Mark Madden: Kris Letang is playing like a Norris finalist, other Penguins notes
As the climate turns from warm to cold, analysis turns from lengthy to brief in this collection of refreshing Penguins notes. Bet you can’t read just one!
• With all due respect to Evgeni Malkin’s 12 points in six games, the Penguins’ best player to date is defenseman Kris Letang, who played last season carting around residue from neck surgery in April 2017. But Letang is now fully fit, confident, energized and making the right decision just about every time. He’s got the perfect play-safe partner in Brian Dumoulin. Letang’s power-play efficiency is up. His numbers — four goals and four assists in six games — match his performance. Letang was a finalist for the Norris Trophy (NHL’s best defenseman) in 2013. He might be yet again.
• Patric Hornqvist needs to be Sidney Crosby’s right wing whether Crosby wants that or not. Hornqvist doesn’t have the speed or neutral-zone touch Crosby prefers. But Hornqvist supports Crosby down low and forces him to play below the hash marks more often.
“Underneath the hash marks, [Crosby] might be the best player that’s ever played,” said coach Mike Sullivan.
That’s true. Hornqvist makes Crosby play there more often. Otherwise, Crosby attacks too often off the rush, and he’s not getting much done: no goals in six games.
• But Crosby always contributes. In Thursday’s 3-0 win at Toronto, Crosby smothered NHL scoring leader Auston Matthews when the two were matched up. Crosby’s control of Matthews was such that Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock avoided the match-up after the first period. The Penguins outshot Toronto 7-0 when Crosby and Matthews were on the ice. Maybe Crosby finishes his career as a checking center, like Bryan Trottier did.
• Will Sullivan put Crosby against Connor McDavid when the Penguins visit Edmonton on Tuesday? Seems logical. Remind the young whippersnappers who’s boss one after the other.
• It was great to see Matt Murray make 38 saves in that shutout of Toronto, his first game in 12 days because of injury. Every goalie is an easy target for criticism — Murray even more so because he replaced fan favorite Marc-Andre Fleury. But Murray’s brick-wall showing at Toronto reminded everyone — and himself — of what Murray has so often been, and will be. He’s got two Stanley Cup rings, and his best days are ahead of him. Besides being a bit brittle, any weakness is mostly imagined.
• Is Derick Brassard a center or a wing? He exclusively played center during his previous 11 NHL seasons. But if he plays center for the Penguins, he’s on the third line and plays 1-2 less minutes per game than his career average. If he plays wing, he skates with Crosby and gets more ice and more chance to get points. Brassard is in a contract year. That complicates. He’s not done much at either position so far. That also complicates.
• Brassard was brought to Pittsburgh to strengthen the Penguins’ dominance at center, hockey’s most important position besides goal. But the coaches might think Riley Sheahan is better. That’s the same Riley Sheahan who went 79 games without a goal while playing for Detroit. Sheahan is better than that, but he’s not better than Brassard.
• Matt Cullen turns 42 on Nov. 2. If he plays 82 games, that will minimize him for the playoffs. Cullen should play 55-60 games. Use Derek Grant soon. If Grant sits around without playing much longer, his game will erode. You’re not replacing Crosby with Grant. You’re resting a fourth-liner who is the NHL’s oldest active player. Give Dad a rest.
• Chad Ruhwedel should also play soon. He’s on the team in case a right-handed defenseman got hurt. One did. Justin Schultz broke his leg. Lefty defensemen Jack Johnson, Jamie Oleksiak and Juuso Riikola have tried the right side, but don’t look comfortable. Use Ruhwedel instead of Oleksiak or Riikola. Ruhwedel would provide better puck movement.
• The Penguins have lost three times to teams not expected to make the playoffs. Their three victories have come against both of last year’s Stanley Cup finalists and the NHL’s hottest team. Rarely has a team so decisively played up or down to the competition.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).