You do a podcast with a few other guys called The Pens Nation, which features guests such as Josh Yohe and Mark Madden. Does the fact that you do a podcast centered around hockey mean that hockey is your favorite sport?
Well, I played baseball for about 13 years and always considered it my favorite sport. But, even as a kid watching the “X Generation” Penguins, I loved hockey. I loved going to the Mellon Arena to watch games and as time went on, I kept learning more and more about the game. I’ve always been a huge fan of hockey, but my interest just kept escalating as time went on. Hockey and baseball are my favorite sports, but it’s hard to pick one over the other.
What exactly got you into sports in the first place?
I’m not exactly sure what got me into sports. I was named after Andy Van Slyke, a former outfielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates. So I guess you could say sports have been in my blood since the very beginning. My parents always took me to sporting events as a kid and had me in the room when they watched events on television. Sports have always been one of my favorite things in life. The competition and its ability to bring people together are two of the things I love most about it.
How did the Pens Nation Radio Show get started?
During my freshman year of college, I decided one day that I wanted to make a blog about the Penguins. I didn’t really have any big goals in mind. I just wanted an outlet where I could post my thoughts about the team and try to bring in some traffic to the blog. Here we are four years later and I can’t believe what has happened. It went from being just a fun thing to do on the side to something I really am passionate about. Because of my heavy workload in college when I started the blog, I needed help running the site.
I basically asked people on Twitter if anyone had interest in writing and I received a decent amount of requests, surprisingly. We brought a few people in and things progressed very well. In December of that year, we decided to take the blog to the next level by adding an online radio show. We were able to do live shows almost every night during the week. That brought in an entire new audience. We really took a huge step with the guests we had on the radio show, such as Josh Yohe, Mike Emrick and Gary Roberts.
Currently, we have an awesome staff that all contribute to the site’s success. They deserve all of the credit in the world. We all are best friends too, which is the cool part. None of us knew each other before the blog. Twitter can be very powerful!
How many subscribers and downloads has the Pens Nation had so far? Guess if you have to.
I’ll be honest. I really don’t have any numbers in front of me, but I can say that our numbers have increased as time has gone on. We continue to look for great guests to bring on the show.
Who do you find yourself agreeing with the most on the podcast? Agreeing with the least? Why?
That’s a really tough question! I cannot really say either way, to be honest. We all have different opinions on different subjects, but I find it pretty even most of the time (for me at least). We enjoy debating different subjects in the hockey world!
The Pens are 40-15-3 heading into the Olympic break, with a great amount of their success coming at home this year. What’s been the key to their success at Consol so far this season?
They have been incredible at home this season. When CONSOL opened, people thought it was cursed because the Penguins struggled in that inaugural season at home. That hasn’t been the case this season. A big difference from this year from previous years is that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been relatively healthy. Malkin has missed some games, but they’ve had at least one of those superstars in every single game.
Pittsburgh has dealt with a ton of injuries this year, but the call-ups have done a tremendous job. Dan Bylsma’s positive attitude has made them look confident at home. They’ve played solid defense for most of the year and obviously have some tremendous talent offensively. To answer the question, though, I would say their confidence seems to be higher at home and Bylsma has done a better job matching up with opponents on home ice.
Many people seem to think James Neal should have made Team Canada. Why the snub? Do you think Neal skating into the head of Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand back in December had anything to do with it?
Yes, I think that contributed to him not making it. Honestly, I didn’t think he should make it for that reason. We have seen Neal lose it emotionally many times and you can’t do things like that in the Olympics. His quick release is one of the best in the NHL, but he needs to be smarter on the ice without the puck. Another factor is that Neal is still only 26. He’s going to have a good chance to participate in the Olympics in four years at age 30.
Some of the veterans won’r be in the game at that time and Neal should be even more established. Neal would probably make any other team in the Olympics, but Canada’s depth at forward is unreal. Getting Neal some rest isn’t the worst thing in the world, either. He has been a little banged up this season and will be ready to go when NHL play begins in a couple weeks.
