Tag Archives: Pens

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!!

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!

Meesh’s Weekly Pens Thoughts: Week 7

A week without a back-to-back sequence, what a concept! The Pens had a brief look at a “light” schedule last week, but they’ll have back-to-backs in the next two weeks before the schedule finally slows down for them.

So what did we learn during a “light” week? The offense still isn’t trustworthy, the penalty kill is a mess, and I’m still not really sure how good or bad the Penguins are right now (this is really putting pressure on my “judge them at Thanksgiving” attitude).

Penalty Kill

The penalty kill started the season as one of the better units in the league (holding Chicago, Nashville, and Washington to 0/15) and most of the praise focused on how aggressive and quick the PK approach looked. When the powerplay flourished, it was noted that opposing PK units weren’t nearly as aggressive as the Penguins, cementing our theories that Pittsburgh’s quick and aggressive style was the key to killing penalties successfully.

So what happened?

The most recent quotes have focused on a “lack of urgency” and an issue with “battle level” coming off of the 2-1 loss to Chicago.

Is it that simple though? Try harder = better penalty kill?

The Pens have allowed 8 powerplay goals in their last 5 games, so here’s a quick summary:

1st Capitals PP goaldeflection off of Kuhnhackl’s stick on a shot from the point
2nd Capitals PP goaldeflection by Oshie on a shot from the point
1st Predators PP goal – one-timer by Subban from the point off of a faceoff
2nd Predators PP goal – quick shot from the slot by Smith after a wide slap shot from the point caroms off of the back boards right into the slot
1st Sabres PP goal – quick shot from the edge of the crease by Reinhart after a wide slap shot from the point caroms off of the back boards right to the crease
2nd Sabres PP goal – backhander by Pouliot in front of the net on a broken play after Sheahan turned the puck over below the goal line
1st Blackhawks PP goal – wrist shot by Forsling from the left circle off of a faceoff (note: weak five-hole goal)
2nd Blackhawks PP goal – Anisimov reaches for a puck that was shot wide of the net, pulls it above the goal line, and shoves it past Murray trying to dive across

So that’s 2 goals off of deflections, 2 goals off of faceoff losses, 3 goals off of wide shots that bounced to advantageous areas for the powerplay, and 1 goal off of a bad turnover with bad coverage.

(Also note that 3 of those 4 teams are the same 3 teams that the Penguins PK looked so great against early in the season – Chicago, Nashville, Washington)

You can argue that the PK needs to do a better job of tying up sticks and maintaining body position around the net, but I do wonder if this is just a rough stretch of bounces that evens itself out over the course of the season. There were parts of each sequence that *could* have been played better, but the Sheahan turnover was the only blatant misplay to me.

Rather than focusing on working harder on the PK, I think the bigger issue is that the Penguins have been shorthanded at least 5 times in 3 of the 4 games in which they allowed 2 powerplay goals against. Keep giving an opponent chances on the powerplay, and they eventually will find a fortuitous bounce or two (a little more on this coming below).

Method of Scoring

While we’re talking about how goals are scored, let’s talk about how the Penguins have earned their goals lately. There has been plenty of discussion about the lack of goals and the lack of Sid production (if you want more, check out Ryan Wilson’s article after the Chicago game).

When I say Sidney Crosby is having a really bad year, I mean he is having a really bad year. He’s at 1.12 points per 60 at even-strength.

Brutal!

For reference Ryan Reaves is at 1.17. That is also terrible, but c’mon Sid. Even Bobby Farnham had a 1.24 points per 60 the year he split between Pittsburgh and New Jersey. Penguins legend Nick Spaling was at 1.33.

Anyways, I’ll set aside the Crosby talk and instead stick to how the Penguins are scoring goals.

Chicago game: Hunwick, deflected by Duncan Keith.
Ottawa game: Hornqvist deflection of a Maatta shot, Guentzel deflection of a Dumoulin shot, Sheahan into an empty net.
(Note: no Penguin has actually shot a puck past a goalie since the Buffalo game)
Buffalo game: Hornqvist banks the puck in off of O’Reilly, Sheary slides the puck in from Hornqvist on a 2-on-0 rush, Crosby on the PP knocks a rebound in from the crease, Kessel one-timer from the bottom of the left circle, and Sheary one-timer from just above the goal line on a pass from behind the net.

