Tag Archives: Pittsburgh Penguins

Taking a Closer Look at Kris Letang

With the Penguins on their league-mandated bye week, we have some time to reflect over the Penguins first 44 games. They went into the break on a high note, winning back to back games against the Islanders and Bruins respectively. The 42 games before that were hard to swallow.

A big part of the Penguins’ issues have been the performance of their stars. The brightest spot for Pittsburgh has by far been Phil Kessel, but Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have been inconsistent. Even Crosby recently admitted that he doesn’t deserve a spot in the all star game.

The biggest disappointment of this season has been the performance of Kris Letang. Either way you cut it, Letang’s season has been one of his worst to date. His advanced stats are down, his shot percentage is at a career-low, and his plus-minus (for what it’s worth) is way down at -13.

The eye test has probably been the most damning evidence for Letang. He just doesn’t look like the same player. There are flashes of the player that Letang has become over his career, but then he’s back to bad giveaways and other lapses.

One thing that’s also noticeable is how Letang has seemed to be avoiding contact more often than usual. It’s completely understandable. He’s dealt with more health issues than someone should ever have to deal with in a hockey career. His latest neck surgery that kept him out for months could be the catalyst for a more timid playing style, but part of what made Letang great was his aggressive play.

Now, in no way are the Penguins at risk for missing the playoffs based on Letang’s play alone. As a matter of fact, the Penguins will need him if they are to make another run at the Cup. Yes, they won without him in the playoffs last season, but the Penguins aren’t as deep up front this season and will need as much support from the back end as possible. Letang’s ability to break out of the zone is valuable by itself.

Letang may be trying to find a slightly different way to play to help lengthen his career, but if he is, he may never be the same player again. He’s 30 years old and is approaching the end of his prime. He can definitely still be one of the better defensemen in the league, but his best days may be behind him.

There are still 38 games left this season, and Letang’s performance seems to be trending upward lately, so he may be turning a corner. Very few would be happier than myself if he finds his form again. Overall, his health is key. Having a more timid Letang in the lineup is better than no Letang at all.

Letang is crucial to the Penguins’ success and is a part of the core group that the team is built around. Everyone should be rooting for his success. If the Penguins make a run for a “three-peat,” he will be a big reason why.

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COLUMN: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Here we are beating the proverbial dead horse, but there’s a major issue with the Penguins right now. You can blame it on several things, but there is one major thing that has changed from the time the Penguins lifted Lord Stanley in Nashville to the beginning of the 2017-2018 season: scoring depth.

Unfortunately for the Penguins, a lack of scoring depth has the largest ripple effect on a team, especially in today’s NHL, where it’s already hard enough to score goals. Pittsburgh had more subtractions than additions in the offseason, and on top of that, the subtractions were vital pieces while the additions were no more than role-player pieces.

The Penguins’ biggest acquisition of the offseason was Ryan Reaves, and sure, we had a lot of fun in those first couple of games when he was playing the part of goon that he’s known for. That breath of fresh air however, has turned into a foul stench that won’t go away.

There isn’t much argument against how much of an anchor Reaves has been. And no, that isn’t a good anchor. It’s the type that weighs you down and restricts you from moving forward. He has three points in 35 games played and a whopping 75 penalty minutes. The second-highest on the team is Sidney Crosby with 32.

It’s unclear still why Jim Rutherford traded for the enforcer when the Penguins had won back-to-back Stanley Cups without one in the lineup. This leads to my point:

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The Penguins were rolling out four lines in the past two seasons capable of putting the puck in the net. Now granted, it was going to be impossible to keep the 2016-2017 team intact like the Penguins did the previous year. Contracts expired for guys like Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen, two very important pieces to the puzzle, and it was going to be too expensive to bring them back.

Now, it’s unclear what it would have cost, but the goal of the offseason should have been to bring in a third line center. Rutherford did bring in Riley Sheahan after the season started once Detroit’s asking price went down. However, there’s no denying that the duo of Sheahan and Carter Rowney as the third and fourth line centers doesn’t compare to Bonino and Cullen.

Does this mean Rutherford should’ve just pulled the trigger for Matt Duchene? Not necessarily, but the drop off of scoring ability on the bottom two lines has shown so far in 2017. It’s hard to question Rutherford after back to back Stanley Cups, but the identity of this team is different from the past two seasons and it’s showing on the ice and in the standings.

Now, the lack of scoring depth isn’t the only issue with the Penguins this season, but as stated before, the ripple effect of it is huge. It affects the top two lines’ ability to produce and puts more pressure on the defense.

