#85: Auld Lang Syne
-- Penguins finally starting to find their groove. Just not divisionally.
-- Panthers have abundance of misfortune, lack of depth
-- Neal Huntington taking his sweet time. And that could be a good thing.
This team is lost.
The fact that James Harrison was voted the Steelers MVP for 2007 (read: an award voted on by his own teammates) is illustrative of that fact.
The word is that Harrison won it because the vote was split on Ben Roethlisberger and Willie Parker. Why Willie Parker was getting enough votes to pull away from Big Ben, though, is the mystery there. Yes, he was the NFL's leading rusher up until he was injured, but he was even more the NFL leader in rushing attempts. The reason they were able to keep feeding Parker the ball, especially in the early games of the year, was that because a certain player wearing #7 has helping stake the Black and Gold to leads.
And Parker, even with all those yards, only rushed for two TDs all year.
I'm not sure when the vote was taken, but it couldn't have been much earlier than when Ben stood on the brink of breaking the franchise record for TD passes in a season...behind one of the most sieve-like offensive lines we've seen in Pittsburgh.
Not that I don't think Harrison shouldn't have gotten some votes. But he's not even the best player on the defense.
The Steelers got lit up by New England on December 9th. That wasn't a huge shock; the Patriots have that capability. It's why they're going to be the first team to ever go 19-0. But Aaron Smith went out that game.
Then, a defense that hadn't given up more that 112 yards rushing to any team, promptly gives up double that, in one game, at home, to Jacksonville. That's right...224 yards. They only gave up 90 to St. Louis, but the Rams were playing from behind much of the game. Then, they gave up 180 to Baltimore.
I don't know how much Tomlin's laid back style is rubbing off on players. We could be seeing the downside of Tomlin running the players ragged in training camp. But I think it's more than that.
The Steelers aren't playing smart football. Defenders aren't missing tackles because they're getting run over in their lanes; they're missing tackles because they don't stay in those lanes and they can't get back in time. And the folks in the secondary don't believe in wrapping guys up. They prefer to fly in like missiles and try to knock the opponent off his feet that way.
And while they had to travel to Houston this week, then have a short week to travel yet again (and the Steelers only had a go a couple hundred miles), they rested most of their starters. They'll be ready.
And there's abundant evidence that the Steelers are not ready for the playoffs. Physically or mentally.
The Penguins are the only team in the Eastern Conference with 10 losses in regulation against divisional opponents.
There are two teams in the Western Conference with 10 or more regulation losses against divisional opponents: The last place L.A. Kings, and the 3rd from the bottom Edmonton Oilers. The team in between, the Phoenix Coyotes, have 3 games in hand on Edmonton and are only 2 points back.
That paints a pretty ugly picture.
Yes, the Atlantic Division is tough. It may be the toughest division in hockey top to bottom. Were it not for each team's particular strengths and weaknesses, the Penguins would be looking more like the '05-'06 version than the '06-'07 group.
I don't know what the statistics are for intra-divisional games, but get this. My three top hockey stats to determine how good a team is:
First, and most importantly, shots on goal differential. Want to know why Detroit is kicking just about everyone's butt this year? They're absolute tops in the league in SOGD with +11.7. That's an average. Through nearly 40 games, Detroit has outshot it's opponents by almost 12 shots per game. That is unreal.
2nd place? The New York Rangers. With +4.8. Almost 7 shots different than Detroit.
The Capitals are out of the Eastern Conference (and SouthEast division) cellar. How? On November 13th, they had a SOGD of -0.9. After their 8-6 win over Ottawa on Saturday, they have a +2.2 (7th best). They've picked up 6 points in their last 4 games. However, they're next to last in save percentage (88.8%), so they shouldn't threaten to make the playoffs.
Back to the Atlantic division, here's how the teams measure up in SOGD:
1) NY Rangers (+4.7 - #2 in league)
2) New Jersey (+1.3 - tied for #11 in league, with...)
