August 25, 2008
Mike Toth, a "quirky" and "irreverent" personality for Sportsnet up in Canada, is getting absolutely curb-stomped by Pittsburgh Penguins fans for writing the following prediction in a recent edition of his online column, Pass the Puck:
8. With all the garbage I've been eating this summer, I shouldn't be trusting my gut. But something tells me the Pittsburgh Penguins are headed for a huge fall. The darlings of the NHL last year when they gave Detroit all it could handle in the Cup final, the Pens go into the new season missing some key pieces to the puzzle. Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone are gone and key defenceman Ryan Whitney will miss the first three to five months with a knee problem. To make up for their missing offence, the Penguins are counting on getting some big minutes and big goals out of the mercurial Miroslav Satan, who lit the lamp just 15 times for the Islanders last season. Sure, the Penguins still boast the one-two punch of Crosby and Malkin. However, Tampa Bay finished in the cellar last year despite sending Lecavalier and St. Louis over the boards every night. Prediction? Coach Michel Therrien doesn't last the season and the Penguins shock the NHL by struggling just to make the playoffs.
In stating his case, Toth committed the Nurmero Uno sin for a hockey pundit: He got his facts slightly incorrect. Whitney's out with a foot injury, not a knee. And as The Sweater Ted points out, he could be back with the Penguins by November. Coming from a guy who once had an entire column discredited by some readers because I spelled the then-Oiler's name "Ryan Smith," I can relate.
That misstatement, and the rest of his analysis, earned Toth a royal lashing from The Pensblog and Leahy and The Steel City Sports Fan, who whips out the "Pulitzer Prize-winning candidate, no doubt" line faster than a Puck Daddy detractor in the comments.
It was a well-deserved pummeling, because his rationale was stupid. (Yes, the Penguins will surely miss Hossa ... almost as badly as they did for those 70 regular season games they didn't have him last season.) His thesis, however, was not: That the Pittsburgh Penguins will struggle to make the postseason in a competitive Eastern Conference. What's so nutty about that prediction?
Stanley Cup bridesmaids aren't automatically next year's brides. Quite the opposite, actually, based on the last few Stanley Cup runners-up:
Ottawa Senators: 105 points (2006-07) ... 94 points (2007-08)
Edmonton Oilers: 95 points (2005-06) ... 71 points (2006-07)
Calgary Flames: 94 points (2003-04) ... 103 points (2005-06)
Anaheim Ducks: 95 points (2002-03) ... 76 points (2003-04)
Carolina Hurricanes: 91 points (2001-02) ... 61 points (2002-03)
New Jersey Devils: 111 points (2000-01) .... 95 points (2001-02)
The Flames are the only runner-up to increase their point total after a Stanley Cup finals appearance, and obviously the lockout is the reason for that anomaly. Otherwise, the norm is for the Cup bridesmaid to whiff on the bouquet: Edmonton, Anaheim and Carolina all failed to make the postseason the following year.
Excluding the Calgary abnormality, these teams average a drop of 20 points in the season after their Cup appearance. Of course, there are varying reasons for the decline; Chris Pronger's name comes to mind in one case. But injuries, psychology, the pressure of an encore, the departure of talent ... all of it affected them. Even if the Penguins suffer the seemingly insignificant rollbacks of the 2001-02 Devils and the 2007-08 Senators, making the postseason becomes a struggle - the Sens were two points ahead of the ninth-place team last season.
The Penguins lineup looks a tad different. If I had told you the day after the Stanley Cup playoffs ended that Sidney Crosby's linemates next season could be Ruslan Fedotenko and Miro Satan, your first reaction would have been a shriek of intense panic that Ray Shero went bat-poop and traded him to the Islanders. But hey, it could happen. The linemates thing, not the Islanders thing. Unless the Penguins really, really want a piece of Richard Park again.
Toth's line about Hossa was paralyzingly idiotic, but he's right on Malone being a significant loss. He's the glue that holds together a great line on a championship team, and the kind of player whose grunt-work goes unappreciated until he's in another uniform.
Looking at what the Penguins bring back for an encore ... does this scream 102 points? It's all on paper, but there are question marks. Another 28 goals from Petr Sykora? Can Jordan Staal figure out his game with a contract on his mind?
Mostly, it's the loss of character guys like Malone, Georges Laraque, Jarkko Ruutu, Gary Roberts and Adam Hall that has me worried. It's not only a different team on the ice; it could be a much, much different locker room. And that's a tough transition for a group that bonded so tightly in a postseason run.
Finally, enough with the "they didn't have Crosby/Fleury last year, and look what they did!" stuff. Leahy played that tune in his dissection of Toth's muddled narrative. Look, it was nothing short of remarkable to see the Penguins play as well as they did minus their captain and their starting goalie last season. But that was a special circumstance that has no bearing on this year's team. Because, in case you haven't noticed, ConkBlock has left the building. And he was as big a reason for that run as anything Malkin accomplished outside of Sidney's shadow.
Will the Penguins make the postseason cut? They're in the toughest division in the NHL. The Flyers are one year better, the Rangers are dangerous if they can pass their chemistry test, the Devils are still the Devils until Lamoriello decides to micro-manage his wing at the nursing home, and the Islanders ... well, have some outstanding ticket plans this season.
The conference is better, too. The Capitals have changed their playoff Evite from "maybe" to "yes, I will attend." The Southeast, as a whole, is a crapshoot. Boston will make the postseason if it has to score 82 goals all season to do it. Montreal's making the cut, and this wouldn't be the first time Ottawa's made it with crap-tastic goaltending.
Based on recent history, based on the reality of their surroundings, why is it sacrilege to consider the Penguins' trip to the next postseason one that could quickly derail?
Toth's ham-fisted approach didn't make the case -- his comparison to the Lightning is the kind of irrelevant argument that you'd expect to see in a message board debate -- but believing "the Pittsburgh Penguins are headed for a huge fall" isn't the outlandish prophecy some believe it to be.
Will they make the playoffs? Honestly, I can't really say with certainty that they will.