We will probably see Ian Cole get traded by the deadline, and maybe the return will bring more scoring depth on the bottom two lines. The season sure isn’t over yet. It’s only December, and we’ve seen the Penguins come back from much worse in previous seasons. We’ll see what Rutherford can do to give this team a boost as they prepare for the calendar to turn.

Is It Time to Trade Carl Hagelin?

The Penguins boast a collection of skaters on their team that could hold their own in any dead sprint on the ice. Carl Hagelin might be the fastest skater the Penguins have, and it’s a wonderful asset, but with his lack of production, you may begin to wonder if he could be used as a valuable trade piece to bring in more production.

Hagelin was originally brought to Pittsburgh by Jim Rutherford in the 2015-2016 season to upgrade the bottom-six’s overall production, and Hagelin later became a member of the infamous “HBK” line with Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. No doubt, the line was a huge part in the 2016 Stanley Cup run, but the magic didn’t carry on to the following season.

Since that time, head coach Mike Sullivan has moved Hagelin up and down the lineup playing on just about every line. Granted, that shows his versatility and how his skill set can translate between a scoring line or checking line. What is alarming about Hagelin is the lack of production on the scoresheet on a team that is built to rely on all four lines to produce.

Now, Sidney Crosby has gone through a scoring drought himself this season, but no one sane would think about trading arguably the best player in the world. Given his track record, you would rely on Crosby to eventually figure it out. With Hagelin, the track record isn’t there, and with there being no one he has any great chemistry with, you begin to wonder if Hagelin hurts the team more than he helps it.

When Hagelin was traded to Pittsburgh in 2015-2016, he registered 10 goals and 17 assists in 37 games with the Penguins. In 61 games in 2016-2017, he only put up six goals and 16 assists. This season has been significantly worse, tallying only one goal and two assists in 21 games.

To really put things into perspective, Hagelin is making $4 million per season, and is under contract through the 2018-2019 season. Hagelin is a fine player to have on your team and can be a great asset as his speed is nearly second to none and he can kill penalties, but for $4 million on a team that needs production, the offensive stats just aren’t there.

In no way am I stating that he should be run out of town, but if I’m Jim Rutherford and the right deal comes along and Hagelin’s got to go, I’m not hesitating at pulling the trigger.

COLUMN: Enjoy The Ride

I’m a Twitter guy. I enjoy the friendly debates, the live tweeting during games, the breaking news; I enjoy it all. Even the people’s opinions that are…questionable. Hot takes, if you will.

I came across one this past week that just floored me. It wasn’t from some random faceless person. It came from someone that actually has a job in Pittsburgh sports media.

Now, I’m not going to name this guy. This isn’t a column to stoop and slam garbage takes, but it made me realize something. It made me realize something that will help all Penguins fans and make this season much more enjoyable.

This tweet said that the same people that criticize the Pirates, and that it’s getting old, fault to criticize the Penguins’ “playoff failures” in the Crosby/Malkin era. Another tweet from this guy shortly after said that one could argue that the Penguins are boring.

If back to back Stanley Cups are boring, then I’ll gladly be bored out of my mind every year if they can pull it off.

Now, I thought about it for a while. I can see how people could get a little stale with the Penguins. I mean, how much better can it be to win back to back Cups? Sure, a three-peat would be amazing, but nothing beats the first time you win the Cup. The gap between the 2009 and 2016 Cups made everyone in Pittsburgh thirsty for another Cup. It solidified Sidney Crosby‘s legacy and finally gave Pittsburgh the multiple Cups that this talented core of players should’ve won. But now that they’ve won back to back, three total, what more is there to be excited about?

The chance for another Cup is exciting, for sure. No denying that. People should also know that the chances of that happening are getting slimmer and slimmer every year. This year the Penguins’ biggest foes are fatigue, scheduling, and backup goaltending. If the Penguins don’t win it this year, it won’t be a big surprise.

And that’s ok.

As a matter of fact, I’m going to recommend something to every Pens’ fan that I did in the 2015-2016 season. Yes, the Penguins won the Cup that year, but early on, it didn’t look like it. Remember when Mike Johnston was the coach? Remember when Crosby looked like a player that would never look like an MVP again? Or when the Penguins couldn’t score? Yeah, it was a bleak time.

Then, my realization. It hit me. I love this team. Them winning or not winning will not change that. So, I let go of all expectations to win. I was just going to support this team, win or lose. When you take away expectations to win, you get to enjoy the game more. You see how beautiful the game is and how great the players are on this team.

So this year, let go of the expectation. If they win, awesome. And they very well could. They have a good enough team to do it. If they don’t, it’s not a failure. It sure isn’t boring. Let’s just enjoy this team for who they are. All of these characters that we love. Enjoy the ride.

