Monday, July 1, 2013

The beginning to an end of an era.

I'm just writing this shit.  No punctuation or corrections otherwise.  It's surplus to requirement.  In short, I feel sick.  Nothing, no action so far this summer has been what is necessary to sustain a Championship-level team for the foreseeable future; quite the opposite.

Malkin, Kunitz, Fleury, Letang.  Bylsma.  What would I have done?  Trade, keep until end of contract, compliance buy out, trade.  Fire after Game 3 of Islanders series.  What did Pittsburgh do?  Extend, extend, name as future starter, attempt to extend.  Extend.

No matter what, Dan Bylsma is the coach of the Penguins, which means that players will be misused, systems will be stark, and the playoffs will not go well.  His having won a Championship with Therrien's systems is probably the worst thing that could have happened with respect to the potential of the personnel 2009-2013 and now until 2016.  Losing to the Islanders, as we should have, would have been the best thing for this organization.  It really put into focus the hollowness of the desire to displace and avenge the 2012 loss to the Flyers, especially by the coaching staff.  After all of the talk, Pittsburgh was an overtime away from a game 7 with an 8th seed comprised of ill-developed high draft picks, journeymen, and waiver wire pick ups - half of whom did not want to be there.  Instead, we've extended the reasons for failure.  It amounts to a waste of 7 the first 11 years of Sidney Crosby's career.

I predict now that after losing in the first round next year, the synopsis will go something like this: "The team underwent significant changes.  Youth, inexperience, uhhhhhh... Anyway we did well in the regular season, we'll get 'em next year!  Any given Sunday!" That won't be any easier to take than: (regarding making it to the Eastern Finals) "There are 27 teams that would love to have traded places with us.  Any given Sunday!"  That's what they said this season after being swept as the top seed and holding a lead for 0:00 minutes with the best two players in the league on the roster.  Also something about LA winning as a low seed.  Not the "won with strategic defense and goaltending" part, just the "made the playoffs and won, Any Given Sunday!!!" part.

By the way, all of the talk regarding how much the trades for Murray, Morrow, and Iginla backfired don't seem to mention that no Penguin from the roster was removed.  Dan could have chosen from what he already had at any time.  Dan went old, he went out of position, and he went out of the playoffs for the fourth time in his four-and-a-half year NHL coaching career.

Kris Letang.  Where do I start?  His demand for a contract in excess of $7M is too high for the Penguins to field a decent roster otherwise?  His inability to be a scoring threat on the power play?  His multiple (like 8, man) gaffes that directly lead to goals against in these past playoffs?  That he was a third round pick and could, in a trade, command multiple first round picks?  How about the reports that he won't sign an 8 year extension if he doesn't get a verbal guarantee that he won't be traded before that contract takes effect next July, effectively re-negotiating his current deal?  That the Penguins are even receptive to this is unacceptable.

An uncommonly deep draft has come and gone whilst we apparently wait for that issue to be cleared up.  Next year's draft is average even at the high end.  Were the Penguins to trade Letang this season, he won't be a Norris finalist as sure as he was this year, and he won't be under contract for a year the way he would have been in 2013-14.  Letang is less valuable to an extreme in a trade tonight as opposed to this morning.  It's sickening to think that the reward for our patience is a Kris Letang cap hit of $7.250k with a limited no-move clause or a Kris Letang that will get his $8.5M in free agency next summer.  The Penguins lose in all events.

So, I'm put out.  Pittsburgh has chosen to go in the wrong direction in every instance.  I don't understand it.  The potential was there to really flourish with many young offensive players, on top of what we have, which is a lot of young defensive players and 2/3 members of two great scoring lines..  Then again...

In some ways I am pleased that we didn't add any impactful youth to the organization the way we could have this summer.  Youth is to Bylsma what the Glengarry leads were to Jack Lemon: like throwing it away.  We could have developed some fine stretch-passers and tip-inners, maybe even a big-bodied non-screener.  Tanner Glass is still under contract, which should serve as good reason to play him ahead of a rookie, even though a rookie played on the top line of the Stanley Cup Champions in Chicago.

So, no depth, no youth, no up-and-coming.  Just increased expense and more mediocre core play.

What does it mean that in 2014 Pittsburgh will have almost half of the projected salary cap committed to 8 players?  "Horace hath exposed those who spend themselves sewing here and there some cloth of gold on their sackcloth."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The calculus of ice hockey.

Hockey tactics are fascinating.  Trying to control the flow of a game as fast as NHL hockey means strategy in constant motion.  Some players make a career out of positioning while others play like a wild horse but have the talent to get away with it.  I'm interested in the synergy of the two.

