Hockey Talk: Malkin’s Future

January 21, 2008
Malkin and Ovechkin

Caps star Alex Ovechkin and Pens stud Evgeni Malkin, former Russian league roommates, put on a show to remember Monday night in Pittsburgh

First of all, to anybody who hasn’t seen it, or for anyone who has and just wants to have their mind blown again, take a look at this Rick Nash goal from last Thursday against the Phoenix Coyotes. Goal of the century at the least, if not the best goal of all-time. Ranks right next to this goal from Washington’s Alex Ovechkin which was, coincidentally, against the Coyotes as well.

Speaking of Ovechkin and the Caps, if you missed Monday night’s game in Pittsburgh, you missed one of the best games of the season. In a hotly contested offensive shoot-out, the Pens and Caps went back and forth all night. Ovechkin put on his usual show, scoring two goals and an assist, plus a shoot-out goal to put the Caps ahead.

Meanwhile, Evgeni Malkin continued to find the back of the net at a ridiculous pace, scoring two goals while assisting on a Ryan Malone power play goal early in the third period. Malkin and Ovechkin put on an absolute show in the ‘Burgh, making electric play after electric play all night long. The two even almost dropped the gloves in the second after Ovechkin tried delivering a big hit (fast-forward to the 8 second mark if your really impatient) on Malkin. Needless to say, Malkin proved to be the tougher Russian.

The big thing I take away from this game, however, is Malkin’s performance, and how it could effect the future of the Pens. Prior discussions on this forum and countless others have questioned whether Malkin, whose face-off performances have not been all that impressive to date, should be moved to a wing position next to Crosby as a long-term solution. I think Monday night’s game proves that keeping Crosby and Malkin split is necessary to maximize both players talents.

Malkin’s started hit the back of the net with a lot more regularity when Pens’ coach Michel Therrien began using Malkin as a wingman on the top scoring line next to Crosby. However, there is just no way the Pens can keep those two together. Malkin would just be too valuable centering the second line, being the Ron Francis to Sidney Crosby as Mario Lemieux, or Mark Messier to the Oiler’s Wayne Gretzky, if you will. Malkin creates way to many opportunities on his own to use him as a pure scorer next to Crosby. The guy has too much talent not to captain his own line.

One more intriguing stat that I take away from Monday’s game — the Pens were an impressive 3-of-8 on the power play tonight. That’s without Sidney Crosby in the line-up. Also worth noting, Petr Sykora has scored 8 of his 14 goals this season on the power play, which is odd considering he hasn’t even been a regular on the top power play unit, so far as I know. Maybe Therrien needs has some considering to do regarding his power play units once Crosby returns. We’ll see if tonight’s power play success was a fluke, or if maybe Crosby’s presence on the ice was somehow holding the Pens back, although I can’t imagine how it would be.


Penguins’ Future Plans

January 15, 2008

After listening to Mark Madden ramble about the future of the Pens a little this afternoon, I had a few opinions that I decided might be best designed to be posted on here.

First of all, I want to address the, “What do the Pens do when Marc-Andre Fleury comes back?” question. While what Ty Conklin has done so far this season has been absolutely superb, you have to remember that the guy is 31 years old already. If he was really capable of playing at a level anywhere near as high as that which he’s performed since his December call-up, he would have already earned himself a starting job with a nice, long-term contract elsewhere. Fleury is still young enough that he has a future ahead of him, while Conklin is just a career back-up in the middle of a good hot streak.

That said, here are some interesting lines from Penguins’ defensemen Brooks Orpik that do make it sound as though Conklin could be more than just a flash in the pan.

“The big thing is the way he handles the puck,” Orpik said. “It makes it so much easier on the defense. It is really like having an extra defenseman out there.

“His saves speak for themselves. But one thing we have talked about as defensemen is how much easier things have been with the way he handles the puck.”

Perhaps Conklin’s performance is more than just him being on a hot streak. Maybe his stand-up style and consistent positioning are meshing well with the style of defense the Penguins like to play. One cannot help but notice that Conklin does an excellent job of controlling rebounds and always seems to be in the right place to knock down a shot. Meanwhile, he has only made a small handful of spectacular, Fleury-like saves. Maybe Michel Terrien and his defensive scheme just clicks better with a knowledgable, consistent, but not necessarily flashy goaltender? Something to consider when Fleury makes his return in the coming weeks.

The other major area of concern for the Pens down the road will be the question of adding a strong offensive winger to put next to Sidney Crosby in the coming years. Madden claimed the Pens would be much better off splitting Crosby and Evgeni Malkin up, allowing them each to center their own line, rather than placing the two together on one super-line. He referenced how Mario Lemieux had Hall of Famer Ron Francis centering the second line behind him during the Penquins stronger periods in the ’90’s, and honestly I agree with Madden there. You have to balance your talent to win hockey games.

But if, three years from now, you have Crosby and Malkin centering lines 1 and 2 respectively, while Max Talbot, arguably the best, most mucking-ist (the only word I could use to describe Maxime) third line center in the NHL, takes face-offs on the checking line. Where exactly does that leave Jordan Staal and Angelo Esposito? Staal, despite some struggles this year, still has one of the brightest futures ahead of him of maybe any 19 year old on the planet. It isn’t at all crazy to think he’ll be a 30 goal scorer year in and year out by the time he’s 22, and his improvements in the face-off circle this year would make it very tough to split him out to a wing position.