This is purely observational and I have no norm to compare it to, but it’s surprising to me that there hasn’t been a goal involving a Penguin just beating a goalie by himself in the past week. I don’t necessarily have a solid point to make off of this section – just an unexpected observation as I started working through the goals.

Crosby/Letang Check-In

Last week, I mentioned that Crosby and Letang seem to be having communication issues in the defensive zone and their improvement might be tied to each other…

Welp.

There was some improvement for both though. Crosby ended his goal drought and recorded 3 points over the week (1g, 2a).

Letang had some better moments, but also a plethora of ugly ones, which drew Chicago’s announcers into saying “Not too sure what Kris Letang was thinking” after a terrible shot choice on a powerplay.

Tying Letang into the PK discussion from above – Letang has been in the penalty box for 6 penalty kill situations in the last 5 games. The opponent has scored during 3 of those situations. Perhaps the actual solution for the penalty kill is to not have Kris Letang in the box, both to keep the Penguins from being shorthanded and to keep their most talented defenseman on the ice for necessary penalty kills.

Other Notes

Mike Sullivan seemed to find a hidden gem when he put Hornqvist, Sheahan, and Sheary together for the start of the week, but Sheahan and Crosby traded wingers during the Chicago game, so who knows if that’ll become a go-to third line or not. It was certainly the best third line that we’ve seen this season:

(PS – Jesse Marshall wrote more about them on The Athletic if you want a deeper look.)

With all of the Fleury/Murray talk from the past couple of seasons and Pittsburgh’s “slow” start to this season, I often forget that this is a thing:

I guess he’s okay on the road too:

In other goalie news, Antti Niemi played last night for his 3rd NHL team this season (and allowed a goal for his 3rd NHL team this season).

The Metro division is just as crazy as you always expect it to be…

And finally, the Penguins aren’t done with outdoor games quite yet…

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

Meesh’s Weekly Pens Thoughts: Week 6

It’s always nice to get the extra point in overtime and shootout losses, but those points can easily make you forget the final results.

Did anyone notice the Pens have technically lost 6 of their last 8? I certainly didn’t.

But alas, it’s still just mid-November and the Penguins are 3rd in the Metro as I write this (we’ll ignore that they’ve played more games than anyone else in the division..), so on to the weekly thoughts:

5v5 Play

Nashville’s broadcast was nice enough to put some concerning stats up about Crosby and Pittsburgh as a whole:

Crosby now has 0 goals in his last 11 games, which is definitely concerning.
The Penguins did manage to get some offense against Nashville at least, so let’s bump that up to 21 goals in their last 11 games.
0-4-2 is now the record in the 2nd of back-to-backs (only 13 more to go!).
The Pens brought their 5v5 shooting percentage up to 5.03…still good for last in the NHL.

Crosby will work his way out of the slump, the Penguins will score more goals, the 2nd half of back-to-backs has improved drastically and that record will get better, and the 5v5 shooting percentage really has nowhere to go but up. That shooting percentage actually gives me some hope, because there is no question in my mind that it will naturally rise as the season continues on.

The biggest concern I have in all of this is Crosby. His 5v5 shooting percentage is 2.78 (last year, he finished over 15%). That number will undoubtedly rise, so that’s not actually my concern.

This is my concern (tweets from the Caps game):

Brian was generous with calling it a “Tough night…”. If we’re being honest, it’s been a tough season at this point.

Crosby has definitely been wandering in the defensive zone a bit this year. I can’t say it’s limited to him, because I noticed Geno doing the same thing a few times, but it has definitely hurt Crosby’s line the most on the scoreboard. I can’t say there is a clear reason or methodology to these missed coverages though (at least that I can see). Sometimes he just follows a forward too deep into the zone instead of letting the defense take over, which leaves the next guy in wide open. Sometimes he’s heading to the corner trying to anticipate movement along the boards that doesn’t end up happening. Sometimes he literally looks like he’s not sure who to cover.

The last one brings up one of my thoughts from last post, which is that I think Letang’s and Crosby’s improvement will likely coincide. They often seem lost together, which turns into longer defensive zone shifts, fewer potential scoring opportunities, and some costly chances against. Whether it’s Letang’s improvement helping the Crosby line break out or Crosby’s improvement putting less defensive pressure on Letang’s pairing, there will be a huge impact when either one of these guys gets back to normal.

