Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Critiquing the Critics: Mark Madden

Mark Madden loves hockey and he loves the Penguins. He devotes a lot of his time and attention to them and is, all things considered, a friend to the team and the sport. So my critique of his unsolicited suggestion to Michel Therrien has no hard feelings.

-- Marc-Andre Fleury should start every game unless he physically needs a rest. Respect his pedigree and wait for the upside. Dany Sabourin may be a No. 1 goalie someday, but it will be in Wheeling. Therrien pulling Fleury as a device to change a game’s momentum must stop. Maybe it worked in Ottawa this past Thursday, but the Penguins would probably have won the game had Fleury kept playing and Fleury would have avoided yet another coach-administered blow to his psyche.

I agree this team's fate is hitched to Fleury, at least for this season. Good or bad, he's the horse pulling the wagon. I disagree that the team didn't respond a little and the goaltender change had no effect on the big comeback win in Ottawa last week.

-- Sidney Crosby should play the entire two minutes of every power play, just like Sergei Gonchar does. If you don’t think Crosby can handle it, enter Crosby and Gonchar in the same marathon and see who collapses first. Wayne Gretzky did it. Mario Lemieux did it. Crosby should do it.

Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux (in their primes) also played in a different era, so I don't buy that. Gonchar plays the full two minutes because who's going to replace him? One of the unsung trio (Mark Eaton, Brooks Orpik and Robert Scuderi). This trio, while silently effective in their own end, has 0 goals, 5 assists so far on the year...Combined.

If you play Crosby the full two minutes, then why not Evgeni Malkin too? He's just as dangerous and skilled when he gets set up in the offensive zone. With the likes of Petr Sykora, Jordan Staal, Erik Christensen, Gary Roberts and Ryan Malone the Penguins have more than enough talent to field two powerplays. Staal and Christensen especially won't be scoring if they don't get any PP time.

-- Use Crosby and Malkin to kill penalties, especially when the Penguins have committed several infractions in a short span. Both are adept at the PK and
threats to score shorthanded. More important, the Penguins can’t afford to have
either off the ice for 4-6 minutes in a row.

Why not stress team discipline? I would like to see the big guns get slightly more PK time, but the regular penalty killers (Staal, Hall, Colby Armstrong and Maxime Talbot) have done quite well, and Jarrko Ruutu and Malone can PK too. Killing penalties increases the injury possibility for forwards. You'd never like to see anyone hurt, but surely the regular PK'ers are more expendable losing Crosby or Malkin for an extended amount of time.

-- Leave Colby Armstrong on Crosby’s wing. Armstrong and Crosby have a level of understanding reminiscent — in a less productive way, admittedly — of Mario
Lemieux and Rob Brown in the late ’80s. Brown skated like his ankles were chained together, but he thought the game the same way Lemieux did. Brown was Lemieux’s linemate until clearly better alternatives came along. It should be the same with Armstrong and Crosby.

For now, yes; Malone and Armstrong have some "lightning in the bottle" type chemistry with Sid and it's going well. But don't forget, this is the same Armstrong who went 20+ games to start last season while he was playing exclusively on Crosby's wing at even-strength. Army, nor any other winger should be joined at Crosby's hip if he's not producing on the chances that are created.

-- Put Kris Letang in the left circle of the top power play. Put Ryan Whitney at the center point of the top power play. The Penguins’ power play is quite literally designed to have a right-handed shot in the left circle. It’s a job the skilled Letang excels at. Besides Crosby and Malkin, Whitney is the best passer on the Penguins, and he moves without the puck as well as anyone. All Gonchar does on the PP is shoot medium-speed wrist shots into shin pads and steal points by playing catch with Crosby.

I'd be willing to see this experimented with. Therrien has broken up the powerplay a little already, kinda unstacked the big guns. But remember Whitney has great chemistry with Crosby, especially on the little cut-in backdoor play that the Pens seemingly run between those two about twice a game.

-- Don’t use power-play time to reward grit merchants like Tyler Kennedy. Power-play time should be used to score goals, not to throw a bone to hard workers. Hustlers are supposed to hustle.

No argument here. While I love players like Kennedy, Talbot and Hall, they don't belong on the powerplay (unless it's a blowout). That time should absolutely go to guys like Malone and Christensen, the more skilled forwards who create offense with shots on goal, not hard work alone.

