Pittsburgh Penguins v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Four

James Neal hopes to improve next season with Penguins

2 Comments

At the trade deadline last March, the Penguins thought they finally found a winger who could make beautiful music with Sidney Crosby. Of course, things didn’t work out exactly as they had hoped. Crosby was sidelined with a concussion at the beginning of January and the newly acquired Neal never had an opportunity to show what he could do with the superstar center by his side.

The Whitby, Ontario native only managed a single goal in 20 games with the Penguins down the stretch of the regular season. More importantly for Pittsburgh, he only netted a single goal (and two points) in the Penguins 7-game defeat to Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs last year.

It wasn’t only the absence of a true #1 center that held Neal back last season. Like many players before him, he learned first-hand that a mid-season trade can turn their world upside down. Neal spoke of the chaos that surrounds a player when they’re traded to another team in the middle of the season:

“You get a call one day and then you’re on a plane and you’re in Pittsburgh and your whole life changes in a matter of minutes. It’s crazy, but at the same time, it’s exciting. It’s a great chance to play on an amazing team with amazing players. It’s definitely for the better and I couldn’t be happier that it happened.”

The Penguins were clearly excited when they had the opportunity to acquire him (and Matt Niskanen) from the Dallas Stars for defenseman Alex Goligoski. Even though the stats weren’t where the wanted them to be last season, the organization is still looking at Neal to be one of their main producers on wing next season.

For his part, Neal is doing everything possible this offseason to make sure he thrives once the season starts next season. He’s been training with well-known fitness nut and former NHLer Gary Roberts as he works to get into peak physical shape for next season. Neal talked about his offseason conditioning with Roberts:

“My training is focused on what I need to improve in on the ice. Everyone wants to get faster. A big part of playing my game is skating and speed. You always try to strengthen your legs and get faster on the ice. At the same time, when you play a physical game and you’re in the corners and battling in front, you’ve got to have the strength to do that.”

The term you may be looking for right now is “contract year.” Obviously, Neal wants to improve upon his numbers and help the Penguins get back to the elite level they have seen over the last few years. But from a personal standpoint, this wouldn’t be a bad time to have a breakout season. The soon-to-be 24-year-old is a restricted free agent at the end of the 2011-12 season and he could use a good season if he hopes to cash in on the opportunity.

In just three full season, Neal has already shown that he consistently score goals at the NHL level. He’s averaged 24 goals and 46 points over the course of his short career—numbers the Penguins hope increase by playing next to the likes of Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin for a full season next year.  No wonder Dan Bylsma thinks the Penguins will be better next season.

Last time around, the Dallas Stars gave him a 2-year deal worth $5.75 million as they expected him to continue to improve his game. Whether it was due to the mid-season trade, mounting expectations, or the weight of a new contract, Neal saw his game plateau last season. But if Neal can rediscover the game that has already made him a three-time 20-goal scorer, he has the potential to breakout for the Penguins next season.

And get a sizeable raise at the same time.

With Rust still day-to-day, Sullivan isn’t in a ‘hypothetical’ mood when it comes to his lineup

Pittsburgh Penguins' Mike Sullivan stands behind Sidney Crosby (87) during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals in Pittsburgh, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
AP Photo
1 Comment

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan still has forward Bryan Rust listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury after he took a controversial hit from Patrick Marleau in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday.

(The league stated Tuesday that there will be no suspension for Marleau.)

As for Rust, who has six goals and nine points in these playoffs, his status hasn’t changed since the conclusion of the game. But with Game 2 set for Wednesday, Sullivan may have a lineup decision ahead of him if Rust isn’t able to play.

Sullivan, who said Rust is still being evaluated, was asked about the possibility of Eric Fehr moving up onto a line with Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz, where Rust had been playing.

Naturally, Sullivan praised Fehr but didn’t want to delve into the possibilities for his lineup tomorrow.

“If he were to go back on that line, he’s a pretty good player. Regardless of which line he plays on, (Fehr) has had the ability to adapt his game. The one thing he does bring to the respective lines, he’s another center iceman that can take faceoffs in the defensive zone,” Sullivan told reporters.

“He has a real good awareness in the D zone. He’s pretty strong on the wall. He brings all of those elements to that line that we choose to put him on. We’ll make decisions accordingly depending on who we think is available for our lineup. But hypotheticals is not the world that we live in.”

‘It was frustrating for me,’ says Tarasenko after struggling offensively versus Sharks

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 21:  Vladimir Tarasenko #91 of the St. Louis Blues in game four of the Western Conference Finals against the San Jose Sharks during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at HP Pavilion on May 21, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

St. Louis Blues star Vladimir Tarasenko has opened up about his play in the Western Conference Final versus the San Jose Sharks, who held the talented forward off the score sheet in five of six games.

