COLUMN: Make The Move, Jim

We are fortunate to have a general manager who’s as good at his job as Jim Rutherford is. He turned a lackluster roster with a “bare cupboard” of prospects into a Stanley Cup champion with prospects that were as vital to a run as Sidney Crosby.

Rutherford did that by acquiring guys such as Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley and getting rid of guys like David Perron and Rob Scuderi to do so. Both Hagelin and Daley made this team faster and really began driving home what Mike Sullivan really envisioned this team to be. A fast, relentless, up-tempo team. His philosophy hasn’t changed.

So how do you make a team that’s looked very flat and lackluster at times faster? You add more speed.

I’ll bet my house the Penguins REALLY like Avalanche center Matt Duchene. He all but epitomizes what the Penguins are. He’s a speedy, relentless, up-tempo forward that can score with ease.

The Penguins have sent their entire front office short of Jim Rutherford to Avalanche games to watch and it’s pretty clear what their intentions are. They like Matt Duchene.

A team fortunate enough to have both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin only has a window as long as their careers last. It’s worth trading away your future to acquire a guy like Duchene.

Can you imagine a roster next year in which your star players are Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel, Duchene, Kris Letang, and Matt Murray? And that’s just your stars. We are talking “3-in-6” type aspirations. Duchene would be under contract for the rest of this season and the two following seasons.

Duchene wouldn’t be an easy get. You’d have to part with pieces that take away significantly from your future. I’ll take a gander at what it may take.

Pittsburgh Trades: Olli Maatta, Eric Fehr, and a 2017 first round pick.

Colorado Trades: Matt Duchene.

The Avalanche are on pace for one of the worst seasons in NHL history. They have pieces they can unload to gear for a rebuild. Trading Olli Maatta to a new team could really help his development. He’s a system defenseman. His diminished speed could play into Colorado’s advantage. It gives the Avalanche a very good defenseman that, if he really blossoms, is a steal at $4 million. The Penguins like and believe in Maatta. He is likely to miss the regular season but the Avalanche are already geared towards making a run next year. Maatta will be ready for next season.

Obviously, the first round pick would be very enticing to the Avalanche. It gives them two in the upcoming draft to build around Nathan MacKinnon, their obvious franchise player. Eric Fehr would just be a throw-in veteran to get a few million off of the cap to make their core affordable.

The Penguins would get their man in Duchene who brings loads of scoring talent. Just think on this line: Hagelin-Duchene-Kessel. That’s the fastest line in NHL history. I don’t care what anyone says. The Penguins would be a very scary team.

The ball is in your court, Jim. Forget the future for now. Crosby and Malkin have Stanley Cups to win. If you can bring a superstar like Duchene in to complement Crosby and Malkin, you take the chance and run. Make the move, Jim.

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Pens Acquire Defenseman Ron Hainsey

The Penguins acquired defenseman Ron Hainsey from the Penguins in exchange for Daniel Kristo and a second round pick. The Hurricanes retained half of Hainsey’s salary.

The 35 year old defenseman, who turns 36 in March, has played in 891 career games. He’s never appeared in a playoff game.

In 56 games this season, Hainsey is a -16 with 4 goals and 14 points. He played 300 games in Carolina and had 58 points in that span. He leads the Hurricanes in blocked shots and hits over the course of this season.

The Penguins are in desperate need of a defenseman with Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley out for six weeks a piece. Justin Schultz and Kris Letang look to return relatively soon.

A defensive defenseman, Hainsey brings a long reach and an aggressive style to the Penguins with some veteran leadership. Despite never playing in a playoff game, he will be a welcomed addition to the team.

He’s just another penalty killing weapon who is more than willing to throw his body in front of a shot to help kill off a penalty. General manager Jim Rutherford went out and got his man and it’s expected he will make another move or two before the deadline.

COLUMN: The Bigger Picture

Penguins fans usually have a lot to fret about. Injuries are usually one of those things, and this season is no different. For a while, it was Sidney Crosby‘s concussion issues. Would he ever come back? Would he be the same player he was before the David Steckel hit? During the Mike Johnston era, there were so many things to pick apart and all of us wondered if the Penguins would ever be able to score again.

