All posts by Cody Flavell

I am an avid fan of all major and college sports teams throughout the Pittsburgh area.

The Curious Case of Jake Guentzel

Last postseason, the Penguins got to see the true potency of Jake Guentzel‘s shot as he led all postseason goal scorers. It was an incredible feat for the rookie. He scored 29 goals in 65 games between the regular season and postseason.

This season has been a struggle for Guentzel. He is sitting at 16 goals, his total in 40 games last season, through the first 55 games this season. That is a 24 goal pace over 82 games. For a player of Guentzel’s youth, that is a staggering number. But after last season’s explosion I think we can agree that the lack of goals this season are a bit disappointing considering some of the looks he’s gotten. He currently sits at 53.2 CF% which suggests the team creates offense with him on the ice.

Tuesday night against Vegas, Guentzel was able to put home a solid opportunity to get his 16th of the season and his first in five games. He also had a breakaway stopped on a solid opportunity by that former Penguins goaltender.

Guentzel has been scoring inconsistently this year, almost to the tune of Phil Kessel‘s first two years in Pittsburgh. He has endured goalless droughts of 7, 9, and 11 this season as well.

So what exactly is the problem for Guentzel this season?

We’ll start with his responsibilities as the team’s third line center for stretches.

As the third line center, Guentzel was given more of a responsibility defensively to be sound and play in a Nick Bonino type of role. Bonino isn’t close to the level of a game-breaking scorer that Guentzel is. In fact, Bonino has only had three double-digit scoring season’s in his nine seasons. Guentzel has reached double-digits in both of his season’s.

Bonino’s focus in the defensive game and killing penalties on top of his playoff resume is what made him $4 million AAV this past offseason. Guentzel was forced into that role and virtually switched his mindset, something head coach Mike Sullivan would prefer not to have and thus why Jim Rutherford may want ti acquire more depth down the center.

If you consider his changing of linemates on a pretty consistent basis a problem like I do, than you can include that here too. Of course, a lot of guys have been shuffled around this season due to injury and ineffectiveness.

Guentzel started the season with Sidney Crosby after their explosive postseason last year. He only had 3 goals and 7 points in his first 15 games and was moved down the lineup when the Penguins acquired Riley Sheahan to man their third line center. Guentzel, Sheahan and Kessel have found some awesome chemistry.

Unfortunately, it seems Dominik Simon may have lost his lust with Crosby as he has been decisively bad the last few games. This forced Sullivan to break up the third line and move Guentzel back with Crosby for the vast majority of the Vegas game. Subsequently, Guentzel buried one on his first shift with Sid.

They also played the Vegas game with nine forwards as Tom Kuhnhackl and Carter Rowney were injured and Simon didn’t see the ice after the first period.

Guentzel’s season has been far from a disappointment. Everyone on the team has hit a rough patch it seems at some point. Guentzel is too good of a scorer to not end up with 25 goals at season’s end. He has been a part of bad luck and unfortunate circumstances that have hindered his numbers a bit this season. He’ll heat up considerably, especially if he stays with Crosby.

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COLUMN: Nothing Could’ve Ruined Fleury’s Night

On one of the most emotional night’s in team history, the Penguins potted five goals behind Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Wow, what a weird sentence that has become. Fleury’s team lost 5-4 in his return to Pittsburgh for the first time since being taken in the expansion draft last summer.

Despite losing, Fleury’s night will be one he forever remembers.

Fleury returned to PPG Paints Arena and was given a thunderous ovation on every opportunity they had. Pregame, after big saves, and most notably before, during, and after his video tribute. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, here it is:

Man, it was moving. It was powerful. It was everything it should’ve been and more. Nothing stands out like the reaction Fleury had.

The AT&T SportsNet feed caught Fleury wiping way tears while he received a gratifying ovation and thunderous “Fleury! Fleury!” chants. It was such a cool moment to watch. Not one dry eye was in the arena.

“It was just amazing,” Fleury said following the game. “The support I’ve gotten over the years is just incredible. I thank everybody for all these years and once again showing up tonight with such great support.”

One of the most genuine human beings I never had the opportunity to meet, Fleury loves playing in Vegas. He loves being a huge reason why they’re the second best team in the league. But there is no question Pittsburgh is his home. There is no question he has forever endeared himself to the franchise’s lure and fans.

