Hunwick’s The Question, Letang’s The Answer for Penguins

The pressure is seemingly on Matt Hunwick to elevate his game, but it’s actually much more essential that Kris Letang gets it together.

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Mike Sullivan sounded just a little bit defensive in responding to yet another question about his bottom-pair defensemen.

If the Penguins are lucky, such inquiries won’t become a trend.

“It’s easy to point fingers,” Sullivan countered in response to a query that included recognition of Matt Hunwick and Jamie Oleksiak having been on the ice for two goals against in Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to New Jersey.

Oleksiak had been on the ice for three goals against and Hunwick four in Saturday night’s 6-5 loss at Florida.

And ever since that stuff started happening, Ian Cole has taken on the aura of Bobby Orr.

“Just because someone’s on the ice for a goal doesn’t necessarily mean that’s their fault,” Sullivan maintained. “That’s a real broad assumption to make, and that can be dangerous.”

Kind of like playing Hunwick and Oleksiak when the other team is on the power play.

That’s something the post-trade deadline Penguins are going to have to work around.

With Cole in Columbus via Ottawa, part of the justifiable price required to bring Derick Brassard to Pittsburgh, the Penguins’ vulnerability on the blueline has been exposed.

General Manager Jim Rutherford opted not to bring in another depth defenseman prior to Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline.

And there doesn’t appear to be a potential answer at the ready in AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

That means the pressure is seemingly on Hunwick the rest of the way to elevate his game.

But it’s actually much more essential that Kris Letang gets it together.

Hunwick is what he is, a journeyman plugger of leaks.

Letang is supposed to be a guy who’s in the conversation for the Norris Trophy the NHL hands out to the league’s best defenseman each season.

Less worrisome for the Penguins than goalie Matt Murray’s concussion at present but an issue for the Penguins nonetheless is Letang hasn’t consistently been that.

He was in the penalty box when Hunwick and Oleksiak proved unable to help kill that penalty in the second period on Tuesday night against the Devils. And Letang’s season has likewise been characterized by bad decisions, unnecessary turnovers and an apparent overall disregard for the consequences of reckless, undisciplined play.

He’s better than that.

And the Penguins need him to be if they’re to realize their potential.

Letang’s had moments this season that have been breathtaking, and stretches that have been relentlessly effective.

But far too often he’s done things that you’d expect to have a negative effect on Sullivan’s blood pressure.

Even more than questions about whether Hunwick is cutting it.

For a while, such inconsistencies could be attributed to the amount of time Letang missed last season due to injury (he only made 41 appearances, none in the playoffs).

But the Penguins are past the point where they can excuse such misapplications of his game.

They won a Stanley Cup without Letang last season, but that was because they had Cole, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey at their disposal.

They won’t do it again this season unless Letang looks like a potential Norris winner much more often.

The best players have to be the best players.

That goes for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and especially for Letang, given the Penguins’ current configuration.

Maybe that’s why Sullivan bristled when asked about Hunwick.

He’s not the defenseman the Penguins ought to be talking about.
 

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section