Monday, August 31, 2009

Sittin' 'Round the Summer Campfire, Part Two

We’re here with another look back at our trip into the north woods with the cousins, Fearless and Cheerless. The subject of prognostications came up…

Well guys, I don’t know if you’ve read any prognostications for the upcoming sea—

“Cuz, when I’ve had this much beer, my limit is three syllables…”

Fine, Cheerless. I don’t know if you’ve read any predictions for the upcoming season…

“That’s better…”

But it seems that it’s a foregone conclusion that the Penguins are the class of the East, if not the whole league. You guys have an opinion?

“Makes one wonder if hockey writers have Sidney Crosby’s picture on their desk or in their wallets. Yeah, the Penguins are good, but it’s hardly a slam dunk that they’re the best team in their division, let alone the East.”

Fearless, you seem to have strong feelings about this.

“OK, let’s look back for a moment. Yeah, the Penguins got to skate the Cup around Joe Louis Arena ice. Fine, they deserved to. But how did they get there? The series they played against Carolina in the conference final was truly dominating. They outscored the Hurricanes 20-9 and played in only one game decided by fewer than three goals in sweeping the series.”

“Hey cuz, he’s doin’ all this without a cheat sheet.”

Remarkable… go on.

“Well, in the other three series, the Penguins were taken to seven games twice, six games once, had a record of 12-8, outscored their opponents by a total of four goals (59-55) and lost elimination games in two of the series.”

Your point?

“They were good enough to win, but not by much.”

It’s not “how,” cuz, it’s “how many,” and the Penguins still won 16 games.

“Right you are, and we’re not arguing that the Penguins are an unworthy champion, but to hear some talk, it’s as if they are now the reincarnation of the Gretzky-led Oilers from 25 years ago. That first Oiler Cup winner had a 15-4 record in winning the Cup and outscored their opponents, 94-56, in doing it.”

Well, that was the first year they won the Cup.

“It didn’t stop there. The Oilers won four Cups in a five-year period, and in doing so had a playoff record in the four Cup-winning years of 62-14.”

“It was a different era, cuz…”

“And that’s the point, hops-breath. There are no truly dominating teams these days. The Red Wings are the closest approximation of one, and they won four Cups over an 11-year period, not five years, like the Oilers, or in four consecutive years, like the Islanders before them.”


“The Penguins are one of many, perhaps more so this coming year than in any of the last decade.”

So you think they’re going to fail to repeat?...

“…just like the last ten Stanley Cup winners.”

Fearless has a point. If you look at the Penguins, you have to look at their gains and losses. They lost a couple of defensemen – Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill – and will replace them with Jay McKee and, one would think, Alex Goligoski. Gologiski is a nice kid, but he looks more like an eventual replacement for Sergei Gonchar, not a replacement for Scuderi.

“What about that Magoo guy?”

“McKee…Jay McKee. Read a newspaper once. Well, maybe, but you’d have to wonder… in five of the last six seasons, he’s missed at least a dozen games, and in three of them he missed at least 20 games.”

Well, you’d have to think Crosby and Malkin will continue to improve.

“Really? To what, 140 points? The days when a player gets that many points are gone, cuz, unless they slice some more equipment off of goalies or make the nets bigger. Goalies are too good, and there are too many of them. And even if that wasn’t the case, Bill Guerin will be 39 in November, and Chris Kunitz couldn’t shoot a puck into the ocean in the playoffs. Crosby and Malkin will be better, but enough to make up for the net losses elsewhere?...”

So, if not the Penguins, who?

“There are several teams that could come out of the East, if things broke just right for them. And yes, the Penguins are one of them. But so could the Caps, one of those teams that took Pittsburgh to seven games and with a goalie who had 12 games of experience under his belt going into the series. Boston could advance; they were an overtime goal away from advancing to the conference final last year, and they bring the important pieces of their team back almost intact.”

“Unless they can’t figure out that kettle mess.”



Philadelphia could advance, if Pronger still has his engine running high, they can stay away from injuries, and they get the 2007 version of Ray Emery, not the 2008 version. And Carolina, the team that did advance in beating Boston, returns just about everyone. Cam Ward seems to have this goaltending thing figured out. He’s improved in wins in each of the two years following the 2006-2007 season (from 30 to 37 to 39 wins), GAA (from 2.93 to 2.75 to 2.44), save percentage (from .897 to .904 to .916), and shutouts (from two to four to six).

“Don’t forget the Devils…”

Everyone talks about the Devils taking a step back. This has been a theme for a few years, now. I’ll believe it when I see it. They’d have to be thought of as in the mix, certainly as long as they have Brodeur.

“All these teams have question marks, though.”

Yup… with the Penguins, it will be their blue line. The Caps?... goaltending. Carolina?... age. Philly?... goaltending. New Jersey… is Brodeur still “Brodeur?” And the Bruins…


“Hey, he got one!”

Even a blind squirrel finds an empty beer can once in a while. Yeah, goaltending. You wouldn’t think so, seeing as how the Bruins have the defending Vezina Trophy winner in Tim Thomas. The issue with him will be his load. The most regular season games he’s played in a season in his career is 66, three seasons ago. In each of the next two seasons, he played in fewer – 57 games in 2007-2008 and 54 games in 2008-2009. If he’s managed in the same fashion this year, who is getting those other 25 games? Is Tuukka Rask ready?

“As long as Thomas is ready for the playoffs…”

Yeah, that’s why the Bruins won’t hit 116 points again. But what you’re going to see is half a dozen teams clustered around that 100-point level, and there are some interesting games at the end of the season. In the last weekend, Carolina plays Boston, Boston plays Washington, Philadelphia has a home and home against the Rangers, who cost the Flyers home ice against the Penguins last year.

“So, who’s going to come out of the East?”

Patience, cuz… we’ve got a month until opening night.

“All I wanna know is, whose turn is it to fetch the beer?”