Tag Archives: Sidney Crosby

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!!

Meesh’s Weekly Pens Thoughts: Week 2

I hate arguing on twitter.

It’s nearly impossible to change someone’s mind on twitter. Most people have their thoughts and opinions, and 140 characters will not move the needle. It’s almost impossible to fully reason an argument in a tweet or string of tweets, so 140 characters shouldn’t move the needle most of the time anyways. Inherently, I think arguing on twitter is a waste of time (and exceptionally divisive since you have to use extremes to make your point quickly when you’re limited by characters).

That’s mainly why I’m back to blogging. For all of the tweets and thoughts I want to argue about, I just take notes and reason it out in here. It doesn’t really matter to me if you agree or disagree, but at least you have my thought process instead of 140 characters.

Now let’s get started!

Antti Niemi…again

Statement #1: Antti Niemi is not a good goalie.

Statement #2: The Penguins have played terrible hockey in front of Antti Niemi.

I’m here to tell you that these statements are not mutually exclusive and are, in fact, both true.

Niemi is under a microscope right now given how bad he was last season and since he’s replacing Fleury, but honestly, I thought he had the typical game that an average backup goalie has in the NHL. He looked shaky at times, he looked confident at times, he made a few stellar saves, and he let a few pucks past him that may have been stopped by a better goalie.

Look at the 5 goals:
1st GA – deflected by Kuhnhackl
2nd GA – slap shot past a screen in front
3rd GA – Stamkos alone on the PP from a pass across the front of the crease
4th GA – Kucherov’s perfectly placed wrist shot inside the post past a screen
5th GA – Ugly 3-on-1 in front of the net

What did I see in those specifically?
1st GA – a deflection, but a concerning lack of awareness as Niemi looked to his left and looked all around him as the puck was still coming in from where it was originally shot
2nd GA – not properly squared up to the shooter (though the screen and preceding blocked shot likely factored in)
3rd GA – lack of athleticism, but not an expected save
4th GA – nothing notable
5th GA – nothing notable (3:26 mark of the video above – look at how Koekkoek opens his blade to quickly fake a pass across the front of the net to open Niemi up before sliding the puck through his five-hole – it was a marvelous move by Koekkoek that seemed to go unnoticed)

So what does all of that say? Out of the 5 goals, the 2nd one is really the only one that bothered me, and even that could be reasoned out due to the screen. However, as I said in last week’s post, Niemi is never going to steal a game for the Penguins. It’s clear that he can’t with his lack of awareness and lack of athleticism. That means the team has to play well in front of him for a win, and they haven’t done that yet.

So let’s get to that…

Back-to-Back Games

This seems like an *eye roll* topic, but I do buy into the effect of back-to-back games early in a season. Most players only played in half of the preseason games and the pace of those games is certainly not even regular season pace. The level of competition is lower and there are a lot of guys who probably don’t care. Practice also does not simulate game pace. Any time a player returns from injury, everyone talks about getting into a few games and getting up to game speed and getting into game shape.

The way I see it, most guys are getting into game shape through the first few weeks of the season. It’s probably not a huge deal for fresh team vs fresh team and tired team vs tired team, but I think it widens the gap significantly for fresh team vs tired team early in the season compared to later in the year when everyone is theoretically in peak game shape (injuries aside).

So while Niemi hasn’t been anything special in his first 2 appearances, let’s not forget that his 2 games have been the latter half of back-to-backs. Not only have they been the latter half of back-to-backs, but they’ve come against 2 strong teams (Chicago and Tampa Bay) the nights after the team has played against two tough opponents (St. Louis and Washington respectively). Add to all of that, the Penguins have had to travel both times.

Niemi can’t steal games + exhausted team playing in front of him = painful game to watch with losing results.

Another situation playing a factor in how this team is going to play in back-to-backs is depth usage. It has to be noted – Ryan Reaves played only 3:25 in the Tampa Bay game. He wasn’t the only one with interesting usage – Carter Rowney only played 6:25 after playing 14:04 the night before. Game flow will obviously play a big factor in these times, but it only handcuffs a tired team to not use the entire lineup.

With 19 back-to-back situations (2 down, 17 to go!), upgrading the forward depth is just as important to me as replacing Niemi if he can’t do the job. There’s a fair chance that the success of both Niemi and the bottom-six go hand-in-hand.

