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Tom Wilson: The Mask the NHL Refuses to Take Off

In 2018, nearly all of professional sports is dealing with a crisis. The NFL has a domestic violence culture that continues to persist, a general ambivalence to head trauma and then there’s the whole restricting the players’ rights thing (see anthem protests circa 2017). FIFA has been drowning in corruption for years and only now appears to be gasping for air. Major League Baseball has got past the steroid era but now is dealing with fans not being present in the stands and commissioner Rob Manfred is desperate to speed up the game. The NBA has done a great job marketing itself and has no PR problems of note. Bravo, NBA.

The NHL’s problem has been an ongoing one. They, too, have a concerning lack of interest regarding head trauma, but there’s might be even more lethal than the NFL’s.

The year is now 2018. None can say they don’t know the full implications of repeated head trauma. The safety of the athletes is far more important than it once was. The game is quicker. The audience has become more attuned to the sport. They know good hockey when they see it and they know garbage hockey when they see it as well (looking at you, Buffalo and Edmonton).

As the audience has grown in intellect and stature, the league has sought to meet the demands of its audience, installing 3-on-3 overtime to make for a more exciting spectacle.

Audiences have agreed the days of thug hockey are over. The days when people saw value in a dude elbowing another dude in the chops is over. It’s not safe. It’s dangerous.

The league, like every other organization run by rich white men, has dragged their feet on changing. They would just prefer the world continue as it were and the steady stream of green continue its way into their vaults. That’s not how life works. It evolves and that evolution is one of the most sacred things about life. You can adapt with it or be left behind.

The enforcers, those once idolized brawlers, have slowly been pushed out of the sport but some linger.

Tom Wilson, likely the dirtiest player in professional hockey, is a prime example. His penchant for headshots is well-known. Yet, Mr. Wilson remains.

In Game 2 of the Pens-Capitals playoff series, Wilson delivered one of those trademarks to the skull of Brian Dumoulin, who crumbled to the ice. Wilson was not penalized and did not even receive a phone call from the NHL’s department of player safety.

Despite his history, the NHL decided to let Wilson go on bail. Wilson was eager to repay them.

In Game 3, Wilson left his feet and drove his shoulder into the face of Penguins’ forward Zach Ashton-Reese, who suffered a broken jaw and a concussion. The referees got together and decided it was a clean check. Wilson returned to the bench with a smile.

In what world is that type of result legal? Why, the NHL, of course.

The NHL has a problem, a large problem, if its umpires and executives in Toronto watch a guy get decapitated on national television and don’t think it should be penalized. There is a grave danger in allowing that type of behavior to persist and the result of letting that behavior live was on full display Tuesday night. Blood was on the ice and Ashton-Reese had a caved-in skull.

The NHL’s current disciplinary rule dictates that the league cannot take a player’s history into effect when viewing whether or not a hit was illegal or not. In the case of Tom Wilson, he simply has a history of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that place specifically being with a part of his body driven into another man’s brain center. To not take his past into account would be like giving a chronic abuser bail after allegedly committing another act of domestic assault. It is your job to decide, not if he’s guilty, but to decide if the public is at risk if you let him leave your supervision. The NHL decided Tom Wilson, a man with his own film roll of headshots, wasn’t a danger to society. We all got to see the result of their mistake.

In addition to making a common sense change to the way they view disciplinary action, it might be a good idea if the department of player safety wasn’t run by someone who didn’t give a fluff about player safety during his career. Making George Parros the head of the department of player safety is like making a renowned Soviet spy the head of the FBI. It is exactly that type of person that you don’t want in that room.

Lastly, might want to look at how four referees on the ice witness a hit like that and think that’s a legal play.

At the same time, I don’t know if I can fully blame the refs. They don’t know what mask the NHL is wearing anymore.

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What Are You Doing, Sullivan?

