Sprong Deserves the “Kessel” Treatment

sprong goalIt was December 19th.  Daniel Sprong, one of the Penguins’ brightest future prospects, was sent back down to his QMJHL team, the Charlettetown Islanders.  In his 18 games with the Penguins, Daniel Sprong scored 2 goals, had no assists, and was a -1.

One of the biggest criticisms of Sprong is that he has not quite developed a solid defensive game yet, which led to him playing somewhere between 4 and 7 minutes per game on the fourth line.

So yeah, Daniel Sprong’s defensive game is not spectacular, but I do not think it ever will be.  He can and will get better and has to be more responsible in the defensive zone, there’s no doubt about it, but the Penguins need to accept that Sprong isn’t going to be winning any Selke Trophies any time soon.

Since Daniel Sprong’s return to the QMJHL, he has posted 15 goals and 29 assists, which is good for 44 points in only 31 games.  This would give him his best points per game total, 1.42 PPG, since he started playing in the QMJHL.  During his previous 2 years he posted 1.01 points per game and 1.29 points per game respectively.  This may be in the QMJHL, but the stats don’t lie.  He is posting impressive numbers.

Daniel Sprong may not be the most sensational defensive forward out there, but boy is he gifted offensively.  He has a fantastic release, super quick hands, is a fast skater, and can pass the puck too.  But the difference is that he was a constant healthy scratch, played on the 4th line, and barely got to play at all.

So you’re probably asking “what difference? You said the difference is…The difference between what?”

Phil Kessel.

Kessel pens

Phil Kessel was brought to the Penguins to score goals and provide offense.  Many believed, including myself, that Kessel could easily post 40+ goals being that he was a lock to play with either Crosby or Malkin.  Although Penguins’ fans did set high expectations, I do think Kessel has absolutely under-performed as a whole.

In 70 games, Kessel has 21 goals and 27 assists, giving him 47 points.  This is not an awful output, but from a guy like Kessel playing with guys like Malkin and Crosby, it should be higher.  Also, he has been insanely inconsistent.  Although he just had a goal and an assist last night against the Hurricanes, he scored his first goal in 8 games (and his previous goal was an EN goal), and often follows performances up like these with a dud.  That being said, I want him to prove me wrong, and gosh darn it I hope he does against Philly tomorrow.

Similar to Sprong, Phil Kessel is not any threat defensively.  Currently, Phil Kessel is a +2 for the Penguins.  His only other season he was a “plus player” was 2008-2009 with Boston when he posted a +23.  That being said, Phil Kessel was not brought here to play defense: he was brought here to score goals.

Kessel has not left Crosby or Malkin’s side for the most part.  And, well, he’s Phil Kessel.  It doesn’t make much sense to move him down to the 3rd or 4th line.  He has been kept on the first PP unit until only recently, despite not shooting as often as he should or scoring for that matter.

Meanwhile, Daniel Sprong never had any legitimate chances to play with Crosby or Malkin because the coaches felt he was a liability.  Then, when it came time for power plays, which is where Sprong would be extremely effective on the right side, the coaching staff still did not use Sprong, and continues to use guys like Kessel and, at the time, Perron.

It should also be noted that Sprong not only did not get these opportunities, but he played almost all of his game under Mike Johnston’s system.  He played only 2 games under Sullivan, which were within that 0-4 start when Sullivan was hired.  Now, the Penguins have an identity, and for me, Daniel Sprong fits right in.

So, although I am not advocating for Sprong to play over Kessel, my argument is this: if Kessel gets a chance on the top PP, and a chance to play with Malkin and Crosby, why not let Sprong have his chance next year?

Kessel hasn’t been “demoted” due to his lack of defense.  Rather, the coaching staff feels he can score, and so they give him his chances.  Okay, fair.  So give Sprong a chance.

Kessel, until recently, continued to be put on the top PP unit despite his lack of quality shots and goals.  But the coaching staff felt he would turn around.  Again, fair.  So why not let Sprong, who is often selfish with the puck (in the best sense of the word), a chance with the top PP, or at least one of the power play units?

Let Sprong do what he does best and provide offense.  Sprong is only 19, and will only be getting better, but the Penguins need to give him a chance to do so in the top 6 if they want him to develop correctly.

