Chris Kunitz

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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.

Bolts storm back to defeat Capitals in overtime

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) The Tampa Bay Lightning shut down the NHL’s top scorer and rallied from a two-goal deficit for a quality win.

Brayden Point scored on a power play in overtime, Tampa Bay held high-scoring Alex Ovechkin pointless and the Lightning beat the Washington Capitals 4-3 on Monday night.

“The team that deserved to win won tonight,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “We were a determined group.”

Point redirected Nikita Kucherov‘s shot at 3:08 that came after the Capitals were assessed a too many men on the ice penalty.

Ovechkin entered with seven goals in Washington’s first two games this season.

Tampa Bay also got goals from Alex Killorn, Chris Kunitz and Kucherov, and Andrei Vasilevskiy made 23 saves.

T.J. Oshie had two goals and an assist, while Nicklas Backstrom added a goal and two assists for the Capitals. Philipp Grubauer stopped 36 shots in his first game of the season.

“The good and bad is, I thought we could have left here with two points and are leaving here with one,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said.

Kucherov tied it at three on an in-close backhander at 10:46 of the third.

Ovechkin had three goals in the third period in Thursday’s opening night win at Ottawa, then matched the feat while helping chase Montreal goalie Carey Price in the first period Saturday. He added his fourth goal in the second period against Al Montoya.

Ovechkin, bidding to become the first NHL player to have a hat trick in three consecutive games, had a power-play scoring chance from the left circle in the second turned aside by Vasilevskiy. He finished with four shots and was a minus-2

Backstrom and Oshie, on a power play deflection from the slot, scored 1:23 apart late in the first as Washington took a 2-0 lead.

After Killorn and Oshie, with the man advantage, traded goals early in the second, Kunitz’s redirection cut the deficit to 3-2 with 1:51 left in the period.

“A good building block for our team,” Kunitz said.

Grubauer made several strong saves, including Steven Stamkos‘ left circle drive, during an early third period power play.

Vasilevskiy stopped a first-period breakaway by Evgeny Kuznetsov, who got his eighth assist on Oshie’s second goal.

“We had a couple chances to make it 4-1 and we didn’t,” Trotz said. “They just chipped away.”

Hornqvist getting closer to return for Penguins

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have had a rough start to the 2017-18 season (probably an understatement, actually) as they head into Saturday night’s Stanley Cup Final rematch with the Nashville Predators.

They did get a little bit of positive news on Saturday morning when injured forward Patric Hornqvist was able to return to the ice and take part in the team’s morning skate. He is recovering from hand surgery that sidelined him for the entire preseason and the Penguins’ first two regular season games.

He still has not been cleared for contact and is not quite ready to return, but he said on Saturday that he is hoping to back in the lineup very soon.

“The first step was to get back on the ice with the players,” Hornqvist said via the Penguins’ website. “Hopefully Monday I can improve, Tuesday improve and hopefully I’m back pretty soon.”

Hornqvist was the Game 6 hero for the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final series when his goal with less than two minutes to play helped the team clinch its fifth Stanley Cup and second in a row.

His absence, as well as the offseason losses of Nick Bonino (who returns on Saturday night as a member of the Predators),  Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz, has put a pretty significant dent in the Penguins’ forward depth. They have some young players down in the American Hockey League, Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese specifically, that could make an impact later this season and but will still probably need to address the third-and fourth-line center spots via trade.

After hosting Nashville on Saturday night the Penguins return to action on Wednesday night in Washington against the Capitals.

Penguins looking to bounce back from early season wake up call

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Two games into the season is hardly the time to panic, especially when the team in question is the Pittsburgh Penguins — a team that has won back-to-back Stanley Cups while overcoming quite a bit of adversity each time (a mid-season coaching change one year; a significant injury to one of their best players in the other).

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bit of an eye-opener when they open the season with back-to-back losses, giving up 15 goals in the process while getting completely annihilated on Thursday night in Chicago by a 10-1 margin.

Mike Sullivan called it a “wake-up call” on Friday in advance of their Stanley Cup Final rematch against Nashville on Saturday night and insisted that nobody is hitting the panic button.

Quite honestly, they shouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason for at least some mild concern with the way the team has looked through the first two games.

One of the more astonishing things about their Stanley Cup run a season ago is that they did it with what was a mostly patchwork defense that was without its best player in Kris Letang.

Overall, they were not a great defensive team during the 2016-17 season. They finished 17th in the league in goals against during the regular season, gave up more shots than your typical Stanley Cup winner does, and more often than not found themselves getting outshot and outchanced in the playoffs. What got them through it was two outstanding goaltending performances from Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, as well as the fact they had the best, and deepest group of forwards in the NHL that could pounce on any chance the opposition gave them and bury it in the back of the net.

The results were there in the short-term, but it was never a long-term recipe for success. The goaltending was always the key because without that level of play in the early rounds from Fleury they probably don’t get out of the first or second round. Once that goaltending performance dropped off a little, the flaws on defense were going to be exposed.

A lot of those flaws on defense still showed up through the first two games (even with the return of Letang) and the goaltending has not been able to bail them out so far.

Murray hasn’t quite gotten to his game yet, while new backup Antti Niemi fell on his face (literally and figuratively) in his debut with the team.

