QUESTION: Why is it that Pens fans are denied more home preseason games?
-Mark of Greensburg, PA
BOB GROVE: The Penguins are hardly denying their fans a chance to see the team in the preseason. Of their seven scheduled games, two will be played at Mellon Arena: Sept. 22 vs. Washington and Sept. 29 vs. Buffalo. That means Pittsburgh hockey fans may have an early chance to see Alexander Ovechkin and will get the opportunity to see a Buffalo team that came within one victory of reaching the Cup Finals. The Penguins have been playing at least two preseason games in Pittsburgh for many years.
QUESTION: This question may be naive, since I've only followed hockey for a couple of seasons, but how are the shift changes orchestrated during a game? How does each player know when it's time to get off the ice and whether his replacement is ready? I imagine it must be a combination of the length of shift by the clock (but who has time to check the clock?) and finding the right moment when it won't create a disadvantage in play, but it's remarkable to me how smoothly it seems to go much of the time (except for those occasional "too many men" penalties).
-Susan of New Hope, PA
BOB GROVE: For someone who's only been following the game briefly, you've got a good handle on line changes. As you suspect, they are dictated by length of shift (typically about 45 seconds) and finding the right time (after a dump-in, for example). Players grow so accustomed to keeping their shifts around the same length that they don't need to check the clock; they can sense when they have been out too long, and of course their legs will tell them the same thing.
On the bench, the coaches orchestrate the makeup of changes by indicating to resting players whose line will go out next. For example, last season head coach Michel Therrien changed the forwards while assistant coach Mike Yeo changed the defense. If you're a left winger on the bench and know that your line is next, you will hop over the boards when the left winger on the ice comes off. The same goes for left and right defensemen.
Aside from the too many men on the ice penalties you mention, which happen to every team, it all does go very well almost all the time.
QUESTION: How do you believe Marc-Andre Fleury did in his rookie season as the primary starting goaltender for the Penguins? He obviously is talented having gone 1st overall, but compared to rookie goalies Cam Ward and Ryan Miller leading their respective teams deep into the playoffs, he has not fared so well in his rookie season as some other goaltenders. Do you attribute this to a lack of strong defense surrounding him or was he overrated?
-Julian Hassinger of Annapolis, MD
BOB GROVE: After watching Cam Ward's amazing performance in the playoffs, and Miller's as well, I've been thinking about the same things you have. It's much too early to label Fleury as overrated, but it would be nice to see him move along the learning curve a little quicker next season.
For starters, let's remember that Miller turns 26 next month; Ward turned 22 last February; and Fleury turns 22 in late November, 2006. And as you suspect, the team playing around these guys has a lot to do with their play, too. It was infinitely more difficult for Fleury to stand out, and to gain his confidence, playing behind a team that led the NHL in goals against and finished 29th out of 30 teams in the overall standings. And the Pittsburgh team he played with in 2003-04 wasn't anything to write home about, either.
Given everything that Fleury had to deal with last season, including a poor start that obliterated the team's high expectations and his constant shuffling to the AHL early in the season amid widespread speculation about whether the Penguins could afford to pay him bonuses, I think he did pretty well. He had a very good stretch in mid-March, and his superior reflexes and refusal to give up on pucks bode well for a promising career.
That said, Fleury still has room to improve as far as controlling rebounds, puck handling, going down too early and too often, and economy of motion. Too often he made the spectacular save only to be beaten on stoppable shots. One of the most difficult things he's got to develop is the knack for making the big save at the right time. He's allowing too many early and late goals. These things should come with time, and I expect that he'll make noticeable progress next season.
QUESTION: I've been noticing a lot of people asking why Aleksey Morozov did not play in the NHL this year. What about Milan Kraft? He didn't develop like the Pens hoped he would when they took him in 98, but I still thought he was going to develop into a player who was a solid 2nd liner, good faceoff man, and score 30 goals a year.
-Dan Florkow of Edmonton, AB
BOB GROVE: Yes, the Morozov questions continue to pour in. Early last season there was similar interest in Kraft, but I think Kraft's skating shortcomings really will make it difficult for him in an NHL where speed is so vital. He has shown himself to be more of a perimeter player and doesn't appear to have a future in Pittsburgh with Crosby, Malkin, Malone, Talbot, Stone, Christensen and others already at his position.