Meesh’s Weekly Pens Thoughts: Week 5

The topics are getting a little repetitive at this point (Pens aren’t scoring enough at 5-on-5, depth is questionable, Letang pairing and Crosby line are underwhelming), so I’ll try a more rapid-fire approach to this week:

Team Thoughts

As I write this, the Penguins are 5th in the league with 35.6 shots per game and 26th in the league with 2.63 goals per game. That seems like something that can’t last, right? Well, Montreal is 1st in the league in shots per game (38.1) and 24th in goals per game (2.67), and Edmonton is 2nd in shots per game (37.8) and 31st in the league in goals per game (2.31). Hockey is weird.

Do this more often, I guess:

Here are the team stats after a month of hockey (roughly 1/5th of the season):

After looking at those, let’s move on…

Roster/Lineup Thoughts

Does anyone have a logical reason for why Tom Kuhnhackl has been on the 2nd line?!? I have nothing against Kuhnhackl – he’s a smart player with a deceiving amount of quickness and great PK skills. But what exactly about that description and his career of 34 points in 115 games warrants putting him next to Evgeni Malkin? He has 9 goals in 115 regular season games – is Geno supposed to boost the 5-on-5 scoring by setting up Kuhnhackl?! This paragraph of frustration is brought about by the fact that I think Geno has improved with each passing week, putting together some of his best shifts and individual efforts on the recent Western Canada trip. It’s just a shame that he had to hope Kuhnhackl could help finish his efforts.

Speaking of Malkin, this Sportsnet video on him is must-watch:

Carl Hagelin was a “healthy” scratch Wednesday against Edmonton (healthy in quotes because he’s reportedly been dealing with minor ailments). Whether the team wanted to rest him or he was being benched for his pathetic stat line (see above), I loved the effect it had when he was added to the lineup the following night in Calgary. With all of the back-to-back issues that the Penguins have had, Hagelin seemed to ignite the team with his speed and freshness on Thursday night in Calgary. The entire team played the best we’ve seen in a back-to-back situation and I think Hagelin’s energy played a significant factor (not to mention that he led the team with 4:14 of PK time to limit some grueling minutes for other guys). Perhaps the Penguins have figured out their back-to-back issues to some degree, but I like the idea of rotating a fresh defenseman and/or forward in when possible to help pick the team up.

Whoever plays with Kris Letang is cursed with bad bounces and bad luck at this point. I spent a good portion of the first month of the season raving about how Maatta has kept his head up and gotten pucks through traffic to teammates and to the net. So naturally, when he gets paired with Letang, Maatta’s shots get blocked, his clearing attempts get blocked, and the pairing falls apart. Brian Dumoulin has been as steady as they come for a good portion of the season, but even he managed to lose his footing and lose pucks as soon as he was paired with Letang. I have literally no explanation for it. The Letang pairing is cursed no matter who is on it right now.

It’s safe to say our backup goalie conversations can end…for this week. Tristan Jarry looked solid against Calgary and he’ll likely get another start this upcoming weekend with back-to-backs against Washington and Nashville. The situation might get interesting in a month though. The Penguins have back-to-backs on Nov 10/11, Nov 24/25, and Dec 1/2. After that, the next back-to-back situation is Jan 4/5. I still think the Penguins will want to grab a veteran backup at some point who they won’t care about sitting for long periods of time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if DeSmith and Jarry rotate between their NHL and AHL spots so each gets regular playing time somewhere.

Looking ahead at the game against Arizona, it looks like the lines will change to:
Sheary – Crosby – Hornqvist
Guentzel – Malkin – Kessel
Hagelin – Sheahan – Rust
Kuhnhackl – McKegg – Reaves

Obviously I am ecstatic to get Kuhnhackl off of the Malkin line. My only “complaint” would be that I’d like to see Bryan Rust in the top-six for how he’s played so far this season. That being said, I’m sure these lines will change within a week so I won’t get too much into it.

Player Thoughts

As I mentioned above, Malkin has been on the rise as the season has continued along. He’s less hesitant to shoot, his turnover ratio has been improving, he has looked downright dominant skating around the offensive zone, and I’ve even marked down some solid 1-on-1 defensive plays over the past week. Based on the new lines above, I’m excited to see what Malkin can do with a more talented line as he continues to round into form.

Letang’s frustrating play has continued for yet another week, though I thought he showed *some* signs of improvement. He did have a couple of gaffes late in the Edmonton game, but the first half of his game looked much better than we’ve seen recently. The Calgary game went smoother than I expected until his careless/stupid penalty late in the game. Penalty aside, it was a promising sign that his performance wasn’t a complete disaster in a back-to-back situation. The Vancouver game…was ugly. Instead of the meerkatting with the puck that I mentioned last week, I noticed more lunging without the puck this week, which took Letang out of the play a bit too much. Similar to how Malkin has improved his level of play over time, I expect Letang will end up doing the same thing. I just think it’ll be a longer journey and I wonder if it will take until about mid-December (when the schedule is friendlier) for Letang to get there.

Crosby and his line continue to be a defensive problem. Problems include: wingers not coming down the boards far enough, no one adjusting to the 3rd man coming into the zone, getting caught chasing deep in the defensive zone to leave everyone high in the zone wide open, chasing forwards that are being picked up by defensemen, etc. – the entire line has consistently been a mess. Crosby’s turnovers haven’t been helping the situation either, especially in the neutral zone. Though Chris Kunitz fell off offensively and wasn’t on Crosby’s line towards the end of his Penguins tenure, this is a situation where I miss having him for his defensive awareness and stability with talented linemates. Crosby and his line need to find a way to work more cohesively as a unit and with the defense. For 5-on-5 play, Crosby needs to help Letang and Letang needs to help Crosby, but both have a part to play in some of these underwhelming performances.

Opposing Broadcast Thoughts

Since I was promoting the idea of watching opposing broadcasts last week, here are some tidbits from them:

Despite the fact that everyone hates Reaves and the 4th line, both Sportsnet broadcasts (the Edmonton and Calgary games) took the time to compliment how well the 4th line forechecked in each game and how they were creating chances early when the top lines were a little slower out of the gate.

Sportsnet noted in the Oilers game that Crosby has been one of the better players at adjusting to the new faceoff rules. There were 3 faceoffs in a row when an Edmonton center was kicked out of the circle for trying to get an early move on Crosby. (FYI – he’s currently winning faceoffs at 53.8%, last year he finished at 48.2%). The Sportsnet West broadcast the following night was raving about his faceoffs after the first 5 minutes of the game to continue the trend.

It wasn’t all good for Crosby though as Sportsnet West also called him out for 3 turnovers in the first half of the 2nd period against Calgary while they were discussing how the Penguins lacked consistency.

Finally, Sportsnet West made an interesting note about Pittsburgh’s back-to-back schedule. Though the Penguins are tied for the league-lead with 19 back-to-backs, they also travel the least of any team this season. They have a total of 34,041 miles to travel this year (Colorado has a league-high 48,639 miles and the 3rd least back-to-backs with 11). The team that actually gets it the worst might be Chicago, with the 3rd most miles (47,926) and the 3rd most back-to-backs (17). Who knows how much any of this affects exhaustion, but it’s an interesting factor to consider.

That’s all for this week – thanks for reading!

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