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January 29, 2016
by Bill West


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Penguins podcast on TribLIVE Radio

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If you don’t feel like reading, click here to listen.

Depending on what numbers you trust, the Penguins are sitting pretty at the All-Star break, or at the very least, they’re in better position for the playoffs than when they went into the Christmas break.

When judged by their advanced metrics, the Mike Sullivan-led Penguins resemble one of the most potent teams in the Eastern Conference. Their possession numbers are up, as are their scoring chances. And their shooting percentage as a team, once abnormally low, finally looks like it’s ready to settle back around the league average.

But their record under Sullivan (9-8-4) begs the question of whether “fancy stats,” as they’re known around Twitter, oversells the Penguins’ potential.

So what do you trust? Are the advanced metrics predictive of future performance? Is it necessary to rule out the four-game losing streak that marked the beginning of Sullivan’s tenure? Or are the Penguins simply a team that will continue to linger in the Eastern Conference wild card mix, only to finish short?

All of this and more is discussed on our weekly TribLIVE Radio show, which airs every Friday from 1-2 p.m.

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January 27, 2016
by Bill West


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New Jersey postgame

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Pens vs Devs final score-adjusted CorsiPens vs Devs final shot chart

Another night, another appearance from the #ResilientPenguins. They didn’t trail at any point Tuesday night, but the first few minutes of their 2-0 win over New Jersey certainly required them to provide a compelling response.

As the score-adjusted Corsi chart (all situations) from Hockeystats.Ca indicates, the Devils accumulated shot attempts early, while the Penguins labored through the opening period. Marc-Andre Fleury made several fantastic saves and several more better-than-routine ones to keep New Jersey off the board.

Sidney Crosby, whose power-play goal in the first period extended his streak of goals in home games to seven straight, sensed the Devils’ on-ice dynamic changed as the closing 20 minutes approached.

“When they get a lead, they a play pretty comfortable game that way. Their goalie (Cory Schneider) keeps them in it. He did it again tonight. But definitely good to get a lead and give ourselves some breathing room there. … I think that they still believe in the way they play (when trailing). Especially with an early lead, you’re not going to get them out of their comfort zone too much. But I think you notice a difference in the third period when they have to start pinching a little bit more.”

The Penguins’ second goal, their prettiest of the night and maybe of the week, certainly made sure the Devils, already in a Corsi funk at that point, stayed down for the count.

“I’ve got a couple great passes and I’ve been fortunate enough to bury them,” Phil Kessel said of his third goal in his last three games.

If one sliver of data stuck out during the Penguins’ flat first few minutes, it was that the Devils, despite controlling five-on-five play, failed to register a shot on goal during two first-period power plays.

“What I liked about our penalty kill tonight is I thought we were aggressive, and I thought we made good reads on when to be aggressive and when not to and just protect the most dangerous part of the ice,” coach Mike Sullivan said.

The Penguins head into the All-Star break in the thick of the Eastern Conference wild card race and the battle for the Metropolitan Division’s third playoff berth.

What’s on the agenda for Sullivan and his staff when the break ends and the Penguins return to action? You guessed it: Making sure the Penguins remain resilient and get better at also being ready.

“The important aspect, for me, is to sustain an element of consistency to our game, regardless of who our opponent is,” Sullivan said. “That we play the game a certain way that gives us the best chance to win. … Our consistency of preparedness has to be there.”

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January 26, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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New Jersey pregame

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Mike Sullivan’s pregame press conference game was pretty strong this morning, so I’ll let his quotes provide a preview of this one.

Some lineup notes first:

Chris Kunitz is out with a lower-body injury, Sullivan said. Matt Cullen shifts up to first line left wing. Conor Sheary slides to the fourth line with center Kevin Porter and recently called-up winger Scott Wilson. Sergei Plotnikov looks to be scratched again.

— Kris Letang was a participant in morning skate and is on track to play tonight. He said he will definitely be attending the all-star game in Nashville, but he couldn’t say yet what his level of involvement will be. Derrick Pouliot, Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole rotated in and out on the third pair during the skate. I expect Cole will be scratched again tonight, but it’s basically just a guess on my part.

