The Chip ‘n’ Chase: NHL business is booming, the Panthers are the new Coyotes, #WhyImThankful, and more

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This is a new thing we’re trying. Every Wednesday, we’ll publish a little back-and-forth we have via email. We’re calling it the Chip ‘n’ Chase. Yes, it’s a terrible name. Enjoy.

Jason Brough: Hey buddy, so I assume you’re enjoying all the big business news in the NHL this week. I only say that because I remember how much you enjoyed covering the lockout. All those fun terms, like “make-whole” and “variance” and “hill to die on” and “please leave me to die on this hill so I don’t have to write about this anymore.” Good times. Of course, unlike the many, many…many weeks the lockout lasted, this week was mostly fantastic news for the league. First there was Forbes saying the average franchise is worth $413 million, up a shocking 46% from a year ago. Then there was the new Canadian TV deal worth around $5 billion. Sure, the concussion lawsuit was a bit of a downer, but hey, it’s tough to throw a perfect game, right?

Mike Halford: I definitely don’t miss the lockout. Though I was always proud of our “Wingels is KooKoo for Finland” headline, a PHT classic that wouldn’t have been possible without the work stoppage. And while I’m still not super stoked about covering the business side of hockey, I have to admit some of the Forbes valuations were interesting. Like the Maple Leafs, who are apparently worth the equivalent of six Columbuses. I wonder if the Jackets used that as bulletin-board material prior to their 6-0 dismantling of Toronto on Monday. I can just hear Todd Richards: “Do you know what they’re saying about you? That you have a debt-value ratio of 43 percent! THAT YOU ONLY GENERATE 69 MILLION IN ANNUAL REVENUE!!!” Then they bust out of the dressing room like gladiators. Gotta be what happened. Fiscal analysis can be a real motivator.

JB: Having grown up in Vancouver, I found it pretty remarkable that Forbes ranked the Canucks No. 4 at $700 million, ahead of big-city American franchises like the Blackhawks, Bruins, Flyers and Red Wings. The first Canucks game I ever attended, way back in the ’80s, there might’ve been 8,000 fans at the old Pacific Coliseum. Then, in the ’90s, when the Nordiques left for Colorado and the Jets left for Phoenix, there were very real worries Vancouver could lost its team to an American city next. Add to the equation all the grunge music being played at the time, and the situation was downright depressing. Anyway, it’s amazing how dramatically things can change over a decade or two. Winnipeg’s already back in the league and I wrote yesterday that Quebec City seems like a slam dunk for expansion or relocation. Saskatoon next?

MH: I do love the idea of NHL road trips going through Saskatchewan (“You guys can stay at the motor lodge…or the motor lodge”), but I’m mostly holding out expansion hope for America’s No. 1 hipster enclave, Portland. You know how a bunch of players are growing bad moustaches for Movember? Well in Portland, it’s Movember 12 MONTHS OF THE YEAR. Seems like a good fit. As for relocation, I’ve noticed Florida has inherited the “team everybody’s picking to move” mantle from the Phoenix Coyotes. Granted, the Panthers have a lease with the county that runs through 2028 and the new owner has real-estate development plans in Sunrise, but…I mean, imagine being a Panthers fan. Can we really blame those poor fans for not showing up to games? Two years after making the playoffs for the first time in forever, your team goes into the season scouring for unsigned free agents and buyout casualties. Then it loses 13 of its first 16 games and fires the entire coaching staff. At what point do you just throw up your hands, say “THAT’S IT, I’M DONE” and, y’know, start doing the 1,349 other fun things you can do in South Florida while everyone up north is freezing?

source:  JB: I’ve never been to Sunrise, but in my mind it’s like Del Boca Vista from Seinfeld, so I actually imagine Panthers fans throwing up their hands and yelling, “SERENITY NOW!” …before falling asleep in their seats. But yeah, it’s totally unfair to judge that market purely on current attendance. I’m not saying the NHL is right for Sunrise and/or wouldn’t do considerably better in a hockey-mad place like Quebec City, but I do feel the need to point out a team that had an average attendance of 12,727 in 2006-07. That would be your defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. BREAKING NEWS: Fans don’t like cheering for losers.

OK, so we need to take care of some corporate business now. It’s Thanksgiving on Thursday and NBC has a #WhyImThankful contest going on social media. So let me ask you this: why are you thankful?

MH: From a pure hockey perspective (ignoring things like “good health” and “my wife and child”), I’m thankful for the 48 hours immediately following Turkey Day. Did you know there are 23 games on Friday and Saturday? And that includes the Thanksgiving Showdown between the Rangers and Bruins on NBC! (Hey, if we’re gonna go corporate, we might as well go the whole nine.) I plan on dominating the couch over those two days. You can call me Lord Chesterfield-upon-Sofa.

Oh, and speaking of the Rangers, John Tortorella makes his return to MSG on Saturday when the Canucks take on the Blueshirts… who, stop me if you’ve heard this before, are struggling to score. In fact, the Rangers’ offense is worse under Alain Vigneault than it was under Torts, to the point where Vigneault suggested his team should start mentally preparing to win 2-1 hockey games.

JB: Meanwhile, in Vancouver, people are wondering if Torts has the Canucks playing too risky. Specifically, by having the defensemen aggressively pinching to keep the puck in the attacking zone, a tactic that’s resulted in more than a few odd-man rushes and pucks behind Roberto Luongo. For example:

For fans, I think it’s a good lesson in not taking the media’s black-and-white narrative hook, line and sinker. AV isn’t a run-and-gun coach — he never was — and Torts certainly isn’t terrified to take the odd chance. For the most part, coaches use the system they believe will result in the most wins, and that depends largely on the players they have in their lineup.

As for #WhyImThankful, well, I was thinking of saying I’m thankful for all the readers that visit PHT on a daily basis. But come on, that would be way too mushy. This is a hockey website. We can’t be seen as soft, or the readers will start taking liberties in the comments section. And then we’d have to hire John Scott as a moderator or something.

So I guess I’ll just say I’m thankful for kittens. Who are adorable.

source:

Nothing soft about that.

What the Penguins need to become a championship team again

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There is going to come a point in the next few years where the Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer a playoff team.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are all over the age of 32 and probably only have a handful of high-level years ahead of them. When they start to decline or retire there is going to be no replacing them and no matter what moves the Penguins make today there is not going to be anything that stops them from needing an extensive rebuild in the not-too-distant future. That future is not quite here yet.

After barely making the playoffs and getting swept in Round 1 with a roster that seemed to lose its way, it is not unfair to say that the team has slipped a bit in its standing as a Stanley Cup contender. What do they need to get back closer to the top?

We know the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel duo is going to excel on the first line and the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing is going to be great. After that it is a bunch of questions. The obvious keys focus on Alex Galchenyuk fitting in, Evgeni Malkin being better (especially at even-strength), and Matt Murray playing at his best (all things we already looked at today).

But that alone will not be enough.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor | Three Questions]

1. Rediscover their identity. I touched on this immediately after their Round 1 loss but the single biggest flaw the Penguins have is their sudden fascination with having players that provide “push back.” For a team that won two Stanley Cups under the mantra of “just play” it was a needless overreaction to some perceived injustices from a select few opposing players. The result was a shift away from what made team so tough to play against (balanced offense, mobile defense, speed, four scoring lines) and a rapidly growing collection of long-term, pricey contracts for depth players (Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, Brandon Tanev). The big thing that would help address this: Another mobile, puck-moving defender that can play on the second pair. The big intangible thing: Go back to “just play” instead of worrying about pushing back.

