COLUMN: Justin-Credible; The Growth of Schultz

Justin Schultz is happy. And why wouldn’t he be? He’s a Stanley Cup champion. He’s been given an opportunity that wasn’t given to him in Edmonton. And most importantly, he’s employed by an organization that has embraced him and given him a chance to succeed. It shows. We’ve all been witness to the growth of this young defenseman, and every second of it has been a blast.

First off, I just have to tip my cap (yet again) to Jim Rutherford for landing Schultz at the trade deadline last year for a 3rd round pick. That wasn’t overpaying at all for, who many considered to be, an underachieving top defensive prospect. Schultz never turned into that player in Edmonton. Of course, it wasn’t a good situation there either. Schultz had a lot of pressure to perform on a bad team. Because he didn’t perform to expectations, he was considered a bust, or at least an underachiever. With an expiring contract, Edmonton decided to cut their losses and get something for him, so Rutherford bartered a 3rd round pick to bring the defenseman to Pittsburgh.

Mike Sullivan is good at a lot of things. He’s still a young coach, but there’s one thing he’s gotten really good at very quickly; learning his players. He saw where Schultz was last season. He knew what he was capable of and where he could best contribute. Like so many other players last season, he gave him the confidence to do his job AND go above and beyond.

We are seeing the growth of Schultz this season. After Jim Rutherford was able to re-sign Schultz to a friendly 1-year, $1.4 million contract for this season, Schultz has emphatically out-performed that value. He’s their second best defensemen right now, and that’s only because of how valuable Letang is to the defense, offense, break out, and power play. As of today, Schultz is 2nd in the NHL in plus-minus, a statistic a lot of people overlook (but yours truly still finds it valuable), at a +21. Technically, he’s a third pair defensemen, but he sure isn’t playing like one. He’s found great chemistry with linemate Ian Cole, and he finds the perfect blend of when to take risks and pinch in deep or be conservative and “stay home.” We are seeing him get better and better every game, and he’s become a force on all 200 feet of ice.

It’s not time to throw Schultz’s name in the Norris conversation, but it is time to realize that the Daley and Hagelin trades last year weren’t the only brilliant moves by the Pens GM. He also brought him back on a dime. I think it’s also time to look at giving this guy an extension, especially considering Marc-Andre Fleury’s contract more than likely won’t be paid by the Penguins next year.

Let’s take it for what it is. Schultz is playing really good hockey. He’s not top tier in the league yet. He’s still got some growing to do, but man, it’s fun watching him grow into a great hockey player. And he’s obviously having fun doing it.

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Pens Ultimate Interview #16-Bob Grove

If you have been a Penguins fan for sometime, then you know the name Bob Grove is synonymous with Pittsburgh Penguins Hockey. (If not give him a follow on twitter – Right now! @bobgrove91, you will not be sorry.)

Bob has been (Officially) covering the Penguins since September 1981, when he began a 17-year career as the hockey writer at the Washington (Pa.) Observer-Reporter. He also served as co-host on the Penguins Radio Network for 8 seasons.

His book, Pittsburgh Penguins: The Official History of the First 30 Years, was published in 1997.(If any one wants to sell me a copy, please let me know) He also has contributed to two other books, Total Hockey (Second Edition) and The Game I’ll Never Forget/100 Hockey Stars’ Stories, in addition to GOAL Magazine, Hockey Digest, Beckett’s Hockey Monthly, the 1990 NHL All-Star Game program and IceTime, the Penguins’ official game program.

I personally want to thank Bob for his injections of Penguins facts, stats and history that are relevant, thoughtful and entertaining.

As well for being a consummate professional in addressing any questions I have, providing me resources and with wonderfully insightful knowledge.

Here is our digital conversation with #Pens Ultimate – Bob Grove

Who were/are some of the “Unsung Heroes” on the Penguins that never received much recognition or fanfare but were integral pieces to the team’s success?

Most recently, it would be a trio of Minnesota natives.

