Monday, May 19, 2008

Pittsburgh Penguins Make Stanley Cup Finals

By defeating the Philadelphia Flyers four games to one in their semi-final series, the Pittsburgh Penguins have qualified for the Stanley Cup finals. They are a young team built around Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but are they ready to win the Stanley Cup? Where do the rank among the best teams of all time?

I have stated in the past that an elite team must satisfy two necessary but not sufficient conditions. They must have several players who are future Hall of Famers or are on a Hall of Fame track and they must have a top level goalie. Pittsburgh does not satisfy these conditions, but they come as close as any team does this season.

Pittsburgh does not have any players on their roster that I would vote into the Hall of Fame if their careers ended right now. However, they do have a few players on clear Hall of Fame tracks and a few more who might be on Hall of Fame tracks but their progress is not so clear.

Sidney Crosby is clearly an elite player. He won the 2007 Hart Trophy and was picked as the best player in the world in last year's Hockey News Top 50. Due to injury, he will not follow up last season with any major awards (unless he wins the Conn Smythe), but he is clearly a great player. He needs to play a little longer to fully establish Hall of Fame credentials, but he is close. A sufficiently dominating Conn Smythe playoff (which is a real possibility) might be enough to earn him Hall of Fame credentials, regardless of the rest of his career, but more than likely if he maintains his pace it will be next year that he reaches that point.

Evgeni Malkin is at least a year behind Crosby, in part because he has played one less year in the NHL and because although he is a Hart Trophy nominee this year he is unlikely to win it. Nevertheless, if Malkin continues his career path he is most likely a Hall of Famer someday.

The next most likely Hall of Famer on the roster is probably Sergei Gonchar. The past several years have been dominated defensively by Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. If a player were to show himself to be a clear fourth best defenceman during that period, or replace one of those three (most likely Niedermayer as he seems closest to retirement) at that level he would likely be a Hall of Famer. Gonchar is a good candidate to do this. He is already a two-time second team all star. The knock on Gonchar is he is not as strong defensively as the top defencemen in the league (though his offence is on that level). Gonchar's defence has improved significantly this year. His defensive success in the 2008 playoffs is one of the largely untold key stories of the playoffs so far. A strong Conn Smythe season could make him a very serious Hall of Fame candidate (though that seems far less likely than for Crosby).

Marian Hossa also might be on a Hall of Fame path. He lacks any significant NHL awards in his career, but has been a good enough player to appear in four All Star games so far in his career. Unless he makes a jump to a slightly higher achievement level where he becomes a trophy winner, he is likely dependant upon his career totals to make the Hall of Fame. Hossa has well over 600 career points and would need well over 1000 to be a serious Hall of Fame candidate.

Pittsburgh has some other young players in Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal who are likely not on Hall of Fame tracks, but it is too early in their careers to definitely say they are not. They also have some aging players in Gary Roberts and Petr Sykora who have had All Star calibre seasons in their careers, but look highly unlikely to have Hall of Fame careers at this point.

Pittsburgh does not have a top level goaltender. Marc-Andre Fleury has a lot of potential (he was a first overall draft pick) and is having a very good playoff, but he has not proven himself to be one of the better goalies in the NHL. Given that he is only 23 years old, it is possible that will still come, but most likely it will not.

Pittsburgh is a solid team. The kind of team that would compete for the Stanley Cup in any era, but they are not likely a team that would win it. It would require a few upsets or a weak season for that to happen.

One serious problem Pittsburgh has is depth. They had seven players score 40 or more points (Malkin, Crosby, Hossa, Gonchar, Sykora, Whiney and Ryan Malone), but after them Jordan Staal's 28 points was the best anyone could muster. Pittsburgh is top heavy. If a team had some really good shutdown players (forwards or defencemen) this could be nullified. Pittsburgh is a team that is lacking in a dominant group of shutdown players to counter the stars of their opposition.

Pittsburgh is a very good team, but they are not a great team. They would be roughly equals to the Philadelphia Flyers of the mid to late 80's or the Boston Bruins of the late 80's and into the early 90's or maybe the 1993 Montreal Canadiens (they are not necessarily the same style of team but they are roughly equal in talent). That group of teams is usually a group of also rans; although with the right circumstances could win the Stanley Cup.

What makes someone a top-level goaltender? Fleury may not have the accolades yet, but a goalie has to start somewhere. What I see with his situation is a 23 year-old goalie who has 59-16-11 record the past two seasons. He is leading the NHL playoffs this year in GAA and in Save%. Not sure where you get off saying something like "Given that he is only 23 years old, it is possible that [being "one of the better goalies in the NHL"] will still come, but most likely it will not."

This team, while young, is as good a collection of players as we've seen in a decade. Certainly WAY better than the 1993 Montreal team that got lucky (give me Crosby, Malkin, Hossa, Gonchar over Damphousse, Muller, Bellows and Desjardins any and every day).
"If a team had some really good shutdown players (forwards or defencemen) this could be nullified. Pittsburgh is a team that is lacking in a dominant group of shutdown players to counter the stars of their opposition."

This is idiotic. There is no team in the league that has three defensive players, whether they be defensemen or great defensive forwards, that could match up with Malkin, Crosby, and Hossa. Pittsburgh may not have the dominant individual players on defense but they have proven to be the most dominant team, with help from some of the best back checking forwards in the league. This is the first post I have read of yours and it will surely be the last. What a clown.
What makes a top level goaltender?

If you are a hockey fan you know the answer. When you pick the top five or so goalies in the league you are picking the top level goalies. I dont imagine anyone would honestly put Fleury on such a list.
As for a comparison with Montreal in 1993. Montreal had 102 regular season points (with no points for regulation ties). Pittsburgh had 102 points (with 10 points for reuglation ties). From that alone Montreal comes out looking better than Pittsburgh.

Montreal had far better goasltending and better team defence then Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has a better offence. In the end I think both teams are roughly equals.
Your snarky attitude aside, you're right: right now, at the age of 23 I would not put Fleury in my top five, but you've written him off for his entire career, saying he'll likely never be "one of the better goalies in the NHL". That's bogus.

As for defense, as anonymous implies, the sum of Pittsburgh's parts is obviously a helluva lot greater than they are individually.
Also, aside from Roy, how does Montreal have better team defense than Pittsburgh does?
Roy is a big part of the answer. Their team defence is also quite a bit better. They have better defensive talent at both forward and on defence.
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