Meesh’s Weekly Pens Thoughts: Week 8

I was trying to put off this week’s post until Ian Cole was traded, but apparently no one wants to cooperate for that…so let’s start right there:

Ian Cole

As Ian Cole was named a healthy scratch for the third straight game on Monday, the rumor mill finally opened up with multiple “sources” revealing that Cole is on the trade block, his agent has been given permission to find a trade partner, and the Penguins will not re-sign Cole.

The scenario makes more sense than I want it to – Cole has arguably been the steadiest defenseman for the Penguins this season and he’s going to earn a sizable raise after the season with term that the Penguins cannot logically match.

The part that didn’t make sense to me…why healthy scratch a dependable defenseman on a team that hasn’t quite found its way yet this season.

The timing of it was noteworthy to me – Cole already missed a few games earlier this season after blocking a Roman Josi shot with his face, and he almost did the same thing again with a Brock Boeser shot against Vancouver:

What followed was 3 games as a healthy scratch. Did GMJR see his trade asset almost break his face again and decide it was best to pull him out of the lineup if a negotiation was heating up?

If that was the case, it doesn’t seem to bother him anymore since Cole will likely return to the lineup tonight against Buffalo.

I have no problem with trading Cole, but the trade talk surrounding him does bring about a few questions for me.

Does the team trust Ruhwedel (who will be healthy scratched tonight) to be the regular 6th defenseman? Is it safe to trade defensive depth when it seems silly to expect Letang to survive a full season? What type of return are the Penguins expecting for Cole?

I dislike the idea of losing Cole for nothing in the offseason, but I have a greater dislike for the idea of sending Cole away and realizing the Penguins don’t have enough defensive depth to survive a playoff run. As I’ve said many times in the past few seasons, I think it’s better to let an asset walk in the offseason during the Crosby/Malkin era if it improves this year’s Cup chances instead of trading away an asset just to make sure there is a return. If trading Cole doesn’t set the Penguins up for a better chance at a Cup run, it better not happen, regardless of “asset management.”

Another thought that occurred to me as the Cole rumors picked up is how championship teams are built. It’s often said that after a specific team wins the Cup, other teams will try to emulate that model as best as possible. Pending the trade return for Cole, I wonder if the Penguins are unconsciously emulating their own model from last year, which included a defensive group that appeared not even close to being good enough on paper to win a Cup (you showed us!).

One last note on the Cole trade talk. The December roster freeze is from the 19th-26th. If Cole isn’t moved soon, look for rumors to heat up right before that freeze (yay artificial deadlines!).

Injuries and Depth

Elsewhere on the injury front, Evgeni Malkin is expected to return tonight (that was a long day-to-day situation), and Matt Murray is out 2-4 weeks/week-to-week/indefinitely depending on who you ask.

The Malkin injury certainly highlighted one thing we already knew – the Penguins don’t have anywhere close to the center depth they had last season. Riley Sheahan had a nice hot streak going before the Malkin injury, but he appeared to be in over his head on the 2nd line while Malkin was out.

On the plus side, Crosby has played some of his best hockey of the season over the past week and I even saw some encouraging signs from Carl Hagelin as lines were shuffled around. Hagelin still can’t score and that’s still irritating, but he looked good on the 3rd line with Rowney/Rust and that line’s excellent transition game created a lot more chances than we’ve seen for him this season. Perhaps he’s about to break out of this awful scoring slump, but until he actually does, I’m going to be irritated with him.

Rutherford had an interesting take on the current forward depth of the team:

Rutherford has liked what he’s seen from the current third line of Carl Hagelin, Carter Rowney and Bryan Rust. He also knows the lineup will only get deeper whenever Evgeni Malkin returns from an upper-body injury.

But regardless of who plays on the third line, there needs to be more goals scored.

“I’m not as concerned about the fourth line,” Rutherford said. “I think we can do it, as long as we’re getting more out of the third line.

Not as concerned about the fourth line?! How is that a thing? I have defended that line from a price point standard in comparison to guys like Hagelin, but it’s still an area that needs to be upgraded. A big reason that the Penguins could win the Cup last year with their defensive group was because there would be nights when the 3rd and 4th lines were the best lines. The Penguins no longer live in that world and it sounds like they aren’t too worried about getting back there necessarily. I don’t want to rant *too* much about this since I’m sure there will be many roster moves before the final playoff push, but I am concerned about the fourth line.

Kuhnhackl – 3 points in 26 games, McKegg – 4 points in 26 games, Reaves – 3 points in 26 games. They’ve had a solid game here and there, and a great shift here and there, but they generally aren’t producing and are getting stuck in the defensive zone. It’s not good enough. *glares at Hagelin’s 3 points in 25 games*

As for goalie depth with the Murray injury, it’s a good thing that the schedule lightens up this month. Jarry appears to be quite capable of handling the job and the lighter schedule should ensure that the team won’t even consider a knee-jerk move to bring in a veteran goalie to help him out. I still expect that type of move closer to the trade deadline, but there’s certainly no need to push it just to cover for Murray’s injury now.

Phil Kessel Appreciation Section

Team leader in points: Phil Kessel, 32 (Crosby next with 25)
Team leader in goals: Phil Kessel, 11 (tied with Guentzel)
Team leader in assists: Phil Kessel, 21 (Letang next with 17)
Team leader in powerplay points: Phil Kessel, 17 (Crosby next with 13)
Team leader in powerplay assists (!): Phil Kessel, 14 (Letang next with 9)

When the Penguins played Vancouver last week, I came to a realization. Right now, I want the puck on Kessel’s stick at all times in all situations. He’s literally making it easy for his teammates to score with perfect passes to redirect or tip in from the slot and around the net. When he doesn’t feel like passing, he still has an absurd shot that can beat anyone (which hasn’t been a common thing for this team this season).

With Crosby picking up his pace, all eyes are moving towards him…but Kessel deserves all of the credit in the world for what he’s done for this team so far. On a team with Crosby and Malkin, Kessel is the only guy playing above a point-per-game pace. Thank you, Toronto.

Thanks for reading!

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