OK, now to the Sullivan.

On a big-picture level, a coach’s challenge tonight is to get his team to focus with visions of all-star break vacations dancing in their heads. Maybe like a grade-school teacher on the last day before Christmas break.

“My message before the game and to this point is we still have business at hand. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We have a divisional game tonight. We’ve got two points on the table. That’s an opportunity for us to climb in the standings. It’s an important game for us. The focus has to be on that and that’s where it’s been, quite honestly, to this point. We’ll cross that bridge as far as what takes place after the game tonight, but right now, there’s been zero discussion about what takes place beyond this game.”

On a smaller picture level, to me, the key to this game is how the Penguins deal with New Jersey’s defensive efforts. It’s not a 90s-style Devils trap. It’s a more aggressive, back-pressuring style under John Hynes. But it’s still defense first and it still feasts on turnovers. The Penguins would do well to avoid those in key areas of the ice.

“They’re a team that’s hard to play against in the sense that they make it hard for you to go through the neutral zone. They get numbers back a lot. So, when you play against those types of teams, you’ve got to be that much more diligent with the decisions you make going through that area of the rink. This goes back, for me, to the conversation we had a month ago about making sure we outplay our opponents and not try to outscore our opponents. Part of that is the decision making that we make in those critical areas of the rink.”

The chart below from Micah Blake McCurdy sheds light on just how stylistically different the Devils are from the Penguins in terms of strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, the starts. The Penguins have fallen behind by two goals in the first or second period of four of their last six games. Here’s Sullivan’s thoughts on how to avoid that:

“I just think it’s a concentration level. It’s a focus. It’s not just about playing hard. It’s about playing smart and making sure we make good decisions with the puck, understanding our play away from the puck, our awareness away from the puck. It’s playing with a sense of purpose, not just playing hard. That’s what’s been missing early in our games. It’s been hard for me to be critical of our team’s effort because I think our team, for the most part, has played extremely hard. We don’t always play smart. That, for me, is where we’ve got to be locked in. We’ve got to make sure we bring the necessary concentration and the focus so that we play the right way and we don’t just play hard, we play smart also. It’s that combination that makes us difficult to play against and gives us the best chance to be successful.”

New Jersey is the only team in the league without a regulation loss in a game in which it scored first. Quick reminder: The Devils scored early and often in their previous meeting with the Penguins, who were held to 21 shots on goal and rarely mustered a shot attempt from a high-danger area of the ice (see below).

Pens vs Devs Nov 14 Pens vs Devs shot chart Nov 14

More later. Bye for now,

jb

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January 25, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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A Sporcle quiz and notes from practice

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Evgeni Malkin’s hat trick against Vancouver the other day was the 10th of his career. I looked it up, and he’s one of only six active NHL players with double-digit hat tricks. There are only 26 with at least five career hat tricks.

Boy, that sounds like a Sporcle quiz, doesn’t it?

Here, have at it. I can’t get it to embed in the blog, so follow this link. Two of the top four were surprising to me.

Otherwise, some notes from today’s practice:

— Beau Bennett won’t play tomorrow against the New Jersey Devils, coach Mike Sullivan said after practice this afternoon.

Bennett returned to the lineup Saturday after missing 17 games with an upper-body injury. After delivering a hard hit to Luca Sbisa in the second period, he went to the locker room for medical attention. He returned to finish the game, playing a total of about eight minutes. Sullivan said he was being evaluated today and more would be known about his status during the all-star break.

There’s no use in belaboring the point. Bennett gets hurt a lot. I’m sure the Penguins have reached the point where everything he can provide when he’s healthy and playing is a bonus.

Meanwhile, Sullivan said Chris Kunitz (lower body) is a game-time decision and things are status quo with Kris Letang, who has been sitting out practices and playing in games since taking a hard hit Jan. 15 in Tampa.

