Matt Hunwick

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Penguins’ defense is hurting heading into a scary stretch

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Of all the storylines that surrounded the Pittsburgh Penguins repeating as champions last season, it might have been lost on most just how resurgent Justin Schultz has been since joining Pittsburgh.

It’s easy to forget that he was a legit reclamation project when the Penguins picked him up in a low-risk trade. The returns were nice almost from the get-go, but even then, consider this: Schultz generated an impressive 51 points in 2016-17.

For some perspective, that tied Torey Krug for the seventh-best output among NHL defensemen, and he was right up there with every blueliner outside of the Norris Trophy finalists, a group of guys who may secretly be aliens in Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, and Victor Hedman.

(Those three are almost suspiciously good. Just saying, gang.)

Anyway, with all the justifiable “Penguins won a Cup even with Kris Letang out” comments, it was often lost just how big a role Schultz played, not to mention that such a group was pretty beaten-down even among guys who managed to suit up.

So, the good news is that the Penguins have grown accustomed to dealing with injuries. It’s been something they’ve had to roll with well before Mike Sullivan let them unleash their speed and skill in delightful ways.

On the other hand, this season will provide a real test of the effects of attrition; just because you pushed that boulder up the hill many times doesn’t mean you’ll do it every time.

Schultz was placed on IR today due to a concussion, and with Matt Hunwick also day-to-day, this group is looking a little thin on the blueline. As refreshing as it is to see former Toronto Maple Leafs fans debate topic Frank Corrado back in the NHL, the Penguins would likely not prefer this route. It’s probably worth noting that guys like Ian Cole might be feeling a little extra sore, too.

Speaking of routes, the Penguins must brave a threatening set of pot holes starting this weekend. Take a gander at a foreboding schedule that might make them miss supporting cast characters such as Schultz:

Thu, Oct 26 vs Winnipeg
Sat, Oct 28 @ Minnesota
Sun, Oct 29 @ Winnipeg
Wed, Nov 1 @ Edmonton
Thu, Nov 2 @ Calgary
Sat, Nov 4 @ Vancouver
Tue, Nov 7 vs Arizona
Fri, Nov 10 @ Washington
Sat, Nov 11 @ Nashville

So, the Penguins begin at home tonight, but the Jets aren’t exactly the squad you’d pencil in an automatic W against. (Aside: you never know when offenses will go cold for a night, but on paper that seems as fun to watch as it will be threatening for both defenses, eh?)

As you can see, the weekend begins a run where they’ll face five road games in a row and seven of eight away from home. There’s at least a break between this weekend’s back-to-back and the following three-game set, but that’s still three back-to-backs between today and Nov. 11. That last back-to-back also features the teams that are licking their chops the most for revenge against the Penguins in the Capitals and Predators.

They probably won’t take it easy on that road-weary crew, then.

Now, this isn’t to say that the 6-3-1 defending champs are just going to crater. Still, this might be one of those times where they wobble a bit (picture them suffering in the winter like those surreal moments in “March of the Penguins”), so Penguins fans shouldn’t get too upset if there’s a lull in the making.

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.

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.

Penguins, Rangers, Capitals headline PHT’s mighty Metro Division preview

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The Metropolitan Division hasn’t just produced the last two Stanley Cup winners (Pittsburgh Penguins) and last two Presidents’ Trophy winners (Washington Capitals).

It’s also a division that runs deep. The Columbus Blue Jackets took the league by storm in 2016-17, and while Sergei Bobrovsky might not be sensational again, many still believe they’re legit. The New York Rangers and New York Islanders still boast significant strengths, while the Carolina Hurricanes are dark horse candidates once more.

Even the New Jersey Devils keep adding promising talent.

Let’s preview what might once again be the best division in the NHL.

Also, check out these other previews: Atlantic Division, Central Division, PHT’s picks and predictions.

