Meesh’s Weekly Pens Thoughts: Week 4

A lot of things have been scrutinized through the first 4 weeks of the season in Pittsburgh.

The backup goaltender…he’s gone.
The 4th line winger…he’s a 4th line winger, whatever.
The 3rd line center position…there’s been an acquisition for that.

Perhaps it’s time to ask…

Where’s the Offense?

The Penguins have scored exactly 1 goal in regulation in each of their past 5 games (note: they have a couple of 2-1 wins thanks to 3-on-3 OT goals).

Think about that for a second: 1 goal through 60 minutes in each of the past 5 games. Even the dull Mike Johnston era thinks that’s crazy.

Furthermore, that 1 goal was a powerplay goal in 3 of those 5 games (oddly enough, the 3 losses). So, the Penguins have scored a grand total of two 5-on-5 goals in their last 5 games. What?

The blame game can go in several different directions here. It’s likely that everyone, from Crosby/Malkin to the 4th liners, from Letang to whoever that AHL defenseman is, from the last backup goalie to the next backup goalie, will get blamed for early season struggles.

In truth, they all do deserve a little bit of blame, but perhaps the answer is a little simpler than we all want it to be. This might just be an above average hockey team that is mentally and physically tired, and thus struggling to play efficiently and even competently on a regular basis.

On the mental side, I think there is something to be said about motivation at this point in the season. We’re entering November, the team is still 7-5-1 despite any struggles and glaring issues, and they’ve spent the past 2 years learning that it doesn’t matter what they do in the first 2 months and they don’t even necessarily have to completely outplay teams in the last 2 months to win the Cup either.

Physically, we’ve seen how lackluster the team has played in back-to-backs. Not all of these dismal offensive performances are back-to-backs though, so where will I look specifically?

Kris Letang

Letang is averaging the most ice time of anyone on the team by a significant amount (26:30 to Dumoulin’s 21:06). This is normal…we’re all used to seeing it. But was Letang actually ready to just step into his old role like usual?

In the last few games, I’ve noticed Letang doing something that I’ve almost never seen him do in the past, which is act like me on the ice.

One of my teammates called me out for a very bad habit with the puck several years ago. Any time I was either tired, or overthinking with the puck, I would stand up a little straighter than my natural stance (he used to tell me I was acting like a meerkat). The result: I wasn’t in my natural stride to just skate away from danger, I was forcing the play more frequently since I wasn’t in a comfortable position, and I was often telegraphing passes as a result of the situation (let me tell you, there were a lot of turnovers…).

In the 7-1 loss to Winnipeg, which Josh Yohe called “perhaps the worst game of his career” (paywall link at The Athletic), I saw Letang straighten up more than in any game I can recall. I went through the highlights of the Wild game, and there it was again.

Letang will always be turnover-prone – he’s a high-event player and he’ll create and earn takeaways over the course of the season that far outweigh his giveaways and lost pucks. However, that speaks to his play at 100%. I have a hard time believing his play right now is at 100% (whether that’s a mental issue, a physical issue, or a mixture of both). The result is what we all saw in the Winnipeg game, a turnover-filled disaster.

So why am I just pointing out Letang here? The man is on the ice for 26 minutes a game. He impacts literally every player on the ice for a significant amount of time in every game. Right now, it’s generally a negative impact for the Penguins that brings all 4 forward lines down too. When Letang was out last season, there was no negative or positive Letang impact and there was Schultz to help shoulder the load in a positive manner. Right now, there is a negative Letang impact and no Schultz to handle some of the burden.

Turnovers in the defensive zone and the neutral zone automatically negate offensive potential. Everything starts with puck management exiting the zone.

The offense right now may depend on when Letang gets back to his normal level of play. From Josh Yohe’s article about Letang working with Gonchar (the paywall link above), it sounds like it’s a mental issue (though I still question the coaching staff on giving Letang his regular ice time right away and in back-to-backs especially):

Letang admitted that his current troubles are more of the mental variety than anything else.

“I think I’m hesitant,” he said. “One night, I will shoot everything, and the next night, it creeps in my mind that I’m not accomplishing anything, so I stop shooting. Trying to do too much. Those kinds of things.”

Keep an eye out for Letang hesitating, and meerkatting, as the team tries to find its way through this offensive slump.

Sidney Crosby

Letang isn’t the only one to blame though (for the record regarding Letang, I would also add the coaching staff for his minutes and the GM for a lack of depth/support to lessen those minutes).

The Crosby line (with whatever mix of Sheary/Guentzel/Rust) has also been a big culprit in the failed clears/failed breakouts/bad turnovers routine that the Penguins have developed. There have been several shifts in each game during the past week when a Crosby turnover has led to extended time in the defensive zone. His wingers have looked lost in the defensive zone periodically as well to turn the sloppiness into a group effort. Part of the issue has certainly been lackluster play from the defense, but this group has not played up to par in terms of puck management and making smart decisions to get the puck up ice. At least one of those meerkatting situations for Letang in the Winnipeg game was on account of a Crosby turnover in the neutral zone that sent Winnipeg right back into Pittsburgh’s zone for extended time.

When it comes to Letang, I have no problem pointing out last season’s injury and his time off as a very real reason for why it’s taking some time for him to get back to his normal level of play. It’s harder to pinpoint a reason for Crosby and the 1st line struggling similarly though. Hopefully it’s just the typical slump you see through an 82-game season.

The offense will heat up quickly when the Penguins start moving the puck out of their zone and through the neutral zone efficiently. Until Letang, the Crosby line, and everyone else gets to that point though, I expect a lot of inconsistency and frustration. I don’t think any of it will be a season-long issue though – it’s just something the entire roster needs to work through and they have plenty of time to do it at this point in the season.

Moving on to some other quick topics…

Slowing Down McDavid

Going back to the Edmonton game, I had several positive notes about Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin. Jesse Marshall put together a nice article highlighting Brian Dumoulin’s gap control on Connor McDavid throughout the night. If you’ve subscribed to The Athletic (sorry, it’s linked a lot in this post), I highly suggest going through his write-up. If not, the quick and easy takeaway is Dumoulin did a wonderful job all night of judging McDavid’s speed and adjusting on the fly to ensure he would never get cleanly beat and could keep McDavid at bay until help arrived. I fear that it’s going to be a different story when the Oilers get to pick their line matchups on Wednesday in Edmonton.

Ryan Reaves

Honestly, Reaves doesn’t do enough good or bad on the ice to warrant regular discussion. However, this is amazing:

Home/Away Broadcasts

Steve Mears has been a breath of fresh air compared to Paul Steigerwald, but I have to admit that I started regularly watching the away broadcast feeds this year and I love it. I cut cable, and I’ve been using onhockey.tv to stream broadcasts most nights. The site has several streams per game and I have thoroughly enjoyed getting a different point of view from away announcers. It’s perfect for learning about other teams/players, and they point out flaws they notice in the Penguins that I sometimes think we’re all blind to from watching the team so frequently. If you ever need a site for streaming hockey, onhockey is my suggestion (it was my go-to for KHL blogging long ago).

Back-to-Backs

No, I couldn’t end this without bringing up the back-to-back stats.

This is bad and the Penguins should feel bad. What’s the solution though? I still hope this is just an overall conditioning and “hockey shape” issue. I like to put off fully evaluating the team until Thanksgiving, so it’s not something I’m willing to panic over quite yet. The Penguins have 2 more back-to-back situations before then (and another one during Thanksgiving weekend), so we’ll see if the Penguins have figured themselves out at the end of the month.

On the plus side, there likely won’t be back-to-backs in the playoffs?

That’s all I have for this week…thanks for reading!!

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