Moving on from the world of Niemi and tired Penguins…

Everything Penalties

The Good: Faceoff Violations (refs are attempting to enforce players squaring up and not moving going into the puck drop). This was a concept that annoyed me during the preseason but I have been impressed with how quickly linesmen have enforced it and players have adjusted. Actually, I should say I’m impressed with how quickly the puck has been dropped after a guy has been waved out of the circle. I fully expected this focus to be an annoyance, but it has been smoother than expected.

The Confusing: Penalties for Offside Challenges. I don’t mind the concept of penalties for offside challenges (it was downright hilarious in the Flyers-Predators game), but I don’t understand why every wrong challenge isn’t penalized. If the intention is to create a punishment for silly challenges, why shouldn’t that apply to interference challenges as well? For that matter – how far away are we from every scoring play just being automatically reviewed at the league offices? Not that I ever expect the NHL to be consistent about anything, but this limited-scope penalty is a weird one to me.

The Annoying: Slashing Penalties. Every slash is actually a slashing penalty now. One-handed, two-handed, on the stick, on the hands, etc. – it’s all a slashing penalty now. I like the penalty, but now I’m curious about 2 things: 1) how long will players take to adjust, and 2) will enforcement die off through the season (and what happens when we get to the playoffs?!). Yes, there are a lot of penalties being called right now, but I like the idea of a cleaner game that provides skilled players with a better chance of doing something special. I’ve seen what Crosby can do with the puck when getting whacked repeatedly on the hands, now I want to see more of what he can do when players stop doing that. I think many players will struggle with this adjustment though (think about how many guys still hook with their stick parallel to the ice when that’s frequently called) and I fully expect the calls to die off as the season continues. I don’t think the league wants a special teams oriented game, and if the players don’t adjust as quickly as the league would like, I think the league will adjust for the sake of the product they want (which has always been flawed, so there’s no point in having high expectations there). This will be an interesting topic to revisit in a month.

Let’s close this out with some roster thoughts…

Random Player Thoughts

Olli Maatta – I mentioned it in the last post and I’m going to bring it up again – Maatta looks confident and it’s making a significant impact on his game. It’s great to see him getting points (2g, 4a in 6gp), but I’m more impressed with how he looks as he’s getting them. His head is always up at the blue line and he’s taking some great low shots from the point because of it. His pinches into the offensive zone have also led to a few extended shifts. The main thing about how he’s pinching – there’s no hesitation. He’s quickly taking his first stride down the boards and getting to pucks first because of it. He will undoubtedly get burned soon because that happens to every defenseman, but it’s a stark difference from him hesitating and then not getting to the puck while also getting caught flat-footed in transition.

Justin Schultz – Revisiting the back-to-back discussion, I thought Schultz looked especially bad in that game against Tampa Bay. He was beat to the outside as he was skating backwards at least 3 times and he also got caught unaware that a guy had already snuck behind him for a bank pass off the boards. Schultz isn’t expected to be a star defensively, but his defensive awareness has seemed a little low so far this season. He also got lucky a couple of times against Florida when he was unaware Trocheck was behind him but Trocheck couldn’t handle the pass, and when he left Hunwick for an odd-man break against but nothing came of it. The only reason I don’t think we’re talking more about Schultz is because his mistakes haven’t led to goals against, but that’s going to happen soon if he plays like he did in the past couple of games.

Evgeni Malkin – Now revisiting the game shape discussion, I wonder where Geno is in terms of game shape right now. He hasn’t played well, and he’s addressed the fact that he hasn’t played well, but the question is why? He seems to be lacking any sort of burst to me. His ability to take over a shift, let alone a game, hasn’t made an appearance yet. His ability to finish a play seems to have disappeared too – not in terms of scoring, but just that extra push to force a turnover in pursuit or avoid a turnover while being chased. I think this situation is just a matter of being patient, and Geno will get there within a couple of weeks, but it begs the question of whether it’s time to start managing Geno’s minutes more carefully. It would have been an easier question with the forward depth of past years, but it’s far more difficult to address with the current bottom-six. Geno’s season-long performance may very well hinge on the 3rd line center plan.

Sidney Crosby – Ridiculous hockey player. I’m just going to end every post with that.

 

Thanks for reading!!

