Riley Sheahan

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NHL’s Thanksgiving playoffs rule unlikely to fit this season

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Erik Gudbranson looks at the standings almost every day.

Sure, it’s only November, but it’s never too early to start thinking about the playoffs and see which teams are atop the division standings.

”Every single point matters,” the Vancouver Canucks defenseman said. ”You want to stay with that group.”

For more than a decade, the status of that group at Thanksgiving has been a significant indicator of who gets to keep playing beyond mid-April. Since the salary-cap era began in 2005-06, 78.4 percent of teams in playoff position by the fourth Thursday in November have made it. It’s so notable that it is considered the NHL’s unofficial Thanksgiving rule.

In most years, the picture solidifies in mid-November and an average of 12-13 playoff teams are all but set by Thanksgiving.

Not so much this season, where there are 12 teams separated by eight points in the Eastern Conference and 12 teams separated by five points in the West, making the races too close to call at Thanksgiving.

”With the parity that’s in the league nowadays, I don’t know if that rule really applies anymore,” Calgary Flames winger Troy Brouwer said. ”Usually at some point a few teams break away from the pack and the rest of them, because of the three-point games and everybody’s playing so many divisional games, you never really gain a ton of ground on a team or lose a ton of ground on a team unless you’re continuously losing divisional games.”

Led by Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, the Tampa Bay Lightning are far away the best in the East, while the duo of Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schennhas the St. Louis Blues atop the West. The Toronto Maple Leafs are talented and the Los Angeles Kings are off to a great start, but there aren’t too many teams at the quarter mark that can feel too confident about making the playoffs.

”It’s pretty well a .500 league right now,” Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. ”The teams that have a little more depth like Tampa, who is in a good window, and St. Louis and probably L.A. … they’re the only ones that have really pulled away from anybody. The rest of us are right all there.”

A relatively flat salary cap over the past few seasons and the expansion draft that filled the Vegas Golden Knights with the best roster for a first-year franchise in history have served to level the talent discrepancy around hockey.

”There’s not much separation between teams,” Pittsburgh Penguins center Riley Sheahan said. ”The salary cap makes it a tough league to play in.”

But this isn’t just about the cap, which has been around 13 seasons. A lot of inter-conference play early is one theory for so many teams being packed together.

”We haven’t even started playing in conference, in division games,” winger Wayne Simmonds said after he and the Philadelphia Flyers played 17 of their first 22 games against the West. ”I think that’s where things will start to separate. When everyone’s playing the Western Conference or maybe different divisions, the separation you don’t see as much.”

It’s going to be tough going for last-place Buffalo and Arizona to make the playoffs and an uphill climb for should’ve-been contenders Montreal and Edmonton. The Thanksgiving rule may be moot for this year, but a brutal start is tough to dig out from.

”You can’t make the playoffs in November, but you can knock yourself out,” veteran Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. ”It seems like even when you’re down four points at the end of the year, the games get so much tighter and there’s more three-point games, it seems like, toward the end of the year. Teams are playing a lot more defensive and safe. It seems like it’s easier to pile up points now than it is to try to catch up at the end.”

It’s not impossible, though, as the 2007-08 Capitals are one of 38 teams to get it done after looking like they’re cooked. They fired coach Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving Day, replaced him with Bruce Boudreau and went from 8-7-6 to a Southeast Division title.

Boudreau, whose Minnesota Wild are 13th in the West but just two points out of a playoff spot, doesn’t think much about the Thanksgiving rule.

”If you look at it as this is a truism and you’re not in at that time, you have a tendency to (think), ‘Aw man, we’re not going make it,’ and I don’t want anybody on our team thinking along those lines,” Boudreau said. ”But it’s going to be close.”

It’s so close that while Sheahan said you can ”start to drive yourself a little crazy” by focusing too much on stats and the schedule, there are no guarantees. Half the playoff teams turned over from 2015-16 to 2016-17, and of the 16 teams in position now, seven didn’t make it last spring and one didn’t even exist.

The standings are packed, so much that one victory or one loss can shuffle them like a deck of cards.

”It gives you that extra incentive to be ready every single night,” Gudbranson said. ”You have to be when you can gain one extra point and jump from 10th in the West to a solid wild-card spot – and vice-versa, it can go the other way.”

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.

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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Backup options limited for Penguins after waiving Antti Niemi

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Saturday’s 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning was the last straw for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their need for Antti Niemi as a backup goaltender.

On Monday, the 34-year-old Niemi was waived as general manager Jim Rutherford continues his search to give starter Matt Murray some help in goal. In three starts this season, Niemi has allowed 16 goals on 63 shots and has posted an ugly .828 even strength save percentage. (The only goaltender with a lower ESSV%? His old crease mate Kari Lehtonen, who has an .815 in two appearances.)

While Niemi was dealt a bit of a tough hand in his three starts — all coming on the second night of a back-to-back — those numbers are just plain obscene and a clear sign that the Penguins needed to move on. It’s unsure what the plan is when he clears waivers on Tuesday. Will the team look to terminate the one-year, $700,000 deal he signed in the summer, or will they, as head coach Mike Sullivan mentioned, allow him to use the AHL as a place to find his game?

“That would be a great option, to give him an opportunity to get in some ideal circumstances and give him an opportunity to build his confidence in an environment that’s not as high stakes as the one we’re in here,” Sullivan said on Monday.

When Rutherford signed Niemi in the summer, he said the plan was to give him between 30 and 40 games this season, allowing Murray to not be overworked before the Stanley Cup Playoffs and give Tristan Jarry or Casey DeSmith continued development at their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.

The short-term option here is calling up one of the two kids, but if Niemi clears and they want to rehabilitate him, that’s time taken away from giving Jarry or DeSmith much-needed minutes. DeSmith has shined in three starts this year, winning all three games and only allowing three goals in 184:14 minutes played. It’s not ideal, but unless Rutherford can swing another deal to fill another void in the lineup — like he did on Saturday to get Riley Sheahan as the team’s new No. 3 center — the search could take a while.

The free agent market isn’t flowing with options and teams like Arizona, Boston and Vegas having goaltending issues, it won’t be easy to find someone.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.