Tuesdays With Stoosh: 11:23

Remember when it was 85 degrees outside and we were all pining for September to get here? Remember going to that first camp practice at Consol, seeing this team on that ice for the first time? Remember the sky falling after those first two losses to open the new building?   Yeah, it’s Thanksgiving weekend. Where the hell has this season gone already?   We’re 22 games in, which is more or less the quarter-mark of this marathon called a hockey season. Sixty more games left, starting tomorrow night in Buffalo.   Let’s take a look back at the season so far.    

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GOALTENDING

Marc-Andre Fleury

6-6-1, 2.88 GAA, .887 save %

  Through his first eight appearances, it was Struggle City. No sense rehashing it all because for the better part of a month, it was all everyone talked about. After eight games played, he was 1-6-0 with a save percentage of .853 and a goals-against average of 3.59.   Critics justifiably wanted elite numbers from him. After Brent Johnson fell apart against Boston on Nov. 10, Fleury got back in net and has done nothing but deliver those elite numbers.   Since this run started for him against Tampa on Nov. 12, he’s posted a .922 save percentage and a goals-against average of 2.13. The only general manager or coach on this planet stupid enough to turn that down would be Mike Milbury.   By comparison, last year, Ryan Miller and his wonky eye posted a .929 save percentage with a 2.22 goals-against on his way to winning a Vezina. Will Fleury keep that pace up? Who knows? As long as he’s close to that, the offense SHOULD generate enough for this team to win on most nights.   


Brent Johnson

6-2-1, 2.11 GAA, .927

  Pens aren’t where they are without Brent Johnson. Plain and simple. October would’ve been a lost month for the Pens had Johnson not played the way he did. Much of the reason they are where they are in the standings right now is thanks to his play.   Brent Johnson is a luxury. Coaches would kill to have a backup that they can throw out to start 15-18 games a year without having to worry about plugging the starter in after 20 minutes. Anyone who sat through the Dany Sabourin experience a couple of years ago can relate.      

 

DEFENSEMEN

Kris Letang

4G-15A-19P

  Tanger is currently tied for 2nd in the league in scoring and 6th in goals scored among defenseman. He finally got off the schneid with a powerplay goal against the Panthers. He’s fought some turnover issues this year, but that’s to be expected with any young defenseman, especially one whose role has been increased.   One of the biggest questions heading into this season was how they were going to replace Gonchar’s production from the point. Letang is on pace for 15 goals and 56 assists this year. It’s tough to ask much more from him than that.   He’s starting to round into a superstar-caliber, all-around defenseman, and he doesn’t turn 24 until April. Sick, man. Sick.    

 

Alex Goligoski

4G-7A-11P

  He’s on pace for about 15 goals and 41 points this year, that’s not certainly not awful. He’s been inconsistent and indecisive more than you’d probably like to see, and he’s also been turnover-prone. But it’s also worth noting that this is still just his second full season in the NHL and you’ll have that with young defensemen.    

Paul Martin

1G-10A-11P, somehow a +3

  Dude can skate. No doubt about that. We see both the good – leading some unreal rushes up the ice and jumping into the attack – and the bad – hauling ass to get back on defense after getting caught too deep in the offensive zone. It’s never a good thing when after 22 games, a lot of what you hear from fans is, “Well, Gonchar sucked for the first three months of his Penguins tenure, too.”   In Martin’s defense, going from New Jersey’s system to Pittsburgh’s for ANY defenseman has to be culture shock. When Martin was signed, we were told to expect a great-skating, puck-moving defenseman who makes smart passes and that’s pretty much what he’s been. He’s not physical, but if you expected him to be physical, you weren’t playing attention in the summer. That said, he DOES need to tighten it up in his own zone and at least tie up some sticks in front of the crease. And he has committed some bad turnovers carrying the puck out of the zone. Again, that may be due to him still adjusting to a new system. It’s worth noting that he’s second on the team in blocked shots with 32.    

