All posts by toughcallblog

Offseason Player Grade: Matt Cullen

2016-17 REGULAR SEASON:

GP   G    A    PTS    +/-    PIM
72   13  18     31     +4     30

2016-17 PLAYOFFS:

GP   G    A   PTS   +/-   PIM
25    2     7      9     -1     24

PLAYER GRADE (A+):

Matt Cullen was on the Penguins for three main reasons: character, faceoffs, and penalty killing. He did all of that and more. He was worth not promoting an AHL prospect for fourth line duties.

REVIEW:

Other than mentoring young players, his regular season was meaningless, yet he put up is second straight 30 point season of his forties, and his fifth in seven seasons.

His highlight was probably scoring the game winning goal in the Stadium Series. His first career outdoor game ended in a 4-2 win against the Flyers.

In the playoffs, he was a beast again in the face off circle, finishing 9th in the league at 56.42%. Antoine Vermette was the only other player in the top 10 who made it out of the first round. Having gone the distance while maintaining a top 10 faceoff percentage means he was the most consistent in that stat for the longest stretch out of anyone in the NHL this post season.

He also had two game winning goals and two shorthanded goals, and even chipped in with two power play goals! Not something you would bank on, or even hope for, from Cullen.

PREVIEW:

Cullen will likely retire this summer, but I could see him as a future video analyst and development coach, hopefully in the Pittsburgh organization. 

Off Season Player Grades: Nick Bonino

2016-17 REGULAR SEASON:

GP   G    A   PTS   +/-   PIM
80   18  19    37     -5    16

2016-17 PLAYOFFS:

GP  G    A    PTS   +/-   PIM
21   4     3      7     +4      2

PLAYER GRADE (B):

Nick Bonino was a valuable player for the Pens over the regular season, but seemed a little lost at times and wasn’t quite the energy player he presented himself as last season.

REVIEW:

Bonino improved nicely in most statistical categories this season, doubling his goal output and coming close to 40 points. He took over 100 shots for just the third time in his career, and he passed 400 career games played.

However, as a third line centre he also ended up as a minus for just the second time in his career. Being on a linemate carousel didn’t help, but there was just something about his energy and compete level that seemed off.

This trend continued into the playoffs. However, Bonino found other ways to contribute such as timely backchecking and shot blocking. It wasn’t the total effort we saw last year, but like most of his mates, he took advantage of the moments given to him.

PREVIEW:

Bonino signed a lucrative 4-year deal with the Nashville Predators to be their second line center. He will not be with the Penguins next season.

Interference on Crosby?

Two major topics came out of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday. The first was the fact the Penguins went 37 minutes without a shot on goal. The second was, as always, the officiating.

On top of a disallowed Nashville goal from an offside review, there was also a 5 on 3 power play awarded to Pittsburgh when two penalties were assessed to the Predators at the same time.

What irked a lot of people was not what they called, but what they didn’t call. Welcome to another episode of Sidney Crosby got away with one.

On that same five on three power-play, Crosby gave Matthias Ekholm a bump beside the net in an effort to stop him from getting to the puck. Ekholm went down, and cries for an interference penalty went up.

To all you non-Penguins fans, I really do see what you’re saying here. I can see how it looks like interference. Plus you all may want it to be interference even more because it’s Sidney Crosby.

On the flip side, you’ll probably not read this with an open mind because you already think I’m defending it only because it’s Sidney Crosby.

So instead of boring you with the details of the play, I’m going to ask you to answer one question:

Was Sidney Crosby eligible to be hit?

That’s right. I’m referring to Crosby, not Ekholm. Crosby touched the puck, and it was momentarily in his skates. He had “possession” just prior to the contact. If he was still eligible to receive contact, then he was allowed to engage in a puck battle to defend his already established position.

I’m not saying this as a boom! Gotcha! type of point. I’m just trying to get people to look at it from a point of view other than seeing some guy innocently going for a puck and having another guy stick his butt out and knock him over.

To me, that’s not what happened. I saw a guy who just had the puck and was putting himself in the best possible position to win it back again.

The Penguins Are Much Improved

The Pittsburgh Penguins look a lot different now than they did three games ago.

The passion was there, but the energy and control were not. Suddenly, they’re much more involved in this series. They’re doing the little things now.

