The Pittsburgh Penguins' travelling road show made a rare pass through Western Canada this past week, providing glimpses of two of the NHL's most absorbing stars and one of the NHL's most intriguing clubs. The Penguins were just okay – their own assessment, not just the outside view – partly because they've lost a little bit of the defensive identity that had made them so good as they dealt with injury after injury through December and the early part of January, managing to win a lot of games despite sometimes having a starting defence corps that came to you directly from Wilkes Barre, Penn., home of their AHL minor-league affiliate.
It often goes this way – your regulars return and your play all of a sudden momentarily dips. Rob Scuderi, Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik all missed large chunks of the season and the rust is still evident at times in their respective games. The Penguins projected that Letang and Scuderi would ultimately be their No. 1 pair this season, but of their first 45 games, Scuderi got into just 16, Letang 26. So as a tandem, they are a work in progress. Luckily, the Penguins as a team are so comfortably ahead of everybody else in the Metropolitan Division that general manager Ray Shero can think big-picture thoughts from here until the end of the season and ensure that they have the right pieces to make another run at the Stanley Cup.
Since winning it all in 2009 amid predictions that they were a dynasty in the offing, the Penguins were eliminated in the second round once, the first round twice and then made it all the way to the conference final last year, only to get smoked by the Boston Bruins.
Shero made a big push for reinforcements at last year's trading deadline, in the hopes of getting the Penguins over the top, but in an extensive conversation with him the other day in Edmonton, it didn't sound as if he wanted to go down that path again, if at all possible. Shero essentially said that you can't continue to deplete your organization of young assets or the chance to replace young assets through the draft every single year at the deadline.
And while he didn't get up a single top prospect in moves that landed him Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow and others, you get the sense that if the Penguins have all remaining hands on deck through Mar.5, they may not be all that active this year at the deadline, even though there is currently a big gap on Crosby's right side, thanks to the season-ending injury to Pascal Dupuis. For the moment, minor-league call-up Brian Gibbons is getting a crack at playing with Crosby and Chris Kunitz. Physically, Gibbons is cut from the Brian Gionta mold – tiny, but quick and skilled. Gibbons was leading the baby Penguins in scoring when he got the call and though his ice time has varied, and had a modest six points in his first 13 games, playing just over 11 minutes per night.
Unlike last season, where there was a limited supply of rental players available at the trading deadline, this year, the shopping list for any GM looking for reinforcements will be deeper – the likes of Ales Hemsky (Edmonton), Michael Cammalleri (Calgary) or Matt Moulson (Buffalo) all likely will be offered into the market. On paper, Hemsky looks as if he could be a fit on either of the Penguins' top lines, a skilled and competitive player with a deep desire to win. Cammalleri had a sensational series for the Montreal Canadiens when they knocked off the Penguins in the second round of the 2010 playoffs and they have a good scouting report on Moulson, having faced him for years now when they played the New York Islanders.
Before committing to any rentals, the Penguins first want to see how rookie Beau Bennett plays coming back off injury. Projected as the winger on Malkin's line coming out of training camp, Bennett had missed all but a handful of games this season, and so, the returns on his readiness to play a top-six role are naturally inconclusive.
But he is expected back at some point in February and Shero would ideally like to get him down to the minors for an injury rehab stint before NHL play starts up again after the Olympics. From the resumption of play Feb. 27 until the Mar. 5 deadline, there isn't a lot of time to make decisions, but there'll be enough time to weigh the costs of adding depth to the value of standing pat. By then, the Penguins will also have Paul Martin back, which will leave them with a surplus of defencemen.
Shero showed last year that the two prospects teams coveted – Olli Maatta, currently logging a lot of ice time as a 19-year-old, and Derrick Pouliot, who played well for Canada in the world junior championships – weren't going anywhere. Moving a secondary prospect or two – this year's version of Ben Hankinson – might get them to change their minds. But with four of the top offensive players in the NHL on their roster again, and Taylor Pyatt, added off waivers from the New York Rangers to provide a physical presence on the bottom six, the Penguins may not make anywhere near the kind of splash they did at last year's deadline. It will be an interesting situation to monitor.