It's hard to exaggerate the susceptibility of humans to illusion given the limitations of our anatomy.  This is how the neutral zone trap works.  It also happens to be how butterfly goaltending works, but I digress.  The above diagram of polar coordinates looks like the diagram for the trap (it does to me anyway).  Shepherding the puck carrier using a simple pincer attack with a second level of defensive pressure results in the loss of time and space, the inability to do anything attractive with the puck, and finally, panic.

The panic sets in as the naive puck carrier realizes that the boards he's being forced into aren't going anywhere and because of a phenomenon known as angular velocity.  Angular velocity in ice hockey can become linear velocity very, very fast.  The difference is this:  when watching an approaching train from afar, it appears to be moving very slowly (angular).  As it's passing you (linear), you realize that it's moving and has always been moving very fast.

The defending players are tasked with placing the attacking player in statistically poor portions of the ice.  This means eliminating passing lanes and skating lanes while in motion.  It means knowledge of using the blue line to keep the neutral zone as small-looking as possible.  The trapping players actually enjoy a good deal of flexibility when the team uses the speed neutralization of blue line.  It's brilliant to watch unless it's your team falling into the trap.

I'm going to put together a post to investigate offense, specifically optics and angles.  Until then, happy media day.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A few supplementary points.

Dan Bylsma's post-sweep commentary has been laughable.  Essentially he thinks that he didn't get to put the right 5 guys out on the power play too often.  This statement stands in contradiction to statements made by: Dan Bylsma.  Nothing about his structure failing to avoid being down 0-3 in the past 2 seasons to good teams.  There is sufficient evidence that the team that went to the 08 Finals and the 09 Championship team were a result of Michel Therrien's structure.  Dan didn't come in late in 2009 and change the system.  Now, 4 years later, Dan's personnel, tactics, and in-game performance speak for themselves.

I have a question: what do you think the last 4 post-2009 Stanley Cup playoff series would have looked like if the Penguins had Mike Babcock as their coach? Joel Quenneville?  Tom Renney?  Would you feel, as I do, that the Penguins were at a strategic disadvantage in every playoff series since 2008?  Like Mike Babcock, do you think Bylsma will be able to take a much younger roster and succeed in the playoffs next season?  I don't, and he won't.  We could very well waste a season's worth of development.

Finally, all the players love Dan.  Dan doesn't get angry.  Dan is all good with being called "Dan".  Dan doesn't make the players trap or take abuse in front of the net.  Of course the players love Dan.

Once again, a new identity of Penguin is necessary on the ice and on the bench.

Edit:  Rob Rossi suggesting that the Penguins may explore trading James Neal to retain 71, 58, and 29 for any reason has relieved me of my appetite.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


Dan Bylsma is telling the media that M.A. Fleury is a franchise, #1 goalie... "our franchise's goalie".  I assume he's talking about the Penguins, which is and should be shocking.   Dan is a little lacking in credibility these days, for one.  As for Fleury, it's really rich to suggest anything except departure.  More on that later.

Is Dan Bylsma so good at some intangible aspect of coaching that incompetent strategy, bad starts, and suspect lineups are secondary?

Dan should have been relieved of his duties during the Islanders series (after game 3) and especially after being swept by a team that was a relatively large underdog.  The series losses under Bylsma, including two very recently which involved complete and total systemic collapse, are the result of the absence of the most simple core tactical strategies.  That is, in part, why it seems like Pittsburgh 'discovers' a new elite goalie every spring.  Setting a screen, for instance, never happened.  Then again, you have to have possession in the offensive zone for several seconds to set and make use of a screen, which Pittsburgh did not.  Let's just say, then, for the sake of exploration that Dan was putting simple tactics to use.  What if he sought to use a trap-breaking tactic like the hard-around to create offensive pressure and use shots from the point through a screen to try to generate second-chance opportunities.  Why weren't the players on board?  0 of 4 lines and 0 of 2 power play units.

The players are either respecting and carrying out the coach's inadequate strategy and as a result lost to a lower seed 4 seasons in a row, or, the players are wildly deviating from the coach's sensible strategy and lost to a lower seed 4 seasons in a row.  At all events, the coach should be extirpated, full stop.

That's why a team like the NY Islanders, composed of waiver pick-ups and marginally overachieved to finish .500 and in 8th spot in the East, gave the Penguins a true scare and would have lost if not for Tomas Vokoun coming to the rescue.  That is what the Dan Bylsma Penguins are; a team that comes out and loses to the 8th seed because they can implement and execute a simple wing lock and counterattack.