The question is whether or not they can remedy those flaws with the current roster.

The offseason saw the team lose forwards Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz, while Patric Hornqvist has yet to play due to an injury. Losing Bonino and Cullen was a pretty big blow to their center depth (that they still have not really replaced) and with Hornqvist out of the lineup they are basically skating a couple of fourth lines when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are not on the ice and the defense still has its share of question marks, with the only change coming in the form of swapping out Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey for Matt Hunwick.

They are still likely to swing a trade at some point to improve that center depth, and it seems logical to think that prized prospect Daniel Sprong might get the Jake Guentzel treatment this season and be a mid-season call-up after getting his feet wet in the American Hockey League.

That, along with the return of Hornqvist will certainly help fix those problems up front.

The problems on the back-end, however, might be a little more difficult to fix. Letang, when healthy, is a superstar and Justin Schultz has become the player everyone thought he could be in Edmonton. But beyond that it is still a group that has some question marks. It’s been said about that group a lot over the past two years, and they’ve always found a way to overcome it and succeed, but the roster around them does not seem to be quite as strong on paper at the moment.

Offseason changes to Capitals, Penguins could make the East wide open

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A handful of Pittsburgh Penguins players whose names are on the Stanley Cup, some of them twice or even three times, are gone.

The same goes for core players from the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals.

The goliaths of the East haven’t fallen apart, but maybe they’ve lost just enough to make the conference winnable for just about anyone. Pittsburgh no longer has forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen, defensemen Trevor Daley or goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Washington couldn’t afford to keep Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk.

The Penguins and Capitals are still favored to finish 1-2 in the brutal Metropolitan Division, but improvements made by the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and a return to health for members of the Tampa Bay Lightning have cracked the Eastern Conference wide open.

“The competition level is as high as ever,” Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “There’s a lot of teams that have a chance to win the Cup. Making the playoffs, it’s very tough nowadays. I think we’re not the only team when we always say, `We want to make the playoffs and then we’ll see what happens’ because you just want to make the playoffs and then anything can happen. There’s no real favorites.”

Pittsburgh is still the betting favorite, and if Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co. make it happen they’d become the first NHL team with three consecutive titles since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty. Then again, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is healthy after a knee injury ended his 2016-17 season, the Hurricanes got a top goaltender in Scott Darling and the Toronto Maple Leafs are only expected to get better now that Auston Matthews and the kids have some playoff experience.

“Toronto obviously made a big step forward, Columbus is a team that has tremendous upside, made a big move this summer, and then you look at a team like Carolina who’s going to be knocking on the door in the next few years,” said Shattenkirk, who signed with the revamped Rangers.

In a league with considerable playoff turnover from year to year, there’s no rest for the eight teams that made it last year: the Penguins, Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Bruins and Maple Leafs. But Fleury, now the starter for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, believes his old team has a chance to three-peat, and Alex Ovechkin said the Capitals will be good.

“Our goal is still to go out there and be the best team in the regular season and be the best team in the postseason,” Washington winger T.J. Oshie said. “It’s not a very far-fetched goal.”

Some things to watch in the Eastern Conference this season:

YOUTH IS SERVED

Matthews is only 20, but now there’s a whole new crop of potential teenage stars, including the New Jersey Devils’ No. 1 pick , Nico Hischier, and the Philadelphia Flyers’ No. 2 pick, Nolan Patrick. The Swiss-born Hischier turned heads with some big-time plays in the preseason and in the process ratcheted up expectations.

PRICE IS RIGHT

The Canadiens lost defenseman Andrei Markov and winger Alexander Radulov and traded their top defensive prospect for forward Jonathan Drouin. Montreal probably should make the playoffs despite all the changes because of goaltender Carey Price, who won the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2014-15 and missed most of the 2015-16 season with a knee injury.

“He is the best goalie in the NHL,” Drouin said. “He’s proved it for a lot of years now.”

Price has some competition in Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington’s Braden Holtby, the past two Vezina winners. The play of those three and Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray will likely determine the order of finish in the East.

C’MON, CROSBY

After leading the league with 44 goals in the regular season and the playoffs with 27 assists, there’s no doubting Crosby has another MVP season in him. Teammates and opponents always expect him to sharpen another skill, though he could just keep scoring goals better than anyone else.

“He was always, I think, a passer a little more – always looking for other guys,” Fleury said. “But he doesn’t have a crazy hard shot. It’s just how quick the release is. He’s skating, he’s looking around and the shot comes (from) any angle. His backhand is good too, probably as hard as anybody.”

BRIGHT LIGHTS ON BIG CITY

The Rangers added Shattenkirk, re-signed Brendan Smith and traded Derek Stepan to retool while goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is still in his prime. Across town, the Islanders are hoping to re-sign captain John Tavares before he can become a free agent next summer New York is where it’s at, and there’s no shortage of drama.

SUNRISE REDUX

Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has gone to great lengths to undo some of the moves made in the summer of 2016 when he was shifted out of a position of power. Defenseman Jason Demers and forward Reilly Smith are gone, Bob Boughner is the new coach and big things are expected in South Florida.

“We’ve got to go in one direction and never look back,” winger Jonathan Huberdeau said. “That’s what we want to do, and Dale Tallon knows that. We want to build something with Bob and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”