Mark Madden on Kris Letang's potential absence: "Letang isn't the Penguins' best player, but he might be their least replaceable. When Crosby's out, you got Malkin. When Malkin's out, you got Crosby. Sutter can jump up to the second line, although his productivity hasn't been much this year. I don't know what the Penguins would do if Letang was out for a significant period. Kovacevic asked Madden what he thought of Derrick Pouliot. Madden said he played well, adding "what I would do, and this goes if Tanger even does return quickly, as I expect he will is, I would give Pouliot 10 games and a lot of ice to see what you got and where he's at." Kovacevic agreed, saying "I'd love the idea of seeing him get a sustained stretch because he's one of those rare guys that has a chance to do something very high-ceiling for you. If you found out that you had some really dynamic, defensive player who could jump in the rush and change the whole feel of a game, you have to find that out, not next year, now." Madden agreed, adding "That could affect how you set up your roster moving forward."
Letang Instagrammed (is that a word?) a short vid of him and his son at the gym on Saturday. I don't want to read into that too much, but at minimum, it's good to know he felt well enough to be out and about. You don't want him to rush back, but the Pens are obviously a better team with him than without. I wasn't the biggest Pouliot guy coming into this year, but I'm coming around. His game against Chicago was tremendous. Outside of one play, he played really solid defense, which is huge to me, because his offensive game is already so good. I'm not sold on his NHL readiness, but after Chicago, I wouldn't mind seeing more.
Madden on Evgeni Malkin: "It's a shame [he got hurt], because I think he's been totally engaged all season long, even recently when he hasn't been necessarily productive, he's not had the boo-boo face and he's played to the best of his efforts. If he's out for a significant period, that's not going to help, obviously. Part of it's because back when they had [Jordan] Staal and one of the big two got hurt, he could step up and improve his numbers by playing with better players. Brandon Sutter doesn't do that. He plays well, both ways, but he can't step up points-wise. Kovacevic responded, "I agree with you that Geno's been outstanding in terms of his consistency, effort and even the other night in Philadelphia after he was out for a while. He comes back in the third period, not just to play hero and go limp around out there, he was flying, man. He was giving everything he had to win that game, and if you'll recall, almost did with that ridiculous spinning backhander that Ray Emery made the good save on. He's been terrific. I have a hard time processing the idea his injury is some super long-term thing in light of the fact he came back in that same game and skated yesterday."
Malkin's been awesome all year and if Marc-Andre Fleury isn't team MVP, then he is. I don't think anyone else is in the conversation right now. Given that he did return in Philly and took the warmup versus Chicago, I wouldn't think he'd be out very long. I want him back healthy though. Better he miss time now than in the spring.
Kovacevic on Sutter: "I just think he needs some time off. I really do. I think he's one of those classic cases where he could come back after 5-6 days off and look like the player he's supposed to be. Madden countered, "Traditionally, he has never had time off until Dan Bylsma sabotaged it in the last game last season to give him rest, but not Craig Adams because Sutter didn't have coffee with the coaches every morning. Sutter had a longer consecutive game streak going than Craig Adams, so traditionally he has not been a guy who needs rested. He did not look good against Philadelphia and looked a bit tentative in the chaos, that I agree with."
I thought Sutter was having a down year, but he's pretty much on pace with his numbers the past couple of years. He is on a down streak right now though: Just 1 point (a goal) in 9 games so far in January.
Madden on Christian Ehrhoff: "He's not playing as good as a lot of people think." Kovacevic replied, "I think he's playing good 5-on-5, I really do." Madden continued, "Johnston wants the defensemen to activate as the phraseology goes; he does it too much. He will jump into the rush to the detriment of the rush." Kovacevic interjected, "and he comes down the right side too, which does nobody any good. Unless you're Paul Coffey, you're not pulling that off." Madden continued further, "He'll crowd out a wing. He gets too close to the wing. He needs to stay high, needs to be the fourth guy coming, he needs to slow down." Kovacevic finished, "He jumps ahead of them, and then the forward will feel obligated to feed it to him on his backhand over there on the right wing, and all he does is get buried in the corner."