Meesh’s Weekly Pens Thoughts: Week 1

Well…after a year off, I felt like writing about the Pens again..so here we are! (No, there will be no postgame recaps or goal recaps, let it go.) This will probably just be a hodgepodge of random thoughts on a weekly basis.

Looking back at…

Opening Night

Beyond the banner raising, this looked like a typical sloppy and disjointed opening night of hockey and I tried to actively avoid coming up with takeaways. A few things that I did notice though:

    • Sidney Crosby is still ridiculous. Crosby was creating room for everyone on the ice all night. It was almost comical how frequently he would get control of the puck down low, draw everyone’s attention, and then throw the puck up to the point for a wide open defenseman. There was even one specific instance where Crosby had the puck in the corner and seemingly threw it to no one at the point…except Kris Letang was in the process of skating to that area and Crosby ended up making a tape-to-tape pass to a guy who wasn’t even in the area quite yet (and a missed pass would have gone all the way back to the defensive zone). Crosby’s superb passing drew my attention to my next thought…

     

    • Olli Matta looks confident. Maatta was the recipient of a few of those Crosby passes throughout the night and the biggest thing I noticed was that his head was up at all times, both in receiving the puck and deciding how to distribute it elsewhere. His speed is always going to be something I take issue with, but it’s much less of a hindrance when he’s calmly and confidently working with the puck (compared to a plethora of bobbles and misplays that we have seen since his rookie season). I probably lead the pack when it comes to not being patient enough with Maatta, but opening night showed me a few flashes of what he could turn into still.

     

    • Finally, there was Greg McKegg, an automatic fan favorite on name alone. I don’t like McKegg as a 3rd line center, but I do like his ability to fill in there as necessary on some short stints (hopefully this 3rd line center situation is only short-term). What impressed me most with McKegg was his skating efficiency. There’s no question he’s quick, but his pathways to pucks, puck carries, and open areas where pucks are likely to end up were noticeably direct and efficient. I love the idea of using him as a 4th line center (sorry Rowney), but I do think he’ll be in too far over his head in the long run in this role as a 3rd line center. Jesse Marshall wrote a nice article about him on The Athletic. While I’ll try not to be a free advertisement for The Athletic, I will admit that it’s the only paid subscription site for sports articles that I’m a member of and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I reference one of Jesse’s articles.

    Chicago Disaster

    Where does one even start with this game…I’ll get to Niemi later, but let’s start with assessing what the Penguins are right now.

    The 2017 Cup run was special. It was special in a lot of ways. Every Cup run is special. One of the things that made it special – the Penguins were frequently outplayed, scored opportunistically, and defied the odds repeatedly despite numbers, performance, and overall play.

    It was a recipe for success…that shouldn’t have worked (but, yeah, who cares, it worked).

    So take that weirdly successful team, remove some useful players, and tell the remaining players that they’re the best all summer after winning back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships. Now add back Letang to increase the high-end talent and increase the overall health of the group.

    The expected result should be a worse roster overall with the mindset that they can do anything and win at this point.

    That’s not how the NHL works. I love the 10-1 loss. I love that it was a clear message to the Penguins that the season has started and it’s time to get back to basics. And I love that it was such a clear message that no one anywhere could brush it off or ignore it – no one can walk away from a 10-1 loss with “Eh, we’ll figure it out, we figured it out each of the past 2 years and won the Cup both times.” That game didn’t happen in the past 2 years and everyone knows it.

    In short, what I saw in the Chicago game was a reckless team that wanted to play like they were the most talented group in the league that could do anything they wanted without repercussions instead of a team that was willing to play within their means and at their current team-talent level.

    Add to that: It was the 2nd game of back-to-backs and it was on the road, it was against a very motivated Chicago team that had been embarrassed in the playoffs and had been constantly asked about Pittsburgh’s success going into the game, no one is in true back-to-back shape this early in the season, and the Cup celebration had literally just ended the night before. The whole situation was ripe for a disaster for the Penguins.

    After that result, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about a Cup hangover or the Penguins getting lost on their journey anymore. We certainly saw drastic improvements against Nashville with fewer risks, better defensive gap control, and smarter breakouts/outlet passes. As far as I’m concerned, that 10-1 loss was more of a blessing than an embarrassment for the future outlook of the team.