— I think tomorrow could be a big game for Conor Sheary. If Kunitz can’t play, it looks like Sheary will get the nod on the left side of the top line with Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist. Sullivan said Sheary doesn’t have to put up points to keep his spot in the lineup, that he can impress with other parts of his game, but let’s face facts. He’s a skilled player. At some point, he has to put up points to keep his spot in the lineup.

Adding some intrigue is the fact that Sheary will be facing coach John Hynes tomorrow, the coach who really gave him his start on his path to the NHL. Tom Kuhnhackl could say the same thing. So could Brian Dumoulin. It’s an interesting dynamic for those guys as a result.

— If the Penguins need a reinforcement up front – if Kunitz is out, they’re down to the minimum of 12 healthy forwards – expect Scott Wilson to get the call. He was kept out of the Baby Pens’ game at Providence yesterday as a precaution in case his services are needed in the NHL.

— I asked Sullivan if there was a temptation to sit Letang out tomorrow so he could have the whole all-star break off. He said no and that the process that’s ongoing with Letang, trying to keep him healthy enough to contribute on game nights, is occurring all over the league with lots of players.

Fair enough, but I think the NHL rules regarding skipping the all-star game are really unfairly putting a burden on Letang and the Penguins at this point. He hasn’t practiced in a week. He’s obviously dealing with an injury. Yet, if I understand the rules correctly, he has to miss either tomorrow’s game against New Jersey or the following Tuesday’s game against Ottawa if he wants to take the all-star break off to recover. I get it when guys are exaggerating or plain old making up an injury just so they can go to Turks & Caicos instead of the all-star game, but that’s obviously not the case here. I don’t know if Letang wants to skip the trip to Nashville, but if he does, he should be allowed to.

Bye for now,

jb

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January 23, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Vancouver postgame

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Remember when the Penguins couldn’t mount a third-period comeback to save their lives? It wasn’t that long ago.

From Jan. 5, 2014 in Winnipeg to Nov. 11, 2015 at home against Montreal, they were 0-31-6 when trailing after two periods.

Now they’re regular comeback artists. Today, thanks mostly to Evgeni Malkin, they rallied from 2-0 down in the first and 3-1 down in the third to beat Vancouver 5-4 in regulation.

They’ve trailed by two goals in the first or second period in four of their last six games. They’re 2-0-2 in those games. That’s a remarkable level of resiliency.

Why have they been able to turn their game around in that area? Bryan Rust, who scored the go-ahead goal in the third period today, has a theory. Remember when Malkin talked about how the Penguins were “mad” at each other after that brutal 4-0 loss at New Jersey on Nov. 14? It sort of plays off of that.

“In the past, guys kind of got on each other. We were a little bit down. Coach Sullivan came in here and he harped upon us that we’ve got to be a lot better at that. We can’t get down on each other. We’ve got to stick together as a team. We’ve got to move forward.”

Moving forward, the Penguins are tied for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference for the first time since Dec. 12 and their ability to erase deficits is a big reason why.

Some other notes from today’s game:

— Derrick Pouliot made his season debut and coach Mike Sullivan reconfigured his D pairs accordingly. Pouliot was with Ben Lovejoy. Brian Dumoulin skated with Trevor Daley. To my eye, the new pairs were not a success. A relatively anonymous group of Vancouver forwards seemingly torched the Penguins D at will, especially in the first period.

 

The numbers tell a little bit different story. The four guys with new D pairs were all in the black when it came to Corsi. It was the Maatta-Letang pairing that was in the red. I’m not sure what to make of that. All the D were within plus-4 (Dumoulin) and minus-6 (Letang), so maybe it’s not all that significant.

— Here’s what Sullivan said about the first period today: “I didn’t like anything about the first period. I just didn’t think we played the right way. We didn’t stop and start. We didn’t finish checks. We didn’t stay on the right side of puck battles. We didn’t win the puck battles. Our faceoff percentage was poor. I didn’t like anything about the first period.” A graphical depiction of that:

— A statistical pregame gem from Bob Grove that changed in a big way today:

— Beau Bennett was back from his upper-body injury. He retreated to the locker room after delivering a hit in first period, but quickly returned to the bench.

— Sullivan said the Penguins planned to have Chris Kunitz in the lineup, but that changed after warm-ups. He’s got a lower-body injury.

The team is off tomorrow after the postponement of a scheduled game at Washington. Check back for the next blog update after Monday’s practice.

Bye for now,

jb

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January 23, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Vancouver pregame

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I feel confident in making a prediction for this afternoon’s game between the Penguins and Canucks: The Penguins will get lots of shots on goal.

Under Mike Sullivan, they’re averaging 35.2 per game. They’ve topped the 40 mark in five of 18 games. Vancouver, meanwhile, has given up at least 40 shots in four of its last five games.

The shot load hasn’t bothered goalie Ryan Miller, incidentally. He stopped 47-of-48 in a 2-1 win over the Islanders last Sunday and 46-of-49 in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Rangers on Tuesday.

Some other pregame notes:

— Marc-Andre Fleury will start for the Penguins today.

Coach Mike Sullivan said the postponement of Sunday’s game at Washington did not change his goaltending plans, which leads me to believe that he planned to start Fleury on back-to-back days this weekend. I can’t imagine he would have started Jeff Zatkoff at Washington, even though Sullivan said he does not lack confidence in his back-up goaltender

It’s a moot point anyway.

— The Canucks are 3-1-1 on a road trip with stops in Washington, Carolina, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Boston. That’s pretty impressive, especially since they’ve been without their top two centers — Henrik Sedin (chest) and Brandon Sutter (sports hernia).

Sutter is expected to return to the lineup Tuesday, just missing a matchup with his old team by one game.

— Here’s what Sullivan said about the Canucks, which detoured into a discussion of the Penguins’ last game against the Flyers.

“They’ve had some success on this road trip. They’ve got a lot of youth and energy and enthusiasm in the lineup. They’re playing hard. They’ve got real good goaltending, which helps when you get that timely save. And their veteran guys are quality people that have a professional approach. For me, we have to continue to try to play the way we’ve played over the last little while to get the result we’re looking for.

“For most of the game our last game against Philly, I thought it was a solid effort. Even in the first period, we had stretches of the first period where I thought we were playing the game hard and playing the right way and making good decisions. We didn’t get it done on the penalty kill, and that changed the perception of how the period was actually played, but I thought the way we responded in the second and third, we brought our game up another level and that’s how we have to start today.”

— Sullivan said Chris Kunitz will play. He left the Flyers game with a lower-body injury and didn’t practice yesterday. He has five points in his last five games. He said Beau Bennett is a game-time decision. Bennett, who has been out since Dec. 14, has been practicing this week.

Sullivan didn’t directly address Kris Letang’s status for today, but it sounded like he’ll probably play. Letang has been dealing with an upper-body injury for about a week.

“We’re just trying to manage his health as we need to in order to allow him to be effective in games,” Sullivan said. “Fortunately for us, his fitness level is terrific. He’s a real efficient guy and he takes care of himself. That helps us as far as helping us manage his health.”

More after the game.

jb

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January 21, 2016
by Bill West


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Flyers pregame: Does it have to get ugly?

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Usually the questions asked at Penguins morning skates cover a range of topics, from line arrangements to injury updates to the night’s opponent to ongoing narratives for individual players.

This morning’s session, held just hours before the Penguins’ first meeting of the season with Philadelphia, lacked such diversity.

Rarely did conversation stray from the tense, sometimes hostile relationship between the Penguins and Flyers, who’ve won the last eight meetings. Players, though eager to come across as diplomatic, did little to dispel the notion that these teams dislike each other and that the Flyers tend to dictate the nature of the games.

“I don’t think it’s about the Flyers,” Kris Letang said of the losing streak. “I think it’s about ourselves. We shoot ourselves in the foot every time we play. We get too emotional about it.”

Even players who’ve never participated in the Penguins-Flyers games stuck to the rugged-rivarly script. Only one prominent figure, coach Mike Sullivan, refused to go along with the storyline the media craved.

