Saturday, March 31, 2012
Let's face it, there are a lot of changes the NHL could use to improve their product. They could start by expanding their player marketing past Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, clarifying head shot rules, being more consistent with player discipline, and getting the Winnipeg Jets out of the Eastern Conference.
Add one more much needed change to the NHL: playoff seedings.
The current system, which grants the division winners the top three seeds in each conference, is a joke. The whole idea behind playoff seedings is to match the best and worst teams in the first round, increasing the probability that the top two teams will meet in the conference finals.
But, in the NHL, that isn't happening. Instead, teams like the L.A. Kings and Florida Panthers get home-ice advantage in the first round, despite being the 11th and 12th best teams in the league. The Penguins, with 12 more points than the Panthers, are fighting with the Flyers for the fourth seed in which they will inevitably play each other in the opening round. As it stands, the Penguins and Flyers are ranked 4th and 5th in the league in points, respectively.
With the regular season winding down, it looks as though the New Jersey Devils will be the sixth seed when the playoffs start on April 11th. That means their first matchup will be against the Florida Panthers, a team that is trying to make their first playoff series since 2000, and probably will despite having a losing record. The Southeast Division, containing the Hurricanes, Jets, Capitals and Lightning has been mediocre this season but the Panthers have managed to climb to the top thanks in large part to their 16 overtime losses.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Devils have more points than the Panthers and have played more games against the Atlantic Division where four out of five teams will make the playoffs. At this point, it would be considered a larger upset if the Panthers defeated the Devils despite having home-ice advantage and a higher seed. In that same vein, what incentive do the Devils have to try and move into a fourth or fifth seed, knowing they will play Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, the two favorites to win the Eastern Conference?
My solution to this issue is this; set the seedings based on the total number of points at the end of the regular season. If you have the fifth most points in the Eastern Conference, you get the fifth seed. To take this one step further, stop creating automatic bids for teams that win their division. If four teams from the Atlantic division and four teams from the Northeast division have more points than anyone in the Southeast division, then no one from the Southeast gets into the playoffs. There really is no excuse for winning the division and lacking enough points to be in playoff contention, especially when you play in a weaker division and over half the conference is eligible to get in.
Is this really what the NHL playoffs are all about? The team with 37 wins gets home ice advantage because they won a lousy conference while the two teams below them have 48 and 45 wins? For the health of the sport, it is vital to make this change after this season because, as it stand, you have the Blackhawks and Devils playing inferior teams in the opening round despite their sixth seeding in their respective conferences. Change the format to the playoffs and allow the best teams to meet as the rounds become more and more meaningful.
Monday, March 26, 2012
Over the weekend, Pirates' GM Neal Huntington confirmed that Pedro Alvarez would be joining the team in Pittsburgh to start the season, instead of being demoted to AAA Indianapolis. The news was somewhat surprising given Alvarez's lack of success -more importantly at the plate- over the past year.
After a stellar rookie campaign in 2010 when he hit .256/.326/.461including 16 home runs, Alvarez took a giant step backward in his sophomore season. By the middle of the season Pedro was designated to AAA and sustain minor injuries along the way. His final line in 2011 was .191/.272/.289 with just 4 home runs and 80 strikeouts in 235 at-bats.
After deciding not to play winter ball, despite his club's suggestion, Alvarez worked out with "super agent", Scott Boras. When fans saw him at Pirates' Fest over the winter, Alvarez looked a lot thinner and in much better shape, overall. That, alone, caused fans to believe he would have a bounce back season.
While another big step forward is still in the cards for Pedro Alvarez this season, his horrible performance in spring training suggests more of the same from 2011. In 14 games in the Grapefruit League, Alvarez is hitting .133/.156/.333. Even more alarming is the high number of strikeouts (15) in just 33 at bats. Yes, it is spring training. And yes, the averages, ERAs, OBPs, and OPSs in March do not necessarily set a preview for the six months of real season. But striking out in nearly half as many at-bats is still alarming. It is one thing to have a low average due to at 'em balls, bad luck, or barely mistiming pitches; but to consistently go up to the plate and get overpowered is disturbing.
