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Rutherford: Star player treatment still a concern, Pens will beef up in free agency

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At the start of the Stanley Cup Final, Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford sounded off on the lack of protection the NHL gives star players, saying “the league has got to fix it.”

Now the season is over, and the Pens are again the champs. But that hasn’t changed Rutherford’s views — and, what’s more, he’s planning on making some fixes himself.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup,” Rutherford said, per the Tribune-Review. “That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

Rutherford also doubled down on his criticisms of the liberties opponents are taking with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He said “the “hits are becoming more than hits — they’re more of an impact where it can end a player’s career,” which, if you’re reading between the lines, sure sounds like an allusion to the Matt Niskanen cross check that concussed Crosby in Round 2.

Niskanen was ejected for his actions, but avoided supplemental discipline.

That lack of additional punishment might be why Rutherford wants to take matters into his own hands.

The Pens did not regularly dress a dedicated tough guy this year. Enforcer Tom Sestito only played in 13 games this year and still led the team in fights, with three.

What Rutherford wants to add is probably someone along the lines of Kyle Clifford or Matt Martin — a tough guy that can play regular shifts and chip in with the occasional bit of offense. Both Clifford and Martin were among the league leaders in scraps this season. Clifford scored 12 points in 73 games while averaging just under 11 minutes per night, while Martin played all 82 regular season and six playoff tilts for the Leafs.

Of course, finding those types of guys is easier said than done. And even if you do, there are those that contend salaries and usage aren’t commensurate with the actual value tough guys provide, especially in terms of possession.

Sidney Crosby at 30

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

Much like with Lebron James, Sidney Crosby is at the point in his career where the question is no longer “Will he be one of the all-time greats?” After back-to-back Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe wins, the discussion is shifting to where he ranks among the best of all-time.

And, like, with Lebron, there are a number of factors – including era, which is probably an even tougher nut to crack in hockey – that can twist and turn the debate.

Mere moments after Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins repeated as champs, Mike Sullivan made the case for number 87’s greatness.

” … You know, he’s arguably the best player of his generation, and he’s a guy that just knows how to win,” Sullivan said. “And so he’s done it in all different venues, whether it be the NHL and Stanley Cups to the World Cup to the Olympics. And he’s a player that — and I believe this, what separates him from others is his work ethic and his willingness to do what it takes to be the very best.”

It’s mind-blowing to consider the very real possibility that Crosby will be viewed as the best player to skate for the Penguins, edging Evgeni Malkin, Jaromir Jagr, and even Mario Lemieux.

It’s also mind-blowing that he just turned 30 on Aug. 7.

When it comes to the Mario vs. Sid debate that may eventually pick up steam, Crosby has some advantages. He matched “The Magnificent One” by getting those back-to-back titles and playoff MVP nods, while he already has three Stanley Cup rings to Lemieux’s two (and four Stanley Cup Final appearances to two).

Crosby already has an iconic moment to his name. Along with Paul Henderson’s goal and “Gretzky to Lemieux,” Crosby’s golden goal in the 2010 Winter Olympics will endear him to Canadian hockey fans for ages.

This list of accolades is honestly dizzying:

But, again, things get tougher when you try to really drill down to Crosby vs. The Greats. Most obviously since he’s far from done right now.

Circling back to the debate that might divide Penguins fans in particular, Crosby might also edge Lemieux if you correct for our modern era, which is so tough on scoring. NHL.com’s Rob Vollman explains Crosby’s place among the most impressive runs before 30:

From this perspective, Crosby is no longer in a block of a dozen players but in more select company. He ranks third at age 30 with an era-adjusted 998 points (377 goals, 622 assists), well ahead of Lemieux, who is in fourth with 899 points (365 goals, 534 assists). Gretzky is in first with 1,479 points (495 goals, 984 assists) in 896 games, followed by Jagr with 1,018 points (414 goals, 604 assists) in 858 games. (Adding to the distinction of being in the top four with Gretzky, Jagr and Lemieux: Those are the only three players to win the Art Ross Trophy as the League’s top scorer in the 21 seasons from 1980-81 to 2000-01.)  

Interesting. (This quick document has a bit more to chew on.)