Fleury genuinely enjoyed the warmups when he was loudly and largely welcomed onto the ice.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Fleury said. “In warmups, I had goosebumps. Before the game, people with signs and kind words. It’s a night I won’t forget, except maybe the score.”

No one ever wants to lose, but losing to the team that selected you 1st overall in 2003 with a ton of friends on that team after the fans gave you the warmest “welcome back” possibly in team history, you probably don’t beat yourself up as much.

The Penguins have always done an exceptional job when it comes to the video tributes and fans always receive guys well. It was also good on AT&T SportsNet for sticking with the video and showing it to those of us unfortunate fans who didn’t want to pay upwards of $150 to see the game and the moment in person.

Some of Fleury’s best friends, Sidney Crosby and Ian Cole, weighed in on seeing Fleury again and what it was like to see him receive the welcome he got.

Said Crosby: “It was just an incredible ovation. You don’t ever want to say you expect that, you don’t see it very often. But that being said, you knew it was going to be a warm welcome and happy for Flower. I knew it was one he circled on his calendar.”

Said Cole: “Seeing Flower is huge. You saw how emotional he was when he got the cheers he did and saw the admiration the Pittsburgh fans had for him. I think every bit of it he has earned and deserved.”

The Penguins didn’t do him any favors, though. Vegas is in a good spot, leading the Western Conference in fact, and didn’t need to win this game as much as they wanted to. The Penguins, however, are fighting for the playoff lives and likely will be for the vast majority of their remaining games.

Fleury had a 2-0 lead before Ryan Reaves, of all people, scored to open the scoring.

“He knows how everyone shoots,” Reaves said. “I guess he doesn’t know my change-up with the eyes closed. I guess that worked.”

The flood gates opened from their as Cole, Malkin, Kessel, and Guentzel all added tallies. Fleury saw first-hand how talented and scary the Penguins can be.

“They’re very talented, very fast,” Fleury said. “They’re able to create some time and space for themselves to get some goals.”

Everyone went home pretty happy Tuesday night as The Penguins won, Fleury was honored, and the franchise’s winningest goaltender can now focus on what it will take to make a run at the Stanley Cup with his most emotional game behind him.

COLUMN: Will We Start Talking About Kessel For Hart?

One of the more enticing debates year in and year out is the battle between Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby for the “Best Player in the NHL” title. For the better part of the season, you may have people saying McDavid. In this stretch of the season, people begin saying Crosby.

Qualifying the points leader as the league’s best player is an inaccurate judgement. Currently, that title would go to Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In case you were unaware, the league’s second leading scorer is a Penguin and he’s not name Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. That title would belong to Phil Kessel.

Kessel has been on a tear this season. He has easily been the Penguins most consistent player from the first drop of the puck against St. Louis in October. He has 63 points in 54 games, a pace Kessel has never been on. That pace would be 96 points over the entire 82 game season.

Phil the Thrill has done the majority of his work on the powerplay with 33 of his points coming with the man advantage. He is racking stats up torridly right now.

So here’s the question; Why hasn’t #KesselForHart kicked into a higher gear yet?

The unfortunate likelihood for Kessel is that his 63 points have come in two more games thus far than Kucherov who has more points in less games. Nathan MacKinnon, the Colorado Avalanche superstar, was seemingly the front runner for mid-season MVP until he went down due to injury a few games ago. If he comes back and continues on a rapid pace, he’s likely still the front runner.

Kessel playing on a team with Crosby and Malkin, two players also in the top 10 in scoring, hurts his cause. He’s not single-handedly keeping the Penguins afloat despite scoring points on a consistent clip since the season started.

This goes beyond just Kessel being a Hart Trophy finalist at season’s end.

The next time you have a chance to sit and watch a full Penguins game, shift your focus to Kessel when he’s on the ice. For the first time in his Penguins tenure, Kessel is back checking hard and always skating 100 MPH. This is significant.

Obviously Kessel has been knocked for his defensive work his entire career. He has always been an elite skater and can shoot the puck as hard and wicked as anyone not named Alex Ovechkin. But this season, there almost seems to be an emphasis on becoming a more complete player.

When Rick Tocchet left, it was assumed by many Penguins fans Kessel would act out more as Tocchet was kind of the ‘Kessel Buffer’ if you will. With Mark Recchi assuming the role it seems that Kessel is having his best season as an NHL player.

