Well…after a year off, I felt like writing about the Pens again..so here we are! (No, there will be no postgame recaps or goal recaps, let it go.) This will probably just be a hodgepodge of random thoughts on a weekly basis.
Looking back at…
Beyond the banner raising, this looked like a typical sloppy and disjointed opening night of hockey and I tried to actively avoid coming up with takeaways. A few things that I did notice though:
- Sidney Crosby is still ridiculous. Crosby was creating room for everyone on the ice all night. It was almost comical how frequently he would get control of the puck down low, draw everyone’s attention, and then throw the puck up to the point for a wide open defenseman. There was even one specific instance where Crosby had the puck in the corner and seemingly threw it to no one at the point…except Kris Letang was in the process of skating to that area and Crosby ended up making a tape-to-tape pass to a guy who wasn’t even in the area quite yet (and a missed pass would have gone all the way back to the defensive zone). Crosby’s superb passing drew my attention to my next thought…
Sidney Crosby attempted 16 passes in offensive zone at even-strength last night – he completed all of them. Context, next best was 6 for 6.
— Mike Kelly (@MikeKellyNHL) October 5, 2017
- Olli Matta looks confident. Maatta was the recipient of a few of those Crosby passes throughout the night and the biggest thing I noticed was that his head was up at all times, both in receiving the puck and deciding how to distribute it elsewhere. His speed is always going to be something I take issue with, but it’s much less of a hindrance when he’s calmly and confidently working with the puck (compared to a plethora of bobbles and misplays that we have seen since his rookie season). I probably lead the pack when it comes to not being patient enough with Maatta, but opening night showed me a few flashes of what he could turn into still.
- Finally, there was Greg McKegg, an automatic fan favorite on name alone. I don’t like McKegg as a 3rd line center, but I do like his ability to fill in there as necessary on some short stints (hopefully this 3rd line center situation is only short-term). What impressed me most with McKegg was his skating efficiency. There’s no question he’s quick, but his pathways to pucks, puck carries, and open areas where pucks are likely to end up were noticeably direct and efficient. I love the idea of using him as a 4th line center (sorry Rowney), but I do think he’ll be in too far over his head in the long run in this role as a 3rd line center. Jesse Marshall wrote a nice article about him on The Athletic. While I’ll try not to be a free advertisement for The Athletic, I will admit that it’s the only paid subscription site for sports articles that I’m a member of and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I reference one of Jesse’s articles.
Where does one even start with this game…I’ll get to Niemi later, but let’s start with assessing what the Penguins are right now.
The 2017 Cup run was special. It was special in a lot of ways. Every Cup run is special. One of the things that made it special – the Penguins were frequently outplayed, scored opportunistically, and defied the odds repeatedly despite numbers, performance, and overall play.
It was a recipe for success…that shouldn’t have worked (but, yeah, who cares, it worked).
So take that weirdly successful team, remove some useful players, and tell the remaining players that they’re the best all summer after winning back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships. Now add back Letang to increase the high-end talent and increase the overall health of the group.
The expected result should be a worse roster overall with the mindset that they can do anything and win at this point.
That’s not how the NHL works. I love the 10-1 loss. I love that it was a clear message to the Penguins that the season has started and it’s time to get back to basics. And I love that it was such a clear message that no one anywhere could brush it off or ignore it – no one can walk away from a 10-1 loss with “Eh, we’ll figure it out, we figured it out each of the past 2 years and won the Cup both times.” That game didn’t happen in the past 2 years and everyone knows it.
In short, what I saw in the Chicago game was a reckless team that wanted to play like they were the most talented group in the league that could do anything they wanted without repercussions instead of a team that was willing to play within their means and at their current team-talent level.
Add to that: It was the 2nd game of back-to-backs and it was on the road, it was against a very motivated Chicago team that had been embarrassed in the playoffs and had been constantly asked about Pittsburgh’s success going into the game, no one is in true back-to-back shape this early in the season, and the Cup celebration had literally just ended the night before. The whole situation was ripe for a disaster for the Penguins.
After that result, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about a Cup hangover or the Penguins getting lost on their journey anymore. We certainly saw drastic improvements against Nashville with fewer risks, better defensive gap control, and smarter breakouts/outlet passes. As far as I’m concerned, that 10-1 loss was more of a blessing than an embarrassment for the future outlook of the team.
