Tag Archives: Tom Kuhnhackl

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 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!