Maybe it was the lack of winning and the Toronto media that gave Kessel that “lazy” tag over the Maple Leafs portion of his career. He was run out of Boston before that. Now, Kessel is a two-time Stanley Cup champion and he is hungry to three-peat this year. That much is evident on how consistent he has been this season.

#KesselForHart likely won’t have much of a chance unless Kessel can lead the scoring race by about 5 points at season’s end. But you’d be dumb to discount him in any fashion. After all, his most points in one season is 82. He’s got 63 already in just 54 games.

What To Make of Dominik Simon

Seemingly any young talent that is brought up inevitably will be placed on a line with Sidney Crosby. So far, Dominik Simon has been no exception.

It can be said that Crosby makes a lot of his linemates better and there is no doubt that is true. But, to play with Crosby, you’ve got to have some skill and be a bit gritty and that’s exactly what Simon brings.

“He makes the game so much easier for you,” Simon said. “He finds you everywhere. I’m really grateful that I can play with him. I’m just trying to play my best.”

Thursday, Simon posted his third and fourth goals of the season in just his 16th game. He had just four in 21 games in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this year. Over a combined 138 games the past two seasons, Simon potted 40 goals in the AHL. The ability is there.

So what is his place as an NHL full-timer as it looks like he’s earned that for the remainder of this season?

Simon has been a tremendous infusion into the lineup for the Penguins through 16 games. He’s been a vital part of the top line over the 7-2 stretch the team is enduring.

It’s probably really good when the NHL’s best player is complementing your play as of late.

“You can tell the past couple games he’s more confident using his shot,” Crosby said. He’s got a great shot, he’s had a couple great shots and he’s finding the net. When guys are doing that you just tell them to keep shooting.”

Daniel Sprong was also called up recently and was the right wing on the line. They all had an explosive game in Brooklyn during the 4-0 shutout of the Islanders a few weeks ago. Sprong’s chemistry, however, wasn’t quite what Simon and Crosby have built and Sprong was sent back. It’s now Conor Sheary manning that spot.

Head coach Mike Sullivan has been thrilled with Simon. Having coached him in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he was pretty aware what he was getting.

“Any time a young player plays with Sid there is a tendency to want to get Sid the puck all the time,” Sullivan said. “We encourage them to play their game and Sid will adapt to them.”

“He’s doing a better job of taking what the game gives him. Players first call up, there’s a wow factor. But the wow factor isn’t there for the second, third callup and players get more comfortable. That’s what we’re seeing with Dominik.”

Simon was never considered a heralded goal scoring prospect in the organization. He did score a bit in the AHL but it’s a tough transition, especially when he played all of his young career in Europe before transitioning to the American pro game. Regardless, Simon has been more than impressed with his shot.

“After you score a couple you feel better on the shot. I’m just trying to find more spots for the shot, you’re going into the soft spots more because you have more confidence in there. I hope it’ll keep going in and I’ll do my best.”

The Penguins have done a very good job at taking marginal prospects and putting them in situations to thrive. Many questioned if the likes of Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Bryan Rust among others could make spots for themselves on the team. Sheary and Rust carved out top-6 minutes in two pivotal Stanley Cup runs.

Simon is playing top-6 minutes with Crosby currently and doing a great job of it. While it’s fair to reserve complete thought on whether Simon can stay there, we’ve seen this story before and it usually goes pretty well.

Collaboration: Would Trading Patric Hornqvist Ever Be Beneficial?

The Pittsburgh Penguins are winning again and are seemingly back into the playoff picture. A few weeks ago, I proposed a question on twitter:

It generated a lot of reaction, both good and bad, from our readers. So a good friend of mine, @PensArmy on twitter, and I decided to collaborate on the idea of if a Patric Hornqvist trade would do anything for the Penguins or not.

Obviously with the team winning again now and getting hot at a good time, the subject is a bit less relevant, but let’s take a look anyway.

Would Trading Hornqvist Be Beneficial?

It’s hard to find anyone who could bring the energy or the net-front presence Hornqvist does and there is something to be said for that. I am a firm believer that the current Penguins, had they been losing still, would be worse off without Hornqvist in their lineup. But imagine this scenario…

The Penguins are comfortably out of the playoff race. Hornqvist and Ian Cole are pending UFA’s at season’s end. Cole could be a solid top-4 defenseman but likely suits a bottom-pair role best on a playoff team. The Penguins could sell him off for a middling prospect and a pick. He’s not the discussion here.