There’s always something going on. It sucks. The Penguins are banged up and they just lost to the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday, who are near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. I think just about every Pens fan gets that feeling that just when things seem like they’re finally about to be alright, something else goes wrong.

Not to worry. There is a bigger picture here.

It’s February. Yeah, there’s a lot of injuries on this team right now, and yeah, the Metropolitan division is wicked awesome right now, but are the Penguins really in a bad spot? I really don’t think so. We have yet to see what General Manager Jim Rutherford is going to do at the March 1st trade deadline. Also, remember last year when Evgeni Malkin went down with an injury around this time of year? A lot of people were fretting if we’d even make the playoffs. And even if we did, we wouldn’t be in a very good spot. The Penguins went on to form the HBK line and won 14 of their last 16 games to finish 2nd in the Metropolitan Division, only behind the President’s Trophy winner Washington Capitals.

I think everyone knows what happened once the playoffs started. Bottom line is this: try not to freak out over what’s going on right now. There’s a bigger picture. It starts in April. The Penguins will be there. Keep it in your mind how special this team is. They can do amazing things.

A lot of emotion has been poured into this season, and it seems fitting since it’s the 50th anniversary of the conception of the team; a team that has dealt with adversity since pretty much the time the puck dropped in 1967. This year, we have the looming departure of Marc-Andre Fleury hanging over our heads. Probably the worst part of it, other than the fact that he’s such a likeable guy on and off the ice, is that we don’t know when it could happen. Trade deadline? After the season? If so, when? I’m a Fleury fan and I hate to see him go. It’s going to be hard to picture someone else stepping between the pipes for 60-plus games other than Flower. He’s been a huge part of why the Penguins have had consistent success over the last ten seasons.

The bigger picture is that there is a mega-talented, overwhelmingly mature 22 year-old goaltender in Matt Murray, who in some people’s eyes, was a candidate for the Conn Smythe in last year’s Stanley Cup run. The upcoming expansion draft to give Las Vegas their first professional team in the four major pro sports leagues is forcing the Penguins to pretty much choose between Fleury and Murray. It’s not just practical to pick Murray, but vitally necessary. It’s one of those situations where you have to fight nostalgia and think with your head, not your heart. Not that we don’t love Murray and what he’s done for this team in such a short time, but Fleury has given us every reason to fall in love with him since he was drafted in 2003. It’ll be hard to see him in a different sweater.

Do I want the team to be healthy? Do I want to win the Stadium Series game at Heinz Field against Philadelphia? Do I want to win the division? Yes to all. But is it the end of the world if some or none of those things happen? Nope. Especially if the Penguins make another deep run into June. 

This team is still special. It’s a different season than last year. I still believe in this team. I know many of you do as well. Just remember the bigger picture. Jim Rutherford, Mike Sullivan, and everyone on the roster remember and know how to get to the ultimate prize. And they’ve given us every reason to trust them. Trust the process, no matter how tough it gets.

COLUMN: Stop Blaming The Goaltenders

It is the oldest move in the book, when a team loses a game the easiest thing to do is blame the goalie. Now, in some cases that may be true; however, in 90% of cases it is far from the truth. Sadly, with the whole Matt Murray vs. Marc-Andre Fleury debate still going fans are now more eager to just blatantly throw blame on either goalie. To illustrate my point, I will analyze two games which Murray and Fleury were blamed, and prove why it was in no way their fault for the loss.