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Sprong Deserves the “Kessel” Treatment

What To Think of Sullivan

SullyMike Sullivan has now been behind the Penguins bench for 10 games now.  The Penguins have a 4-5-1 record under Sullivan, however, they boast a 4-1-1 record in their previous 6 games after their 4 game losing skid when Sullivan was hired.

So, was the Sullivan hire the right move?

Oh my gosh, yes.

I wrote an article after the first game that the Penguins played under Sullivan.  It was a 4-1 loss to the Capitals.  Although they lost that game, and the next 3 after that, I wanted to make a point clear: I believed in Sullivan, and I still do.

If you are a Penguins fan, you need to believe in him, too.

So let’s look at some statistical analysis here:

First, the Penguins are starting to score again.  Although the Penguins are still only averaging 2.4 goals per game under Sullivan (they averaged 2.35 under Johnston this year), they have now scored 5 goals in three of Sullivan’s 10 games behind the bench.  The Penguins only had 1 game in which they scored 5 or more under Johnston this year.

Second, the stars are producing.  This is arguably the most important and most significant difference between Johnston and Sullivan.  Johnston was extremely structured in his coaching from what I have read through multiple sources.  He was very particular about guys playing a certain way and this, that, and the other.  Sullivan has similar beliefs, but he believes that the superstars are superstars because of their instinctive abilities.

He wants to back of them a little bit and let them do what they do best: score goals.

Although the Penguins have a plethora of great players, I want to look at their 4 elite skaters: Kessel, Letang, Malkin, and Crosby, and break them down one guy at a time.

Under Johnston this year…

  • Kessel played 28 games, racking up 17 points (9 G – 8A), which is good for approximately .608 points per game and .321 goals per game
  • Letang played 25 games, tallying 14 points (1G – 13A), which gave him .56 points per game and .04 goals per game
  • Malkin played 28 games, leading the Penguins with 26 points (13G – 13A), which gave him .929 points per game and .464 goals for per game
  • Crosby played 28 games and tallied only 19 points (6G – 13A) which gave him .679 points per game and .214 goals per game

Under Sullivan this year…

  • Kessel’s numbers have dropped slightly, but I believe this is because he played a ton of time on the third line, which gave him less ice time.  That being said, in 10 games under Sullivan, Kessel has 5 points (3G – 2A), which gives him a .5 points per game and .3 goals per game.  This will improve, however, as Kessel has been reunited with Malkin
  • Letang has only played 4 games under Sullivan, but thus far has 8 points (2G – 6A) which is good for 2 points per game and .5 goals per game.  By no means will Letang keep that kind of pace up, but he looks more confident on the ice and is beginning to shoot the puck more on the power play and in general
  • Even Malkin’s numbers have increased, despite his dominant performances early in the season.  In 10 games Malkin has 11 points (5G – 6A), which gives him 1.1 points per game and .5 goals per game
  • Crosby has by far seen the most improvement under Sullivan, and thank goodness, because the Penguins need him to play like what he is: the best player in the world.  In 9 games, Crosby has 10 points (5G – 5A), which gives him about 1.1 points per game and .55 goals per game

Stats speak for themselves. Although it may be a small sample size, the stars are really beginning to find their stride under Sullivan, and if they continue to do so, look out NHL.

Third, the power play is clicking.  They are shooting the puck, creating movement, screening the goalie…you name it.  The Penguins are finally beginning to have a power play that LOOKS like it should.  The Penguins power play was darn near last in the league, clicking at only 15.6% (15 of 96).

In only 10 games under Sullivan, the power play has been clicking at a 27.3% rate (9 of 33), which brought the Penguins all the way up to 19th in the league in that department.  AND that includes an 0 for 10 stretch in Sullivan’s first 3 games before he even had a practice with the team.  Take away that 0 for 10 stretch, and the Penguins are at a ridiculous 39.1% clip (9 of 23).

I know it’s hard sometimes, but believe in these Penguins.  Believe in Sullivan.

Just a few side notes:

The Penguins play a home-and-home against the Balckhawks on back-to-back nights (Tuesday and Wednesday).  This should tell us a lot about how this team stands as it is right now.

Also, just because I am a huge fan, Daniel Sprong now has 6 goals and 1 assist in 4 games since behind shipped back to juniors.  He may not play for the Pens this year, but he is going to be special.