Zbynek Michalek

  Never mind the goose egg in the goals column or the four assists. Disregard the -5 rating.   He’s played in just 13 games this year thanks to a shoulder injury. Think he cares? HE LEADS THE TEAM IN BLOCKED SHOTS WITH 34 despite missing almost half the season. Meet the new Scuds. Perhaps no player outside of Fleury has improved as quickly over the last few weeks than Michalek. It’s probably no coincidence that they’ve both started playing well at the same time.    

Brooks Orpik

  Free Candy is tied for second in the league among defensemen with 62. He’ll play his 500th career game with the Pens later this season. At 30 years old, he’s in the prime of his career and he has developed into exactly the type of defenseman the Pens hoped he’d be when they took him 18th overall in the 2000 Entry Draft. When Shero brought Gary Roberts on board back in 2006-07, he said that the lessons the team would learn from Roberts in terms of how to approach the game would be manifested within the core group. Orpik was clearly taking notes.    

Deryk Engelland

1G-2A-3P; his fist, your face

  The closest things we’ve had to Bob Boughner since Bob Boughner and I love it because Boughner was probably one of top ten favorite Penguins. Engelland gained instant notoriety after dropping Colton Orr and then kicking Jody Shelley’s ass earlier this season. He’s added an intimidating presence to the goal-crease and brought physical play behind the net and along the boards. He’s struggled moving the puck, but that’s not really his game anyway. He is what he is – a solid alternative at the sixth defensive spot when the team needs an ass-kicker in the lineup.    

Ben Lovejoy

0G-2A-2P in 13 games

  Meh, but most 6/7 d-men are “meh”. Remember when some of us (me) were talking about him taking over that second-pairing role vacated by Eaton? Yeah. Forget it. The signings of Martin & Michalek relegated him to spot duty with Engelland as the 6/7 d-man, and that’s probably a good thing because he hasn’t looked this year like he was ready for that bigger role with the team. He hasn’t been bad; he just hasn’t done much to distinguish himself so far. In his defense, he hasn’t been asked to do much either.    

 

FORWARDS

Sidney Crosby

15G-20A-35P

  Just when you thought he’d have a hard time topping his 51 goals scored last year, he’s actually on pace to score 56 and set a new career high in points. He’s averaging 1.59 points per game this year. Want some perspective on that? That’s production the Pens haven’t seen since Lemieux’s comeback season (1.76 ppg). He’s also two goals away from 200 career goals, and should notch his 600th career point sometime around the midpoint of the season.   He’s dominant on faceoffs. He plays in all three zones. He leads the team in powerplay goals with six. His offensive production right now is carrying the team, which is scary-good and scary-bad. Scary good? He’s on pace for 130 points. Scary bad? He’s got a 14-point lead on Malkin and a 24-point lead on the next highest-scoring Pens forward, which speaks to the lack of impact scoring depth at the forward position.    

Evgeni Malkin

7G-14A-21P

  Most wouldn’t complain about a point-a-game player, and that’s what Malkin has been this year so far. His 21 points still puts him in the top 25 in scoring, and he’s just one great game out of the top 10. So by most standards, he hasn’t been bad.   But Malkin isn’t held to “most” standards. Taking the ever-present dotted-line comparisons to Crosby out of the equation, Malkin raised the bar for himself in 2007-08 and then again in 2008-09. Problem is that the last time we saw THAT Malkin, he was carrying the Cup around the ice at Joe Lewis Arena. He struggled last year – again, by his own standards – and it’s caused some to wonder which is closer to the real Malkin going forward.   Malkin’s game is the biggest issue facing the Pens right now. It’s worth noting that over the last six games, he’s got three goals and six assists. But emblematic of the consistency issues he’s battled since last year, the three goals came in one game (vs. Atlanta) and he hasn’t scored a goal in the four games since.   No need to panic or anything, as it remains to be seen what he does when Staal comes back. Malkin has been reunited on a line with Talbot and they seem to be clicking, so we’ll see where this goes.    

