Ryan Reaves

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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.

Video: This Ryan Reaves prank scared the you-know-what out of Phil Kessel

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If he wasn’t before, Phil Kessel may now have a fear of clowns after a frighteningly funny prank courtesy teammate Ryan Reaves.

Reaves posted the video to his personal Twitter account on Friday, one day before the Penguins take on the Wild to start a five-game road trip.

We’ve seen over the years pranks between teammates while on the road. But this . . . I mean, the look on Kessel’s face as he opened the door to the hotel room . . .

The Penguins acquired Reaves from the St. Louis Blues ahead of the 2017 NHL Draft. Known for his size and toughness, he has appeared in 11 games for his new team, scoring once with two points and 47 penalty minutes.

It certainly didn’t take long for him to become a fan favourite in Pittsburgh, but this prank may take that popularity to new heights.

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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.

It took Ryan Reaves three games to become a fan favorite in Pittsburgh

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Ryan Reaves at the NHL draft general manager Jim Rutherford basically said that he was tired of seeing his team get pushed around every night.

That comment — and the trade itself — came just a few weeks after he was highly critical of the league’s treatment of star players by saying this to Ken Campbell of the Hockey News.

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play. ‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Translation: If the league won’t protect our guys, we will find somebody to do it for us.

Enter Reaves, one of the biggest, strongest, and most physical players in the NHL.

On Saturday night, just his third game with his new team, he instantly became one of the most popular players in the city by getting into two fights, scoring a goal, trash talking the Predators bench, being named the game’s No. 1 star, and then conducting his post-game locker room interview while wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet. During the game, a 4-0 Penguins win in a Stanley Cup Final rematch with the Nashville Predators, his name echoed throughout PPG Paints Arena after each of his fights and after a late-game dust up with long-time Penguins nemesis Scott Hartnell.

If he puts Brandon Dubinsky in a headlock the next time the Penguins play Columbus they might already have the statue in the place.

Overall, the game was a case study in what a player like Reaves can do.

And also what he can not prevent.

At the end of the night pretty much everybody saw what they wanted to see from the game.

If you’re a Penguins fan, Penguins management or most especially a Penguins player you saw retribution. You saw a player stand up for your stars and get a pound of flesh in return. It was a message, and it was probably satisfying, especially in a win.

But, on the other side of it, the only reason he had to distribute some retribution and get that pound of flesh in return is because chippy stuff was still happening on the ice to your star players.

If you belong to the school of thought that fighters don’t deter violence and cheap shots (the side I fall on) you still saw Sidney Crosby get punched in the head during a scrum. You still saw him take the butt-end of a stick to the face during a face-off. You still saw Evgeni Malkin get run behind the net and then later in the game get held down behind the play. You saw Hartnell high-stick Crosby while Reaves was skating on his wing, and after Reaves had previously attempted to draw Hartnell into a fight earlier in the game.

Those two fights — one with Cody McLeod and another with Austin Watson) and one attempted fight didn’t make anybody on Nashville think twice about doing anything.

There is an argument to be made all it did was make the game nastier (the aforementioned sh–show that Jim Rutherford talked about last postseason) than it otherwise would have been.

 

As Saturday night showed teams are still going to try to push the Penguins around if they want to. They are still going to have Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang in their crosshairs. That will never change and there isn’t a single player in the league that can make them stop.

The wild thing about Reaves’ game on Saturday is that he actually played a really good game. He only played seven minutes, but they were an effective seven minutes. When he wasn’t fighting, he was physical, but in a useful sense. He was aggressive on the forecheck, he skated well, and yes, he scored a goal, too. If he can provide something like that every single night he would absolutely be a useful fourth-line addition. But that doesn’t seem to be the expectation for him. That isn’t what anybody wants to see. They want to see the gloves off and skulls getting crushed whenever Sidney Crosby gets hit.

But there is a delicate balance between being the guy to stand up for your teammates and the guy that crosses the line and puts your team shorthanded because you’re trying for vigilante justice.

It did not hurt the Penguins on Saturday, and, admittedly, it all made for a pretty entertaining spectacle inside the building.

