Tag: James Neal

New York Islanders v Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins move Malkin back to center


There’s some solid logic to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ experiment with Evgeni Malkin on the wing.

While he’s enjoying cushy offensive zone starts as usual, having a center like Brandon Sutter doing the “dirty work” theoretically opens things up even more for Malkin. The 28-year-old also isn’t the most dominant guy in the faceoff circle, only winning 48.8 percent of his draws last season.

Still, such thinking can end up being similar to the debate regarding playing Alex Ovechkin at RW instead of his familiar LW spot: sometimes it’s best just to leave a star player where he’s comfortable.

NHL.com’s Wes Crosby reports that Malkin is expected to center a line with Pascal Dupuis and Blake Comeau as Pittsburgh ends a back-to-back set against the Detroit Red Wings tonight. This likely bumps Sutter down to his typical third-line center spot.

Malkin at RW certainly wasn’t a disaster, mind you; he managed eight points in five games (although only three of those came at even-strength). Going back to center might mean that the puck will be on his stick more often, however, which is rarely a bad thing.

The biggest hurdle may be linemate-related, though, really. While Patric Hornqvist has been brilliant alongside Sidney Crosby, it’s easy to see why “Geno” misses his buddy James Neal.

Tonight’s ‘Hawks-Preds game is big, as far as early-season games go

Nashville Predators v Chicago Blackhawks

It’s tough hyping a late-October game in Nashville but hey, hear us out.

Tonight at Bridgestone, the Central Division-leading Predators will host the second-place Blackhawks in what will be the second meeting in six days between the two clubs. It promises to be an engaging affair, especially after Chicago beat Nashville 2-1 in OT on Saturday at the United Center — a game in which Preds head coach Peter Laviolette felt his club left something on the table.

“We had opportunities to win [Saturday] in the third period,” Laviolette said, per the Preds website. “There’s an opportunity where we could walk away with two [points] right there as well. It was disappointing because you’re on a power play in overtime and that’s a chance to seal the game and walk out with that extra point and that was frustrating for us.

“[Tonight is] a chance to get back and play a big game, certainly for a lot of different reasons.”

Those reasons?

— Neither team has lost in regulation yet. Nashville (4-0-2) has been one of the NHL’s early-season surprises and created a pretty effective top line in Filip Forsberg, Mike Ribeiro and James Neal, which has combined for 12 points thus far. Chicago (4-0-1), meanwhile, has been tremendous defensively, allowing just seven goals all season and three in its last three games.

— Nashville’s “Keep The Red Out” initiative is still going strong:

— On Saturday, the Preds gave No. 1 netminder Pekka Rinne a rest and played backup Carter Hutton, who responded with a stellar 35-save effort. Tonight, Chicago will counter with its backup as Antti Raanta gets the nod ahead of the injured Corey Crawford (who stopped 19 of 20 shots on Saturday). Raanta was solid in his first outing of the year on Tuesday against Philadelphia, posting a 32-save shutout.

Malkin did not see the Neal trade coming

Evgeni Malkin, James Neal

However Evgeni Malkin feels about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ decision to trade James Neal, it sounds like he didn’t have a say in it.

In fact, he was just as surprised as the rest of the hockey world when the Pens sent his best friend to Nashville for a package that included Patric Hornqvist. The 28-year-old told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “I was surprised my buddy Nealer was traded.”

“They did not talk to me (about the trade),” Malkin said. “I read about it in the paper. Nealer texted me the whole summer that he didn’t know what was going on or why he was traded. But it’s a new GM. It’s his job. He never asked me.”

Obviously, GM Jim Rutherford is in no way required to run a trade by players, even ones as crucial and talented as Malkin. That said, if Neal resumes his work as one of the leading power forwards in the NHL while Hornqvist struggles and the Penguins sputter, hindsight will not smile upon Rutherford’s bold move. The mixed reaction for Malkin likely won’t help matters, either.

After all, Malkin won his lone Hart Trophy running roughshod over the NHL alongside Neal in 2011-12, scoring 50 goals and 109 points in 75 games. Combine that production with their personal connection and it’s understandable that “Geno” was displeased with the swap.

On the bright side, Malkin’s first impression with new head coach Mike Johnston seems far more positive. The Penguins star said he was surprised that Johnston visited him in Russia, and it certainly sounds like it was a deft move.

Really, if a player can only enjoy strong communication with a head coach or a general manager, being closer with the bench boss is likely the best choice, right? Maybe?