Anti-Niemi: The Veteran Goalie May Not Last Much Longer

The Penguins have had the luxury of having two elite goaltenders during their back-to-back Stanley Cup seasons. Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury were able to step in, one for the other, and just about everyone in the organization and in the seats would’ve been comfortable with either one between the pipes. Very few teams have ever had that luxury. Successful teams usually have a very good starter and a solid back-up. The back-up doesn’t need to be a game-stealer, but consistent and at least serviceable. Someone who won’t let pucks in like it’s the 80’s.

With Fleury being taken by Vegas in the Expansion Draft, the Penguins needed a new back-up. Enter Antti Niemi. He had some struggles in Dallas last year, but was going to come cheap to the Penguins and it’s kind of par for the course with the Penguins bringing in a veteran back-up that has been successful in the past, like Tomas Vokoun. It wasn’t a move that shook the Penguins’ news feed in the offseason, because most everyone had the same expectation of what a guy like Niemi could, or should, do.

So far, it’s been a train wreck. One doesn’t need to mention the 10-1 stomping in Chicago. Now, that was a night where the entire Penguins team looked horrible. They looked like a team that has had two short offseasons and was playing the second leg of a back-to-back to start the season. That being said, Niemi has been horrendous. He was pulled in the Chicago game, he started the second leg of a back-to-back in Tampa Bay last week and was sub-par. He made some nice saves, but still allowed five goals. He started his third game of the year Saturday night, on another back-to-back, and had another horrible start. He allowed seven goals and was not sharp whatsoever. In his three games this season, he has a .781 save percentage. It’s a small sample size, but it’s not good at all. There’s a serious amount of outrage on Niemi’s play, and for good reason. The Penguins need a back-up they can rely on. Niemi hasn’t done that.

It would be a surprise if Niemi is with the team much longer. GM Jim Rutherford isn’t afraid to make a move, but he will also make sure his ducks are in a row before a move is made. If he feels Tristan Jarry is ready to be an NHL back-up, Niemi will get dumped for nothing. If not, Rutherford will have to have a plan in place. He won’t just dump Niemi for the sake of dumping him. The team needs to play better in front of him, and he could be victim of playing the second game of a back-to-back each time, but his play won’t do, especially for a team that’s looking to three-peat.

Rutherford Content With Internal Options at Third-Line Center

The Penguins and their fans couldn’t ask for much more out of Jim Rutherford and the job he’s done as the General Manager of the team. The majority of his moves haven’t just been successful, but some of the hard-to-swallow trades have been vitally important to the Penguins winning back-to-back Stanley Cups (James Neal-for-Patric Hornqvist). One of the major reasons why the Penguins were able to repeat as champions in 2017 is because he was able to bring back almost an identical roster as the year before.

This offseason has given Rutherford a much-different challenge. Several players from the back-to-back teams have gone on to different things, whether voluntarily or not. Marc-Andre Fleury is the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural goaltender now via the Expansion Draft. Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey have all left via free agency. This has left holes in the lineup, especially in the bottom-six.

The Penguins are set on the wings. Phil Kessel, Patric HornqvistBryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, Scott Wilson, Conor Sheary, Carl Hagelin; shall I go on? Obviously, you could always add depth because you have to account for injuries (especially if you’re the Penguins), but even if (when) injuries occur, there are guys like Daniel Sprong or Zach Aston-Reese chomping at the bit to get NHL time.

One of the Penguins’ strengths for several years now has been their depth at center. Obviously, having Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin gives you the best duo at center in the league, and there has been the likes of Jordan Staal, Brandon Sutter, and Bonino behind them on the third-line. Cullen gave them a great two-way threat on the fourth-line that the Penguins lacked for a long time.

Now, there is a significant drop off with what the Penguins have internally at the moment. Carter Rowney is most likely to assume the fourth-line center role. Rutherford and Sullivan have both expressed faith in him. There are guys like Rust, Guentzel, or Aston-Reese who are natural centers who could possibly fill the role of a third-line center, but it’s still a bit murky with either of those guys filling that role. Guys like Staal, Sutter, and Bonino all have similar skill-sets. They kill penalties, are good at face-offs, yet still have a decent enough scoring touch to be legitimate secondary scoring options.

Rust is a decent penalty-killer, but you have to wonder if he could do well enough in the face-off circle and give enough scoring from the third line without guys like Crosby or Malkin next to him. It’s the same argument for Guentzel. Both guys, however, have significant tangibles that could give the third-line center role a bit of a makeover. Rust has underrated speed and tenacity on the forecheck, where if you pair him with guys like Hornqvist or Hagelin, that could make a line difficult to play against with the amount of speed and grit on a line like that. Guentzel would bring a certain level of skill to the role. He definitely plays well with Crosby, and you wonder if, because of their amazing chemistry, Mike Sullivan would actually pull the trigger on moving Guentzel to third-line center. Guentzel has the ability to score without the aid of a star like Sid, while a guy like Hornqvist could open up space for Guentzel to work.