By little things I don’t mean the traditional cliche things like blocking shots and backchecking. I mean the little things that show a player is in it, I mean really in it.

Here’s a few examples:

The references here are telling. Sens defenceman Dion Phaneuf and Penguin Chris Kunitz were involved in a tussle beside the Senators net and got coincidental penalties. Kunitz went to the box laughing while Phaneuf stood arguing, obviously (and to be honest, rightly) frustrated about why he got a penalty too.

Phaneuf also took Crosby down after he shot a puck, and instead of reacting, Crosby just propped himself up on one knee and gave a fairly condescending smile to Phaneuf.

It’s these specific little things that prove one thing as summed up very well in this next tweet:

The Senators will have to do something pretty special to turn the tables back around. We should be in for some kind of a finish to this series.

Phil Kessel Comes To Life

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. It’s convenient to wait until the day after Phil Kessel scored the only goal of a 1-0 win to write an article defending him.

There’s been one thing I’ve seen from Kessel very recently that I don’t like, and it’s how he lays out on the boards, head buried in his arms. It made me wonder if he was off a little.

However, his emotion and passion is awesome. Yelling at his teamates a little is great. He wants things to be better. We all do. Evgeni Malkin has looked sluggish at times, so why can’t Phil say something? I know the obvious answer is because he’s not doing everything right either so how can he call anyone else out. But here’s the thing about Phil Kessel: he knows his role.

A super sniper like Kessel plays on the second or third line, and sits on the number one power play unit (Washington could learn a thing or two about how a winning team handles big name snipers). He’s there for one reason. That reason isn’t to back check. That reason isn’t to block shots. That reason isn’t to throw big hits. It’s to score goals. Period.

Now, Kessel learned last year theres more to hockey than scoring. There’s winning too. The best way to win is to back check, block shots, and throw some hits. He does all those things too. But that’s just a bonus. His spot in the roster and his role on his line is to finish. If the passes aren’t coming, he can’t do his job. He wants help and he’s making it clear.

There’s one important thing to remember as well: even with a goal scoring role, because of the makeup of the Penguins there isn’t one player that needs to score all the time. He doesn’t need to be consistent and carry the team. He just needs to chip in once in a while. That’s the beauty of a deep team.

Fans have been spoiled for too long by having everyone scoring at the same time. The Penguins averaged over 4 goals game for half the season. But really, they only need one or two players at a time to be really on.

Conor Sheary was hot in the first half of the season, for example. Malkin was a beast midway through. Sidney Crosby got really hot down the stretch. Into the playoffs Jake Guentzel started out as the animal. Patric Hornqvist stepped up with a big goal in Game 7 against Washington. Kessel stepped up with a big goal last game. He’s taking his turn and that’s all they need.

These ramblings on the bench aren’t a rant from some whiny farm boy begging Uncle Owen to let him go into town and buy some power converters. This is a top NHL goal scorer trying to make things better.

I know the way to close a Pittsburgh sports fan’s mind is to use Tom Brady as an example of something to aspire to, but how many championships has that guy won? He expects the most out of his teammates. He yells and hollers at them and he’s the first one to tell them when they need to be better.

I’m not comparing Phil Kessel to Brady as far as the level of dominance in their sports, or even on the same level of respect from team mates. But it’s the passion. It’s the fire. It’s blazing full force. This isn’t something Kessel normally does so now that he’s done it, instead of putting him down and calling him out, I think he’s earned having his team (and fans) taking another look and asking why is he doing this now.

To get that answer, maybe a better comparison would be Patric Hornqvist. Should he have been kicked off the team last playoff season when he blew a gasket at no less than Sidney Crosby on the bench twice a game?

The playoffs are an emotional ride. Columbus and Washington were both extremely easy series to get invested in. If you don’t play with an edge and be the aggressor in those series, you don’t survive. And I don’t just mean you lose the series. I mean you physically get destroyed. It’s literally personally dangerous to not be on your guard and fight back at all times.

So after those gruelling rounds, you start off against a team who sits back. A team who doesn’t go looking for anything. You could easily float around in this series and never be hit. A team lulls you to sleep and doesn’t give you any energy. You have to make your own energy. That takes more work. That takes more effort. Sometimes it takes more creativity.

Athletes coax themselves into game modes in strange ways at times. When your opponent isn’t doing anything to work up a hatred, your friends can be a good substitute. Sometimes that means bench rage. That was a little bit for his fellow Pens, and some of that has nothing to do with them. He’s looking to get into the series, and it may just have worked.

