Sunday, April 10, 2016

2015-16 Pens Initiative Season Awards

The regular season has ended for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and while they'll need to wait to see the outcome of tonight's game between the Islanders and the Flyers to know their first round opponent, they'll be in a good position regardless of the outcome, having won 14 of 16 to finish the year. It's been a crazy year for the Penguins, who've gone from looking like a lottery team under Mike Johnston to a serious Cup contender under Sullivan, but we hear at Pens Initiative took a look back on the year and picked who we'd hand out some awards to:

Best Acquisition

Paul Clemente (@Evil_Shero): The adage of "addition by subtraction" applies here more than any other tired cliche that I can think of. Getting rid of the lead anchor Scuderi was a massive step in the right direction as it brought back Trevor Daley from the Blackhawks. If Daley filled the role of an 8th defender I think the Pens would have considered that a successful trade. Daley is hovering around 20 mins a game and is now paired with Letang most nights. He has been so smart with the puck, and his first pass out of the zone has been stellar. There are, thankfully, more examples of good acquisitions this year but this might be the most return for the least sacrifice.

Medina Menozzi (@Medina_MarieC): As much as we needed a player like Daley, we needed the speed of Carl Hagelin more. No one was keeping up with Phil Kessel and slowing himself down for Geno just made things worse for him. That line is scary fast now and they acquisition of Hagelin made that possible and it is paying dividends.

Cassy Anders (@_MAF29): Phil Kessel. Perhaps the key to his success is being the star of his own line, and perhaps the Penguins have realized this too late in the season to maximize his full season potential, but in terms of the biggest acquisition of the 2015-16 season, and thinking about how it will impact the team, I need to give it to Phil Kessel. The drafting of Daniel Sprong also ranks high on my list.

Brian Keenan (@BrianK_PI): Carl Hagelin, only if we're removing the Scuderi aspect when talking about Daley. He's fit in seamlessly on the 2nd line with Phil Kessel, and his speed has been an absolute game changer for the Penguins. He's been a huge upgrade over David Perron and really fits this team well.

Jeff Furmanchin (@jfoo1654): I'm going to say Trevor Daley, especially considering the absolute steal of a trade he was acquired in. He's playing nearly 20 minutes a night and has played very well regardless of who his partner is. He's a naturally gifted guy offensively, but has really impressed me with his defense. Rock Solid.

Stacey Miller (@SpinMeWrite): Trevor Daley. My heart says Hagelin, but my head says Daley. Picking up Daley was the first step in the evolution of the Pens. Daley's speed and skating abilities gave a listless team a little jolt of life. It was just a glimpse at the future identity of this team. That first step is the most important step.

Nick Case (@Nick422): Trevor Daley was a move that kicked this entire in season retooling in to gear.  Not only did he add a puck moving defender on a blue line that severely needed an extra, he got rid of the dead weight and anchor that was Rob Scuderi.  While others came along (it can't be said enough how great Hagelin has been and how much he's made Kessel better), he was the first of the dominoes to fall.  The fact that the team also rid itself of Scuderi, who seemed unmovable, really tips the scales in his favor.

  • Most Improved

  • Medina: If you don't think Ian Cole isn't the most improved player on that team (excluding the now signed former Baby Pens) then I have no idea what dream world you are in. Improvement doesn't necessarily mean he is the one scoring the most goals/most impressive goals. He went from playing softer than a fluffy booblesnoot...I mean throwing hard checks and actually dropping the gloves against someone who had at least 40 pounds and 6 inches on him. If you would have told me that is something he would be doing back in November, I'd have had you shipped up river for fear that you'd had lost your mind.

    Cassy: Now, he wasn't exactly bad early on in the season, but Sidney Crosby was certainly being hindered for the past season and a half. Once Mike Sullivan was hired, Sid just took off. Once 87th in scoring, Sidney Crosby is now 3rd. Thank Sullivan for a lot of it, but Sid is definitely the most improved in my book.

