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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Changing Of The Guard

What kind of fan would I be if I didn't address the events of yesterday's NHL Free Agent Frenzy?  Not a very good one I'm guessing, because the Penguins as I knew them when I woke up Tuesday morning are a far cry from the Penguins that exist on paper today.

There is a long...well, long is an understatement...let's go with tradition...There is a tradition in Pittsburgh sports that is deeply rooted in the blue-collar town that supports it's teams.  Hard work, gritty, physical, gutsy, call it what you like but the ideals of a primarily working class community have translated to how they expect their sports teams to be.  The Pirates, Steelers, and Penguins have all spent many years (during the era of free agency and salary caps) spending as little as they can for as much as they can.  It's never been about stacking a team with superstars or paying that one big phenomenon $1 billion a season.  It's been about competing at the highest level with rosters that can slug it out with the best of their respective leagues (of course the Pirates are an exception until the last few years but that's a different story).

The argument will be made that some of these Penguin teams have had superstars or currently do (ie. Crosby, Malkin, etc. now and the days of Lemieux, Jagr, Coffey, Francis, Trottier, etc. before) but most of these were obtained through drafting and player development after the fact due to poor finishes the season before.  In many cases, you had players willing to take pay cuts in order to compete on teams they felt would be contenders.  But I'm focusing more on what transpired yesterday in the crazy phenomenon known as the opening day of Free Agency.

The list of Penguins that became a casualty to free agent signings in other cities is astounding to me.  Either this has been the most movement I have seen in recent memory or maybe I have just not been paying attention.  I realize the Pens are cash strapped when it comes to acquiring new talent.  This has much to do with the contracts for the likes of Malkin at $9.5M, Crosby at $8.7M, Letang at $7.25M and Fleury at $5M affecting this years cap.  But with a total salary cap of $69M, some obvious holes in the scoring lines of the roster, and a brand new management team at the helm that's already off to a shaky reception, the Pens walked away from yesterday with about $8.3M left in their pockets and some serious questions left in the minds of their loyal fanbase.

Here are the players that will no longer be suiting up in Pittsburgh after yesterday:

James Neal - - Traded to Nashville
Tanner Glass - - Signed with the NY Rangers
Matt Niskanen - - Signed with the Washington Capitals
Brooks Orpik - - Signed with the Washington Capitals
Jussi Jokinen - - Signed with the Florida Panthers
Deryk Engelland - - Signed with the Calgary Flames
Joe Vitale - - Signed with the Arizona Coyotes
Chris Connor - - Signed with the Washington Capitals

With the exception of maybe Connor and Glass, this is not a list of scrub players or throw-aways by any means.  In fact, you not only have the departure of the number 2 and 3 defensemen but the entire supporting cast of the Malkin line has been dismantled.

Although I was a big James Neal supporter, even when his temper got the best of him, I was not as upset about it as many in Pittsburgh.  I think Neal was a product of his environment and even though he put up some amazing numbers after coming over from Dallas, his production has since declined and he didn't look to be playing on his previous level.  Jokinen bothered me a little but all along, I knew he was just a rental player.  He fits in well with the Florida team he chose to sign with.  The Niskanen deal was inevitable, although highly overrated in my opinion, and I wish him the best of luck.  I don't, however, think he will be putting up the same numbers he did last year in Washington.  Again, like Neal, he was another product of the talent around him and his canon shot from the point flourished because of it.  Of all those guys, I think overall Vitale's services will be missed the most.  You can usually supplant a loss in some of your scoring or get faster guys on the ice.  Vitale wasn't any of those but his face-off skills and penalty killing abilities were top-notch and are something not easily replaceable.

Coincidentally, or maybe not, both these guys found new
homes yesterday, Brooks in Washington and Ryan in
The one I'm most disappointed with is Brooks Orpik.  Orpik has never been anything else but a Penguin.  He was never the guy that was going to be nominated for a Norris Trophy but he was the guy that helped the other guys do it.  He was never the guy that put up tons of points or even assisted in goal scoring, but he was the guy on the back end that made it happen.  Sure he took some questionable penalties and calls over the years but what defenseman worth their contracts doesn't?  I saw Brooks staying with the Pens for his entire career and eventually retiring and joining the club in some type of behind the scenes roll because of the respect he received from his teammates.  Instead, the management changes that have occurred over the last few months soured his outlook on the franchise and the locker room and he began looking for a change.  The market for aging defenseman seemed to me to be slim but his leadership abilities and intelligence of the game was something the Capitals needed and couldn't pass up.  That's why they most likely overpaid for his services for the next 5 years, something the Pens couldn't afford to do.  I know it was nothing personal but somehow I still feel slighted.  

That's how it goes being a fan in free agency times.  When you lose a player to another team, especially a "rival" team with lots of history, it hurts.  You sometimes take it personally.  You feel like you've been betrayed by your friend that you have known all your life.  But then you see the schedule and make note of the first game you will be playing against their new team.  That first shift where they get matched up with their younger, quicker replacement.  They take a shot into the boards or get dekked on a beautiful move toward the goal by their former "best friend" or bunk mate.  It's at that moment, you finally forget they once wore the same color sweater.

More on the future of the team and the new additions later.