How The Pens Can Bounce Back In Game 4

With Sidney Crosby out of the lineup for at least Game 4, who needs to step up in his absence? How about…no one.

No one needs to do anything differently. The Pens have players in and out of the lineup all the time. They play four lines and everyone is expected to contribute.

Not even Evgeni Malkin needs to adjust. He’s already a leader. He’s already a big moment guy. He already leads the NHL in playoff scoring. How can we expect him to do any more?

No. What everyone has to do is just play the way they always have. Look at the group on defense.

Kris Letang has been out for the entire playoffs and the back line is doing just fine. Have you noticed a single guy trying to outdo anyone and be the hero? No. They want to be known as the Pittsburgh Penguins defense group. Not player X and player Y.

The forwards will be wise to do the same. They all play for the crest on the front, not the name on the back. That’s a cliche for a reason. Now, everyone is going to be playing for the “C” in the press box.

But they’ll do so as a team like they always have, because that’s what winners do.

Calvert’s Cross Check Out of Line

There’s been a lot of hitting so far this playoff season.  The Edmonton Oilers (particularly Matt Kassian) are pounding the San Jose Sharks around.  The usually low key Ottawa Senators are keeping pace with the Boston Bruins in the hit department. The New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens averaged a combined 43 hits during the regular season, but in game one combined for 98.  In game two, the Rangers alone threw 74 hits out of the 129 between them.  Let’s just say the physical play has been ramped up big time in pretty much every series.

Pittsburgh and Columbus have been no different, with over 80 hits in game two. There’s one noticeable difference though in this series. The venom behind the contact. The disrespect. There’s been a few questionable hits league wide as far as leaving the feet a little or maybe getting a little overzealous in the force behind a push.  But I’ve really noticed in almost every game that even with the cross checking in front to clear the crease, you can tell that’s what it is. The players push and push hard, but once the area is cleared and the danger is over, the pushing stops. It’s gritty, tough checking, no inch given, playoff hockey. Every team seems to know it except for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

There wasn’t any one huge incident or any one player to pick out during game one and most of game two. There was just something about the way the Blue Jackets players carry themselves when they hack and check. I can’t even put my finger on it, but you could just tell something was going to happen.

The Penguins aren’t angels, but they are playoff experienced and tend to calmly shutdown after the whistle and walk away. The Jackets have had their scoring chances and haven’t much to show for it, so you can see why they’d be frustrated. You can see a cross check or a big hit getting a little out of control with the emotion. Like I said, that’s happened across the board so far.  But the reaction by the offending player has always been “uh oh. whoops.” And to the players’ credit, the reaction of the victim in these cases so far has also always been “I know you didn’t mean that. It’s just a battle gotten a little out of control. If it happens again I’ll have to do something, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on that one.”

What Matt Calvert of the Jackets did last night was nothing like this. In the dying seconds of a game that clearly has gotten away, he broke his stick over Tom Kuhnackl’s head like so:

Maybe the stick broke a little easily and made it look worse. Maybe he meant to get his shoulder. I could give him the benefit of the doubt too, if he didn’t react the way he did.  The worst part about this is for him to see Kuhnackl clearly rattled and bent over. Even if he meant to get him in the shoulder, it’s obvious he didn’t. If he had just reacted in a different way, like a glove up in apology, or to even just skate away with a sympathetic look. But knowing he did break his stick over someone’s head, to then wave his arm in a “get over it” motion, and then to turn back around and immediately clock the defenceless, vulnerable, and hunched over injured player with a head shot is beyond unacceptable.

Anyone looking at this now knows:

a)you must have meant to cross check the head because you seem fine with it.

b)You showed no remorse for injuring someone.

c)You obviously meant to injure them because you went back and hit them again to make sure.

The cross check alone is a suspendable offence. The head shot to the injured and defenceless Kuhnackl alone is also a suspendable offence. So combined I’m hoping to see Calvert gone for the remainder of the first round. If we base it on history, though, Dubinsky only got one game for playing Crosby’s ear like a violin, so likely at most this will be two games.

That’s why we’ll continue to see this type of thing from the Blue Jackets going forward. I just hope if the Pens do win the series, there’s enough of them left to play the rest of the way.