Image result for marc-andre fleury free useThe 2016-2017 Pittsburgh Penguins postseason run has been a bumpy ride. The Columbus Blue Jackets battered the Pens throughout the first round and the Washington Capitals, clearly the better team for most of if not all of the series, couldn’t close out Pittsburgh in game seven. The defacto key to both series? Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury outplayed two Vezina winners in Sergei Bobrovsky and Braden Holtby and handedly so. While Bobrovsky struggled to contain the Pens’ blistering offense, Fleury posted save percentages of 97 and 98 in the first two games, stopping 70 of 72. In one of Fleury’s best postseason performances, he thwarted 49 of 51 Columbus rubber pellets in the series-clinching game five win.

In round two, Holtby watched from afar as his teammates peppered the Penguins’ end for seven games and watched with frustration as Fleury continued to bail his teammates out. Holtby, on the other end and with little to do, failed to execute. In the second period of game four, Holtby gave up two goals on four shots. That is laughable and he, more than anyone, cost his team the series.

On the opposite side, we have a goalie that surely stole a series against a superior opponent, including a game seven shutout on the road. Fleury was as much a fluid gymnast in front of the net, contorting his body in every shape and form, as he was a magician, making pucks disappear before hitting twine. He has been the Penguins best player this postseason and is a virtual guarantee to win the Conn Smythe if they win Lord Stanley’s cup. The Penguins’ offense that was first in goals and third on the powerplay during the regular season has been on and off during this year’s run and it hasn’t mattered. Marc-Andre Fleury has been the best postseason goalie. Pekka Rinne is the only other candidate you could even make an argument for.

A goalie is the most integral part to playoff success. Goalies can steal a game or, a la Fleury, a series.

And never in my life have I seen the best postseason goalie in a calendar year get benched. Until today.

In an unprecedented move, coach Mike Sullivan will be starting Matt Murray in tonight’s game four. There’s no logical reasoning for this.

If anything has hampered the Pens during this series, it’s been the team’s inability to score. The Pens should have won game one, but went 0/5 on the powerplay, an ongoing problem. Injuries knocked Bryan Rust and Justin Schultz out of game two and there’s no timetable for their return. In three games, the once mighty Pittsburgh offense has scored three goals. The defense that has played quite well without headmaster Kris Letang completely flopped in game three, to an embarrassing level. Only one of the goals scored on Fleury on Wednesday could be attributed to him. The utter incompetence of the Pens defensemen that game was the singularity of that trainwreck and everyone who watched that game knows that.

Except Mike Sullivan. Mike Sullivan appears concerned with how to allow less goals rather than score more than one. That is the only rationale I can come up with at this point.

Look, Mike Sullivan is a wizard. I love him and he’s already on his way to being one of the best coaches in franchise history. Of all the issues this team currently has in front of them, goaltending has been the least of them. It has been since day one. It still is. Patrick Roy could have played goal for the Pens on Wednesday. It would not have changed the outcome.

So, to bench Fleury, your best player this postseason run, because of a historically bad period from your defense, makes not even a minute of sense. Matt Murray has always been Sullivan’s favorite and that will most likely never change, but head coaches are not afforded the graces of favoritism. One goalie has played the best postseason of his career. The other hasn’t played a full game since April 6. It doesn’t take a genius to figure this one out.

On the other hand, Sullivan is a genius and even he couldn’t figure out this “conundrum.”

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The Pittsburgh Penguins: What’s Happened and What’s Next

The Penguins excel year after year during the regular season and while the playoffs have put the Pens at a standstill time and time again, injuries, Fleury’s inconsistency and a knack of running into the playoff goalies of that respective year have been uncontrollable roadblocks for the team.

Nonetheless, coach Dan Bylsma was fired.

Coming off arguably his best season yet, a year in which the Pens had more man-games lost than any other team in the NHL, it seems illogical to fire a coach that was able to put together a 51-24-7 record and the fourth-most regular season/overtime wins in the league behind Boston, Anaheim and Colorado when he had practically half of his team on the injury list throughout the season. Playoffs are what matter, but you don’t make the playoffs unless you win during the regular season. Injuries are natural to sports and you have to overcome them, something Bylsma has shown he can do. Among the records he holds, Bylsma is currently the franchise leader in wins (252), win percentage (67%), playoff games (78) and playoff wins (43) in less than five seasons of coaching.

