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The Penguins have some major depth issues that need to be addressed

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Nearly one quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season and the Pittsburgh Penguins are probably not exactly where they want to be at this point.

Entering play on Tuesday, when they will host the Buffalo Sabres, they are 17th in the NHL in points percentage, they have the third-worst goal differential (minus-18, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes) after losing games by margins of 10-7, 7-1 and 7-1, and are only a middle of the pack team in terms of their shot attempt and possession numbers. Their goals against numbers overall are ugly (largely due to the three blowout losses), but they are also only 25th in the league in goals per game.

None of that is great.

There are a lot of factors here.

The early season schedule to this point has been brutal, having already played six sets of back-to-back games (often against rested teams — including some of the best teams in the league). For a team that has played 214 games the past two seasons that is a tough way to open the season. Their backup goaltending situation early in the season was a disaster with Antti Niemi giving up goals in bunches.

It is not wrong to think that a better backup goaltending situation to start the year could have maybe produced an extra win, or that once the schedule calms down a little they will start to get back on track a little.

There is another issue at work here too that is going to need to be addressed in a meaningful way: The bottom of the roster, which was decimated by free agency and the salary cap over the summer, is giving them almost no offense to speak of. Or anything, really.

This brings back a problem that plagued the Penguins between the 2010 and 2015 seasons when they were getting bounced early in the playoffs despite having a group of All-Stars at the top of the roster.

Over the past two years general manager Jim Rutherford did a ton of work to build that depth back up and it resulted in back-to-back Stanley Cups.

This past summer a lot of that depth walked out the door in free agency with Nick Bonino (Nashville Predators), Matt Cullen (Minnesota Wild), Chris Kunitz (Tampa Bay Lightning), and Trevor Daley (Detroit Red Wings) all moving on. That also does not include the exit of Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, a pretty significant departure given how bad Niemi turned out to be.

That is a lot of depth to replace in one offseason, and to this point the Penguins have struggled to do it.

Instead of Bonino and Cullen at the third and fourth center spots they opened the season with Greg McKegg and Carter Rowney (currently injured), then traded for Riley Sheahan, a player that has not scored a goal in 97 of his past 98 games.

Ryan Reaves, brought in to add toughness, is playing just seven minutes per night and has replaced Kunitz.

Looking at it from a numbers perspective it is not hard to see how much of a drop this is has been for the offense.

Let’s break their forwards and their production down into two groups of six: The top-six in terms of ice-time and the bottom-six in terms of ice-time.

During the 2016-17 season the Penguins forwards that were 7-12 in ice-time averaged .445 points per game as a group.

So far this year? The 7-12 group is at just .201. A player that averages .201 points per game over 82 games scores just 16 points in a season. A .445 player scores 36.

That is a pretty substantial drop. To be fair we are also comparing a 19-game sampling with a full season. A lot can happen over the next few months. The table below breaks down the past two full seasons, as well as this one, to show where the Penguins were after 19 games and where they ended up.

In each of the past two seasons both groups were slow starters relative to where they ended up at the end of the season. But it wasn’t just a matter of players getting better or seeing their production in crease. In both instances there were pretty significant changes made to the roster.

In 2015-16 pretty much everything about the team changed after the first quarter of the season, from the head coach (Mike Johnston to Mike Sullivan) to almost half of the roster (Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Justin Schultz all being called up or added to the roster during the season).

In 2016-17 it was the call-up of Jake Guentzel that ended up making a huge difference (as well as the return of a lot of injured player).

The point here is if the Penguins are going to have any chance of another repeat run they are going to need to make similar changes at some point before the trade deadline.

In their two years as the Penguins’ third-and fourth-line centers Bonino and Cullen each averaged 15 goals and between 30-40 points.

Right now McKegg and Sheahan are on a four-goal and 11-point pace … combined.

The Penguins didn’t go from postseason disappointments to Stanley Cup champions the past two years because players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin got better or became better leaders or became more clutch. They were the same as they have always been (great). They became Stanley Cup champions again because players like Crosby and Malkin were still great, and they had a great supporting cast of players around them.

This is not to suggest the Penguins would necessarily be in a better situation with Bonino and Cullen and Kunitz at this point. Cullen is 41 years old and has one goal so far in Minnesota. At some point he will slow down. Bonino has played in just five games for the Predators due to injury and the Penguins never could have matched that contract offer under the salary cap. (Keeping Kunitz instead of adding Reaves probably would have been smart).

Their production from the past two seasons still existed and was a big part of the Penguins success. That is production they are not getting and are unlikely to get from the current cast of players in those roles as replacements.

There are some areas where improvement can come from. Sidney Crosby is going to play better. Kris Letang can (and probably will) play better. Prospect Daniel Sprong is off to a great start in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and could be on the Guentzel path to the NHL at some point later in the season.

The third-and fourth-line center spots, however, have become offensive black holes and with Reaves only playing seven minutes a night (sometimes significantly less) they are pretty much playing with an 11-man forward group.

