Kris Letang

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Penguins (seemingly?) dodge bullet with Crosby, edge Islanders

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When it comes to possible concussions and/or head injuries, it’s wise to use caveats.

Sidney Crosby* stands as one of the prime examples for why we say “Player X seems OK … for now.” Many of us hold sad memories of his early concussion issues, as Crosby suffered from a David Steckel hit, only to see things worsen after a collision with Victor Hedman.

So, in cases like Thursday, you have to be careful not to assume too much about Crosby being OK. But at this moment, it seems like this accidental-looking collision with Jordan Eberle won’t have longer-reaching ramifications:

The GIF Sportsnet shared really captured the moment, and might serve as food for thought for the Penguins to at least take another look at their crucial captain.

Either way, Crosby kept playing for the Penguins on Thursday, managing an assist on a laser of a Phil Kessel goal. Pittsburgh couldn’t contain Mathew Barzal and the Islanders in every instance, however, as the Isles forced overtime despite being down 3-1 in the third.

Matt Hunwick ended up scoring the overtime-clincher for his third goal of the season, however, and now the Penguins and Islanders seem to be on different streaks.

The Penguins have won three of four in December and five of their last six stretching back to Nov. 25. The Islanders closed out November with five straight wins, but December hasn’t been as kind so far, as they’ve dropped three of four.

It’s nothing for Islanders fans to be alarmed about, really, as they near a home-heavy stretch once they close out this four-game road trip in Boston on Saturday.

Penguins fans have to hope there’s nothing to be alarmed about with Crosby, either, as otherwise this team is really starting to gather steam.

* – Actually, the Penguins can relate to this beyond number 87. There was a memorable game in which Kris Letang was injured against the Canadiens, came back to score the OT-GWG, then missed time for what looked like a concussion. These things are tricky, in other words.

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.

Are Penguins wise in reportedly trying to trade Ian Cole?

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Beyond an increase in penalty calls, you might chalk up some of the climbing scoring stats in the NHL to teams observing the Pittsburgh Penguins’ formula for success.

Granted, a huge part of it is “employ Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.” Even so, the Penguins were struggling at times before Mike Sullivan took over as head coach and, essentially, decided to throw caution to the wind.

Long story short, the argument goes that the Penguins decided to “outscore their problems,” with said problems being placed mostly on the shoulders of their defensemen. As you’ve likely heard hundreds of times by now, their second run came with no Kris Letang during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Still, you do need some capable defensemen, and the Penguins surely can’t feel too cocky right now, what with a -17 goal differential heading into Monday’s action. Despite such worries, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey provides an intriguing update: blueliner Ian Cole has been a regular healthy scratch, in part, because the Penguins are actively trying to trade him.

Mackey provides some more background on the situation, noting that it’s unclear if a trade is imminent:

It does not appear the desire to trade Cole has anything to do with his play. It’s more a function of him being an attractive option to other teams, and, according to a source, interest in him has already been several teams deep.

Note: The report has been backed up by multiple reporters after Mackey first broke the news.

One key element is that Cole, 28, will see his $2.1 million cap hit expire after 2017-18. Like virtually every other regular contender during the era of the salary cap, the Penguins often need to let valuable supporting cast members leave, and it sounds like Cole would leave their price range. Mackey reports that the Penguins want to get something for him now rather than allowing him to leave for nothing via unrestricted free agency.

Mackey believes that Pittsburgh seeks a scoring boost, and considering how defensemen are held at a premium in the NHL, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a depth piece.

A solid piece amid a struggling group

That said, allow me to wonder if this is really the best idea for the Penguins.

As defending repeat champions, the Penguins shouldn’t be shy about leaning a bit more toward the present than the future, although it still must be a balancing act. By just about any measure, Cole has been a valuable piece for a defense corps that doesn’t look positioned to handle the loss of helpful pieces.

Cole is an experienced defenseman who grades out as a second-pairing guy, as you can see from his HERO chart, via Dom Galimini:

via Dom Galimini

Really, the Penguins might be better off looking for cheaper ways to improve their scoring depth.

Keeping the window open

When they made a move to acquire Riley Sheahan, they gave up a pick, and that might be the best course of action. The trade deadline would be an obvious time to do this, yet if the Penguins want to be more proactive, they could probably land something earlier as well. Beyond that, it never hurts to keep an eye on the waiver wire.

Look, no GM wants to see a useful player leave without any sort of return, but you can also sacrifice a viable option at the altar of “cost certainty.” The Blackhawks were worried about eventually losing Niklas Hjalmarsson, but Stan Bowman probably wishes he actually procrastinated rather than settling for a middling defenseman in Connor Murphy.

Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel are all 30. Evgeni Malkin is 31. Sports teams sometimes see their windows slam shut with cruel speed, so the Penguins would be wise to think long and hard about how moving Cole for something might hurt their chances this season.

This isn’t to say that Cole is a make-or-break player, but you never know how many pieces you can remove from the puzzle before the Jenga tower collapses.

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.