    Antti Niemi

    Then of course, there’s this Niemi part. It’s impossible not to compare Niemi to Fleury given their roles and how loved Fleury is in Pittsburgh still (and how he’s playing in Vegas right now). The comparisons do continue on ice in some interesting ways in my opinion.

    I don’t think Niemi is or will be as bad as that Chicago game suggested. The entire team was awful, especially in the defensive end. The comparison that kept coming to my mind was how Fleury would unravel vs how Niemi was unraveling based on the play of the defense.

    I’ve always pushed the idea that some of Fleury’s worst performances came on account of him overthinking defensive lapses instead of just playing his position. When he would lose trust in his defense, he would suddenly be leaning pass on a 2-on-1 instead of playing the shot or he would try to kick rebounds to impossible areas that would hurt the entire defensive effort.

    Niemi, on the other hand, showed no anticipation for lapses. His awareness seemed to be lacking in general, and he appeared to make the assumption that certain guys would get picked up or proper rebound placement would be cleared out by the defense. However, the defense wasn’t in position for most of the game, leading to open guys that Niemi didn’t adjust to for shots and wasn’t ready for on rebounds. (Yes, I do in fact still look at every goal as a goal assessment and let me tell you, Niemi is definitely not the only one that would have been torn apart in that game.)

    (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • I’m not absolving Niemi of blame – he looked bad. I just think he looked worse from an effort and talent perspective after seeing so many years of Fleury flopping around and using his athleticism to anticipate breakdowns and make some spectacular saves. Niemi isn’t going to do that. He’ll be fine if the defense is fine, and it’s very unlikely that he’ll steal a game if the defense plays poorly.
  • Realistically, veteran goalies making $700k don’t steal games, they provide a breather for the starter. Despite what Rutherford has said about Niemi playing 30+ games, I will be surprised if he plays more than 20 (19 back-to-back situations), and I fully expect Jarry to get a call-up and start if Murray deals with any injury that lasts more than a couple of games. Regardless, I think Niemi’s worst performance is in the rearview mirror since the same can likely be said about the team’s worse defensive performance already. I also think the backup goalie position is one that could be upgraded cheaply later this season, so I can’t say I’ll stress over early bad performances.

    The Reaves Effect

    It took all of 3 games for a lot of people to really love Ryan Reaves. I will freely admit I didn’t like the trade at the time, and I’m still on the fence. One notable performance wasn’t going to be enough to sway me (I’m not sure how it’s enough to sway anyone honestly).

    I have to admit I still don’t see the *need* for Reaves. He’s entertaining – there is absolutely no question about that. The arena was going nuts for him throughout the night, chanting “Reaves! Reaves! Reaves!” multiple times. (For anyone who is anti-fighting – just look at how the arena reacts to such events and remember it’s all a business…).

    The Predators spent a significant amount of time pestering Crosby, and Sullivan eventually even put Reaves on Crosby’s line late in the game, but I question the whole deterrent idea behind all of this (it didn’t seem to stop the Predators).

    I actually wonder if it enhances the level of physicality and increases the potential for harm to star players.

    It’s easy to say Reaves defended his teammates and was put on Crosby’s line to protect him, but that’s not an every game occurrence. However, given the role Reaves has, it is an every game occurrence that hitting/physicality will increase with him in the lineup by his own play/style and it’s a possibility that opposing coaches will also dress a similar player to match Reaves. So as the overall level of hitting increases – does that actually put a player like Crosby more in harm’s way than he would normally be?

    Does an innocent forecheck from Reaves in the first period that ends with a big check on a star defenseman lead to a similar result for Letang? Who knows. Does Reaves on a line with Crosby prevent anyone from attacking Crosby? Who knows. (For the record – I personally say no, but it’s not like we have true evidence for any of this stuff; it’s impossible to know the mindset of these guys and what they might do, especially since so much of it is reactionary/not thought out.)

    In the end, I will be fine with this trade if Reaves limits the amount of bad penalties that he takes. I don’t think it was great asset management overall, but expecting perfect asset management is also asinine. Expecting his entire tenure to go like the Nashville game is also asinine.

    Just like with Niemi, be prepared for endless arguments and complaining from both supporters and haters!

    And with that, I shall end my first week of thoughts, which may have turned into rambling. These will get better as the season continues and I figure out my format.

    Thanks for reading!!