Given his age, Matt Cullen got a little more attention as the 2016 playoffs approached and played out, but right from the start of that championship season he was playing at a high level and contributing more and in more ways than was recognized. Paul Martin didn’t win a Cup in his five seasons here and sometimes had trouble staying healthy, but when he was in the lineup he almost always made a game full of little plays that showed his smarts. I thought Matt Niskanen never got the credit he deserved for re-directing his career here in Pittsburgh, realizing his potential and pushing to get better.

I would also put two Cup-winning American defensemen, Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik, in that category. It wasn’t until later during the span of consecutive Cup Final appearances in 2008 and 2009 that Scuderi’s contributions began to get noticed by more people; he played some tough minutes and added a lot to those teams by executing the simple choice with great consistency.

Orpik didn’t win all those Players’ Player awards from teammates for nothing. A really solid pro who always had the willingness to play a physical game but had to learn how to manage that desire. Not easy.

When he came to the Penguins in 1985, Randy Cunneyworth was 24 and had played only a handful of NHL games vs. almost 300 in the AHL. Looked on paper like a career minor-leaguer.

Spent some time on Mario’s line and produced like no one expected, all the while keeping his fiery attitude and willingness to mix it up. Another under-appreciated forward was Ron Schock.

Solid penalty killer, honest player, durable and had that one big offensive season in 1974-75 that showed he had more skill than people realized.

I would close with defensemen Dave Burrows and Russ Anderson. Burrows played a lot of minutes and blocked a lot of shots at a time when those metrics weren’t measured and valued the way they are today. And he did it consistently on some bad and mediocre teams. I’ll close it out the way I started with another Minnesota native in Anderson, who nearly went straight from college to the NHL when that was really a rarity. Physical and durable until his last couple of seasons here. No-nonsense and dependable.

Who would make it on to an “All-Grove” Team and why?


Too many good players here in Pittsburgh to limit recognition to just six. So I’ll cheat and give you two teams:

FIRST TEAM:

F Mario. No explanation needed.

F Sid. Second Cup the ultimate testament to his work ethic and belief in himself. Will grind it out one night, put up five points the next. A winner who has excelled under a very intense microscope for a long time.

F Jagr. His time here didn’t end pretty, but the passion and ability he demonstrated were remarkable. Frequently produced big goals at big times.

D Coffey. Helped teach Pens how to win, and his skating, skill and confidence were a joy to witness. Almost criminal to have him and Mario on the same team.

D Murphy. Phenomenal hockey IQ more than made up for some shortcomings in his game; his skill-set helped make the early 1990s Pens a lethal power play threat.

G Fleury. Dealt some difficult cards early in his career, but kept a great disposition and developed into a Cup winner. Very durable until 2016 and never got the credit he deserved for rescuing his own career after 2013 playoffs.

SECOND TEAM:

F Malkin. Jaw-dropping skills. Plays with his heart on his sleeve, which sometimes drives me crazy but always earns my respect because he cares.

F Pronovost. Played both ends of the ice and excelled as a constant offensive threat in the 1970s. Worked himself into a 50-goal scorer.

F Francis. Team player and leader who had fantastic ability with or without the puck. Dependable to a fault.

D Letang. Despite some serious health issues, turned his fitness into a weapon. A crazy smooth skater with skill and strength. And determination.

D Ulf Samuelsson. Defined playing on the edge, which meant he sometimes went over — much to the delight of Pittsburgh. He added the nasty Pens needed to win.

G Barrasso. Couldn’t be judged by the numbers during his time here, given the era and philosophy of those teams, but he won two Cups and shut the door at critical times in the 1991 and 1992 playoffs.

What are some of your first hockey memories?

Watching highlights of the 1970 series between the Pens and Oakland Seals on a black and white TV set. Seeing my first game on Dec. 26, 1970 when Wally Boyer scored twice in a 4-2 home win over Bobby Orr and the Bruins. Orr, who played with a black eye that night, scored a goal. Listening to the Pens score five goals in 2:07 to beat the Blues in 1972. The soul-crushing Game 7 home loss to the Islanders in 1975.

