Two NHL teams were eliminated from the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday, but you couldn’t paint more disparate pictures of perception. One team almost seemed to come out of their crushing defeat as partial winners while the other seems like they’ll be in a dour mood for days upon weeks upon months.
In case you’re somehow not figuring this out already, the Minnesota Wild are the near-winners and the Pittsburgh Penguins are being portrayed as the super-losers in this case.
As far as discussing the Wild, there isn’t a whole lot to say. This run (ended by Patrick Kane’s patently ridiculous overtime goal, which is only slightly less ridiculous because Kane always seems to score ridiculous goals) seems like it will justify the extended work of GM Chuck Fletcher and head coach Mike Yeo. The only questions, really, are what will happen with their netminding situation and if the Montreal Canadiens’ own run might deter Thomas Vanek from his seemingly predetermined path to Minnesota.
The team worth about 50,000-words is the Penguins.
I can’t help but imagine the panic on the streets of Pittsburgh, even if it’s limited to the city’s hockey fans. Giving up a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers really completes the collection of disappointments over the years: getting swept and neutralized by the Boston Bruins, being beaten by their own high-flying game by the Philadelphia Flyers, usurped by injuries or some other factor by the Tampa Bay Lightning and upset by the Montreal Canadiens in seven games.
That’s quite the combination of gut-punching defeats, so it wouldn’t be surprising if big changes will be made in Pittsburgh.
I’m not going to go too deep regarding head coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero here, because while coaching can easily impact fantasy numbers, it’s not especially useful to speculate on potential bench bosses in a fantasy column. I’ll keep it to this: you could make a very reasonable argument for the ouster of both, but if you were to pick one, I’d go with Shero. For all the adjustments Bylsma may have been able to make, who did he really have to insert into the lineup who could have made a difference? The Penguins didn’t have many offensive options beyond the obvious guys … and I would argue that Pittsburgh’s lack of depth doomed them at least the last two playoffs, if not longer.
Anyway, let’s shift to the stuff that’s more fun to discuss. I’ll mix fantasy hockey talk with imaginary GM work. Feel free to share your own thoughts regarding which steps would be ideal regarding the Penguins on Twitter, in the comments or via e-mail.
1. Sid is fine - Crosby couldn't score a point against the Bruins (and still finished the 2013 postseason with 15 points in 14 games) and finished this season blowing everyone else away with a 104-points season. That's the third-best total of his career, but considering the times - no one else even hit 90 points, as Ryan Getzlaf came in second with 87 points - it might just be the best or second-best performance he’s generated in his outstanding career.
He’s the first pick of any reasonable draft, OK?
2. Geno is A-OK - Evgeni Malkin’s year-to-year stats sure have been odd the last few years. Even giving him a pass for a point-per-game output in an abbreviated 2012-13 season, take a look at his unpredictable work:
2009-10: 77 points
Is that frustrating? Yes, but he also got those 72 points in 60 games (a 98.4-point pace in 82 games), so I figure that he remains a first-round pick as always.
3. The Penguins shouldn’t re-sign Marc-Andre Fleury - This isn't a condemnation of "The Fleury." Instead, I think NHL teams are way too antsy to lock up goalies long-term. And, really, could Fleury do anything in 2014-15 to drive his value up through the roof? Even a great season would still carry the baggage of many disappointing seasons before it. (It's not like a situation the Columbus Blue Jackets faced after Sergei Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy yet had very little NHL-level experience, relatively speaking.)
So why not see if greed would be good for MAF?
He already delivered nicely in a "prove-it" season, winning 39 regular season games while putting up a solid .915 save percentage in both the regular season and playoffs.
If nothing else, it would work wonders for fantasy owners. That's what is really important, isn't it?
4. Walk the tightrope with Matt Niskanen - You couldn’t ask for a much better contract year situation for Matt Niskanen, which might be a less-than-ideal situation for the Penguins. His 46 points in 2013-14 is more than he scored in 2012-13, 2011-12 and 2010-11 (45 points) combined.
A significant spike in production is a red flag to be careful about spending to re-up someone, although it’s conceivable that Niskanen can produce with the Penguins again. It’s just a matter of price.
The important note is that Kris Letang could play 82 games or close to that and possibly dilute the value of even a keyed-in Niskanen. That said, they could both benefit each other if the Penguins bring Niskanen back. I do like that Niskanen brings a nice mix of that offense with some decent snarl (124 hits, 51 PIM this season).
So, just to summarize, I think Niskanen could be valuable in fantasy, maybe especially in Pittsburgh. Whether it’s a wise real-world decision depends upon the price.
5. Don’t be too loyal to your free agents - The reason it’s so natural to wonder if the potential big changes in Pittsburgh would come at the management level is because the Penguins’ biggest names are all basically locked up long-term (except Fleury).
The “nucleus” is pretty difficult to touch without making foolish, losing trades, yet the “electrons” are largely not even signed depending upon whom you consider. In other words, Pittsburgh’s supporting cast could be hugely different next season.
This might be the clearest reason why this would be as wise a time as ever to change management with the Penguins. Shero and Bylsma might feel a bit too loyal to a guy who’s becoming more and more of a fringe player like Brooks Orpik. Might Shero feel a little too obliged to re-sign a guy like Lee Stempniak, too.
Whoever is in office, they should consider shooting for free agents who can take some of the pressure off of Crosby and Malkin.
Cap Geek estimates their space this summer at about $16 million, but that's with a $71 million cap that might be a million or two fewer. Assuming they re-sign Niskanen, that space could be closer to $10-$12 million.
That doesn't give Pittsburgh a ton of room to work with, yet perhaps they can squeeze a useful player or two under the cap nonetheless; an Ales Hemsky or Radim Vrbata (the latter especially unlikely) would be a dream while a Mikhail Grabovski or Steve Downie could provide welcome variety.
Either way, the "let the stars do everything" plan has worked wonders during the regular season but isn't getting the job done in the playoffs.