Bryan Rust

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Spark Penguins need might already be in organization

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are in need of a spark, and general manager Jim Rutherford seems to know it.

On Wednesday he told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he is close to considering a “major” trade to potentially shake things up if things do not start to turn around on their upcoming three-game road trip. It is a bold statement from the general manager of a team that has won the past two Stanley Cups, but nearly halfway through the season it is becoming increasingly clear that this team is lacking … something.

That something could be any number of things.

Defensively they have not been great. They have been plagued by dreadfully slow starts in recent games. They lost a ton of depth over the summer with the free agency departures of Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey (as well as the expansion draft departure of Marc-Andre Fleury), and while their power play is as dangerous as any team in the league, they have been one of the absolute worst teams in the league when it comes to scoring during 5-on-5 play.

Put all of that together and you have a team that enters play on Thursday sitting on the playoff bubble in a highly competitive Metropolitan Division.

I have already written about the Penguins’ depth issues this season, and in the weeks since then the gap between their top-six production and their bottom-six production has only widened. That is a big problem.

The greatest strength the Penguins had the past two years on their Stanley Cup runs was their forward depth and every line’s ability to contribute to the offense. As great as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are they are not going to score every single night. There has to be some offense coming from the other two lines, and this season the Penguins are not getting that. Even with the concerns on the blue line (made worse now by the injury to Justin Schultz) this seems like the biggest area to address.

It might also be the easiest because the solutions might already be knocking on the door.

In each of the past two seasons the Penguins have received huge contributions from call-ups from their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm team. In 2015-16 it was Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and even Tom Kuhnhackl helping to bring a spark to the team.

Last season it was Jake Guentzel, joining the team around this time of year and the scoring 29 goals over 65 games, including a league-leading 13 in 25 playoff games. Finding that sort of cheap production from young talent is essential for teams like the Penguins given their salary cap situation. They do not always have the flexibility under the cap to swing a major trade without giving up a major piece in return.

They might have a couple of options that could provide similar value and a similar spark this season in Dominik Simon and Daniel Sprong, both selected in the 2015 draft.

Simon, who had 16 points in 20 games in the AHL before his recent recall, has been a bright spot in his first two games with the team. He recorded a pair of assists in his season debut against the Toronto Maple Leafs and eventually found himself skating on a line with Crosby. He was one of the few players that seemed to be a real threat to score in their 2-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche earlier in the week and demonstrated some real skill as a playmaker.

Take, for example, this play where he set up Crosby for a one-timer opportunity in the third period.

A little better shot placement, or a goalie that wasn’t as locked in as Jonathan Bernier was that night, and we’re talking about a highlight reel goal right now.

During Wednesday’s practice Simon was skating on a line with Crosby and Guentzel and seems poised to play there on Thursday night when they take on the Vegas Golden Knights.

Following Saturday’s loss against Toronto Simon spoke about playing alongside Crosby and called it, “unbelievable,” adding that “he makes the game so much easier for you. If you lose the puck, he’s there to support you. It felt great.”

It seems, at least in the short-term, he is going to get an opportunity to keep playing on that line. It would be the third time in as many years a call-up gets that chance alongside Crosby as Simon tries to follow in the footsteps of Sheary and Guentzel.

That brings us to Sprong, the team’s second-round pick in 2015 and currently its top prospect.

After ripping apart the QMJHL the past three years (and getting a brief cup of coffee with the Penguins to start the 2015-16 season) Sprong is currently into his first full year of pro hockey. It has been a mixed bag of results at times. He has been streaky at times and he was a healthy scratch a couple of weeks ago, but he is only 20 years old, already has 14 goals in 23 games and is leading the team in both goals and total points by a pretty significant margin.

A couple of weeks ago Rutherford commented on Sprong’s development and said he had received no indication from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaching staff that he was ready for a promotion to the NHL.

Given the aforementioned healthy scratch it is clear that his game is not perfect at this point.

Even with that being said he can still do something — or at least has the potential to do something — a lot of current players on the Penguins roster right now can not do. That, of course, is having the ability to put the puck in the net.

No matter how much the Penguins try to make him one, Sprong may not ever be a great defensive player. But you still need to score goals, and right now the Penguins have a lot of forwards in their lineup that can play a safe, responsible, defensively sound game but are providing them with absolutely zero offense.

They have Ryan Reaves playing five minutes a night providing … well … whatever it is he provides. For whatever reason, NHL teams seem to prefer that sort of one dimensional play (whether it be the dimension Reaves provides, or the play-it-safe, all defense, no offense dimension) over the one dimensional play that can change a game with a quick goal.

It would not hurt the Penguins at all to remove a Reaves or even a Carl Hagelin to insert somebody that can potentially inject some offense into the lineup. At the moment a team that has two top-lines and two fourth-lines. That is not the type of balance they need to compete for another Stanley Cup, let alone win one.

At some point before the trade deadline they are are probably going to have to address the third-line center spot from outside the organization. Even with a couple of goals in his past few games Riley Sheahan is probably not the answer there (though, he might be a decent fourth-line option).

But they can still make some in-house changes on the wings to potentially spark the offense without having to swing a major trade, something that at this point is probably easier said than done. A real look for Simon and perhaps Sprong at some point could potentially balance out the lineup a lot more than it currently is, whether it be with one of the younger players getting a look at the bottom of the lineup, or somebody else getting bumped down a spot while the youngsters get a look up top. Keep in mind the fourth line in their Stanley Cup clinching game this past spring had Matt Cullen (13 goals in 72 games), Bryan Rust (15 goals in 57 games) and Chris Kunitz (nine goals in 71 games, and more than 250 career goals) skating on it.

