Carter Rowney

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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.

Penguins d-man Schultz suffers concussion vs. Oilers

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We’ve seen this before already this season: Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel teaming up for an overtime winner.

This time, it was Malkin setting up Kessel with a perfect saucer pass before Kessel ripped home that familiar wrist shot off the rush to defeat the Edmonton Oilers by a score of 2-1 on Tuesday.

Connor McDavid — who had gone six games without a goal since his season-opening hat trick against Calgary — scored late in the third period to secure at least the single point on the road for an Edmonton team looking to turn things around after a dismal and disappointing start despite heightened expectations around this group.

Contributing to Edmonton’s loss was the play of Matt Murray in net for Pittsburgh. He made 29 saves, but none better than a desperation stick stop on Mark Letestu during the second period. Count it as a Save of the Year candidate. It kept the game scoreless at the time, allowing Pittsburgh to eventually take the lead.

The win, however, came with some bad news, as injuries piled up for the Penguins throughout this contest. Defenseman Justin Schultz left the game after the first period and didn’t return.

Head coach Mike Sullivan later revealed to reporters that Schultz has been diagnosed with a concussion. Meanwhile, Carter Rowney, who was placed on injured reserve yesterday, has a fractured hand and is expected to miss at least four weeks.

The Penguins recently made a move aimed at helping them up the middle by acquiring Riley Sheahan from Detroit. He recorded an assist and 14:47 of ice time in his Penguins debut.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

Red Wings trade Riley Sheahan to Penguins for Scott Wilson

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It was simply a matter of when, and not if the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to swing a trade in an effort to improve their center depth.

On Saturday, they finally completed such a deal.

They hope.

The Penguins acquired forward Riley Sheahan and a 2018 fifth-round draft pick from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for forward Scott Wilson and a 2018 third-round draft pick.

The move accomplishes something for both teams.

For the Red Wings, it helps them clear some necessary cap space following the new one-year deal for Andreas Athanasiou while the Penguins get some much needed center depth.

After losing Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen over the summer in free agency the Penguins did not make any corresponding moves to fill those spots. They opened the season with Greg McKegg and Carter Rowney occupying those spots. While they have done a solid job so far there was obviously still some room for improvement.

The question is whether or not Sheahan can help provide that.

Sheahan, 25, has had some reasonable success in the NHL scoring 27 goals between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

Since then, however, he has been mired in one of the most unbelievable goal scoring droughts in recent memory, scoring just two goals (both in the final game of the 2016-17 season) in his past 88 games. He has a shooting percentage of just 1.7 percent.

One way to look at it if you are the Penguins: He has to be due to bust out of that drought at some point because players that have shown the ability to score close to 15 goals in the NHL don’t typically lose that when they are still 25 years old. Perhaps a fresh start, in a new situation with better teammates around him can help him along. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that has happened in recent years with the Penguins (looking at you, Justin Schultz).

As for Wilson, he has appeared in 108 NHL games with the Penguins scoring 13 goals to go with 19 assists. He scored three goals in 20 playoff games during the Penguins’ Stanley Cup run a year ago. Given the Penguins’ depth on the wings, as well as the potential for a mid-season callup for Daniel Sprong there just was not much room for him in Pittsburgh.

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.

With Sheary signed Penguins can focus on finding center

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The Pittsburgh Penguins signed Conor Sheary on Sunday afternoon, successfully avoiding salary arbitration with their two biggest restricted free agents (him and Brian Dumoulin) while also giving themselves more than $3 million in cushion under the salary cap.

Overall it has been a mostly quiet offseason for the Penguins, adding only Ryan Reaves, Matt Hunwick and Antti Niemi to the roster while allowing Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Ron Hainsey to leave via free agency, while also losing goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Even with those losses the Penguins don’t have many holes on a roster that just completed its second consecutive championship season.

The one hole they do have is finding some center depth down the middle of their lineup following the loss of Bonino and the uncertain future of veteran Matt Cullen. They still have two of the best centers in the league in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at the top of the lineup, but the depth behind them has taken quite a hit this summer. Bonino and Cullen represented their third-and fourth-line centers the past two seasons (and were mostly excellent in those roles), and with Oscar Sundqvist traded to St. Louis as part of the Reaves deal they still need to do something to address those spots.

With the free agency options almost non-existent (minus Cullen, of course) General manager Jim Rutherford is almost certainly going to have to explore the trade market when it comes to rounding out his roster. He has taken a patient approach to it and doesn’t seem to be in a rush to force a trade. It’s important to keep in mind that he didn’t actually acquire Bonino two years ago until around this point in the summer.

Carter Rowney played well for the Penguins in the postseason when called upon and can play center, but he is probably not what they are looking for on their third line.

Moving Jake Guentzel over to center could also be an option if needed, but it is probably not the ideal move given how successful he was on the wing, especially when playing next to Crosby and Sheary.

Penguins need a bounceback from their top guns

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan maintained a calm veneer as he answered the question, but there was an edge inside his words Saturday night when asked about being outplayed for most of the first three games of the Stanley Cup Finals by the Nashville Predators.

“We’ve been outplayed in stretches, you know,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone should discount the goals we’ve scored, the counterattack game that we have.”

That counterattack game wasn’t quite as effective Saturday night, though, as Nashville fed off its raucous crowd in Bridgestone Arena for a 5-1 win that cut its series deficit to 2-1. Five different Predators scored goals and Pekka Rinne made 27 saves in his first win over Pittsburgh.

Worse yet from a Penguins perspective, they got no shots on goal from either of their star centers — Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. It’s believed to be the first playoff game during the duo’s careers that neither one got a shot to net.

Related: After so-so regular season, Preds playing much better defense in playoffs

If Pittsburgh is to become the first road team to win in the Cup Finals in Game 4 on Monday night, it can’t have another zero-shot game from its cornerstone players.

“I thought they had some looks,” Sullivan said. “They had some attempts. They didn’t hit the net, obviously. Those are important guys for us. We want them to get pucks on the net because they obviously have the ability to score.”

Sullivan said one way to get Crosby and Malkin going is to start doing more with the power play. It was powerless in Game 3, failing in three chances. At times, it appeared Nashville had more zone time and chances while short-handed.

Read more: Crosby denies chirp, says Subban just ‘likes the attention’

The Predators were certainly the better team in even-strength play, as has been the case for most of the series. When they finally stayed out of the penalty box during most of the last two periods of Game 3 and buried their chances, they scored three times in the second period and twice more in the third.

Nashville also got the benefit of puck luck that worked for the Penguins in the first two games. Roman Josi‘s tying goal in the second period hit Carter Rowney‘s stick before beating Matt Murray. James Neal‘s goal late in the second period caromed off Murray’s left ankle from a bad angle.

“I don’t want to blame the first two losses on puck luck,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said, “but it didn’t bounce our way all the time. Today it bounced our way a little more. We found looks we liked. Just a good game offensively.”

One of those looks was Frederick Gaudreau‘s second goal of the Finals, 42 seconds after Josi’s equalizer. Gaudreau, who landed a spot in the lineup after Ryan Johansen (thigh) was declared out of the playoffs during the Western Conference Finals, didn’t score in nine regular-season games.

But Gaudreau has displayed the scoring touch of his namesake in Calgary, Johnny, during the Finals. His one-timer in the third period tied Game 1 and his wrister to Murray’s glove side unlocked a tie for good Saturday night.

“We saw that he had great skill,” Neal said. “I think he’s surprising everybody how good he is. He’s calm and collected.”

Related: From Calder Cup to Stanley Cup Final, Gaudreau’s had a wild ride