"Man, Roloson just played really well."  "Halak was the difference."  "Rask was playing out of his mind."  Why isn't Pittsburgh getting that kind of goaltending?  And why can't they? Why isn't Voloun, who is still under contract, the starter?  Why are we settling?  Marc Andre Fleury was picked first overall, put his time in at the minor league level, and was developed in a way that allowed him to grow up with a young team and learn how to win.  He's been to the Cup finals twice, has won the Stanley Cup, and earned gold at the Vancouver Olympics.

Fleury is 28 with a long term contract; he's highly seasoned and in the thick of his prime.  Why then is he putting up a .881 save percentage and something like a 3.15 GAA in the post-Stanley Cup playoffs?  Why is he so good at broadcasting to the other team that he's rattled?  The vulnerability is overwhelming.  There just really is not enough composure or competitive drive to keep his job, as we plainly saw last week.

Saying that your franchise is in a good position going forward with that as your goalie is saying that however good the defense and forwards are, there is a trap door.  Also, that statement is coming from an often over matched coach.  Bylsma coaching : a car that does not go in reverse.  Bylsma's tactics weren't worthy of the Islanders.  Boston?  His Penguins allowed a goal in the opening minute in 2 of 4 games.  His Penguins never lead the Bruins, ever.  Bad lines, disjointed play, and relying on the backup goalie points to what the painfully obvious series of changes need to be.  Go 2014 Pens.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Penguins Off-Season plan 2013.

One serious team played results in a sweep with no power play goals and combined score line of 12-2.  Here now the off season plan for the 2013 Pittsburgh Penguins.

Coaching:  Dan Bylsma, you're fired.  I cover why in a previous entry.  Available are Paul Maurice, Tortorella, Guy Boucher, and Lindy Ruff.  Potentially available is Dave Tippett, my #1 choice.  You know what?  There's no salary cap on coaching.  Tom Renney is Mike Babcock's assistant in Detroit.  If you can get Dave Tippett and Lindy Ruff, go for it, because the roster overhaul combined with the cumulative age of the team going way down means that the team needs a completely new identity if CONSOL Energy Center is going to inspire dread in other teams the way it was intended to.

Goaltending:  Marc-Andre Fleury lost his job after the 4th straight year of totally unacceptable play.  Pittsburgh has a compliance buyout if there are no takers in a trade.  I think having only two years left at a $5M cap hit is benefit that kept more than a few teams out of the hunt for Luongo last summer.  Next year's starter is Tomas Vokoun, who has 1 year remaining at $2M.  Backup can be literally anyone in the system; new signee Eric Hartzell in particular.  

Defense:  Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik have trade clauses in their contracts and they're very valuable to the future of the defense core.  Matt Niskanen has been underwhelming during his tenure, and with one season remaining at 2.3M, could be a bit contributor as a bottom six, although it wouldn't shock me if he was not on this team next season.  Pittsburgh has approximately 7 NHL caliber prospects and I'm positive it would be better served for one of them to get that NHL ice time instead.  Simon Despres is a top-four defenseman, and if he's proven not to be, we need to move along.  Equity, yo.  Deryk Engelland and Robert Bortuzzo will more than likely be back, whereas I doubt Mark Eaton and Douglas Murray will be offered new contracts.  

That leaves Kris Letang.  Is he going to be worth what he'll command on the open market to Pittsburgh?  What's with shooting the puck wide all the time?  Is he therefore good enough on the power play?  Is his overall mercurial play in the playoffs worth tying up the cap space?  What would he be worth in a trade as a Norris candidate with a year remaining on his contract at $3.5M?  The answer to the last question is something I would love to find out, because I don't think the answers to the other questions are good enough to warrant that kind of contract.  This upcoming draft is uncommonly deep and Letang was a 3rd round selection.  Sometimes you have to treat an asset like an asset, great hair or no.  Buy low, sell high.

Wings: James Neal is signed at $5M through 2018.  This is great news as he is the real deal.  Chris Kunitz has 1 year remaining at $3.725M and it seems like he was the most popular linemate on this team.  Beau Bennett is going to have 2 years remaining on his entry-level contract starting next season and he is a top-six wing.  These are the easy ones.

Harder are Dupuis, Cooke, and Kennedy.  Pascal is probably going to cash in somewhere as he well should.  I didn't begrudge Scuderi and I won't begrudge Pascal.  I feel like the time is right for Cookie to move along.  He's a valuable PK player and is always dialed into the game but at a cost of possibly incurring the violent, blind wrath of other teams.  Tyler Kennedy really got the shaft in the last few series in these playoffs and I would suspect isn't in the future plans of the Penguins, although he is a RFA this summer.  