Imagine Hornqvist’s name on the block. Hornqvist is a guy you win a Stanley Cup with. He is the guy who plants himself in front of the goalie and makes himself an annoyance for the goalie. He scores tons of goals because of this, too. He’s one of the most invaluable pieces the Penguins have used in previous years.

Remember a few years ago when the Penguins traded for Jarome Iginla? At the time, he was aging and was seen as a piece the Penguins needed for that extra push. They sent prospects and a first-round draft choice to Calgary for Iginla.

Hornqvist is currently a winger in his prime who will command hefty money in free agency. The Penguins may be able to squeeze him in under the cap but it’ll be a challenge.  The return on Hornqvist could easily be huge.

Hornqvist would be a rental and if you’re out of the playoffs now, who’s to say you couldn’t resign him in the offseason?

It would be considered re-tooling and not rebuilding as you aren’t getting rid of any of the big names on the team. They could gain at least a first round pick plus more picks or prospects and load themselves up as they haven’t used a first round pick since 2014 on Kasperi Kapanen, who’s since been traded.

Of course, the thought process changes now that the Penguins are beginning to win games on a more consistent basis. Hornqvist can not be traded now that the Penguins are back in the picture. But if things go sour again before the deadline, the Penguins could always make a splash.

Pens Army argues the other side that the Penguins would be foolish to trade Hornqvist:

https://officialpensarmy.wordpress.com/2015/08/15/article34/

COLUMN: Stay Thirsty, My Friends

“I definitely owe Murray a six pack of waters or something.”

That was Jamie Oleksiak following the game when he slashed Bruins forward Brad Marchand as he closed in on a breakaway with 1:01 left in the final period.

“He made a nice move. I thought he had me on the glove side so I opened up and he tried to go five-hole. I think I got my back leg on it.”

That was Matt Murray following a save on the first penalty shot he’s faced in his career.

The Penguins came back on Sunday night to win a 6-5 overtime game in which they owned a 3-1 lead, allowed four unanswered goals, and then won it in overtime with a sick Phil KesselEvgeni Malkin connection. The win was the first time the Penguins have won consecutive games since December 1st-2nd.

With the consecutive wins comes the Penguins bye week, five days of game-less nights and a chance to unplug from a season that has been as crazy as a late night ride on the Sky Rocket. This break could be one of the best things ever for the team or it could be crippling.

The hope is that the Penguins use the next five days to getaway and clear their heads knowing that they won consecutive games and have a bit of a confidence and a swagger when they arrive back to their job. Or, the break ruins momentum and the Penguins go back to the roller coaster ride of a season they have had and this becomes a moot point.

Let’s take a look at some of the really positive things heading into the NHL mandated bye week.

Sidney Crosby, Daniel Sprong, and Dominik Simon have proven to have found some chemistry. Crosby now has seven points in his last two games. Sprong is aggressively shooting the puck and was rewarded twice in the game against the Islanders. Simon isn’t the most fleet-of-foot skater but has certainly shown flashes of talent and can hold down that spot until the Penguins find an actual third-line center so that Jake Guentzel can move back into the left wing spot on line one.

-Murray made a big statement Sunday by replacing Tristan Jarry, who allowed five goals before being pulled late in the second. and shutting the door the rest of the way. Murray seemed to have been given a blow by the coaching staff but has been huge in two relief appearances over the past five days. Murray can now sit for the next five days knowing he has firmly regained the starter’s crease if there was any question.

-Another reclamation defensive project, another success for Jim Rutherford. Of course, Oleksiak has only been in the lineup for a few weeks now but he has been fairly noticeable in a good way for the Penguins. He has two goals since putting on a black and gold sweater and was part of the first period entourage of goals on Sunday. He’s been a real stabilizer to a crowded defense corps and provides pivotal depth for any trade that would send a defenseman to a new team.

-Boy, has Riley Sheahan been good or what? He isn’t the locker room presence that Matt Cullen was. He may not have the clutch gene in the playoffs that Nick Bonino provided. But right now, Sheahan is driving play and making Ryan Reaves and Tom Kuhnhackl legitimate NHL players on a nightly basis. Both Reaves and Kuhnhackl have been NHL players for some time now but they have formed what could become one of the better fourth lines in hockey. This is a big development.