It just doesn’t make sense. If the Penguins are looking for someone to blame, perhaps they should read my post on their early exit. The players were to blame for their performance, not Bylsma or Shero.

The king of plus-minus, Matt Niskanen: a minus-two. He might be looking for big money this offseason but Niskanen faltered in the playoffs like a limping dog, which no doubt contributed to the team’s top-ranked power play failing to capitalize on chances. I’m a huge fan of Nis-cannon, as we like to call him, but if he’s looking for big money, I hope we’re not the ones to give it to him. We need defensive defensemen to repair a defense that had as many holes in the playoffs as the net’s twine.

The biggest reason the Pens failed to advance: Sidney Crosby. The captain of the team, Art Ross trophy winner for the most points in the league by nearly 20 with 104 and probable league MVP did not produce. He had one of the worst playoffs of his career, posting a minus-four and one goal in 13 games.

James Neal had more penalty minutes (24) in the playoffs than Kunitz and Crosby had points combined (17).

The players were to blame here, not Shero and Bylsma and if the franchise doesn’t drop some players and add some new ones this offseason and put the blame where it actually belongs, it won’t matter who the coach is because this team hasn’t fixed the real problem. If a car has a flat tire, you don’t replace the steering wheel responsible for superb handling. That car still ain’t going no where fast. You get out of the car and put on the spare. For the record, I don’t have a clue who we’re going to get to coach this team. Unless Mike Babcock from Detroit is on the table, I don’t see anyone else who has the expertise to coach this team.

Looking on to the offseason:

Neal may have been third in goals for the team (27) and accomplished that after playing in only 59 games, but LW Jussi Jokinen was more valuable to the team. He played in all but one of the team’s games and had 21 goals and 57 points, only four less than Neal and that’s with Neal having nearly 60 more shots on net. Couple that with Neal’s poor playoff performances, his talent for taking stupid penalties as I think I’ve pointed out above and his lust for suspensions for dirty play, I feel like the writing is on the wall. He’s becoming a puckhog and he’s not even good at being one. Time for him to go.

Kunitz led the team in powerplay goals and was one goal behind Crosby for the lead in overall goals. Crosby-Kunitz is one of the best duos in the league and the fact that Kunitz is being underpaid makes this guy an easy keeper.

Dupuis had his season cut short by an ACL tear but was at his best the year before. A first line of Kunitz-Crosby-Dupuis sounds very capable to me.

Of all the acquisitions the Pens made during the season, Stempniak was my favorite. He’s got a lot of talent, filled in well with the Crosby line and doesn’t take up a lot of salary. 11 points in 21 games ain’t too shabby.

After the year Jokinen had, (see Neal comments) Jokinen will surely be asking for a pay raise from his potential suitors. It might be a fluke so it’s important the Pens don’t overpay. I’d go $4 million, maybe $4.5 but that would really be pushing it. However, Jokinen is one of only five Pens who played 80 or more games this year. The Pens need to find players that can avoid injury and Jokinen is one of them. Jokinen-Malkin-Stempniak sounds solid.

There was talk at the trade deadline that Sutter might be on his way out, but it didn’t happen. I’ve heard some reports that management isn’t happy with Sutter but I am. He’s a good faceoff man and penalty killer and most important of all, he’s durable. Sutter was another one of the five Pens who played 80 or more games. The other three: Crosby, Matt Niskanen and old reliable Craig Adams. I’d go $3, maybe $3.25 million. Sadly, I think the Pens will let him walk though.

As for the defensive woes, a major overhaul is needed here. Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta were the only two blue-liners who had a plus-minus in the top 100 of league defensemen.This team is crying out for youth and durability yet the team signed Rob Scuderi, a 35-year old defenseman far past his prime who missed 29 games.

Paul Martin might be 33 but he plays like a 40-year old. This year, Martin played as many games as Marc-Andre Fleury had wins (39). That’s not even half the season. Last year Martin played 34 games. In the last two years of Penguins’ hockey, out of a possible 164 games, Martin has played 73. That’s 44.5%.