OIL CHANGE: The Oilers pulled off one of their most satisfying wins of the season Friday night against those same Penguins, coming back twice in the game to pull out an OT victory, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scoring the winning goal on a four-on-three power play after Taylor Hall had made a good play at the point, diving to keep the puck in the zone. The Oilers can tease you that way, sometimes elevating their games against the NHL's skilled teams when they get room to play.
Realistically, there are two ways to be bad in the NHL – you can be exciting bad or tedious bad. A lot of nights, because of their erratic attention to the defensive side of the game, the Oilers are exciting bad. The Montreal Canadiens' Lars Eller had it right earlier in the season, even if coach Dallas Eakins took offence, when he compared them to a junior team. The Oilers are error-prone in the same way so many junior hockey teams make mistakes, and they weren't exactly flawless defensively against the Penguins either. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk kept them in it with some great saves and then they found a way to pull it out.
In some respects their style of play suggest the Oilers would fare better in the Eastern Conference, where the play is more freewheeling. In the West, and especially in the Pacific Division, the fact that Nugent Hopkins, Hall, Jordan Eberle and the rest are constantly running into the size and/or experience of the Ryan Getzlafs, Joe Thorntons, Anze Kopitars and Sedins has made it challenging for them to be good at both ends. The Oilers could theoretically hide those players at home through line matching, but it's harder to do if they don't have anyone beyond Boyd Gordon to do the heavy lifting defensively.
Ideally, what they need is a latter-day Joel Otto, someone who – in the heyday of the Battle of Alberta – could physically go toe-to-toe with Mark Messier and make him work for every inch of ice. Those were epic battles and one reason why the Flames picked up Joe Colborne earlier this year from the Toronto Maple Leafs was the hope that they could turn him a Joel Otto type – involved physically, smart defensively and someone with the capacity to add a little bit of offence here and there.
The problem in the NHL these days is that centres with size and skill are so hard to come by and any team that has them, immediately slots them into a top-six role. So it's a useful experiment by a Calgary team that is having a hard go of it lately, sinking fast to the bottom of the conference. In every season for every team, there is always ebb and flow. Even good teams will go stale for a while and even bad teams occasionally surge unexpectedly.
But when bad teams go into slump, yikes, you get what you see in Calgary right now – a team shut out in five of its last eight games, which managed to finally get one to go against the Penguins during Saturday's 2-1 loss. That goal, by Mikael Backlund, scored in the third period, only served to highlight how dry the offence had been of late. It snapped a shutout span of 174 minutes and 59 seconds overall; and on home ice, it had been 196 minutes and 59 seconds between goals for the Flames.
Jiri Hudler, who didn't make the Czech Republic's Olympic team this past week, continues to chip away – he is 15 points ahead of his nearest competitor in the team scoring race – but Sean Monahan, the first month's rookie sensation, has slowed down; as has Cammalleri, Lee Stempniak and Matt Stajan, all of whom had decent offensive starts to the season.
The Oilers' upside looks far greater than Calgary's and the challenge for them is to string some wins together in the second half, so they can hit the ground running next season. This season, of course, is a lost cause.
With three days in town, Crosby was asked a lot of questions about the Oilers; specifically in relation to how much time a young team built around premium draft choices should reasonably need before starting to get its act together. Crosby's responses were all polite – he praised the Oilers skill and the style of hockey they play – and noted that in his first year, the Penguins managed just 58 points and finished 15th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference. All true – but the next year, Malkin arrived from Russia; they jumped to 105 points; lost to a good Ottawa team in the first round that would eventually get to the Stanley Cup final that year. To a man, the Senators players all predicted the Penguins would be a handful from that year forward, and they have been. They went to the final in Crosby's third year and won in his fourth and have been a dominant regular season team in seven of his first eight seasons. So against that body of work, the Oilers are miles behind.
You wonder. Lots of people in Edmonton believe that owner Darryl Katz had some significant input into the decision to draft Nail Yakupov first overall in 2012 rather than opt for the safer choice, defenceman Ryan Murray, who would have filled a greater organizational need. With every passing day, that decision looks more and more suspect. Murray was limited to 23 games with the Everett Silvertips last year because of major knee surgery, but even as an NHL rookie, has looked good on the Columbus defence, playing a lot with James Wisniewski and providing the defensive presence on that pair. What if Murray turns out to be Alex Pietrangelo good – and they left him on the table to draft another offensive player, of which they had plenty already? How do you assess blame there? Or maybe they already have, since the GM that called Yakupov's name, Steve Tambellini, is no longer running the show.