Related: Despite feeling good, Malkin’s a toss-up for the Penguins’ season-opener

Risk Factors: Nashville Predators edition

Peter Laviolette

From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Nashville Predators

1. Pekka Rinne – It might come as a surprise to see Nashville’s $7 million man as a risk factor, but it’s hard to guarantee great results after two troubling seasons.

In 2013-14, Rinne’s health-related luck was horrific … he’s one of the few (only) athletes to ever be sidelined with E. Coli. Beyond the unusual nature of that ailment, it all stems from hip issues. Dealing with problems in that area isn’t exactly ideal for the goaltending position (just ask the many who reasonably wondered if Ray Emery could come back from his very serious problems). Rinne looks pretty young, yet at 31, he’s not exactly a spring chicken either.

On the bright side, Rinne told the Tennessean that his hip-related issues are behind him.

“The hip feels great. I had a good summer. I worked hard and stayed healthy. I’m just really excited for this upcoming season. I feel like I’m ready to go,” Rinne said. “I still have to pay attention to it, but I don’t have to change anything, I don’t have to skip any training because of that. It feels normal, I feel like I have the strength back in my legs this summer. It feels great and it’s nice not to think about it all the time.”

Healthy or not, the less settling notion is that Rinne hasn’t enjoyed much success since Ryan Suter defected to Minnesota.

After putting up Vezina-caliber stats in 2010-11 and 2011-12, Rinne’s been under .500 since the Predators last made the playoffs (25-26-11 combining the last two seasons) with underwhelming individual stats (.910 in 2012-13 and .902 in 2013-14). Granted, that accounts for only 67 of his 317 career regular season appearances, so it’s not exactly time to panic just yet.

Of course, there’s one other question floating around: if the Predators open things up, might that expose their towering netminder, especially if his lateral mobility is even slightly inhibited by an aching hip?

Nashville’s obviously confident in the big Finn, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily should be. Carter Hutton earned some useful experience last season, but the bottom line is that Nashville will go as far as Rinne can take them.

2. Square peg, round hole? – After 15 years of bending to Barry Trotz’s preferences, the Predators did what they could to acclimate to the about-face that is hiring far more offensive-minded head coach Peter Laviolette.

Will his tactics translate well against brutal Central Division competition? Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks would probably happily go toe-to-toe with Nashville offensively while the St. Louis Blues of the world may just smother them.

Laviolette can be a pretty volatile personality at times. Will Predators execs get a little nervous if their second-ever head coach experiences some serious growing pains?

There are some interesting young players who may benefit from Laviolette’s presence, particularly Craig Smith and Seth Jones. The fiery bench boss has a nice track record of turning around moribund offenses, so it’s plausible that he could make a change of pace work for the Preds.

That said, this team has been molded in Trotz’s image for more than a decade, so the transition can be awkward … and opponents won’t show any mercy.

3. Lack of firepower – This one dovetails with the Laviolette questions: while the Predators boast a group of defensemen that could really push the pace and create chances from the blueline, Nashville’s forwards still leave a bit to be desired (at least on paper).

It’s not to say that the Predators haven’t made strides offensively. As useful as Patric Hornqvist has been for the team, James Neal seems to have a higher ceiling as one of the league’s most dangerous power forwards. Olli Jokinen and Mike Ribeiro might not be the most exciting additions, but they’re low-risk veterans.

Still, few teams are going to be shaking in their boots when they look at Nashville’s set of forwards. When you scan Nashville’s list of forwards, Neal is still the only forward who really seems like an obvious first-line talent, and considering the fantastic centers he’s benefited from in both Dallas (Brad Richards in his prime) and Pittsburgh (Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby), even Jokinen/Ribeiro at their best will be a dramatic step down. It remains to be seen if the volatile power forward can create the same kind of chances without world-class passes reaches his stick.

Even if Neal can make a smooth move to Nashville and a few players thrive with more creative freedom – Colin Wilson, perhaps? – this offense isn’t the stuff of nightmares for opposing coaches.

It might take some time for this team to truly be molded in Laviolette’s vision … assuming that’s even the best vision for this club (as we discussed in the second risk factor).

Risk Factors: Pittsburgh Penguins edition

Sidney Crosby

From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Pittsburgh Penguins

1. The rookie head coach. That’s 57-year-old Mike Johnston, who’s spent the last six years behind the bench in WHL Portland. Aside from having no NHL head coaching experience — he was Marc Crawford’s right-hand man for eight years in Vancouver and L.A. — Johnston wasn’t even Pittsburgh’s first choice; that was Willie Desjardins, who opted to take the vacant Canucks gig instead.

