1. Seven members of the Penguins are headed to Sochi in less than a month to compete in the Olympics. What does that mean for the Penguins' game in the next few weeks in terms of trying to avoid injury and that sort of thing?
Hopefully it doesn't mean a lot and everyone slides through without major incident. Head coach Dan Bylsma (and assistant Tony Granato) also have Team USA coaching responsibilities, so more than just the players have Sochi on their minds, too. As of right now all the Pens Olympians (save Paul Martin) are healthy and playing pretty well, and Martin's skating again and expected to be back for the Olympics, so hopefully that all holds.
2. Who on the Penguins do you think received the biggest snubs from their respective countries?
I don't have a lot of complaints, most of the Penguins bubble players made it. I would say that James Neal, who has 15 points (6 goals, 9 assists) in the nine games since back from suspension does have a great points/game rate on the season. If Canada needed a sniper winger to replace Steven Stamkos if he can't make a miraculous return, they could do a lot worse than Neal. Neal has scored more goals in the past few seasons than any Canadian player, he's got great hands. But he is also prone to dumb penalties and injuries, so I'm not surprised that Canada left him behind.
3. The Penguins are in pretty good shape leading the Eastern Conference with 65 points. What, if anything, do you think management needs to do to further improve the team's chances in the latter half of the season and the playoffs?
Pascal Dupuis, the right-winger on Crosby's line, tore his ACL and is out for the season so the Penguins will need to fill that position. They have promising youngster Beau Bennett, but he hasn't shown the ability to stay healthy in his whole career, so I'm not sure if he's a capable replacement. I would also think they'd like to add a capable bottom six winger, preferably with size/grit and some PK ability to replace what Dupuis (and the departed Matt Cooke) brought to the table there. The Penguins are tighter to the salary cap than last year, so I don't see them making the huge splashy acquisitions of last spring but I do think they have a couple things to address via the trade market if they can find the right player for the right cost.
4. As a Flames fan, in good conscience I have to ask--with how well the Penguins are doing now, it doesn't seem like they're missing Jarome Iginla all that much. What do you think he would have added to the team had he stayed in Pittsburgh for another season and looking back, do you think the trade was worth it?
The Iginla trade was a good idea in theory, but a poorly managed one for Pittsburgh (and probably Calgary, you could argue). The Pens don't really miss him too much, because they used him as a left winger. As you guys know, Jarome Iginla's been a right-wing his whole career. So it didn't really work out and all parties knew it was time to move on. I wouldn't say it wasn't worth it, because the chance to add such a quality player and person doesn't come around that often. It's a shame it didn't get better results, and it's worth asking if it was even necessary to acquire this player and then not put him in a position for success, but Iginla did produce some points and did help power the team for 2 playoff rounds. That's enough justification for me to say it was worth the attempt, even if it didn't yield the ultimate result.
I am thankful that Iginla had a no-trade clause and chose Pittsburgh as his destination of choice, because that kept the price down that the Pens had to pay to get him, rather if they had to outbid Boston and all the other suitors. So, from this perspective, only giving up 2 marginal forward prospects and the 28th pick in the draft is a lot easier to swallow than if they had to cough up any of the bluechip prospects in the system. Had Pittsburgh had to surrender a bigger return, then I think it would have been a disastrous miss.
5. Olli Maatta is a player I heavily advocated for the Flames to select in the 2012 draft before they blew it and traded down to choose Mark Jankowski. With three goals and 14 points in 44 games, what do you think of his play so far?
Someone should hire you as a scout, you were right to advocate that because Maatta has been a stud. He did get some good fortune to make team out of training camp (thanks to Letang getting hurt), but Maatta has played really well. He's shown amazing poise with the puck, and has great skating ability and decision making. If you didn't know he was 19 years old, you'd never know from his play on the ice. His boxcar stats aren't eye-popping (3g, 9a) but his role on the team and ice-time has ticked up from week to week and month to month.
Maatta's play has hit a couple of bumps in the road lately (resulting in his only healthy scratch of the season) but overall he's been a great player and hopefully hasn't hit a rookie wall. Maatta was named to Team Finland for the Olympics and it's really remarkable how much his stock has risen in the past four or five months. He's been one of the Pens steadiest and most reliable defensemen, which is just incredible. And the team has suffered 79 combined man-games lost to injury by their top 4 defensemen (Martin, Orpik, Letang and Scuderi) and at one point all four of them were all out of the lineup. It's been a rough season for injuries but Maatta's play has been a saving grace and is easily the pleasant surprise of the season.
Thanks, Hooks! Game time tonight is 8 p.m. Mountain Time, 10 p.m. Eastern and you can catch it on CBC. For more on the Penguins, check out PensBurgh.