Pens Acquire Justin Schultz, Confuse Everyone

Edmonton fans around the world sighed in relief at the news that 25-year-old defenseman Justin Schultz would be leaving for greener pastures in Pittsburgh. This is not because they wish him well (well, maybe they do), but more because Schultz is a career -73 player, and holds an astounding -22 this season. Yes, that is the +/- for an actual NHL defender, one who managed to fetch a 3rd round pick, even if the Oilers did agree to retain 50% of his salary. For many Edmonton fans, that’s a steal to be rid of Schultz.

So what are the Penguins thinking here? It’s hard to say. Maybe the Penguins scouts see some hidden promise in Schultz. Maybe they’re hoping he’s young enough to reap the benefits of play time with veterans and thrive under the inherent hope of going from the perennial rebuilding of Edmonton to a playoff contender. Hell, maybe this is just a rental until Lovejoy gets back.

Time will tell if the move makes any sense, but I will say this: it’s nice to see the Pens doing… something… about their defense.

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Hakuna Maatta: Pens Sign Young Defenseman for 6 Years, $24.5 Million

Hot off my hot take of how much I hate the Penguins blue line, the Penguins have locked down one of their occasional glimmers of hope defensively by offering Olli Maatta a 6-year $24.5 million contract (that’s $4.086 a year). According to Pierre LeBrun, the Pens sweetened the deal by offering him a limited No Trade Clause over the final two years of the contract, allowing him to make an 8-team “No No” list. You can have some fun betting which teams will make the cut when that list comes into play…

So what do I think of the deal? I’m generally positive with it. Maatta is young and has shown promise each season, carrying a +18 and 16 points for the season over 53 games — a pretty solid feat for a team that has a  -1 goal differential so far. Furthermore, Maatta offers our defense something of an anchor to build around.

That anchor, however, has already shown some issues with injuries, and while he’s played in all but 6 games this season, his recent play has started to show signs of wear and tear (he’s -1 over the past 5 games). Last season, he only saw ice time in 20 games (though to be fair, he was also a casualty of Mump-a-Geddon), and for a contract of this length, drastically shortened seasons can be a big concern. For now all we can hope is that 2014-2015 was an aberration and Maatta continues to grow into a rock-steady blueliner, something this team desperately needs.

Overall, though, I think it’s a smart spend against the cap for the Pens, and I’m glad to see the Pens rewarding the promising young defender and betting on his future success.

Penguins v. Bruins: Anatomy of a Murder

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice co-founder Stephen Mapes returns with a look at how his team fared against the Bruins this year. Hint: It didn’t go so well.

As a lifelong Penguins homer who spent his formative college years in Boston, the annual Pens/Bruins games have always held a special place in my heart. Not only does it allow me to engage in some good-natured trash talking with my wayward Bruins-loving friends, but it showcases the talents of two perennially successful franchises (well, for the past decade at least) who have found success in different avenues: flash and finesse for Pittsburgh and gritty, tough, and defensive play for Boston. In years past, these match-ups have been close, nerve-wrecking affairs from start to end.

… Except for this year.

The three game series against Boston has been a microcosm of every weakness the Pens have tried to downplay all season long. We were outscored 14-3, despite outshooting Boston 108-92. That means our goalies combined for a save percentage of .8478 and a GAA of 4.67 while Tuukka Rask posted a .9722 and a 1.00 GAA. This is the equivalent of an elite goalie squaring off against Gary Laskoski, a goalie so wayward and forgotten you probably just had to Google him (his career split was actually .857 and 4.56).

Even the most recent game, which boasted the return of Fleury in net, ended exactly as those before: a blowout.

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So what went wrong? How did a team posting the full might of Crosby, Malkin and Kessel look like the scrub squad in a Harlem Globetrotter’s game?

A lot of the credit has to go to Rask, who stood on his head and then some in all three games despite facing an ever increasing barrage of shots. Rask has always come up big against Pittsburgh, and his Penguin-killing ways were in top form. But the Boston defense as well deserves credit for flustering the talents Pittsburgh offense, forcing them to take low-quality shots and just hope to make something happen with a puck on net.

On the reverse, the Penguins’ defensive struggles have been on full display across the series this year. Despite my snark about the combined save percentages of Zatkoff and Fleury, a lot of the blame falls rightly on the Pittsburgh blueline, which seemed to be of no help to either goalie. Shot counts don’t mean everything when the story is quality over quantity, and Boston made their limited shots count. The problem is even worse when dealing with an occasionally leaky goalie like Fleury. Rebounds and trickling pucks need to be swallowed up and cleared, and the Pens defense seems to be consistently weak on giving up silver platter chances.

