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Game of the Week preview: Dan Bylsma keeps Pittsburgh winning without their biggest stars

When you’re the head coach of a high profile team, there’s a lot of pressure on you to get the best out of your team. This is no exception for Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma. When you take away his two best players from the lineup, those expectations aren’t lowered at all. Bylsma having to make due without Sidney Crosby for an undetermined amount of time thanks to a concussion and the rest of the season and playoffs without Evgeni Malkin makes life tremendously more difficult for the Pens bench boss but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the standings or the results since they’ve been out.

The Penguins sit in second place in the Atlantic Division just four points behind Philadelphia for the top spot. That also puts them four points behind the top spot in the Eastern Conference and currently in the fourth seed in the East.  That’s good for home ice in the first round of the playoffs should they stay there and hold off Tampa Bay.

Just how is Dan Bylsma able to keep the Penguins rolling along in spite of injuries to two of the best players in the game? Familiarity. The Pens have had to rely on numerous guys from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes Barre-Scranton from the likes of Mark Letestu to Dustin Jeffrey to Chris Conner. Letestu has seized the opportunity and made himself a valuable contributor. Jeffrey for a stretch this year was the AHL’s leading scorer and with Malkin and Crosby out he’s gotten a chance to show he belongs in the NHL, something which knowing Bylsma from his days in the AHL helps out.

“He brings an enthusiasm to the rink, and something new every day,” Jeffrey said. “When you see a guy who’s genuinely excited to be here every day to teach us, to be on the ice with us, I think it’s contagious. You see with our team the way we play, it’s almost a reflection of the way he carries himself and the way he brings himself to the rink.”

We can recall seeing how Bylsma is with the players from HBO’s 24/7 series and how the young Penguins gravitate towards him and how his mutual respect of all the guys in the room really rubs off on everyone. Bylsma is one of the younger coaches in the NHL and he’s not so far removed from playing in the league. Having a guy like that that can teach and also be a players’ coach is rare to get these days in the league.

Bylsma has also been the watchful eye over the huge seasons that Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang are having at their respective positions. Fleury has been the Penguins best player all season long and while he’s not likely to get much consideration for the Vezina Trophy, he’s been outstanding and virtually flawless all season long. With the Penguins offense unable to generate the goals they normally would without Crosby and Malkin, Fleury has had to be a lot better of late and he’s done so. With a 2.35 goals against average and a .918 save percentage, Fleury’s been incredible this year. After the first month while he was playing shaky in goal, some wondered if perhaps it would be a season-long roller coaster for him. That hasn’t happened and he’s been great.

Letang has only been the Pens leading scorer while Crosby’s been out and he’s doing it from the blue line. With the added responsibility of having to try and lead the defensive corps Letang’s been an offensive spark plug scoring 46 points this season. With eight goals and 38 assists, he’s the guy that’s more often than not getting it together from the blue line. With guys like Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek surrounding him while Brooks Orpik is out with injury, Letang has shined in that role this season. It’s no coincidence that this is all happening under Bylsma’s tutelage.

It’s scary to think what the Penguins would be able to do with a healthy Crosby and a healthy Malkin this year as the Penguins have been emulating their football team playing a blue collar tough brand of game. They’re not flashy, but they can’t afford to be now. Instead, the Pens are one of the hardest working and physically tough teams to deal with in the league. Considering the role Bylsma played while he was in the NHL as a checking center, it’s no surprise that he’s been able to teach his team that edge. Keeping a team afloat and winning consistently without its best players is a tremendous feat and one that makes the Peguins ever more dangerous come playoff time.

Creating a realistic expectation for Sidney Crosby’s point total in 2016

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 07: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on during warmups before playing the against the Washington Capitals in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on May 7, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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This is part of Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT…

The 2015-16 season had to be the most bizarre season of Sidney Crosby‘s NHL career to this point.

It started with one of the worst 30-game stretches of his NHL career (a stretch where he had just 19 total points), prompting a league-wide discussion where everybody tried to figure out what exactly was wrong with him and why he suddenly lost the ability to score like one of the league’s top players.

It ended with him hoisting the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP after helping lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup win, erasing five years worth of talk about how he and his team were underachievers in the playoffs.

It wasn’t the ending anybody expected at the start of the season, and especially at the start of December when the season seemed like it was starting to slip away from them.

Much of the blame for his — and the team’s — early struggles was put on the defensive system put in place by coach Mike Johnston. That point was only driven home more in the second half of the season and the playoffs when Crosby — and the Penguins offense as a team — did a complete 180 and took off, skyrocketing to the top of the league.

Crosby himself went from being on a 56-point pace through the first 30 games of the season, to finishing as the third-leading scorer in the league.

