Tondar's Daily Rant

Prepare yourself for the writings of Tondar the Destroyer, Baron of Atlanta, Rightful Heir to the Throne of Spain, from whom all babies come. As his will be blogged, so let it be done.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

THE PITTSBURGH CONSPIRACY

With the Wings surprising me with a 4-1 smackdown of Calgary to open the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Seth is still pretty upset about Mario Lemieux's handling of the Pittsburgh Penguins and corrects Matt Romig accordingly...

Just how far can these Baby Pens march?

Make no mistake, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the story of the National Hockey League playoffs. They have the marketable superstars, the handsome hall of fame owner and a new arena deal with barely a pen stroke of dry ink on it. To give the conspiracy theorists a head start: The league would like nothing more than to see the Penguins make a deep playoff run and get Sidney Crosby's face on NBC as much as possible. Pittsburgh is your classic rags to riches story, and its a plotline the league as a whole would like to follow.

The reality, however, is that eight of Pittsburgh's top 10 scorers – not to mention its starting goalie – have no postseason experience. Yes Carolina won it all last year with a pair of playoff newcomers in prominent roles, but for every Eric Staal and Cam Ward there was a Rod Brind'Amour and Doug Weight. The balance in Pittsburgh tilts sharply toward youth, with only Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts (and to a degree Sergei Gonchar) bringing substantial postseason experience to the table.

Crosby will get all the attention, but the guy wearing the bulls-eye will be Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. His play improved in March and April, but he was prone to concentration lapses in the regular season. His 2.83 goals-against average ranks second-worst among playoff goalies. You don't win a lot of 5-3 games in the playoffs. For Pittsburgh to get out of the first round – and do not forget Ottawa is loaded with playoff experience and will be fueled by memories of postseason frustration – Fleury will have to be the team's most important former first-round draft pick.



From Seth...

"The conspiracy theorists are way ahead of you on Pittsburgh. On further examination, the Pens look less like an Aldous Huxley tale and more like Eddie Murphy's character in Trading Places.

Lemieux built this team by manipulating the the league's draft rules, not good scouting or team building. He began by dismantling his team in successive, annual "poor-me" trades of established stars for useless prospects. Lost among the complaints of team insolvency was the fact that the franchise of Jaromir Jagr himself more than footed the bill for the star winger, and that when making the playoffs, the Penguins (unlike other teams that faced REAL financial difficulties) would turn a profit.

Then began the basement years, when Lemieux would come back and then fall out with injury at just the right time to Shanghai any hopes his young, talentless squad might have had. His rewards: Ryan Whitney (5th overall in 2002, then 1st overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury. Your typical team might have used a lottery defender and the best goalie prospect in a decade to improve, but Lemieux held both players out of the NHL.

With Fleury languishing in the minors for "financial reasons," the Pens found the coveted bottom again, netting them 2nd overall pick Evgeni Malkin.

After the lockout, of which Lemieux's constant whining about payroll and small market teams was a prime contributor, the Pens were then awarded Crosby. With the ink not yet dry on the labor agreement, Lemieux immediately locked up the class of the wide-open free agent market (Gonchar, Recchi, LeClair and Palffy), putting the lie to the complaints of insolvency that excused the Rico Fata era. But when the year looked to turn sour, again the team tanked, with fans questioning Lemieux's own ineffective play and leaving Crosby out of the power play. The reward justified his efforts: 2nd overall Jordan Staal.

The absurdity of this string of lotto "successes" cannot be overstated. If you gave him the same picks those years in basketball, your team would consist of Yao Ming, Dwayne Wade, Emeka Okafor, Andrew Bogut and LaMarcus Aldridge. Except instead of Bogut, they were handed the NHL's version of LeBron James in Crosby.

That was in a draft, remember, following a season that wasn't played, when Lemieux successfully lobbied for the NHL's "poor" bottom dwellers of '03-'04 to get first crack at new talent.

Lemieux's manipulation showed again in this year's stadium deal -- or was it just an accident that the Kansas City plan leaked out at a crucial point in the negotiations? So what if this is an old trick for sports franchises -- the ruse was enough to scare the city into giving up its plans for the best water system among U.S. cities to make sure their beloved swindler didn't end up in Western Missouri.

The Penguins have one more thing in common with the Senators: they're facing the Bettman era's first great draft project, which netted the Senators Alexei Yashin (2nd overall), Alexandre Daigle (1st overall), Radek Bonk (3rd overall), Bryan Berard (1st overall), Chris Phillips (1st overall) and Marion Hossa (12th overall). The only difference is that many of the Sens' top picks didn't work out.

A better rags-to-riches team to root for this season might be the Nashville Predators (though as a Wings fan, my admiration can only go so far). They're in a city full of northerners who grew up watching hockey but have failed, so far, to notice the team two blocks from honkey-tonk row. At least that franchise built itself by staying true to its fans, and relying on good scouting and belief in their talent to improve each season."

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