Penguins GM Ray Shero discusses team building, salary cap strategies

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fleurychampagne.jpg(Note: This probably won’t be the last time I discuss team building on PHT. Just a fair warning.)

Just like there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s and no easy way to dump a significant other, my opinion is that there really isn’t a “blueprint” for building a Stanley Cup-winning team.

Just look at the last few seasons: the Chicago Blackhawks were a deep team with a green goalie, the Pittsburgh Penguins were a top-heavy club* with a hot-and-cold No.1 overall pick in net and the Detroit Red Wings made it work with Chris Osgood.

* – Though I think that’s been exaggerated just a bit at times.

Stretching back further, you only need to look at how different the Anaheim Ducks were compared to the Carolina Hurricanes (one employed two Norris Trophy defensemen, the other sent out five forwards on the powerplay) to see that putting together a winning team isn’t like filling in a Mad Libs roster.

While I don’t agree with every move he makes, Penguins GM Ray Shero has often been deft in filling in open roster spots with savvy veterans and picking the right players to keep (Kris Letang, Jordan Staal) and which ones to let go (Ryan Malone, Rob Scuderi – who is still effective but was overpriced).

Shero spoke with Ryan Getz of NHL Fanhouse about the Penguins’ team building process. I thought I’d point to some of the more interesting comments after the jump.


staalandmalkin.jpgLast summer, there were two contracts that lingered on my mind as possible mistakes: Jordan Staal’s and Marc-Andre Fleury’s. Over the last year, I’ve studied trends in contracts – and seen some really bad ones handed out – and now those deals went from “tough to stomach” to “easily justifiable, if not a little problematic.”

Staal’s hockey sense and defensive commitment are rare for a player his age and his lanky frame helps him to cover a lot of ground as a penalty killer. Still, the younger brother of Eric Staal hasn’t shown much finishing ability since putting up 29 goals as a rookie. My main question last summer was: “Why pay $4 million for a role that could be filled by a Todd Marchant/Manny Malhotra type guy?”

Now, Staal has two things over those guys: a) youth and the potential that comes with it and b) pedigree. Still, the most promising idea is that the team might try to pair him with Evgeni Malkin again. The classic argument is that Malkin and Crosby lack consistent threats on the wing, so if Staal could provide that for Malkin it might help him “bounce back” from a 73-point lull last year. Here’s more from Shero.

One such idea that’s been kicked around in Pittsburgh is the possibility of teaming Malkin and Staal together on a line. It’s been done before (during their rookie seasons) and resulted in Staal scoring a career-high 29 goals (he also had an abnormally high 22 percent shooing percentage). I asked Shero if he was at all concerned about the possibility of taking one of his prized centers and “limiting” them (my wording) to one side of the ice as a winger.

“Not really,” he said. “Depending on what Dan (Bylsma) is going to do with our lineup, these guys, Evgeni Malkin in particular, he’s all over the ice no matter what position he’s playing, whether it’s center or wing. Four years ago they played together — Jordan played wing — and obviously it worked out well for both of them as they both had great years.”

“Whatever we do here the idea is to give these guys as much ice time as possible,” he added. “Good players like to play with good players. I think it’s important that we look at all options to make our team better and give these guys an opportunity to grow as players and give them more responsibility.”

sprawlingfleury.jpg(For the record, I think that Malkin’s abysmal faceoff percentages and lackluster interest in defense would make him the ideal candidate to be on Staal’s wing, but that’s another discussion for another day.)

Closing things out, Shero discussed the changing viewpoints in the league regarding spending on goalies. While I have my reservations about Marc-Andre Fleury being a true top-10 goalie (or perhaps more specifically, I wonder if he’s “elite” since the crop of goalies might be weak in general), Shero’s argument is logical.

I think it really depends on your current set up in terms of what you have. If we didn’t have Marc-Andre Fleury we’d probably look in a different direction,” said Shero. “But we happen to have a top-10 goalie, we paid him accordingly, and it certainly paid off when we won the Cup. He was obviously a big difference-maker for us in the playoffs.”

“I think it really just depends on how your team is going to be built. Detroit has never really had a ton of money in goaltending, they choose to spend it elsewhere. A team like Philadelphia now, that’s kind of what they’re doing, going heavy in defense and not as much in goal. Every team is a little bit different. If you have it, you want to keep it. If you don’t, there’s other avenues you can go to to hopefully have success on a year-to-year basis. I think it just really depends what you have for assets in goal.

(Now, if Fleury could just stop allowing so many boneheaded, back-breaking goals during the playoffs …)

Overall, the Penguins have a nice foundation built around young players now that Sergei Gonchar is gone. Will gambling on defense – signing Paul Martin and Zbynek Michael to big deals this summer – instead of forwards pay off this year? We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin, Aho dazzle in duel; Scheifele on fire

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Three stars

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

More on this can be found here.