All of those areas need to be addressed if another postseason run is going to happen this season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Stars’ Klingberg is building serious Norris argument

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From Nicklas Lidstrom to Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman, NHL fans are used to Swedish defensemen being involved in Norris Trophy talks, and often winning the award outright. It’s about time that we add another name to the conversation: John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars.

Some might roll their eyes when points come up in the Norris discussion, but how could they not, especially in Klingberg’s case?

After collecting three assists in the Stars’ 7-1 Saturday squash of the Sabres, Klingberg now has a whopping 46 points in just 48 games. As of this writing, Klingberg leads all defensemen by 10 points. If he maintains that margin for the remainder of the 2017-18 season, it will be tough to deny Klingberg the first Norris Trophy in Stars history.

Klingberg’s 46 points tie him with Jamie Benn for the team points lead, and place him in a multi-player tie for 18th overall in the NHL.

About two weeks ago, Jamie Benn told the Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika that Klingberg deserves consideration.

“One hundred percent,” Benn said. “He’s such a dynamic player, and a leader on this team. And I think this year he’s taking his game to another level, and it’s showing out there on the ice.”

It’s not just about the scoring. Klingberg is getting the ice time you’d expect from a Norris hopeful, with an average of 23:33 per game. While that isn’t in the Drew Doughty range, it shows that the slick Swede is a go-to guy for the Stars (he easily leads Dallas in ice time).

His all-around game is impressive. You can see strong possession stats at a glance at Hockey Reference, and with just 14 penalty minutes so far, he’s not hurting his team with bad discipline. While he’s not a primary penalty killer for Dallas, there’s some trust in that area, as he’s averaging 1:18 PK time per contest.

Maybe you’d lean more toward Doughty, Brent Burns, P.K. Subban, or Karlsson – it’s a dynamic and deep field this year – but Klingberg deserves consideration, and he’s already drawing favorable comparisons to beloved Stars blueliner Sergei Zubov (without the in-game smoking breaks, one would assume).

You could argue that Klingberg has been one of the greatest beneficiaries to Ken Hitchcock’s return to Dallas.

Not that long ago, Klingberg was suffering through healthy scratches as the Stars experienced a wildly disappointing 2016-17 season. Now he’s easily on pace to surpass his career-high of 58 points, and Klingberg might just collect some hardware in the process.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Johnson’s shot at Duchene makes lack of Colorado return a bummer

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Through a rare scheduling quirk, Matt Duchene‘s first game as a member of the Ottawa Senators against the Colorado Avalanche was both a letdown and a case of instant gratification.

The Senators faced the Avs on back-to-back games on Nov. 10 and 11, Duchene’s debut contests with Ottawa. That’s really something, but those contests took place in Sweden, so fans – and former teammates, honestly – were deprived of the spectacle of seeing Duchene return to town.

Barring a highly unlikely trade or an equally unlikely meeting in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (hey, the Avs are doing a better job holding up their end of the bargain in that regard), Duchene won’t play in Colorado as a member of the opposing team until 2018-19.

That was already a bummer, even before Colorado extended its scorching run to nine straight wins. That missed opportunity for drama and entertainment stings more today, though, as Erik Johnson took a swipe at Duchene without using his name, as NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski reports.

“The way things went last year, I think the easy thing to say would have been, ‘It’s not working here, let’s go somewhere else, let’s jump ship.’ The character guys and the core guys in this room said we want to figure things out here in Colorado and make it work,” Johnson said, via Sadowski.

Zing.

Again, Johnson didn’t add “Right, Matt Duchene?” at the end, so perhaps there’s plausible deniability right there. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Johnson wasn’t taking a shot at, say, Mikhail Grigorenko, though.

It’s disappointing that we won’t get to see those two teams play in North America until next season, but at least Erik Johnson provided the in-real-life answer to a “subtweet” on Matt Duchene, eh?

(Hot take: the NHL needs more smack-talking moments like these, even if names aren’t always named.)

In case you’re wondering

Duchene now has 13 points in 29 games with the Senators heading into Saturday’s action, numbers that lag behind his Colorado work (including 10 points in 14 sometimes-awkward games with the Avs in 2017-18).

That said, Duchene has been heating up lately, generating at least one point in four of his last five games (three goals and four assists for seven points during that span).

Samuel Girard has nine points (all assists) in 31 games with Colorado after generating a goal and two assists in five contests for Nashville. Girard has three assists in his last five appearances for the Avs. He also has seven assists during Colorado’s nine-game winning streak, even with more modest ice time than he first received with the Avalanche.

Kyle Turris‘ numbers are most relevant to Sens fans, but nonetheless: he’s been slowing down a bit with Nashville lately, yet he still has 19 points in 29 games as a member of the Predators.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Are boiling-hot Avalanche for real? We’ll find out soon

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If the Colorado Avalanche’s New Year’s resolution was to never lose again, they’ve been sticking to it so far.

With a 3-1 win against the New York Rangers today, the Avalanche are undefeated in 2018 (7-0-0), and that’s not even the extent of their ridiculous winning streak. They’ve now won nine games in a row, with this run stretching back to an overtime win against Toronto on Dec. 29.