“This is a new group,” Sullivan said. “I’m aware of the history. I’m aware of the rivalry and the emotions that are associated with it. … For me, what’s in the past is in the past.”

Did Sullivan’s desire to distance himself from his predecessors’ struggles against the Flyers surprise anyone? Not really. There’s little incentive for him to embrace the Penguins’ 0-4 record against the Flyers in 2014-15 or their 1-4 record in 2013-14.

But he’s also fairly honest in his description of his players as a “new group.” Yes, the Penguins’ stars remain the same. New faces dot the bottom two forward lines and the defensive pairings, though.

Consider the now former Penguins who received ice time in the team’s final meeting with the Flyers last season: Craig Adams, Taylor Chorney, Blake Comeau, Maxim Lapierre, Paul Martin, David Perron, Rob Scuderi, Nick Spaling, Brandon Sutter, Thomas Greiss and Daniel Winnik.

Also contemplate the former Penguins who skated the last time the team beat Philadelphia (4-1 on Oct. 17, 2013): Adams, Robert Bortuzzo, Pascal Dupuis, Deryk Engelland, Tanner Glass, Jussi Jokinen, Chuck Kobasew, Martin, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Scuderi, Sutter, Joe Vitale and Harry Zolnierczyk.

Are Phil Kessel, Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, Eric Fehr, Matt Cullen and the Baby Pens call-ups all part of the Penguins’ solution?  We’ll see. But if the Penguins follow Sullivan’s lead, they’re almost certain to put a better product on the ice than what fans at Consol Energy Center tend to see when the Flyers visit.

And if you have little faith in Sullivan, just take a look at the chart below, which effectively captures how much the Penguins’ style has changed in the past month-plus.

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January 19, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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St. Louis postgame

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I thought I had a pretty good idea of when this game, a 5-2 St. Louis win, went south for the Penguins tonight.

Early in the third period, Paul Stastny took a whack at a puck and it popped high in the air, landed in the slot and bounced over Ian Cole’s stick, right to Troy Brouwer at the left hash. He uncorked a perfect one-timer just as the puck landed — nice hand-eye coordination — and that was that. The Penguins didn’t mount much of a comeback, Stastny scored with 8:22 to go and Kevin Shattenkirk added the empty netter.

That would prompt a discussion about bad bounces and the resolve to bounce back from bad bounces and all that stuff.

But the more I think about it, I think the turning point came earlier.

With the score tied 1-1 late in the second period, Evgeni Malkin scored another highlight-reel goal, bursting up the right wing, blowing past Jay Bouwmeester and flipping a shot over goalie Brian Elliott’s right shoulder.

The Penguins outshot the Blues 31-17 in the first two periods. They were largely outplaying the Blues. That should have been the point where they pulled away.

But less than two minutes later, Vladimir Tarasenko scored a mirror image goal of Malkin’s. He beat Ben Lovejoy up the right wing and flipped a shot over the shoulder of Jeff Zatkoff (who said it tipped off the stick of Brian Dumoulin, incidentally).

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. The fact is that the Penguins, with a chance to move into a tie for seventh place in the Eastern Conference, played a poor third period and squandered a chance at two points. They turned up the heat on themselves for Thursday’s game with the Flyers, and the last thing they need for a Flyers game is extra heat.

But if you ask me, it might have been Tarasenko’s brilliant response to Malkin that turned the tide, not Brouwer’s bounce.

Some other notes from tonight:

— I thought Jeff Zatkoff had a good night stopping pucks that were actually shot at him, but he struggled in other areas of the game, things related to game management and decision making and whatnot. I asked Mike Sullivan if he thought St. Louis had a better night in goal. He said no, that it was a team loss.

— Zatkoff and Malkin said the Penguins might have run out of gas in the third, playing their third game in four days with a bunch of travel in between. Sullivan said fatigue was no factor.

— Kris Letang showed no ill effects of an apparent upper-body injury that kept him out of the last game and made him a game-time decision tonight. He made a long head-man pass to spring Chris Kunitz for a successful breakaway in the first period and tangled with Brouwer in a dust-up in the corner in the second.