Perhaps that’ll happen in a month when the schedule lightens up…

Back-to-Back Improvement

Speaking of getting back to normal, the Penguins are starting to look like a competent hockey team in the 2nd half of back-to-backs. Though they still haven’t won in such a scenario, the OT losses against Calgary and Nashville have shown some promise. The Nashville game even provided me with hope. The night before, the Penguins (and the Capitals for that matter) looked mostly lifeless in a sloppy game overall. The entire team looked sharper against Nashville and appeared to have more energy even late in the game. The fact that the Penguins faced a sudden 3-1 deficit and didn’t roll over and die was also a nice change of pace in a back-to-back scenario. Of course, good feelings and hope don’t lead to two points, but it was another step in the right direction for the Penguins.

Keep in mind, back-to-back issues aren’t limited to the Penguins either.

Philipp Grubauer of the Capitals has faced similar issues, even though the Caps haven’t gotten throttled like the Pens did early in the season. As of the middle of last week, Grubauer had played in the 2nd game of all 4 of Washington’s back-to-back situations and the Capitals lost all 4 games, scoring a total of 5 goals. Grubauer isn’t tasked with scoring, but he did provide a fun quote after with “I’m sick of [expletive] losing.”

All-in-all, I think the bigger picture takeaway is most teams are awful in back-to-backs early in the season and climb their way out of it as the season progresses. The Penguins appear to be doing just that, slowly but surely.

Trade Talk

Supposedly, the Penguins made a last-second offer to try to get Matt Duchene before he was sent off to Ottawa. Mind you, there are absolutely zero details about this, but supposedly it happened.

I think the more interesting part of this Sportsnet discussion is that the Penguins are looking for a veteran goalie and also veterans in general. I fully agree with the veteran goalie idea, especially as the schedule lightens up, so Jarry isn’t sitting around doing nothing for weeks at a time.

The veteran skaters part…confuses me. Sure, the Penguins lost Cullen, Kunitz, and Bonino to free agency. But replacing them with “veterans” and trying to find “leadership” and “experience” seems like a lazy thought process to me. This team has won back-to-back Cups with several guys on the roster right now – did they not gain experience and leadership along the way? When I look at those 3 names, my thought isn’t veteran experience and leadership, it’s high hockey intelligence and strong defensive awareness. The Sheahan trade was a move in the right direction for replacing those abilities, but it was only a raindrop in a lake compared to what was lost (and Sheahan has been the definition of mediocre so far to me).

I’m very curious who Rutherford plans on targeting, because chasing veteran experience doesn’t always turn out as planned (see: Ray Shero in 2013).

Reaves Watch

First off, this video after the Arizona game was just amusing:

But just a quick 2 cents on Reaves – he gets more flack than he deserves and also gets more credit than he deserves (how does that work? I don’t know).

He’s a 4th line guy playing low-end 4th line minutes and he hasn’t really harmed the team, which is all I care about.

He honestly has provided me with a baseline for who should be receiving more criticism.

Reaves – $1.125 mil cap hit, 7:18 TOI, 3 points in 19 games
Hagelin – $4 mil cap hit, 16:04 TOI, 2 points in 18 games

What?

I realize Hagelin plays PK and is theoretically better defensively, but….what?

While everyone praises Reaves (he’s not doing that much) or complains about Reaves (he’s not doing that much), I’m gonna go ahead and mutter angrily at my laptop about Carl Hagelin right now.


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

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!

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!!

Ending the Marc-Andre Fleury Era

I used to love saving and looking through ticket stubs for sporting events. I have a shoebox full of them and, once upon a time, I had the intention of creating a collage or putting them all up on a wall in a sports/memorabilia room. With the advent of printing tickets at home and scanning mobile tickets, collecting ticket stubs has become a lost art that I no longer even attempt to chase. Despite that, I still have a shoebox full of ticket stubs that I love to look through. There are some stellar ones in there – Lemieux’s 5-goal game in ’96, Lemieux’s comeback game in ’00, Crosby’s NHL debut in ’05, and several others. My favorite one to show off over the past few years though has been this one:

There are layers upon layers of memories and thoughts attached to this ticket stub.

A $10 ticket? Youth tickets were $10? How did we get youth tickets when I was 19?

Ticket questions aside, that stub represents the NHL debut for 18-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury.