The Avalanche are now at 26-16-3, a resounding rise from being under .500 not that long ago (they dipped to 12-13-2 on Dec. 7).

About two weeks ago, PHT glanced at the Avalanche when their winning streak was at five consecutive victories.

Since then, they’ve tacked on four more wins, outscoring opponents 15-6 during that span. It’s not as if they’re facing cupcakes, either, as these last four teams (Stars, Ducks, Sharks, and Rangers) are either in playoff position or are battling hard for a spot.

Many of the same things continue to go right for the Avalanche.

  • Nathan MacKinnon continues to battle for Hart recognition: MacKinnon scored a goal and an assist against the Rangers today, giving him 23 goals and 59 points in just 45 games this season. This is already the second-best total of his career, and his peak of 63 points isn’t far away. One could probably assume that Nate-Mac is more intrigued by the possibility of flirting with a 100-point season than any of his previous marks.

MacKinnon’s point streak now spans the Avalanche’s nine-game run: eight goals and 11 assists for a blistering 19 points. He’s currently ranked second in scoring with 59 points, just two points behind Nikita Kucherov‘s 61.

  • Jonathan Bernier is also leading the way: Remember when Bernier was going to be the next big thing?

Instead, he’s quietly showing why scouts were once so excited about him, and you wonder what the pending UFA ($2.75 million cap hit this season) might net the Avalanche if they’re not sold on his future. With injured would-be starter Semyon Varlamov only signed through 2018-19, Colorado has some questions to answer. That said, it’s a lot better to have multiple options in net than none.

Bernier is now on an eight-game winning streak and has won nine of 10 games. Bernier has an absurd .957 save percentage in seven January appearances.

The two have even combined for some highlights, conveniently enough.

Now, there are some caveats.

The Avalanche have played nine of their last 10 games at home. Only the Rangers have seen a more home-dominant start to 2017-18, as the Avs have played 26 games in Colorado versus just 19 on the road.

Starting Monday, the Avalanche will essentially see their schedule reverse:

Mon, Jan 22 @ Toronto
Tue, Jan 23 @ Montreal
Thu, Jan 25 @ St. Louis
Tue, Jan 30 @ Vancouver
Thu, Feb 1 @ Edmonton
Sat, Feb 3 @ Winnipeg
Tue, Feb 6 vs San Jose
Thu, Feb 8 @ St. Louis
Sat, Feb 10 @ Carolina
Sun, Feb 11 @ Buffalo

You could extend the tough times to about a month, really.

So far, the Avalanche are 18-7-1 at home and just 8-9-2 on the road. Of course, they’ll now be going on the road with a rejuvenated Bernier; with that in mind, maybe this stretch of away games will merely give the Avs a chance to drive home the point that they’re a true contender?

It’s already been a marvelous turnaround for this group, as they basically exceeded their atrocious 2016-17 season at the midway point of this one.

Much like MacKinnon in trying to do far more than merely set career-highs, the Avalanche don’t need to settle for moral victories right now. They’re getting plenty of actual victories, especially lately.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

What happened to the Los Angeles Kings?

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They were doing so well, those Los Angeles Kings.

And it wasn’t that long ago, either.

Back on Jan. 4, these same Kings were tied for the second spot in the whole of the Western Conference. Hell, they were knocking on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s door at the summit of the league.

That night, the streak began.

Now, the Kings are fresh off their latest defeat, a narrow 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night. It was Los Angeles’ sixth straight loss and their second to the rival Ducks in less in a week.

But why?

Why has a team that looked so dominant prior to this fallen off a proverbial cliff so quickly?

Perhaps fans could blame Jonathan Quick.

He’s lost his past five starts now, allowing three goals or more in four of them. But while his numbers might be in a little bit of decline, it’s hard to pin the Kings’ woes on a man who’s sporting a .924 save percentage and 2.34 goals-against average.

We must look deeper.

There we find some issues with getting the rubber puck in the back of the net.

When the streak began, the Kings were scoring. They posted three goals in each of their 4-3 losses to the Calgary Flames and the Nashville Predators – tight games that may have gone another way depending on a bounce or two. But since then, they’ve scored two, one, one and one in their past four, respectively.

Winning hockey games where you score one goal and expect your goalie to stop a barrage of shots is, well, nearly impossible in today’s NHL.

The lack of scoring is perhaps the Kings’ biggest problem. They simply need more of it.

They’re a team that ranks among the top in goal differential. They have a starting netminder that gives them a chance to win nearly every night.

Yet, when Anze Kopitar registers just two markers in 15 games, it’s not exactly helping. And when a resurgent Dustin Brown stops surging with just three goals in his past 16 games, it’s not helping. And when 18-goal man Tyler Toffoli has one goal in his past seven games… you get the picture.

Scoring is a must. No one needs to be told this, let alone the Kings who have won a couple Stanley Cups in recent years.

The good news: those scoring slumps likely won’t last.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck