With the free agent losses, are the Penguins too "soft"?
Free Agency was not particularly kind to the Penguins this season. Realistically though, that is to be expected. When you spend time near the top, the other teams are going to want to poach from your success.
As I wrote earlier in the week, the Pens are better off without Jaromir Jagr. The same cannot be said of losing Mike Rupp and Max Talbot. Also, as of July 3rd, tough guy Eric Godard had not re-signed and does not appear to be on the radar currently.
Heading in to last season, the Penguins took on the look of a very gritty team. Some, including myself, wondered if there was too much grits. "Fights aren't goals" was my motto for the 2010-11 campaign.
That should not be misconstrued as the opinion of someone who thinks fighting has no place in the sport. Nothing could be further from the truth. The right to bare knuckles is one of the most important sideshow aspects of the game, yet it does not generally affect the outcome.
Last season there were a few too many third period leads blown by the Penguins to the Rangers, Maple Leafs, and Bruins for anyone to think otherwise. If fighting and scrums were so important, they team would have scrapped their way back to a win.
Now as we head in to the 2011-12 schedule, a complete 180-degree turn has taken place. At this point, I now wonder if the Penguins have enough grit and toughness to make it through the regular season, let alone make a deep run in to the playoffs.
To say that I have mixed feelings on the matter is an understatement. Goals win hockey games. But if you do not have the right mix of grit to go along with those goals, you get the Sedin twins. There has to be a balance.
As a long time fan, I think back to the day where the most recent turnaround of the franchise began. The coach at the time was Michel Therrien. In January of 2006, he lost it on the defense in a postgame rant (malapropisms included for affect).
"They soff like I've never see a bunch of defenseman soff like dis. So,there you put the two combination and...well obviously, hey there's a lot of guy don't care. They pretend to care but I know they don't care."
The reason why this quote still resonates among the fanbase aside from the language barrier is that when a player is not "soff", you know he is giving it his all.
Even if the team gets blown out of a building, you know the players who care when guys are still finishing their checks, getting in opponent's faces, and dropping the mitts.
At this point, the team has lost some key sandpaper guys. Will the 2011-12 be too soft? The slides will tell the story.
Mike Rupp signed a three-year contract worth $4.5 million with the New York Rangers. From a Pittsburgh standpoint, it is quite a loss.
Having Rupper stay within the division though could really be damaging. You can count on him to be in the faces of anyone wearing a Penguin uniform for the next three years.
When people talk about tough, gritty hockey players, it is often mentioned that "you'd love to have a guy like that on your team".
Rupp is one of the prime examples of what this statement means. Just wait until the day comes where the teams meet in the playoffs. It will be abundantly clear then.
At 6'5" 230 lbs., Rupp was the biggest Penguin. He used that frame to muck it up in the corners, stir up trouble between the whistles, drop the gloves when needed, and act like an overall "a-hole" from another team's perspective.
According to hockeyfights.com, Rupp had 12 fights each of his two seasons with the Pens. His 2010-11 record was 6-5-1 and the 2009-10 record was 4-4-4 as voted on by visitors to the site.
The worst part of losing Rupp and his toughness is that he can play hockey. The past two seasons he chipped in 22 goals along with his 244 PIMs.
In the lackluster 2011 playoff round against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Rupp was one of few players that showed the spark necessary in the playoffs.
Paying him the kind of money the Rangers did would not have worked for the team,. Losing him also is not a very promising option for the team, as without him you can consider them a much softer team.
Lost in the frenzy of Jagr Watch was the re-signing of forward Arron Asham to a one-year, $775,000 contract. Asham spent a lot of time injured for the Penguins in the 2010-11 season, having only appeared in 44 regular season games.
Obviously the hope from the Penguins standpoint, is that Asham can take on a larger role in the 2011-12 season and stay healthy. At 5'11" 210 lbs, he is not a "heavyweight", but he certainly is willing to stir the pot.
One of the things that should be appreciated most about the games Asham got in to last season, was his ability to minimize between the whistle and stupid penalties. In his 44 games, he only had 46 PIMs.
