I hate arguing on twitter.
It’s nearly impossible to change someone’s mind on twitter. Most people have their thoughts and opinions, and 140 characters will not move the needle. It’s almost impossible to fully reason an argument in a tweet or string of tweets, so 140 characters shouldn’t move the needle most of the time anyways. Inherently, I think arguing on twitter is a waste of time (and exceptionally divisive since you have to use extremes to make your point quickly when you’re limited by characters).
That’s mainly why I’m back to blogging. For all of the tweets and thoughts I want to argue about, I just take notes and reason it out in here. It doesn’t really matter to me if you agree or disagree, but at least you have my thought process instead of 140 characters.
Now let’s get started!
Statement #1: Antti Niemi is not a good goalie.
Statement #2: The Penguins have played terrible hockey in front of Antti Niemi.
I’m here to tell you that these statements are not mutually exclusive and are, in fact, both true.
Niemi is under a microscope right now given how bad he was last season and since he’s replacing Fleury, but honestly, I thought he had the typical game that an average backup goalie has in the NHL. He looked shaky at times, he looked confident at times, he made a few stellar saves, and he let a few pucks past him that may have been stopped by a better goalie.
Look at the 5 goals:
1st GA – deflected by Kuhnhackl
2nd GA – slap shot past a screen in front
3rd GA – Stamkos alone on the PP from a pass across the front of the crease
4th GA – Kucherov’s perfectly placed wrist shot inside the post past a screen
5th GA – Ugly 3-on-1 in front of the net
What did I see in those specifically?
1st GA – a deflection, but a concerning lack of awareness as Niemi looked to his left and looked all around him as the puck was still coming in from where it was originally shot
2nd GA – not properly squared up to the shooter (though the screen and preceding blocked shot likely factored in)
3rd GA – lack of athleticism, but not an expected save
4th GA – nothing notable
5th GA – nothing notable (3:26 mark of the video above – look at how Koekkoek opens his blade to quickly fake a pass across the front of the net to open Niemi up before sliding the puck through his five-hole – it was a marvelous move by Koekkoek that seemed to go unnoticed)
So what does all of that say? Out of the 5 goals, the 2nd one is really the only one that bothered me, and even that could be reasoned out due to the screen. However, as I said in last week’s post, Niemi is never going to steal a game for the Penguins. It’s clear that he can’t with his lack of awareness and lack of athleticism. That means the team has to play well in front of him for a win, and they haven’t done that yet.
So let’s get to that…
This seems like an *eye roll* topic, but I do buy into the effect of back-to-back games early in a season. Most players only played in half of the preseason games and the pace of those games is certainly not even regular season pace. The level of competition is lower and there are a lot of guys who probably don’t care. Practice also does not simulate game pace. Any time a player returns from injury, everyone talks about getting into a few games and getting up to game speed and getting into game shape.
The way I see it, most guys are getting into game shape through the first few weeks of the season. It’s probably not a huge deal for fresh team vs fresh team and tired team vs tired team, but I think it widens the gap significantly for fresh team vs tired team early in the season compared to later in the year when everyone is theoretically in peak game shape (injuries aside).
So while Niemi hasn’t been anything special in his first 2 appearances, let’s not forget that his 2 games have been the latter half of back-to-backs. Not only have they been the latter half of back-to-backs, but they’ve come against 2 strong teams (Chicago and Tampa Bay) the nights after the team has played against two tough opponents (St. Louis and Washington respectively). Add to all of that, the Penguins have had to travel both times.
Niemi can’t steal games + exhausted team playing in front of him = painful game to watch with losing results.
Another situation playing a factor in how this team is going to play in back-to-backs is depth usage. It has to be noted – Ryan Reaves played only 3:25 in the Tampa Bay game. He wasn’t the only one with interesting usage – Carter Rowney only played 6:25 after playing 14:04 the night before. Game flow will obviously play a big factor in these times, but it only handcuffs a tired team to not use the entire lineup.
With 19 back-to-back situations (2 down, 17 to go!), upgrading the forward depth is just as important to me as replacing Niemi if he can’t do the job. There’s a fair chance that the success of both Niemi and the bottom-six go hand-in-hand.
