Interview with Pensburgh Editor Jim Rixner
First, can you let readers know a bit about Pensburgh and what they should expect to see from your coverage over in 2014?
Hi everyone, thanks for having me over, you can find us at pensburgh.com where we have analysis and thoughts on all the news and happenings around the Pittsburgh Penguins. We’ll have statistical analysis and also add context with what our writers see and how events that unfold today will affect the Pens in the future. We also have game-threads and recaps where our community of Pens fans love to chime in and talk all things hockey and the Pens!
Every team closely guards with metrics they use to analyze players, but the Penguins definitely do consider these things in their acquisitions- use of advanced stats was cited in the decision to acquire James Neal. But, then again, the Pens also traded 2 second round picks for Douglas Murray, who’s been one of the worst players in the league in possession-based and shot-based stats, so I wouldn’t say their every decision is ruled by pure analytics.
I think the rise of advanced stats happened in hockey for the same reasons it happened in baseball or any other sport- technology has advanced to the point where a lot more data is tracked these days. Naturally teams can use this data to attempt to gain an advantage over conventional wisdom by trying to add more context to players and attempt to project how they can get more value or better performance by using new tools and measures that just weren’t available years ago.
The natural fit would be Matt Moulson- he’s a goal scoring 1st line winger who played very well with John Tavares with the Islanders and would be a natural to replace the injured Pascal Dupuis. The problem will be that Moulson is going to be among the best available “rental” player options and with that comes a high price to pay in a trade. Will the Pens want to trade even more picks/prospects again this year? It looks like a guy like Simon Despres could be on the outs, but it’s hard to see the Pens trading away any bluechip prospects or any roster players.
How surprising has Zatkoffs play been to you – and are they leaning too heavily on Fleury? Any fear of burnout?
Zatkoff has been solid as a backup, he’s settled in and gives the team a chance to win when he gets thrown out there, and that’s all you can ask of a backup.
Fleury’s played 60+ games five times in his career- he’s been a very steady and capable regular season goaltender to handle a big workload and perform generally pretty well. He’s been around seemingly forever, but is still only 29 years old and in tremendous shape, I don’t fear too much of a burn out- top goalies love to play in every game and while they have leaned heavily on Fleury, he’s shown so far that he can handle it.
Now, whether that will translate into playing even at a decent level in the playoffs is a whole different issue. I don’t truly think it matters if Fleury plays a lot in the season or a little for his post-season performance. He’s still got to make saves in April no matter how many games he played earlier in the year.
Lots of excitement over the Olympics. But with so many Penguins making Olympic teams (seven?) – should fans be more worried about the effect it will have on the team long term this season?
It’s a valid concern, especially considering all the injuries the Pens have had to deal with and the fact the Pens have some older Olympians (Orpik, Martin, Kunitz and Jokinen are all 30+ years old). But, also, we can remember that just about every other top player in the league is also going to the Olympics, so every team really has the worry of how their top couple players will be late in the year. I’d like to think that for most, the thrill of wearing their country’s jersey and getting to represent them on such a big stage will provide enough of a lift to get them through it and back.
Another season with a crazy number of injuries. What do you attribute this team’s success to that they can so readily overcome all is these injuries? The system? Bylsma? Better prospect depth?
I think a lot goes to Bylsma and his staff. The Pens have one of the best power play’s in the league and one of the best penalty kill units too, despite frequently having to rotate a lot of personnel on those units. The coaches have done a great job in plugging in players and getting results.
You also have to look at the constants, guys who have played in every game. Sidney Crosby is far and away the best player in the world and he’s helped Chris Kunitz to the top of the league’s scorers as well. Fleury’s played a ton and he’s provided very even and solid efforts for the most part. Matt Niskanen has played every game and has had a terrific season. The Pens have had to deal with their injuries- including some to top players- but they’ve been fortunate that some of their best and most consistent players have been able to stay in the lineup all season.
Bylsma had no choice but to play a lot of guys with all the injuries in some cases. Also, the Penguins have a teenaged defenseman in Olli Maatta, that’s almost unheard of. I don’t always agree with Bylsma’s every personnel decision, but it’s hard to argue with his record and the job he’s done putting the best team out there. Performance matters and some of the guys who haven’t performed or progressed as much as the coaches have hoped for aren’t going to stay in the lineup every night.
Bylsma has tried to play guys like Beau Bennett and Jayson Megna, and both have looked good when they’ve been able to stay healthy. If a young player performs and plays well (again, think Olli Maatta) the door is open for him to become as big a part of the team as he can handle.
Another subject that has come up is the quality of the CONSOL arena ice. Is this a big concern and what’s being done to correct the issue?
It’s a big concern and I don’t really know what they can do, aside from keeping to work at it. With all the different non-hockey events that arena hosts, the ice isn’t going to be ideal. In a perfect world, it would just be a hockey facility, no monster trucks or circuses or concerts to disrupt the ice surface and building. But of course that’s not feasible, so the best they can do is keep trying to work at it. Consol has great technology in-place, and ice quality is definitely a topic from Mario Lemieux on down through the Pens management that they know they want to keep as high as possible.
The play of the Metropolitan division has been less than stellar. Any thoughts on how this will affect the team’s ability to adjust to higher quality opponents?
Outside of Boston, nothing in the East is really too special on paper. But, playoff series aren’t played on paper and many times #7 and #8 teams can win a couple rounds of the playoffs. Especially with heated rivals like Philly and Washington- two teams that always rise their intensity and compete level to give Pittsburgh their best.
The Penguins really shouldn’t lose to a division team this year, but in the NHL playoffs surprises can happen when the right mix of emotion, momentum and a hot goalie come into play, so I don’t think it’ll be a cakewalk either. I’m not too concerned about the Pens not getting enough high quality opponents, they’ll have rival teams that will really test and push them early in the playoffs and if they make it late, they’ll be facing higher quality opponents just like any other season.
Many have mixed thoughts on Kris Letang. What are your thoughts on the defenseman? Is he a luxury this team doesn’t need considering the way he turns over the puck- and should be traded- or too unique a talent to let go?
When a defenseman plays 26-28 minutes a night and handles the puck as much as Letang, he’s going to have turnovers, there’s no way around it. The mistakes he makes are mostly mental, physically he’s one of the best athletes and skaters in the league. I definitely think the Pens should hang on to him at this point. His salary isn’t as high as people think in the new age of the rising salary cap (seriously- watch when PK Subban gets a new contract).
Letang has bumps in the road and is far from a perfect player, but he’s also a unique talent that is capable of adding a lot to the team and isn’t the type of player that a team trades away and ends up being better for doing so.
What’s the biggest difference between this Penguins team and the one last year that struggled in the playoffs?
That’s a good question, and the answer is they’re not much different. The hope is that getting Rob Scuderi back will stabilize Kris Letang’s play and that would be a boost. Goaltending in the playoffs is a huge question mark. Depth wise, the Pens are worse off in personnel (with Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy, Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla all gone) and Dupuis out too is a big blow.
The organization, by keeping Bylsma and not making any huge trades, likes the core they have in place. Last year with Tuukka Rask playing red hot and only giving up 2 goals in 4 games to the Pens probably won’t happen again, at least they hope.
The Pens have won 13 straight home games, Sidney Crosby is on a roll, it’s a fun time to be a Pens fan. Hopefully the Olympics will be exciting and we’ll see which Pens bring back medals and then it’ll be time to ramp it up for the playoffs again.