    Brian: Tom Kuhnhackl. We're just two seasons removed from Kuhnhackl being banished to the ECHL and looking like another promising prospect who would never cash in on his potential. He took a step forward last year, but it's been this season that has really forced Kuhnhackl front and center into the team's plans. It took him a few weeks to get settled in at the NHL level, put he's shown some sneaky offensive skills and has scored 11 points in his last 14 games heading into the postseason. No one has come close to covering as much ground as he did with his game this year.

    Jeff: I've got Tom Kuhnhackl. He was finally starting to break through in the AHL last year. He was playing in all situations and added a level of physical play not seen from him previously. Despite his growth last season, no one could've seen this coming, he has been fantastic on the PK, and is starting to show off that dynamite snap shot and his slick hands around the net.

    Stacey: Ian Cole. I've been pretty vocal about how impressed I've been with Cole. Cole has said in interviews that Sullivan and the coaching staff didn't give him a "Come to Jesus" talk, but they certainly communicated what areas he needed to improve in. He sat for a month, rejoined the lineup only because there were injuries, and you could see the difference almost immediately. As of April 4, he's a +16 since he's rejoined the lineup. To have mental toughness and tenacity to go from bench warmer to a difference maker is inspiring. That's the kind of athlete you want to root for. With so many offensive defensemen, it's nice to have a reliable, hard-hitting, shot-blocking guy who isn't afraid to go to bat for his teammates.   

    Nick: Phil Kessel.  When he first got here you'd see brief flashes of what he could do and the rest of the time he looked to be skating in hot dog flavored water.  As the year went on, as the coach switch settled, and he found players that compliment him best, he began to carry a line that has been on a tear we haven't seen since Malone-Malkin-Sykora ate the league alive in Crosby's sprained ankle absence.

    Rookie of the Year

    Paul: Bryan Rust

    Medina: Bryan Rust...all day

    Cassy: No one is saying it, so I guess I will. Matt Murray. The usually durable Marc-Andre Fleury has received some bumps this year, so Matt Murray has taken over in his absence - and wow, has he ever been reliable. He has an adjusted save percentage of .949, and a save percentage facing high quality shots of .868, which is phenomenal. Absolutely nothing against Rust, but Matt Murray is my rookie of the year, for the Penguins.

    : Conor Sheary. The shifty winger hasn't played many minutes but still manages to make his way onto the score sheet quite often. His numbers per 60 have to be awesome. Sheary did have a stint during his first call up playing with Sid and didn't look out of place. His speed and smarts make him able to play with anyone, and he seems to be awakening the dormant Beau Bennett of late. Maybe not the most popular answer but I'm sticking to it.

    Stacey: Tom Kuhnhackl. I like this kid. He's everything you want in a two-way forward and he just keeps getting better. What impresses me the most is his vision. When he shoots, you know he's not just closing his eyes and hoping it goes in. His shots are very focused and deliberate. Honorable Mention to Scott Wilson who would probably be my pick if he weren't injured.

    Nick: The entire group of youngins can really win this as a group award.  They started out poorly, contributing a scant few points in their first 10 games.  Since then they've added a depth this team has not witnessed in quite a while.  The spark of energy and speed they've contributed has been phenomenal.  That being said, I'm going Matt Murray.  Without him, the Penguins are stuck with Zatkoff.  Imagine these games without Fleury but with Zatkoff in net.  Ouch.

    Brian: It's easily Matt Murray. We've gone from wondering last offseason whether Murray would be better off being the unquestioned starter in Wilkes-Barre or seeing NHL action in Pittsburgh to legitimately wondering when he might be capable of taking the starting job from Marc-Andre Fleury. It's easy to get people excited when you've posted a 0.927 SV% and 2.05 GAA in 12 starts, and while he didn't see as much action with the Penguins as he probably should have, no other rookie came close to matching the level at which he played.