Carolina Hurricanes

Poll/looking to make the leap

Columbus Blue Jackets

Poll/looking to make the leap

New Jersey Devils

Poll/looking to make the leap

New York Islanders

Poll/looking to make the leap

New York Rangers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Philadelphia Flyers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Pittsburgh Penguins

Poll/looking to make the leap

Something noteworthy from today:

Washington Capitals

Poll/looking to make the leap

Catch up on Bruins, Sabres, Red Wings, more (PHT’s Atlantic Division preview)

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Between August’s “Team of the Day” series and all the other articles that gets published, Pro Hockey Talk generates a ton of material to get you hyped for the 2017-18 season.

With that in mind, it’s understandable if you missed some great stuff. While these collections aren’t comprehensive, consider these divisional previews to be a good way to get hyped for the rapidly approaching season.

For the PHT’s staff picks, click here.

Boston Bruins

Poll/looking to make the leap/

In more immediate Bruins news, Bergeron and Backes seem a little banged-up.

Buffalo Sabres

Poll/looking to make the leap

Detroit Red Wings

Poll/looking to make the leap/

Florida Panthers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Montreal Canadiens

Poll/looking to make the leap

In more immediate news, the Habs made a minor trade.

… And another one:

Ottawa Senators

Poll/looking to make the leap

Tampa Bay Lightning

Poll/looking to make the leap

Toronto Maple Leafs

Poll/looking to make the leap

Stanley Cup odds: Penguins open training camp as favorites to win again

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With NHL training camps opening this week the folks at Bovada released their latest Stanley Cup odds for the 2017-18 season, and the Pittsburgh Penguins open up as the odds on favorites (7/1) to win the Stanley Cup for the third consecutive year.

No team has won three Stanley Cups in a row since the early 1980s New York Islanders.

The Penguins underwent a lot of changes this offseason, losing Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey off of their roster while, to this point, only adding Matt Hunwick, Ryan Reaves and Antti Niemi. They still have pretty big openings at their third-and fourth-line center spots. But they are still returning a great team overall and will be getting a healthy Kris Letang back after he missed the second half of the 2016-17 season and all of the Penguins’ Stanley Cup playoff run, as well as a full season from playoff standout Jake Guentzel.

Just behind the Penguins are the Edmonton Oilers who open as 9/1 favorites to win, the Chicago Blackhawks at 12/1, the Dallas Stars at 12/1 and the Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals all at 14/1.

It’s a little surprising to see the Blackhawks so high given their questionable depth and the fact they haven’t been out of the first round of the playoffs in back-to-back years. The Dallas Stars are once again hyped up following a busy offseason full of blockbuster moves but it remains to be seen if this will be the year their performance on the ice matches the preseason hype.

The Detroit Red Wings, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Las Vegas Golden Knights, New Jersey Devils and Vancouver Canucks all open up with the worst odds at 100/1.

Here are the complete odds, via Bovada.

Pittsburgh Penguins —  7/1
Edmonton Oilers — 9/1
Chicago Blackhawks — 12/1
Dallas Stars — 12/1
Anaheim Ducks — 14/1
Nashville Predators — 14/1
Tampa Bay Lightning — 14/1
Toronto Maple Leafs — 14/1
Washington Capitals — 14/1
Minnesota Wild — 18/1
New York Rangers — 18/1
Columbus Blue Jackets — 20/1
Montreal Canadiens — 20/1
Los Angeles Kings — 22/1
Boston Bruins — 25/1
Calgary Flames — 25/1
San Jose Sharks — 25/1
St. Louis Blues — 28/1
Florida Panthers — 40/1
Ottawa Senators — 40/1
New York Islanders — 50/1
Philadelphia Flyers — 50/1
Winnipeg Jets — 50/1
Buffalo Sabres — 66/1
Carolina Hurricanes — 66/1
Detroit Red Wings — 100/1
Arizona Coyotes — 100/1
Colorado Avalanche — 100/1
Las Vegas Golden Knights — 100/1
New Jersey Devils — 100/1
Vancouver Canucks — 100/1