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Penguins One-Timers: Letang’s New Role, Harkins Potential, & Power Play Wrinkles



Pittsburgh Penguins, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson

After the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first game, the focus was squarely on the 2-0 lead that became a loss after four unanswered goals to a team that should struggle to score four. Yet there are a myriad of other storylines just beginning to unfold surrounding the 2023-24 Kyle Dubas version of the Penguins.

Here’s the funny thing about the blown lead and the consternation over it. We don’t know anything yet.

Even as I asked the players and coach Mike Sullivan about nipping the issue before it blossoms, it’s hard to pin down one thing. Sullivan was correct–they took a bad penalty, missed a read, and weren’t playing tight. One might think those things can be corrected.

There’s no possible way to know much after such a small sample size. But if you think it’s connected to last season’s spate of gaffes, bungles, and otherwise inexplicable collapses, you have a valid argument but an incomplete sample size. Oddly, I suspect some will be rooting for blown leads for no other reason than to affirm initial prognostications.

You may be wrong, but for all I know, you may be right.

That’s the problem with making decisions and proclamations after one game. Not even the team knows who they are yet; the jello is still wet in the mold.

The things that I can confidently project are about individual players.

*Drew O’Connor is on the cusp of a big season, but if he plays defense like he did in the third period, he might have a few meetings in the coach’s office.

*After a strong start in the first period, the Penguins’ bottom-six faded to invisibility in the offensive zone. The bottom six forwards are supposed to be the shutdown crew and the sparkplugs. When teams start to push, it’s up to the third and fourth lines to blunt the momentum via some combination of physical response, tight defense, and maybe a little offensive pressure.

After a good opening period and start to the second, there weren’t too many moments for the bottom of the Penguins lineup.

One stat that I love from is the line Corsi. It shows which lines had the shots and scoring chances. The Penguins third line was outshot 5-3, outchanced 4-2, and outscored 1-0.

*However, for all of the training camp competition, there really isn’t as much competition as it seemed for those third and fourth-line roles. Alex Nylander must show he can stay in top gear. Radim Zohorna must show he can push back against physical play. Those things are easier written and said than actually accomplished.

Andreas Johnsson was a non-factor in camp. Austin Wagner is currently a free agent because the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins already have seven veterans on the roster, and only six veterans can dress per game in the AHL (Forgive me if I missed one in my unofficial count).

Sam Poulin will be with the Pittsburgh Penguins before December. I like winger Noel Acciari more than I like center Noel Acciari. Poulin will both deserve the promotion and allow Acciari to be the disruptive winger who makes a difference instead of the solid and steady center. Earlier this week, Acciari told PHN that he likes to be more conservative at center.

Yet he still had five hits on Tuesday.

*I really liked Jansen Harkins, especially in the first 25 minutes on Tuesday.

He was a late addition to the roster battle royal, and his exceptional offensive production in the AHL gave him an edge in the organization’s decision-making process. He had a whirlwind week after being claimed from the Winnipeg Jets, culminating in the exciting news of making the NHL roster.

He’ll probably have an adrenaline hop for a little longer, but let’s see the player after it wears off. If he knocked one or two goals in the meantime, it might launch a pretty good season. He has some grit and doesn’t need a map to find the front of the net. Coach Mike Sullivan has spoken highly of his wrist shot, too.

*Erik Karlsson is fun to watch. He will be an adventure with negatives and positives, but his skating is effortless. He’s pretty funny in the room, too.

I think he enjoys the in-game fan reaction; the boos, the calls to “shoot!” and the cheers. He said he’s the same way when he watches sports.

*Did anyone else notice Kris Letang playing more conservatively against Chicago? He had zero giveaways, and his pinches were generally safe. Also, the Penguins’ second power-play unit with Letang at the point was credited with as many shots (2) as the first unit, though I felt PP2 could have been given a third when Reilly Smith nearly scored on his own rebound.

Letang staying within himself and simplifying his game is a good thing. The dynamic and timeshare with Karlsson remain intriguing, but Letang might just make it boring by performing that secondary role perfectly.

*The Penguins made a little power play adjustment at practice Thursday. Expect less Harlem Globetrotters-type movement and more movement at each station, forcing penalty killers to choose between two players. Each unit scored at least a couple of goals.