From day one, any honest Penguins fan would have let you know about the defensive failings of the 2016 roster, but we knew if we could keep things even average on our side of the ice, we’d give our forwards room to do their thing. It’s a game plan that works when it does, but when it falls apart, as it has in all three Bruins games, you’re left wondering how a team this good on paper could look this bad in person.

There are still 20+ games to go, but right now, Boston’s in the driver’s seat for the wildcard. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, needs to plug up their defensive holes and find ways to make their own luck against strong defenses and wall-like goalies. Otherwise, they may earn a different place in history than they hoped: as one of the NHL’s premiere “WTF happened” stories.

Oh captain, my captain…see you later

The NHL trade deadline isn’t until Feb. 29, but that didn’t stop the Toronto Maple Leafs from pulling the trigger on a huge deal this week. The Leafs rebuild is in full effect, and the Toronto braintrust led by Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello stepped on the gas pedal by dealing captain Dion Phaneuf to hated provincial rivals Ottawa in a massive nine-player trade.

Despite the sheer size of the trade, the other names really don’t matter. The big plus for Toronto is that the Senators took on the remaining five years of Phaneuf’s contract, which averages $7 million per year. That’s big money for a 30-year-old d-man who’s lost a step. While still a decent blueliner, he hasn’t been a top-line defenseman since his years in Calgary. This season, new coach Mike Babcock wisely did what his predecessors didn’t and took the pressure off Phaneuf by playing him on the second D pairing and thereby reducing his minutes. At the same time, Babcock and Lamoriello worked to pump up Phaneuf’s trade value by praising him in the press at every turn.

The trade in its entirety: Toronto sent Phaneuf and non-NHLers Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey, Ryan Rupert and Cody Donaghey to Ottawa for Jared Cowen, Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Tobias Lindberg and the Sens’ second-round pick in 2017. Since Shanahan took over as president of the Leafs, the team has shed monster contracts given to David Clarkson, Phil Kessel and now Phaneuf. This clears the decks for Toronto to go after big-name free agents in the coming offseasons. The biggest name rumored to be a Toronto target is Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay. Whether the future free agent decides to enter the media maelstrom of Toronto is another story.

Another interesting side of the trade is a team trading its captain away. It certainly has happened many times before. Back in the ’90s, the Leafs traded two beloved captains. At the draft in June 1994, GM Cliff Fletcher made a gutsy move, dealing captain Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and the team’s first-round pick (#22) to Quebec for Mats Sundin, Todd Warriner, Garth Butcher and Quebec’s first-rounder (#10). Although it was extremely unpopular at the time—Clark had just come off a 46-goal season and embodied the grit and leadership that Toronto fans adored—Fletcher felt the team needed to shake things up and provide Doug Gilmour with some offensive support after two Conference finals appearances. Sundin was a budding young star playing in the shadow of Joe Sakic and went on to play 13 seasons in Toronto, eventually became captain himself; he’s the Leafs’ all-time leading scorer and is now in the Hall of Fame. After the Clark trade, Gilmour became captain, but a few years later in 1997 with the team struggling, he was dealt along with Dave Ellett to New Jersey for Steve Sullivan, Alyn McCauley and Jason Smith.

Some of the greatest players in NHL history were traded while they were captains: Wayne Gretzky was dealt twice, Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Jarome Iginla, Ron Francis and Brad Park. Sometimes trading your captain can fire up a team, sometimes it can devastate it, but more often than not, it’s strictly business.

Premeditated or concussed? The curious case of Dennis Wideman

When Calgary defenseman Dennis Wideman laid a nasty cross-check on linesman Don Henderson in a Jan. 27 game, the immediate reaction across hockey circles was shock and outrage. Wideman was heading back to the bench when he encountered Henderson in his path, with his back to Wideman as the linesman watched the play. Wideman then did the exact opposite of what anybody would do in that situation and flattened the defenseless Henderson with a sudden cross-check. If it had been an opposing player who had just hit him, maybe the play would be a little more understandable. But it was the sheer pointlessness of it that had many scratching their heads. The NHL subsequently suspended Wideman for 20 games, which he said he will appeal, arguing that the hit was unavoidable.

Of course, there’s more to the story. Moments before the fateful hit, Wideman had been slammed hard into the glass, and he looked woozy after he sat on the bench. A league “concussion spotter” noticed Wideman’s seeming symptoms and recommended he be sent to the designated “quiet room” for observation per the NHL’s concussion policy. However, Wideman refused to go to the room and continued to play in the game. There shouldn’t have been any debate; the policy requires that a player deemed to be possibly concussed must be removed from the game. But the Flames’ staff didn’t force Wideman to go and the player finished out the game. It will be interesting to see how this plays out during the appeal process if allegations are made that the team was responsible in any way for allowing Wideman back out on the ice.

