The Penguins were in Toronto last week, which is exciting in the sense that the visiting teams through there usually have a few nuggets pop up in Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts column. And there were!
[Last Thusday] morning, the Penguins were joking about themselves, rolling their eyes at their early-season stubbornness.
“We haven’t played a full game,” one of them said, “We aren’t taking things seriously yet. We know what it takes.”
It was obvious, however, they had a bit of a swagger about going into Toronto, red-hot at the time. At the season-opening media tour, Sidney Crosby said he had worked on his speed at age 31 in a league where the elite young players are quicker than ever. Publicly, he may not proclaim himself to be the best in the NHL, but, privately, his teammates knew how much the upcoming showdowns with Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid meant to his competitive side. They beat Toronto 3-0 and Edmonton 6-5, culminating with Crosby’s ridiculous overtime winner in the Alberta capital.
Crosby wasn’t on the ice for a goal against in either game. In 21:13 against Matthews/McDavid, the Penguins had 61 per cent of the shot attempts, scored twice and didn’t give up any.
Important time to remember the Penguins players don’t know what Natural Stat Trick or Corsica (as great as those sites are) or any fancy stat is. They don’t care about how their possession stats look like on paper, least of all how it looks in October. The Pens don’t care if they are leaking a million shots on goal against (sorry, Matt Murray!), and it doesn’t matter to them that everything is clicking right now. This has never been a team to give a consistent effort for 82 games, even most of the championship seasons are born from disappointing starts that lead to mid-season coaching changes.
Would it be ideal if they were a machine and like a video game and could just saw through the season like it was on easy mode? Sure. It was fun to win 9-1 for everyone, but it’s not going to happen every game, and especially it’s not going to happen so often early in the year for Pittsburgh.
That attitude might be frustrating (doubly so if you paid good money to see them and they don’t show up, ala the 5-1 home loss to Montreal a couple weeks ago). But that’s just the way it is for a veteran team that has made the playoffs 12 straight times and knows they are good enough to make it 13 next spring, no matter if they give up 1 goal on 20 shots in their next game or 5 goals on 50.
Is it really going to matter in Round 1 next year if the Pens were a 45 or 50 or 55% Corsi team in the regular season? Probably not, it’s going to matter how healthy they are, what goaltending they get and how well they manage the puck and execute offensively.
To the last point, Connor McDavid may well be the best player in hockey with his unrivaled speed, great hands, vision, you name it. His production for winning the last two scoring titles speaks for itself. But still, Sidney Crosby is the greatest player in hockey. On it’s head that is a contradictory statement. But if you watched those two games in the last week and Crosby’s determined and superior effort when matched against the ascending stars, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Crosby is still the king, the measuring stick upon which all players compare. The last week’s games showed Sid is still the top dog.
It’s always fun to check the season score-sheet after a 9-1 win to see the updates. One thing stood out to me for some reason and gave a little laugh.
Take what has to be so far the Pens best and most successful line. Carl Hagelin - Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel. A nice time to remind that it has only been eight games!
Malkin has 15 points (3g+12a).
Kessel has 12 (6g+6a),
Hagelin...has 2 (1g+1a).
There’s more to hockey than points - and the stars tack on a few more on the power play - but the disparity there just made me laugh. So much for the (probably wishful thinking) prediction that in a contract year Hagelin may be able to put up a better boxcar season. Which, to be fair I was hoping for too. But it certainly looks like the “pre-Christmas” non-threatening Hagelin is back, which is sort of ironic since the two guys he’s playing with are lighting it up.
Wouldn’t change anything about that line right now, and surely away from the puck Hagelin is doing good things to help contribute, it’s just a kick to me to see such a gap in production for guys who play together.
Speaking of Malkin, his 12 helpers are tied for the league lead at the moment, and he’s one off the point scoring lead - with everyone above him having played more games so far. McDavid’s right there with them, and surely the favorite to be at the top of the pack when the dust settles but it’s cool to see Geno right at the top of the heap again, picking off where he left off last regular season.
Malkin’s performance always gets lost in the shuffle a bit with Crosby’s star burning so bright, but it’s been the big Russian who has been the team’s most consistent center in October.
Wrote yesterday about how Daniel Sprong has slumped in five weeks from Crosby linemate to seldom used 4th liner to now healthy scratch. GM Jim Rutherford’s take on the situation was (basically) ‘hey we got three better right wings, that’s just the situation’ and that depth and trouble was on display last night. The three top RW’s on the team (Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust) combined for five goals.
Perfectly illustrates the issue Sprong has had in getting an opportunity at that loaded position.
So what’s the end game? That’s the million dollar question. Some on twitter are already pushing for a trade. I get the frustration that the player isn’t being used and didn’t get off to the start anyone was hoping for, but I don’t get why we must arrive at a trade right now.
Especially when two of the aforementioned right wings (Rust and Hornqvist) have been known to miss stretches of time with injury. Sad as it may be for the team, but Sprong’s best individual chance might not come until he’s needed due to an injury. So why trade him now and then not having a guy capable of contributing more than a minor league call-up? That would be silly.
As awkward as it is for everyone, a little patience may go a long way. I’d hope the Pens aren’t ready to quit on Sprong yet - it’s not like his trade value can really be that high at the moment. He’s proven very little at the NHL level and his game/form is clearly down a bit. No one is giving up a good asset for a player like that, which is all the more reason to keep him in what still is going to be a long and testing season.