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Penguins Blog: Puustinen Drop, Goalie Battle, Rethinking Trade?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Valtteri Puustinen

TORONTO — And down the stretch they come. The Pittsburgh Penguins have the most arduous schedule of the five teams that are still realistically battling for one of the two available playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

The Penguins drew the short straw, as they’ve done all season, from the schedule makers. While the Detroit Red Wings finish with a home-and-home against the ready-to-go-home Montreal Canadiens, the Penguins wrap with division leader, the Boston Bruins, the red-hot Nashville Predators, and their most annoying rival, the New York Islanders.

It seems so many bad Penguins memories come from the Islanders.

The only good thing the Islanders ever did for the Penguins was offer up Bill Guerin for a conditional pick.

With a couple of hours to kill in downtown Toronto before the Penguins’ morning skate and the entire city shuts down for the solar eclipse — there were signs for 60 miles (or about 100km) reminding motorists they could not pull off to the side of the road during the event of the century — we did a little Twitter Q&A:

So Jake, thanks for the question. I understand Valtteri Puustinen represents “the young guys,” and being young entitles each player to red-carpet status as well as a Starbucks gift card, but let’s be honest. Puustinen hasn’t done much over the last few weeks. He hasn’t scored a goal since March 17, registering a few assists in that time.

He’s not a liability. He has offensive instincts, but while everyone else has elevated, Puustinen has not. That doesn’t mean coach Mike Sullivan hates young players or Puustinen won’t succeed, but it does mean that Puustinen is currently more deserving of his fourth-line spot, certainly not a top-six role.

You get the top six minutes when you earn the top six minutes. And yes, you can earn them in 10 minutes per night, but you have to show the coaches you’ve got the chance to contribute in that game. No one gets mad when Reilly Smith drops in the lineup, and when it comes to winning an individual game, it’s the same principle for Puustinen.

The 24-year-old Finnish winger is still a work in progress, and fan sentiment be damned when winning each of the next five games represents a shot at the pot of gold for which they’ve worked all season.

Also, Emil Bemstrom has played pretty well. He’s also young, by the way. It’s a little bit amusing fielding endless calls for “young players,” but no, “not that young player, the other one.”

When evaluating individual players, I get that most people look with their heart and hope. I suppose that makes me the bad guy for explaining why and, in this case, agreeing with Sullivan.

If the Penguins make the playoffs (IF), he certainly is in the top four. No question. For Sidney Crosby to drag his team, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the playoff race with such force is the best kick on the bell lap I’ve ever seen.

The others have more points, such as Nikita Kucherov, but I do place greater value on centers because they have more responsibility. I also weigh players who pile up power-play points differently. Kucherov has 51 power-play points, and undoubtedly, many of those have been integral, but they’re different than even strength points.

If Crosby has an average season, the Penguins are deep in the lottery picks. Take away Kucherov and the Lightning are probably a playoff team anyway. So, my top five in this order would be Nathan MacKinnon, Crosby, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews (a run at 70 goals is just incredible), and Kucherov.

I might flip Crosby and McDavid because Edmonton’s mid-season revival was extraordinary, too.

Are you kidding? Michael Bunting has added a needed element to the Penguins lineup. He’s also added balance by providing a real spark on Evgeni Malkin’s line–he can’t be given full credit for the about-face, but he gets some. The Malkin line is scoring and playing gritty hockey in the low zone.

Jake Guentzel is piling up points for Carolina–which is what they needed–and Bunting is adding real pop in the middle six. If any of the prospects hit, this might go down as a trade win for Dubas.

We’ll know around noon today who gets the start in Toronto, but I, too, would start Jarry on Monday. I would not commit to a goaltender beyond that. Alex Nedeljkovic has provided steady and sometimes spectacular goaltending on this stretch, and he’s earned consideration for as many starts as he can handle. However, I’m unsure if he’s ever faced quite the meatgrinder as a starting goalie that the Penguins’ schedule has presented.

A game off is probably wise. I thought he looked a little shaky Saturday against Tampa Bay. Bear in mind, last week, he won back-to-back games, then another game on one day rest, and another game on one day rest.

His performance in the last few weeks will probably earn his agent a new beach house and Nedeljkovic a spiffy new contract this summer, but the next five games are all that matters right now. He’s not a big goalie who can play a quiet game. He’s an athletic goalie with movement. The legs need a break.

We’ll also do a Q&A after tonight’s game. For that video, follow the PHN YouTube page.