All-Star Break Q and A

Well, we’re a little bit over half-way through the NHL regular season.  The Penguins are currently clinging to the 2nd wild card spot in the East, but with plenty of other teams nipping at their heels.

I received some great questions about the Penguins up to this point in the season, and even some questions about the season’s future.  Let’s dive right in…

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Dakota Eckenrode: I saw a picture of Malkin and Neal at the all-star game and I really miss that guy.  Him and Malkin had such good chemistry.  Has Hornqvist been anywhere close to Neal production-wise on the Penguins?  I don’t mind him, but Neal was a pure goal scorer, and I would love to have him back.

Brad Franjione: To everyone that is not Dakota, we were talking about this just the other day.  He told me how much he missed James Neal on the Penguins and how effective his chemistry was with Evgeni Malkin.  And, well, you aren’t wrong there Dakota.

To play devil’s advocate, I brought up some stats of Hornqvist since being dealt to the Penguins vs. Neal since being dealt to the Predators (these were stats that were in an article about a week ago, but it only excludes 1 or 2 games for each player which doesn’t make a dramatic difference).  Anyways, here are the stats:

As of about a week ago, Patric Hornqvist has played 111 games with the Penguins.  He has 35 goals, 41 assists, which is good for 76 points.  24 of his 76 points have come on the power play.  He has 372 shots on goal, 58 penalty minutes, and 59 games in which he did not record a point.

Neal has played 115 games with the Predators, scoring 40 goals, 26 assists, which is good for 66 points, 13 of which are power play points.  Neal has 375 shots on goal, with 114 penalty minutes, and 67 games in which he did not record a point.

Looking at these stats sure looks like that trade was worth it.

However, Dakota brought up a good point to me in our debate of Neal/Hornqvist.  Hornqvist is playing with Crosby and Malkin, while Neal is playing with no one of the sort in Nashville.  The Predators have a solid team, don’t get me wrong, but Neal isn’t playing on Geno’s wing any more.

So Dakota challenged me to compare Hornqvists stats with the Pens vs. Neal’s stats with the Pens.  Keep in mind that I would absolutely expect Neal’s numbers to be better in every category, since Neal was more of a pure goal scorer than Hornqvist is.  The big question is how large is that gap?  Well, let’s find out.

Currently, Patric Hornqvist has played 112 games with the Penguins.  He is averaging about .31 goals/game, .38 assists/game, and .69 points/game.  This would lead to Patric Hornqvist scoring about 26 goals, 31 assists, and 57 points if he were to play at that pace for a full 82 game season.  In addition, Hornqvist averages about .51 penalty minutes/game.  In other words, he takes about 1 minor penalty every 4 games (since a minor penalty is 2 minutes).

During the playoffs, Hornqvist has played only 5 games (small sample size, I know) with the Pens, while averaging .4 goals/game, .2 assists/game, .6 points/game, and only .4 penalty minutes/game (he had only 1 minor penalty in 5 games played).  He was a +1 in a series where the Penguins lost 4-1 to the Rangers, which is actually quite impressive.

Neal, with the Penguins, played 199 games.  He averaged .45 goals/game, .48 assists/game, and .92 points/game.  If Neal played at this pace for a full 82 game season, he would be on track for 37 goals, 39 assists, and 76 points.  Also, Neal averaged .87 penalty minutes/game.  This is much closer to 1 minor penalty/ 2 games.

During Neal’s Pittsburgh time, he played in 38 playoff games.  He had .29 goals/game, .29 assists/game, .58 points/game, and a whopping 1.32 penalty minutes/game.  He was also a -5 during his playoff stint.

So, interpret the stats how you would like to interpret them.  The one thing I want to bring up is penalty minutes.  Neal is a guy that takes a lot of bad penalties and that killed the Penguins in the playoffs, and it shows with his 1.32 penalty mins/game.

The Penguins never had trouble making the playoffs.  They had trouble succeeding in the playoffs.  If you want my opinion, I would rather Hornqvist then Neal in a playoff situation, but that is just me.  On the other hand, I really do miss that Malkin/Neal combo.

Despite everything, I will say this: the Penguins need a player like Hornqvist.  They need the net front presence and passion of a guy like him on the team.  I can say that with certainty.

Plus Dakota, Nick Spaling was part of the Neal trade, and the Penguins got a 2nd round pick out of him in the Kessel trade.  Need a remind you who the 2nd round pick of the Penguins was this year?

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Tyler Knupp: Can we finally be confident in these Penguins?

Brad Franjione: This is such a simple question, and yet, it is such a difficult question to answer.  That being said, my answer is yes.