 

 

What To Think of Sullivan

Johnston, Agnew Out. Sullivan, Martin In.

JohnstonI want to begin this article by apologizing to everyone who actually keeps up with my blog.  I know it may not be many, but I have not been posting nearly as much as I would like.

For me, I got late into the semester and just found that I was so busy and did not have time to write.

But I assure you, recap articles are coming back, a Q and A will be coming up soon, and I’ll be getting back on track now that finals (for the most part) are over.

Anyways, let’s move onto the news of the day: Mike Johnston (and Gary Agnew for that matter) are finally gone.  It surprisingly took the Rutherford 28 games to make the move.   The Penguins are  currently 15-10-3 and not in the playoff picture, keeping in mind that this includes a stretch where they went 9-1 in a 10 game span.  Take those 10 games away, and the Penguins are 6-9-3.

Under Johnston, the Penguins ranked (oh what fun it is to use past tense when talking about Johnston) 27th in goals for per game (2.36), 27th on the power play (15.6%), 6th in goals against (2.32), and 19th in Corsi for percentage (48.3%).  For those of you that do not know, Corsi for percentage basically tells you how often your team has possession of the puck.

The only reason the goals against isn’t also horrendous is because of the guy playing the role of brick wall.  Because it certainly is not the talent of the defensive corps.  That being said, I want to once again acknowledge the pairing of Dumoulin and Lovejoy.  These 2 continue to be the shutdown pair night in and night out, so props to these 2 guys.

But without Fleury, the goals against would be probably right around that 27th range, considering the Penguins are allowing the 3rd most shots against per game at 31.8.  Letang has not been nearly what anyone expected him to be this year, many even thought he could win a Norris including myself but that is not going to happen.  Cole has been awful as of late.  Scuderi shouldn’t be in the NHL…

Anyways, Fleury has been doing everything he can to help this team win.  And honestly, he is a big reason as to why Mike Johnston’s firing did not happen earlier, as he was able to help the Penguins maintain a somewhat respectable record.

Heck, Evgeni Malkin kept Johnston behind the bench for a few more games after that ridiculous run he had after calling out the team against New Jersey.

Even Beau Bennett may have gave Johnston one more game, as he helped the Penguins mount a comeback 2 games ago against the Avalanche while scoring 2 goals in the 3rd period.

All of that being said, Johnston is finally gone.  An early Christmas present.  Thanks Santa.

I do want to say this:  Johnston is not a terrible coach.  The players respected him for the most part, according to GMJR’s interview today, and his philosophy was not bad.  His problem was that he was with the wrong team.

After a 2-1 loss against the Ducks, he said that the Penguins need to tighten up defensively….

You’re kidding right?  A team with Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and co. need to tighten up defensively after losing 2-1?  Give me a break… They need to start scoring goals is what they need to do.

Sullivan

So who was hired?  Mike Sullivan.  Who is he?  Oh, you know, the guy who has Wilkes-Barre at a 18-5 record with one of the top offenses (3rd) in the AHL.  I have faith Sullivan can be that guy to really bring a spark to this offense.  Plus, who remembers last time the Penguins made a mid-season coaching change?

2009 cup

Yeah, that.

So now that you are up to speed, I want to share some of my personal opinions on what Sullivan can do to really get this team rolling.

1. Let the stars play their game

From my understanding based off of what I have read from multiple sources, Johnston was extremely structured and wanted his players to play a certain way.  He really was a junior coach.  These coaches tend to want more structure and need to be more of a mentor to the younger hockey players.  In the NHL, the coach should not be all that influential.  Let the stars play their game.

I watched an interview with Sullivan, and he was quoted saying this:

“I’ve always been a believer that you have to allow your top players the latitude to make plays and act on their instincts.  There’s a fine line as a coach between making sure you stay out of the way in certain circumstances but you provide the necessary structure so that you don’t become a high risk team.”

I love this.  Guys like Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel need to cut loose and start doing what they’re getting paid to do: score.  If Sullivan words are true, I’m excited to see what could happen to this offense.

