Jake Guentzel

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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.

Mr. 300: Kessel’s milestone goal leads Penguins over Jets

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Phil Kessel‘s 300th career goal at 1:07 of overtime lifted the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 2-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night.

Kessel, who also scored the overtime winner against Edmonton on Tuesday, became the 18th American-born player to reach 300 career goals and the second active behind Minnesota’s Zach Parise.

Kessel stripped Patrik Laine of the puck at his own blue line and went the other way on a breakaway. Kessel, with nine points in his last seven games, snapped a wrist shot between the pads of Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck for the winner.

Conor Sheary scored his fifth for the Penguins, who won for the fifth time in six games. Pittsburgh has won seven of nine since losing the first two games of the season.

Read more: Penguins defense is hurting heading into scary stretch

Pittsburgh also won its 17th straight home game against the Jets dating back to March 24, 2007. Overall, Pittsburgh won 17 of the last 20 meetings against the Jets, who last won in Pittsburgh, Dec. 27, 2006, when they were the Atlanta Thrashers.

Matt Murray won his seventh straight since allowing 11 goals on 65 shots in his first two appearances. Murray, who stopped 30 shots, helped Pittsburgh earn points in all eight starts this season.

Josh Morrissey scored his second for the Jets, who had won four of their previous five after being outscored 13-5 in the first two games of the season against Toronto and Calgary.

Hellebuyck, who made 34 saves, saw his four-game win streak end. He was seeking a personal best five-game streak and the team record for the longest win streak by a goaltender to begin the season.

Sheary opened the scoring 1:25 into the game when he re-directed Jake Guentzel‘s pass between Hellebuyck’s pads.

Morrissey tied it later in the period when his shot from the point caught the stick of Penguins’ D Kris Letang and went past Murray’s glove hand.

Murray kept the game tied entering the third period, first with a sharp blocker save on Nikolaj Ehlers before back-to-back stops on Tyler Myers and Laine. He stopped Myers on a breakaway and Laine during a two-on-one with Ehlers.

Laine tried again with a wrist shot 30 seconds into the third period, but Murray made the save and a follow-up pad stop on Kyle Connor.

 

Draisaitl’s return adds spice to Crosby vs. McDavid

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Anytime you get the chance to see Connor McDavid vs. Sidney Crosby, you’re already in for the treat. It sure looks like tonight’s Edmonton Oilers – Pittsburgh Penguins matchup will actually be McDavid and Leon Draisaitl vs. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

(You know, if you think of everything in terms of “NBA Jam,” which isn’t the worst way to view the world, really.)

Earlier today, Oilers head coach Todd McLellan said that Draisaitl and Drake Caggiula would play pending medical clearance. Sportsnet’s John Shannon just recently reported that both forwards have been officially cleared.

Now, you can already chalk up some of the 2-5-0 Edmonton Oilers’ offensive struggles to simple, bad luck. The Oilers are a top possession team but only the Montreal Canadiens have a lower team shooting percentage so far in 2017-18, according to Natural Stat Trick’s numbers.

Even if Draisaitl experiences an unexpected hiccup, the Oilers’ scoring numbers should go up simply by continuing to play and letting time even things out. That said, these projected lines from Daily Faceoff sure seem a lot more pleasing to the eye, don’t they?

The return of the $8.5M soon-to-be-22-year-old will probably reignite the debate that could follow the Oilers for some time: do you put Draisaitl with McDavid for a high-powered top line, or do you emulate the Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks by asking big-money forwards to carry their own partners?

Interestingly, the one positive side effect of Draisaitl being sidelined with vision issues and/or concussion symptoms is that the Oilers might have found the Jake Guentzel to their Sidney Crosby during Kailer Yamamoto’s audition with McDavid.

Yamamoto looks to be a first-round steal, as his creativity and skill seems to mesh reasonably well with McDavid, while Patrick Maroon brings the beef. On paper, Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins could provide matchup nightmares on other lines.

MORE: Penguins see changes in trading for Riley Sheahan, parting ways with Antti Niemi.

Granted, McLellan might just want to ease Draisaitl back into the lineup early on before going with something approaching a more permanent choice.

(At least as permanent as anything can be in the NHL, where injuries and streaks prompt all but the most rigid coaches to do at least some juggling of line combos.)

McDavid vs. Crosby would be must-watch even if they were surrounded by Brooklyn Brawler-level talents, but the likely return of Draisaitl only adds to the intrigue. Get your popcorn ready, hockey fans.

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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Is there a trade to be made between the Penguins and Canadiens?

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On Thursday night, TSN hockey insider Darren Dreger reported that the Pittsburgh Penguins may have some interest in Montreal Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk.

The Penguins have been looking for another center since the departure of Nick Bonino in free agency this summer, so them being interested in him makes sense.