Vollman also makes the point that even the all-timers tend to stop locking down the biggest awards once they turn 30. There’s an obvious barrier in Connor McDavid (just check the Hart Trophy odds) and possibly some other bright young players, so for all we know, most of our peak memories of Crosby may already be in the past.

That said, much like Lemieux, injuries have limited some of the stats Crosby’s been able to put up.

Crosby’s concussion history could conceivably prompt him to retire agonizingly early, but what if he instead gets better luck? We’ve seen cases, such as Patrice Bergeron, in which such issues become less of a concern over time. For all we know, Crosby might defy expectations and actually play until he’s 40.

(Hey, he already emulates Jaromir Jagr in being an inanely good puck protector.)

It’s been a special run already for Crosby, who’s already a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame. At this point, it’s about padding that resume.

Though, to Crosby’s credit, it’s still probably all about winning.

Sabres sign Zemgus Girgensons: two years, $3.2M

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The Buffalo Sabres basically wrapped up their mandatory summer moves by signing RFA Zemgus Girgensons to a two-year, $3.2 million contract on Thursday.

That translates to a cap hit of $1.6M per year; the team confirmed those terms.

The 23-year-old was selected 14th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft by the Sabres. He went two picks after the Sabres selected Mikhail Grigorenko, whose claim to fame is being part of the package that helped them nab Ryan O'Reilly. (Feel free to cringe at who went next, though hindsight seems especially convenient considering how long it takes to get to some of the whoppers.)

In Girgensons’ case, it’s still been a work in progress. His best years actually came early, particularly a sophomore season where he posted career-highs in goals (15) and points (30) despite being limited to 61 games. He enjoyed significantly higher ice time (19:05 per game) during that 2014-15, then came right back down.

If nothing else, Girgensons already has ample NHL experience, as he’s already played in 277 regular-season games.

Buffalo has about $7 million in cap space left, according to Cap Friendly, so there’s theoretically room to make more moves. Girgensons was their last remaining loose end of note, however.

Devils’ Zajac out 4-6 months after pectoral surgery

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As much as the New Jersey Devils have made gains in trading for Taylor Hall and Marcus Johansson, they’ll still need some familiar faces to fight their way out of the cellar.

It looks almost certain* that they’ll begin the 2017-18 season without one common fixture, as the Devils announced that Travis Zajac will miss about four-to-six months after undergoing surgery on his left pectoral muscle.

The injury occurred during Zajac’s off-season training; the Devils didn’t share exactly how that occurred, though.

Zajac, 32, has generally been quite sturdy for the Devils. He played in 80 games in 2016-17, collecting 45 points. He also appeared in 80 games in 2013-14 while playing 74 in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. He also played all 82 games for four straight seasons early in his career, so this must be frustrating for the veteran center.

* – Yes, four-to-six months would mean missing a significant chunk of the regular season … but sometimes hockey players make downright shocking recoveries. Just saying.

Lightning join effort to move Confederate monument

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The Tampa Bay Lightning joined the Rays and Buccaneers in releasing a joint statement regarding their efforts to help move Confederate monument Memoria in Aeterna from downtown Tampa following last weekend’s awful events in Charlottesville, Va.

This effort gained steam as Hillsborough County government officials announced that $150K in private funds would be needed to make the change, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The Go Fund Me drive is currently over $50K as of this writing. If funding goes through, the monument would reportedly move from downtown Tampa Bay to a family cemetery.

Here’s that joint statement:

As Shutdown Corner’s Jay Busbee reports, it’s likely that former NFL head coach Tony Dungy brought wider attention to the matter, challenging sports teams to contribute while donating $5K himself.

The Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith reports that Lightning forward J.T. Brown has personally donated $1,500. The donation was inspired in part by the birth of his daughter Lily.

“How would I explain why someone doesn’t like her?” Brown said, via Smith. “Or why is this going on in the world?”

This is what the monument looks like:

This isn’t the only case of NHL teams being connected to those tragic events, as the Detroit Red Wings and NHL announced that they may pursue legal action after the Red Wings’ logo was used by white nationalists during the weekend.

Busbee has more on the Tampa Bay monument situation here.