True story: I was a little brainiac as a kid. Thing is, I never read books. I could only stomach the painstaking alliterations of Dr. Seuss if it was read aloud to me. In fact, I was not intelligent in any measurable, traditional sense. Instead, I was “blue-collar Catholic smart.” I absorbed all knowledge through countless hours of television and learned to read by scouring the information section on the back of hockey cards.
This behavior pissed off my family members to no end, because they would buy me Beatrix Potter books for Christmas that I would proceed to use as coasters for my sippy cups. (Note: in later years, just substitute Potter for Fyodor Dostoevsky and Juicy Juice for Guinness and nary a thing has changed.)
More like Infinite Paperweight.
When I was three years old, I took my first trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo. Oh, that smell. Do you remember that kid from your kindergarten class who used Elmer’s glue for hair gel and always smelled like something terribly peculiar that you simply couldn’t place? Well, that little boy or girl smelled like the Pittsburgh Zoo. Either that, or the Pittsburgh Zoo smells like weird children. Whichever.
Moving on – at some point during my trek through the exotic birds and monkeys (and let’s be real; I was there for the lions), my stroller stalled at the African Savannah exhibit. Now, let me get this out of the way first, because I’m going come off like a monster here: seriously, is there any more distinct creature on planet earth than the giraffe? Giraffes literally resemble alien dinosaurs. Not only are they the tallest land mammals on earth, they are also hilarious-looking.
With that preamble, back to our story:
So my stroller is parked next to a bipedal five-year-old, who seems to have all of his faculties in order. Upon seeing the giraffes moseying around their fenced-in vista, eating leaves off of 15-foot acacia trees and generally doing awe-inspiring things, this five-year-old points to the mythical creatures and says, “Mommy, look at the elephants!”
But there were no elephants sauntering about the grasslands. Only enormous, one-of-a-kind Masai giraffes. Only the animals that look like no other animal on earth. I couldn’t let it slide. Naturally, I turn to my new friend to enlighten him.
“Excuse me, dude,” I say (I liked the Ninja Turtles, who said “dude” a lot). “Um, those are not elephants. Those are giraffes.”
My new friend’s mother was not amused. She grabbed his arm and turned him away. The boy looked puzzled.
“Elephants,” he pointed again, undeterred.
“No, elephants are fat and have big ears and giraffes are tall and have little ears,” I explained. “They are the opposite. Are you thinking of the antonym?”
My father had just taught me the word antonym, and also the F-word, although the latter by accident.
The little boy’s head nearly exploded. All he had ever known—his limited knowledge of life—was a lie. Elephants were giraffes, up was down. He pointed once more, this time with a twinge of sadness. Ele-phants? On the verge of tears, his mother yanked his arm and led him away.
As they speed-walked off over the horizon, I cupped my hands over my mouth and kept yelling, “They are GIRAFFES!”
I was a smug little tyrant – the three-year-old version of Ari Gold from Entourage.
What does this story have to do with the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins? Absolutely nothing, except for the fact that the dim-witted five-year-old from that day looked exactly like a baby version of Evgeni Malkin. Weird? Yes. Tangential? Sure.
Don’t you just love blogs? You know it.
(Editor’s note: According to Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for this article is 6.8. Damn you, Mr. Flesch-Kincaid! STOP JUDGING ME.)
Grading the Penguins
It’s more than half way through the NHL season and the Penguins are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference heading into the upcoming Olympic break. The bad news is that they are probably not going to catch the boringly efficient New Jersey Devils for the Atlantic Division crown. The good news is that the Penguins didn’t win the division last season either, and they ended up drinking Dom Pérignon out of the Stanley Cup all summer while the Devils sat around being boring in New Jersey.
As a team, the Penguins have been what you might expect: steady. As individuals, they have been…interesting. Let’s grade the boys’ seasons so far, from worst to first.
Max Talbot – D+
Ironically, the breakout star of the 2009 playoffs and the man most responsible for the Pens’ Game 7 win in Detroit has been the team’s most disappointing player through the first half of this season. After returning from injury in November, Talbot has recorded only 1 goal. Worse yet, he has not provided the kind of spark-plug energy that inspired the team in the 2009 playoffs. Relegated to the fourth line, Talbot must rediscover what made him a “superstar,” or else he could be trade fodder.
Eric Godard – C-
Can you really be an intimidating presence on the ice when you play only four minutes per game? Mike Rupp is doing Godard’s job and much, much more. However, it’s hard to argue against a salaried brawler that shows up for work wearing a candy apple red suit.
Chris Kunitz – C-
Harsh? Maybe. But Kunitz was acquired to be a top-line winger for Sidney Crosby, and he has not performed like one despite being paid like one. For $3.7 million per season (4th highest paid forward on the team), Kunitz must do better than 6 goals in 30 games when he returns from a torn abdominal muscle after the Olympic break. His unsung grit and strength in the corners, while valuable, can be found for cheaper than $2 million/year, let alone 3.
Ruslan Fedotenko – C
This summer, GM Ray Shero decided to bring back two important pieces of the Penguins’ Cup run. Wingers Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko were both inked for a final encore season – Guerin for $2 million and Fedotenko for $1.8 million. Guerin has proved to be a tremendous value, scoring 16 goals alongside Crosby. Fedotenko, on the other hand, has tallied only 8 on Malkin’s wing. His –8 plus/minus rating is tied for worst on the team alongside….
