Three reasons why tonights Isles-Penguins game won’t be another embarrassment to hockey

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When last we saw the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins get together, the Islanders were punishing the Penguins on the scoreboard 9-3 all while the Islanders were busy making themselves feel better through fighting. The Isles felt slighted by the league and took out their aggression on the Penguins with their fists and elbows to the tune of 346 combined penalty minutes between the teams.

That game in February saw three different players get suspended including Isles forward Trevor Gillies get suspended for nine games for elbowing Eric Tangradi, Matt Martin was suspended for suckerpunching Maxime Talbot, and Penguins enforcer Eric Godard received a ten game suspension for leaving the bench to fight. The NHL’s apparent lack of action even got Penguins owner Mario Lemieux to sound off on the league for not being tough enough about on-ice thuggery.

After getting nearly two full months to sit and stew about this game, we’re suspecting cooler heads will prevail in tonight’s game. Sound crazy? Not at all and here’s three reasons why tonight’s game won’t devolve into Fight Night at the Nassau Coliseum.

1. The Penguins still have plenty to play for

Pittsburgh is up on Tampa Bay by three points for the fourth seed in the East. The fourth seed means home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The Pens are also one point behind Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division lead. If the Penguins end up winning the division, that means they’ll likely land the second seed in the Eastern Conference which means, if things break right for them, they could have home ice throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs if the Capitals got knocked off.

Pittsburgh will treat this game like any other game, it’ll just have a little more hate flowing through it give who they’re playing. With Pittsburgh still having a lot on the line going into their final two games, they don’t need to get involved in a side show act with the Islanders and any of their potential goons that might look to get a little more out of them. The Isles will play them hard and tough, but the Pens have to keep the stiff upper lip if they want to have a shot at winning the Atlantic Division.

2. Brent Johnson isn’t starting

We all remember a bit too well that it was Brent Johnson that helped light a fire for the Islanders in their previous meeting on February 2nd, the game before their massive brawl on February 11th. Johnson’s fight with Rick DiPietro proved to be another addition to the lowlight reel in DiPietro’s career as Johnson KO’ed DiPietro with a straight left and put the former first overall pick on the disabled list with facial fractures and a swollen knee. Johnson started the previous game against the Isles and allowed seven goals in the game. That fight along with Max Talbot’s hit on Blake Comeau, to the Islanders, planted the seed that made the massive circus of fights happen on February 12th. In that game on the 11th Brent Johnson fought Islanders forward Michael Haley which was then interrupted by Eric Godard. Godard’s ten game suspension was thanks to him coming off the bench to stand up for his goalie.

Marc-Andre Fleury did relieve Johnson midway through the blowout affair but left the game after being run by the Islanders. Upon Johnson’s return and the subsequent brouhaha that developed, Johnson had had about enough of the Isles antics when he then went on to give DiPietro the Mike Tyson treatment. Tonight see’s Fleury get the start in goal against DiPietro so as long as those two aren’t chirping each other from 180 feet away, things should be a bit cooler between the goalies.

3. The NHL will be watching very closely

Like a couple of kids who have been fighting all through a long trip in the car, the NHL will be keeping an eye on this game very closely to make sure they don’t get back at it all over again. There’s no doubt that Pittsburgh has some sore feeling over what happened the last time between these two, and while there will be a host of Penguins fans in Long Island tonight lusting for another bloodbath and for the Penguins to get vengeance on the likes of Trevor Gillies, there’s virtually zero chance of the NHL and the officials in tonight’s game letting it get to that level again.

If you thought the suspensions were harsh between these two teams before, turning tonight’s game into a circus with the NHL keeping an eye on matters closely could be crushing for the Penguins if they lash out. The Pens have the playoffs to be concerned with and anyone doing something that could get them suspended during the postseason only hurts them more when it counts the most. With Matt Cooke already suspended through the first round of the playoffs, the Pens cannot afford to have any other players being forced to the press box due to on-ice misdeeds.

Coaches Jack Capuano and Dan Bylsma will certainly have all eyes on them as this game progresses tonight and how they choose to handle things as they go along will speak a lot about how they respond to things. Our guess as to what happens tonight: Eric Godard and Trevor Gillies square off early on to settle the score once and for all and then the teams play hockey the rest of the night battling hard for the win. Anything more than that on the ugly side of things and we’ll be disappointed yet fascinated all the same.

Let’s talk about why the Penguins traded for Ryan Reaves

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From a big picture perspective the Pittsburgh Penguins acquisition of Ryan Reaves on Friday night isn’t really a major deal. Normally teams swapping fourth-liners and 20 draft spots wouldn’t be the type of move that would move the needle or send any sort of a ripple through the NHL.

This one is a little different.

This is the Pittsburgh Penguins — the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions — ever so slightly deviating from the path that made them the best team in hockey the past two seasons.

As general manager Jim Rutherford put it on Friday night after the trade, “We’re getting a little bit tired of getting beat up game after game.”

Rutherford was critical of the way superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were treated during the postseason and talked about how his team would pretty much have to add one or two players to take care of it since the league does not seem to protect its stars.

Commissioner Gary Bettman quickly dismissed that criticism upon hearing it.