But there might come a time where it does hurt them because there is a fine line between standing up for yourself and letting things get out of control. (Remember, the Blues lost a playoff game last season in large part because Reaves took an extra penalty during a scrum, leading to a power play goal against in what would go on to be a one-goal loss).

One of the biggest flaws the Penguins had toward the tail end of the Dan Bylsma era was that they were too easy to rile up and they would become too preoccupied with getting even when somebody wronged them on the ice. They would become maniacs and lose sight of the task at hand (winning) because they had to respond physically. Remember that 2012 playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers? Total disaster.

Over the past two seasons they let that stuff go, not only because they didn’t have anyone on the team to answer it, but also just the overall mindset of the team.

Did that mean teams would push them around a bit? It sure did. But do you know what teams didn’t do? Beat them when it count.

Stanley Cup repeat, not revenge: Predators can’t solve Murray, Penguins

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Pittsburgh Penguins fans were riffing on the “We want the Cup” chant on Saturday, teasing the Nashville Predators with “We got the Cup.”

Perhaps “Can’t beat Matt” or “Murray’s in your head” would cut even deeper?

Carrying over dominance from the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, Matt Murray blanked the Predators as the Penguins won 4-0 in that championship rematch on Saturday. Murray shut out the Predators in Game 5 and 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, too, so this marks three goose eggs in a row for Nashville vs. the quick-learning Pens netminder.

The Penguins have outscored the Predators 12-0 in these past three games. Woof.

Here’s an exact update on that shutout streak:

For better or worse, the Predators get a chance to score a goal against the Penguins – and possibly Murray, depending – when they meet again in Nashville on Nov. 11.

To little surprise, the Predators showed frustration as the game boiled down, prompting Ryan Reaves – who actually scored against Nashville – to drop the gloves more than once. (More on Reaves Sunday.)

(While Reaves drew praise from Mike Sullivan on Saturday night, people note that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still received the sort of hard hits many would expect. Anyway, more on Reaves tomorrow.)

Ryan Johansen seems pretty chill about this loss, even as Nashville hasn’t generated a standings point in its first two games of 2017-18. Maybe it’s because he was sidelined during Murray’s first two shutouts against the Preds?

Well, what can you really say, right?

The not-so-good familiar part for the Penguins

As much as this was a great night for the Penguins, the “Groundhog Day” feel of history repeating itself had its negative aspects.

To be specific, the Penguins continue to deal with bad injury luck for their defensemen. It’s easy to think back as Kris Letang as the only loss during that last run, but others either missed time or were limited by ailments. Ian Cole was the latest to suffer a rough break, losing teeth thanks to a gruesome puck to the face:

The Penguins said he’s out indefinitely.

Penguins cut losses with Pouliot, trade him to Canucks

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If Derrick Pouliot is going to realize his potential as the eighth pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, he’s not going to do so as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins sent Pouliot, 23, to the Vancouver Canucks in a trade that netted them a 2018 fourth-round pick and defenseman Andrey Pedan on Tuesday.

Pouliot has appeared in 67 regular-season and two playoff games during his career with the Penguins; those two postseason contests came in 2015-16 while he played 11 games in 2016-17. He failed to generate a single point in those 11 games, while he twice managed seven points in other abbreviated stays at the NHL level.

If nothing else, his AHL production has been respectable, so the logic for the Canucks is simple enough. In a rebuild phase, they can allow him to marinate, and a fresh start. Many will still look at Pouliot as a “bust,” but it’s often easier for a struggling prospect to at least become an NHL contributor after a change of scenery. There’s also some familiarity here:

Pedan, 24, was the 63rd pick of the 2011 NHL Draft. He played in 13 games for the Canucks back in 2015-16, failing to register a point.

The Penguins’ blueline is crowded, so it’s difficult to imagine Pedan getting much more than a cup of coffee. Actually, considering his tendency to pile up penalty minutes, the anticipation of a rough, fight-filled game might get him in the lineup here and there.

(Ryan Reaves can’t fight everyone for the Penguins, after all.)

Ultimately, this seems like the Penguins washing their hands of Pouliot. The Canucks have little to lose in seeing if the once-promising defenseman can get his career back on track.