Hockeyfights.com lists Asham with six battles last season, going 3-0-3 in them. It is worth noting that since Asham spent time on the shelf due to a concussion, there is the possibility that he may not be as willing to drop the gloves next season.
If that is the case, one certainly cannot blame him, but the Penguins would not be any less soft in that instance. Hopefully, Asham recovers and contributes in all facets of his game this season.
It seemed inevitable that Max Talbot would test the market and receive "superstar treatment" once July 1st hit. He has a reputation of big time goals in the playoffs and is an "intangable" guy.
Talbot did the unthinkable and joined the cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers by signing a five-year deal worth $9 million.
Trib Total Media's Rob Rossi had an article on pittsburghlive.com Sunday, July 3rd titled "Talbot Hopes Pens Fans Remember Him Fondly" in which he details the difficult decision.
In that article, a description of his correspondence with Evgeni Malkin sums it all up. As Rossi wrote:
"I just texted him (Saturday) about this, but when he heard last week that I wasn't going to be a Penguin anymore he sent me a text that was so Geno. It just said, 'Why?' "
Leave it Geno to say what was on all of our minds. But the answer is simple, the Penguins were not willing to go that long in years and probably also would not be anywhere near that money.
Talbot's choice was simple. The void he will leave is immense. While small in stature, Talbot made the most of his opportunity with the team that drafted him in 2002 by embracing a physical, energy line role.
He chipped in goals, threw his body around a lot. In 2010-11, he is credited with 154 hits. Add 40 blocked shots to the total and his role as a key penalty killer, and the team loses more than just "toughness".
While Talbot is no stranger to dropping the gloves, his most memorable fight came in Philadelphia against in the playoffs April 25, 2009. He was beaten pretty soundly by Daniel Carcillo (who should have never fought him up 3-0 in the first place), but as he skated to the penalty box he made a one fingered "shh!" motion.
Did that fight change the game? Even I would have a hard time arguing it. Are the Penguins softer for not having a guy like that in their lineup? Again, tough to argue against it.
One guy that remains in the Penguins lineup that can throw down is defenseman Deryk Engelland. Well, that is as long as Matt Niskanen does not hog up all his minutes.
Engelland had 123 PIMs last season and made a name for himself with his fists. Pugilists around the league took note, to be certain.
Hockeyfights.com lists Engelland with 13 fights last season, with the fans voting him 10-2-1 in those scraps.
Do yourself a favor and find video of his December 20, 2010 fight against Phoenix's Taylor Pyatt and his October 13, 2010 bout against Toronto's Coltor Orr. Engelland's striking technique would do any UFC fighter proud.
The question about Deryk Engelland certainly is not whether he is tough or not. It is worth wondering if Coach Dan Bylsma will get him in the lineup enough because of Niskanen and if his fights will be enough of a deterrent for other teams.
It is tough to believe that Engelland only will keep games against the New York Islanders from getting out of hand. So even with Deryk, the Penguins are still looking a lot softer this season.
As you likely agree, the Penguins are in fact a softer team to play against with the departure of Max Talbot and Mike Rupp. Is there a way to avoid this? Maybe not, but there are a few options.
Eric Godard could be re-signed. He would have to take a pay cut since he really is not much more than a skating fighter. Regardless of his lack of skills, he is a team guy despite the suspension for coming off the bench to goalie Brent Johnson's aid. To be clear, the suspension was justified, but Goddard did what he had to do for his team.
If Godard is not back, then the most natural place to turn to is the AHL's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm club. There may not be a ton of roster space left for these fringe guys, but the team may not have a choice.
Keven Veilleux had 12 scraps in the AHL and is 6'5", 200 lbs. He also had 12 goals and 24 assists in the regular season. Could he crack the lineup this year?
Jesse Boulerice had 13 fights for WBS at 6'2", 203 lbs, but was a minus-13 and seems to be less of an actual hockey player and more of a tough guy. Hey, maybe that is not a bad thing.
Whichever direction the Penguins go, it is clear they will need to do something. If they fail to act, there could be some long, lump-filled nights on the upcoming schedule for the guys.