    Most Indispensable

    Medina: "Daddy C" Matt Cullen

    Cassy: Marc-Andre Fleury. This is not a knock to Matt Murray, don't misunderstand me. But Fleury was pivotal to the Pens escaping the Johnston era alive, this year.

    Brian: Kris Letang. He's logging insane minutes right now, he's scoring at a point per game pace over a large number of games, and it's hard to see this team not taking a huge step back if he's not in the lineup - there's no one on the team who can step into his role and it would take several defensemen to match his contributions, if the current roster was even capable of doing so.

    Jeff: Obviously Sid and Flower shouldn't be overlooked here, but Kris Letang takes it for me. The ungodly number of minutes he eats up combined with his point per game production is just too much to think anyone else on the roster could step in and replace him. Sullivan turned him loose and he is as good as any player in the league these days. Dominant. Every. Night.

    Stacey: Mike Sullivan. I nearly picked him for Best Acquisition. 

    Nick: When Crosby wasn't playing well, Evgeni Malkin carried the slack.  With Fleury hurt, Murray is carrying his weight.  If Letang goes down, Daley is capable is playing some very good hockey without a terrible drop off.  Phil Kessel is the player with the biggest drop off in skill behind him position wise. No player on either wing can match his abilities, from being the focal point of a line to a 40 goal potential. While Crosby, Letang, and Fleury are all indispensable, they have near comparables right behind them.  You can't say the same for Phil Kessel.

  • Biggest Surprise

  • Medina: The depth no one thought the team had. When the season started, a lot of fans were worried that if the injury bug hit (and did it ever), that the call-ups would not be able to play at the same level as in years past. crow because not only did they rise, they shined as bright as one of my crowns in the July sun. So much so, it garnered 3 of the call-ups full time, one-way NHL contracts extensions. SURPRISE!

    Cassy: Matt Cullen. Did anyone expect the impact he's having when he, the 39 year old, was first signed to his $900K contract? I certainly didn't.  In 79 games, Cullen has 14 goals and 16 assists for 30 points, in a majorly 4th line role. That's the beauty of the new bottom six - no Tanner Glass or Craig Adams or Zach Sill types. Just goal scorers and playmakers. It's a nice refresher and part of why the Penguins are killing it.

    Brian: Mike Sullivan. When the season opened, probably a small percentage knew it was Sullivan who Jim Rutherford had chosen to replace John Hynes behind the bench. Fast forward to today, and not only is Sullivan the head coach in Pittsburgh, not Wilkes-Barre, but he's among the favorites for the Jack Adams Award as he transformed a mediocre Penguins team under Mike Johnston into one of the most feared in the league. Can't say I would've seen that one coming in a million years.

    Jeff: Call me a negative Nelly if you want, and even though Matt Cullen has been unreal, I'm going to say the collapse of Jeff Zatkoff is the biggest surprise. Zatkoff was a perfectly fine NHL backup a few years ago and has always put up very good numbers at the AHL level. He lost his confidence and it got so bad, that the organization couldn't find a trade partner and has had to carry 3 goalies since the deadline. On a positive note, it has led to the emergence of Super Stud Matt Murray, and he has not disappointed, but color me shocked that Zatkoff has now been glued to the bench by Murray two years in a row, at two different levels of pro hockey.

    Stacey: Kevin Porter's firm grip on his spot in the lineup before he was injured. He's got great penalty killing skills, but otherwise he's just a body. Not bad, not good. Just there. He never really blossomed under Sully like most of the other guys have. When everyone on the team is healthy, they don't need him. In short, he's Most Dispensable. 

    Nick: Mike Sullivan, easily.  The coaching change was NEEDED no matter the direction they went.  It turns out they went the perfect direction.  People would have been happy to see a team with more pep and vigor, ones that didn't look like they were half dead and defeated before the puck even dropped.  The fact that the easily solution happened to be so perfect for the team has been my biggest, and most pleasant, surprise.