Moving on from the world of Niemi and tired Penguins…
The Good: Faceoff Violations (refs are attempting to enforce players squaring up and not moving going into the puck drop). This was a concept that annoyed me during the preseason but I have been impressed with how quickly linesmen have enforced it and players have adjusted. Actually, I should say I’m impressed with how quickly the puck has been dropped after a guy has been waved out of the circle. I fully expected this focus to be an annoyance, but it has been smoother than expected.
The Confusing: Penalties for Offside Challenges. I don’t mind the concept of penalties for offside challenges (it was downright hilarious in the Flyers-Predators game), but I don’t understand why every wrong challenge isn’t penalized. If the intention is to create a punishment for silly challenges, why shouldn’t that apply to interference challenges as well? For that matter – how far away are we from every scoring play just being automatically reviewed at the league offices? Not that I ever expect the NHL to be consistent about anything, but this limited-scope penalty is a weird one to me.
The Annoying: Slashing Penalties. Every slash is actually a slashing penalty now. One-handed, two-handed, on the stick, on the hands, etc. – it’s all a slashing penalty now. I like the penalty, but now I’m curious about 2 things: 1) how long will players take to adjust, and 2) will enforcement die off through the season (and what happens when we get to the playoffs?!). Yes, there are a lot of penalties being called right now, but I like the idea of a cleaner game that provides skilled players with a better chance of doing something special. I’ve seen what Crosby can do with the puck when getting whacked repeatedly on the hands, now I want to see more of what he can do when players stop doing that. I think many players will struggle with this adjustment though (think about how many guys still hook with their stick parallel to the ice when that’s frequently called) and I fully expect the calls to die off as the season continues. I don’t think the league wants a special teams oriented game, and if the players don’t adjust as quickly as the league would like, I think the league will adjust for the sake of the product they want (which has always been flawed, so there’s no point in having high expectations there). This will be an interesting topic to revisit in a month.
Let’s close this out with some roster thoughts…
Random Player Thoughts
Olli Maatta – I mentioned it in the last post and I’m going to bring it up again – Maatta looks confident and it’s making a significant impact on his game. It’s great to see him getting points (2g, 4a in 6gp), but I’m more impressed with how he looks as he’s getting them. His head is always up at the blue line and he’s taking some great low shots from the point because of it. His pinches into the offensive zone have also led to a few extended shifts. The main thing about how he’s pinching – there’s no hesitation. He’s quickly taking his first stride down the boards and getting to pucks first because of it. He will undoubtedly get burned soon because that happens to every defenseman, but it’s a stark difference from him hesitating and then not getting to the puck while also getting caught flat-footed in transition.
Justin Schultz – Revisiting the back-to-back discussion, I thought Schultz looked especially bad in that game against Tampa Bay. He was beat to the outside as he was skating backwards at least 3 times and he also got caught unaware that a guy had already snuck behind him for a bank pass off the boards. Schultz isn’t expected to be a star defensively, but his defensive awareness has seemed a little low so far this season. He also got lucky a couple of times against Florida when he was unaware Trocheck was behind him but Trocheck couldn’t handle the pass, and when he left Hunwick for an odd-man break against but nothing came of it. The only reason I don’t think we’re talking more about Schultz is because his mistakes haven’t led to goals against, but that’s going to happen soon if he plays like he did in the past couple of games.
Evgeni Malkin – Now revisiting the game shape discussion, I wonder where Geno is in terms of game shape right now. He hasn’t played well, and he’s addressed the fact that he hasn’t played well, but the question is why? He seems to be lacking any sort of burst to me. His ability to take over a shift, let alone a game, hasn’t made an appearance yet. His ability to finish a play seems to have disappeared too – not in terms of scoring, but just that extra push to force a turnover in pursuit or avoid a turnover while being chased. I think this situation is just a matter of being patient, and Geno will get there within a couple of weeks, but it begs the question of whether it’s time to start managing Geno’s minutes more carefully. It would have been an easier question with the forward depth of past years, but it’s far more difficult to address with the current bottom-six. Geno’s season-long performance may very well hinge on the 3rd line center plan.
Sidney Crosby – Ridiculous hockey player. I’m just going to end every post with that.
Thanks for reading!!