2. Young guns

I just find it hilarious that in Johnston’s last game, after being told multiple times by GMJR to play Clendening/Sprong, he plays Scuderi over Clendening when the Penguins needed a puck moving defenseman on the back end against the Kings, and sits Sprong for the last 31 minutes of the game because he pinched in the offensive zone…..

31 minutes?!  Yeah, for pinching in the offensive zone.

In that case, may as well sit Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and every other offensive minded forward because they are not responsible enough defensively.  And to Sprong’s credit, I saw him make multiple, solid defensive plays in the Penguins’ defensive zone.

He’s called a forward, Mike.  Let him play his game and do the thing that you apparently didn’t want this team to do: score.

My point?  Give these young guys a shot, and sit Scuderi…unless you REALLY have to play him…

3. Power play

This may possibly be one of the biggest expectations after the coaching change.  Although the power play was kicking it up a little bit as of late, they still rank 27th in the NHL which is just absurd considering their offensive talent.

The power play should easily be top 5, at least on paper.  They need to have a shot first mentality, and plenty of traffic around the net.  Heck, watch Malkin’s goal he scored last night when the Penguins had a man advantage because they pulled their goalie.  David Perron literally threw a puck on net with traffic in front, and Malkin knocked the puck home past Quick to tie the game late, 2-2.

The power play production will lead to more goals, which can only play to the Penguins’ favor.

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If I were Mike Sullivan, here would be my line combinations for Monday night against Ovechkin and the Caps:

Forwards:

Kunitz – Crosby – Bennett

Perron – Malkin – Kessel

Sprong – Bonino – Hornqvist

Plotnikov – Cullen – Fehr

Defense:

Dumoulin – Lovejoy

Maatta – Warsofsky

Clendening – Cole/Scuderi

I kept the first 2 lines the same that they have been, but these lines could very well change.  Kessel has not been getting puck luck, but has looked good offensively the past few games.

I moved Sprong to the third line because he needs to be given a chance.  He should be playing 10-15 minutes per night, and he only has until the 40th game, because after this the coaches and GM can still send him back to juniors.  They need to give him a chance to see what they really have in Sprong, because if he can increase the scoring, then he needs to stay.  I wouldn’t even be at all opposed to giving him a shot with Crosby/Malkin, but I don’t think it will happen realistically.

Also, I did not put Letang in the lineup because he is reportedly out around 2 weeks with an upper body injury.  I put Warsofsky with Maatta because he has actually silently surprised me in his short stint with the Penguins.  He should be playing in every game until he shows he should not be.

Clendening should play, and the scratch could be Scuderi or Cole.  In this case, I would play Cole even though he has been terrible as of late, because Scuderi is just absolutely pathetic at this point.  Oh by the way, he makes $3.875 million.  Yikes.

Can the Penguins start to turn this season around?  I think they can.  If Sullivan can get this offense clicking how it should, I think this team can be dangerous.  It just feels like there is a ticking bomb waiting to go off.  Here is to hoping it happens soon…

The Penguins, as mentioned earlier, are currently 15-10-3, one point out of the playoff picture.  The hill they have to climb is not too steep, but they still need to begin improving.

It starts Monday against Washington, who currently leads the Metropolitan Division with 40 points.

I’ll have an article up on Monday night recapping the Penguins vs. Caps game, and giving my impressions on Sullivan behind the bench.  Let’s Go Pens.

Johnston, Agnew Out. Sullivan, Martin In.

Week 2 Q and A

It’s that time of the week!

Just as a quick note before we get going: since there aren’t too many Penguins games in a week, I am going to start doing the Q and A monthly rather than weekly.

Often times, there is not too much that happens in a week that becomes “question worthy,” and I would rather answer upwards of 10 questions in one huge article every month than answer around 1-3 in a week.

So the next Q and A will be published on December 1st regarding the Penguins progress up through the end of November.

With that being said, let’s get to this week’s questions.

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Winnipeg Jets vs Toronto Maple Leafs

Tyler Godwin: I know it’s early, but what are some positions the Penguins could look to improve through trade and who could they target for those positions?

Brad Franjione: The Penguins have been playing well as of late, but I really think they need a physical presence somewhere in their lineup.  Enter Dustin Byfuglien.

I actually briefly mentioned Byfuglien in my previous Q and A article, but let’s talk about him a little bit more.