I think Ehrhoff's been okay. His numbers aren't terrible, but I expected more than a 6 goal, 26 point pace. Maybe that wasn't fair. He certainly wouldn't be the first player to adjust slowly to life in a Penguin jersey (Sergei Gonchar and Paul Martin, for two) and he also had to, for lack of a better way to put it, get the Buffalo out of his system. I'm hoping he picks it up down the stretch.
Madden on Steve Downie: "I love Steve Downie. I hate guys like [Dan] Carcillo and [Zac] Rinaldo and can't believe they still keep getting jobs, but as long as they do, you need a nuclear option and Downie gives the Penguins that, plus he's much better player than either of them. He's their sixth-leading scorer." Kovacevic added, "This shouldn't count for much, but one thing about Steve Downie, and this runs in contrast to Zac Rinaldo... Rinaldo comes off the ice and he's bragging about hitting Letang, laughing. His face was lit up like it was Christmas morning. You saw the video, I was there, I couldn't believe it. "Madden interjected, "He's a sadistic bag of excrement." Kovacevic continued, "There are guys that play a certain way in the league. The Penguins have certainly had their share. Downie's hit guys, he's hurt guys. Matt Cooke, obviously, infamous for it. Jarkko Ruutu before that. There's a long list. I don't recall any of them visibly enjoying it."
I don't have much to add beyond what I said about Downie a couple of weeks ago, but the "sadistic bag of excrement" line was too good not to share.
Madden on where the team currently stands: "Chicago and Pittsburgh are almost at the same place, at the All Star break, in the standings. And again, I just want to emphasize, I don't think there's anything to worry about. I think the Penguins are, considering all their injuries, I think they're... not fortunate, but I think they've done well to be where they're at." Kovacevic added, "They're in a good spot, but the part I've been stressing in columns this year to the point of being really repetitive in columns this year has been that the Penguins need to keep their eye on the prize. Mike Johnston's system is not something that was going to happen in a month, even though they had a lot of success in the first month. Everything that he wants them to do, the speed, the moving together in a pack, the defending in a pack, wasn't going to happen overnight."
Madden is the voice of reason. Let that sink in. Also, good point by DK about things taking a while to learn, even though they had a lot of success early.
Kovacevic on what to look for down the stretch: "I just think that this team in general, especially when Patric Hornqvist and Blake Comeau come back, and they can get back to that sustained attack, the attacking off the rush, the center drive that's been such a emphasis of Mike Johnston's system and was really taken away from him and the team by both those guys being out, I think you're going to see this team just get stronger and stronger as they get towards the playoffs but, I still want one more wildcard in the equation. That could be Pouliot." Madden added, "If Pouliot arrived early, that could negate the need for a trade, or open up a trade you could make." Kovacevic continued, "Exactly. If he steps up and you're bumping somebody else out, like Simon Despres or whoever, you have a real trade piece there."
I'm not sure I can believe this team will ever hit full-strength, but if they do, I do think they'll be in good shape. The addition of David Perron makes up for the loss of Pascal Dupuis, at least on the ice. (Question: do the Pens get Perron if Dupuis remains healthy? General Manager Jim Rutherford did say he wanted to add a top 6 guy anyhow, but the LTIR savings from Dupuis made him able to add Perron without losing anyone from his roster.) Comeau was signed as a solid bottom 6 wing, but he's earned the right to go back with Malkin when he returns. Those two combined with the return of Hornqvist will push other guys down the lineup and really solidify the forward group. The loss of Olli Maatta will be felt the rest of the year, but if Pouliot (or one of the other young D) can step up, they may be okay there too. One way or another, they need someone they can trust in with top 4 minutes alongside Letang, Martin, and Ehrhoff.