Tanner Glass has a year left on his deal.  Yeah, we still have Tanner Glass, and no, no I don't think it matters what happens to him.  Did I say Tanner Glass?  I meant Steve MacIntyre.  Actually I meant both. 

Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow.  What can I say except that they didn't have very big impact when shit got serious, and I never imagined that that would be the case.  Iggy was very dangerous on our power play until of course he wasn't on the power play.  He got 1 game with Sid, won that game, and then was again misused; that doesn't excuse the inability to make plays and be consistently physical.  I don't think he waived his NTC to join Pittsburgh to play LW on a line with negative levels of chemistry, but that's a coaching critique.  Morrow finished as a 4th line player, Iginla a 3rd.  I do not expect either of them to be on the 2014 roster unless they are prepared to take a 50%+ pay cut for short term.  The idea that they have too much pride to accept that dollar amount sure wasn't evident in these playoffs.

Center:  Sid is signed until the Mahdi reveals himself.  He's the best player in the world and is the face of the NHL.  Hopefully he can stay healthy late into seasons and start the playoffs at full conditioning and weight, &c.  

Brandon Sutter had a pretty solid first playoff run.  He was on the ice for, I think, 2 even strength goals against and even scored one of our two goals in the Bruins series.  I'm pitifully drunk.  He has one year remaining on his entry level deal and I think Sutter will excel in a  more structured system.  I'm really counting on that system being installed if you haven't noticed.

Jussi Jokinen and Dustin Jeffrey were on the taxi squad and will compete for the same role of jack of all trades forward on the 2014 Pens.  JJ has 1 year remaining at 2.1M, DJ is a RFA who will probably seek arbitration.  

Much in this same way, Craig Adams and Joe Vitale are 4th line centers who do 4th line type shit.  Vitale is a UFA after next season; Adams is a UFA this summer.  I really like what Adams brings to the team in all its' facets as the NHLPA Rep and as a 2-time Champion.  He's an uncommon commodity and he had an excellent series against the Bruins.  

Thus brings us to the hardest decision, Evgeni Vladimirovich Malkin.  His contract is up at the end of next season, and he has a No Move Clause that I think goes into effect July 1, 2013.  That means that before/at the draft on June 30, he could be traded for what I would expect to be an overwhelming trade package, especially given the rating of this year's draft class.  I think it will depend on his taste for a contract similar to that of Sid Crosby and the direction of the team.  Moving Fleury one way or another potentially frees up the cap space to resign Malkin and Letang to long term deals.  

I'm really on the fence about Geno.  His wingers this season were the stuff of pure folly and whimsical flights of fancy, yet he was futile and frustrated.  He's undisciplined.  He's been a big part of the Pens' lack of focus and conviction in the post-season.  Malkin (and Letang) in the Islanders' and then Bruins' series made so many ill-advised and ridiculously bad plays that did directly result in goals against that I'm open to the idea that we have already gotten the best out of them.  

Franchise centers are rare things.  Great teams of the past have typically had two centers that were outstanding.  We've been one of those teams since the 05 lockout; yet teams that have significantly less high end payers like Boston, Detroit, and Chicago have been more successful (or will be after this season).  The Crosby/Malkin/{Staal}/Letang/Fleury core, as young as it is, has underachieved in a pretty weak conference.  I think the rarity of a player like Malkin is the reason to trade him.  In fact, if Pittsburgh does the prudent thing when it comes to the coaching staff and the direction and identity of the team, the Penguins could be in a much stronger position in a season or two with the assets Malkin brings in.  Doubly so if the Penguins trade Letang at the height of his value.

I would suggest then at this point to trade Fleury or use one of the two compliance buy out clauses to extirpate his contract.  I would seek a trade before or at the NHL entry draft for Evgeni Malkin.  I would also seek a trade for Kris Letang.  At some point these players are assets owned by and controlled by the Penguins organization; I think the Penguins are in a rare position to liquidate for extreme value two very rare assets; at least as rare as the chance to compete for Lord Stanley that these players just threw away.  

Pittsburgh Penguins Postmortem 2013

For all their success this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are an extremely inept hockey team.  

The system that the Penguins employ has 2 features;

1) Both D skate to the puck and make frequent use of reverse passes, 

2) Stretch passes to the offensive neutral zone.  Note that this is not the Torpedo system.  The Torpedo has nuance and positioning.