First of all, the Penguins do not have many physical players.  David Perron is tied for 2nd on the Penguins in hits.  That should not be the case.  Perron should be more busy trying to score goals instead of trying to hit people…

Dustin Byfuglien is an absolute monster at 6′ 5″ and 265 pounds.  He can hit, clear out the front of the net, and also be the guy that could even come to the aid of guys like Crosby and Malkin if need be.

The biggest upside of Byfuglien is that he isn’t just some big guy who can hit people and do nothing else.  He is actually a smooth skater and has potential offensive upside as well.  Byfuglien currently is a +4 with Winnipeg and has 6 points (2G – 4A – 6P) in 12 games.  Pretty solid stat line from a 6′ 5″ guy weighing 265 pounds.

However, one of the biggest reasons the Penguins should go after Byfuglien?

He is a power play threat.

The Penguins power play, although it converted once in their most recent game, is still 28th in the NHL.  Byfuglien would help their cause.  He has a bomb of a shot, as you would expect from a guy his size, and can quarterback a power play quite well.

Although I love Kris Letang, he never really has proven himself as a good “power play quarterback.”  That’s just my opinion.  Although Pouliot is in the AHL, I would love to see him quarterback the top power play if and when he gets called up this year.  I also would not mind giving Maatta that chance.

But if the Penguins acquired Byfuglien, I think he becomes your power play quarterback, and a guy that will help the power play numbers improve drastically.

So what do the Penguins give up to get Byfuglien?  I would use Perron in the centerpiece of that trade.  I mentioned this also in my previous Q and A.  He is a good player, but just does not seem to be meshing anywhere in the Penguins lineup right now.  He still does not have a goal, and is currently on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.

That’s a problem.

The Penguins’ forward depth is outstanding, and although their defense could use a top 4 guy, the Penguins are tied 1st in the NHL is goals allowed per game (although this is partially due to the tremendous play of Fleury).

Byfluglien is a top 4 defenseman, a physical presence, a power play quarterback…

You fill all the potential “needs” of the Penguins with Byfuglien.

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sid and geno

Doug Godwin: After the quick start last year, the power play has been horrible ever since.  Besides just shooting the puck, what is the true issue here?

Brad Franjione: This is a great question.  Actually, it is such a good question that I am not sure if there is a clear cut answer.  That being said, I’ll let you know what I think.

So the Penguins have a top power play unit consisting of Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Patric Hornqvist.

Last year, the Penguins had a similar top unit, except obviously excluding Kessel.

In the first 11 games of last season, the power play was clearly working.  The Penguins scored on 19 of 46 opportunities, which is about a 41.3% success rate.  Although I would love to see the Penguins with a power play consistently clicking at 41.3%, I think we all knew the power play was going to drop off.  That being said, it dropped off way more than it should have.

After the first 11 games of last season, the power play only succeeded 30 times in 208 tries, which is about a 14.4% success rate.  About 2/5 of the Penguins total power play goals last year came in the first 11 games of the season!!

Under Mike Johnston and Rick Tocchet (excluding the first 11 games of last year), the Penguins power play has succeeded 34 times in 243 tries, which is about a 13.9% success rate.

The Penguins have, arguably, the best forward corps in the NHL.  Minimally, they are top 5 team in this category.  Their power play SHOULD be at about 25% in my opinion.  But they are not even close.

So, why?

Well, obviously they need to start shooting the puck more.  You can’t score goals by just passing the puck around in the offensive zone all night.

So, besides that.  What’s the issue?  I see two main issues, personally.  Again, who knows if these are the real issues behind this power play, but here’s what I think.

First issue, when the Penguins shoot, the puck needs to be on net.  I watched a game the other night and it seemed like every shot or one-timer was fired high and wide, banked off of the boards, and went all the way out to neutral ice.

They can’t be helping the other team do their job.

Every shot that they shoot doesn’t have to go in, but at least hit the net with it.  Even if it means taking a little bit of anger out of the shot.

Second issue, the Penguins need to shoot faster.  And no, I’m not talking about the speed of the shot.

I mean they need to shoot the puck early in the power play.

Most teams while shorthanded will play in a box-type formation in the defensive zone.  When they Penguins control the puck and refuse to shoot the puck on net, this box will stay in formation.  The Penguins can pass and pass all they want, but that box will not move.  What I do notice, however, is that when the Penguins DO shoot the puck early, that defensive box collapses, which opens the door for more opportunities.