There have cases where players have inadvertently hit officials in the middle of a scrum, but only a handful where the contact has been intentional. The Wideman incident reminds me of Tom Lysiak, a star forward in the ’70s and ’80s with the Atlanta Flames and Chicago Blackhawks, who received a 20-game suspension in 1983 after he tripped linesman Ron Foyt. Lysiak had grown frustrated after being tossed by Foyt from the faceoff circle several times and finally he ignored the play and jabbed Foyt behind the knee, causing him to fall to the ice. Lysiak received a game misconduct and then after the game, referee Dave Newell levied the suspension, invoking the recently passed Rule 67A; the rule applies a 20-game suspension to any player who “deliberately applies physical force” to an official. The rule itself was created after criticism of lax penalties after incidents involving referee Andy van Hellemond during the 1981-82 season: Paul Holmgren of the Flyers received a 5-game suspension for punching van Hellemond in the chest early in the season and Terry O’Reilly of the Bruins was suspended for 10 games for slapping the ref during a playoff game.

Lysiak sued the league to be allowed to file an appeal, but the NHL Board of Governors upheld the suspension amid threats of a walkout by officials if the suspension was reduced. At the time, the 20-game ban was one of the longest in league history. Nowadays, of course, the league itself hands down suspensions instead of on-ice officials.

Whatever happens with Wideman’s case, there will be plenty of interested parties (the NHL officials’ union, the NHLPA, teams, fans, media) watching very closely.

John Scott for President

Okay, I just sat through the NHL All-Star Game and it was…terrific. In typical NHL fashion, the league bigwigs did their best to bungle the affair after noted facepuncher John Scott was voted a starter. Sure, it was a joke fan vote, but after it happened and Scott was named captain of the Pacific Division squad, a ridiculous trade sent him from Arizona to Montreal, who promptly demoted him to the AHL. At the time, it looked like Scott’s All-Star dreams were history. But the subsequent outrage from fans and pretty much everyone forced the league to backtrack and rule that Scott could retain his All-Star status. But still, going into the game itself—which featured a new 3-on-3 format tailored for the league’s elite offensive talent—who among us thought Scott would thrive?

I sure didn’t. And like pretty much everyone else, I was wrong. Not only did Scott write a tremendous piece about the situation for The Player’s Tribune (seriously, it’s a great column), he went out and scored two goals and won the MVP of the whole damn thing. And sure, when you’re playing with such talented players, the temptation is to think anybody could score two goals, but give the guy his due: He held his own and excelled, even. Scott didn’t look out of place, made some decent passes and buried two chances, including a breakaway goal on Devan Dubnyk.

As a result, Scott won a 2016 Honda Pilot and $90,000 (his share of the winning team’s $1 million prize) and tomorrow will go back to the St. John’s IceCaps of the AHL. But for one shining weekend, he was the center of a feel-good story that rivals any in the world of sports. And, oh by the way, the game itself was pretty fun. The event was actually three 20-minute mini-games: In the Eastern Conference game, the Atlantic division squad edged the Metropolitan 4-3, while Scott led the Pacific team to victory in the West game by a 9-6 margin over the Central. The final 20 minutes was an uncharacteristic 1-0 nailbiter that was won by the West on a Corey Perry goal (a second Perry tally was overturned after the review found goalie interference on the play). There was some terrific goaltending from John Gibson, Roberto Luongo, Ben Bishop and Jonathan Quick. It was a far cry from the usual 15-14 ASG, and a welcome change. And who woulda thunk that Jaromir Jagr scoring a ridiculously sweet breakaway goal would be a complete and utter afterthought?

Hey, it’s not like I have a total hate-on for the All-Star Game. I fondly remember some moments from ASGs past, like in 1983, when Wayne Gretzky scored four goals in a 9-3 Campbell Conference win. Or 1990, when Mario Lemieux scored four and the following year, when Vincent Damphousse of the Leafs got four of his own. Or 1995, with the ASG in Boston, when Ray Bourque scored the game-winner in overtime. Then there was the 2000 ASG in Toronto, which I was lucky enough to attend in person. The game itself was an afterthought, but the festivities around it were fun to experience, including getting an autograph from my favorite childhood hockey hero, former Leafs captain and NHL Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler.

All-Star Games are still silly, but at least this year’s accidental triumph shows that they can be compelling if done right. How that happens next year remains to be seen, but at least there’s hope.