Carl Hagelin

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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.

Contrasting Crosby, McDavid heading into Penguins – Oilers

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As you can see in the video above, NBCSN’s Mike Milbury and Keith Jones discussed the similarities and differences in the games of Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers meet for the last time in 2017-18.

(Assuming, of course, that they won’t face off in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.)

This seems like a fun opportunity to delve even a little deeper. To start, check out this piece about McDavid’s potential to create new hockey fans with his blistering mix of skill and speed.

More than just speed with McDavid

Sometimes it almost seems dismissive to talk about McDavid’s speed. Here’s the thing, though: there are plenty of NHL players who can haul. Some struggle to finish despite having great wheels to varying degrees: Mason Raymond rarely made it work, and Penguins forward Carl Hagelin‘s seen peaks and valleys in his career in that regard.

With McDavid, it’s that he can do such high-skill things and make such smart decisions while baffling defensemen.

Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts for Sportsnet keyed in on this drill, and that story also discussed how Crosby has adapted his techniques during faceoffs (so it’s worth your click).

Evolving games

The fun thing about star athletes is that they rarely seem content with the skills they bring to the table early in their careers. John Tavares ranks among the stars known for revamping his game in big ways, and other sports apply, with Lebron James being a fantastic example.

To little surprise, both McDavid and Crosby show that hunger to not just be the best, but to keep pushing the bar higher.

Crosby’s work in the dot is an obvious example, yet the two centers share an interesting parallel in their leanings on the offensive end. To be specific, both might be pass-first by nature, yet each player is working on becoming more dangerous shooters.

When you look at Crosby’s early scoring stats, his assists dwarfed his goals. That was especially clear in his ridiculous sophomore season back in 2006-07: he scored 36 goals and 84 assists for 120 points in 79 games. Obviously, 36 goals is fantastic, and also a reminder of how much tougher it’s become to score even in the last decade. But it’s interesting to note, nonetheless, that his goals-assist ratio is closer to 1:1 as time has gone on.

So far, Crosby has five goals and six assists. Last year, he generated 44 goals and 45 assists. His actual shots on goal metrics remain reasonably similar from a volume perspective, so a lot of that improvement comes from Crosby working on his shooting skills.

McDavid may follow a similar path, particularly if he parallels Crosby in being surrounded by linemates he needs to carry (so Leon Draisaitl‘s presence could influence this situation). Last season, McDavid scored 30 goals and 70 assists for 100 points, generating the sort of clean numbers that seem to only show up in prognostications.

At the moment, McDavid’s numbers are amusingly similar to Crosby’s: also five goals and six assists. (McDavid’s played three fewer games than Crosby.)

Those five goals aren’t pure happenstance, either, as McDavid’s firing four shots on goal per contest. He wasn’t shy last season, but this represents a full SOG extra per contest. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues all season long.

Frankly, even if McDavid’s shot is good-but-not-great, coaches generally should be delighted when star players are assertive and decide to “call their own number.” (At least, they should in the often excessively deferential NHL.)

Struggling teams

Edmonton (3-6-1) obviously has the more pressing headaches, but Pittsburgh’s suffered some humbling losses despite an OK 7-5-1 record.

Considering their stats, the Oilers can only ask McDavid to try to maintain his level of play, and the same is reasonable with the Penguins and Crosby.

Ultimately, Crosby and McDavid need the Draisaitls, Evgeni Malkins, and other players to win the big team awards that number 87 keeps piling up and number 97 is chasing. Even so, it’s a lot of fun to compare stars like these, and should only get more thrilling as their careers progress.

If their histories are any indication, we haven’t seen all of their tricks just yet.

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.

Video: Holtby evokes Hasek, MLB playoffs with sliding gambit

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As fantastic as Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby is, it feels like he doesn’t generate a ton of Dominik Hasek comparisons.

Generally, it feels more logical to compare him to Martin Brodeur or Henrik Lundqvist: increasingly the NHL’s go-to workhorse goalie. In a league where starts get parceled out to backups more and more, Holtby’s been a rock in net for the Capitals, and his numbers remain strong.

Sometimes talk of being high-level “innings eaters” can make a guy sound boring.

Holtby made sure to remind us that he’s far from bland during tonight’s Capitals – Pittsburgh Penguins game, cutting off speedster Carl Hagelin‘s would-be breakaway by sliding down the ice and cutting him off.

The only drawback was that Holtby was whistled for a delay of game minor in the process, to the chagrin of Barry Trotz. Still, that moment was so cool – and the Capitals killed the penalty – that we can bask in its glory.

As an aside: it’s kind of insane how often that works for goalies, right? Then again, if you’re a player breaking away, you’re already worrying about defensemen at your back … imagine a heavily padded goalie also cutting you off?

(Somewhere, Marian Gaborik is sadly nodding his head.)

The Penguins currently lead Holtby and the Capitals 1-0 after one period. Check it out on NBCSN and stream it here.