I must say, it is really difficult for me to say yes, because in recent history, it seems as though every time that the Penguins have a decent run going, it gets killed by a bad game or 2, and the confidence in them tanks again.

But…

  • The Penguins are on a 3 game win streak coming out of the all-star break, with 2 of those wins being ones in which they came back from 2-0 deficits after the first period.  This is the first 3+ game win streak under Sullivan, and the first for the Pens since they had a 6 game win streak under Johnston stretching from late October to early November.
  • Crosby is on a tear right now.  He looks like the best player in the world, which is exactly what he is, and he is not slowing down any time soon.
  • Hagelin is looking great in a Penguins uniform.  He doesn’t have a goal yet, but he has 4 assists in 5 games for the Pens playing with Malkin and Kessel.
  • Fleury is back and healthy, and oh boy did he look good against NJ.
  • Pouliot is up and has been playing over Ian Cole in recent games, which I think benefits their defense for the time being, as Cole has been playing far below what everyone was expecting from him.
  • After that ugly 0-4 start under Mike Sullivan, the Penguins are 9-3-4, giving them 22 points in 16 games.  If the Penguins were to produce at this points/game rate (1.375) across 82 games, they would finish the season with about 112 points, which would easily get them into the playoffs.

So I’m going to be bold here, but I think we can finally start feeling confident about these Penguins.

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Grant Franjione: Barring major injuries, what is your prediction for how the rest of the season and playoffs turn out for these Penguins?

Brad Franjione: Well, first let’s get a feel for where the Penguins stand at the moment.

They are currently 4th in their division with 55 points and hold the final wild card position.  Boston holds the top wild card spot with 59 points, but the Penguins have a game in hand.

In regards to the Metropolitan Division, the Islanders are 1 point up on the Penguins, although they do have a game in hand.  The Rangers are 4 points up, but the Penguins have a game in hand on them.  And then there’s the Capitals, who nobody is going to catch, so let’s ignore them for the moment.

In the new NHL playoff format implemented a few years ago, the top 3 teams in each division have an automatic playoff berth.  Then the top 2 remaining teams in points, regardless of division, get the 2 wild card spots.

I’m going with another bold prediction here: I think the Penguins will finish 2nd in the Metropolitan Division.  They are not far behind the Rangers and Islanders, and they have plenty of time to make up ground.

To add to my argument, the Penguins have 34 games remaining.  17 of them, exactly 1/2, are against division foes.  4 of these 17 are against the Rangers who the Penguins have not played yet this season, and 3 are against the Islanders.  That is a potential 14 point swing.

The Penguins really do control their own destiny with all of these division games remaining.  They can put themselves 2nd in their division, or skate themselves right out of the playoffs.

BUT…

I think the Penguins are finding their stride, and I think that they can take 2nd in the Metro Division pretty easily if they win the important games.

As for the playoffs, WHEN the Penguins get there (not if), the Penguins are going to get to the Eastern Conference Final and lose to the Capitals.  The Caps have not had playoff success, but again, barring major injuries, their team is just too good.  I don’t see the Penguins beating the Caps in a 7 game series.  I would take the Caps over the Pens in the Eastern Conference Final in 6 or 7 games.

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Grant Franjione: Another prediction question: When the 2015-16 season is complete, who will lead the Pens in goals (currently Malkin), assists (currently Letang), and points (currently Malkin)?  Will any Penguin rise to finish top 3 in the NHL in any of the above?

Brad Franjione: Let’s take this one category at a time: goals, assists, then points:

The Penguins have 37 games remaining right now, and Malkin has a 6 goal lead on Crosby, 9 on Kessel, and 13 on Hornqvist.  I think that Malkin will lead the Penguins in goals after the season’s end, but I would not be shocked if Crosby catches him or at least comes close.  Also, who knows, maybe Kessel finds his groove.  Here are my top 3 Penguins goal scorers at the end of the year:

  1. Malkin – 38G
  2. Crosby – 36G
  3. Kessel – 28G

Malkin has a slim chance to crack the top 5 in goals (currently 7th), but I doubt he cracks the top 3 unless he channels his inner Russian monster.  I think the top 3 goal scorers in the NHL this year crack 45 pretty easily, so unless Malkin, or Crosby for that matter, goes on an absolute tear, then no Penguin is finishing top 3 in goals.

As for the assists department, Letang leads the team with 27, but Crosby and Malkin are not far behind him with 24 a piece.  It also should be considered that Letang has played 10/9 games less than Malkin/Crosby respectively.  That being said, I think Sid is on fire, and I think that he passes Letang up for the assist lead at the end of the year, but not by much.  Here’s my top 3 Penguins assist leaders at the end of the year:

  1. Crosby – 48A
  2. Letang – 47A
  3. Malkin – 43A

No Penguin is even top 10 in assists currently, so I can tell you with a ton of confidence that no Penguin will finish top 3 in the NHL in assists.