The tl;dr version?

Ovechkin scored his second hat trick in as many nights, extended a point streak to 13 games, a goal-scoring streak to five games and inspired an epic comeback for the Caps.

Yeah, nothing to see here.

2. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

He was playing in the same game as Ovechkin, and had a night that will get lost in Ovechkin’s theatre.

Aho had two goals and two assists and was the orchestrator as the Hurricanes built up their 4-1 lead. It ended up being all for nothing, but Aho now has 11 goals and 33 points in 31 games this season. He’s a special player.

3. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

Scheifele scored a howitzer on the power play in the first period, assisted on Mathieu Perreault‘s goal to give the Jets a 3-2 lead and then scored the overtime winner to cap off the three-point night.

It was the third time in 16 days that the Jets have beaten the Chicago Blackhawks. The Jets are now the top team in the Western Conference with 44 points.

Scheifele has had much to do with that. He’s on a four-game multipoint streak and has 20 points in his past 11 games.

Highlights of the night

Ovi’s hatty:

He makes this look so easy:

Laine release alert:

Factoids

Scores

Devils 5, Golden Knights 4 (OT)

Coyotes 4, Rangers 3 (OT)

Penguins 5, Bruins 3

Senators 4, Red Wings 2

Capitals 6, Hurricanes 5 (SO)

Blues 4, Avalanche 3 (OT)

Jets 4, Blackhawks 3 (OT)

Oilers 4, Flyers 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Another Ovechkin hat trick inspires epic Capitals’ comeback

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Alex Ovechkin entered God Mode on Friday night to lead the Washington Capitals back from a 4-1 deficit in a 6-5 shootout win.

The only thing that Ovechkin didn’t do on the night was score the shootout winner, which he had a chance.

Still, Ovechkin recorded his second hat trick in as many nights and helped spark an epic comeback from the Capitals who, at one point, didn’t look like they showed up in Raleigh.

Instead, Ovechkin continued his assault on the NHL with goals No. 26, 27 and 28 in 31 games this season to extend his point streak to 13 games.

Get this: the last time The Great Eight had a point in 13 straight was in his sophomore season in 2006-07.

Get this, too: he’s scored now in five straight games (eight goals during that span), the first time he’s done that since his rookie season in 2005-06, where he scored in seven in a row. At the rate Ovechkin is going, he might eclipse that record.

He’s on pace for 72 goals, too.

He’s 33.

PHT’s Adam Gretz wrote that Ovechkin isn’t slowing down earlier this week, and that remains true as the weekend begins.

All of this scoring from Ovi has meant a four-game winning streak and first place in the Metropolitan Division after a not-so-great start to the season.

Carolina probably deserved better in the game, or at least Sebastian Aho certainly did.

Hidden amongst Ovechkin’s heroics was a four-point night from the young Finn. The Hurricanes built up that 4-1 lead with the work of Aho its focal point. Then they gave up four straight before tying it in the last half of the third.

Carolina couldn’t convert on an overtime penalty and then couldn’t score more than a goal in the shootout to lose in its sixth round.

But enough about the losing team. The night belonged to Ovechkin in the end.

He’s pretty good, we hear.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

How should Rangers approach the trade deadline?

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Whether by design or not, the New York Rangers have been better than expected so far in 2018-19.

Despite waving the white flag of rebuild, they’re only one point behind the Islanders for third place in the Metro, which would help them sneak into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With five of their next six games at home, they might even make that jump, at least briefly.

But, honestly, it still seems like the Rangers should be sellers come trade deadline time.

Just about every stat points to slippage, if not a collapse. They remain one of the weakest possession teams in the NHL, but you can go simpler and merely look at their -10 goal differential so far this season.

So, the Rangers should sell … but how far should they go?

Let’s run down some of the most interesting considerations, from the no-brainers to more far-fetched scenarios, like actually trading Hank.

EXPIRING CONTRACTS

Mats Zuccarello: 31 years old, $4.5 million

It looks like the veteran winger-wizard could return Friday, which would mark his first game since Nov. 23. It also seems like Zuccarello realizes a trade might happen, as he discussed with Brett Cyrgalis of the New York Post.

“There’s no secret that it’s out there. For me, I prepare for everything, try to do my best as long as I’m here. Hopefully I’m here for a long time. If not, it’s nothing I can control.”

The Norwegian forward doesn’t have much power over the situation, but the Rangers have the power to get maximum bang for their buck if they do part ways with Zuccarello.

Before he began his injury absence, Zuccarello was on a five-game pointless drought, and he failed to score in seven of his last eight games, managing a goal and an assist in one productive game during that span. Despite that slump, his overall season numbers are reasonable (10 points in 17 games), and it wouldn’t be surprising if he surged into the trade deadline.

