The Pittsburgh Penguins have won seven games in a row and 14 of 18. Teams with such records and success don’t generally have glaring holes in their lineup or figure to be desperate suitors on the NHL trade market, yet the Penguins might have a couple of soft spots and a physical player sitting in the press box.
Generally, I follow coach Mike Sullivan’s roster decisions. When a player isn’t getting the ice time we might expect or is getting more, a deep dive and some questions follow. Most often, by the end of my “investigation,” it makes sense.
A prime example is Ty Smith. The Penguins acquired the defenseman from the New Jersey Devils as they traded John Marino to clear cap space for Jeff Petry. Smith came with a lot of promise and a bit of baggage.
We studied him closely in the preseason, maybe a little too much. By the end of the half-dozen games, I thought he would struggle in the NHL regular season because he sometimes got lost in transition and would remain lost in the defensive zone. Perhaps I got that one right or waiver requirements prompted GM Ron Hextall to keep P.O Joseph on the NHL roster.
Regardless, that decision at least made sense to most who followed along.
However, one player’s role, or lack thereof, that continues to make me scratch my head is Mark Friedman’s. Yes, the defenseman is a wild card. He’s been suspended for spearing and has stirred the Flyers’ to the point of singular-focused hatred during a hockey game. Still, he’s also shown skating and offensive components on par with legitimate NHL defensemen.
“(Friedman) is a very good player. He’s a really mobile guy. His skating is one of his biggest strengths,” said Sullivan. “He defends really hard. He’s a good penalty killer. He brings a little edge to his game … He’s a decent puck mover. So I think his mobility and his defensive capabilities are the strength of his game.
“And he’s been very good for us. These aren’t easy decisions … we’ve got a group of probably eight or nine defensemen that are within our organization that we know are capable of playing NHL games that are NHL caliber defenseman.”
Yet, Friedman seems terminally stuck as a depth defenseman and bubble NHL player.
PHN has chronicled the recent struggles of the Brian Dumoulin-Jan Rutta pairing in PHN+ report cards. On home ice, they have been better, but not without incident. They’ve been susceptible to speed rushes and been attacked by opponents’ forechecks, especially on the road where home teams can get favorable matchups.
The Buffalo Sabres seemingly zeroed in on the pair, and the Florida Panthers also got to them.
Given Petry’s absence from the Penguins lineup for at least 18 more days (as of Saturday) and eight games, the Penguins could use more mobility and offense on the blue line.
What about Mark Friedman?
After Kapanen returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, he scored four goals in the first two games and was a noticeable presence. Since then, there have been moments, including five shots in his third game back against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but a lack of sustained play.
He has two assists in four games, though one of those was a power-play helper.
His ice time- usually a strong indicator of what Sullivan thinks of a player on that night- has fluctuated from nearly 13 minutes to just above 10. Power play duties and opportunity play a role, too, but as part of PP2, that time is usually quite limited.
After the burst of lightning, it appears Kapanen’s play has receded.
That’s bad news for him and the team. If he doesn’t consistently pick up the scoring pace or become more consistently dangerous in the offensive zone, the lineup spot he won back may not be there for long. As Dave Molinari noted on Friday, Jason Zucker’s injury is another opportunity for Danton Heinen to earn a spot.
Knocking the Net Off
It’s become a league-wide thing and a bit of a debate, more so in Canadian media. A few weeks ago, former Pittsburgh Penguins goalies Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury each knocked the net off the moorings a few times. Fans howled that it must have been intentional.
We’ve seen the current Penguins’ goalies tangle with the iron, too.
PHN asked Casey DeSmith about the recent phenomena. I expected a short answer or shrug and dismissal. Instead, he took PHN to goalie school, including demonstrations and a thorough explanation. No joke, DeSmith talked for almost three minutes on the topic.
When he finished, I understood what the reverse VH was, how goalies have changed their tactics of defending against pucks behind the goal line, and changes to the dasher boards that have affected everything.
For context, the reverse VH means instead of a goalie standing straight up, pads parallel to the post, the goalie will drop the near pad to the ice horizontally and lean on the post. See the photo below.
“My opinion is that it’s a trend of the reverse VH — the position on the post. I’ve knocked the net off twice in my last three games, and it was the exact same play. Puck goes wide and bounces out,” said DeSmith. “That’s another thing. The boards are really lively at most of the rinks. Point shots at the boards come right back out into a scoring area. You’re at the top of the crease, and then everybody’s pushing back inside the post, and that reverse VH kind of like this (Desmith demonstrated the reverse VH).
“Everybody is big, strong. You push as hard as you can to get back to the post … and because you’re low to the ice, trying to come up on the puck, that sends the net off. Obviously, it’s a safety issue that you can’t make (nets) stuck in the ice — they need to come off from a player-safety perspective.
“From a goalie perspective, I think it’s a combination of the liveliness of the boards and how prevalent the reverse VH is. The puck goes wide. You’ve got to get back to the post as fast as possible, and you guys are banging into it. Certainly not on purpose.”
DeSmith noted goalies used to play on their feet and hug the post. In the new style, with dropping one leg horizontally, skates are getting caught under the net and knocking them off, too.
Thanks, Casey. I feel like we all just earned a yellow belt in goaltending.