Craig Adams – C+
This Harvard grad has a suitable job: be smart; don’t give up goals as the anchor of the fourth line. His empty spot in the goal column is not a problem, but his minus-8 rating isn’t kosher. On the bright side, Adams is an integral part of the Penguins’ 11th ranked penalty killing squad and is third on the team with 137 hits. For a smarty-pants from Cambridge, the boy has some gumption.
“How do you like them apples?”
Sergei Gonchar – C+
I’ll just say it. At times, the five-time All-Star looks a bit lazy on the ice. But with Gonchar, you take the good with the bad. It’s unreasonable to expect a 35-year-old to play full bore on a Tuesday night in February against the Atlanta Thrashers. When May rolls around, Gonch will elevate his game to another level. Complain about his effort all you want – without his #55’s booming slap shot, the Penguins’ power play would go from last in the league to…well, it would somehow be even worse. The league would refuse to keep statistics.
Marc-Andre Fleury – B-
Did you know that Fleury’s save percentage (.908) ranks 19th in the NHL among starting goalies? There’s room for improvement. On the other hand, he leads the league in smiles.
Evgeni Malkin – B-
Speaking of room for improvement…As I discussed last week, Malkin has not been the lazy, huffy Jagr-ish performer that the media rushed to label him. He leads the team in assists (35) and will probably break the 30-goal barrier despite playing alongside the Winger Formerly Known as Fedotenko and a bevy of minor leaguers. The best is yet to come.
Tyler Kennedy – B
Mr. Kennedy has shot the puck 124 times this season. 120 of those were from the exact same spot on the ice. If you’ve ever watched a Penguins game in your life, you know the exact spot I’m referring to. Kennedy has largely filled Talbot’s role as the spark-plug of the team.
Kennedy Owns the Left Circle.
Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang – B
Goligoski has taken some flack lately while Letang has been praised. Oddly, Goligoski actually has more points (23) than Letang (19) while playing in three fewer games. Truth is, both young defensemen have had solid, sometimes inconsistent seasons. “Goose” needs to find the confidence to shoot the puck, especially on the struggling power play (his meager 62 shots on goal are less than Mike Rupp’s 64), while Letang must cut down on needless giveaways (he’s third on the team with 36).
The rest of the defense – B+
Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Brooks Orpik are about as sexy as Paula Deen in pajamas, but they get the job done right. The Penguins are fifth in the NHL in blocked shots because of the fearlessness of this triumvirate. McKee alone has stepped in front of 122 pieces vulcanized rubber this season.
Young Jay McKee with the haircut that defined the 1990s.
Mike Rupp – B+
6’5”. 230 pounds. 11 goals. Makes less than $1 million per season. And guess who leads the team in mitten dropping? Not Godard, but Rupp. Another brilliant Ray Shero acquisition.
Jordan Staal – A-
Despite being only 21 years old, and despite going up against the opposition’s top line every game, Staal has been the Penguins’ best defensive player. His phenomenal penalty killing prowess makes him a contender for the Selke trophy, the NHL’s award for the forward who demonstrates the best defensive game. He is a big deal. His Wikipedia entry is even listed above all of his brothers on Google. Eat it, Eric.
Matt Cooke – A
The best instigator/agitator in the NHL, bar none. In October, he nearly made the New York Rangers’ pretty boy Sean Avery cry on the ice. In fact, you can read all about why Cooke is Awesome with a capital A in the February 2010 issue of Pittsburgh Magazine, on newsstands now.
Pascal Dupuis – A
Outside of Sidney Crosby, no one on the team has more hustle than Dupuis. He plays every game like it’s his last and has been rewarded for his sweat equity with 12 goals, matching his output for all of last season. Naysayers—and there were many—shouldn’t be surprised. Doopers wears his heart on his sleeve and the team on his back.
Bill Guerin – A
Dollar for dollar, Guerin might be the best value in the NHL. 16 goals for a 39-year-old? And an awesome mustache to boot? This is the stuff Disney/Burt Reynolds movies are made of. If he had decided to go for more money and jet for greener pastures this off-season, the Penguins might be heading into the Olympic break fighting for a playoff spot. Instead, they’re sitting comfortably in fourth place because of his superhuman production. No one is more thankful for Billy the Kid than…
Sidney Crosby – A+
Forget the goals for a second. Yes, Crosby has scored 33, good for 3rd in the NHL. However, nothing speaks more to Crosby’s leadership and will to win than the work he put in this off-season to improve his performance in the face-off circle. In his first four seasons, faceoffs were the one weak spot in Crosby’s otherwise flawless game. This season, Sid is ninth in the league in faceoff percentage (57.3%).
Crosby could have taken it easy during summer vacation after winning the Stanley Cup, but he did his homework instead. His commitment to the game is relentless—his leadership and hard work in practice infectious. With a strong finish, he will be a candidate for his second Hart trophy, the NHL’s regular season MVP award, in four years. How do you win the Hart? It’s right there in the name.
As Sid knows, success is all about putting in the work when no one is looking.