“There’s been some speculation as to who might be available as to players who aren’t and Matt Duchene probably isn’t a great fit financially for the Pittsburgh Penguins,” Dreger said during the Insider Trading segment. “But Alex Galchenyuk from the Montreal Canadiens, his name has surfaced. We shouldn’t be overly surprised by that, again given the fact that more often than not Galchenyuk seems to be in the doghouse there and given the play of the Montreal Canadiens as of late, perhaps there’s a fit there that could make some sense.”

Galchenyuk has been as enigmatic of a player as we’ve seen in the NHL over the last few seasons. Two years ago, he scored 30 goals for Montreal. Last season, he was top 10 in league scoring when he suffered a knee injury in Los Angeles. When he returned to the lineup, he clearly wasn’t the same player.

Things haven’t been rosy under head coach Claude Julien, either. During lasts year’s playoffs,  The 23-year-old found himself as the fourth line left winger. He finished the postseason with three assists in six games.

To say that Galchenyuk’s been in the dog house under Julien would be an understatement (most of the time, he fully deserves to be there).

It hasn’t gotten much better this year. After a slow start, he found himself back on the fourth line. But with the Canadiens struggling out of the gate, Julien decided to put Galchenyuk, Max Pacioretty and Jonathan Drouin together against the Kings on Wednesday night. The line didn’t produce any offense, but Galchenyuk seemed to be a little more engaged than he had been in previous games.

As inconsistent as he’s been, there’s no denying that he’s a rare talent. When he’s playing well, you’ll notice his vision, quick hands and his quick release. He’ll never be an excellent two-way player, but other teams may be willing to put up with his defensive shortcomings more than Montreal has been willing to.

So, what does Pittsburgh have that Montreal could use?

Realistically, we know that the Penguins have a bunch of untouchables (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Matt Murray aren’t going anywhere). They still have other pieces that could be used to get Galchenyuk out of Montreal.

First, the Canadiens would either have to hold on to some of his $4.9 million cap hit, or they’d need to take salary back because Pittsburgh only has $2 million in cap space.

Secondly, Montreal could use a puck-moving defenseman and/or more offense. Would the Pens be willing to sacrifice a blue liner like Olli Maatta to add another center? That’s what it might take to get a deal done.

But again, Montreal isn’t exactly loaded with offensive talent. Can they really trade one of their best offensive weapons without getting a forward back? GM Marc Bergevin is in a tough spot (mainly because he put himself there).

Would Pens GM Jim Rutherford be willing to make Jake Guentzel available, too? He’s been solid for the Pens and his entry-level contract comes with a cap hit of just $734, 167, which makes him even more valuable to the defending Stanley Cup champions.

It’ll be interesting to see how this all unfolds. The longer Montreal’s struggles last, the more likely they are to want to shake things up.

Galchenyuk has his issues, but he seems like the perfect buy-low candidate right now.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Kucherov’s star continues to rise, Stamkos sharp as Lightning best Penguins

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Look, it’s early in the season, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were closing off a tough back-to-back set after beating the Washington Capitals last night.

It’s dangerous, then, to draw too many broad conclusions from the Tampa Bay Lightning beating the Penguins 5-4 on Thursday.

Certain thoughts feel safe enough to at least express, though, so let’s throw one out: if Nikita KucherovSteven StamkosVladislav Namestnikov isn’t the best line in the NHL during this early season, it’s awfully close.*

For the Lightning, seeing a keyed-in Stamkos is enough after their captain’s 2016-17 season was derailed by another baffling run of bad injury luck. Stamkos scored his first goal in some time after testing Antti Niemi frequently:

The scary thing for the Lightning’s opponents is that Kucherov, 24, sure seems like the most brilliant star on that line. At least on many nights.

One can only wonder what kind of money Kucherov will receive after his sub-$4.8 million cap hit expires at the end of the 2018-19 season. He scored a goal and an assist in this win, and while he hasn’t been as flashy as the Ovechkins of the world, his relentless production is something to behold. Kucherov has a goal and an assist in three straight games after totally slacking to start the season with a mere goal.

The slick Russian winger also is firing away with a healthy 15 shots on goal in his first four contests.

To an extent, other Lightning players stole some of the thunder on Thursday. Slater Koekkoek scored the first two goals of his NHL career. Alex Killorn generated a career-high four assists.

Supporting cast members will need to come through for the Lightning to win big; they merely need to note that the repeat champs they beat tonight enjoyed big contributions from Jake Guentzel, not just the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Still, those stars do often drive the bus, and Stamkos – Kucherov looks like it could be one of the league’s dynamic duos if this first week is any indication.

Such observations aren’t anything to complain about, right?

* – Tough to argue with Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovJakub Vrana, agreed.

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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