in a long time. A lot of players become free agents, restricted free agents or are due for contract extensions.  We also need to look at the coaching and goalie situation. The Pens management and owners have a lot of work to do and decisions to make and there is only one thing for sure:  The 2013/2014 Pittsburgh Penguins will be very different from the 2012/2013 Pittsburgh Penguins


I am glad that I do not have to make those decisions or go through these negotiations and in the end we can do nothing to influence the outcome, but of course everybody's mind is buzzing and it's hard to stop. Here is my take on things:

Players (not covering all in question) 


The "old" guys 


Evgeni Malkin: Resigning Geno has to be first priority. While I would really love to slap him sometimes when he causes one of those horrible turnovers or takes a stupid penalty, he is a mindblowingly talented hockey player. I am convinced that this season was one of his not so good ones that will be followed by many, many fantastic ones. The day will come "the double headed monster" will strike and raise the Cup. I know it!
Also the negotiations with Geno's people will already kick off next week and Geno said clearly that he wants to stay in Pittsburgh and is aware that the salary cap will have impact on the money negotiable. I am very positive that this will be all set and solved very soon with Geno staying with us.


Kris Letang: Tanger's jersey was my first Pens jersey ever and the beauty of his skating and play was a big part of me falling in love with the Pens. BUT his performance lately was a crazy bounce between horrible and genius lacking consistency. I would STILL love to have him with the Pens, but .... not for 8 Mio or more. That's a clear no for me, but I am sure that there will be other clubs who will offer him that amount of money and I do not see Tanger giving a several Mio home discount. I might be wrong, but I think we'll soon say good bye to Kris Letang and allow the group of young offensive defenseman around rookie of the year Simon Despres to fill in. Also for the cap space gained in a Letang trade we could likely get a good forward and an additional defenseman. Emotionally that is a tough outlook but it makes sense. 


Pascal Dupuis: I hope and believe the Penguins will manage to keep Duper. He is not only a really good hockey player, he is also a great personality in this locker room and he is Sid's winger. Yes, everybody is replacable but to replace Duper it would need so much more than just finding a new decent winger. Give the man the money he derseves (his salary is silly low at the moment) or at least close to it (I hope they can agree somewhere around 3 Mio) and let him retire as a Penguin. This is how it really should be. 


Matt Cooke: Not so long ago I said with fully meaning it that Matt Cooke does not deserve to be a Penguin and should leave asap. That changed. The blame and hate he takes from all around the league is silly now since he really turned around his game and on ice behavior like I have barely seen any other player doing it before. He was one of our very few constantly well performing players in these playoffs and he is a rock in the PK - PK that was fantastic  - even in the lost series - and will be broken up badly with lots of players (Adams, Letang, etc.) questionable to return to Pittsburgh. Extending Cooke's contract is clearly lower in priority than Geno's or Duper's but I want him back. Yes, there I said it. I want Matt Cooke staying with the Penguins.


The "new" guys 


Brenden Morrow: I personally like Brenden Morrow. He played a very physical game and he was working his ass off for this team. If you watched him playing you would have never guessed that he is one of the new guys who just left his family, his team and his captaincy behind to do gritty, basic work in Pittsburgh. He has all my sympathy and in a perfect world I would love to have him around - bringing his family with him. It is just ... I do not see him coming back and fitting into the system adding the value he potentially still could. 


Jarome Inginla: Seriously ... once you have Jarome Inginla you never ever want him to leave this locker room again. You just want him around all the time smiling and representing the team with all that passion and heart. Iggy is awesome and I want Iggy to be a Penguin until the end of his carreer living with his precious family in Pittsburgh. And we are lucky - that is what Iggy also seems to want.
BUT what do we truely have to offer a Jarome Iginla? He is maybe not looking so much after money although that will be of course an important part of the negotiations. Much more important than that will be to find Iggy a role he fits in (no left wing) and that allows him to contribute. I personally think he could built a new line with Beau Bennett. Beau is an amazing talent, an instinct player with a bright, bright future who could benefit a lot from having a mentor like Iggy playing with him. It is just the question if Iggy really sees himself on a 3rd line - that is probably not what he came to Pittsburgh for.
I am also not exactly sure what is Sid's problem with Iggy on his wing (some talk about space blablabla was not a sastifying answer), but I think if Iggy stays we should at least work on a PP set up that puts Iggy with the top guys. This will be a full regular season that allows us to work stuff like this out and I can't see why we should not be able to make this all star line working.