JUST DUCKY: Quietly and without much fanfare, the Anaheim Ducks have been pulling away from the pack in the Pacific Division. They were 16-1 in their past 17 heading into a Sunday date with the Detroit Red Wings, and became the first team to go on such a run since the Washington Capitals went 17-1 three years ago. The common thread – Bruce Boudreau coached both teams. There was talk earlier this year that the Ducks might consider moving pending unrestricted free agent goalie Jonas Hiller because of their organizational depth in net, but that seems unlikely now, with Hiller firmly established as the team's starter, Boudreau having a number of younger options as his second choice, including highly touted John Gibson.
Hiller, meanwhile, had won 13 games in a row, the first goalie to win that many consecutively since Chris Osgood turned the trick for the Detroit Red Wings in 1996. The NHL record for goalie wins is 14 in a row – shared by Tom Barrasso (Pittsburgh) in 1992-93 and Tiny Thompson (Boston) in 1929-30. The numbers overall are staggering: The Ducks came from behind to win in 10 of their 16 wins in the current streak and are 15-5-1 when allowing the first goal of the game. The Ducks have rallied from a deficit in 10 of 16 victories on their current 17-game streak. They are a league best 15-5-1 (.738 per cent) when allowing the first goal this season.
Team captain Ryan Getzlaf suffered an undisclosed lower-body injury vs. the Coyotes Saturday, but not before he'd scored his 23rd of the season and seventh game winner, which left him just two short of his career high of 25. Only linemate Corey Perry has more game-winning goals (eight) than Getzlaf in the NHL this season. Anaheim's strong play shouldn't probably be that much of a surprise – they were, after all, 30-12-6 last year during the lockout, but were upset in the first round by the Wings.
THE WEEKLY JAROMIR JAGR WATCH: The Devils have been dismal in the shootout this year – 0-6 – so they pulled out a win with two seconds to go in OT Saturday, with a set play off the faceoff, Jaromir Jagr chipping it back to Marek Zidlicky, Zidlicky getting a clean look to put a one-timer past Panthers' goalie Tim Thomas. For Jagr, that was the 1,724th point of his NHL career, moving into seventh place on the all-time scoring list behind former teammate Mario Lemieux. At this current rate of production, Jagr also has a chance to become the seventh player in NHL history to score 700 goals – he is currently six shy and tied with Mark Messier at 694 on the all-time list. Jagr's 33 career regular season OT points is second in history behind – surprisingly – injured Devils teammate Patrik Elias, who has 35.
THIS AND THAT: Shero couldn't provide an update on Tomas Vokoun, who was supposed to be the Penguins' backup this season and ended up starting 11 playoff games for them last year. Vokoun is out with a blood clot and his return seems murky at best. Either way, it looks as if the Penguins will put their trust in Marc-Andre Fleury again. Fleury is at 26 wins through 47 games and thus would need another 22 in the final 35 games to tie Martin Brodeur's mark for the most regular-season wins in NHL history (48, established in 2006-07). Fleury's career high is 42, set two years ago, and once again, the pressure will be on him to follow up a productive September-to-April, with a much improved playoff. Fleury had hoped that he might be in the mix for Canada's Olympic goaltending trio, but the Penguins privately are probably pretty happy that considering the minutes he's logging, and their hopes to go deep in this year's playoffs, that he's going to get much of February off.
AND FINALLY: There is a precedent for an NHL coaches to win the Jacks Adams coach of the year award after being a mid-season replacement. Boudreau did it in 2008, replacing Glen Hanlon, and Bill Barber did it in 2001, replacing Craig Ramsey with the Philadelphia Flyers. Could Craig Berube, the current Flyers' coach, who took over from Peter Laviolette, manage the same trick? The Flyers were dead in the water when Berube took over, but have surged up to No. 2 in the admittedly weak Metropolitan Division. The Flyers loss to Tampa on Saturday snapped a 10-game home-ice winning streak, their first defeat since mid-November. Berube seems to have simplified the Flyers game; made a couple of tactical changes that have resulted in better balanced lines and probably benefited from the fact that Claude Giroux got healthy again.
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