Pittsburgh Penguins

PHT Morning Skate: On Dean Lombardi, George Washington and Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus

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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

In case you missed it, here’s a transcript of Dean Lombardi’s epic, history-laden speech upon being named GM of USA’s World Cup of Hockey team. (Eye on Hockey)

The Devils have hired 61-year-old Pertti Hasanen, formerly of Boston University, as their new development/skills coach. (ESPN)

The Gwinnett Gladiators are the new ECHL affiliate of the Boston Bruins. (Gwinnett Daily Post)

Sidney Crosby has high praise for the moves Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford’s made this summer. (NHL.com)

The Blue Jackets have officially loaned out goalie Oscar Dansk to Rogle BK in Sweden’s top professional league, the Swedish Hockey League. (Columbus Blue Jackets)

Pens sign veteran center Cullen: one year, $800,000

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In an interesting move, Pittsburgh added even more depth up front on Thursday by signing veteran center Matt Cullen.

Cullen, who turns 39 in November, inked a one-year deal worth $800,000, re-uniting him with Pens GM Jim Rutherford — Cullen’s GM in Carolina in 2006, when the ‘Canes won the Stanley Cup.

“He has good leadership qualities,” Rutherford said of Cullen, per the Pens’ Twitter account. “He will play an important role on our 4th line.

“I know personally how good he is with other players. He has always been a guy that takes time to help his teammates.”

The 11th-oldest skater in the league last season, Cullen just wrapped a two-year, $7 million deal with the Preds, scoring seven goals and 25 points in 62 games. While he struggled early, Cullen eventually found his niche as Peter Laviolette’s “versatility guy,” flipping between the middle and wing, jumping up into the No. 2 center spot when Mike Fisher was injured during the playoffs.

Cullen is just the latest addition to Pittsburgh’s revamped forward group. The biggest splash came with the acquisition of Phil Kessel from Toronto, but Rutherford made other savvy moves as well — Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr were acquired in late July, while Sergei Plotnokov and Dominik Simon were signed out of the KHL and Czech League, respectively.

Cullen also provides the Pens with even more depth down the middle, as the club now has him, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bonino and Fehr at the center position. Rutherford did say, however, that Fehr may be shifted to the wing.

Vancouver Canucks ’15-16 Outlook

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It was another eventful offseason in Vancouver, the second under GM Jim Benning, and it left both fans and media asking the same question:

What exactly are the Canucks doing?

To hear Benning explain it, the plan is simple in theory, yet difficult to execute — rebuild while staying competitive, giving young players a winning environment in which to grow.

“From the time I took the job (14 months ago) until 10 days ago, I went at it hard,” Benning explained, per the Vancouver Sun. “It hasn’t been easy. I’ll admit it — it’s been hard. I’ve had to make hard decisions to try to remain competitive while building for the future. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

“But for the most part, we’ve been able to accomplish that this summer.”

Some will argue with that last remark.

This summer, Benning took heat for a variety of his moves, most notably his trade of popular (and relatively successful) backup goalie Eddie Lack to Carolina for a third-round pick, which many saw as a middling return. After tiring of the Zack Kassian experiment, the Canucks cut bait and got what they could in exchange — 31-year-old Habs tough guy Brandon Prust — then paid a tidy sum to acquire third-line Pittsburgh center Brandon Sutter, paying him an even tidier sum to be their second-line center ($21.875 million over five years, specifically).

In the end, it’s tough to say the Canucks got any better this summer. It’s tough to say they stayed even. Most say they got worse.

And that makes next year’s outlook kinda bleak.

Sure, the same old suspects remain — the Sedins, Alex Burrows, Radim Vrbata, Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler — but they’re all a year older, and now surrounded by kids. Bo Horvat, 20, projects to be the No. 3 center while winger Sven Baertschi, 22, will get a shot at the top-six. Former first-round pick Jake Virtanen (18) figures to get a long look in training camp, and Frank Corrado (22) will likely be in on defense. Other prospects like Hunter Shinkaruk, Nicklas Jensen, Brendan Gaunce and Jared McCann could all get looks, too.

Which makes for an odd dynamic, especially since the Canucks were competitive last year, registering 101 points and a playoff spot. But their opening-round loss to Calgary only confirmed what most suspected — Vancouver was a flawed team, nowhere close to contending.