What fueled your desire and passion to become a Hockey Journalist?

I was simply looking for a way to combine my love of the game with my love for writing and reporting. As short-sighted as it was, my goal was to cover the Penguins and I was fortunate to be doing that four months after I graduated from college.

You are considered to be the Penguins “Resident” Statistician. How important do you think stats are to the narrative of a game and/or players?

Given the explosion of analytics in recent years, and their use by so many teams, I think it’s easy to say they’ve never been more important. I love that those kinds of metrics have been developed and are continuing to evolve and interest so many people. But I have to add those numbers are not in my wheelhouse; I’m just comfortable with traditional numbers and maybe shaping them a bit around history.

I’ve gravitated to the numbers largely because it’s the only way I can stay close to the team.

Because of my full-time job, I didn’t have regular access to the players for many years and now have no access because I’m no longer a member of the media. So I don’t have the ability to do any storytelling, but I can track numbers and enjoy doing it.

Today, stats can tell more of the story than ever before. But it’s important to remember they still tell only a part. I push stats out for the reasons enumerated above and because they can be effective ways to frame developments around a player or team or game. But I also believe some fans, traditional media, bloggers and analysts place too much focus on them. I think you can partially assess players and teams with a fair use of statistics; but the numbers never tell the whole story. To get that you need information about the working environment of a player or team, or information about a player’s personality, personal history, relationship to teammates and coaches, etc.

Can you speak on some of the projects you are currently involved in/with?

Nothing external at the moment, but always open to ideas. Every summer I spend time working on specific expansions of my own databases. This year it is documenting scores of every game after two periods (when is the last time Pens won in LA when trailing after two periods? Against which team has Pittsburgh lost the most games when leading after two?) and documenting all GWG for Sid and Geno, including which were “true” game-winners (i.e, last goal in a 1-goal game, penultimate goal in a 2-goal game that included an empty-netter).

Penguins’ Biggest Threat In Metropolitan Division

The new year is quickly approaching which inches us slightly closer to the best playoff grind in sports: the NHL playoffs.

Of course they won’t begin until April, but that doesn’t stop fans from looking ahead to the playoffs. Even more so since the Penguins are almost guaranteed a playoff spot. Or are they?

The Penguins are playing at a high level right now and don’t look to be hitting ground level anytime soon. The problem is, so is over half of their division.

My plan is to breakdown each team separately and give reasons as to why they can and can’t compete with the Penguins.

New York Rangers (47 PTS)


The Penguins took down the Rangers Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena and in convincing 7-2 fashion.

A team that had the Penguins number come playoff time for two straight seasons seems to now be another victim of the Pens relentless attack offensively. They chased Henrik Lundqvist in the playoff series on three different occasions last season and he has not faced the team in their last two meetings this regular season.

POSITIVES: The Rangers went out this offseason and added speed into their lineup with guys such as wingers Michael Grabner and coveted college free agent Jimmy Vesey. With speedsters such as Mats Zucarello and Chris Kreider already a part of their team, the Rangers tried to get a few guys who could play the role guys like Bryan Rust and Carl Hagelin do for the Penguins.

NEGATIVES: Their downfall is their play against the Penguins. Since taking over as head coach, Mike Sullivan has a 9-3 record against the New York Rangers which includes last season’s playoffs. Their head to head stats haven’t been good and they’ve come out on the losing side of 2 out of the teams’ three meetings thus far. If you’re the Rangers, you don’t want a fourth straight first round matchup against the Penguins.

Columbus Blue Jackets (46 PTS)


That damn cannon. The Blue Jackets own the league’s highest current winning streak which is ten games. They will oppose the Penguins on Thursday night.

One of the league’s laughing stocks just a season ago, the Blue Jackets are the hottest team in the NHL and proving their case as to why they’re going to be in conversation as a legitimate team.