The Buzzer: Brawls, Larkin’s hockey genius

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Player of the Night: Artem Anisimov

As you can read about here, Artem Anisimov enjoyed the best night of a hectic game between the Blackhawks and Rangers, generating the first hat trick of his career. That contest presented some twists and turns, with Chicago ultimately coming out on top 6-3.

Anisimov and Alex DeBrincat have been providing a big chunk of the Blackhawks’ offense lately, and its been much needed. Even while taking a lull of three games without a point in mind, the 29-year-old has eight goals and one assist in his past nine contests.

Highlights of the Night: On a Larkin

That wild line brawl between the Flames and Red Wings didn’t just take some spotlight from Detroit’s 8-2 win; it also might have distracted people from an impressive night via Dylan Larkin, a player who clearly seems to be back on track for a Red Wings team that could be feistier than many expected.

The top highlight features Larkin’s remarkable sense of timing and hockey geometry. (Was he good at geometry at school? If so, I’m jealous.)

The second reminded me of some early moments in Sidney Crosby‘s career, as Larkin used his skating ability and smarts to turn on the jets, only to make a sudden stop, assess the situation, and create a splendid play.

Some nights, Larkin is skylarking like vintage XTC. If you’re interested in violence, the real highlight of the game really was that brawl, though. If so, head here.

(Note: Johnny Gaudreau is on a hot streak of his own, albeit without the W-related results he wanted tonight.)

Caveats of the Night: The Ducks deserve a heap of credit for sticking with it, even as injuries seem to keep mounting. Or at least, might continue to mount.

Wildly underrated defenseman Hampus Lindholm is now dealing with a lower-body injury, while Corey Perry seemingly bounced back from this:

I say seemingly because, sometimes a player will return to a game in the heat of the moment. Then, when they wake up in the morning and/or have a doctor look at an injury, they realize something’s wrong and miss time. Kris Letang scored a game-winner injured, Paul Kariya famously bounced back from the Scott Stevens hit he can’t even remember, and so on. So we’ll see.

For a Ducks team that is besieged by injuries, so this is troubling.

The Ducks keep scrapping and, in this case, winning, though.

Factoid of the Night: The Mike Green resurgence: still pretty delightful.

Not enough is being made about John Gibson‘s continued climb up the goalie ranks. Where would Anaheim be without him (spoiler: probably the cellar):

Scores and more

Red Wings 8, Flames 2

Blackhawks 6, Rangers 3

Ducks 4, Bruins 2

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.

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.

Canucks’ kids smoke Crosby, Letang, Penguins

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With nine points in nine games so far this season, 20-year-old Vancouver Canucks forward Brock Boeser couldn’t keep this up.

It turns out he decided to pick up that pace at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ expense. Boeser generated a hat trick and an assist in the Canucks’ 4-2 win, and he actually probably robbed himself of a fourth goal when he selflessly tried to set someone else up for an empty-netter.

Boeser isn’t the only member of the Canucks’ kids line (does it have an agreed-upon nickname yet?) who stood out on Saturday. Bo Horvat, the more established member, scored a goal and three assists. While Horvat is 22, Sven Baertschi is the grumpy old man of the trio at 25. Baertschi collected a trio of helpers himself.

So, Boeser is now at 13 points, Horvat has 11, and Baertschi also has 11 over 10 games. They were involved in all four of Vancouver’s goals tonight. They’re a huge part of the Canucks improving to 7-4-2, while Jacob Markstrom helped to curb the Penguins’ push to get back into the game.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this dominant performance was that it came against stars like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang:

This continues a passing of the torch in Vancouver, as consider this: Daniel and Henrik Sedin received less than 10 minutes of ice time apiece on Saturday. This was all-youth, and a brave decision by head coach Travis Green, who seems to be accelerating the Canucks’ ascent toward credibility.

Now at 8-6-2, you could see Crosby’s frustration, and not just due to a missed call late in the game. The Penguins mercifully end a five-game road trip with a 1-3-1 record.

Speaking of being on the road a lot, the Canucks will face a serious test this month. Vancouver will deal with 10 of its next 14 games away from home:

Mon, Nov 6 vs Detroit
Tue, Nov 7 @ Calgary
Thu, Nov 9 @ Anaheim
Sat, Nov 11 @ San Jose
Tue, Nov 14 @ Los Angeles
Thu, Nov 16 vs Vegas
Sat, Nov 18 vs St. Louis
Tue, Nov 21 @ Philadelphia
Wed, Nov 22 @ Pittsburgh
Fri, Nov 24 @ New Jersey
Sun, Nov 26 @ NY Rangers
Tue, Nov 28 @ NY Islanders
Thu, Nov 30 @ Nashville

The Canucks are off to a shockingly solid start, but we’ll get an even better idea of this team through that run.

Nights like these might be frustrating for the Penguins and a beautiful one for the Canucks, particularly their rising top trio of forwards. Time will tell if Vancouver can keep it going and if Pittsburgh can shrug off these early peaks and valleys.

Besides, it’s a long season, so Penguins fans should enjoy some comic relief:

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.