    Most Underrated

    Medina: Although he didn't play much due to injury, you have to give it to Beau Bennett. For a good part of the first two months of the season he was one of the only ones scoring and without those goals, who knows where the team would be right now. It's a shame he is so injury prone and who knows if he will even survive the off season without being sent somewhere else. He always seemed to be able to get that goal (or goals) when they are needed and at times, it could have meant the different between 1 point or 2. For me, its Beau all the way.

    Cassy: Matt Cullen, for the reasons above.

    Brian: Matt Cullen was certainly an underrated signing, but he's gotten plenty of love this season. I'd have to go with Chris Kunitz in this spot, because his contributions never seem to get the recognition they deserve. After a slow start to the season, like the rest of the team, under Mike Johnston, Kunitz has been providing good offense on Crosby's wing, and like always he continues to be a strong driver of possession. Those writing off Kunitz after last year's play have been a bit premature in doing so.

    Jeff: I thought I would be alone on this one but Brian beat me to it. Chris Kunitz has been written off by this fan base time and again even though he continues to produce and provide leadership. He still throws vicious checks and plays his fearless style of hockey, and no matter what anyone says, Sidney Crosby trusts him and knows how to play alongside him. Unsung hero is a fitting way to describe #14. Kuni will always be one of my all-time favorite Penguins.

    Stacey: I'm not saying Cullen. At this point in the season, we're all very aware of how valuable our Peter Pan is. And very grateful. I would probably have to go with Chris Kunitz for all the reasons Jeff stated. Because I am one of those fans who always has an axe to grind with Kunitz. I focus way too much on flubbed passes and missed chances than I do on all the things he adds to the team. He's a special kind of player and I should start recognizing that. Honorable Mention to Eric Fehr. When he was injured he left a 6-foot-4, 212-pound size hole in the bottom-six and PK unit.

    Nick: If this is anyone other than Matt Cullen it's a travesty.  He's 39 years old and has been an offensive force up and down the line up.  Playing anywhere from 2nd line center to 4th line center, he's been far more than anyone expected.  He's making a strong case for doing something really unthinkable: giving a two year contract to a 40 year old player.  It's easy to want to see him finish his career in Pittsburgh as long as he keeps doing what he's been doing.

    Team MVP 

    Paul: It's easy to pick Sid and that wouldn't really be a bad answer, but my choice is Fleury.

    Medina: Pascal Dupuis. Although he hasn't played most of the season, his courage to face his fate and still wanting to be a part of the success of the team makes him MVP.

    Cassy: Sidney Crosby, potential Hart Trophy winner. A big thanks for Mike Sullivan, though.

    : As much as I want to say Sid, because I can't believe people out there still hate on him so much, I'll have to say Fleury. His stellar play early kept the Penguins just barely afloat until Sullivan brought his rescue vessel in to save them. That being said, he hasn't had any sort of decline in his game. Despite his recent concussion, he deserves the praise of team MVP in my opinion. If Fleury is able to come back healthy for the postseason, a Conn Smythe Trophy could very well be in his future.

    Stacey: Marc-Andre Fleury. Truly, I think they need all the cogs in their machine. But Fleury kept this team alive when all the other parts were failing

    Nick: Without Marc-Andre Fleury's Vezina caliber play to start the season (with a healthy assist from Evgeni Malkin playing his best under terrible conditions) this team is long out of the playoffs before Mike Sullivan has a chance to turn them around.  He's been team MVP for the last two seasons and that the players of the team voted him as such is a testament to how much he means in that locker room.

    Brian: I said Kris Letang for most indispensable, so I guess I'll take him here too for the same reasons. He plays too big of a role at too high of a level, and unlike Fleury or Crosby he doesn't have anyone who could step into his skates and come anywhere near his level of play. Without Letang on the blue line this team likely isn't playing as lights out as they are.
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