By Brian Metzer
Pittsburgh Current Hockey Writer
It may feel like the Penguins just reported for training camp, but they are already a full month into the season and played their 11th game on Thursday. Though they have had their issues during the month of October – injuries and defensive woes chief among them – they have still managed a 6-2-3 record and are tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division.
Being in first place has placated everyone who pays close attention to the team, but there are still lingering questions. The team has yet to settle on steady spots in the lineup for Derick Brassard, Daniel Sprong or Jusso Riikola. Sprong has played the most among them, but his minutes have fluctuated. Brassard is injured and Riikola has found his way back to the press box.
The injury to defenseman Justin Schultz has hurt them, but they’ve managed to keep it together thanks to the presence of Chad Ruhwedel and Jamie Oleksiak. Both players have been in the lineup over the past two weeks but defensive results have still been mixed.
The neutral zone problems that plagued the team last season have been evident again. They’ve struggled with fast opponents and have appeared disinterested at times. Through all of that, they are still among the best in the league and that’s all that can be expected through October, November and even December.
Though there are issues, it seemed like a great time to look at some of the positives that have bubbled to the surface over the first 11 games. Here are five things that Penguins fans should be excited about moving forward.
Letang is Back
It might have been easy to write Kris Letang off after last season. He was fine offensively, but his defensive game went over the edge of a cliff. For every solid play that he’d make it seemed that there were two that left everyone shaking their heads and the goal light shining. Well as Florence and the Machine once sang, the dog days are over, because Letang again looks like the guy who scored the Stanley Cup clinching goal in 2016.
The 31-year-old has four goals, 12 points and 31 shots in 10 games. His four goals rank second among all defensemen, his 1.20 points per game are good for fourth at the position and his 25:36 minutes on ice per game rank fifth among all league skaters. His contributions don’t end there though, as he’s combined with Brian Dumoulin to quietly form one of the best defensive pairings in the league.
The mistakes have dropped significantly, he’s playing with confidence and the entire team looks different when he’s in the lineup. To say his absence on Tuesday during a 6-3 loss to the New York Islanders was noticeable would be an understatement. The team didn’t have a power play quarterback and they tried to fill his minutes by committee. It didn’t work.
He may be the most important component to team success this season.
Geno Machino Rides Again
Evgeni Malkin currently ranks second in the NHL scoring race, but you’d never know it by watching the NHL Network or listening to NHL Network Radio. No one seems to be talking about what the 32-year-old has accomplished over his first 11 games.
He has rolled up seven goals, 13 assists, 20 points, five points on the power play and 28 shots. His hot start has come on a line with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel and the trio is the only unit to remain untouched during the near nightly line shuffling that has gone on.
The interesting thing about Malkin’s start is that he hasn’t really had one of those games yet. You know what we’re talking about, right? The games in which he is galloping all over the ice, throwing his body around and firing pucks from every conceivable direction. He has just quietly gone about his business and has collected points in all but one game this season. He is carrying a current 10-game scoring streak that has seen him score six goals, 11 assists and 17 points.
The NHL just named him the second star for the month for October.
While he may not be able to maintain his current average of 1.82 points per game, he should be a lock for 100 points if he is able to stay healthy.
Don’t Forget the Captain and the Phil
Not to be undone, Sidney Crosby shook off a slower offensive start and exploded for six goals, 10 points and 18 shots over his past five games. That performance was good enough to earn NHL first star of the week honors.
Kessel has also gotten off to a tremendous start and scored seven goals, 16 points and 28 shots while skating with Malkin. He seems to have improved his one-on-one ability and has regularly scored on breakaways when those opportunities have arisen.
Crosby and Kessel are on pace for 104 and 119 points respectively.
Maybe our bold prediction in the Pittsburgh Current’s hockey edition that foretold three 100-point scorers for the Penguins wasn’t so bold after all?
Time will tell.
DeSmith Solidifies Goaltending position
One of the biggest questions during training camp revolved around who would slot in as the Penguins back-up goaltender. Was it finally time for Tristan Jarry, a former second-round draft pick, to step in or would Casey DeSmith again beat him out as he has almost every time the duo have been on the same roster?
It was the latter.
DeSmith won the job and has looked very good in spot duty. He’s only appeared in five games, but has gone 2-0-2 with a 2.23 GAA, .932 save percentage and one shutout. He’s given his team a chance to win in every game that he’s played and looks a lot like a guy who should get some additional playing time.
If he has a deficiency, it is probably the shootout. He did not look good during the skills competition that ended the Penguins loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 13, but he’s been really good in regulation time.
Well you know *his* name is Simon
Dominik Simon is making quite a name for himself and it isn’t for his drawings. Simon has found a home on the Penguins top line and is thriving on Crosby’s right wing. The 24-year-old has goals in back-to-back games and is carrying a five game scoring streak over which he’s scored two goals and six points.
He isn’t flashy, but he does a little bit of everything right. He is only 5-foot-11, 176 pounds, but he isn’t easy to knock down. He plays physically in the corners and in front of the net. He seems to think the game on a level that allows him to keep up with Crosby and has a knack for finding the Penguins captain in open space.
His presence could be tied to Crosby’s breakout and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him stick on his line.