Finally, let’s talk points.  Malkin leads the Pens with 47, then behind him is Crosby with 41 and then Letang with 33.  I’ll stay consistent with my earlier numbers, and so based off of that, I am going to say that Crosby finishes the season with the lead in points.  He really is playing at another level right now.  Here are my top 3 point scorers for the Pens at the seasons’ end:

  1. Crosby – 84P
  2. Malkin – 81P
  3. Letang – 58P

Despite my decision to put Letang as the 3rd best Penguins scorer, I would not at all be surprised if Kessel ends up there, espeically if him and Malkin start to click on the 2nd line.  Kessel’s numbers will go as Malkin’s do, so if that line starts really clicking, Kessel will finish top 3 in points.

In addition, Malkin could easily finish above Crosby, but I figured I would stay consistent with my goals/assists predictions.

Malkin is currently 9th in point scoring.  I could see a Pittsburgh Penguin being top 3 in the NHL in points (Crosby or Malkin), but I still would say it is very unlikely at this point in the season.

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Matthew Tonkovich: Do you think it would be reasonable to try and get Buf (Dustin Byfuglien) or David Hamhuis before the NHL trade deadline?

Brad Franjione: I actually wrote about Byfuglien earlier in the year and how I would love for the Penguins to acquire him.  That being said, I think the Byfuglien is going to be extremely difficult to acquire, and unless the Penguins want to trade Murray, Pouliot, or Sprong (one of who would probably be in that trade), then I would say absolutely not.

But by goodness I would love to see him in a Penguins uniform.

I think that Hamhuis is a far more realistic guy to add, but I do not know if he is going to be the guy.  Rutherford obviously does not want to give up any of our young/upcoming guys, but if he can get Hamhuis for a bargain, given that he is 33 in the last year of his contract, then it might not be a terrible acquisition.

I think Rutherford adds a defenseman before the trade deadline, but I am guessing it is unlikely that he acquires a legitimate top 4 defenseman.  I am thinking he adds a Lovejoy-type of guy just for depth, but by all means, if he can get Hamhuis for a good price then do it.

Ideally, I think the Penguins should be hunting for a bottom 6 forward more than anything.  Due to injury, the bottom 6 for the Penguins is currently Eric Fehr chaperoning the top 6 of Wilkes-Barre Scranton, the Penguins AHL affiliate.  Although I will say the one guy that has impressed me is Bryan Rust.  He has speed, plays with passion, and has a decent release as well.  I would not mind him in the Penguins lineup even with everyone healthy.

However, even when healthy, the Penguins’ bottom 6 has been very underperforming.  Bonino has not been playing up to his expectations at all, Fehr has been okay, Bennett has been injured as usual, Plotnikov was a complete failure, and Cullen has been…alright.

I do not have any players in mind necessarily, but if Rutherford can go out and find a solid bottom 6 guy that can contribute in the goal-scoring department, he should do it.  I loved Downie with the Penguins, but he took way too many penalties.  A Downie-type guy (who doesn’t take useless penalties) would be perfect for the Penguins right now in their bottom 6, but that’s just my opinion.

I can say this almost for certain: Rutherford is not done in the trading department.  We’ll have to see what he has up his sleeve.

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Doug Godwin: So beyond the obvious buzzword (consistency), what is the reason for the Pens’ lack of faith in Pouliot?

Brad Franjione: Consistency has been the biggest issue with Pouliot for sure, but let’s just ignore the word “consistency” for now.

I think that their lack of faith in Pouliot was due to his lack of defensive responsibilty.  Pouliot is gifted offensively without a doubt.  He is a great power play quarterback, can stick-handle as well as most forwards in the NHL, has a decent shot, and is a very smooth skater.

That being said, the coaches/GM want Pouliot to play more like what he is: a defenseman.  Pouliot has looked much more defensively responsible in his 2 games up with the Pens, and I think that is the main reasoning behind them calling him up and playing him over Ian Cole, who has not been playing good hockey lately to say the least.

They want Pouliot to become more of a Kris Letang: be able to turn it up offensively but still be responsible defensively.  If you can remember, early in his career Letang was strictly an offensive defenseman and wasn’t a very good defenseman overall.  However, over the past few years, Letang has still been providing the Penguins with offense from the defense, but he has also been defensively responsible and making great plays.

Early in the season, I remember Pouliot was interviewed and talked for a few minutes about how he can improve offensively and just kind of added a “oh yeah, I have to play defense too” kind of thing right at the end.  I think this mindset is what was keeping him out of the NHL lineup, but I think that he is beginning to find his game.  He has a ways to go, but I think he is at least on his way.  I would love to see him make an impact in the NHL in these past 37 games.  I’m a big Pouliot fan myself.  Had an assist the other night!