Neal Huntington believes a lot of Alvarez's struggles have to do with his knee, which suddenly tweaked last week during a game. Maybe he's right. After all, he's been around Pedro from the start. At the same time, what evidence has Pedro Alvarez shown that he deserves to play on April 5th? Has he shown the ability to take an outside pitch the other way, something that has been a weakness since he turned pro? Has he shown the ability to turn on an inside fastball? Has he done these things consistently enough to prove that a breakout is right around the corner? Based on his numbers and from what we can observe on TV the answer is no.
Therefore, send Alvarez to Indianapolis and work through his struggles there. He added a new toe-tap as a timing mechanism in the offseason. Rather than sending him to Pittsburgh to face Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels in the opening series of the season, let Alvarez work on his new swing and get comfortable. A demotion should not be seen as punishment but rather an opportunity to get better and gain confidence.
Pittsburgh Pirates' fans are growing restless with Pedro Alvarez. The stunt his agent pulled during contract negotiations following his draft already put him in a negative light. At this point, Pirates' fans are almost waiting for him to fail so they can cast him off with previous first round picks who failed to pan out. While that behavior, in my book, is completely unjustifiable and idiotic, it still won't erase the high probability that Pedro Alvarez will get booed if he fails to produce at the beginning of the season.
Send Pedro Alvarez to AAA. Let him get comfortable with his approach to the plate before he stands in the box against some of the elite pitchers in the league.
Saturday, March 24, 2012
With the Penguins continuing to pile up wins down the final stretch of the regular season before battling for the Stanley Cup, suddenly, another trophy enters in mix.
The Presidents Trophy is awarded to the team with the most points in the NHL by the end of the season. Since its inception in 1985, 15 different teams have won the trophy with the Detroit Red Wings (6) winning it the most.
Currently with a game in hand, the Penguins are one point back from the New York Rangers to take the top spot in the Eastern Conference. It is obvious the Penguins have made a hard push to reach the number 1 seed which would guarantee them home ice throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. But what about the fourth round?
The Penguins aren't far from attaining that goal either. The St. Louis Blues hold the top spot in the NHL with 101 points, placing the Penguins three points back. However, Pittsburgh has played two less games, opening the opportunity to take over the league-lead by the end of the season. Overtaking the Blues in April could potentially determine the outcome of the Stanley Cup finals in June. The Blues are 29-4-4 at home and 17-16-5 on the road. An extra home game would be extremely beneficial, just going by those numbers. At the same time, this is completely hypothetical, given the unpredictability of the playoffs.
That's not to say the Presidents' Trophy is an automatic bypass to Stanley Cup glory. In fact, that notion would be far off base. While the trophy does guarantee home-ice throughout the playoffs, history has shown that it does not guarantee playoff success. Of the 25 Presidents' Trophy winners, only 7 have gone on to lift Lord Stanley in the same year, while 5 trophy winners were eliminated in the first round. History has shown it only takes a hot goaltender or a tough defensive team to derail a Presidents' Trophy team. Montreal eliminated Washington in the first round two years ago because of the excellent play from Jaroslav Halak. The Bruins knocked off the Canucks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals because of Tim Thomas.
The 1992-1993 Pittsburgh Penguins -believed to be the best team in franchise history- won the Presidents Trophy, finished the season with 17 consecutive wins (and a tie), only to fall to the New York Islanders in the second round of the playoffs. Penguins fans will never forget David Volek's game winning goal in overtime in Game 7 to send Pittsburgh packing.
Nevertheless, the Pittsburgh Penguins are going for home-ice advantage and why not? The Penguins have shown that, when healthy, they are nearly invincible. Evgeni Malkin is playing at an MVP level, Sidney Crosby is making his presence felt with third line centers, and Marc-Andre Fleury continues to shine. The Penguins have made it their mission to go after the top spot in the Eastern Conference and, as a result, they have put themselves in position to have a higher point total than everybody in the league.
