Mile High Hockey sat down with Pensburgh writer Kaitlyn Dividock to check in on the Pittsburgh Penguins ahead of tonight’s game. You can check out more of her work on Twitter at @kaitdivi .
1. What is the big difference between the Pens from a year ago and this season?
Kaitlyn: Depth definitely, and it’s been a glaring issue that’s plagued the Penguins all season. The guys they lost in offseason trades and free agency have basically crippled the bottom-six of the lineup. The most prominent part of that is how GM Jim Rutherford and Head Coach Mike Sullivan have been desperately trying to fill the gaps down the middle in third and fourth line centers – which I’m sure most people know by now. If not, a quick recap includes the loss of Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen over the summer and how their departure has really shaken up the 3C and 4C positions. Even with the acquisition of Riley Sheahan from Detroit a couple months ago, problems with point production has forced the top lines to shoulder basically all the offensive workload, which apart from Phil Kessel and now, thankfully, Sidney Crosby, it hasn’t been going that well – especially in even strength. Seeing Pittsburgh dominate teams because of its depth in the past isn’t a luxury the team has this year, and it’s hurting its record in the process.
2. The Pens have given up the second most goals in the East. Is that a byproduct of team defense, or is it simply Matt Murray not being as strong as last season and then getting hurt?
KD : Everyone you ask will probably give you different opinions on this, and quite honestly, I’m sure it’s not one thing over the other as of late, but both. Many people are quick to bash Kris Letang for playing leaky defense and making mental mistakes in front of Matt Murray, but that was disproven back in November. To me, it’s more the goaltenders’ fault this season. But remember that the Penguins started this year with Antti Niemi as the backup to Murray, and a flattened cardboard box could’ve made more saves than he did in his short tenure with the team. With the young guy Tristan Jarry playing just out of his mind in Murray’s absence, goaltending has thankfully improved.
But getting back to the defense in front of the net, Letang's performance in limiting shots and scoring chances has actually been better than his teammates, and Murray wasn’t bailing him out with saves like he was with, say, Justin Schultz for example. This doesn’t discredit Murray as an elite goaltender; it just shows that the Penguins have struggled scoring goals on 5v5 this season while also turning the puck over too often and allowing loads of goals against them in the process. It’s not one thing over the other anymore; it’s a frustrating combination of both.
The only fair criticism would be against Letang’s high volume of giveaways, not whether or not his goalie made a save. The reason I focus mainly on Letang is the heat he’s received for being on the ice for most of Pittsburgh’s goals against (in fairness, so is Sidney Crosby).
3. There has been a ton of talk about the Pens trying to find another C. Is that still a focal point for the front office?
KD : Absolutely. In fact, you’ll see rumors of potential trades Rutherford’s considering or teams that are open to a deal with Pittsburgh just about every day spread across social media. Most recently is how Matt Cullen may be an option the Penguins play with because of his cut ice time with the Wild – even though I can’t see Cullen uprooting his family again after stating they want to settle in Minnesota after choosing them over Pittsburgh
Basically, the Penguins don’t have a substantial enough talent to lead the third line. They traded away winger Scott Wilson for Riley Sheahan from the Red Wings a bit back, but he’s proven that on this Pens team, he’s better suited for the fourth line. The point production just isn’t there. Rutherford loves to make trades in December, so I could see a deal being finalized within the end of the month.