2. A resurgence from a (hopefully) healthy Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist’s status as a team leader and gritty forward with a non-stop motor masked the fact that his play rapidly deteriorated in the second half of the season, to the point where he was a complete non-factor offensively. It was a stunning slump after a strong first half. The thing that stands out about that is there is a pretty firm line that separated his season. That line was another head injury that kept him out of the lineup midway through the season. Was it a fluke slump? Was it a result of the injury? Was it a sign of things to come for him in the future now that he is 32 years old? A combination of all three? Whatever it was, the Penguins have Hornqvist signed for four more years at more than $5 million per season. The work ethic and effort are great, but at that price the Penguins need him to produce more than he did this past year or that contract will quickly turn into another drain on the salary cap.

3. Some young players need to emerge. The big focus during their mid-season turnaround in 2015-16 was on the coaching change. But there was another element at play: A bunch of young players became impact players at the same time (Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl; Guentzel a year later). The Penguins need that again. While the farm system is thin, there are some candidates to take big steps forward at the NHL level. Dominik Simon is polarizing because he is a favorite of the coaching staff and struggles to score goals, but he is a good defensive player and playmaker. Jared McCann is a favorite of the front office because they love his potential and he had a strong showing after the trade from Florida. He needs to show it was not a fluke. Dominik Kahun is an intriguing add from Chicago and is coming off a solid rookie season. And even though this might be for a couple years down the line, Pierre-Oliver Joseph is the exact type of defender they need to emerge and become a regular.

The three superstars at the top are the most important ingredient. But they are only part of the recipe. These three keys are just as important.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

It’s a big year for Penguins’ Matt Murray

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray has a lot to prove this season.

He has to prove to the NHL that he is still the goalie that backstopped his team to back-to-back Stanley Cups, and he has to prove to the Penguins that he is worthy of a significant long-term commitment after this season when his current deal expires.

Murray is an interesting player because he has already accomplished more in his first four years than most goalies will accomplish in an entire career. But for all of that team success there is still some debate as to what type of goalie he is and what his long-term prospects are as a No. 1 goalie.

His first two years in the league where as good as any goalie in the history of the league, maintaining a save percentage over .925 (regular season and playoffs) and winning two championships.  He regressed during the 2017-18 season and playoffs and then stumbled badly out of the gate this past season before catching fire when he was finally healthy in mid-December, playing some of the best hockey of his career between mid-December and the end of the regular season.

Looking at his career from a big picture perspective, he has been mostly outstanding when healthy and his play over the final four months of the 2018-19 season was probably one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, the Penguins were even able to make the playoffs. He masked a lot of flaws the team had defensively and their success was driven mostly by how he played.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | 3 Questions]

When he was good, the Penguins won. When he was not good, they did not win.

Barring something unforeseen he is going to continue to be the Penguins’ starting goalie for years to come because, 1) he is good, and 2) they have zero organizational depth behind him. It is his spot. So while it is a little odd that have not made a new contract a priority (Jake Guentzel, Mike Sullivan, Jim Rutherford all signed long-term contracts within the organization over the past year — but the starting goalie has not) they still have time to get it done.

And Murray has time to show just exactly what type of goalie he is and what he is worth.

He is definitely the Penguins’ biggest X-Factor this season because with the makeup of their defense he is probably going to be tested often. Again. The Penguins are not as strong in front of him as they were two or three years ago and have a much smaller margin for error, finishing just four points clear of the first non-playoff team this past season. Even playing on a team that has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang as the core there is probably not a single player that will impact what they are capable of more than Murray. They all showed this past season how much his play impacts them in the standings.

If he plays like he did from December-March of this past season, which is pretty close to how he played in 2015-16 and 2016-17 when he was lifting the Stanley Cup, he is going to be in line for a huge contract.

If he plays like he did between 2017 and the end of November in 2018, it might create a little more uncertainty for the Penguins and make his next deal a little more complicated.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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 questions include defense, trade bait, and Malkin’s bounce-back

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Three pressing questions for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Is the defense good enough?