First up, we will look at the Penguin’s most recent game versus the Detroit Red Wings. The Penguins lost 5-2 and Murray let in four goals on twenty shots. Most fans immediately jumped to place the blame onto Murray based on the fact that he only faced twenty shots, which is not an educated statement. Let’s look at how all four goals went in. The first goal was a breakaway by Nick Jensen. The whole play started with a turnover in the offensive zone, then continued with Chris Kunitz falling over at center ice, then a poor transition by Trevor Daley, and lastly a very nice move from Jensen to give the Wings a 1-0 lead. This goal can now be clearly seen as not Murray’s fault. The second goal was scored by Steve Ott. He made a clean hit on Kris Letang, and shortly after cut right across the slot and scored a backhander that trickled through Murray. Now here, the goal is Murray’s fault because it went through is body. Any goal that goes under or through a goalie is his fault. Next, the third goal was scored by Tomas Tatar on a 3-1. This play started by a horrendous giveaway by Jake Guentzel in the defensive zone to create the 3-1.  The goal was scored from the off-center slot via a one timer. Yet again this goal was in no way Murray’s fault, because the goalie’s job is to cover the shot not the pass. The fault clearly falls onto Guentzel here. The fourth goal was scored shortly after by Thomas Vanek. The slot is statistically the easiest place to score from in hockey, and Daley and Letang let Vanek walk right into the slot and score. This was a 1-2 and Daley should have stepped up to cut Vanek off, instead of letting him shoot from the best place on the ice. Lastly, the blame for this game should also be placed on the Penguin’s offense for going 0-4 on power plays, Tom Kuhnhackl missing a breakaway, and missing two open net chances.

Next up is Fleury’s game against the Capitals on January 11th. The Penguins lost 4-2 ad Fleury faced 29 shots. This game, much like the Red Wings game, was just an overall headache to watch.  Arguably one of the best pure goal scorers ever, Alexander Ovechkin, scored his 1,000th point about a minute into the game. Kris Letang, let Ovechkin push his gap back as he entered the zone, and ultimately was allowed to walk right into the slot for a clear shot. It is absurd to expect Fleury to stop the best goal scorer in the NHL right now from dead center slot. The second goal was scored by… you guessed it, Ovechkin as well. Ovechkin notched his 1,001th career point from the dot on the power play like he has done countless times in his career. For a goalie to have to slide across his crease and stop a 95 mph slap shot that went high glove side is again almost impossible to ask for.  The third goal was scored by Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov walked around the top of the circles, wheeled behind the net, stopped abruptly, and passed to Justin Williams on the short side who beat Fleury low. This is the only goal that is Fleury’s fault. He stayed with Kuznetsov behind the net, but was scored on in tight while being down in the reverse VH position. The key reason he is to blame for this is because he was beat short side, and in the reverse VH position the short side should be completely covered. The last goal was scored by TJ Oshie on a short 2-2 break. As the 2-2 developed, Oshie streaked right past Letang who made did not keep track of him, and the rest is history as Oshie had the whole top of the net open. Another point for blame in this game falls on Phil Kessel for missing a breakaway and the Penguins for only scoring two goals.

All in all, Penguin’s fans need to take a step back before jumping to place the blame. Often times, the blame can and should be placed on someone other than the goalies.

Top 3 ROY Candidates Needs Matt Murray

You may have forgotten because we have all been witnessing him play in 2 different seasons for almost a year now, but Matt Murray is still technically a rookie. There is a healthy embarrassment of riches for roookie and 2nd year players right now in hockey. That is a great thing, and Murray is 1 of the leaders of the pack. By year’s end, he should be at the NHL Awards Show in Vegas to at least be considered for Rookie of the Year honors.

Shutting out the Vancouver Canucks the other night, Murray tied the Penguins record for most shutouts by a rookie with 4. Yeah that doesn’t seem like much, but when you include the volume of games he played last year and obviously all he did in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoff cup winning run, Matty M is jumping higher than many other goalies at his age.

This year included, Murray steps up his game when needed. He stops 2 on 1’s, breakaways, and above most all remains a constant impassable brick in net. Murray never over reacts to the momentum of the game, he plays to what he knows. For a rookie age, he has a veteran mentality. I can’t tell you how many times Matt Murray plays his best hockey in the 3rd period, he slams the door shut and suffocates any chance of a comeback for the other team. He did it last year and it hasn’t stopped now.

Unfortunately awards sometimes don’t go to the most deserving but the most name worthy to the media. I’m not totally saying this but Auston Matthews has tore the house down right away in entering the league along with his teammate Mitch Marner. Finland’s sharpest shooter Patric Laine seems like he get a hat track like every other game in Winnipeg. All of these players have eye popping numbers which will of course gain you notable significance, especially Matthews and Laine. For some reason Marner has an underdog story that is growing each day.