There are a lot of things slowly looking better for the Penguins. Kris Letang, the team’s most talented defenseman, noticed that the team’s play is overall just more solid over the past two games than it’s been in a while.

“I think we’ve played tighter,” Letang said. “It’s more of a unit of 5 on the ice instead of having the D playing in one area and forwards in another. We’re a lot tighter and it explains our success.”

Letang was able to bury a goal in behind Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask for his first even strength goal of the season assisted by the captain Crosby. Crosby had his take on winning back-to-back games heading into the break.

“We’ve taken some good steps the last week or so,” Crosby said. “We’re finding our game a little bit and have to build off of these.”

Probably the most important aspect of the team this year has been their lethal powerplay. With their five-on-five shortcomings being so prudent in the early parts of the season, the Penguins have needed their man advantage to be as lethal as it has been.

It’s great to see Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang and Patric Hornqvist gel as one unit with countless other names being deployed on the second. Good teams play with structure on the powerplay. Great teams can ad lib and keep opposing teams guessing with their unpredictability.

“They have a scheme,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “There is a framework. But what separates them from other powerplays is their movement and their instinctive play when they go off the grid a little bit.”

Don’t forget, while this team has struggled, the core has also been through a lot together over the past few years and this is nothing different. With five days off, maybe Rutherford pulls off that deal for the third-line center. Regardless, the Penguins want nothing more than confidence and swagger coming out of the break.

Stay thirsty, my friends.

Should We Really Be Worried About Matt Murray?

There seems to be an ever-growing panic in Penguins FanLand that the Penguins made the wrong decision getting rid of Marc-Andre Fleury and keeping the younger alternative in Matt Murray. Should this be something the Penguins should actually be worried about?

The early season statistics have proven to be largely in Fleury’s favor. Fleury missed a large amount of time with another concussion but has started the year in Vegas with an 8-1-1 record where he has a 1.77 GAA and a .943 SV%.

Murray hasn’t fared as well. Murray is 14-11-1 with a 2.94 GAA and a .903 SV%.

These stats, however, are a bit skewed. The Penguins are obviously much more talented than the Vegas Golden Knights but it’s the Golden Knights who lead the Western Conference in their inaugural season. Much of that comes from the lust of the new team and the chip on their shoulder that they all play with after being castoff by their teams.

It is interesting that Mike Sullivan gave Tuesday night’s start against the Philadelphia Flyers to Tristan Jarry. Sullivan is usually someone who gives his starter the start when there isn’t a back-to-back the following day.

“I think it gives Matt an opportunity to spend time with Mike Buckley and just reset his mindset,” Sullivan said, “To get back to some of the basics of his game that we think are important and helps him be at his best. But certainly this is all just part of the process.”

Sullivan sees that Murray is struggling but as a whole, should we actually be worried about Murray?

To answer your question: No.

This is the first time Murray was the guy heading into the season and it’s the first time he’s been assigned a team’s workload. One could say he’s even gotten a rotten deal.

Murray’s first full season was on a team coming off two Stanley Cup titles. That sounds like a dog being thrown a bone but we’ve seen how lethargic this team has looked at times. Forwards not playing defense, struggling stars, you name it, Murray has had to deal with it.

Also, heading into the year, Murray’s backup was Antti Niemi. This was as big of a mess as one could’ve predicted it to be after his stint in Dallas. A few blowouts later, Murray had already been played in multiple games that were designed to give him the night off because Niemi literally couldn’t make a save.

Even in Tuesday’s start, Murray had to relieve Jarry. Jarry had been playing fine but took a stick in the blocker hand and was in obvious discomfort that forced him out of the game. Sullivan wanted to use last night to give Murray a chance to reset himself but Murray came in and made 11 saves in relief to help cap off the 5-1 victory.

Murray will be just fine. There’s a good chance his stats won’t look that phenomenal this year and there is an even better chance they won’t win the Cup or could even miss the playoffs completely. In the long run, Murray will be a-okay. And if for some strange reason Murray never finds his game again, the Penguins have a plethora of goalies to lean on. I don’t believe that’ll be a problem.