There was an odd amount of hope going into that season. The Penguins had drafted Fleury 1st overall in the 2003 draft, trading up from the 3rd spot. You don’t usually have hope for a team that is drafting that high. On top of it, as I’m sure many have forgotten by now, the Penguins ended the 2002-03 season in horrific fashion. There was hope going into ’02 and the Penguins started off 6-2-2-0 in October. The Penguins finished that season on a 2-14-2-0 slide that should have left everyone completely devoid of hope.

(Odd coincidences: Fleury was drafted in Nashville, where he dressed for his final game as a Penguin. And Fleury was drafted on June 21st, exactly 14 years ago as we embark on Vegas expansion draft day.)

Alas, before the days of social media telling you that your team was terrible no matter what you thought, there was always hope – especially when you had a potential franchise goalie joining the roster.

What started with hope at 7:30pm turned into stunned reactions for most of the night after less than a minute of game time. The Penguins were throttled by Los Angeles from start to finish in terms of gameplay. Questions of “They can’t be *that* bad this year, can they?” were heard on the walk back to the parking lot.

There was one bright spot though. Despite allowing a goal on his first shot against, a SH breakaway by Eric Belanger 38 seconds into the game, Fleury looked like the special goalie he was drafted to be. He made 46 saves on 48 shots and earned the #1 star of the night in a 3-0 loss…largely because that Penguins team deserved a 10-0 loss.

A chant that would echo for 14 years began…

This extremely high-quality video from that season has Fleury’s poke check on Pirnes in it (along with his first career shutout):

October 10, 2003 – The Penguins were terrible but maybe this athletic 18-year-old in the yellow pads can start something.

Weirdest trading cards I own

Fast forward almost 14 years and Penguins fans are slowly but surely working their way towards accepting the fact that Fleury will be moving on from the Penguins.

It shouldn’t be difficult, right? It’s logical. Players move from team to team all the time. Fleury isn’t even the best goalie on the Penguins anymore (don’t get mad at me for that statement, it’s true).

Then you think about it. 14 years.

As I’ve grown through those 14 years, I’ve gone from a rabid 19-year-old sports fanatic to a more reserved and logical fan, who appreciates sports for what they are – an escape to most cynical people, but more importantly to me, a constant in life.

It doesn’t matter what happens in your life. Unemployment, illness, death of friends or family – there will be a sporting event coming up to both help you escape and show you that life continues on. Whether your team is good or bad, whether they’re going to win or lose, you can always turn to them.

We’ve been turning to Marc-Andre Fleury for a significant amount of the past 14 years. Pittsburgh Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury has been a constant in life for 14 years. Smiling Pittsburgh Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury has been a constant in life for 14 years.

Think about it again. 14 years. What all has happened to you in that time? I won’t go into my whole life story, but my best friend and I have been friends for 13 years. Marc-Andre Fleury has actually been a part of my life for longer than my best friend has.

It’s mind-numbing to consider how long we’ve been rooting for this kid, this guy, this now grown father who I still remember as an 18-year-old in yellow pads.

Not only has he been a constant for Pens fans, but we’ve watched him grow up from that 18-year-old kid into a father in a UPMC commercial with his wife and kids.

 

And all along the way, there has always been that typical Fleury smile. Whether he was proud after wins, sheepish after getting complimented, or sometimes even reluctant after awkward media questions following losses, Fleury’s smile has always shined bright and it has always been contagious.

I could talk about his stats, his highlights, his playoff failures, his Stanley Cups, his empty-netter attempts, and everything else regarding his career…but on the day that he leaves, my thoughts will have nothing to do with his performances.

My thoughts focus on the end of an era.

Fleury is the last link to the pre-lockout Penguins. He’s the last link to “The X-Generation”. And then I think about the success that the Penguins have had over the past 14 years, and he’s linked to all of it in one way or another.

 

This era in Penguins history will always be known as the Crosby era, but Fleury was there first and he’s had a front row seat for all of it so far.

Unfortunately though, times do change and eras eventually do end – so thank you for being a constant in my life for 14 years, Marc-Andre Fleury.  At your first game in 2003, I could have never dreamed of the success that the Penguins would have while you were here.  Now in 2017, it’s time for you to begin a new era and it’s time for you to be a constant in another lucky hockey fan’s life.


Thanks for reading!!
– Meesh