Murray’s numbers may not jump out at you but he’s 1 of those guys that you need to watch to fully grasp how great hes been and can continue to be. Matty M brings a sense of reliability, he doesn’t have to do if often because of teammates like Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel, but on any given night can carry the Pens.

There are not many games where Murray gives up more than 2 goals, he can constantly get you that. That is all you need on a team like the Penguins that will drop 4 goals in your face before you can even announce your starting lineup. He pretty much already been anointed as the starter and received an extension, you know you have special talent when that happens to you already. Austin Matthews may get the accolades, but it’s closer than you think, Matt Murray needs to be in this Calder Trophy talks. We may be looking at a future class of greatness.

Analyzing The Pens Shot Differential

I’m kind of sick of the whole “The Pens won’t win because they give up too many shots” rhetoric.

Its true the Pittsburgh Penguins currently sit 27th in the league in the shots against category, giving up 32.7 shots per game on average. They’re also number one in shots for. They rank 16th in goals against per game, but again top the league in goals for per game. They hold 6th in the league in shooting percentage.

There’s certainly an argument to be made that a stellar offense is carrying the load for a garbage group of defencemen. But is the shots against category enough to push a panic button?

Obviously it’s not ideal to give up consistently high shots against totals. It’s also somewhat unhealthy to rely on getting higher than average shots for totals. But when you look at the top 10 teams in the league in shot differential some interesting things turn up.

There’s currently 10 teams I consider to be comfortably holding a playoff spot. To me that’s teams with 70 points or more on the year. Of those 10 teams, only 4 sit in the league top 10 in shot differential.  In fact, only 5 of them are in the top 15 for that category. That means half of the league’s top 10 winningest teams rank in the bottom 15 in shot differential.

Of the top 10 teams in shot differential only 7 of them are even in a playoff spot, and 2 of those are barely clinging to a Wild Card. Only 9 of the top 17 would make the post season if it began today.

Only 10 teams total have a shot differential of 1.0 or higher. 16 teams (more than half the league) have a negative shot differential.

To me, shot differential doesn’t tell me much.

What’s more telling to me is only 4 teams in the top 10 in shot differential are actually also in the top 10 in GOAL differential, which I wrote about earlier this year as being the obvious key to long term success. Remember I said only 4 teams in the shot differential top 10 are comfortably in the playoffs? Oddly enough, I’m talking about the same 4 teams (Washington, San Jose, Edmonton, and….Pittsburgh).

Focusing on those 4 teams, goal differential doesn’t even tell the complete story because Pittsburgh is the only one of them who has a better even strength goal differential than overall goal differential. This isn’t only because they score more than anyone else. They’re a respectable 12th in total even strength goals against, hardly cause for alarm.

Looking at the dismal Pittsburgh stat of 27th in shots against per game another way, consider that of the top 10 teams in shot differential, just 7 of them are also in the top 10 in shots against per game. Of those 7 teams, only THREE are in the top 10 in goals against per game. Less shots doesn’t automatically translate to fewer goals per game.

Our Penguins have easily the most dramatic statistical improvement from shots against per game (27th) to goals against per game (16th!). Compare that to the shots against top 10: LA (1st SA, 5th GA), Boston (2nd SA, 12th GA), San Jose (3rd SA, 3rd GA), St. Louis (4th SA, 23rd GA), Carolina (5th SA, 20th GA), Washington (6th SA, 1st GA) Calgary (7th SA, 20th GA), Philly (8th SA, 25th GA), Anaheim (9th SA, 6th GA), and NYR (10th SA, 10th GA). Only two of these teams show any improvement at all, and at least half give up an abysmal number of goals relative to shots.

So how does Pittsburgh somehow manage to give up close the league worst in shots but only concede the league average in goals against per game with a 12th place ranking in total goals against? No amount of goals for or offensive prowess can acount for those numbers. Let’s turn to our good friends, advanced statistics.