Do you agree with Team Canada choosing Chris Kunitz? Or do you think another player would have been a better fit?
Yes, I do agree with Kunitz getting selected to Team Canada. His chemistry with Sidney Crosby could turn out to be very valuable in the Olympics. Why force chemistry when you already have it? These Olympic games go quick and there isn’t a lot of time to develop chemistry. That’s one reason why he got picked, but not the biggest one. Kunitz brings some things that some other players on Canada do not. He isn’t the most skilled player, obviously, but his work ethic and ability to open up space is something that will be very valuable in the Olympics. Canada made the right choice by selecting Kunitz.
So far, in my view, Kris Letang has proven his massive contract to be a massive failure. The latest news it that Letang suffered a stroke and will be out at least six weeks. What are your thoughts on Letang and do you agree with the Pens bringing him back? Let’s move on already!
First of all, I want to wish Kris Letang my prayers. He’s dealing with some very tough issues right now and needs all of the support he can get. I would be shocked if he returned in six weeks. A stroke is very serious. He needs to focus on his personal life at this time and put hockey aside. Letang is one of those players that you will love at times and will call out at other times. That’s just the way it goes with his style of play. He can do things with the puck that most defensemen cannot even come close to doing.
His skating is so fun to watch and the Penguins love having him on their team. However, he does make a ton of mistakes defensively, which can be hard to watch in the postseason when every goal against is so crucial. He didn’t start this season very well in that aspect, but I do think he was improving a bit before he went out with the illness. In the offseason, I wanted Ray Shero to at least listen to offers for Letang. He may have done that, but he may not have gotten good offers for him. Therefore, there was no reason to just give him away.
I do think the contract extension is a big risk, but with the salary cap going up next season, it may make the deal look a bit better as time goes on. I just hope Kris is able to get back to 100% and can hit the ice once again to compete in the NHL. If the Penguins do run into some financial issues down the road, Letang may be a trade candidate with his big cap hit. I would be okay with that, but only if Pittsburgh gets a significant return.
What’s been Fleury’s problem in the playoffs since ’09? Being great in the regular season is all well and good, but he hasn’t demonstrated that he’s been able to have any measure of consistency in the postseason. What needs to change this year?
I’m not even sure Fleury knows what happened in the past few postseasons. He’s been bad in them. There is no doubt about that. I think Mike Bales and the sports psychologist really helped him hit the restart button. He does not talk to the media before games now and just seems to be more serious. Sure, he still has fun, but he is a bit different now. Fleury has always been quick and athletic, but he seems a bit calmer in the net this season.
In previous years, he has panicked in big situations and tried to do too much. He seems a bit more focused on his positioning this season, which has contributed to his success this season. His numbers are very good for a team that plays a style like the Penguins do. I would expect the Penguins to do better defensively this postseason. That should help Fleury have a much better postseason this spring.
Simon Despres has certainly had his ups and downs ever since he was drafted by the Pens in ’09, but it seems to me like he’s had more downs. Do you ever think Simon Despres will be a top-4 defenseman in the Pens organization? Or any NHL team for that matter?
Simon Despres seems to be getting the Eric Tangradi treatment. Despres has a much higher ceiling than Tangradi ever did, but it seems like he has a short leash. If he makes one mistake, he gets sent to the press box the next game. That’s a tough situation to be in, and one I know I would not want to be in. It’s hard to play mistake-free hockey when you are not in a game every night. Despres probably should be in the NHL right now, but he is still stuck in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Before the Letang injury, I thought that he was Pittsburgh’s first trade chip for the trade deadline. Things have changed now with Letang’s condition. What happens if another defenseman goes down? Then the Penguins will need Despres. It’s a really tough situation to be in for Shero.
How do you think Jeff Zatkoff has handled himself in his first season in the NHL? He definitely had a rocky start, there’s no doubt about that. I would still feel more comfortable with Tomas Vokoun in there in a big game (assuming he’s had sufficient practice time), blood thinners or not. If and when Vokoun comes back, what happens with Zatkoff? Has he been playing well enough lately that Vokoun is expendable?