-- Demand equal accountability. If Gary Roberts stinks, scratch him
occasionally. I know Roberts will get real mad, but old people get cranky sometimes. Picking a lineup isn’t about veteran respect. It’s about winning. Roberts has played every game this season and has one goal.-- Put players in a position to succeed. For instance, don’t put Malkin between Mark Recchi and Georges Laraque. That doesn’t put Malkin in a position to succeed, that encourages him to re-defect.

Perhaps Madden hasn't noticed, but Recchi has been a healthy scratch in several games already, Therrien's already implemented this. Roberts may have one goal, but his role--unlike Recchi, is to grind and hit and inspire. One can still do that without scoring a goal every other game. And Roberts ice time lately has taken a big nose dive. But if Roberts or Laraque or Ruutu does something dumb or seem ineffective, by all means scratch them for a game or two. I don't think this is a problem.

-- If you Google “Penguins” and “too many men,” there are 23,700 matches.
That’s way too many. The Penguins led the NHL with 17 too-many-men penalties last season. They’ve committed six such infractions so far this season. That’s Coaching 101. Get it right.

I must be the only follower of the Penguins who doesn't heap this all on the coach. The players are professionals and supposed to know what they're doing in a very routine part of hockey, changing lines. Sure the coaching staff needs to make sure the discpline is there and the accountability is high, but I don't totally fault the coaches for all the bench minor penalties. Players have to be smart enough not to jump on the ice if there's a chance they'll get caught, or don't play the puckin the neutral zone if it's in the middle of shift change.

-- Speaking of Coaching 101: During New Jersey’s three wildly
unentertaining visits to Mellon Arena this season, rookie NHL coach Brent Sutter managed to match checking center John Madden (no relation) against Crosby every shift, every game. That’s exactly the matchup Sutter wants and Therrien shouldn’t want. The home team has last change, yet Sutter always got Madden out there against Crosby. How? Submit answers on the back of a Pierre Creamer hockey card.

I don't want to waste a prize trading card, so let me tell you why. The Devils are a tight checking team that strives to get the matchups they want. Even if Crosby lines up against the Devs 4th line, it's not that hard most of the time to immediately get a quick change as soon the puck is dropped and get the matchup they want. Two additional points:

1)Crosby is used to being a marked man and having to go up against his opponent's top players for longer than he can probably imagine.
2)If the Devils use their top checking forwards on Crosby, it should open up that much more room for Malkin and the 2nd line.

There's no reason or need to play little games where the Pens are constantly changing and playing a cat and mouse game. Hell that would lead to that many more too many men and fall right into the Devils (or whoever uses these tactics) plans; keeping Crosby off the ice.

-- Cycle less, attack on the rush more. This team has oodles of speed and
skill, yet keeps taking the puck to the boards instead of seeking open ice. Puck
possession means a lot. Goals mean more.

Goals, a lot of time, come from hard work. Obviously you're not going to be able to generate very many 3 on 2 rushes all game long, so you have to work the corners, cycle and try to generate chances that way. I'd never complain about this point Madden makes, since this means the puck is in the opponent's zone AND most of time it's the lower lines composed of the lesser skilled forwards doing most the cycling anyways.

-- Take pressure off the players by shouldering it yourself, thus getting
the players to give more effort on your behalf. After a recent loss where his team mustered just 12 shots, St. Louis Blues Coach Andy Murray said, “We didn’t play hard enough, and that starts with me.” Can you even imagine Therrien saying such a thing? Well, you’re going to have to, because he won’t.

Deflecting blame might sound nice and make for an easy scapegoat, but it doesn't really hide what's going on. Andy Murray wasn't the reason the players weren't playing well: they must have gotten out-muscled, out-worked and out-skated by their opponents that night. Speaking of work, a lot of that comes from the momentum of a good shift or two from a 3rd/4th line doing a lot of cycling and maintaining puck possesion in the opposition's zone all shift.

-- Let hockey be fun again. The Penguins’ dressing room is a lot tighter
this season, and not just because they’re sub-.500. There’s a fine line between
being demanding and being onerous, and Therrien too often finds himself on the wrong side of it.

Agreed. The team seems very uptight and has lost a lot of 1 goal games. Last year the Penguins won a lot of 1 goal contests (OT and shoot-out included) and the club's atmosphere seemed so much looser and so much more positive and energetic. Winning cures all though, and in this regard getting a couple more bounces will fire the troops up that much further. It still is, after all, an extremely young core of players.


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