Marv Kunitz

7G-5A-12P

  What an interview during first intermission with Kunitz’s dad. Holy crap. Marv Kunitz needs to be a gameday character.   Chris Kunitz is on pace for about 26 goals, which would barely eclipse his career high of 25. His 7 goals ties him with Malkin for 2nd on the team and his three powerplay goals is second only to Sid. Doing everything he did when the Pens acquired him in 2008-09.     

Matt Cooke

4G-7A-11P

  Another guy on pace for a career year in points. While clowns like Sean Avery and Dan Carcillo tend to garner more attention for their antics, Cooke is one of the rare crap-disturber types with some decent skills. The added depth on the lower lines has allowed Cooke a little bit more freedom to play a little and contribute offensively.  

Mark Letestu

4G-6A-10P

  Had four goals and seven points in the first two weeks of the season, and now hasn’t scored a goal since October 18. Perhaps we shouldn’t have built that wing for him at the Hockey Hall of Fame after two weeks. He’s still generating chances and has provided lots of speed down the middle on the lower two lines, but it’d be nice if he found a little more scoring consistency, especially in Staal’s absence.    

Pascal Dupuis

5G-4A-9P

  Just does work. Production is almost exactly at the same pace as last year.  

 

Max Talbot

4G-3A-7P

  Best he’s looked since the 2008-09 playoffs. Might we see a Talbot-Staal-Malkin line in a few weeks? That could be fun.    

Tyler Kennedy

4G-3A-7P

  Ditto, TK. As long as the Pens are getting SOMETHING from either him, Max, Dupuis or Cooke each night, they’ll be in decent shape.    

Arron Asham

2G-3A-5P

  Kunitz-lite, basically. Since getting back into the lineup, he’s pretty much been as advertised.    

Mike Rupp

Erie Otter

  He was probably never going to duplicate the 13 goals he scored last year as that was more than double what he ever produced in the NHL prior.    

Craig Adams

He scored in the regular season!

  Had something here for Adams, but he cleared it out of the zone on the penalty kill.    

Mike Comrie

0G-5A-5P

  No clue. Can’t say he’s a bust because he only signed for one year, $500,000. Looked great in the preseason, but was snake-bit as soon as the season started. He didn’t produce early on when he was on the top lines, and as the secondary scoring came back over the last 10 games or so, he’s been out-performed by other depth guys. He hasn’t had much of a chance to get back in and play because no one else has really been bad enough in their roles to take out of the lineup. Whatever. It won’t kill anyone to keep him on the roster for a little while longer to see if he comes around, so he’s got at least until Staal comes back.    

Eric Godard

If Engelland won’t kick your ass, he will.

  Not much more to say about Godard. He does what he does with no illusions and no reservations.       That’s it.   If the season ended today, the Pens would be the fifth seed and face Tampa. Philly has been very good when they decide to play disciplined hockey (they’ve scored more goals than the Caps this year and their +23 goal differential leads the league). Washington looks like more of the same, although Semin seems perfectly aware that he’s in a contract year. Montreal is getting ridiculous goaltending from Carey Price, but he’s also played 20 of their 21 games so at some point, he may and probably will hit a wall.   There are issues with the Pens, of course. Can anyone else other than Crosby score at a higher level? What if he cools off? Who picks up the slack? The offense has been a lot of Crosby, Letang and some third-line, 15-goal forward types having career years. Malkin has to find some consistency.   This is all a great unknown until Staal gets back anyway. You’ve got to love the fact that this team sits 5th in the Eastern Conference and has been playing all year without one of its three best skaters. Staal’s return likely decreases the amount of chances opposing teams have been getting entering the zone. It could easily impact Malkin, and then maybe one of the scoring depth issues is solved. Hell, Staal’s return alone should put about 20 goals and 50 points worth of production back into the lineup.   Way too early to make any predictions on how this goes. Three weeks ago, people were ready for Shero to trade Fleury for whatever he could get. Rest assured that Shero is watching, and if he sees something this team needs, he’ll get it.

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