It wasn’t until the third period of Game 6 that Tarasenko finally broke his slump, scoring twice as St. Louis tried one last desperation comeback attempt. It didn’t work. The Blues were eliminated and the Sharks are in the Stanley Cup Final.

“They played really tight and they backchecked so hard,” said Tarasenko, as per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It’s just experience. It was frustrating for me. I wish I could do better. I’m supposed to do better.”

After a 40-goal regular season, the 24-year-old Tarasenko’s point production through the first two rounds — versus Chicago and Dallas — was solid, with 13 points in 14 games.

But the Sharks kept him in check.

His lack of production became a key focal point as the third-round series carried on. Blues’ coach Ken Hitchcock, who signed a one-year extension to stay in St. Louis, admitted Tarasenko was “learning hard lessons” against the Sharks and that he had to fight through the tight checking in order to produce offensively.

As the series continued, Hitchcock added that Tarasenko just needed to play within the system, and that getting away from that is perhaps a “natural tendency” for young players pressing to make things happen in crucial situations.

There had been talk about a rift between Tarasenko and Hitchcock, especially after video replays showed the two in a brief but heated exchange at the bench during the first round. Of course, the coach later downplayed it.

As the Blues’ playoff run ended, there was speculation about why, exactly, Tarasenko didn’t address the media on the same day the rest of his teammates did.

From St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist Ben Frederickson:

More importantly, Tarasenko’s no comment closed the book on his season without addressing the elephant in the dressing room.

There is growing speculation of friction between Tarasenko and the Blues. Is there a rift between the star and his club?

If I’m a member of that front office, I sure would have liked a player under contract until 2023 to squash such a story on Saturday.

On the subject of any perceived issues between the Blues organization and Tarasenko, both parties responded:

 

 

The Russians say they’re in ‘negotiations’ with the NHL to get Voynov into the World Cup

St. Louis Blues v Los Angeles Kings
Getty
8 Comments

Yesterday in Pittsburgh, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made it clear that Slava Voynov was still suspended and, because of that, would not be allowed to play in the upcoming World Cup.

Bettman also said that the Russian Ice Hockey Federation had been told as much.

However, it seems the Russians — who last week added Voynov to their World Cup roster — still haven’t given up on trying to get the 26-year-old defensemen into the tournament.

From Russian News Agency TASS:

“The Russian Ice Hockey Federation is holding negotiations with the organizers of the World Cup – the NHL – concerning the issue of national team’s defender Vyacheslav Voynov,” the RHF’s press service told TASS on Tuesday adding that besides the Russian and US sides the negotiations also involve Rene Fasel, the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).

“The Russian Ice Hockey Federation hopes that the organizers of the international competition will make a positive decision on the issue and the defender will be allowed to be included in the roster of the Russian national team,” the RHF added.

Known in the United States as Slava Voynov he played in the past for NHL’s Los Angeles Kings before the North American Hockey League suspended him over domestic violence charges and the player returned last autumn back home, where he is currently playing for the national team and KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg club.

Time will tell if the Russians can convince the NHL to change its stance. They could sure use Voynov, given the relative weakness of their defense. But Bettman did not sound yesterday like he was open to a negotiation.

The Russians, for the record, have maintained that it’s not the NHL’s decision to make.

So perhaps that’s the big question here — who has the final say on the matter? Officially, the World Cup “is a joint effort of the NHLPA and the NHL, in cooperation with the International Ice Hockey Federation.”

It’s just not entirely clear how that bit of boilerplate applies to the Voynov situation.

Report: Bruins’ Khokhlachev to sign in KHL

Montreal Canadiens v Boston Bruins
Getty
10 Comments

Alexander Khokhlachev’s time with the Boston Bruins is up, according to a report out of Russia that has the 22-year-old forward signing with SKA Saint Petersburg of the KHL.

The deal reportedly won’t be announced until after June 30; Khokhlachev is under contract with the B’s until then. But the fact he’s apparently decided to depart for the KHL should come as no surprise.

A second-round draft pick in 2011, Khokhlachev has spent the last three seasons piling up points in the AHL; however, he’s only appeared in nine NHL games.

Earlier this month, his agent told CBS Boston, “Alexander did not really get a chance for all the years that he signed a deal, for four years, the deals he signed with Boston, didn’t really get a chance to play in the National Hockey League, so he won’t stay in the organization.”

SKA acquired Khokhlachev’s KHL rights last summer.

Related: Khokhlachev just wants a chance