The difference in Crosby’s production under the two coaches last season creates creates an interesting question heading into the 2016-17 season: Will he be able return to being the 100-point player he was as recently as two years ago when he was by far the most dominant offensive player in the league, and if not what should we realistically expect?

While Crosby’s production under Johnston for his year-and-a-half tenure behind the bench was the worst of his career, it is also probably unfair to put all of the blame on the coach for that drop in production. The systematic changes and defensive expectations had to definitely play some role in it, but there was a lot more going on than just a chance in coaches and system.

Two other key major contributing factors:

  1. Nearly every top player in the NHL has seen a drop in their production in recent years because goal scoring at a league-wide level continues to trend toward all-time low territory. Since the start of the 2011-12 season only five players have topped 90 points in a single season, while only two (Crosby in 2013-14 and Patrick Kane in 2015-16) have done it over the past three years. Anything over 80 points these days is an elite scorer.
  2. The other factor is that Crosby himself is now in his late 20s, and while he could still have another decade of high level play in the NHL ahead of him, it is likely that he has already played his best hockey, at least when it comes to scoring. Scorers tend to have their best seasons between the ages of 23 and 26, and Crosby’s career has been no different. During those seasons he averaged 1.47 points per game, a pace that is good enough for 120 points over 82 games. The disappointing thing for Crosby and the Penguins during that time is that injuries (and a half season lockout) limited him to just 179 out of a possible 294 regular season games. He was able to play more than 41 games in only one of those four seasons. That means the NHL never really had a chance to fully see Sidney Crosby at his absolute best.

Keep in mind that 1.47 per-game average that Crosby had between his age 23 and 26 seasons. That is an unbelievable level of production for any era of hockey, even going back to the run-and-gun 1980s. You should not realistically expect that level of play from him anymore because the two points made above. It’s an impossible standard for anybody. Over the past 20 years only seven different players have averaged at least 1.47 points per game in a full season. Even Kane “only” averaged 1.29 this past season when he ran away with the scoring title.

If you look at Crosby’s performance last season in only the games that were coached by Sullivan, he had 66 points in 52 regular season games. That is a 1.26 point per game average (103 points over 82 games). If you include the playoffs, it was 85 points in 76 games, a 1.11 point per game average (93 points over 82 games). Both are an obvious increase from the Johnston-coached days, but they are also still a pretty significant decrease from what those totals were five or six years ago when he was scoring at an 120-point pace every year.

That is also the expectation that should probably exist going forward for Crosby.

It’s not unfair to say that Crosby is slowing down as a scorer. Because he is. It’s something that happens to every player when they reach this age. Even the greatest players ever like Gretzky and Lemieux saw significant drops in their scoring after they turned 27.

It also means there shouldn’t be a league-wide panic when he goes through a scoring slump at some point in the season.

It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with him, it just means that he’s not 24 anymore and shouldn’t be expected to score like he is.

He is still going to be the best offensive player in the world. It’s just going to be at a 90-95 point level instead of a 110-120 point level.

Under Pressure: Derrick Pouliot

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 27: Derrick Pouliout #51 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck against the Washington Capitals at Consol Energy Center on December 27, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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This is part of Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT…

When the Pittsburgh Penguins traded Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes following the 2011-12 season for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin and the No. 8 overall pick in the draft (which they used to select Derrick Pouliot), the latter was expected to be one of the key long-term centerpieces of the deal.

Pouliot was a top-10 pick and a puck-moving, offensive defenseman that had the potential to one day be a top-pairing player in the NHL.

Four years later and he has almost become the afterthought of the trade for Pittsburgh.

Dumoulin took a major step forward last season and blossomed into one of the Penguins’ best defensive players, while Sutter was traded before the season for Nick Bonino, who would go on to become a key part of the HBK line, along with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel. That line was their most productive line in the playoffs and probably the biggest reason they ended up winning the Stanley Cup.

Pouliot, meanwhile, is still trying to find his place in the organization and the NHL, and if he doesn’t take a big step forward this season he could be on the verge of running out of opportunities in Pittsburgh.

When Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff left the Penguins in free agency following the 2014-15 season, it was expected that Pouliot would be one of the young players that would step into the lineup and get an increased opportunity, especially with a head coach — Mike Johnston — that was familiar with him due to their time together in Portland of the Western Hockey League.

But a dismal showing in training camp and the preseason earned him a ticket back to the AHL, and even when he did get called up he never really played a significant role in the lineup.

