Risk Factors: Pittsburgh Penguins edition

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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.

The Buzzer: Tarasenko’s three-point night; Nyquist nets OT penalty shot

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Three Stars

1. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues: The Blues forward had a hand in all three of their goals during a 3-1 defeat of the Avalanche. The loss was Colorado’s first regulation defeat of the season, while St. Louis snapped a four-game losing streak. Tarasenko assisted on goals by Brayden Schenn and David Perron before being on the receiving end of this nice bank pass by Jaden Schwartz:

2. Michael Raffl, Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers built up a 5-0 lead by the end of the second period en route to a 6-2 win over the Golden Knights, snapping a four-game losing streak in the process. Raffl chipped in a pair of goals and added an assist for his first multi-goal game since March 15, 2016. Oskar Lindblom and Travis Konecny each recorded a goal and an assist, while Brian Elliott turned away 33 shots.

3. Anders Nilsson, Ottawa Senators: The Senators netminder put forth a strong effort during a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars. Nilsson stopped 41 shots as the Stars won consecutive games for the first time this season. This was the second straight start for the Swedish netminder where he faced at least 43-plus shots.

Highlights of the Night

• Raffl showed off his moves on this one:

Gustav Nyquist‘s penalty shot goal in overtime put the Blue Jackets over the Maple Leafs 4-3:

Factoids

Scores
Flyers 6, Golden Knights 2
Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT)
Blues 3, Avalanche  1
Stars 2, Senators 1

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Avs’ Rantanen leaves game with ugly-looking foot injury

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The last thing the red-hot Colorado Avalanche wanted to see was an injury to one of their star players. Off to a 7-0-1 start and atop the Central Division, things have been going well for a team many expect to take a large leap forward this season.

But now they might have to deal with a blow to their lineup after Mikko Rantanen suffered a lower-body injury during Monday’s 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues.

The Avalanche forward was skating alongside the wall when his skate got caught in the ice and turned his foot in a very wrong direction. Rantanen, who did not make contact with any Blues player during the play, limped to the dressing room and was later ruled out for the remainder of the game.

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Your foot should not be looking that way…

Rantanen has five goals and 12 points through eight games this season. He’s been relatively healthy in his three full NHL seasons, missing only 16 games since 2016-17.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Heavy Lifting: Five NHL lines that are carrying their teams

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Let’s take a quick look around the NHL at five lines that are doing the most to carry their teams (or at least their offense) through the first month of the season.

This is always kind of a good news/bad news situation because the good news is your team has a dominant top line that can change a game every night. The bad news is that one line teams do not tend to do very well in the long run. Balance is important!

We are focussing on 5-on-5 production with this look and right now these five teams are fairly dependent on these lines to carry the play.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Edmonton Oilers
The Line: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zack Kassian

This line might be the definition of “heavy lifting.”

This trio has been on the ice for nearly 30 percent of the Oilers’ total 5-on-5 minutes, a substantial workload even by top line standards. Individually, McDavid and Draisaitl are the top-two forwards in the league in even-strength ice-time per game (Kassian is 22nd), both averaging more than 18:30 per game (Mathew Barzal is the only other forward that plays more than 18 minutes of even-strength ice-time per game).

Then we get to the production.

In 124 minutes this trio has outscored teams by an 11-3 margin and been completely dominant. That is 60 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 goals, while the team has been outscored by a 6-8 margin at 5-on-5 when this trio is not on the ice.

It is the same story as it has always been for the Oilers where they need to skate McDavid and Draisaitl into the ground to compete. So far this season it has worked. But we have seen over the past four years that it is not really the best long-term recipe for sustained success.

Boston Bruins
The Line: Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand

When these three are together they are as good as it gets in the NHL.

Bergeron and Marchand are two of the best all-around players in the league, while Pastrnak is quickly turning into one of the most dangerous goal-scorers around. The big question for the Bruins has always been their depth around this line and if they can get enough offense from lines two through four to complement them. Through the first month of the 2019-20 season that concern is still very much the same.

This line has only played 86 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together (about 22 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 total) and has already scored seven goals in those minutes. The Bruins have just six 5-on-5 goals in the remaining 306 minutes of 5-on-5 time that they have played this season, and two of those goals came when Marchand and Pastrnak were together without Bergeron.

As this line goes, so go the Bruins.

Winnipeg Jets
The Line: Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler

With the Jets’ defense in shambles following the offseason, the team has had to rely on the strength of its forwards to remain competitive.

The big line of Scheifele, Laine, and Wheeler has certainly done its part to make sure that happens. Not only in terms of their own production, but also in how much the rest of the team has struggled when they are not on the ice. In nearly 300 minutes of 5-on-5 play without any of these three on the ice, the Jets have managed a grand total of four goals.

Pittsburgh Penguins
The Line: Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Dominik Simon

You could put together a pretty good forward lineup with the players the Penguins have out of the lineup right now. One of the biggest reasons they have kept winning through all of the injuries has been the play of their top line of Crosby, Guentzel, and Simon.