On Friday, Rutherford added that guy and the discussion quickly turned toward the element Reaves brings and what it might mean for the Penguins.

Coach Mike Sullivan talked about how opponents played the Penguins “harder” this past season and that they expect it to continue again this upcoming season, and that Reaves can help with “a little pushback” and how teams “take notice” when he is in the lineup.

Reaves himself talked about what he can provide for the Penguins’ stars.

Here he is, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“It’s more just making sure everybody on the ice knows I’m coming every night. You go run one of my guys, you’ve got 230 pounds coming right back at you. Sometimes that makes guys think twice. When you’re 190 pounds soaking wet and you’re going after somebody on my team, and you’ve got somebody that’s 230 coming after you, sometimes it’s a deterrent, sometimes it’s not. But I think that’s kind of how I’ve established myself over the last year.”

This isn’t the first time the Penguins have been inspired to go down this path due to the treatment of their superstars.

During the 2013-14 playoffs New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi and Marc Staal made a habit out of using the back of Crosby’s head and neck for cross-checking target practice in front of the net.

The response from Pittsburgh was outrage that nobody responded and for the team to add some sort of muscle to help take care of that.

Then this happened the following summer.

That guarantee went unfulfilled.

Liberties were still taken against not only Crosby and Malkin, but also against the Penguins’ other superstar, defenseman Kris Letang. He was on the receiving end of two brutal hits that injured him during the year. One resulting in a lengthy suspension to Zac Rinaldo, and another from Shane Doan that knocked Letang out of the lineup for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs.

They also tried it with Tom Sestito when they brought him in on a pro tryout contract. He ended up playing 17 games in two years with the Penguins … he was ejected from two of them.

Here he is at the time of his initial tryout talking about what he wanted to provide.

“When you play other teams and they have somebody who not only can play but can run their other guys, you see them holding off,” Sestito said. “They’re not going to be running other guys. Their third- and fourth-line guys aren’t going to run your guys.”

The names change. The idea remains the same.

Deter. Make them hesitate. Make them think about it. Answer back. Still, the abuse continues.

All of this is a little unfair to Reaves because to his credit he has worked hard to improve his game as a hockey player and to be a little more than just hired muscle. He has worked to adapt his style to the faster NHL and to improve his play defensively. There was evidence of that this past season when he set career highs in goals and points.

If the focus on this acquisition were on that, or on his ability to forecheck, this would simply be a trade involving a couple of fourth-liners and we wouldn’t be talking about it right now.

But we keep going back to the presence, and the element, and pushback, and protection, and deterrence, mainly because that’s what the Penguins seemed to be after with this trade.

So will any of that work? Can Reaves actually provide that sort of protection?

There is no doubt he will be willing to respond after the fact, because even though his fight totals have decreased in recent years he is still a willing heavyweight.

The issue is whether or not he can stop even a little bit of the abuse toward his teammates by making opponents like Washington’s Tom Wilson or Columbus’ Brandon Dubinsky (two of the biggest thorns in the Penguins’ side) take notice.

The easiest way to answer that now is to look at what sort of abuse the Blues — Reaves’ former team — took in recent years.

It was a lot.

Over the past four seasons the St. Louis Blues — Reaves’ former team — were on the receiving end of eight incidents that resulted in supplemental discipline from the NHL (suspension or fine), typically reserved for the dirtiest plays. The only team that was on the receiving end of more during that stretch was the Boston Bruins (10 –and keep in mind, this was a team that had Shawn Thornton and Milan Lucic for most of those years).

During one nine-day stretch in 2014 the Blues lost T.J. Oshie and David Backes to head shots. The two hits resulted in seven games in suspensions while Oshie and Backes both missed playoff games. Reaves was in the lineup both nights.

The next season Minnesota’s Marco Scandella was fined for an illegal hit to the head on Oshie. Last year New Jersey’s Bobby Farnham was hit with a four-game ban for taking a late, cheap run at Dmitri Jaskin while Reaves was on the ice. There are also several other borderline hits that did not result in supplemental discipline (like this, and this, and this).

This isn’t to suggest that Reaves is bad at his job or that he is somehow responsible for those plays.

It is to point out that dirty stuff is still going to happen to star players whether he — or any player like him — is there or not.

Players like Tom Wilson, and Brandon Dubinsky, and Bobby Farnham are paid a lot of money to rattle the cages of players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That is what they do. That is their role and they are going to do it whether there is a physical element in the other team’s lineup or not.

The only thing that can stop it is a significant crackdown from the league to hand out harsher punishments when it happens.

It is very possible that Reaves can be a useful fourth-liner for the Penguins. He will play physical, he will be aggressive on the forecheck, he might chip in a few goals. Is he better than whatever alternative options they could have had for that spot? Or what they had in that spot a year ago? That remains to be seen.

The cost to acquire him really isn’t that high. Oskar Sundqvist seems to have limited upside and the difference between the No. 31 and 51 picks is typically insignificant, especially in what is thought to be a weaker class.

But if the Penguins are hoping for Reaves’ presence to stop opposing players from taking liberties against their stars they are probably setting themselves up for disappointment.