That’s atrocious, especially for a team that continually struggles with a statistic known as man-games lost. This year the Penguins had the most: 529. That’s 108 more than second-place Detroit and twice as many as half the league starting with New Jersey’s 261 at the 15 slot. If you take the number of players on an NHL starting lineup (20) and multiply that by the number of games in a season (82), you get 1640. Now divide 529 by 1640. You’ll get 32.2%. Of all the games the Penguins lineup could have missed, they missed 32.2%. That’s nearly a third!

An easy way to solve this problem: get rid of the old and bring in the new. The Penguins had the 6th oldest team in the league at an average age of 28.1 years old. This team needs a Drew Doughty, a young, emphasis on young, talented defenseman who can make a significant contribution to the team defensively, emphasis on defensively, and be a consistent starter.

Narrowing our focus more,  it’s this team’s defense that’s old and defenses win championships. Only one top-10 defense didn’t make it to the playoffs: the New Jersey Devils. The Kings had the best goals against average during the regular season, the best defense in the league. They won the cup. The average age of their top six blue-liners? 27.8 years old. The Pens? 29.

Now, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is. The Kings’ average is inflated because of Willie Mitchell, who’s 37. The rest of their starters aside from Matt Greene (31) are younger than 27. Meanwhile, the Pens’ average is deflated by rookie Olli Maata, bringing their average down to 29 despite Orpik (33), Martin (33) and Scuderi (35) all being in their mid 30′s. If you take Maatta out of the equation, their average blue-liner is 31. No playoff team or top-10 defense had a blue-line core that old except for the Montreal Canadiens.

If you take this “young defenses win” theory just a little farther, you see a strong correlation between youth on the back side and winning. What would you say if I said I could have correctly predicted a majority of the Stanley Cup playoff matches based purely off of the ages of their defensive core? You’d probably call me a loony and I wouldn’t blame you. Bringing the competitive edge of playoff hockey all the way down to birth dates is ridiculous, but stats don’t lie.

The playoff bracket at the beginning of the playoffs looked like this:

Ducks (27) vs. Stars (28.5)= Ducks (won)

Blackhawks (29.3) vs. Blues (28.8)= Blues (lost)

Wild (25.7) vs. Avalanche (28.5)= Wild (won)

Kings (27.8) vs. Sharks (29.5)= Kings (won)

Rangers (26.8) vs. Flyers (30.8) =Rangers (won)

Pens (29) vs. Blue Jackets (26)= Blue Jackets (lost)

Canadiens (31.5) vs. Lightning (29)= Lightning (lost)

Bruins (27) vs. Red Wings (26.7) = Red Wings (lost)

It’s hard to predict the first round accurately because playoff hockey is so different from the regular season. Nonetheless half of these are right based on nothing but birth dates.

Teams with defenses that average under 28 win. Teams that are above that golden line, without an incredible offense, do not. A lot of the teams that struggled during the playoffs (like the Avalanche, Blues, Sharks, Pens, Flyers, Lightning and Stars) all had a d-line that averaged above 28. Only one of those teams advanced to the next round and that was the Pens, who were playing the inexperienced Blue Jackets. Two other teams above 28 made it further, the Blackhawks and Canadiens, but the Blackhawks had a stellar offense, second-best in the league. The Canadiens are the only outlier.

On the other side of the coin, most teams under that 28 mark like the Kings, Bruins, Rangers, Wild, and Ducks all made it to at least the second round. The Blue Jackets (26) were inexperienced and the Red Wings may be young on the back end (26.7), but they’re ancient on the front end with Zetterberg (33), Franzen (34), Datsyuk (35), Cleary (35), Bertuzzi (39), and Alfredsson (41).

This is all information you can find with a little digging and computing on the teams’ websites on ESPN. It’s not rocket science, people. Start drafting defensemen and bringing in the young guns because Crosby, Malkin and Fleury aren’t getting any younger. If the Pens have a sports information department and know how to read, they’ll take my advice.

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