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.

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Sidney Crosby hangs with rookies as Penguins prep for Cup defense

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CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. (AP) Sidney Crosby likes his summers short. Really short. Short summers for Crosby means long playoff runs for the Pittsburgh Penguins, ones that usually end with parades through the city in mid-June, the Penguins captain holding the Stanley Cup aloft.

There is no other feeling like it. So the question isn’t why would Crosby want to cut the celebration short, but why would he want to put off starting the process all over again?

So just 88 days after Pittsburgh closed out Nashville in six games to become the first team in nearly two decades to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, Crosby found himself out on the ice with assorted prospects, many of whom have little chance of making it to the NHL this season.

That didn’t stop Crosby and his familiar No. 87 jersey serving as perhaps the most decorated “welcome wagon” in professional sports. For the better part of an hour the face of the game skated with the newcomers. Later in the afternoon the more established players went through a workout of their own, well aware of the message Crosby’s appearance in the building earlier in the day sent.

“I think that’s where it starts with this team,” said forward Carl Hagelin after a voluntary workout. “Any new guy that comes up or any new guy that gets traded here, they get treated extremely well by Sid first of all and then the organization. You kind of follow his lead. There’s a good culture within this locker room and within this organization. When you get here, you’ve got to follow or you’re going to get left behind.”

Crosby makes it a point to be the first one to extend a hand, even though it can make for occasionally awkward moments, particularly for players like forward Ryan Reaves. The Penguins acquired Reaves from St. Louis over the summer looking to give their lineup a physical presence. The issue, of course, is that part of Reaves’ responsibilities during his time in St. Louis was making Crosby as uncomfortable as possible whenever the two teams met.

“I would say me and Sid’s relationship before this was rocky,” Reaves said with a laugh. “But I don’t know many people that like me on the ice though. But we’ve hung out a couple times. Really nice guy for sure.”

Reaves joined some of his new teammates in a fantasy football draft over the weekend. Reaves believes he has an eye for talent. He also has an eye for leadership. He wasn’t exactly surprised when he arrived at the rink and Crosby was already out there working with kids who may never actually play alongside him.

“That’s why he’s the best in the world,” Reaves said. “He does things like that and he makes the younger guys better and he pushes everybody to be the best. He’s the best in the world for a reason.”

One intent on guiding the Penguins to a third consecutive Cup, something that hasn’t been done since the New York Islanders ripped off four straight in the early 1980s, long before the salary cap came around, a move designed to level the playing field both financially and competitively. It didn’t look like that last spring as the Penguins raced by Columbus, outlasted Washington and Ottawa then pulled away from the upstart Predators in the final.

“Last year everyone said it was impossible to do, winning two in a row,” said Hagelin, whose empty-net goal in the final seconds of Game 6 quieted the “Smashville” crowd and clinched Pittsburgh’s fifth Cup. “Everyone is going to come after you. Now we’re used to that and we’re expecting the same thing this year. There’s going to be no surprises this year obviously.”

Doing it means enduring training camp, a six-month regular season followed by eight more weeks in the crucible of playoff hockey. The Penguins were supposed to be too tired from the Cup run in 2016 to do it again. And yet they did. As the official opening of camp looms, the lure of history is giving even established players like Hagelin a dose of adrenaline.

“Usually this time of year, you have such a short summer, maybe you’re kind of dreading it a little bit,” Hagelin said.

Not Hagelin. He missed a chunk of the regular season and the playoffs with injuries but returned in time to make an impact in the final, his legs a blur as he sped away from the Predators to flip in the goal that secured his name on the Cup for a second time.

“Focusing on coming out and getting a good start, that’s usually the tough part, to have every guy on the same page in the beginning of the year to really dig down and make sure you win those games,” he said. “That’s our goal. After that we just keep playing and keep getting better, that’s the type of team we’re trying to be.”

 

Dumoulin agrees to six-year contract with Penguins

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Brian Dumoulin won’t need his arbitration hearing today.

The Pittsburgh Penguins announced this morning that the 25-year-old defenseman has agreed to terms on a six-year contract with a $4.1 million cap hit.

From the press release:

Dumoulin, 25, has been a key component to the Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, as he played in all 49 playoff games in that span, and recorded 14 points (3G-11A). In the 2017 playoffs, Dumoulin had an average ice time of 21:59 minutes, the most of any Penguins skater, and his plus-9 paced all team defenders. He assisted on Carl Hagelin‘s empty-net goal that sealed the 2-0 victory in the decisive Game 6 of the Cup Final against Nashville. 

Dumoulin is coming off of a contract that paid him just $800,000 in each of the past two seasons.

With Dumoulin signed, Pittsburgh now has five defenseman under contract for at least the next three seasons, the other four being Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, and Matt Hunwick.

The Pens still have one more arbitration case in forward Conor Sheary. His hearing is scheduled for Aug. 4.

Related: Without Letang, the ‘simple bunch’ gets it done for Penguins