POSITIVES: The hottest team in hockey currently has three games in hand on the Penguins and will over take first place in the division with a victory Thursday night. Head coach John Tortorella has popularly uninstalled the morning skate from his team and it has continued to pay its dividends as they have the least amount of regulation losses in the entire NHL (5). They’re currently tied for first with the Penguins at 3.34 goals/game. Their power play ranks first in the NHL at 27.7%.

NEGATIVES: Only four of the ten teams they have played during this ten game winning streak hold records above .500. I’m not discrediting their team, just pushing factual information. This is still the same team that endured a pretty hard 2015-16′ campaign so this could just be a fly-high-for-the-time-being winning streak. There isn’t many negatives for this team right now. But that’s also right now. Anything can happen over the course of the 82 game regular season.

Philadelphia Flyers (42 PTS)


It pains me to report to you that the Flyers are yet again looking like a playoff team.

After taking the Washington Capitals to six games last season with no mind made up on whether Michael Neuvirth or Steve Mason was their starting goaltender, the Flyers are back and looking even stronger on all sides of the puck this season.

POSITIVES: They’re winning games and they’ve got production coming from their big money guys like Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and Claude Giroux. Those guys are all in the top ten in scoring currently and that’s going to be key if they want to continue to make a run. They’re in the top six in categories such as goals/game, SOG/game, and power play percentage.

NEGATIVES: Goaltending. This team’s problem will forever be goaltending until they decide to go out and find themselves a real goalie. Steve Mason is playing like his average self but Michael Neuvirth was falling out of touch before his injury landed him on injured reserve. They’ve allowed the seventh most goals/game in the NHL and it won’t be getting any better anytime soon. They’re without center Sean Couturier, winger Matt Read, and defenseman Matt Streit currently. The injury bug hasn’t hit vital players like it has the Penguins, but it’s bitten them.

Washington Capitals (41 PTS)


Washington is a great hockey team. Their Winning of the regular season Eastern Confrence championship last season proved that. This year, they’re hungry again.

POSITIVES: They too have a clean bill of health currently as every player on their active NHL roster is free of injuries. They’re getting stellar goaltending. Braden Holtby is his usual self and backup Philip Grubauer may be among the league’s best in his role. Their penalty kill ranks sixth in the league (84%) and their SOG allowed/game (28.1) is good for seventh best.

NEGATIVES: They’re getting a lot of underproduction out of their forwards. Alexander Ovechkin, possibly the league’s most prolific scorer, has been held to only 14 goals in 30 games. Evgeni Kuznetzov has been disappointing after his pretty nice year last season as well. Their goals/game, SOG/game, PP%, and shooting % are currently ranked only in the top 15 with none being higher than 11th.

Scariest Team: Columbus.

I truthfully believe the Blue Jackets to be the biggest threat to the Pens right now. Thursday night will be a great test for both teams as Columbus will look to stretch their win streak to a record 11 games.

They had the roster in my mind last season to have a great campaign but started off horribly going winless in their first 11 games.

This year, things are clicking and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is back to Vezina form.

Any team with a ten game win streak comes across as threatening but it’s more than that. This John Tortorella coached team is finally meshing. Any cohesive team (see Penguins Stanley Cup run) will be a team no one wants to play. The Blue Jackets right now are no different.

Anything can happen in the course of the next four months, but I think Columbus scares me more than any of the other aforementioned teams do.

Crunch Time For Derrick Pouliot

It’s put-up-or-shut-up time for Penguins defenseman Derrick Pouliot.

After an injury to star defenseman Kris Letang, the Penguins recalled Pouliot to be the next defenseman up. With Steven Oleksy the current seventh guy on the roster it’s quite likely they could use Oleksy as opposed to Pouliot. The Penguins have wanted a chance for Pouliot to play for a while and this may be it.

