MILWAUKEE -- Hockey's a beautiful game.
Hockey at its highest peak, from the Sochi Olympics to the Stanley Cup Final, is something else entirely.
I relish a lot of things about this job, and that includes spreading my columns evenly between all three of Pittsburgh's teams. A couple days ago, I spent the day with the Steelers. All of this weekend, I'll be here in Wisconsin with the Pirates. In a few days, I'll be flying to Vancouver and the NHL Draft. It's the way I've always preferred it.
But needle me with truth serum and I'll confess that nothing for me beats breaking down hockey. I've been studying the sport, speaking with its participants and, on an infinitely lower level, playing, coaching, refereeing and just plain old sitting back and enjoying it since childhood. Other than my family, it's the love of my life.
So, upon seeing reader reaction to the every-weekday expansion of Chris Carter's Classroom and Jason Rollison's Mound Visit in the past week, the obvious occurred to me: We can't do football and baseball without doing hockey.
Next thing that occurred to me: I really want to do this myself.
So let's drop the puck with this not-at-all startling revelation: The Penguins should have kept Oskar Sundqvist.
OK, but this goes beyond the spectacularly obvious conclusion that, at the 2017 NHL Draft, Jim Rutherford shouldn't have traded Sundqvist and his first-round pick to the Blues for Ryan Reaves and their second-rounder. It wasn't a fair exchange on the surface, and it would become that much more muted once Mike Sullivan made painfully clear that he had no use for Reaves and, worse, it was rooted in Rutherford's openly expressed anger at how Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and others had just been abused through the back-to-back championship runs.
Bad, bad, bad trade. For all three reasons.
And now, Sundqvist has brought about a fourth in that, frankly, he's blossomed into a hell of a two-way center who's now, after the Blues' 2-1 triumph last night in Game 5 of the Final in Boston, one win away from a ring of his own: He's got four goals and five assists through 23 playoff games, and he's been Craig Berube's go-to guy in pretty much all defensive situations.
Should the Penguins have foreseen that?
Unquestionably. That burden is always on the team raising the prospect through the system. Sundqvist was a second-round pick, and he showed steady growth at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, not least of which was his offense, resulting from a hard internal push from Bill Guerin and Mark Recchi. He became more rounded. He earned his way to Pittsburgh.
But that's where the story strays from the linear. Yes, Sundqvist did log 28 regular-season games over those two Cup years, plus another two in the playoffs in the first of those. But he also ... trying to think of a tactful way to word this ... really, really needed to eat some cheeseburgers.
Put it this way: He shot up to 6 feet 3 fairly early in his career, before coming over from Sweden. But his playing weight with the Penguins, if I'm being generous, couldn't have been an ounce over 170 pounds. And that was a real concern for management, because he wasn't coming close to the bulk he'd need to compete with the big, bad Capitals and Blue Jackets and various other nemeses at the time. What's more, he lacked the leg strength to stay as sturdy on his skates as had been forecast.
Current playing weight: 6-3, 209.
I can't guess at what St. Louis' coaches, strength coordinators or nutritionists might have done to beef him up. Or if Sundqvist himself -- a wonderfully dedicated kid in this time here -- simply became more specific in that dedication. Or if, at age 25, he just filled out in a way that, say, Josh Bell did with the Pirates a year ago or James Conner is now showing with the Steelers. It does happen.
Whatever the case, it's real and, befitting this feature's history, let's spotlight one sequence from Game 5 last night:
That's late in the second period, the Blues trying to take a one-goal lead into the final intermission. Berube predictably sent Sundqvist out to oppose the Bruins' David Krejci, who's been claiming faceoffs at a 51.8 percent rate in these playoffs. The visitor is required to put his stick down first but, even so, Sundqvist is stirringly still while Krejci goes through all kinds of strangeness before setting his stick down in the softest possible position.
Sundqvist cleans him up.
Is that the additional size and strength at work?
Maybe, as he's raised his faceoff percentage nearly six full points since the trade. But I'll bet this one's better attributed to another avenue of maturity. He's a million times more confident than when he was with the Penguins.
Now, this next one is all physical:
This is from the same scene, following the faceoff. The Blues storm right up ice and, true to Berube's no-nonsense puck possession game, they chip it deep into the Boston zone. Follow Sundqvist -- the tall righty sporting No. 70 -- to see that he'll physically overpower two Bruins, first Krejci, then Torey Krug, from which a golden chance arises for Alex Pietrangelo.
That is not the Sundqvist who was here. The Penguins liked his skill level and defensive awareness, but this was not anticipated by anyone. Maybe not even by the Blues.
Probably the most powerful example I can offer from this game about how far Sundqvist's come was this from the third period:
Yeah, that's Boston's lone goal. And yeah, that's Sundqvist giving the puck away at the St. Louis blue line. And clipping Krug in the face for what would have been a high-sticking penalty had the Bruins not scored.
But after that, with the Blues' lead back to one all over again, Berube never let Sundqvist miss a shift. That's trust. And that's built on his 47.31 Corsi For percentage, which is higher than it might sound considering he's had 36 offensive-zone starts to 82 in the defensive zone in these playoffs. It's always harder to prevent goals and shots if the puck drops in an unfriendly area of the rink.
It's fun to wonder how it might have worked out here. Sundqvist's very much a Sullivan-type player these days. Maybe all that was needed was a a little patience and a few fries on his sandwiches.
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