Dave Molinari on the Penguins: A weekly look inside the team, the issues, the questions
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Jordan Staal and Kristopher Letang should, barring injury, play their ninth NHL games Saturday in Philadelphia.
And then they should, a day or so later, return to their junior teams for the balance of the season, with almost a month of NHL paychecks in their bank accounts and some great stories to share with teammates in Peterborough and Val d'Or.
That's the prevailing wisdom, anyway, because sending Staal and Letang back to junior before they appear in their 10th NHL game will prevent the first season on their three-year entry-level contracts from being used, and will delay the start of the seven-year clock that leads to unrestricted free agency.
Staal, the Penguins' No. 1 draft choice in 2006, is making that particularly difficult for management, though. He has become an integral part of the penalty-killing unit and, though deployed most often on the fourth line, has been effective when asked to fill a more prominent position.
Letang, conversely, has plateaued, if not regressed.
But even though Staal might be the more NHL-ready of the two, -Letang might be the more logical to keep around.
That's partly because, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Dominic Moore on the roster -- and guys like Maxime Talbot and Erik Christensen playing in Wilkes-Barre -- the Penguins have a bounty of capable centers. Consequently, Staal's presence is a bonus, not a necessity.
Letang, on the other hand, is a right-handed shooting defensemen, one of only, well, one in the organization who is remotely qualified to play at this level in 2006-07. Return him to Val d'Or, and the Penguins are giving up a dimension no one else on their depth chart can provide.
That, coupled with the way Letang's game dovetails perfectly with the NHL's renewed emphasis on skill and skating, should work in his favor when general manager Ray Shero and his staff are deciding whether to keep him.
So should the fact that, unlike Staal, Letang isn't a candidate to command the CBA-mandated maximum of 20 percent of the team's salary-cap ceiling in his next contract. Staal has the potential to become a franchise-caliber center -- how many of those does one franchise need? -- whereas Letang's NHL upside is a bit more modest.
And, in a time when performance isn't the only factor that must be considered when evaluating personnel, projecting Letang to have less of a long-term impact than Staal at this level actually could help him to get permanent work here sooner than Staal.
21st century shootout moves: Upon further review ...
The improvement is remarkable.
The explanation couldn't be more ordinary.
Sidney Crosby was 33 for 70 on faceoffs during his first six games in the 2005-06 season, and finished his rookie year winning 45.5 percent of his draws.
Before the Penguins faced Columbus last night, Crosby was 73 for 65 in a half-dozen games this season, a team-best success rate of 52.9 percent.
Too bad Crosby isn't faring better because he came up with a new way to grip his stick or position his feet, or because he devoted his offseason to exotic martial arts training that shaved a nanosecond or two off his reaction time.
Instead, Crosby contends the key to his improvement is simply that he's worked at getting better, which means his upgraded numbers are simply the payback for the time he's invested.
Crosby, by the way, believes that the faceoff stats shouldn't always be taken at face value.
It seems he, like former Penguin Ron Francis, makes no real effort to win some neutral-zone draws, preferring to use those to get a feel for what opponents like to do. That knowledge can then be used on an offensive- or defensive-zone faceoff when gaining control of the puck is more important.
21st century shootout moves: Upon further review ...
NHL players have employed what Colin Campbell, the league's director of hockey operations, described in a memo to general managers a few days ago as "some debatable and unique" moves during shootouts this season.
One is what Campbell called "a lacrosse-like move when the puck is picked up on the blade of the stick and whipped into the net, while the other involves "a 'spin-o-rama'-type move where the motion toward the opponent's (Rule 25.2) is brought into question."
Campbell's memo said the plays in question will be reviewed at a GMs meeting Nov. 7, but approved of both as long as they are carried out within prescribed guidelines. In his words:
Lacrosse move: The puck on the stick blade must not be raised or carried above the height of the shoulders, and if it is, the shot shall be stopped immediately by the referee. When the puck is released from the stick, it must be below the height of the cross bar.
Spin-o-rama move: The intent and spirit of Rule 25.2 is interpreted that the penalty shot must be expeditious. The 360 (degree) turn involves continuous motion and is accepted as a good hockey play.
Because the Penguins weren't involved in a shootout during their first six games, there's no way of knowing whether one of them will turn to something particularly creative or unorthodox when the opportunity presents itself. (After all, going public with a surprise move would kind of defeat the purpose.)
First Published October 22, 2006 12:00 am