Then of course, there’s this Niemi part. It’s impossible not to compare Niemi to Fleury given their roles and how loved Fleury is in Pittsburgh still (and how he’s playing in Vegas right now). The comparisons do continue on ice in some interesting ways in my opinion.
I don’t think Niemi is or will be as bad as that Chicago game suggested. The entire team was awful, especially in the defensive end. The comparison that kept coming to my mind was how Fleury would unravel vs how Niemi was unraveling based on the play of the defense.
I’ve always pushed the idea that some of Fleury’s worst performances came on account of him overthinking defensive lapses instead of just playing his position. When he would lose trust in his defense, he would suddenly be leaning pass on a 2-on-1 instead of playing the shot or he would try to kick rebounds to impossible areas that would hurt the entire defensive effort.
Niemi, on the other hand, showed no anticipation for lapses. His awareness seemed to be lacking in general, and he appeared to make the assumption that certain guys would get picked up or proper rebound placement would be cleared out by the defense. However, the defense wasn’t in position for most of the game, leading to open guys that Niemi didn’t adjust to for shots and wasn’t ready for on rebounds. (Yes, I do in fact still look at every goal as a goal assessment and let me tell you, Niemi is definitely not the only one that would have been torn apart in that game.)
- I’m not absolving Niemi of blame – he looked bad. I just think he looked worse from an effort and talent perspective after seeing so many years of Fleury flopping around and using his athleticism to anticipate breakdowns and make some spectacular saves. Niemi isn’t going to do that. He’ll be fine if the defense is fine, and it’s very unlikely that he’ll steal a game if the defense plays poorly.
- Realistically, veteran goalies making $700k don’t steal games, they provide a breather for the starter. Despite what Rutherford has said about Niemi playing 30+ games, I will be surprised if he plays more than 20 (19 back-to-back situations), and I fully expect Jarry to get a call-up and start if Murray deals with any injury that lasts more than a couple of games. Regardless, I think Niemi’s worst performance is in the rearview mirror since the same can likely be said about the team’s worse defensive performance already. I also think the backup goalie position is one that could be upgraded cheaply later this season, so I can’t say I’ll stress over early bad performances.
The Reaves Effect
It took all of 3 games for a lot of people to really love Ryan Reaves. I will freely admit I didn’t like the trade at the time, and I’m still on the fence. One notable performance wasn’t going to be enough to sway me (I’m not sure how it’s enough to sway anyone honestly).
I have to admit I still don’t see the *need* for Reaves. He’s entertaining – there is absolutely no question about that. The arena was going nuts for him throughout the night, chanting “Reaves! Reaves! Reaves!” multiple times. (For anyone who is anti-fighting – just look at how the arena reacts to such events and remember it’s all a business…).
The Predators spent a significant amount of time pestering Crosby, and Sullivan eventually even put Reaves on Crosby’s line late in the game, but I question the whole deterrent idea behind all of this (it didn’t seem to stop the Predators).
I actually wonder if it enhances the level of physicality and increases the potential for harm to star players.
It’s easy to say Reaves defended his teammates and was put on Crosby’s line to protect him, but that’s not an every game occurrence. However, given the role Reaves has, it is an every game occurrence that hitting/physicality will increase with him in the lineup by his own play/style and it’s a possibility that opposing coaches will also dress a similar player to match Reaves. So as the overall level of hitting increases – does that actually put a player like Crosby more in harm’s way than he would normally be?
Does an innocent forecheck from Reaves in the first period that ends with a big check on a star defenseman lead to a similar result for Letang? Who knows. Does Reaves on a line with Crosby prevent anyone from attacking Crosby? Who knows. (For the record – I personally say no, but it’s not like we have true evidence for any of this stuff; it’s impossible to know the mindset of these guys and what they might do, especially since so much of it is reactionary/not thought out.)
In the end, I will be fine with this trade if Reaves limits the amount of bad penalties that he takes. I don’t think it was great asset management overall, but expecting perfect asset management is also asinine. Expecting his entire tenure to go like the Nashville game is also asinine.
Just like with Niemi, be prepared for endless arguments and complaining from both supporters and haters!
And with that, I shall end my first week of thoughts, which may have turned into rambling. These will get better as the season continues and I figure out my format.
Thanks for reading!!