Tuesday Mailbag: What happened with Kuhnhackl, Crosby line issues, is it time for Sprong

This edition of our mailbag feature discusses Kuhnackl’s rise to the top-six, what’s going on with the Crosby line, and if it’s time to call up a popular Black Ace.

Welcome back to our weekly mailbag, ladies and gents. Before we get started, I wanted to commend y’all on the great topics you’ve submitted and discussed in the comment boards in each post. I’ve been having a lot of fun with you guys.

So without further ado, let’s keep this train rolling:

Throughout the week, don’t be shy about throwing my way your burning questions, hottest takes, or most interesting debate topics – NHL-related or otherwise – here in the comments, on Twitter @Pensburgh using #PensburghMailbag, on the site’s Facebook page, or directly to me via e-mail at kaitd3@gmail.com. There’s a solid chance I’ll answer just about anything that’s interesting, just make sure it’s appropriate and abides by our community guidelines.

I’m going to answer this by breaking down the short stint of time Tom Kuhnhackl had working beside Evgeni Malkin on the second forward line by the numbers.

Before I do, however, I want to point out that seeing Kuhnhackl bumped up to the second line came as a shock to just about everybody, especially considering racking up points isn’t really what this 25-year-old is known for. And preceding the three-game period he spent alongside Malkin on the road trip through Canada, Kuhnhackl hadn’t recorded a single goal or assist and only landed 10 pucks on net in 13 games, not giving much evidence or reason (other than Coach Sullivan desperately trying to figure out line combinations that work) for why a move like that would make any sense.

The only thing I can think of as to why Sullivan would want a guy like Kuhnackl paired with Malkin is the ongoing effort to always have a defensive-minded sort of guy playing with the Russian center, especially with the team struggling. Sullivan tends to place physical guys on each line in an effort to force a reset when the Penguins aren’t playing well. Think back to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs when Chris Kunitz was placed on Crosby’s line against the Washington Capitals. It’s sort of the same deal.

It’s worth noting that Sullivan didn’t put him with Malkin until after the horrid 7-1 loss against the Winnipeg Jets too, so it may have just been a way to refresh the forwards and mix it up as much as he could after that embarrassing night, as he was fuming about it the next day.

In the matchup with the Edmonton Oilers, as one would expect, Kuhnhackl didn’t record a single point, but made his money on the defensive side of the puck. He had an impressive eight hits and one block in his 14:12 minutes of ice time. He was productive, the line was effective at times, and a handful of shot opportunities it managed showed it was a decent idea by the head coach.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Edmonton OilersPhoto by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

The trio played well enough to guarantee it’d stay together the following night in Calgary against the Flames. Kuhnhackl again didn’t tally any points, but the winger did have three shots on goal and two hits. He also accounted for several of Malkin’s turnovers. It just became even more obvious that he doesn’t quite have the hands to deserve second-line minutes.

Surely enough, Kuhnhackl lived to see another day with Geno In Vancouver when the Penguins faced the Canucks. The second line had no points altogether, and that was the end of both the trying road trip and Kuhnhackl’s tenure as a top-six guy.

Regarding your second question about Sidney Crosby and his ever-changing top line’s defensive issues, I think that begs an in-depth look at just what is causing all these issues for the captain and his wingers in general.

Let me begin by pointing out that Crosby has zero goals and only three assists in his past nine games, and for a lack of better words, just looks tired on his skates. We’re not seeing the typical explosiveness from him. He’s not blowing by guys and flipping pucks over goalies’ shoulders with one hand just yet, and that’s concerning for fans, but I really don’t think it’s reason to panic.

However, what is concerning is his defensive stat sheet, which is currently tied for a team-worse plus-minus rating of -14. Again, this is a statistic that’s pretty irrelevant nowadays with all the advanced stats we have to work with, but the rating is bad enough that it begs the need to delve further into why Crosby’s on the ice for so many goals against and zero goals for.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Washington CapitalsPhoto by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The first thing I thought was how many of the poor defensive games was Antti Niemi, who got released by the Florida Panthers after just two starts yesterday, in net for? Similarly, how many of the whopping 16 goals he allowed in his short term with Pittsburgh was Crosby’s line on the ice for? The results were staggering.

In the team’s first (cringeworthy) back-to-back game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Niemi allowed fours goals against before he got pulled. Crosby was rated a minus-four for the night. In the two October matchups with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Niemi allowed five goals against in the first game and seven in the second. Crosby, to his credit, was only rated a collective minus-one in both. Not bad.

My second thought: if it isn’t because of Niemi, it must be because of the discouraging mess that is Kris Letang. The best example of my thought process here is the glaring issues these two faced in Vancouver. They were both on the ice for all four goals against.

For some reason, even though Letang has obviously not been playing as well as we’re all used to this season, he’s still owning top minutes on the first line – the line that just so happens to be with Crosby. It might be because Pittsburgh, top-to-bottom, believes in Letang entirely, and that’s been the main reason, other than Justin Schultz being on the IR for a while, why Sullivan hasn’t dropped him to the second or third pairing. That and the fact that Letang is still, even with all of the unpleasant flaws he’s presented thus far, the best defenseman on the team (when he’s on his game).

Honestly, Crosby is just going through one of the worst slumps of his career, and many factors as to why it’s happening can be argued until the sun burns up. But what we have to remember is that this is Sidney Crosby, the best player in the world, and that’s it’s still only November. I’m confident he’ll figure things out.

I still believe the Penguins need another center, and there’s no doubt in my mind that GM Rutherford is continuing to shop for another guy to play down the middle, especially with December looming. Right now, even though I don’t mind the play of Riley Sheahan and Greg McKegg, the two just aren’t getting it done where it counts: on the score sheet. And it’s getting into the point of the season where it’s just not cutting it anymore.

A lot of folks have thrown around the idea of trading guys like Carl Hagelin or Olli Maatta. Hagelin I could maybe see, as he hasn’t been the most productive lately, but the team doesn’t have any other better wingers they could go with right now (we’ll discuss this more later). And I’m still a believer of 23-year-old Maatta. He’s a solid defenseman, and even though he isn’t the best skater and gets badly beat sometimes, his overall play has been great this season.

Is Alex Galchenyuk still an option? Maybe, but I doubt it. He’s talented, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think the trade value is secure enough for what the Penguins would have to give up for him. This might be attributed to the Canadiens misusing him on an otherwise decent top-six up in Montreal, but right now he’s a little too risky.

Getting back to the winger discussion, I saw that you mentioned calling up some of our safety guys from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Zach Aston-Reese just recently recorded his first goal of the season, so definitely not him. However, I want to discuss Daniel Sprong, who’s been absolutely lighting up the AHL so far with 14 points (nine goals, five assists). There was one point where the Dutch winger had at least one goal in five games, so it’s nothing new that Sprong is still showing how good he is.

But should Rutherford bite the bullet and call him up? Is now the time? It’s no secret that this is an easy thought process to have after seeing what rookies did for championship runs in the past (read: Jake Guentzel), but I don’t think Sprong is the solution right now. The problems still lie with the third line center and back-up goalie fix, which just might be on its way to stability thanks to the recent, strong play of Tristan Jarry.

I personally feel like it’s going to happen eventually; I’ve said this from the start. I just think it’s going to happen in early 2018 in a last-ditch resort when the playoffs come knocking.

Make sure you look for our pinned tweet for next week’s edition of our mailbag feature so you can get your questions answered.

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