— The team is off tomorrow. Bill West’s got you covered for practice on Wednesday.

Bye for now,

jb

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January 19, 2016
by Jonathan Bombulie


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St. Louis pregame

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Some quick notes before the Penguins and Blues face off at 8:

— Coach Mike Sullivan said Kris Letang is a game-time decision. If he can’t go, it’ll be the season debut of Derrick Pouliot, who has arrived after being called up from Wilkes-Barre earlier in the day. David Warsofsky is out with a concussion.

— Jeff Zatkoff will start in goal.

— Pouliot has been pretty hot lately in the AHL — a goal, five assists and a plus-5 rating in eight games in January.

— I have no idea if this is a matchup of two hot teams or two cold teams. They’re both 3-1-3 in their last seven. They both have points in six of their last seven and they’ve both lost four of their last seven. Loser points obscure the truth.

— A beat writer’s worst nightmare: Seven of St. Louis’ last 12 games have gone to overtime. Four of the Penguins’ last nine have, too.

— With the acquisitions of Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley, the Penguins have gotten smaller and quicker since the last time these teams met. The Blues are still big. Should be an interesting matchup in that regard.

— The Blues announced former Penguins D Robert Bortuzzo won’t play tonight due to a lower-body injury suffered while blocking a shot. They revealed no timetable for his return.

More after the game. Bye for now,

jb

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January 17, 2016
by Bill West


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Carolina pregame: Letang won’t play

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Coach Mike Sullivan has maintained a stoic disposition while listening to almost every question he’s faced from the media since becoming the man in charge of the Penguins. During times both good and bad, he has offered measured answers. Rarely does he even give off a hint of uneasiness or anxiety when addressing a topic.

Injury updates, somewhat understandably, come as close as any subject to making Sullivan change his mood. He grows more curt, his answers more concise.

Kris Letang’s ongoing injury woes, in particular, seem to set Sullivan on edge.

Sullivan had to discuss Letang’s status again Sunday afternoon, as he shared that the All-Star defenseman will not dress against Carolina. The coach added that Letang’s availability for Monday’s game in St. Louis will be a “game-time decision.”

As soon as news of Letang’s unavailability hit Twitter, the oft-referenced “Penguins are 1-7-1 without Letang this season” factoid resurfaced.

It’s hard to blame Sullivan for being particularly sensitive with Letang updates. Perhaps no player has flourished more since the coaching switch than Letang. Click here to check out his stats under Sullivan. And from a game-planning standpoint, Sullivan must figure out who will run the top power play unit in Letang’s absence. The coach said he might use a variety of options (i.e. Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta) against the Hurricanes.

The Penguins media also spoke with newly acquired winger Carl Hagelin for the first time. He didn’t say anything particularly Earth-shattering and largely echoed the talking points brought up a day earlier by Sullivan — using speed to create turnovers and space — in regards to his role on the team.

In Hagelin, the Penguins hope they have a steadying left-handed left wing presence. I know general manager Jim Rutherford’s remark about a meaningful difference between Hagelin and Perron’s (career) plus-minus marks offsetting Hagelin’s lesser scoring history generated more than a few chuckles and scoffs from Penguins fans on Twitter.

Perhaps it was deserved. But I think what Rutherford intended to express with the remark isn’t completely absurd. He simply wanted to frame Hagelin better three-zone player. Hagelin’s 128 blocked shots in five-on-five play over 382 career games versus Perron’s 106 over 566 games aligns with that view, as does his career 2.2 CF%Rel compared to Perron’s 1.6 CF%Rel — shoutout to war-on-ice.com for all of this useful info.

Fans are free to critique the Penguins for taking on Hagelin’s four-season contract, especially in light of what the organization gave up to get Perron, only to flip him for a lesser scorer. But if Hagelin fits better in Sullivan’s speed-friendly system and finds a rhythm, then maybe the contract is worth the trouble. We’ll see. If you want a non-Pittsburgh view of the trade, I thought TSN’s Scott Cullen provides a good one. 

 

 

 

 

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