By Brian Metzer
Good day hockey world or should I say good evening? Heck it is probably good morning at this point… FTP has been on its usual end of season hiatus, but will be ramping up coverage this weekend as we head up to Newark for the NHL Entry Draft. It should be pretty exciting with all of the trade chatter, buyouts and lord knows what else going on in the shadow of the Big Apple.
I am excited to be covering the second of what I hope will be many NHL events under the FTP banner, but I will be doing work for many of the outlets that you typically find me. I will have some draft coverage in the Beaver County Times Monday recapping the Penguins draft and any moves that they may make and will be popping up periodically on radio – check twitter/FB for all the deets on that.
As we have been a bit dormant here, plenty of Penguins news has been breaking. I have previously commented on most of it via social media, but I wanted to give a few thoughts prior to draft weekend coverage. Since there is a good bit of info to cover, I will run through it in a notes format.
We’ll start with the newest stuff first – Kris Letang. This subject has been beaten into the ground by pretty much everyone over the past two days, but I wanted to weigh in on the subject. First off all, let’s make no mistake, Kris Letang is a tremendous talent and is what could be considered a franchise defenseman. Yes he has his ups and downs, but he earns his standing on the strength of his offensive prowess and mostly solid defense. Yes, he does make plenty of plays that have us all tearing our hair out from time to time, but you will have that with a guy who is always thinking about getting on the attack.
Letang’s price isn’t his greed so much as market value. It isn’t he that set the standard for defenseman wages in the National Hockey League, it is the fact that plenty of average defensemen have cracked the $4 or even $5 million plateau, with the upper echelon making upwards of $8 million. Letang is a lot closer to the upper echelon that he is the average tier and that is why he fancies himself a $7.5 million dollar player.
Not every player on the Penguins roster is going to take a hometown discount a la Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, nor should they have too. It isn’t a prerequisite. Yes, having two of the top players in the league willing to do so should push others in that direction, but Letang has a chance to set the new standard for defensemen under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement that was negotiated back in January.
Though there are plenty of examples of excessive salaries on the blue line, the first signing that made me think that the Penguins were going to have a next to impossible chance of signing Kris Letang came almost a year ago to the day, when the Calgary Flames traded for and signed Dennis Wideman to a five-year $26.25 million dollar contract. The AAV of the deal worked out to be $5.25 for a player with two 40-plus point seasons (one in which he hit 50 points back in ’08-09). I criticized the move on Twitter and in print and was gamely called a fool by many, who felt the need to explain that the Flames had no choice but to overpay a bit to get a puck moving, power play specialist that they needed.
I understood that situation, but… it wasn’t their contract that worried me so much as the effect it would have on others around the league. The effects of that bloated deal (for a player who scored just 22 points over 46 games last season) helped escalate the price of Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Mark Streit and yes, the tough negotiation with Kris Letang.
This isn’t a greedy player situation. This is a situation in which a player simply wants what his market value has been set at by said market.
He will end up getting his $7.5 million and probably more from another team in the league. It is pretty much standard operating procedure. It all comes down to whether the Penguins determine that they can fit in another salary toward the upper end of the league’s pay scale. That is a tough task in a cap controlled league, especially when considering that Letang, albeit one of the better defensemen in the league, isn’t THE best.
One last point on Letang, many in the Burgh are content to see him go. I get that. You need to rationalize a fan favorite leaving town. It is easier to look at the negatives of a star player when trying to say goodbye to him. What has been annoying are the folks outside the market that have seen him play several times during the regular season, but probably not regularly until the postseason run that saw the Penguins eliminated in the Eastern Conference Final by the Boston Bruins.
That postseason wasn’t Letang’s finest moment. Heck, he had games that could have been considered his worst in a Penguins’ uniform. However, that doesn’t tell the tale of the player.
Letang is a top end defenseman who often makes the correct play, puts up tons of points and is solid from 1 to 82. Injuries are a concern and his propensity for losing his temper in big spots, along with several defensive breakdowns in the playoffs may be enough to scare the Penguins off.
The situation smells a lot like the one that saw Jordan Staal traded last year during the NHL Draft, so this weekend could be a big one for the Penguins organization. It is a big decision, maybe of the most important of Ray Shero’s tenure as general manager.
Stay tuned, as the seas are about to get even choppier as action shifts to Newark.
When Dan Bylsma got the call naming him head coach of the US Olympic team I picture him raising both hands in the air and singing some Marilyn Manson – you know, the one in which the shock rocker boasts that he wasn’t born with enough middle fingers?
Bylsma certainly has his critics, but the bottom line is that he is a good hockey coach. Does he have some adjusting to do in terms of how he manages a game? Yes. Yes he does, but that will come. Let’s not forget that the guy has been a head coach for just four years and is still developing.
He believes in his system a little too much sometimes and that has been to his detriment over the past couple of years, but I did see him make adjustments away from “his game” during the Bruins series.
Many reading this are probably rolling their eyes right now, but it is true. He all but abandoned the stretch pass in Games 3 and 4, he adjusted his breakout earlier in the playoffs when the Islanders speedy forwards were picking pucks off like gang busters and he spoke like a man who would be doing plenty of self evaluation this off-season.
Bylsma has a great mind of the game and that will show on the International stage. In fact, I fully expect him to have more success than he does with his own team. He has shown a greater ability to deal with players who are known a bit more for grit and hard work than those with high end skill – he’ll get better at dealing with the high end skill – and Team USA has a number of those types. It will be a great learning experience for a guy is still sort of evolving.
The critics will bash, but coaches that are thought of highly enough to lead National teams don’t come along every day. There is a reason that Bylsma is typically the first name heard when you ask players around the league who they’d like to play for if given the choice.
Bylsma’s extension will keep him behind the Penguins’ bench for three more seasons, though it likely bought him only two more years of missteps. He’ll evolve and find a way to succeed not only in the regular season, which he has done many times before, but in the postseason. He’ll also find a way to lead Team USA to a strong finish at the Olympics in Sochi next February.
The Chris Kunitz deal was vintage Ray Shero. Everyone is focusing on Letang, Pascal Dupuis and lord knows what else and he sneaks in through the back door with a signing that could be just as important for the team.
Giving Kunitz an extra year on what probably would have been a two-year deal under typical circumstances got him to leave some money on the table. He is another example of a guy who loves his time in Pittsburgh and probably just inked a deal that will allow him to finish his career as a Penguin. The fact that he will do so for just $125,000 more per season is a testament to the player and the general manager giving a little bit to keep a player in town.
This could have significant impact on the deal of Pascal Dupuis as well. Sure Dupuis is hearing the same thing that the rest of us are – he’ll command upwards of $5 million dollars per year on the open market and that it could come from a Canadian team, but let’s not forget that he has sort of fallen in love with Pittsburgh. He has raised his children here and has seen that the grass isn’t necessarily greener in another situation.
He isn’t a guy who has only been with one team. He has jumped around the league a bit before landing here in the Marian Hossa deal in 2008. Meeting a guy like Dupuis halfway could be enough to keep him here. I anticipate a deal getting done with him and it could happen as soon as this weekend when Shero gets together with Dupuis agent in Newark. Stay tuned.
There is plenty more to comment on, but I have an early flight to Newark in the morning and I don’t want to miss it. Stay tuned for full coverage from the draft and surrounding events over the next two days.
Talk to yinz in the AM… or make that the PM…