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Tyler Godwin: What do you think is the biggest difference between the Johnston coached team and the Sullivan coached team?

Brad Franjione: This might be one of my favorite questions to answer, because there isn’t a wrong answer.

Okay, let me start with this.

Under Johnston, the Penguins were 15-10-3 and were 9th place in the Eastern Conference.  Under Sullivan, they are 9-7-4, and now sit 8th in the Eastern Conference.  Andrew Fillipponi kind of “bashed” Sullivan by tweeting out both records with a comment saying “but hey, they’re more fun!”

Sorry, Mr. Fillipponi.  You’re wrong.  Yes, they are more fun, but they are a much better hockey team under Sullivan than under Johnston.

First of all, Fleury was playing OUT OF HIS MIND for the Johnston Penguins.  The only reason the Penguins maintained a respectable record was because of Fleury.  He has still been good, but he has since been more average than not.

Second, Johnston did not have to deal with injuries for the most part.  Meanwhile Sullivan is playing the Wilkes-Barre top 6 in the bottom 6, and he still holds a decent record.  AND Fleury was out for a few games (although Murray did play great in his absence), and it is never easy for a team to lose their starter.  But, again, they have a respectable record under Sullivan.

My third and final point (for now), is that Sullivan started 0-4 behind the bench.  I mentioned earlier than the Penguins have since been 9-3-4, which in an 82 game span, would give them 112 points.  If you can’t remember, Sullivan had little to no time to legitimately implement his system in his first few games as coach, as the Penguins played a few back-to-backs and did not have time for practice.

So what is the biggest difference between the Sullivan coached team and the Johnston coached team?  Oh, well there is a whole bunch of em!

  • The Penguins could not come back in games under Johnston because they couldn’t score goals.  If they gave up the first goal or were losing after 2, you may as well have just shut the TV off and called it quits for the night.  On the contrary, Sullivan’s Penguins have trailed by 2 goals at some point in 7 of the past 11 games.  The Penguins have managed to earn a point in 6 of those 7 opportunities.  Now, try to tell me that Johnston’s Penguins could do the same thing.  Absolutely no way.
  • The Penguins averaged 2.36 goals per game under Johnston.  Under Sullivan? 2.7 goals per game, and it’s only going to go up.
  • Johnston’s Penguins averaged 26.3 scoring chances/60 minutes, while Sullivan’s have averaged 32.1
  • Johnston’s Penguins averaged 29.8 shots per game, while Sullivan’s average 34.5
  • Johnston’s Penguins had a powerplay clicking at only 15.6%, while Sullivan’s Penguins have been clicking at 26.2% (which would put them 2nd in the NHL behind the Caps)
  • This is more of an observational thing, but the players seem to respect Sullivan much more.  He is an “in your face” type of guy, and knows how to get through to the players.  Johnston, on the other hand, looked miserable behind the bench.  There was no emotion/passion/anything (at least, not that could be seen)

(quick acknowledgement to DK Pittsburgh Sports for some of those stats!)

The list goes on…

You could pick any one of those reasons as the main difference between Johnston’s Pens and Sullivan’s Pens.

My biggest difference?  Well it’s easy, isn’t it?

Sidney. Crosby.

It was clear that Sidney Crosby became a better defensive player under Johnston.  Most of his defensive metrics spiked.  But, this caused his offensive numbers to fade, even though he was right among the top scoring leaders in the NHL last year.

Johnston wanted all of his players to play a 200 foot game and be responsible defensively, and I personally believe that this led to Crosby focusing too much on defense and not as much on offense.

Sullivan, on the other hand, unleashed Sid.  He wants the stars to show him what they’ve got.  He wants to give them time and space.  He wants them to create offense and score goals, and he is not going to lecture them how to do that, because they KNOW how to do it.

Under Johnston, Crosby had only 6 goals in 27 games. 6!!!!!!  This was good for a .22 goals/game average.  He had only 13 assists, good for .48 assists/game, which gave him .70 points/game under Johnston.

Under Sullivan, Sid is on fire.  He has 11 goals in 20 games, good for .55 goals/game, 11 assists wich gives him .55 assists/game, and 22 points which is good for 1.1 points per game.

The Penguins success will always be based on how their stars perform, and now, Sullivan has their stars performing.  Look out NHL.

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Thank you so much to everyone who participated!  I love answering Penguins related questions and I’m sure Ill be doing another Q and A real soon.  Hope you all enjoyed!

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All-Star Break Q and A

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