Jeff Zatkoff has been one of the best stories for the Penguins this season, in my opinion. This guy came in to the season thinking that he would play in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. After the Vokoun news, people panicked about the goaltending situation. Marc-Andre Fleury had struggled in the playoffs and Zatkoff had not started a single game in the NHL. Obviously, things have changed quite a bit since then. Fleury is having one of his best seasons and Zatkoff is 9-2-1. He did have a rough start, but this kid is a really good person and understands what it takes to be successful in this league.
Penguins goaltending coach Mike Bales has helped him a lot this season and I don’t think he is going anywhere. Vokoun probably is not coming back until the playoffs, at the earliest. The Penguins are already short on cap space and bringing Vokoun back during the regular season won’t help them. He still needs more time to heal, anyway. If Vokoun does return, Zatkoff would have to go through waivers to go back to the AHL. That will not happen. He already signed an extension and will most likely back up Fleury next season.
Thoughts on the Jacques Martin hiring? What do you think he brings to the bench that maybe Granato and Rierden don’t?
I loved the hiring from the beginning. His defensive strategies have made a big difference this season. During the beginning of the year, we saw the Penguins going to the 1-3-1 in different situations, which was awesome. The more looks you give an opponent, the better. In the past few years, other teams were basically able to predict what the Penguins were going to do. They are having a much tougher time with that this season and Martin is a big reason why.
Deryk Engelland, a big stay-at-home defenseman most of the time, has made a mark this year as a winger, scoring a few goals in the process. Why move him if it’s showing results? You still have Bortuzzo to bring that physical element to the back end.
I laughed when they moved Engelland to the wing because I wasn’t a huge fan of his at the time. But, I have seen him do some good things as a forward with the Penguins. He doesn’t need to cover as much space as he normally would and obviously brings a physical presence. I’m not sure what they’ll do with him in the postseason, but I would keep him at forward. Robert Bortuzzo is a much better option on the blue line than Engelland.
Talk about Olli Maata and the amazing rookie season he’s had thus far. He made Team Finland along with Jussi Jokinen!
It’s been quite a year for the 19-year old. I watched him in Development Camp this summer and he looked so much better than everyone else. There were more experienced defensemen in the camp and he still stood out the most among all of them. I didn’t think he would make the team in camp, but he did and the Penguins made the right choice keeping him. Things may have been much different this season without Maatta. He has scored some big goals and has played some great defense.
His decision making on the ice is something that I have never seen with a player at his age. He looks so comfortable out there. This is a player that should never leave Pittsburgh. In addition to his great play on the ice, he is a really nice guy off the ice too. Believe me; he’s loving every moment of this year. He has probably smiled more this year than he ever has. Maatta has to be considered a candidate for the Calder trophy.
He’s made a big difference with this team as a rookie. It will be fun to watch him on Team Finland too. He never thought he would be on the Olympic team this year, but it happened and he could not be happier. He has been blown away by all of the experiences he has gone though this year, but I think we can all admit he has earned it.
With Pascal Dupuis lost for the season with a torn ACL, who do you see eventually fitting into that third spot alongside Sid and Kunitz? Do you see Beau Bennett eventually being the guy?
I think Bennett is the only guy the Penguins could put in that slot when he’s healthy. Brian Gibbons has done a solid job, but there is no chance he can play there in the postseason. They’ll need to make a trade for a first line winger or put Bennett in that spot. They still have high hopes for Bennett, but he hasn’t been healthy much since he was called up to the NHL. He had trouble staying healthy in college too. The Penguins hope he can make an impact this year because their depth at forward is very thin after him as far as top six wingers go. I have always envisioned Bennett with Crosby at some point and I’m sure he will at least get a chance to show what he can do. The unfortunate part is that the Penguins do not have much time to let him develop chemistry with Crosby since the trade deadline is so close.
What moves would you like to see Ray Shero make at the deadline? Winger for Sid? Another defenseman? Letang trade?