The Pens are 15th in league wide Corsi. Not bad, but not what you would think of as an indicator this team would be 1st overall in shots for and goals for per game. But again, they make a dramatic leap in Fenwick statistics, where they make a drastic jump to 4th. Fenwick and Corsi have only one difference: blocked shots. How can a team be 15th in overall shot attempts against including blocked shots, but improve to 4th in shots on goal and missed shots only??? Someone’s got to be putting themselves or their sticks in front of those pucks.

Shots against alone don’t tell the whole story. The Penguins play as a 5 man unit. That’s what I love about them. Forwards are expected to help out in the back end, and defencemen are encouraged to join the attack. While they may give up a lot of shots, most are off rushes. Many are from shooters who are hurried by team pressure. The puck gets to the net but the battles are won.

The club has only lost consecutive games 5 times (one 3 game losing streak, four 2 gamers).

Unless you can show me stats like time in the defensive zone, number of shots off rebounds, and number of shots per zone entry to back up the whole being defensively dominated charade, don’t tell me the Pens can’t win with the defense they have. 

The Power Play Has Struggled as of Late

I would like to preface this by saying that there isn’t a serious problem that would warrant fans to freak out about the state of the Penguins. They clearly have had no problems putting up at least 3-5 goals a game in mainly 5 on 5 hockey, so scoring many goals isn’t a flawed component of the team. This is merely an observation that the Power Play unit has hit the skids a little in the month of February. All squads go through a slump at 1 point or another so there is no alarming concern, it’s just when you see the players on this specific man advantage that you start to expect a little more.

Beginning from late January to the current date of this month in a total of 10 games, our favorite hockey team has gone 5 for 32 on the power play, for a percentage of  15.6%. That sample size number right there would put them at 26th overall for power play completion, tying them with the team they just lost to the other night, the Arizona Coyotes. Now as just stated this is only a sample size of a few recent weeks, overall the Pens % is 5th overall in the league at 21.9%, this is just a minor hiccup. These numbers are a bit skewed too from an 0/6 and 1/5 performance.

The Penguins actually lead the league in goals per game and the number of goals scored total, so I’m not worried and neither should you, it’s all gonna work out fine. Enough about stats though, there’s more to it than just that. From the eye test it’s not for a lack of trying, it’s a little too much of overdoing if that makes any sense. Sometimes before getting into the zone they pass it like 4 times around the neutral zone and center ice before they actually enter, it’s made the opposition able to put on pressure and break up those attempts, but that depends on who they’re facing.

When the Penguins are in the offensive zone they definitely get their chances, I mean they’re a great team, of course they do. This is just 1 man’s opinion, but I feel as if they almost try to be too perfect with the puck, they make that extra pass sometimes when it’s not necesarrily needed because they want a literal wide open net to shoot at. That doesn’t always have to be the case, sometimes it’s just better to get a shot off. Then though you see the mastery like what they did to Arizona the other night and you think “damn, maybe they should go for those opportunties”.

Power Play chances have stalled at times because they are waiting, waiting, and waiting some more, and then there’s only a very tight window to get that pass (most likely a saucer) to a teammate. If doesn’t get through than it breaks up the opportunity and flow. I feel that the Penguins best form of power play is when they get a high volume of shots off, that way they can pounce on any rebounds and score that off it or get moving parts. Certainly it’s a numbers games but the Pens take great advantage of shooting, claiming the puck back, and doing it all again. By getting off a number of shots, it will enclose the defense to move in more to either block a shot or cover in front of the net. This will open up those passing lanes.

It would be easy to point out that the absence of Evgeni Malkin could lead to less production as Geno is a 1 of a kind talent. The Pens have enough other bodies to keep up similar success, and give guys the moment they wouldn’t normally get. Yes you would rather have Malkin there, but they have many capable players. Maybe not all the chemistry gelled together? There’s a few different ways they replaced Malkin, sometimes it was Jake Guentzel or Nick Bonino, they would even added a 2nd defenseman like Justin Schultz into the mix. Either way, Geno is back now and I’m sure the team will wake out of this lull. There’s some, but not much of their game that needs to be fixed besides the offensive side of special teams, that is soon to positively change.

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