2) NY Islanders
4) Pittsburgh (-1.1 - #20 in league)
5) Philadelphia (-6.1 - #30 in league)
The next most important statistic, and I alluded to it earlier, is save percentage.
1) Philadelphia (91.6% - tied for #3 in league)
2) New Jersey (91.1% - tied for #9 in league)
3) NY Rangers (91.0% - #11 in league)
4) NY Islanders (90.3% - tied for #16 in league)
5) Pittsburgh (90.2% - #19 in league)
And, finally, scoring efficiency. Philadelphia's abysmal SOGD is offset by the fact they they're among the top in save % and efficiency.
1) Philadelphia (11.61% - 2nd in league, .01% behind Dallas)
2) Pittsburgh (9.65% - #16 in league)
3) New Jersey (8.64% - #25 in league)
4) NY Islanders (8.11% - #27 in league)
5) NY Rangers (7.80% - #30 in league)
The Penguins are in the bottom half of the league in all three categories, but they are holding their own in the standings. It just so happens when it comes time to play their divisional foes, the statistical tendencies tend to not favor Pittsburgh's finest. They are 4-10-1.
They'll have time to prepare, though. They don't have any super-long strings against divisional opponents until the end of the season.
Ten of their final 11 games are against the Atlantic.
(They do own a 7-1-0 record against Western Conference opponents, though.)
It seems to happen every year, though not quite like this.
The Pittsburgh Panthers climb up the rankings and edge into national legitimacy, only to have some team that nobody expected come up and knock them back down a notch.
Dayton smacked the Panthers around like you would have expected, maybe, North Carolina to do.
Perhaps it was a letdown game. Remember, only a little more than a week after Pitt staged one of the best comebacks in team history against the always formidable Duke Blue Devils. And on National TV no less. The only casualty of that great triumph seemed to be senior Mike Cook, who tore his ACL. Cook has been maligned through much of his career has making bad passes and not being a reliable shooter in the clutch.
If nothing else, this would have set the stage for a younger player to get some extra minutes on the floor and perhaps make the team better.
Now, though, Jamie Dixon is going to have to find a way to win without Cook and Levance Fields, who might be back in time for the Big East Tournament with a broken foot.
Dixon, though, has had it pretty good when it comes to his players not being injured. Aaron Gray was playing hurt most of last season, but everyone else was more or less intact, if memory serves.
Now, two very experiences players are going to be watching, and two players are going to have to come up very quickly.
Pitt's fall is faster than it's rise, seeing them plummet 7 spots to #13 in this week's rankings. Of course, it's a bit of a consolation to know that Dayton was on the edge of being ranked.
Still, one way or the other, the Pitt Panthers seem destined to rise into the top 16, and stay there.
At least that's what we hope it is.
Neal Huntingdon has picked up a couple of minor league catchers. They're no one I've ever heard of, and their numbers don't scream, "Hey! I'm your catcher of the future!", but picking them up is a good thing any way you slice it.
1) He's not doing a Dave Littlefield by going out and getting ancient catchers as a stop-gap. Benito Santiago and the like are expensive stop-gaps. There's as good a chance that one of these younger guys will do about as well, with perhaps more of a learning curve, at much less of a price, should they make the team.
2) He's telling Ronny Paulino that the lack of effort exhibited last year did not go unnoticed. I may be one of the last 2 or 3 people on the planet who thinks Ronny has the capability of being a reliable backstop, but someone needs to teach that boy to care.
Considering that Huntington said point blank that he wasn't going to pursue high-profile free-agents, at least he's looking like he's trying to restock the farm system.
And he's not asking for the moon for anyone, and if the offer is being rejected, he's not making unreasonable concessions for the sake of making a trade.
The ultimate test will be the draft.
We all knew going in that rebuilding the Pirates, with Nutting ultimately pulling the strings, is going to be a near-impossible task for anyone.
At least this is a method we haven't seen yet.
And so, my friends, with that, I wish everyone a Happy 2008! May all my gloom-and-doom predictions be wrong!