Pittsburgh Penguins Q & A with Brian Metzer

Updated: October 8, 2011 at 2:58 pm by Alexander Monaghan

Every once-in-a-while we get some exclusive, first-hand information. About a month ago we started talking to Brian Metzer of From the Point and most recently NHL.com, bouncing some Pittsburgh Penguins-based questions off of him. Below is the transcript of our conversation, a must read for any Penguins’ owners.

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Brian. Of course, you are an expert on all things Penguins, but we probably should first address the elephant in the room: Sidney Crosby. What is your reaction to his press conference earlier this week? What do you expect from him this season?

Thanks to my delay in getting these questions back to you guys, we are far removed from the press conference, however I will say that my reaction then is as it is now – largely positive! All things have been coming up roses since Crosby arrived back in Pittsburgh in early September. He participated in the presser, took the ice with his teammates at the start of camp, albeit without contact, and hasn’t looked back.

The Penguins captain hasn’t missed a day of on-ice activities and looked every bit the part of the “best player on the planet” during training camp. He hasn’t had any setbacks and looks as if he is a lot closer than anyone is giving him credit for.

Though he has yet to take any contact, one has to think that it (contact) could be introduced in the near future. He isn’t completely out of the woods yet, but it has been pretty remarkable watching him take part in drills, pop water bottles with shots and look like a guy is going to be able to capture the magic of his insane start last season.

We’ve all read the stories about how involved Crosby remains with his team. However, when the team goes on the ice, he can only do so much. Does the team lack leadership without Crosby in the room? Who do you see stepping up both on and off the ice?

Though Crosby is the leader of this team, it is worth noting that they have a number of guys who are able to lead in a number of different ways. Brooks Orpik, who is dealing with a recovery of his own, is one guy that could be a captain on just about any other team in the league. He tells it like it is, isn’t afraid to point out flaws and is willing to work with younger players.

Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin have also emerged as guys who can lead this team with their actions and words. (yep, even Geno) They are surrounded by savvy veterans such as Craig Adams, Pascal Dupuis, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, all of which build a very strong core in Pittsburgh.

Though Sid hopes to rejoin his teammates at some point in the future, this group is more than capable of pulling the weight until he does.

With Crosby missing the final 41 games, Head Coach Dan Blysma helped his team to not lose a step. Can we expect more of the same from the Jack Adams Award winner? If so, what relatively unheralded players like Arron Asham or Tyler Kennedy can you see stepping up?

Dan Bylsma did a masterful job of holding this group together last season and finding a way to keep them on track in the absence of their superstars. His efforts were out of this world and he was awarded a Jack Adams Trophy for his troubles. I fully expect that to continue this season.

Bylsma is an up and comer in the coaching fraternity and most in the hockey world already consider him to be amongst the best in the league.

His system is a complicated one, but when his players execute it the way it is meant to be played, they are successful more times than not. Getting a healthy Evgeni Malkin (and hopefully Sidney Crosby) back in the fold will go a long way towards achieving the results of last season.

As for unheralded players stepping up, Tyler Kennedy an important guy to keep an eye on. He decided to stay here in town passing on more money on the open market. He is primed for a bigger year than last, as he is going to get a chance at top six minutes. He has really re-invented himself and is no longer the one-dimensional “swing out of the corner, spin and shoot from the face-off dot” guy that he was earlier in his career. He has worked on his shot, crashes the net and has better hands than he is given credit for. 25-goals is not out of the question for him this season.

After Blysma, Marc-Andre Fleury certainly deserves a great deal of credit after posting career numbers. His GAA was .40 under his career average while he saw a .01 uptick in his save percentage. Is this a product of improved defense in front of him or an improvement in his technique? Is it sustainable?

All I can say about Marc Andre Fleury is that he would have blown those numbers away if he had been able to put a better October together for himself. He was one of the best goaltenders in the Eastern Conference, if not the National Hockey League from the time the calendar flipped to November and I fully expect him to recapture that magic.

Make no mistake, the defense helped the cause quite a bit, as it would have for any goaltender, but Fleury has the talent and desire to put those kinds of numbers up on a yearly basis. The results of last year are very sustainable.

As I mentioned in the “Maple Street Press Penguins Annual,” I fully expect Marc-Andre Fleury to capture a Vezina trophy within two years and to remain on the ballot for the remainder of his career.

Kris Letang had a big year, scoring 8 goals and finishing with 50 pts — he was absolutely on fire for the first three months of the season! However, from mid-January onwards he was ice cold putting up only 10 points over his final in 37 games. His funk obviously coincided with Crosby going down. What do you expect from him this year? Furthermore, was Blysma scaling back his offense to stay in games without his big guns?

Kris Letang did have an amazing first half last season and it resulted in an opportunity to play in the All-Star Game and whispers about a Norris candidacy.

Though a lot of that production was tied to being on the ice with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, he still played a large role in his own success. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to sustain it once the games tightened up and he lost his high profile teammates. He didn’t necessarily do a lot of what he was doing early in the season. He wasn’t hitting the net as consistently, he didn’t seem to have the same attention to detail and IMO got a bit too worn out. He was playing close to 30 minutes a game, something that is tough for anyone, let alone a guy who hadn’t gotten that kind of PT over a sustained period in his career.

Dan Bylsma and his staff have worked with Letang and explained much of the above to him. They are looking to see consistency across the board, from start to finish and that is a focus for Letang. Look for him to be better over the long haul and have the type of season we all thought he was on pace for last year.