Douglas Murray:  I am biased. Very biased. I want him to stay so badly. I want to watch people bounce of his wide back and shoulders, I want people getting smashed into the boards like my niece's Playmobil figures (no injuries of course - I wish nobody injuries except maybe Chris Neil for that hit into the Swedish crown jewels). I want that little heart stopper when my big guy is crossing the red line and putting that everybody surprising sniper shot into the opposing goal every couple of weeks. I want to buy my Murray jersey (I am just owning a shirt - jerseys are too expensive to invest into a free agent, sadly).

And now to the more rational reasons: Yes, Douglas is no skater, but that does not need to be a big issue nor does it need to slow the Pens down significantly when you just let him stay in position and pair him with a responsible playing offensive defenseman that can carry the puck out of the danger zone after being recovered by Murray (watch him battling at the boards and you know what I mean).
We had plenty of situations where it worked perfectly, but then he got paired with Engo (too static) or Niksanen (lost his grip) or Letang (totally forgot that he is a defenseman) and he had to move out of position too often for still looking as good as he potentially could. So use him smartly and everybody will be happy.
Especially when Letang leaves the young guys coming in would benefit a lot from Douglas Murray's veteran, physical presence in front of the net (a spot that was way too often very empty the last couple of seasons) backing them. He also often was fantastic at the PK blocking a LOT of shots with his body. Looking at the fact that our PK will suffer likely from the roster changes (see above) we could make a good use of him here, too. So for the love of all hockey gods (and ahem ... ME) - KEEP HIM! 


Jussi Jokinen:  Just for clarification  - Jussi Jokinen is no FA. His contract goes for another year. He might be traded though. I like him and I think his faceoff and shooting skills could be really good for us in the next season but he is not much of a priority for me. Sorry, Jussi! 


The goalie situation

I love Flower. There is nothing not to love about Flower .... except the weird thing that seems to happen in his head once the regular season ends. It is purely a mental issue. Just bad that mental strength is probably the most important asset for a goalie

BUT still - he is a top goalie and there are not many out there who are better than him and there is nobody who is really better and available. Not for nothing other teams hire people to scout goalies in Europe. A really good and reliable goalkeeper is rare as gold. The availability of options might change closer to draft day and the Pens might end up trading Flower making his worst nightmare come true (he wants to stay so badly), but there is also a significant chance that this is not happening.
My take is that we'll go with Vokoun, who played BRILLIANT playoffs but won't be able to play a full season in the No 1 spot, and Flower into the new season and I can live very well with it. 

The word is that longterm goalie coach Gilles Meloche will resign to make room for somebody new and I think that is the right move. It obviously needs a new approach to built up Fleury's confidence also in post season. If I would have a goalie wish open with the hockey fairy I would wish that Flower stays and plays the playoffs of his life next season to get his hands on the Cup again. 

The coaching situation

We started already with Meloche and probably that is the way go to - keeping Bylsma but making sure that there is a significant shake up in his team of assitant coaches, but I am really not sure. 

The players obviously adore Bylsma and stand strong behind their coach even now, but SOMETHING needs to happen. There were too many things on so many levels that were so obviously wrong like the Iggy issue, weird combinations of defensemen, sitting Beau too long and Despres all the time and so on and on. On top of all this Bylsma's end of season press conference was really, really weird and not exactly encouraging. 

I have trouble to get to a final opinion on this issue. Something needs to change but what exactly? I do not know. I am neither in the "Fire Bylsma" nor in the "Keep the coaches" team. Thank god - and here the loop is closing - I do not have to make this decision. It will be on Lemieux and Shero. There are rumors that Mario wants Bylsma gone, but those are just rumors. Maybe we'll know more once Shero had his press conference later this week. 


What ever happens with this team, one thing is for sure:  I'll be back. I'll be back watching games late at night. I'll be back sporting my Pens gearI'll be back to Pittsburgh and back to CEC at my seat (hopefully) behind the glass in two times defense

And then ... then we'll take the pieces and build them skywards*  -  LET'S GO PENS!!!!!


PS: The quote is taken from the song "Machines" by Biffy Clyro.

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