Considering his reasonable cap hit and track record as someone who comes in at 53-61 points during a healthy season, Zuccarello would be a boon for virtually every contender looking for a skillful rental.

For all we know, the Rangers could convince him to come back after a brief run somewhere else, which doesn’t seem outrageous after seeing Zuccarello describe New York as his “second home.”

That scenario would be a “eat your cake and have it too” scenario, as the Rangers could land some assets, but not go too long with a rebuild, if they got Zuccarello back.

Either way, trading Zuccarello seems like the right call. If I were a contender, he’d also be  a very, very desirable target.

Kevin Hayes, 26, $5.175M

In the latest edition of “31 Thoughts,” Elliotte Friedman reported that the Boston Bruins might have some interest in Boston native Hayes, which wasn’t the first time the team was connected with the player. Friedman also pointed to Colorado as a team that could really use some more support at center.

While Zuccarello could be “pumped up,” it’s hard to imagine opinions going any higher on Hayes. He has 21 points in 30 games this season, including two goals and two assists over his last two contests. At this .70-point-per-game pace (about 54 points over 82 games), Hayes could very well shatter his career-high of 49 points. He’s getting easily the most ice time of his career (19:14 TOI average), and Hayes’ possession numbers are at least strong relative to his teammates.

Is this a straight-up “pump-and-dump?” I have no clue, but the Rangers should be giddy if they can get serious assets for Hayes.

In the case of Hayes (in particular) and Zuccarello (to a lesser extent), the Rangers might also be willing to retain salary to make a trade work with a cash-strapped contender. After all, they’d only be on the hook for a portion of that cap hit for the remainder of this season, so it wouldn’t block future efforts.

(According to Cap Friendly, the Rangers are retaining one of two possible salaries, as they’re absorbing $900K from the Ryan SpoonerRyan Strome trade through this season and 2019-20.)

TWO YEARS LEFT

Chris Kreider, 27, $4.625M expires after 2019-20

The Rangers have quite a collection of players with two years remaining, but Kreider’s the headliner because he poses such interesting questions to New York.

If they wanted to move Kreider, you’d expect a hefty return. The winger presents something for everyone. Old-school types should like his nastiness. Analytics-minded execs will notice that his underlying stats have basically always towered above his teammates. His size is a strength, and just about everyone should love his speed relative to that formidable frame.

His contract is also wonderful for a contender: it’s a bargain, and you’d get two playoff runs out of it. If the agitating winger rubs people the wrong way, at least the term is short enough that you could cut ties. Just about perfect.

Those very factors should also register with the Rangers, especially if they’re looking at this as an extremely quick rebuild. If I were running the show, I’d hesitate to move Kreider, unless the ransom was just undeniable.

Vladislav Namestnikov, 26, $4M through 2019-20 and others

The Rangers have quite a few other two-year deals they could move. Getting more for Namestnikov would only increase the quantity of assets they’ve garnered from moving Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller.

There are other, cheaper options, too. Someone might like Jesper Fast, 27, at a cool $1.85M. Jimmy Vesey (25, $2.275M) and Ryan Strome (25, $3.1M) could fit into more complicated trades. Similarly, Matt Beleskey’s $1.9M cap hit might work for cap fodder.

THE WHOPPER

Henrik Lundqvist, 36, $8.5M through 2020-21

Back in a May episode of The Hockey PDOcast, former Rangers staffer William Kawam described essentially being laughed at when bringing up trading Lundqvist during a discussion that a bunch of team execs, including Rangers GM Jeff Gorton.

The Rangers were courageous in sending out a rebuilding press release last season, but are they trade-Lundqvist brave? I’m not so sure. Especially in the event that Lundqvist wouldn’t want to relocate, which would limit options to local rivals, like the goalie-needy Islanders.

But it’s a topic that should be broached, however gingerly, for a wide array of reasons.

And it’s not just about brushing their long-time icon aside. Lundqvist wants to win a Stanley Cup, so a change of scenery would make sense for the competitive goalie. (Granted, that argument wouldn’t go too far if the only option really is the Isles. Yes, they’re better than expected, but a contender? That’s a tough sell.)

There really might not be a better time for the Rangers to trade Lundqvist and still get something back for him, particularly if he actually would leave his comfort zone. A wide array of teams would find their ears perking up by the concept of landing Lundqvist. Imagine how much interest might rise if the Rangers ate at least some of that $8.5M cap hit to make something work?

So, there’s already a lot of demand for goalies, from the Islanders, Flyers, and Hurricanes to, perhaps even the Flames?

If courageous enough to do so, the Rangers would be wise to be proactive, especially if the Blackhawks decide to bite the bullet with Corey Crawford and/or the Kings embrace reality and move Jonathan Quick.