So, is Johnston ready for this?

The Pittsburgh job is one of the NHL’s most complex. The Penguins have immense talent and are the only team in the league with two former Hart Trophy winners — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — but with that talent comes great expectations, and failure to meet said expectations can be costly… just ask Michel Therrien.

Or Dan Bylsma.

Or Ray Shero.

Johnston has tried to alleviate some of the pressure by preaching a “let’s have fun out there” mantra. From Yahoo:

“It’s so hard to get into the playoffs in the NHL, we’ve got to enjoy the process along the way,” Johnston said. “We’ve got to enjoy every win. We’ve got to enjoy great practices. We’ve got to enjoy getting in great shape as a group.”

Nice message, but will it work?

Johnston’s saying all the right things, but it’s important to remember he hasn’t faced any adversity yet, and that’s when things will get interesting — if the Penguins reiterated anything over the summer, it’s that failure has consequences. In addition to turfing Shero and Bylsma, the club dealt sniper James Neal to Nashville — just two season after inking him to a six-year extension — and let its longest-tenured player, Brooks Orpik, walk in free agency. It’s like that scene in Casino where all the dons are sitting around the courthouse; once the Pens lost to the Rangers, you knew people were gonna get clipped.

(It’s also worth mentioning failure has different meaning in Pittsburgh than other markets. Bylsma, for example, was fired with a .670 career winning percentage and one Stanley Cup on his resume.)

In short, the Pens are a “win now” team with little margin for error. Not exactly the best situation for a first-time coach to find himself in.

2. Are the bottom-six forwards any better? One of new GM Jim Rutherford’s first tasks on the job was to improve Pittsburgh’s third and fourth lines, which failed to provide much of anything last season, especially in the playoffs. Enter Nick Spaling, Steve Downie, Blake Comeau and, depending on how his training camp tryout goes, Daniel Carcillo — they, along with incumbents Brandon Sutter and Marcel Goc, comprise the majority of the new bottom six.

But it’s not like Pittsburgh hasn’t tried this before.

Shero had a revolving door of depth forwards over the last two seasons: Tanner Glass, Andrew Ebbett, Jussi Jokinen, Brenden Morrow, Lee Stempniak, Taylor Pyatt and Chuck Kobasew, to name a few. Some, like Jokinen, worked out well; most failed to make an impact and moved on to different locales. Advanced stats suggest that Spaling, Goc, Comeau and Downie are quality possession players that can drive shot attempts, which is something the Penguins need to improve — but none of these guys are sure things.

Downie’s missed a boatload of time to injury over the last two seasons, Comeau’s on his fourth team in four years, Spaling’s never played outside of Barry Trotz’s regimented system in Nashville and Carcillo is, well, Carcillo.

3. Goaltending, as always. It’s an annual rite of passage to ask if Marc-Andre Fleury can recapture the form that saw him backstop the Pens to the Stanley Cup in 2009. This year, though, that question comes with some addenda: Will newly-signed Thomas Greiss challenge for the No. 1 gig? And will murky futures have an effect on either?

Both Fleury and Greiss are UFAs after this season and, with WHL Edmonton standout Tristan Jarry still a few years away, Pittsburgh is essentially holding an open audition for its goaltending gig. This also marks the first time in Fleury’s career that contractual uncertainty becomes an issue; Pittsburgh inked him to a lengthy seven-year, $35 million deal after losing to Detroit in the ’08 Cup Final, and he’s pretty much been the starter ever since.

More, from the Globe and Mail:

There doesn’t seem to be much of a push, if any, to get a new contract in place for Fleury. How he performs this season and in the 2015 playoffs could heavily influence what approach the Penguins take under will new coach Mike Johnston and new general manager Jim Rutherford.

“We try to stress the process — following through with the process and trying to do the right things every day so you’re not looking too far ahead,” Penguins goaltending coach Mike Bales said. “Marc’s good at that and that will obviously have to be his focus this year.”

“I just want to go play, go win,” said Fleury, who’s had his fair share of distractions during his tenure in Pittsburgh. “What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen. I’m not worried too much about it.”

Fleury might not be worried, but should the Penguins be? Aside from his uncertain future, the club also has uncertainty with the backup position, where Greiss — who many figured was signed solely to push Fleury — is still locked in a battle with the incumbent, Jeff Zatkoff, for the No. 2 spot.