Kris Letang will not be traded. Let’s get that out of the way first. I think the Penguins’ biggest need is a forward for the third line or fourth line. Players such as Tanner Glass and Craig Adams basically give you nothing offensively. Pittsburgh needs a tough forward who can produce offensively. The Penguins really lack that right now and will get crushed in the playoffs if they do not address it. Pittsburgh is a very top-heavy team at the moment and that needs to change. If teams shut down the Penguins’ top two lines, then Pittsburgh will not have a good chance of winning. As I talked about earlier, another option is trading for a first line winger. That will be hard though with the cap situation. Bennett will probably fill one of these spots, but the Penguins really need someone who will make them tough to play against.
I was always a fan of Michel Therrien’s rough, disciplinarian style. Bylsma isn’t as rough or as much of a disciplinarian, but what is it that he brings to the team, and the league in general, that has made him so successful the past few years? This team has been to the playoffs every year, has been to two Stanley Cup Finals (won one), and now Bylsma is behind the bench for Team USA.
Bylsma brings a very positive attitude to the Penguins and I think all of the players like that about him. He has been very successful as the coach of the Penguins, but there will be a lot of pressure on him again this spring. He is a very smart man in terms of hockey knowledge. His system is very complex and when the players perfect it, it is hard to stop. He does need to be better in making alternate strategies though. For example, if a team is completely destroying the Penguins, he needs to go to a “Plan B” and give the opposing team some new looks.
It seems like the Pens got away from solid defensive play in recent weeks. What do you think is behind that?
We started to really notice this when Malkin and Letang returned to the lineup in that game against the Jets. Those two players want the puck and want to move north. That is going to change some things a bit. The players may feel more comfortable taking some risks than usual because of the talent that is wearing the black and gold. That probably should not happen, but that’s the way these players play the game. I think they should stick to their game plan regardless of who is in the lineup, but that’s another story. Pittsburgh has had to deal with a lot of different players coming in and out of the lineup. That has affected the defense a lot.
How does Team USA do in these Olympics? Do you think any team is a true match for Team Canada? Share some of your Olympic predictions.
We actually just posted our Olympic predictions on The PensNation so check those out! I think the only team that can compete for the gold other than Canada is Sweden. They have some great talent up front and obviously have one of the best goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist. I picked Canada over Sweden in the gold medal game and chose USA for the bronze. I like the balance of Team USA this year, but it will be tough to keep up with Sweden and Canada. Canada’s roster is simply mind blowing as it always is and I think they will repeat as champions. However, this is probably been the most difficult Olympic tournament to predict in quite some time. It shows how the game of hockey is growing in every country, which is awesome.
The combination of Neal-Malkin-Jokinen really seems to work. However, I’ve heard that when you take Jokinen away from the top two lines, he isn’t as successful. I can see this being the case at times. Thoughts on Jokinen and just how important he is to the team.
Jokinen has been a huge part of the Penguins’ success this season and has really put himself in a nice position for free agency this offseason. He is in line to get a big contract now. It’s hard to believe the Penguins basically got this guy for nothing. A guy as talented as Jokinen is should never hit the waiver wire. But, thank goodness he did. The Penguins always had interest in Jokinen, but never met the price needed for him until last year when he fell out of favor in Carolina. Jokinen is very good at making plays with Malkin and Neal. He seems to know where both of them are on the ice without even looking, which is a clear sign those three have developed some chemistry. His wrist shot is really good too and when he is on, he is on. We have seen him score several multi-goal games this season, which can take over games.
What is it that makes Malkin and Neal work so smoothly together? It’s not like Geno is the easiest guy to play with. You know, Geno’s nickname for Neal is “Lazy.”
Malkin and Neal are fun to watch, on and off the ice. Those two are always joking around with each other. Although both of them want the puck most times, they have done a good job setting up plays. We usually think of Neal as a guy who just wants to shoot the puck as soon as he gets it, but Neal has done a better job of reading the play recently. Malkin can obviously score goals himself, but he loves having a guy who can rip the puck to the net on his line.
