Meesh’s Weekly Pens Thoughts: Week 9

Last week, everyone was talking about trading Ian Cole. As I write this, trading for Matt Cullen is the new popular topic. So let’s start there…

Trade Talk

Now that Justin Schultz is on IR with a “week-to-week” lower body injury, I think it’s safe to set aside the Ian Cole trade discussion for a bit. Any potential Cole trade seemed risky given Letang’s health history, but Schultz beat Letang to a longer term injury this time (don’t one-up him, Letang).

As for the current rumor mill, or pre-rumor mill, many eyes have shifted to Minnesota and Matt Cullen’s usage, or lack thereof.

Cullen was a healthy scratch for Minnesota on Friday night, which led to Bob McKenzie starting the talk:

Given that the Penguins offered Cullen a deal in the offseason and he chose Minnesota, it would only make sense that he would be a match for Pittsburgh if things aren’t working out in Minnesota in what I assume is his final season in the NHL.

Do the Penguins want or need that though? It’s probably not a simple yes/no answer. Based on Rutherford’s comments through the first two months of the season, Cullen’s leadership and locker room presence would be highly valued as an asset to acquire.

Cullen’s on-ice performance is a different story right now though.

Minnesota’s 4th line with Cullen has been awful (oh look, there’s Pittsburgh’s 4th line too!):

Ryan Wilson did a nice job of highlighting some other concerning metrics for Cullen, including subpar penalty kill work as well.

Beyond the numbers, I agree with Ryan’s thought that the Penguins should be seeking out a situation that allows Sheahan to be the 4th line center, not cementing him as the 3rd line center and bringing in Cullen as the 4th line center.

At the moment, I just don’t see a reason to bring Cullen back. That being said, I don’t mind the idea of bringing him back at the trade deadline as a “final extra piece” move if he’s okay with being a healthy scratch as necessary. I just don’t think he solves anything at the moment (yes, I know you want to get rid of Reaves, but it seems safe to say that GMJR does not share your thought process yet).

Now back to the on-ice product…

Kris Letang

Analyzing Kris Letang has been a mix of frustrating and fascinating this season. For a numbers analysis – check out Ryan Wilson’s post on Letang from earlier this week.

In regards to an eye-test discussion though, Letang’s decision-making appears to be as poor as it has been in a long time.

Letang has never been the best when it comes to decisions with the puck, but his hard work, skill, and skating abilities have usually allowed him to overcome that for breathtaking performances that help you forget about any bad decisions.

To clarify, I’m speaking mostly about pass/shoot/skate decisions as opposed to where to go in coverage. That’s the biggest differentiator between Letang and Schultz on the top powerplay for me – Letang is vastly superior for zone entries, but Schultz makes the right decision within the zone more frequently.

Anyways – the reason that I’m bringing this topic up in this post is because the new bad decision trend for the past week appears to be firing a shot into an opponent’s shins, which then creates an odd-man rush or a breakaway going the other way.

To be fair, Olli Maatta has done this at an increasing rate lately as well, but Letang has been the main contributor to this problem. The Sabres broadcast brought up his pass/shoot decisions last weekend and Phil Bourque made a couple of exasperated comments about it on the radio broadcast against the Rangers.

Letang’s production has increased and his disaster games are occurring less frequently than in the first month of the season, but he’s clearly still not himself yet. The concerns I had about his conditioning and possible exhaustion have faded away with some improvements in his overall demeanor and play. The only thing left appears to be his mental game, which was never perfect but isn’t where it used to be. Theoretically, he’s working on it.

Letang did have an opening to feed Kessel for his helper, which was his 21st of the season, tops among NHL defensemen. But while Letang’s offense has been steady, Letang knows that other parts of his game still need work.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s getting better,” he said. “Game after game, I take little things and I look at different things to improve, so hopefully as the season goes on, I’ll get better and better.”

Other Notes

There was a lot of talk about the Penguins looking like their old selves and getting back to normal after last weekend. I don’t buy it. Judging any team after back-to-back games against Buffalo is cherry-picking for positive stories. Buffalo is downright terrible right now – there’s no reason to sugarcoat it and it’s nearly impossible to formulate any valuable takeaways from games that they’re involved in.

Tristan Jarry has played very well in Matt Murray’s absence and he’s covered up several defensive lapses for the Penguins (can you imagine saying that about Niemi?). The thing I like most about Jarry’s play is his trust in his defense, which is quite odd after mentioning the defensive lapses. Jarry’s textbook approach of staying square to the shooter and allowing the defense to handle the pass in odd-man situations has turned multiple odd-man breaks into routine saves as shooters can’t find an opening. While that should be the approach of every goalie, years of watching Fleury cheat for a pass during stretches when he didn’t appear to trust the defense has made this a noteworthy skill. The rookie goalie isn’t trying to do too much in Murray’s absence, and that’s a big part of why it’s easy to trust him right now.

The penalty kill is apparently good again as they haven’t allowed a goal in their past 4 games (14 PK situations). Some explanations from Jason Mackey at the PG:

At practice Monday, Carl Hagelin gave an extremely insightful answer that essentially boiled down to working smarter.

Early in the kill, take chances. Late in the kill, look for a clear or block a shot. Know the score and situation, so to speak. The Penguins have had much better recognition, among plenty of other things.

and

Another aspect is blocked shots. The Penguins blocked 13 shots against the Islanders, five of them coming while they were shorthanded. They’re second league-wide this season with 464 blocked shots.

Sullivan said the group had a “great meeting” with assistant Jacques Martin the other day, and the gist of it was blocking shots and doing the little things necessary to keep the opposing power play off the scoreboard.

“It’s hard to have a good penalty kill if you don’t have a willingness and commitment to block shots,” Sullivan said. “When you look at the best penalty kills in the league, they keep the puck from getting to their net.

and

One funny thing happening here has also been the return of Carter Rowney. In the 14 games Rowney has missed, the PK is 36 for 49 (73.5 percent). In the 16 he’s played, it’s 57 for 68 (83.8).

Let’s also note that Buffalo was involved in 8 of the 14 straight kills with the worst powerplay in the league.

I’m still inclined to say the bad PK stretch was more about bad bounces than anything systematic. I daresay there will be another bad stretch in the future that we analyze excessively before it flips the other way again.

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

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