Pouliot hasn’t had the easiest transition to the NHL over the past couple of seasons. Through 57 career NHL games, he’s garnered only 2 goals and 12 assists for a grand total of 14 points. This production has been highly frowned upon inside and outside of the organization. His defensive play has never been held in high regard when he matches opposing players forwards.

The troubling part is that most of his career NHL time has come on the third pairing meaning quite a lot of his matchups have been team’s bottom six players. He’s still showing signs of not being a steady top-6 guy.

He’s had a pretty rough time down in the minor leagues as well. He’s had some horrific numbers (0 points and -4 in seven games) but general manager Jim Rutherford says that it doesn’t quite tell the story.

“He wasn’t necessarily there to see how many points he could put up. He was fine.” Rutherford told Dejan Kovacevic.

Sullivan won’t be forced to place Pouliot into the lineup but it’s likely he will be the one inserted in over defenseman Steven Oleksy.

Truth be told, this could be DP51’s final chance to impress the coaching staff and receive more playing time. If Letang sits out through the Penguins’ bye week, it will be a potential eight game stretch that Letang will miss. This would give Pouliot the opportunity to slot in and show his talents. He could very well be on his way out the door if his play isn’t what the team would’ve hoped.

Look for Pouliot to play his best hockey over the next few weeks as he may have to if he wants to stay with Pittsburgh.

Player Safety Certainly An Issue

Sidney Crosby is on fire. The haters are running out of ideas so they’ve recycled the statement that Crosby is protected by the league. I already debunked that with video evidence on this site earlier this season, but Sid isn’t the only one the NHL is failing this year.

Boarding in my opinion has become the penaltie du jour among hitters who don’t want to get dinged for a straight head shot. The idea is to hit them in the back or waist and let the dasher do the rest.  The latest major example happens to be on the alleged bubble boy himself, Sidney Crosby.

In Tampa Bay last week defenceman Luke Witkowski was a little overzealous on our captain, giving him a helpful shove head first into the advertisements. No call came from Player Safety and no   penalty was given at ice level.

Video: SPORTSNETCANADA

For those about to accuse me of begging for a suspension every time Sid gets touched, keep calm and go to a Capitals blog. I’m not surprised or even upset there was no look by Player Safety. What concerns me most is the acceptability of plays like this.

This is not on the on ice officials either. In most cases at ice level the  force and impact of the push in the moment aren’t more than a minor. There’s no thought of intent, and it’s just a hockey play. Players just don’t know any better.

But like head shots, the NHL needs to step in and say enough is enough. It’s getting to be too much. With their own penal system they can send the message that just because this is a minor penalty, it can have major repercussions (i.e. a  broken neck and back like happened in the AHL and the KHL). The decision to push in the first place is the problem, not the actual push.

This has nothing to do with Sidney Crosby. There were two more major boarding incidents last night, including Brian Dumoulin getting rammed. People have spent their day crying over a Kris Letang phantoms elbow head shot and don’t even bat an eye about that boarding penalty to a defenceless player.

The league doesn’t protect Sidney Crosby personally and they’ve proven that. But what happens to Crosby and other superstars is a product of the culture the League has promoted, and for some reason the fans have accepted it.

 

Penguins 4, Bruins 3: The Streak Continues

On December 14, 2016 the Pittsburgh Penguins took on the Boston Bruins at PPG Paints Arena. After a close scoring game, the Penguins were able to overwhelm the Boston Bruins with their offensive speed and gritty play. As of right now, the Penguins lead the Metropolitan Division with 43 points on a seven game win streak. The Bruins are now third in the Atlantic Division, which ties them with the Ottawa Senators, who have 35 points. Also, the Pittsburgh Penguins currently lead the NHL with 43 points so far. So how were the Penguins able to defeat a defensive team like the Bruins?

