I'm certainly not the only Penguins fan who took a brief moment to pause on July 2, 2011 and quietly commemorate Max Talbot, the hard-working center whose inspired play and timely successes helped propel Pittsburgh to a third Stanley Cup championship.
Since I was young, I was taught that the biggest sin a man can have is the sin of ingratitude. Too often, in the "what have you done for me lately" world of sports, fans lose perspective on the accomplishments of former greats, athletes who only want to do right by them, that have fallen on hard times, declined into mediocrity or taken their skills to a more opportune setting.
I vividly recall hearing the news from Rick, a close friend and avid Penguins fan, that Talbot was leaving, and immediate concern was expressed on my face. The man who led us to glory, who made those hilarious wicky-wicky-wha-wha noises in that terrible car commercial, was going away. And where was "the Superstar" going?
"Well, I guess we can always appreciate what he did for us here in the 'Burgh."
"No way," responded Rick. "Screw Jagr, and the heck with Talbot, too. Losing Max is going to hurt."
Nobody will ever expect me to cheer for Talbot while he wears orange and black and bears that silly "flying P." Yet, in a sports culture that teaches us to shift our button from "friend to enemy" at the swapping of the jersey, nobody will fault me for taking a moment to honor the man that put that disheartened look on Marian Hossa's face in Game 7 of the 2009 Finals.
That's a matter of the heart. When athletes propel their franchise to championship glory, they cement themselves into the eternal culture of a city, ascending from mere mortal to magnificent megastar in the space of a single snapshot.
We all proudly remember his moments of ascension in Pittsburgh.
Max quietly shushing the same Philadelphia crowd that he will now embrace in Game 6 of the Penguins' 2009 playoff series against the Flyers, a moment that most fans associate as the turning point that propelled the team to victory. The Pens rallied from a 3-0 deficit to take the contest and the series.
The most glorious snapshot was was actually his wrist shot from the left circle, having taken a feed around the boards from Rob Scuderi before heading up ice and snapping the puck over Chris Osgood's glove hand. The goal was the winning tally of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, a 2-1 victory that saw both scores come from Talbot's stick.
Rick, who had apparently forgotten the accomplishments of a loyal Penguin in this permanent era of free agency, surprised my with his ingratitude. It caused me to wonder why so many fans, like Rick, were so scorned by the loss.
Was it the anger of betrayal, or did they really feel like Talbot was taking supreme talent to Philadelphia?
If they felt the latter, why?
As opinions continued to hit my radar (a.k.a. my eavesdropping ears), I heard voices of concern, noting that the loss of certain players would diminish the squad's potential to return to the Stanley Cup Finals. Talbot was the most popular name being mentioned.
However, what about Max? I find the argument of his loss as devastating to be decidedly overstated.
After considering the arguments and positions of peers, I was left with two questions:
Will the team be as hurt as the fans by the departure of Max Talbot? And, if not, why does everybody feel that they will?
Losing a valuable member of the team certainly does not feel great, but nobody could have expected Penguins management and Ray Shero to keep everybody. Casualties were a reality of the 2011 free agency for this squad, especially if those same fans who expect greatness also want the franchise to sign players who can help us to win.
Keeping in mind the nature of today's sports market, I can't fault players for separating themselves from emotion to complete a business transaction that is proper for themselves and their families. Perhaps that is the difference between the franchise and the fan perspective: emotion.
Max led the city of Pittsburgh to a championship, and our emotions make his presence strong. I will forever be grateful for the day he turned himself into a fighter in Philly...the night he elevated himself into a scorer in Detroit...
Going to the Flyers doesn't change that.
Knowing that he catapulted the team in the most critical moments of a championship run, he is clearly entrenched in Penguins fans hearts, and he stands to be a critical part of the puzzle out east.
Yet, could it be that his well-timed feats in the Steel City cause fans to overrate the impact his loss?
In other words, are the loyal fans too caught up in the 2009 playoffs to consider his whole body of work?
It's impossible to measure a player's presence in the locker room, and I'm sure Max Talbot was a stand-up guy who helped to create a hard-working and positive atmosphere. That said, the Penguins have other capable leaders who can fulfill that role if needed.
Regarding defense prowess, the Pens boast one of the finest goalies on the planet and played exceptional defense in 2011. In fact, they were one of only six teams to allow fewer than 200 goals, and two of those squads played in the Stanley Cup Finals. Those two teams, Boston and Vancouver, ranked first and second in goal differential, and the Penguins ranked third.
Looking at a center with respect to defense, you are paying attention to a respect to team strategy and concept, and most importantly, discipline on the defensive ice. Max boasted that, sure, but his loss should not disrupt another fine season from a squad that allowed among the fewest goals in hockey.
Additionally, I've heard about Max's "hits, physicality, and scrappy style." Any coach will tell you a lot of those numbers are related to attitude, not just a player's skill set.
It's clear that the goal differential won't be hurt by the loss of Max's presence on defense, but what about offense?
As fans continue to address the team's losses in pessimistic fashion, I asked a few friends to estimate Talbot's point total this past season. I was curious to hear the accuracy of their answers. The bottom line is, do they know what they are actually losing with Max Talbot's departure?
Their responses were 38, 50 and 67.
The truth is that Talbot accumulated 21 points in 82 games, finishing with a plus/minus rating of minus-3 in 2010-11. While I realize that a lot of the offensive numbers for third- and fourth-line players are deceiving, this is simply not enough of a subtraction to warrant elevated concern.
Fans will reference his presence and other elements of his play, but I'm certain that Ray Shero has a plan in place that will ensure the team's stability and success for years to come. Nobody wants to lose such an iconic figure, but for those who feel the Penguins will be hurt by the loss of Talbot, I'd ask...
Do you really feel that his presence and production will be irreplaceable in the seasons ahead?
Or, is it your own gratitude that magnifies that presence, leaving you to just not feel right yet about a Pittsburgh hero taking his skill to Broad Street?
As a lifelong Penguins fan, I'd love to thank Max for his wonderful contributions toward bringing a championship to this generation of players and fans.
Going forward, though, we'll be fine without him.
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