Another great season from Fleury and Blysma would definitely help the Pens get back into the playoffs but Evgeni Malkin has to be considered vital to that equation. His last two seasons have been marred by injuries but he claims to be coming into this season stronger. Do you see him getting back into that 100-point range or has he peaked at 25? Is his knee 100 percent, and is he going into the season with the mentality that even without Sid, he can carry this team?

Evgeni Malkin is in store for a monster season… write it down.

He has trained harder than ever before, something that he focused on when he realized that he might not have been placing enough emphasis on conditioning in the past. His knee injury last year made him appreciate the game a bit more and forced him to realize that it isn’t something to be taken for granted.

He hired Penguins’ Strength and Conditioning coach Mike Kadar to work with him over the summer and the results show. He is lean, looks faster/stronger on the ice and the points have been coming in bunches during the pre-season.

In the past Malkin has been able to thrive when he was using speed to gallop through the neutral zone and that just wasn’t there for him over the past two seasons. It is back and he is pressing off defenders, creating space for himself and teammates. This year’s Malkin will look a lot more like the one who won an Art Ross and a Conn Smythe trophy en route to helping the Penguins win a Stanley Cup back in 2009 – if not better.

Jordan Staal remains an interesting fantasy hockey option, and likely always will, due to his bloodlines and near 30-goal rookie year. At times he was called upon to center the top line, other times he handled more difficult defensive assignments. How do you see him fitting in offensively both with and without Crosby? How do you see him handling it and what is, in your opinion, his ceiling?

It is really hard to gauge what Staal’s ceiling is based on the fact that he is still so young. You said it best when you mentioned all of the different roles that he has been used in over the course of his career and that makes him an interesting specimen.

He has gone undrafted in a number of the leagues that I have monitored thus far and that is probably a mistake. Though he hasn’t been able to recapture the scoring touch of his rookie year, he is still a valuable commodity when it comes to winning face-offs, picking up PIMs, shots on goal and yes – goals and assists.

You know that Staal is going to get his share of shorthanded opportunities, he gets some power play time and even when Crosby/Malkin are healthy, he will get his points five-on-five. I look at Staal as a guy who will notch 55-60 points with 20-goals, but has the potential to hit 30 and may just push his overall total towards 70. He is a beast physically and I don’t think it is fair to judge him too harshly on last season considering that he didn’t play his first NHL game until January 1st. If anything last year will only make him better…

When James Neal came over from the Dallas Stars in February, we all expected big things from the 24-year-old. As a pure goal scorer he posted 72 notches over 214 games for the team that drafted him yet he only managed two goals in 27 games as a Penguin between the regular season and postseason. What will it take to get James Neal going and do you think this will this be the year that he lives up to his hype?

I certainly hope that he can live up to his hype this year. However, I don’t want to be too hard on him. He is a young player who has always been known as more of a fast starter. For whatever reason, most of his production has come during the first few months of the season and he has cooled significantly. When you mix that quirk in with the fact that Crosby/Malkin were out, he was dealing with the first trade of his career, he changed conferences and had to learn a new system… well, you have a recipe for some pretty big struggles.

Now that he has integrated himself in Pittsburgh, will get the chance to play with Evgeni Malkin early on and has learned the system I expect him to find success.

He was very impressive in the practices and scrimmages that I watched during training camp, probably more so than in the actual pre-season games that he played in, but I think he will end up being a pretty good player for this team.

Look for him to pick a lot of corners with his wicked wrist shot from the high slot and create a lot of offense from the perimeter. If he ever adds in a net crashing dimension he will be even more dangerous.

A year ago, a significant portion of the Penguins’ free agent budget was spent on bolstering the blue line. In your opinion, Did Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek meet expectations? What do you expect from them in year two?

I think that they did exactly what was expected of them. Martin and Michalek were two of the marquee names on the free agency market and both made an immediate impact. Look no further than the numbers that they were able to help Marc-Andre Fleury achieve and the regular season top ranked penalty kill.

Both guys admitted that it took them a little while to get acclimated to the system and that could have played a role in the team’s overall slow start last season, but they are both very comfortable these days.

Both players will be a big part of this team for the foreseeable future and their successes as a pairing will dovetail with that of the team’s success.

As one of the more intriguing offseason signings we saw, the Pens took a flier on Steve Sullivan. The veteran forward missed almost half of last season and has only one full season under his belt since his Blackhawk days. What have you heard about how the Pens plan to use Sullivan? And what, if anything, are the coaching and training staff doing to try and keep his 37-year-old legs fresh.

The best way to describe Steve Sullivan is to say that he is a “Ray Shero guy.” First of all, the two have known each other since Shero’s Nashville days and had actually worked on a couple contacts together. That played a role in his coming to Pittsburgh.

Sullivan is a very hungry player and has made it known that “it is all about winning” for him at this stage of his career. He felt that Pittsburgh gave him the best chance to get a Stanley Cup.

Yes, injuries have been a focal point for him over the past few years, but he is 100% healthy these days and looks like he could be a big contributor for this team. He has gotten top line minutes during training camp with Evgeni Malkin and has been effective playing with the big Russian.

Sullivan will get time with the Penguins’ number one power play unit and could make a big impact there. He had previously quarterbacked the Predators power play and has made a good living with the extra man over the years.

If Sullivan can stay healthy all season long, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him play 15-minutes a night, four of which will come with the extra man, and a point total somewhere around 54 (22G-23A).

Again we would like to thank Brian Metzer for all of his generous time and effort he put into this chat. Please make sure to check out his work at From the Point and NHL.com

Arron Asham, Craig Adams, Dan Blysma, James Neal, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury, Pascal Dupuis, Paul Martin, Pittsburgh Penguins, Ray Shero, Sidney Crosby, Tyler Kennedy, Zbynek Michalek