The latter member of this line is a point of much contention in Pittsburgh because he never scores goals himself, but the team loves him on the top line alongside Crosby and Guentzel and the overall numbers justify his existence on that line (it scores more goals with him than it does without him). So far this season Crosby is playing at an MVP level, Guentzel is doing his best to show his 40-goal season a year ago was no fluke, and Simon keeps making plays that keeps the play alive in the offensive zone and leads to offense. In 111 minutes together this trio has already combined to score eight of the the team’s 20 five-on-five goals this season.

New York Rangers
The line: Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad

The third member of this line has mostly been Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich at different times, but the main drivers here are Panarin and Zibanejad.

Panarin has already scored four goals in the team’s first six games and has been everything the Rangers could have expected and hoped when they signed him in free agency. Zibanejad, meanwhile, is off to one of the best offensive starts in franchise history with 11 points in six games. When that duo is together the Rangers have doubled up their opponents on the scoreboard and scored like one of the league’s elite lines.

The problem with this Rangers team in the short-term was always going to be the lack of depth around them, and so far the Rangers have looked rather punchless at even-strength when their top duo is off the ice.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Fast starts most likely to continue

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we are taking a look at 10 fast starts around the league and which ones are most likely to continue, and which ones are most likely not to continue.

How are we defining a fast start? It’s pretty simple, actually — teams that as of Monday have a .640 points percentage or better so far this season. A .640 points percentage over an 82-game season would be a 105-point pace, so it is obviously pretty high level of play.

There are 10 teams that qualify, and not all of them will continue that level of play throughout the season. Just for comparisons sake, there were nine teams off to the same start through same date a year ago and three of them ended up missing the playoffs. In 2017-18, four of the nine teams off to a similar start also ended up missing. So it stands to reason that a handful of these teams are going to significantly cool off.

This isn’t necessarily a ranking of which of these teams has played the best so far, but a ranking of which ones are most likely to continue playing well.

Who is for real and who is not? To the rankings!

Fast starts that will continue

1. Colorado Avalanche. Entering play on Monday they are 7-0-1 on the season and have the best record in the league, earning 15 out of a possible 16 points in the standings. The scary thing about them? They may not be playing their best hockey just yet. 

2. Carolina Hurricanes. Speaking of not playing their best hockey yet, the Hurricanes have won six out of their first nine games and have just three goals from the trio of Sebastian Aho, Nino Niederreiter, and Andrei Svechnikov. It is a testament to the depth they have assembled that three of their top players can be off to such a slow start and the team can still win the way it has.

3. Washington Capitals. They are the highest scoring team in the league, have been one of the top possession teams, and still haven’t received great goaltending from Braden Holtby. The latter part should scare the rest of the Metropolitan Division because even if Holtby doesn’t return to his former Vezina Trophy form he can still be better than he has been.

4. Vegas Golden Knights. The top of their lineup is full of impact players (especially Mark Stone, who has been incredible to start the year) but one of the big wild cards on this team is the emergence of rookie Cody Glass. He already has six points in his first nine games.

Fast starts, but with some questions

5. Boston Bruins. The biggest question here is the same one they have had for the past two years — will they get enough secondary scoring after their top line? Right now if one of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, or Patrice Bergeron does not score a goal, no one is scoring. They managed to find enough secondary scoring to reach Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, so it may not be a huge concern in the long-run, but this is still a very top-heavy team so far this season.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins. Interesting team so far in the sense they have probably overachieved given the injury situation that has taken half of their forward lineup away. They are playing the way coach Mike Sullivan wants them to play, and they have played extremely well, but we still haven’t seen the Penguins as they were meant to look this season. Still not entirely sold on the defense, and I question how much of this early success is entirely sustainable.

Fast starts, but with some real concerns 

7. Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks won five of their first seven games last year — thanks mostly to John Gibson — before completely falling apart. The one thing that should give a little more optimism this time around is Dallas Eakins seems to have them playing a more sustainable style of hockey — one that does not rely entirely on goaltending — and they have actually carried the play in some of their wins. The concern is I am just not sure there is enough offense here and their two goalies have a combined save percentage of .940. What happens when that drops a bit?

8. Arizona Coyotes. They barely missed the playoffs a year ago and have probably been better than you realize at the start of the season. The concerns here are the same as in Anaheim, where they are still very dependent on incredible goaltending and there is not a ton of offense to work with.

9. Buffalo Sabres. For the second year in a row the Sabres are one of the big stories in the NHL with a fast start, entering play on Monday with a 7-1-1 record. There is reason to believe they can avoid the total meltdown they experienced a year ago thanks to an improved roster (offseason additions of Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju, Marcus Johansson, while Rasmus Dahlin has a full season in the NHL under his belt) and what seems to be a better coach. But there are also still some real concerns. Carter Hutton won’t keep stopping 95 percent of the shots he faces. Victor Olofsson won’t keep scoring on 30 percent of his shots. They still play in an extremely tough division. There is reason to expect some regression here as the season goes on.

10. Edmonton Oilers. It’s been amazing start, but James Neal is not going to keep scoring on 30 percent of his shots and once that stops this team has the same problem it has had for years in that there is not enough depth after Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They have feasted on a light schedule so far (and those points still count) but this is a team that needs to prove it over a full season before anyone fully buys into it.

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.