While guys like Rust, Guentzel, or any other internal option aren’t ideal, they could do a good enough job for a couple month span until prices drop on some trade targets Rutherford has his eyes on.

It doesn’t seem likely that Aston-Reese fills that role right away. Rutherford likes to give these young draftees and signed college players time in the AHL before they are thrown into a full-time role in Pittsburgh.

The dreams of fans are to bring in a guy like Matt Duchene or the ex-Penguin Staal to fill the role. But salary-cap space and high trade prices could prevent that. And really, a trade for Duchene is a pipe dream. Rutherford is also smart enough to know that a Stanley Cup doesn’t hinge on the way the team looks in August or September.

Rutherford is fine with being a bit patient with going outside the organization to fill the need on the third-line. The season isn’t won in October and November. Obviously, if the Penguins struggle out of the gate and are desperately hurting for production from the bottom-six, Rutherford will pull the trigger. Trust the GM that’s given Pittsburgh back-to-back Cups.

COLUMN: The Man Sidney Crosby Has Become

On his 30th birthday, Sidney Crosby can reflect on his NHL career and probably be pretty proud of it. He’s accomplished things in his career that few other players have ever, or may ever, accomplish. 

As someone who just celebrated (and I use that term losely) this milestone birthday five days ago, it feels like the end of an era of your life. You could easily take a second  or two to reflect on what you’ve done with the first 30 years of your life. 

With the hopes of a hockey organization and an entire city weighing on his 18 year-old shoulders, Crosby had to live up to the hype to be the second savior this franchise needed. 

And if there’s any indication of who Sid is, he’s probably not spending much time reflecting on the past 12 years of his hockey career, rather, he’s probably focusing on the upcoming season and making sure the Stanley Cup stays in Pittsburgh for at least another year. So, we’ll reflect for you, Sid.

Crosby is a polarizing figure in hockey. Few can argue that he’s not the best player in the world. As a matter of fact, the hype has been there since he was dubbed “The Next One,” in tribute to Wayne Gretzky as “The Great One.” When you’re looked at as the next Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, that’s a standard that is about as improbable as it can get. For most, it is impossible. You’re talking about the player who’s set records that will never be broken, especially in the era of the NHL we are in now.

For Sid, he wanted to establish his own legacy, and that’s a difficult thing when you start your career with the Penguins, a team in which Lemieux played for, owns, and oh yeah, you’re now living in his house. He could’ve easily been tucked away in Lemieux’s shadow, but that didn’t happen. 

After Sid had been in the league for a few years, there was a big divide among fans. You either loved him or you hated him. Funny how that happens with the greatest players. I think that is the measuring stick for whether a player is great or not; if there’s a general consensus of either love or hate with the guy and no in between. People who loved him praised him for his talent, his abilities, and his on-ice highlight reels. People who hated him wanted to say he’s a crybaby or a diver; that he’s always whining to the refs and through that, he always gets the calls from officials because he’s the league’s poster boy.

So instead of people giving the man a chance to create his own legacy and watch him grow and mature on and off the ice, people have stuck with the stereotype that people gave him when he was essentially still a teenager. They didn’t watch him be a central piece in getting the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, or get them back there the following year and win it all. They didn’t bother empathizing with him when David Steckl took more than a season away from Crosby with one blow to the head in the Winter Classic; at a time when Sid was finding the best form of his career up until that point. They didn’t watch him battle back from lingering concussion-like symptoms and nerve damage to get back to playing this violent sport at an elite level again. And then, they did watch, talk, and tweeted when Crosby seemed to lose his game under Mike Johnston‘s coaching regime.

And now under Mike Sullivan, Crosby has not only found elite form again, he’s at the best he’s ever been. It’s the reason why the Penguins have won back-to-back Stanley Cups. It’s not an accident that Crosby won the Conn Smythe in both Cup runs. You see, for the most part, the hockey world doesn’t look at Crosby like the average hockey fan does, with this stereotype that he’s a crybaby and a whiner. They know that version of Sid is long gone. That’s when he was Sid the Kid. Now, he’s jut Sidney Crosby: the best player in the world. At what he’s accomplished by age 30, it’s hard to find a sound argument against that. There’s few players that are hyped up so much and live up to it. He is in that select few. And he’s not done yet.