Now, the club heads into this season minus the services of veteran contributors like Kevin Bieksa, Shawn Matthias and Brad Richardson — jobs that will be filled by (the aforementioned) inexperienced players. And should injuries strike the team’s aging core, it could be grim; at no position is this more concerning than in goal, where 35-year-old Ryan Miller, who missed extensive time with a knee injury last season, is backed up by a total wildcard in Jacob Markstrom.

Oh, and lest we forget, the Canucks play in a tough Pacific Division in which the Ducks, Kings, Flames and Oilers all made significant upgrades this summer.

If you believe Benning, though, his moves weren’t designed to make the Canucks less competitive.

The way he sees it, the club is more versatile than ever.

“What we’re trying to do is build a team that can play whatever style the game dictates,” he explained. “So we’ve made some changes this summer. I thought maybe in the playoffs we didn’t play with the intensity and emotion to step up in a playoff series and win.

“We’ve got some good, young, skill players coming up. But we want to surround them with players who fit.”

Under Pressure: Jim Benning

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For the last four months or so, it’s hard to find a Jim Benning move that wasn’t met with criticism.

It started in April when the Canucks signed Luca Sbisa and Derek Dorsett to hefty contract extensions and didn’t let up as the likes of Eddie Lack, Zack Kassian and Kevin Bieksa were traded.

Benning was even booed at an event for season ticket-holders when it was revealed that starting goalie Ryan Miller could’ve been traded instead of Lack, a fan favorite who’s not only younger and less expensive but had a higher save percentage than Miller last season.

Most recently, Benning’s claim that Brandon Sutter, acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh, would be a “foundation piece” for the Canucks was mocked by many. The five-year extension that Sutter proceeded to sign got the same treatment.

Suffice to say, the honeymoon is over for Vancouver’s general manager, who’s only been on the job since May of last year.

Benning, throughout it all, has not wavered.

“Sitting in my shoes, and when I talk to my management team, we have to make the decision that’s best for the organization going forward,” he said at the draft when asked about trading a fan favorite like Lack.

“I know if that’s the way we decide to go, I could get criticized. But that’s part of the job. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

Hired in large part for his experience as a scout, it won’t be entirely fair to judge Benning until his draft picks pan out, or don’t.

But there’s no doubt his recent moves have put him under increasing pressure. If Vancouver takes a step back next season — and many expect that to happen — that pressure will only build.

It’s Vancouver Canucks Day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Vancouver Canucks.

After a rough season under bench boss John Tortorella, the Vancouver Canucks went into the 2014-15 campaign hoping that new coach Willie Desjardins would prove to be a better fit for their organization.

He certainly got more out of their offense as the Canucks went from averaging 2.33 goals per game under Tortorella to 2.88 last season, which was good for eighth in the league. Their resurgence was thanks in no small part to the Sedin twins as their point totals jumped by more than 20 points each, bringing them up to 73 (Henrik) and 76 (Daniel) points in 2014-15. Newcomer Radim Vrbata also meshed well in Vancouver, recording 63 points including a team-leading 31 goals.

Fellow 2014 free agent signing Ryan Miller didn’t enjoy quite as smooth of a transition. While he did have a 15-3-0 record through Nov. 28, he was more of a mixed bag after that. Complicating matters, Miller suffered an knee injury in late February that kept him out of the lineup for most of the stretch run. That led to Eddie Lack opening the playoffs as Vancouver’s starting goaltender and while he was actually statistically superior to Miller in the regular season, the 27-year-old netminder ran into problems as the first round series against Calgary progressed.

Lack was replaced by Miller in Game 4, but it wasn’t enough as the Flames went on to eliminated Vancouver six games.

Off-season recap

Vancouver entered the summer with something of a goaltending logjam as in addition to Lack and Miller, Jacob Markstrom seemed deserving of a roster spot after a dominant season with the AHL’s Utica Comets. However, Canucks GM Jim Benning made the controversial decision to move Lack for a 2015 third-round pick (Guillaume Brisebois) and a 2016 seventh-round selection rather than trading the 35-year-old Miller.

In addition to that trade, Vancouver also sent defenseman Kevin Bieksa to Anaheim for a 2016 second-round pick and acquired Brandon Sutter and a 2016 third-rounder from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Nick Bonino, Alex Clendening, and a 2016 second-round selection.

Vancouver sees Sutter as a “foundation piece” and cemented its commitment to him by agreeing to a five-year, $21.875 million contract extension.