Esposito, the Penguins 1st round draft pick this past summer, has a bright, bright future ahead of him, except for his natural position is at center. Granted, I think there is still plenty of time to turn Esposito into a wing before he makes his NHL debut, even if it means holding him in the minors for an extra few months to a year.

That said, neither Esposito or Staal is a 4th line center. Both need to be on the ice, and Staal in particular needs to be at center. In my mind that leaves the Pens with two options:

A. Keep Malkin and Crosby together on line one while you build depth on the rest of the team, namely picking up another solid scorer to put next to Staal on line 2 and developing a solid core of defensemen to put in front of Fleury or whoever ends up being the Pens goalie of the future.

B. Let Malkin center the 2nd and line and use Staal as a trading piece to acquire a front line scorer, possibly Marian Hossa, who is known to be on the block this season.

It’s going to come down to a judgement decision on the Pens part, but honestly the offensive pieces are already very much in place for this team to compete for a title. Throw a better set of defenders and some consistent goaltending behind those scorers, and this team could be a serious contender in a highly competitive Eastern Conference.


Ramblings From an Un-happy Small-Market Baseball Fan

December 5, 2007

Jaromir JagrJaromir Jagr and his infamous mullet, once fan favorites in the ‘Burgh, are public enemy #1 after unsuccessful contract negotiations led to his exile in 2001

Stick with me on this one…

Alright so I was watching my Steelers wallow through the swamp that is Heinz Field against the Cincinnati Bungals – yes the Bungals (Myron Cope where are you in my life) when suddenly, I was inspired by the infamous babblings of NBC broadcaster John Madden.

(Bear with me, this isn’t a cheap set-up for a Brett Favre joke, I swear)

So good ole John was talking about Steelers’ offensive lineman Alan Faneca, who is set to become a free agent at the end of the year and has already stated that he will not be coming back to the Steelers, who simply can’t find room for him in the payroll.

Faneca, a perennial all-pro, is a Steeltown favorite who has played with the team since being drafted in 1999. In training camp this August, some dumb reporter asked Faneca about maybe giving the Steelers a hometown discount on his contract.

Faneca almost let loose in his pants, he was laughing so hard.

But this hometown discount stuff is a very, very intriguing idea to us small-market baseball fans. What if players had some financial incentive to stick around with the franchises that brought them up? What if fan favorites like Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter and Jason Bay weren’t un-signable by small-market teams who struck it big when they raised these guys in their own systems?

So here is my inspired idea:

Create a system that gives small-market franchises a little financial help in holding onto guys once they become free-agency eligible.

You know that luxury tax set in place to end the Yankee dynasty? Yes, the one George Steinbrenner and sons are capable of completely disregarding. Why not use it to help pay for new, long-term contracts of players who have been with one team their entire career and have earned a big-time contract.

Say you set a cap of $100 million – five major league teams had payrolls over the $100 million mark, with only the Yanks and Sox over by significant amounts – and you tax these teams a certain amount (I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t know the exact percentage teams are taxed, if somebody would be so kind as to help me out there). Either way, I would probably up the tax enough to make the Steinbrenner’s and Henry’s of the world sweat a little bit.

You offer this tax to teams, with the mandate that they have to put the money towards locking up homegrown favorites to long-term deals, weighting the system to help small-market teams such as the Marlins, Pirates, and (the no longer Devil-ish) Rays first.

So say for some unforeseen reason the Pirates decide not to trade Jason Bay at some point in the next year, and leave themselves the option of resigning him long-term after next season. (I realize this probably won’t happen, and actually would probably be a bad idea for the Bucco’s, but I’m just creating an example here).

For arguments sake, lets put Bay’s projected market value at $10 million per year (I don’t know what it really would be at this point, I’m just using a nice, round number since I am but a simple journalism student). If this tax can generate just $3 or $4 million for the lowly Buccos, bringing the Pirates contribution to Bay’s salary down to $6 or $7 million a year, they just might have a shot at resigning him, whereas a $10 million per year salary is just too much for the Pirates modest payroll.

Maybe I’m just an overzealous, small market fan, but wouldn’t it be better for the game to have more Cal Ripken Jr.’s, Tony Gwynn’s and Craig Biggio’s to help put fans in the seats.

The goal of every professional franchise is to keep the interest of the casual fan. Casual fans want two things: a winning franchise (obviously), and a franchise face. One of the easiest ways to do put a face on your franchise is to keep around the guys who have grown through the system, and who have taken their bumps and bruises right in front of the hometown fans. When those guys succeed, it does wonders for a team’s fan base, because the fans begin to identify with the player.

Personal example: Jaromir Jagr was a fan favorite for the Penguins in the 1990’s, and following the retirement of Mario Lemieux, Jagr became the face (and the hair) of the Penguins franchise. He was the team captain and was arguably the best offensive player in the NHL. Following bitter, unsuccessful contract disputes with Penguins personnel, Jagr was traded to the Washington Capitals, and has been a villain in Pittsburgh ever since, getting booed every time he touches the puck at the Igloo.

It is completely undeniable that fans feel a stronger bond with players who stick around for their entire careers. Think fans want to see their hometown favorites disappear? Ask Red Sox fans how they felt about fan-favorite Johnny Damon’s departure to the Evil Empire a couple years back.

So maybe my little system is a slightly extreme/improbable, and maybe there is no way to generate the funding to help implement it, but I think it’s a decent idea. If nothing else, it was a creative way for me to vent my hatred of the Steinbrenner family.

*By the way, I defy Al Michaels to come up with 900+ words based on anything that John Madden says.