1. With a few games in the books, how would you evaluate the Neal for Hornqvist/Spaling trade? Any different than how you felt at the time?
Everything has been as advertised, if not better. Hornqvist only joined Sidney Crosby’s line at the last minute of training camp when Evgeni Malkin wasn’t able to practice and Crosby/Hornqvist instantly clicked. Hornqvist has really impressed with his shot and willingness to put pucks on net. I knew Hornqvist was good, but I must say that I have been impressed with his offensive ability. I think he’ll end up scoring 75-80 points this year if he stays healthy.
Spaling is what he is for a depth player, as I'm sure Preds fans know. He’s been decent positionally, decent with the puck, has been physical and played some center and wing already. He’s been a nice addition, even if a lot of Pens fans aren’t ecstatic about paying him $2.2 million a season. But the Penguins don’t have a lot of young forwards and I’m happy to have him in a bottom six role for what he provides in terms of doing a little bit of everything.
Further, we’ve seen Neal struggle to put up a lot of points early in Nashville without an elite center, which he also did in Pittsburgh when Crosby/Malkin were hurt or playing on other lines. It’s very early, and Neal is talented (and as a streaky goal scorer he’s capable of heating up) so I don’t think the Pens ripped the Predators off by any means, but it definitely is working out as far as Pittsburgh wanting to change the identity of their team into a harder-working one. I think the Neal taboo of "score a goal but then take a bad penalty left with 16 seconds to go in the game" like he did last week is what the Pens wanted to move away from. Good player, but a potentially damaging one too. Hornqvist is a lot better in that regard.
2. "Marc-Andre Fleury: Elite Goaltender? " He's in the last year of his contract...what do you think the team's plans are for him?
Up until last week I would have said it looked like the Pens were prepared to let Fleury hit free agency and try to find a new, cheaper alternative in net that could provide the same about average save percentages that Fleury puts up every season (and hopefully without the embarrassing playoff debacles). But then Jim Rutherford said that he really wants to re-sign Fleury and it might be done in the next month, so there goes the hope for an upgrade.
The only thing to hope now is Rutherford doesn’t hand out too bad of a contract that won’t cripple the Penguins already tight salary structure for years. After seeing Rutherford give Alex Semin $7.0m for 7 years and Cam Ward $6.3m for 6 years, I’m not holding my breath on that. Rutherford’s stint in Pittsburgh was accompanied by a lot of dread from the fans since he hadn’t had any success in Carolina recently, but he has actually made some shrewd moves here so far. A Fleury extension though, might be a costly first mis-step, but I guess we’ll wait to see the term/money before getting too worked up.
3. Like Nashville, the Pens changed coaches in the offseason. Do you think Dan Bylsma deserved the blame for the team coming up short the last couple of years? How are you feeling about Mike Johnston so far?
I think it was a lot like Nashville- both the Pens and Preds fired good coaches- and good guys- after their message was became stale and they weren’t able to create enough success. Ultimately, the players deserve the blame or credit- they’re the ones out on the ice and the ones executing (or failing to do so) which will determine wins and losses. In hockey it’s very important to have the right message and the right tone to motivate the team in order to do so.
Bylsma obviously wasn’t around in Pittsburgh near as long as Trotz in Nashville, but in either case, after failing so many times in a row it makes sense to go in a different direction and see if a different message/personality/scheme might be able to generate better results. I don’t think Bylsma was 100% to blame, but the bottom line is he lost in the playoffs 5 times in a row to lower seeded teams, blowing series leads 3 times along the way and he won 0 games in the Conference Finals since 2010. For a team that aspires to compete for and ideally win Stanley Cups, that’s simply not good enough results.
The jury is still out on Johnston. I like certain elements of his game- watch from the very beginning he’s likely to give Crosby’s line a shift, then 2 or 3 shifts later when your team first puts out the 4th line, he’ll try to double shift the Crosby line. Obviously being on the road for this game, he might not be able to do it, but he’s done so multiple times at home, and it’s paid off with at least chances generated by the mismatch. Little things like that are intriguing to me.
It’s way too early to definitively give a verdict on his systems and how he implements them and whether he can get the team to believe and buy in for a long 82 game season. In theory, it sounds like it will play to the team’s strengths if they can activate defensemen like Kris Letang into the rush more, and be more aggressive in the offensive zone and have it stressed to bombard the opposition with shots. It all sounds very good.
Of course, as the old Mike Tyson quote goes, "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face". How will Johnston be able to respond to adversity- be it injuries, if the power play goes cold, potential Fleury issues or a losing streak? Something like that is bound to happen and at that point we will figure out if this guy belongs as an NHL coach or not. For now, color me intrigued but not quite certain what the end result is. It has the potential to be a very good thing, but with expectations so high it will be tough to be a success without a lot of playoff wins.