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Prognostications and Penguins

I’m not big on prognosticating. At least I try not to be. I think when people prognosticate they do so to get a handle on the unexpected. It’s kind of a pre-rationalization I suppose. Typically stuff happens, it gets experienced, absorbed, and placed in its context. When we prognosticate we attempt to understand something’s impact before it happens.

Hockey prognosticating is especially dicey. Throughout the course of any sports season there are numerous unforseen variables that impact the outcome. Injuries, for instance, while not unforseen, vary in their frequency, severity, the number of game injured players miss, and (most importantly) who suffers the injuries. None of this is predictable.

There are trades. Some teams trade for players who are playing great when they acquire them only to find that they vastly under perform in their new environs. Certainly before a trade is executed you can ask yourself, does this trade makes sense? and evaluate the unlimited factors that would affect the sensibility of that trade. But even with the most brilliant minds in sport trying to determine whether a trade will work, trades still occasionally fail. Conversely though, some trades that appear to be of minor significance on their face end up having the greatest impact of all. Trades are perhaps the most perplexing variable because we often have no idea if a trade was good or bad until years after, and we ask somebody, hey who did we give up to get this guy? What’s he like now?

These are only two variables. I haven’t even mentioned things like officiating, ice conditions, strange bounces, fluke goals, lucky saves, and many, many others. But when we try to prognosticate a hockey season what we essentially do is examine rosters, compare those rosters to to the rosters of other teams, see who plays who, and determine how it will all shake out.

“Figure if the Pens play the Caps four times, two at home, two away, so they’ll prolly split, right? But the thing is though, Crosby DOMINATES the Verizon Center, so that’s got to be good for something. Wait, when do they go down to DC? Think Sid will be back?”

And so on.

We’ve all done it. It’s human nature.  When you have a team that appears to be as stacked as the Penguins it’s impossible to not get excited. We know the players on that team and how good they are. Well, we know how good the players on that team are right now. That’s the problem. We don’t know who will be on that roster, say, in six weeks, three months, or in May and June, when it counts.

Here is the lineup from opening night, 2010:

Kunitz – Crosby – Dupuis

Tangradi – Comrie – Malkin

Cooke – Letestu – Kennedy

Rupp – Adams – Talbot

Orpik – Michalek

Lovejoy – Martin

Goligoski – Engelland

Fleury

And the lineup from game seven against Tampa:

Neal – Letestu – Kovalev

Kunitz – Staal – Kennedy

Dupuis – Talbot – Conner

Rupp – Adams – Asham

Letang – Orpik

Michalek – Martin

Niskanen – Lovejoy

Fleury

Just a little different, right? Three of the players who played game seven were acquired via trade. They weren’t Penguins on opening night. Goligoski was sent packing midseason. Crosby, Malkin, Comrie, and Tangradi were lost to injury at various points during the campaign. Jordan Staal missed opening night due to injury. With flux like this how are we supposed to accurately prognosticate what will happen during the season?

I always love when someone makes a prognosticating about something sports related and somebody else makes fun of it. How can we ever possibly know? If I were to tell you at the beginning of last season that I thought Crosby would score 32 goals you might have thought I was completely insane, or stupid, or maybe that I was dead on. I would have been right, but there is no way in hell I would have thought he would do it all before the All-Star Game. And then he got hurt. At first he was only going to miss a week. Then it was a couple weeks, then several, and then nobody knew when he was going to be back because his injury, like a hockey season, defied prognostication.

So to attempt to accurately preview the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2011-12 season after all of that would be more than a little contradictory of me. Although it’s hard to look at what the Penguins have both on the current active roster, on IR, and in the AHL not not be impressed. We learned last season how incredible the depth of talent is all the way through the Penguins organization. As player upon player was plagued by injury, the Pens kept poaching players from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (WBS) and a vast majority of them proved to be more than NHL capable. There were more than a few nights last year where you needed a media guide to know who the hell was on the ice for the Penguins, but somehow this anonymous group kept winning games. In only two games last year did Crosby, Malkin, and Staal all play together (Winter Classic and the following game against Tampa), and  the Penguins finished in a virtual tie for first in the Atlantic Division. And perhaps just as impressively, the WBS Pens, who lost a most of their best players to the NHL, finished a full 17 points ahead of their nearest competition in the AHL East Division.

There is no way you can honestly say you believed that the Penguins could do what they did last year without Crosby and Malkin for the second half of the year. But at the same time there is no way anybody could have predicted that it would have come to that. That’s hockey. That’s life.

I can’t say with certainty that the Penguins have the deepest organization, talent-wise, in pro hockey. But I can say with certainty that I saw enough from this team last season in overcoming numerous obstacles with a skeleton-crew of unrecognizable faces filling black and gold sweaters that if they can stay even remotely healthy this year they will be a juggernaut. Sidney Crosby and Brooks Orpik will not play immediately, but in due course they will be back. Evgeni Malkin has voiced a renewed energy and focus to accompany his herculean offseason of knee rehabilitation and training. Marc-Andre Fleury had the best statistical season of his career last year despite his early-season implosion. Kris Letang has had a year to learn to be captain of the power play, and before Crosby’s injury was have a Norris-Trophy-caliber season. These are the team’s flag-wavers, but there are so many others I could mention.

It’s a great time to be a Penguin fan. This team has an unmatched combination of youth and experience, speed and sandpaper, accomplishment and desire. While these things are impossible to prognosticate, it is fair to be excited for the potential of one of the most exciting seasons in Penguins history. Are you ready?

Go Pens.

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Categories: NHL, Penguins
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