He never really had that until Neal arrived. Once Petr Sykora left, he had not had a lethal weapon like Neal on his line, which made his job tougher. Neal takes some pressure off of Malkin and vice-versa. When Neal was acquired by the Penguins, I thought he would play with Crosby eventually, but I’m glad Malkin has a good linemate now. Those two are a lot of fun to watch.
It’s been a revolving door on the third line ever since the Kennedy-Staal-Cooke trio was dissolved. Who do you like to see on that third line and how do you think Brandon Sutter has played this year with all the different faces?
Brandon Sutter obviously will be there on the third line. I love what he brings defensively, but I would like to see some more offensively from him. The Penguins are going to need it in the spring. Pittsburgh was so hard to beat in 2008 and 2009 because of that third line of Cooke-Staal-Kennedy. All three of those guys brought energy and contributed offensively, which made it hard for teams to match up against. The Penguins really lack that now, as I said before. There are not many good options for the third line internally for Pittsburgh other than Sutter. Jayson Megna may work, but I think they need to trade for someone to play on that line.
We’ve seen a lot of Baby Pens up in the big leagues this year. Who has really stood out to you and why? Do you think any of these guys could be big time players for the Pens in the near future? If so, which ones?
Who saw Brian Gibbons even playing in the NHL this year? I certainly didn’t. He made it to the AHL All-Star Game and has played with Crosby a bit this year. Who saw any of this coming? I don’t even think he did. He has done a solid job and has shown his skills on the biggest stage this season. He’s a guy who could blossom into a decent NHL player. He has some speed and skill that could be valuable to Pittsburgh. Megna is the other guy who I like a lot.
He did some great things earlier this year with Malkin, but his injury slowed him down a bit. He is very creative offensively and also brings some speed to the table. We saw a lot of defenseman come up to the NHL from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton earlier this year too. Brian Dumoulin stood out the most among that group. He could be a big contributor up here in a year or two.
Do you consider Tanner Glass to be a big part of the team’s winning ways this year? Talk a little about his season and also Craig Adams’ presence on the fourth line. What an iron man.
As I said before, these two players bring nothing offensively. However, they are good defensively. Last season, Glass was not making much of an impact at all, but he has been different this season. He is talking more on the bench and is hitting everything in sight. The Penguins will need that in the playoffs. Adams is a tough player. He plays with injuries a lot and continues to be solid on the penalty kill. He has struggled a bit this season, but he seems to be getting back to the player we have known since 2009.
Matt Niskanen is such an underrated player, with a helluva shot. I consider Nisky to be a critical part of the Pens defense corps.
He definitely is an important piece to the puzzle. Who thought this “throw-in” player in the Neal trade would turn out to be so valuable. Much like Jokinen, his previous team (Dallas) had given up on him. Niskanen was a first-round pick in the draft for a reason and Pittsburgh gave him a chance. He knows that and appreciates it. Niskanen is now one of the leaders on the team now and does have a great shot. He has been playing solid defense all year and can easily jump to the top-four if needed. That’s why he is so valuable. He can play in any spot and be successful.
He loves Pittsburgh, but he has earned a chance to cash in this offseason, just like Jokinen. It will be interesting to see what he does in the offseason in addition to Jokinen and Brooks Orpik. I like Niskanen on the power play a lot too. He simplifies things up there by setting up the superstars or simply firing a slapshot. There is no need for him to be creative with guys such as Malkin and Crosby out there.
Rob Scuderi, although out for a long stretch with an ankle injury this year, certainly hasn’t made the Pens regret bringing him back.
Scuderi is so solid. You do not hear his name much on television and radio during the game. That usually means he is doing his job: play defense. You are never going to get much from him offensively, but that’s okay. This team has plenty of offense. He was brought back to play solid defense and help the younger guys. He has done a great job and will be very valuable this spring once again just like he was before he left for the Los Angeles Kings.
Would you consider being the play-by-play guy for Sully’s Totally-Not-Winter Classic? We all would be absolutely honored to have a talent like Hughes behind the mic for our summer event!
I love the game of hockey and would absolutely consider it! It sounds like a fun event and I would love to be a part of it.