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Pens Thoughts: Hornqvist likes to shoot, Despres takes penalties and more

10 thoughts about the Pittsburgh Penguins: why don't the Pens have many players born in the 1990s? And some thoughts about Patric Hornqvist's start, Simon Despres taking a lot of penalties, Patrick Marleau as a potential trade target and Mike Johnston's use of 4th line players

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#1 I got to attend the San Jose Sharks vs Washington Capitals game (a 6-5 shootout win for SJ) last week with pretty decent seats, and wow what a game. It's always a wonderful feeling to go to that first NHL game of the fall. The one thing that stood out to me was a reminder of what separates the NHL players that are really, really good from being great. And one aspect is using feet to make plays. No one was finer in that game of doing it than Patrick Marleau. League wide, no one is finer than Sidney Crosby. The little things like kicking a puck out of a faceoff circle to a teammate, or taking a bad pass instantly from skate to stick without breaking stride..It's a remarkable thing.

#2 Also, just me thinking out-loud, but if the Sharks still want to chase Marleau (signed through 2016-17, $6.66 million cap hit) off, and the Penguins aren't able to re-sign Paul Martin, is that a framework for a trade taking shape there? The finances would still have to work out, and I'm sure SJ would want more than an expiring contract for their former team captain, but imagine a potential top 9 in Pittsburgh of Marleau/Crosby/Hornqvist, Kunitz/Malkin/Bennett, Dupuis/Sutter/Downie. That could do some serious damage. It's very much a long shot- SJ might not want to trade their former captain after all, but if they are hell-bent on a shakeup, the Pens should definitely be interested in seeing if the value and dollars could add up. Bringing in another skilled winger is probably the key to success.

#3 Another thing that stood out to me from that game last week was the amount of young players that both teams had. Do you know how many players born in the 1990's that the Caps are playing? 7. For their part, the Sharks dressed 4 players born in the ‘90s and scratched another. The Pens have only played 2 players born in the ‘90s so far this season - Olli Maatta and Simon Despres. Beau Bennett is another '90s, if he every can stay healthy. Hockey is a young man's game and even though a lot of the Penguins key players are in their 20's still, the organizational lack of NHL talent in the age 20- 24 range is apparent when you look around the league at other teams. A lot of that due to trading a ton of high draft picks over the year to chase rental players, but developing young, cheap talent is such a huge edge and also helps to have young, fresh legs for a long season.

#4 I have Bob McKenzie's "Hockey Confidential" book and so far, so great. If you're any type of reader (and I assume you are, since you're reading a blog right now) pick it up and you'll learn something. He's got a very interesting chapter on the advent of advanced hockey stats. McKenzie also has a great perspective as an older hockey guy, who isn't good at math, but is willing to keep an open mind and accept more and better information in order to assess the game. But he doesn't blindly go overboard either. Frankly, it's pretty refreshing. There are other great chapters too, the first one is about a near death experience from a name that NHL fans will know and it's well-written and puts life into perspective, really. Great stuff, as you'd imagine from probably the best hockey journalist going today.

#5 As Mike Johnston said over the weekend- "Our team philosophy is to keep teams off-balance with the shot. We want to get pucks to the net, create havoc and put them back on their heels." Patric Hornqvist has been a great fit there, with a league high 28 shots on goal in 4 games. Looking at Hornqvist's career numbers, he barely has more assists (114) than goals (110), indicative of a shoot-first player. He had a 31 assist season last year, and over-shooting is probably preferable to over-passing, but it will be interesting to see how or if his game evolves when his goals start slowing down.

#6 That is, if they do. Hornqvist will always be compared to the man he was traded for, James Neal, so we might as well look to Neal for when he joined the Pens. Neal's first (and best) season with Pittsburgh, he scored 40 goals on 329 shots- a whopping 129 more shots than he ever took in a season in Dallas. So, there's a history of skill players getting to Pittsburgh and enjoying shooting on all those feeds from Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Of course, Hornqvist can't and won't average 1 goal and 7 shots per game forever, but it's not like any of that would be a bad thing while it lasts..

#7 I saw this somewhere on twitter but forget where, so credit where it's due- through the first 4 games, the Pens only have 6 even strength goals (well, 7 if you count the empty netter). They have 8 power play goals and one short handed goal to round out the offense. The power play is clicking at an absolutely unreal 47.1% (8 scores on 17 chances). Takeaways could be that it's good the PP is so red hot, because the team still needs to get their feet under them under Johnston at even strength.

#8 Great stuff from Ryan Wilson (who's as much of a must-read as anyone in the Penguins blogosphere right now) on how Johnston is starting lower line players compared to the previous regime. He's starting the lower line players (Zach Sill, Craig Adams, Nick Spaling especially) in the offensive zone more. Those players have 0 points on the year. Could this be tying into the above note- which Wilson also points out - about lack of ES goals? Possibly, but I think we tend to over-rate the raw numbers of zone starts. How Hurculean of a task is it for Sidney Crosby (who wins more of his faceoffs than he loses) to start in his own end, see his team within seconds control the puck, usually, get to the other end? Similarly, you don't see Malkin's line pinned in his d-zone for 25, 30, 45 seconds straight very often. Point being- in theory the best players should be able a tougher workload. I believe there's research that shows the value of extra o-zone starts funneling down into more shooting chances, however I don't think it's a very significant number of extra chances. Certainly not a lot left on the ice after just 4 games.

#9 With the obvious caveat that it's only been 4 games, the usage of those lower line players has been interesting. To add to the note above, guys like Adams and Sill might be starting in better positions- but they're playing a lot less so far this year compared to last season. Adams, for instance, skated an average of 9:23 per game at ES last year (and 12:27 total per game with his SH time added in). Sill played 8:47/10:47 in 20 games last year. This year however, Adams is down to 6:28 at even and 9:52 overall. Sill, similarly is down to 7:58/8:07. Although it's early and future injuries could alter this, Johnston has great de-emphasized those players so far. Brandon Sutter (15:46 last year to 19:03 this year) has been the biggest beneficiary of added ice-time, because Crosby (who played too much at 21:58 per game last year) is down to a more manageable 19:20 in the very early stages of this season.

#10 As I pointed out in the recap, Simon Despres has a minor penalty in 3 straight games, and has played 11 minutes in the last two games. Despres had a history last year (13 minors in 34 games) of taking penalties at just the wrong time, contributing to his status as a doghouse player. For an NHL defenseman, sometimes penalties are unavoidable and necessary. However for a player looking to establish himself in the lineup, it's not a good strategy to keep cutting ruts to the penalty box. Could be worth watching, with Scott Harrington still in the press box for games (edit: they sent Harrington down today), and every day being a day closer for Robert Bortuzzo to return to the lineup- how much longer is Despres' position as an every night player safe?