They need to find that sort of balance again. Before they turn to a trade, it might be wise to see if their own in-house prospects can help deliver it.

It has worked for them before.

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.

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.

Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher would consider offer from Penguins

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Instead of signing with the Colorado Avalanche – the team that drafted him – Will Butcher will reportedly test free agency starting on Aug. 15.

The Hobey Baker Award-winning defenseman would make sense for an array of NHL teams, really, with the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs mentioned among early considerations.

So, what about the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that’s lost some talent on the blueline and has enjoyed some success with NCAA products? Well, it remains to be seen if the defending repeat champions would be interested in Butcher’s services, but the defenseman’s agent told Josh Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that they would certainly listen.

“If they happen to call,” Brian Bartlett said. “I’m sure we’d answer the phone.”

Mackey notes some of the successful college players the Penguins have deployed.

There’s familiarity here, too: Bartlett also represents former college players and current Penguins Bryan Rust (Notre Dame), Scott Wilson (UMass-Lowell) and Josh Archibald (Nebraska-Omaha).

Bartlett also claims that Butcher, 22, wouldn’t demand an immediate spot on an NHL roster. That’s nice to hear … although you wonder if a team offering as much would get a better chance to land him, especially since entry-level contract limits mean that a “bidding war” would come down to what team, situation, and location he’d prefer.

Considering the possibility for a nice reward and the fairly limited risk involved, plenty of teams should be interested in Butcher. It sounds like the interest would be mutual if the Penguins were one of those suitors.

One way or another, we’ll likely learn more in a bit more than two weeks.

Update: The Athletic’s Craig Custance reports that the Detroit Red Wings are interested in Butcher, too.

In supporting McDavid, Oilers face bigger cap tests than Pens, Blackhawks

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The Edmonton Oilers officially confirmed Connor McDavid‘s contract as the richest in NHL history: eight years at a tidy $100 million.

Remarkably, that $12.5 million cap hit is actually a big break for the Oilers, as McDavid could’ve justifiably demanded more. Either way, what’s next?

GM Peter Chiarelli gave the “no-comment” treatment when asked about Leon Draisaitl, instead praising McDavid for “caring about his teammates.”

Chiarelli’s seen the Blackhawks and Penguins struggle with salary-cap challenges, and the scary thing is that the Oilers must climb a bigger mountain.

Oilers lack some advantages Penguins, Blackhawks enjoyed

As tough as things have been for Chicago and Pittsburgh, Edmonton lacks some of those franchise’s significant edges.

For one thing, signing Sidney Crosby to a 12-year deal with an $8.7 million cap hit wouldn’t be possible today. Edmonton could only sign McDavid for a maximum of eight years, limiting the Oilers’ ability to parallel deals for the likes of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

It’s worth noting that the Blackhawks haven’t won a Stanley Cup since Jonathan Toews‘ and Patrick Kane‘s matching $10.5 million cap hits kicked in, deals that were more costly with the max-year loophole closed.

Yet, even in Chicago’s case, they managed to get a huge-term bargain under its belt during the old CBA. Duncan Keith brings Norris-level defense for a dirt-cheap cap hit of about $5.54 million through 2022-23.

Edmonton must find other opportunities to save money.

Bargains are crucial, and they’re where Chiarelli must “earn his money”

However you slice it, teams must bargain-hunt, and they often need to be creative to make things work.

The Penguins spent assets to land Phil Kessel, and they convinced the Maple Leafs to retain a crucial chunk of his cap hit. They’ve managed to integrate younger players like Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and especially Matt Murray into a mix of established stars. Of course, they’ve also enjoyed some luck along the way, most notably in convincing Marc-Andre Fleury to go to Vegas.

In many ways, Chicago set a template for the Penguins in discovering the likes of Artemi Panarin while also finding success with the likes of Ryan Hartman. Both Stan Bowman and Jim Rutherford have been willing to take chances on players and part ways with guys who weren’t deemed essential.

Such a thought explains why Kris Russell and Milan Lucic stand as polarizing signings; if those two struggle, that’s $10M poorly spent.

Not all bad

Look, Chiarelli faces some difficult challenges, yet he also has some things working in his favor.

Most obviously, this is a largely young core, with players who can improve. It’s reasonable to believe that McDavid and Draisaitl could make other, cheaper wingers better when Edmonton’s budget gets especially tight.

Cam Talbot‘s also been a revelation, and while his $4.2M cap hit expires after two more seasons, it’s a nice bargain to have.

There are also some decent deals on defense.

Andrej Sekera, Oscar Klefbom, and Adam Larsson combine for an affordable, solid trio. Klefbom and Larsson are also in their prime years, likely to deliver value for Edmonton going forward.

Once you shake off concerns about Lucic and Russell, the slate is actually fairly clean for Edmonton. That’s especially true if they make another tough call and move Ryan Nugent-Hopkins if his $6M is too much to stomach.

***

The Oilers aren’t in an impossible situation, just a very challenging one. With McDavid as a sure thing alongside other nice pieces, it comes down to Chiarelli providing the supporting cast needed to collect some Stanley Cups.

Signing McDavid was the easy part.

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.