NHL Handicapping: The Inconsistent Pittsburgh Penguins
by Trevor Whenham - 1/21/2012
The Pittsburgh Penguins are a tough team to figure out — the toughest in the NHL season right now. When they are good they are very good, and no team has more talent. They have been hit hard by injuries, though, and it has had a real impact on their play, and especially on their consistency.
Recently, this team has really struggled with consistency. A week ago I would have written an article about their struggles because they had lost six straight and were beaten 19-6 over that time. Since then, though, they have won four in a row, beating opponents by a combined 16-6. Before they lost six they were unbeaten in four. Before that they lost four of five — right after they won four of five. I could go on, but you get the point — the team is bipolar, and they have been all year.
The struggles have them still in a playoff spot, but falling behind the Rangers and the Flyers, who lead the division. For NHL handicappers it’s enough to cause serious headaches.
The Penguins are probably the most public team in the league, so their NHL odds are always inflated — even when they lose. They are favored the majority of the time on the road, and in all but the rarest home game — and often heavily favored at home.
It would certainly be handy, then, if you get figure out if this team is more like the one that slumps or the one that surges, and what team we might expect at any given time. Here are four factors that have a big impact on the fate of this squad:
You can’t talk about this team without looking at “Sid the Kid”. He’s the best player on the planet, and that’s not even open for debate. He’s also in the midst of one of the sadder injury dramas we have seen in a long time. A concussion suffered at the beginning of January in 2011 kept him out for the rest of last year, and until Nov. 21 of this year. His return was celebrated like a holiday in Pittsburgh and in hockey-crazed Canada, but sadly it was short lived — his symptoms returned after eight games and he hit the sidelines again. He’s skating again, but you can’t help but feel like the happy ending isn’t yet just around the corner.
With only eight games played in more than a year, the impact of Crosby’s loss to his team on the ice is the least significant and least interesting component — for better or worse, they are used to playing without him now. There are two more interesting aspects of this situation, though — the mental strain on the team, and the perception of the public.
Mentally, it has to be extremely hard on the team. The players hear constantly about the impact of his absence. They finally get him back and he has 11 points in his first five games (the team was 3-0-2 over that stretch) and it was like he never left. Then he did leave, and now the reports of his future are uncertain at best.
While the team can compensate for him to some extent on the ice, off the ice it s going to have a big impact, and that burden will increase as his absence stretches out.
More significant is the public impact. Not only is Crosby the best player in the sport, but the most popular as well. This situation gives the public countless reasons to overreact — about the impact of his loss, the impact of his return, the impact of any developments regarding his health, and so on. Bettors need to be particularly tuned in to what the public — and by extension the media — are thinking and feeling to have a sense of where the value may be.
Injuries beyond Crosby
Crosby is the biggest name to go down, but the team has struggled mightily beyond him. Jordan Staal is out with a knee injury right now. Kris Letang is just returning to action. Evgeni Malkin has missed a bit of time — though not nearly as much as in past years.
Each of these injuries is significant, and when combined with the Crosby situation they could be even more impactful. This team has already proven how mentally tough they are, but you can’t help but feel like the next major injury could be a breaking point. You also have to be concerned about the increased workload that the healthy players have been forced to endure as a result of the injuries, and what that could mean down the road.
Neal was acquired last year from the Stars, and his play has already shown that that was one of the best deals of the season. He has 24 goals to tie for the team lead, and has been a big offensive spark for a team that really needs one.
The concern, though, is that the team may be just a little too reliant on his success at this point. From Dec. 10 to Jan.15 the team was 7-8. Incredibly, Neal scored at least one goal in all seven wins, and failed to score in all eight losses. That’s only a fraction of the season, but it’s still a big enough sample size to pinpoint a compelling trend.
Perhaps the biggest asset the team has going for them is their head coach. For my money Bylsma is the best in the league right now.
He took over the team with 25 games remaining in 2009 and led them to the Stanley Cup. Last year he lost Crosby and Malkin for half the season and still had the team performing as a serious contender. He was rewarded with the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year for that performance.
Bylsma knows his players very well, and they clearly have total faith in him. I’d consider this team more seriously with him at the helm than with almost anyone else.
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