Dan Bylsma appears to have put a target on the Rangers' back and the idea of getting home-ice secured is not lost on their Hall of Fame owner, Mario Lemieux. After all, it was Lemieux who said his biggest regret as a player was not being able to win the Stanley Cup at home. Could this be the year the Penguins raise Lord Stanley in Pittsburgh? On March 24th, it is impossible to be sure but, the Penguins wouldn't mind picking up a second Presidents' Trophy along the way to a potential fourth Stanley Cup.
Monday, March 19, 2012
In 71 games this season, Matt Cooke has tallied 31 points including a career best 16 goals despite averaging a little under 16 minutes per game. Those numbers rank him outside the top 150 forwards in the league, and way outside the group of top six wingers.
But for Matt Cooke, it is more than just the number of points.
Cooke has 30 penalty minutes this season. That's it. A stark contrast to the previous three seasons where he easily racked up 100+ minutes. Before this season, he was more than a pest, he was a dangerous player; one that did not respect an opponent's well being, not only as an athlete but as a person.
Over the last four seasons, alone, Matt Cooke has placed himself in hot water with the NHL, receiving numerous suspensions. He is infamous for elbowing Marc Savard in the head, causing Savard to miss so many games with a concussion that he is strongly considering retirement. Meanwhile, the NHL decided not to discipline Cooke which was a grave injustice.
The following season, Cooke was suspended four games after boarding Fedor Tyutin on February 8th, 2011. Rather than come back as a less aggressive player, Cooke was penalized, again. This time, after elbowing Rangers' defenseman McDonagh in the head.
The league suspended Matt Cooke for the remainder of the 2010-2011 season and the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. During that time, the Penguins were torched by the Tampa Bay Lightning en route to another game 7 home loss to end the season.
In the offseason, Cooke sat down with the Penguins' front office along with head coach Dan Bylsma. They talked about his game and how he had to change his tactics when it came to hitting players. While none of us were in the room during the meeting, you can almost guarantee the Penguins left Cooke with an ultimatum: change your game or you're out. After all, the Penguins could not keep a player who egregiously ignored the safety of the league while Mario Lemieux publicly denounced the NHL's disciplinary policy.
So Matt Cooke came back for the 2011-2012 season determined to change his game while still contributing in a positive manner. Over the course of the season, there certainly were some growing pains. At one point, Pens' fans criticized him for being too timid, claiming he forgot how to hit. Those criticisms have started to taper off as Cooke has produced. Whether he's had Jordan Staal or Sidney Crosby centering him, Cooke has made the most of his opportunities.
He's also been tested by several opposing players who were not as willing to believe he was a changed man. Cooke has had to take cheap shots while the refs seemingly looked the other way. Rather than retaliate, Cooke turned the other cheek and continued to play hockey the right way.
He's also continued to be one of the key pieces to the Penguins' 3rd ranked penalty kill and was the team nomination for the Masterson Trophy. This is a huge honor, considering the trophy represents perseverance, usually by a player coming back from injury to play extremely well. With Evgeni Malkin returning from a torn ACL to lead the league in points, it would only make sense to nominate him for the trophy. But the players chose Matt Cooke, maybe out of greater respect that he not only changed his game, but did so in a manner that made him more respectful and more productive.
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
For a second time this season, Sidney Crosby will return to the Penguins' lineup after an extended absence due to concussion-like symptoms. The game plan sounds eerily familiar to Crosby's first return back in December. Dan Bylsma says he's going to limit Crosby's minutes to around 15 until they get him eased back into playing. While Bylsma broke this promise after a few games last time, it seems highly unlikely he will take that risk again, especially since the Penguins are scheduled to player 3 games in 4 days against their division.
As far as line mates are considered, Crosby will see a few unfamiliar faces when he takes the ice against the New York Rangers, Thursday; Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. Usually third line wingers to Jordan Staal, Cooke and Kennedy will be skating with Sidney Crosby early on.