His experiences in the NHL over past two years have been mixed to say the least. He had a brilliant stretch of play late in the 2014-15 season that highlighted the skills that made him a top-10 pick in the draft, and his possession numbers have always been outstanding. But his play away from the puck has always been a work in progress, and because of his style of play he can be vulnerable to the occasional mistake that can stand out like a sore thumb. Those mistakes always get noticed, and when it is a young player without much of a track record that makes them, it usually results in a very short leash and a lengthy stay in the press box.

The Penguins have almost all of their Stanley Cup defense returning with the lone exception being Ben Lovejoy after he signed with the New Jersey Devils in free agency. Lovejoy’s departure means there will once again be another opportunity for Pouliot to potentially earn a regular spot in the lineup. His main competition will be Justin Schultz, a player that has a similar skillset and has had a similar set of criticisms directed his way throughout his career (highly skilled with the puck, questionable without it). There is probably only room for one of them in the lineup at a time when everybody is healthy, so it is probably going to be a competition between these two for that sixth spot.

Pouliot turns 23 later this season, so he still has a chance to become a productive regular at the NHL level. It’s not like he is past his peak years in the NHL. But he is also at an age where he really isn’t a “prospect” anymore, either. He is starting to enter that suspect territory where his development is at a crossroads.

Entering the final year of his entry level contract before he is eligible for restricted free agency, and with other young defensemen in the organization passing him on the depth chart (Dumoulin and Olli Maatta specifically) this is going to be a big year for Pouliot to show he belongs in the NHL on a regular basis.

Looking to make the leap: Daniel Sprong

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 15:  Daniel Sprong #41 of the Pittsburgh Penguins handles the puck in front of Kyle Turris #7 of the Ottawa Senators during the game at Consol Energy Center on October 15, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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This is part of Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT…

Daniel Sprong was stuck in a difficult position during the 2015-16 season.

He ended up being just one of eight players from the 2015 draft to play in the NHL, spending the first two months of the season in Pittsburgh after earning a spot on the roster thanks to an impressive training camp and preseason performance. But once there the Penguins really didn’t seem to know what to do with him. He showed flashes of the talent that earned him a spot on the roster, but it was also clear that his play away from the puck needed work and that he never completely had the trust of then-coach Mike Johnston.

If he was not a healthy scratch, he was only playing limited minutes.

But because he was only 18 years old, he was not eligible to play in the American Hockey League during the regular season due to the AHL-CHL transfer agreement.

That meant if he wasn’t going to play in Pittsburgh, a league that was probably a little too advanced for him at the time, he had to return to the QMJHL to play for his junior team, the Charlottetown Islanders, in a league that he was probably too good for. It’s an agreement that works great for the CHL, but doesn’t really give prospects the best chance to develop that season because their only options are a league where they are overmatched or a league where they are probably the best player on the ice every time they go over the boards.

Eventually, the Penguins were left with little choice and did in fact return him to the Q where he, quite predictably, dominated the competition and recorded 46 points in 33 games.

At the conclusion of Charlottetown’s season, he was able to play for the Penguins’ AHL team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton during the playoffs where he scored five goals and added two assists in only 10 games.

The problem he is going to face this season two-fold. First, he is recovering from shoulder surgery that will keep him out of the lineup until January or February. That doesn’t necessarily eliminate him from contributing this season. It just delays it.

The second is that the Penguins’ forward group is already mostly locked in at the start as they are returning everybody from their Stanley Cup winning roster, which is going to make things tight for somebody new to break into the lineup.

But Sprong is still clearly the team’s best forward prospect at the moment and one of the few players in the system that seems to have top-six potential. Whether it’s through his own play forcing his way into NHL action or an injury, he should have an opportunity — once he has recovered — to be a factor at some point this season.

‘He’s earned it’ — Jets name Wheeler new captain

CALGARY, AB - MARCH 16: Blake Wheeler #26 of the Winnipeg Jets in action against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on March 16, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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It was widely assumed that Blake Wheeler would inherit Andrew Ladd‘s captaincy in Winnipeg and, on Wednesday, the club made it official.

Wheeler, 30, will become the second player to captain the Jets since the franchise moved from Atlanta in 2011, with Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Scheifele serving as alternates.

The Wheeler decision was something of a no-brainer, as he’s one of the club’s longest tenured player (seven seasons and counting), spending the the last three as one of Ladd’s alternate captains.

In the summer of ’13, Wheeler inked a six-year, $33.6 million extension with the Jets and has since established himself as one of the clubhouse leaders. He was a prominent voice during the Evander Kane saga, mincing no words when explaining what was expected of Jets players.

“There’s a standard that everyone needs to live up to,” Wheeler said, per the Sun. “We’re professionals, we make a lot of money. And we’re expected to uphold a certain standard. That’s the code we live by.

“If you don’t like it then there’s other places to go. This is the way we do things.”