In the opinion of general manager Jim Rutherford, yes. He has repeatedly defended the construction of his defense and at one point even went as far as to call it the best defense he has had during his time in Pittsburgh. High praise considering he has been in Pittsburgh for two Stanley Cup winning teams.

This team, though, is not coming off of a Stanley Cup win and there is little objective evidence to suggest this defense is anything better than ordinary. They were 12th in the NHL in goals against this past season and even that ranking was driven significantly by the performance of Matt Murray in net thanks to some of the best play of his career from mid-December on.

As a team, the Penguins were one of the worst teams in the league at preventing shots, average in preventing scoring chances, and a little below average on the PK. They have one great defense pairing in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin (one of the best pairings in all of hockey) and then a bunch of flawed players and question marks after that. Other than shipping out Olli Maatta over the summer, the Penguins have done nothing else to change the look of their defense. Rutherford obviously believes in this group, and he is taking a pretty big bet that he is right.

2. Who is the next salary cap casualty or trade chip?

This is probably more of a preseason question than a question for the season, but somebody has to go.

Trading Phil Kessel was supposed to alleviate some of the salary cap crunch, but taking Alex Galchenyuk as part of the return and signing Brandon Tanev in free agency quickly erased that savings. Add that to the returning contracts for Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson and the Penguins have a significant chunk of money going to depth players that probably are not moving them closer to another championship. It has put them in a position where they have to move out someone else.

As it stands, they are slightly over the salary cap and still have to re-sign RFA Marcus Pettersson. After this season, Galchenyuk, Justin Schultz, Jared McCann, Dominik Simon and starting goalie Matt Murray will be in line for new contracts. So who goes?

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Johnson or Gudbranson could be an option to go off the blue line and would probably the ideal trade bait, while Bryan Rust or Nick Bjugstad seem like logical candidates at forward.

3. Will Evgeni Malkin bounce back?

It is a good bet that he will.

The final offensive numbers from this past season look good (better than a point-per-game average) and he had a great start to the season, but his production really slumped over the final three quarters of the season and especially at even-strength. His defensive game was also lacking and he will be the first to say the 2018-19 season was not his best. He can be better, and the Penguins need him to be better. Malkin is a proud player and will no doubt be motivated to show this past season was a fluke and that he is still one of the league’s best and most dominant players. A driven Malkin playing at his best is a season-changing player, and if he gets back to that level it will be more valuable to the Penguins than any other potential offseason addition could have been.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

P.K. Subban, Lindsey Vonn announce engagement

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Lindsey Vonn and P.K. Subban are engaged, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard.

Vonn, who retired in February with a female record 82 World Cup wins, and Subban, a New Jersey Devils defenseman, have dated for more than one year.

Vonn was previously married to fellow Olympic skier Thomas Vonn in 2007. They announced divorce plans in late 2011.

Vonn reportedly grimaced when asked in 2013 if she would get married again.

“No, thanks!” she said, according to Vogue then. “I am definitely not getting married. To anyone.”

After her divorce, Vonn dated Tiger Woods and NFL assistant coach Kenan Smith before dating Subban, going public in June 2018.

“Right off the bat, I knew he was different,” Vonn said, according to a Vogue magazine announcement of the engagement. “But I’d been married before, so I was pretty hesitant to let myself think that I could find someone that I would want to be married to again. After a few months of dating, I knew he was the one I wanted to be with, though.”

Subban, 30, also owns an Olympic gold medal playing for Canada in Sochi.

“Lindsey’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Subban said, according to Vogue. “There are people in life that deserve to be with good people. They have that person who takes care of them and makes them smile, and she deserves to be with someone who loves her more than anything else in the world, and I do.”

Vonn and Subban would become one of the most prominent married Olympic champion couples, joining the likes of tennis players Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf and gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner.

For more from Nick Zaccardi check out Olympic Talk on NBC Sports