If the Penguins power play is going to improve, they need to get the puck on net early and often, put it on goal, and get the other team out of position.  This is how I think they are going to succeed.

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Bennett

Casey Chafin: Why is Beau Bennett still on this team?  He should have been gone 3 years ago.  Most injury prone players like Bennett typically make up for it by being really good when they are healthy, but he does not seem to do that.  Considering we now have a new coach and GM, as opposed to the ones that drafted him and thought highly of him, why is he still around?

Brad Franjione: Well Casey, I see your argument here.  I have not been a huge Beau Bennett fan myself due to his consistent injury problems.

The guy got injured celebrating a goal this season.  Geez.

So, why is Beau Bennett still around? Here are some arguments in support of Beau Bennett.

First of all, he is only 23 and still has potential.  I remember last preseason, Bob Steigerwald, one of the Penguins’ announcers, was quoted saying something along the lines of “Besides Crosby and Malkin, Beau Bennett is the most skilled player on this team.”  That is saying something.

I know, he’s injury prone.  But he is young.  Give the guy a chance.  Do you really just drop a young talented player like Bennett JUST because he has been prone to injury?  That is a bit harsh…

Second of all, he is only signed to a 1 year deal at $800,000.  To have a guy like him on your team for that cheap is huge.  AND it is only a 1 year contract.  The Penguins did not want to offer him anything long term because he has been injury prone.  If Bennett had a 3 year deal woth 2 million a year, then yeah, I definitely see your argument, but that is not the case.

Thirdly, Bennett made some huge improvements in the offseason.  He knew that he has been injury prone, and he wanted to get better and earn himself a roster spot.  In the preseason, Bennett scored a team high 3 goals, and so far this year, he has 2 goals in only 6 games.

To put this in perspective, Malkin and Kessel have 4 goals each.  They have played all 11 games.  Past that, Hornqvist, Bonino, and Kunitz have 2 goals each, and they have also played in all 11 games.  Bennett has more goals than Crosby, Letang, and Perron, all of who have played all 11 games.

Give the guy some credit here.

Let’s get into some advanced statistics.  In the NHL, there are stats such as plus/minus, goals, assists, and points.  However, I am going to look at iCorsi/60 and iFenwick/60 stats for Beau Bennett.

You’re probably asking yourself “what the heck is iCorsi/60 and iFenwick/60?”  Corsi itself is calculated by the following formula:

Corsi = shots on goal + missed shots + blocked shots

iCorsi/60 is just basically an individuals Corsi for every 60 minutes that they play.

Fenwick itself is calculated by the following formula:

Fenwick = shots on goal + missed shots

Similarly, iFenwick/60 is just an individuals Fenwick for every 60 minutes they play.

Both of these stats, Fenwick especially, are strong indicators of possession, since a skater needs possession to shoot the puck.

So far this year, Beau Bennett has a iCorsi/60 of 15.84 and an iFenwick/60 of 13.2.  Out of 13 forwards, his iCorsi/60 ranks 4th among forwards behind only David Perron, Daniel Sprong, and Phil Kessel.  His iFenwick/60 ranks 3rd among Penguins forwards behind only Daniel Sprong and David Perron.

To put this into perspective even more, Crosby ranks 8th with an iCorsi/60 of 11.48 and Malkin ranks 12th with an iCorsi/60 of 8.73.  In addition, Crosby is 9th among forwards with an iFenwick/60 of 8.97, and Malkin ranks 12th with an iFenwick/60 of 5.95.

You do not have to be completely sold that Bennett is some God-send.  I am not making that claim.  But for his salary that he has and his impact to the team, even with being injury prone, I do not have a problem with where he is, and would not be surprised if the Penguins signed him to a one-year deal after this season, even with a new coach and GM.

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Thank you as always to those who participated this week!  I will begin doing this monthly now, as stated in the intro, but keep updated with everything by following me on Twitter @FranjiPensPress and like me on Facebook at Franjione Pens Press.

My next article will be posted late tomorrow night after the Penguins battle the Canucks in Vancouver looking for their 5th straight win.  Puck drop at 10 pm.

Week 2 Q and A