While this is seen as simply Bylsma's way of tinkering before the playoffs next month, it is also a golden opportunity for Tyler Kennedy, who has had a tough year thus far, to rebound. After putting up a career high 21 goals and 24 assists last season, Kennedy has only managed to score six goals this year. On top of his inability to find the net, Kennedy missed a month due to a sprained ankle back in early February. If there's a player that can help him score, it's Sidney Crosby.
And, despite the success the team has sustained without a strong Kennedy this season, they will need him to score a handful of goals in the playoffs. In the 08-09 cup run, Kennedy scored 5 goals including the game winner against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 6. While Jordan Staal is obviously the most talented player on that third line, the threat of Kennedy making plays takes some of the pressure off Staal. The third line, arguably the best in hockey, can be the difference maker in the playoffs if Kennedy-Staal-Cooke are effective.
On the other hand, if Kennedy does not take advantage of his opportunities with Crosby, it would not be out of the realm of possibility to sit "TK" during the playoff run. With Crosby coming back the Penguins will need to scratch one of their grinders to make room. That means Joe Vitale, Eric Tangradi or Arron Asham. Vitale is 18th in the league in face-offs and best on the team at 55%, Eric Tangradi is a physical player, well suited for the playoffs, and Arron Asham can score a few goals while hitting as well.
If Tyler Kennedy cannot put the puck in the net by mid-April, he is useless to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team has superstars at center, defense and goaltending. But in the playoffs, they need secondary scoring from their role players. Kennedy is one of those players and he may be one of the most important players to look for down the stretch.
Thursday, March 8, 2012
If you ever get a chance, buy a ticket to see the Detroit Red Wings play at Joe Louis Arena. As you walk into the west entrance of the 33 year old building that houses 11 Stanley Cups, you'll notice a bronze statue of a former Red Wing that led the franchise to 4 of those Cups.
The statue looks interesting, yet strange. Howe is in the middle of taking a slapshot; the stick is multiplied to emphasize the speed. Howe has a triumphant look on his face and a stoic posture as he follows through with his shot on one skate. The 12 foot, 4500 lbs statue celebrates the rich history of a city from the Original 6, now called "Hockeytown."
But it is not just the Red Wings that have a multi-ton bronze tribute to a hockey legend. At the TD Garden, the Boston Bruins have a statue of Bobby Orr soaring through the air to replicate his 1970 Stanley Cup clinching goal. In Montreal, the Canadiens have a bronze replica of Guy Lafleur, the franchise's all-time scoring leader. Edmonton? Wayne Gretzky. Chicago? Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull.
Now, in Pittsburgh, Mario Lemieux.
Say what you want about how the statue looks; whether it captures the wrong moment, looks funny with two players falling over each other, etc. It represents everything right about the Pittsburgh Penguins' organization, past and present. Lemieux is everything to the Penguins. He turned a perennially loser into a two time Stanley Cup champion as a player, saved the franchise (three times) from relocation, and raised the Cup again as an owner. Mario Lemieux may not have been the most dominant athlete in Pittsburgh sports history -although you could certainly make a case- but he is unquestionably the most influential athlete.
The Pittsburgh Penguins got it right, even if the design wasn't perfect. The franchise not only immortalized a legendary athlete, they took another step into the elite echelon of hockey cities. Every fan that walks into Consol Energy Center on a hockey night in Pittsburgh, will look at the rafters and see the Stanley Cup banners. In the next ten years, they'll see world class athletes competing for another chance to raise the Cup, again. And they'll walk past a statue, representing the man who built the whole thing from the ground up.
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
On Monday, the Pittsburgh Pirates reached an agreement with Andrew McCutchen who is unquestionably the best player on the team. With a 6 year, $51.5 million extension, the Pirates not only locked up the 25 year old center fielder past two free agent years, but also gave hope to a city who has been victimized by cheapskate ownership and bad investments over the last 20 years.
While the amount of years is encouraging to Pirates fans, ensuring McCutchen will in Pittsburgh until he is 32 years old, the dollar figure suggests the Pirates are expecting improvement to what has already been a young, All-Star career.