Offensive Speed

I have written a lot about the Penguins’ speed in previous articles, simply because it is a significant part of their identity. A huge part of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ success is their offensive speed. The goals that were scored in Wednesday night’s game were a product of the Penguins’ speed coming out of the neutral zone. The speed coming out of the neutral zone is what pushed the Bruins’ defense back, which put less pressure on the Penguins’ offense. This also gives the Penguins more room to skate, and exposes open areas of the ice.

Shot Blocking

The Penguins have become expert shot blockers while coached by Mike Sullivan. Compared to previous years, the Penguins are now giving up their bodies to protect their goalies form having to make difficult saves. Not only is this helping the goalie out, but it also frustrates teams that cannot penetrate the Penguins’ defense. While shot blocking may not appear to be that important or significant in games, it appears to be helping the Pittsburgh Penguins win. Shot blocking is another layer of defense that slows down the opposition’s game, and prevents offensive chances. The Penguins have demonstrated how willing they are to throw their bodies on the ice, in order to prevent a scoring chance.

Player Consistency

The players that can get on the ice and give it their all every game, are the players that we love the most. Recently, we have seen multiple players step up and produce scoring chances. An obvious player is Sidney Crosby, who is having an amazing season so far. He currently leads the NHL with 21 goals on the season, making his presence on the ice known. Another consistent player is Justin Schultz, who is currently tied with Shea Weber at +18. A lot of fans were thrilled to hear that Justin Schultz would continue his career as a Pittsburgh Penguin during the offseason, and he is now proving why he deserves to wear the Pittsburgh Penguins uniform.

 

Murray Proving Worthy of Crease

Monday night’s 7-0 pounding of the Arizona Coyotes was just another example of how good the Penguins can be when they’re clicking on all cylinders.

Goaltending performances tend to be lost in games like these where the offense puts up seven goals, each scored by a different Penguin, and that’s not fair.

Goaltender Matt Murray was not tested much at all but when he was, he was well prepared. Like the above save, Murray had to make about three tough saves the entire game. Yes, the Coyotes are a very poor playing hockey club right now. That’s not likely to change anytime soon. Couple that with the often rowdy crowd at PPG Paints Arena and you get a combination not many teams want to face, including the NHL’s worst franchise.

Tonight was just another example, though, of why Matt Murray has carried over the talent and momentum he had from last season’s Stanley Cup run and turned it into practically a starting job with that same team. He didn’t even let the broken hand suffered at the World Cup of Hockey stop him from attaining that. I’m willing to bet you forgot about that injury too.

Murray extended his regular season numbers to an even more unbelievable stature: 11-2-0, 1.84 GAA, .936 SV%.

His career regular season numbers? We’ve got those too:

20-4-1, 1.92 GAA, .933 SV%.

Of course he’s going to go through a rough patch at some point in his career. His numbers can not continue to stay that crazy from now clear through to his final NHL game.

Of all retired NHL goalies, Dominik Hasek leads the NHL in career save percentage (.922). He leads all retired goalies from 1990 on in GAA (2.20). Otherwise, Alec Connell leads with a 1.91 GAA.

With every game, Matt Murray just looks to be more and more poised. He seems more and more like that goalie that tore through AHL records like it was nothing on his way to Pittsburgh. He looks like potentially the goalie of his generation.

None of these characteristics phase Murray either. If you set out a goal for him and he didn’t meet it, even if it was the most astronomically impossible goal, he’d be pissed at himself. That’s the person he is. He’s competitive. He hates to lose and you can see it in the attitude he carries himself with.

The Penguins are playing better in front of Matt Murray even though I’ve previously disagreed with that notion. I have yet to see the Penguins willingness to string this kind of hot streak together with Flower. Whether that is just a coincidence or because he’s struggling to make saves to keep the team’s rhythm, it’s the truth. And they’ll keep playing Murray until he loses a game.

At the top of his game, Murray is proving to be an elite NHL goaltender with the likes of Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist, Braden Holtby, and Jonathan Quick. Keep in mind I said top of their game. That’s where Murray is playing right now and if he continues to do so, the Penguins might find themselves playing in June again.

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