Not much needs to be said about Neal, as he leads the NHL in goals. Just to reference his production thus far, Sidney Crosby—who was on pace for 64 goals last season—didn’t register his seventh goal until the 14th game of the year. Neal has scored seven goals in eight games this year.
Just as it is obvious with Neal, Cooke and Vitale have each impressed through the early stages of 2011-12.
Vitale scored his first goal the year on a perfect deflection in the second period. At this point, he is virtually un-demotable. His work ethic is off the charts. He is an extremely smart player who knows his limits. He is defensive-minded and has won more than 50% of his draws in five games. Simply put, Vitale is the perfect bottom six forward.
Cooke, while not making the score sheet last night, had another solid outing. The controversial figure is the most versatile role player on the Penguins. He is gifted offensively and can work with players either above or below his skill level. Cooke is also an extremely shrewd hockey player and crafty with the puck when heavily pressured. He plays offense. He plays defense. He can shoot or dish and he grinds. If he can stay out of the press box he should record a career high in points this season.
Add Jordan Staal to the list of impressive early season forwards. Staal has shown quicker hands and more stability when handling the puck this year. Offensively, the 23-year-old has picked up his game. Staal is second on the Pens with three goals and third on the team with six points. His numbers should increase even more when he is no longer focused on as the team’s number one center.
The one complaint that can be made about Staal is his defensive zone turnovers. He appears to be unable to find his teammates when working deep in his own zone. Considering the constant switching of linemates, the problem can likely be chalked up to his rotating wingers.
A couple players who have not lived up to fan’s expectations are Mark Letestu and Steve Sullivan.
Sullivan played his best game of the year last night. There are plenty of reasons not to label the former Predator as a bust.
On Neal’s first period tally Sullivan dished a nice pass off the faceoff to Richard Park then set up Park again from behind the net. Eventually his work led to a Penguins goal.
One problem wingers typically have is that they don’t get open. This is not the case with Sullivan. He does not glide in the offensive zone or when he doesn’t have the puck like many forwards. Instead, he is working to get opportunities and shots.
The open net he missed with 15:30 left in 3rd last night undoubtedly frustrated many fans. Remember that the opportunity was only created because he dazzled in a sweep through the zone and painted the puck on Orpik’s stick right before the chance though. Also remember that many were ready to write Neal off last year too. Now he is leading the league in goals. Wait until the Pens have a full lineup to put the final word out on Sully.
Letestu, on the other hand, has not played well.
Part of the reason why he has fared so poorly is because he is only molded for one role—third line center. He appears lost on the fourth line and overwhelmed on the top two units. The third line works perfectly for him because he is confident in his talents relative to his linemates. This obviously does him no favors on a team that values versatility and flexibility. Before marking him for Wilkes Barre though, understand that there is hope.
Dan Bylsma still has faith in the second year center. Letestu earned time on the first power play with Neal and Chris Kunitz at the end of the second period. He also swapped lines with Vitale on different occasions throughout the game. Both signs point towards the coaching staff’s confidence in Letestu.
Looking at last season’s stats also help when analyzing the 26-year-old. In 2010-11 he averaged two shots per game and boasted a respectable 10.9% shooting rate. This year he is only averaging one shot per game and has yet to score.
In order to be effective Letestu has to shoot the puck more. Again, the point is obvious when examining his first seven games of last year. He scored four goals in his first seven games but recorded 20 shots over that period. Also, keep in mind that he is prone to scoring droughts. He went 22 games without a goal at one point last year. There were two other seven game instances where he failed to find the back of the net. Still, he totaled 14 goals and 27 points in 63 games.
Letestu has soft hands, a hard shot, and sound hockey IQ. What he doesn’t have is speed and versatility. Be patient. He will come around.
The final two notes are on Brooks Orpik and Dustin Jeffrey.
Orpik looks like he hasn’t missed a beat. He again appears to have improved on puck handling and outletting. The rugged defenseman made improvements in both area’s last year and took key steps in becoming an all-around defenseman.
Jeffrey also played well against the Canadiens. He made crisp passes and was around the puck all night. He didn’t stay away from the action like many recovering from his injury would. Instead, he worked along the boards and in around the net.
Lastly, it should be stated that the Penguins are one of only two teams not to allow a 4-on-5 goal this season. The other team is the Islanders, who have played 4 less games than the Pens. Pittsburgh’s penalty killing is once again impenetrable.