All it might do is get them the occasional pound of flesh in return after the fact and whatever satisfaction that brings them. Maybe that is all they are looking for. Maybe it is a message to the league itself.

Whatever the reason, it is something they did not need on their way to consecutive championships.

Report: Randy Sexton to become Sabres’ assistant GM

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New general manager Jason Botterill continued his restructuring of the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday by hiring one of his former co-workers from Pittsburgh.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that Penguins director of amateur scouting Randy Sexton will be joining the Sabres to serve as their assistant general manager and also the general manager for their AHL team, the Rochester Americans.

Sexton has seemingly been at top of Botterill’s list since he left the Penguins front office to run the Sabres back in May.

Sexton had been a key member of the Penguins’ scouting staff since 2010. During his time in the front office the team drafted several key players to their past two Stanley Cup winning teams, including Matt Murray, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Olli Maatta and Scott Wilson.

Following a disappointing 2016-17 season that saw the team take a step backwards in its rebuild, the entire Sabres organization has been overhauled with a new general manager (Botterill), assistant general manager (Sexton), head coach (Phil Housley) and a new coach coming to the AHL team.

Fletcher isn’t too worried about Wild’s cap situation

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A lot of eyes were on the Minnesota Wild at the NHL draft watching to see if they would make a move involving one of their defensemen.

No move happened (at least not yet).

Part of the issue for the Wild — and the reason for the trade speculation — is their need to re-sign restricted free agents Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund this offseason, while also making any other necessary additions to the team. They have to do all of that staying under the NHL’s salary cap.

As of Saturday, the Wild have around $14 million in salary cap space (via CapFriendly) with only 15 players under contract for next season, while the new deals for Niederreiter and Granlund are almost certain to eat up a significant portion of that remaining salary cap space.

That is going to make things tight under the cap because they certainly do not want to let either of those RFA’s get away. That led to speculation that a defenseman such as Marco Scandella or Mathew Dumba could be on the move this weekend.

But general manager Chuck Fletcher doesn’t sound too concerned about the situation and seems convinced the team can open the season the way it is currently constructed with a few minor moves to fill out the fourth line.

Here is Fletcher, via the Star-Tribune:

“I’m not too worried about that. We have some young guys ready to make the team that will carry good cap hits. We need to fill a couple spots probably in free agency, but again, we’re looking more at fourth-line type players. We like our group, the defense is the strength of our team, we’ve got three lines up front that we like.”

The Wild were determined to keep all of their defensemen out of the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights at the expansion draft and were willing to part with prospect Alex Tuch to steer the Golden Knights toward Erik Haula.

Overall, Minnesota’s roster is pretty solid as it stands so it doesn’t need a ton of work. They have an excellent goaltender, a deep defense and a balanced group of forwards making up their top-three lines so if they have to stick with the status quo it wouldn’t be the worst situation to be in. They were one of the best teams in the league until a late-season slump cost them the top spot in the Central Division. It carried over into the playoffs were they lost to the St. Louis Blues in five games.

Hextall staying patient in Flyers’ goalie search

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The Philadelphia Flyers were hoping to add a veteran goaltender this weekend to complement Michal Neuvirth and as of Saturday evening they had yet to accomplish that goal.

General manager Ron Hextall does not seem too concerned about that development and is leaning on the fact it seems to be a buyer’s market at the position.

“I don’t know what’s going to present itself. My comfort level is there’s a number of goalies out there. Not six No. 1 spots out there and one goalie out there. I have comfort in that,” Hextall said, via Adam Kimelman of NHL.com.

“We’re still doing our due diligence and in the end it’ll probably come down to the guys we like and then we’ll look at term and length. If we like this guy and he’s asking unreal term or whatever we’ll go somewhere else.”

He also added that Steve Mason is still in the mix to potentially return, even though most signs point to that not happening.

So far this offseason a number of goalies have already changed teams, with Ben Bishop going to the Dallas Stars, Mike Smith going to the Calgary Flames and Marc-Andre Fleury being selected in the expansion draft by the Vegas Golden Knights.

Still, Hextall isn’t wrong in his assessment of the goaltending market because there are more good goalies available than there are starting spots.

Just about every team in the league right now is settled with its starting goalie. Other than maybe the Winnipeg Jets there really isn’t anybody else out there along with the Flyers that is in the market to find a No. 1 goalie. That leaves the Flyers with what should be their pick of potential starters (or platoon partners for Neuvirth).

The unrestricted free agent market includes Ryan Miller, Brian Elliott, Jonathan Bernier and Mason.

As of this moment the Flyers’ goaltending duo would be Neuvirth and rookie Anthony Stolarz, a combination that Hextall did not seem entirely comfortable with given Stolarz’s inexperience and Neuvirth’s injury history, so he seems determined to bring in somebody else to help solidify the position.

It is just a matter who it is going to be and how much it costs to acquire. He is certainly going to have plenty of options over the next week.

The Neuvirth/Mason duo was a fantastic value for the Flyers two years ago, but due to injury and just all-around poor play everything kind of fell apart for them this past season.

It was a big factor in what turned out to be an extremely disappointing season for the Flyers.