I'm not trying to be a cynical or cute, those are literally the only points of strategy Pittsburgh uses.  There is no neutral zone tactic and no offensive/defensive zone tactic.  Zero.  Also missing are multi-player face off tactics and a strategy for puck possession in the offensive zone.

Teams that cycle well do so by design, and that is why Pittsburgh does not cycle well.  They don't use picks, and the almost never screen.  I would have thought that playing Detroit twice in the Cup finals would have highlighted the value of screening goalies and setting picks.  Refusing to screen the goalie is probably the biggest factor in the successes of Roloson, Halak, Rask, &c.  Pittsburgh does not generally have a planned way to open passing lanes or shooting lanes. The opponent's goalie is a) able to see the shot, and b) not induced to move laterally, and is thus able to maintain angle to the crease, ideal depth, and relaxed stance.  What you get is what you've been seeing in this Boston series; very easy-to-manage shots with no rebounds and nobody there for those rebounds.  Save for occasionally Morrow.

The Bruins' unreal success rate in the face off dot is directly attributable to practiced, tested tactical set plays to gain possession or defend against quick opportunities.  In short, they tie up the Penguins' center and swarm the puck.  Pittsburgh does not.  

The neutral zone is by far the most important glaring absence as was obvious in the Islanders series, and most especially obvious with the Flyers last season.  Teams are more or less free to carry the puck at top speed through the neutral zone across the blue line.  The D back in to the circles (they are caught flat after a turnover pretty often, too).  Forwards tend to gravitate to the puck carrier as opposed to closing passing and shooting lanes (read: come to a stop).  The spacing is not anywhere near ideal as the forwards have to back check through the defensive neutral zone as the play is already developing in their defensive zone.  In short, not having a structural system leads to constant broken-ness of defensive play.  This further leverages the danger of turning the puck over.  As for the other team, the center drive is being executed at full speed.  Lateral passing is generally available, and there is space to take selective shots for far pad rebounds, &c.  

On the other hand, a little bit of system has gone a long way for recent opponents.  Tampa's 1-3-1, the ol' Montreal 1-2-2, the current Boston 2-man high, and the Islanders' simple front-stretch-pass-wing lock either defeated or almost defeated Pittsburgh.  I would like to feel as though our coaching staff could make adjustments, but in most cases there is nothing there to make an adjustment to.  That is why, hockey fans, our ridiculous video game team with the two best players in the league on it has (and has had) little or no function when faced with the most vanilla of neutral zone systems.  A team like Boston which has been polishing a very tidy trap game for years has eaten our lunch. 

There is a certain disdain in Pittsburgh to "being a trapping team".  New Jersey and Florida come to mind immediately as loathed scum; plankton who had to force the Penguins down to their level, &c.  There's also a myth that you shouldn't trap with a lot of talent, because it's "stifling".  Surely winning a certain way cannot come before actually winning?  The fact is that if your team cannot play multiple variations of the neutral zone trap, you're working at least twice as hard for the same ice and the same scoring opportunities.  You're giving up free ice.  You're far less likely to protect a lead.  You're not generating turnovers as much as you could (and with our forwards, short ice and potentially flat-footed defense would magnify the brilliance of the Penguins on the rush).  It's an unacceptable waste and an unacceptable way to lose playoff rounds.

Finally, and this is more splitting hairs about idiosyncratic things that I don't have good intel on,  what is the fucking deal with the lineup?  I'm way past trying to understand the Iggy LW Malkin experiment; I've hated it from the first few shifts.  No, what I want to know is this: what is the possible benefit of constantly changing the defense pairings?  I'm terribly interested because no other coaches do that.  Duncan Keith plays with Seabrook.  Chara with Seidenberg.  Lidstrom + Rafalski.  Neidermayer with Stevens, &c.  

If I was Ray Shero, I would have fired Dan Bylsma after Game 3 of the Islanders series and been on the phone with Lindy Ruff sharpish.  Lindy, Guy Boucher, Alain Vigneault, and Paul Maurice are unemployed NHL coaches.  However, since we bought ourselves the time, the man I want is Dave Tippett, who is in limbo out in Phoenix.  He is a masterful strategist without being so static as to see players in terms of round or square pegs and round holes, such as John Tortorella or Ken Hitchcock.  That would be ideal if Phoenix doesn't renew his contract. 

I may do an off-season plan post merely because it's cathartic to write about what essentially is a waste of a once-in-a-lifetime roster in the cap era.  Anyway, let's complete the sweep so it's easier to do the right thing and show Dan the inside of the Fort Pitt Tunnel one last time.  Go 2014 Pens.