Last season, McCutchen's batting average dropped from .286 to .259. However, his on-base percentage dropped only one point (due to more walks) and he was only one of a dozen players to record twenty home runs and twenty stolen bases.
But the Pirates want more and are expecting more out of Andrew McCutchen.
Justin Upton, who is projected to hit upwards of 40 home runs and steal 30 bases, was given a 6 year $51.25 million deal almost two years to the day before McCutchen. Upton has MVP potential for the Arizona Diamondbacks who are looking to lean on him as a centerpiece to the lineup. In a similar fashion, the Pirates see McCutchen as a #3 hitter who can contribute to a lineup that is sorely lacking power. While his numbers have been steady through the first three seasons in the majors, the Pirates are investing in the potential, not the current talent. That means a higher average, higher on-base percentage, and more power.
Could the deal have come at a better time? With the organization adding elite-level arms to the farm system, the Pirates now have the face of the franchise secured long enough to see at least one of the four potential aces reach Pittsburgh. If pitchers Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia and Stetson Allie all fall to the wayside -as Tony Sanchez and Pedro Alvarez are starting to show- then the Pirates have bigger problems. If the pitchers develop, the pieces may be in place for relevant baseball in October.
What an exciting time for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans. In 2007, when Neal Huntington and Bob Nutting preached "commitment to winning," everyone scoffed. The fan base had heard this before; "rebuilding," "3 year plan," "5 year plan." When the franchise signed Pedro Alvarez to a $6.4 million deal, excitement was existent but tempered. Then followed the tens of millions spent in the draft and international market to sign the likes of Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, Josh Bell, Stetson Allie, Luis Heredia and Robbie Grossman. Still, Pirates fans had two more questions: Can they keep the major league talent they have? Can they win?
One question has been answered by management. The other question needs to be answered by the players.
Saturday, March 3, 2012
After AJ Burnett's freak accident while trying to lay down a bunt, the Pirates suddenly lost their ace before he could throw a single pitch. Out 2-3 months with an orbital fracture, Burnett became the talk of Pittsburgh after the Pirates acquired his rights from the Yankees on February 18th. Pirates' pitching coach, Ray Searage, immediately dubbed Burnett the "ace" before the final stitches were sewn to Burnett's jersey.
On thursday, Burnett was injured after bunting a ball into his eye. Video of the injury quickly spread as Pirates fans watched the blood drip off of Burnett's helmet. While acquiring Burnett certainly didn't put the Pirates into World Series discussions, his injury seemed to bring out the cursed mentality from Pirates' fans.
Now, the onus falls on 27 year old James McDonald to stabilize a shallow rotation. After suffering an oblique injury last March, McDonald struggled in the first half of the 2011 season with a 4.72 ERA. In the second half, McDonald regained his sub-4.00 ERA and struck out 75 batters in 85 innings.
His biggest downfall? Luck.
Despite lowering his line drive and fly ball ratios, McDonald allowed 24 home runs in 2011, leaving him tied for 16th in the Majors in most home runs allowed. If he can keep the ball in the park a little more, the Pirates could have their ace before Burnett makes his return.
The Pirates have been looking for someone to take the reins as the leader of the rotation. AJ Burnett was supposed to be that guy, but the team cannot wait 2-3 months -half the season- for him to return. The rotation showed a competitive spirit throughout the first half of 2011 and Ray Searage will certainly hold them to a higher standard heading into this year.
If this is truly a club that wants to show it is tired of losing, they need to win despite the setbacks and they need someone to step up and set an example. For the pitchers, James McDonald has the confidence and natural ability to be that type of player. When looking at the rest of the rotation, all the other pitchers have bigger question marks.
Can Erik Bedard stay healthy and pitch a full season?
Did Jeff Karstens luck run out?
Is Charlie Morton able to throw in April after recover from hip surgery?
Can Kevin Correia pitch consistently for more than a month?
At 27 years old, entering his prime years for most pitchers, it is time to see James McDonald take the mound as a leader. If he pitches well enough in Spring Training, his first matchup could be on Opening Day against Roy Halladay and the Philadelphia Phillies.