It helps that Lundqvist’s enjoyed a pretty strong 2018-19 season, at least for a 36-year-old. King Henrik has a .916 save percentage through 23 games, and that’s with a tough mini-stretch (nine goals allowed in two contest) putting a slight damper on his numbers.

Moving Lundqvist would require “ice water in the veins,” yet you can argue that there might not be a better time to do it than between now and the 2019 trade deadline.

***

The Rangers could get really creative with this situation, if they’d like.

Would they absorb problem contracts from contenders either during the deadline or during 2019 NHL Draft weekend, maybe taking a bribe to accept the last year of Ryan Callahan/Patrick Marleau/etc.? Might they go even further by stomaching even tougher, longer deals (Brent Seabrook? Milan Lucic?) if they view this as a rebuild that requires more drastic surgeries? Things could get really interesting if they instead convinced someone else to take on Marc Staal or Kevin Shattenkirk.

One thing’s clear: the Rangers would likely miss out on some golden opportunities if they did nothing.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Golden Knights are red-hot, but have some issues

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After a bumpy start to their second season, the news has been mostly good for the Vegas Golden Knights lately.

By beating the surprisingly feisty Islanders 3-2 on Thursday, Vegas is now measurably hot, winning nine of their last 11 games. Plenty of underlying numbers indicate that this could very well be a team to stay, or at least one that can really make opponents uncomfortable with their frenetic pace.

Unfortunately, you can also see a red flag pop up for the Golden Knights here and there.

Few players fit the dichotomy of the Golden Knights’ short-term/long-term situation quite like Marc-Andre Fleury.

On one hand, “MAF” has put together a commendable 2018-19 so afar, a run that makes it easier to accept his middling save percentage of .909. While his individual stats have been up and down (just check his strong November vs. weak October and December), Fleury’s been an absolute workhorse, appearing in 29 of Vegas’ 33 games. He edges Craig Anderson for the most games played and minutes played so far this season, and both goalies are getting up there in age and wear-and-tear (Anderson is 37, Fleury is 34).

The Athletic’s Jesse Granger notes the troubling history for workhorses in recent postseasons (sub required):

Of the 13 starting goaltenders that have hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup since the beginning of the salary cap era in 2005, none played more than 70 games in the regular season. In fact, only two of the 13 played more than 60 games. Fleury is currently on pace to play 72.

Last season, we saw wizard-like Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (now 24) and eventual champion Braden Holtby (now 29) admit that they were worn down, and both of those netminders have faced way fewer pucks over their careers than “The Flower.”

To some extent, this might be part of Gerard Gallant’s M.O. with goalies. During his years with the Florida Panthers, he seemed comfortable with leaning fairly heavily on Roberto Luongo, who logged 61 and 62 GP at ages 35 and 36. That’s not monstrous, yet it’s also more than ideal; it feels akin to an NFL team handing far too many carries to a RB, arguably shortening that runner’s career in the process. Could Luongo’s workload partially explain his health struggles? Maybe.

This isn’t to say Gallant is outrageous, as Malcolm Subban‘s really struggled this season, generating a lousy .859 save percentage in five appearances. It would be easier to criticize Gallant’s choices if he … had other good ones.

Still, there’s likely a safer medium between throwing away starts (if Subban can’t rebound) and running MAF into the ground, as Friday game against the Devils represents Fleury’s 12th consecutive start.

The Fleury situation is far from the only curious one, as it seemed like Max Pacioretty might be a healthy scratch. After some digging, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s David Schoen unearthed that Pacioretty might sit instead of playing through an injury:

At this point, the goal is to parse coach-speak. After all, Schoen reports that Gallant said that “there’s nothing wrong” with Pacioretty. That could mean that this is merely a minor issue, or it could mean that it would have been more of a coach’s decision.

Overall, it’s still a situation to watch. Pacioretty has absolutely had his relative struggles during his first campaign with Vegas. “Patches” only managed two goals and zero assists through 10 October games, but seemed to right the ship with 16 points in his last 18 contests. Granted, in the last three games, Pacioretty was held without a shot on goal twice (though he managed four SOG in that other contest), so maybe there are subtle signs of struggle.

It’s a bummer for hockey dorks (raises hand) that Pacioretty could miss Friday’s game, as Paul Stastny is slated to finally return. Many of us were intrigued by the prospect of seeing a seemingly rejuvenated Pacioretty with Stastny, particularly since Alex Tuch has been pretty fantastic since he got back into the swing of things upon recovering from his own injury.

Alas, it looks like we’ll need to wait a little longer, unless the Golden Knights decide to let him play through his minor injury and/or minor struggles.

Overall, things are looking up for the Golden Knights, but they’re not perfect. Luckily for Vegas, you could say that about virtually every other team, including Friday’s opponent in New Jersey.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.