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Penguins bidding for Cup repeat, with largely the same roster

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Matt Cullen is well aware of the Stanley Cup hangover. The longtime NHL forward helped the Carolina Hurricanes raise the trophy in joy in the spring of 2006 and watched from afar after signing with the New York Rangers while his former teammates missed the postseason completely the following season.

The trappings of success – and the considerable emotional and physical toll it takes to get to the top – make sustaining it all the more difficult.

Yet the 39-year-old Cullen is back for another run with the Pittsburgh Penguins anyway, returning for a 19th season in part because he still loves the game and in part because he doesn’t see the edge the team carried on its way to the franchise’s fourth Cup has dulled in the slightest. The proof came in the form of a three-on-three drill during a training camp practice that Cullen likened to a playoff atmosphere, even with the postseason still more than six months away.

“It would be easy to come in and have a bit of a lackadaisical camp and feel good about what you did last year,” Cullen said. “But I think guys have done a good job of turning the page.”

Pittsburgh’s bold-faced names included. Captain Sidney Crosby, mired in such a deep funk at the beginning of 2015-16 it seemed as if his prime had come and gone, backed up his Conn Smythe-winning performance as the playoff MVP by brilliantly leading Team Canada to victory in the World Cup of Hockey.

“I don’t have to look too far to think about how tough it was a year ago starting out the season,” Crosby said after picking up 10 points during the tournament. “I think I appreciate this a lot.”

And the shot to do it – well, at least the Cup part – again in 2017. Pittsburgh did little to tinker with the roster that toppled San Jose in six games in the Cup final, instead doubling down on the mix of talent, speed, youth and grit that gelled so fiercely when Mike Sullivan was promoted to replace Mike Johnston as head coach in the middle of December.

The only notable departures during the offseason were oft-injured forward Beau Bennett and veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy. Almost all of the free-agent deals they struck were of the two-way variety for players who will be asked to fill when the regulars get banged up. Regardless of who is out there, the task will be the same as it was since the day Sullivan took over: play fast, play aggressive and never stop working.

“I think we have a courageous group,” Sullivan said. “For me the best kind of toughness is the type of toughness that doesn’t allow your opponents to deter you from your game and what I’ve admired about our group was the focus of determination to play our game and not somebody else’s.”

Some things to look for as Pittsburgh tries to become the first team in nearly 20 years to repeat.

GOALTENDING QUANDRY: At some point the Penguins are going to have to decide who their No. 1 goaltender is after rookie Matt Murray played so solidly during the postseason after Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a concussion on the eve of the playoffs. Sullivan as committed to splitting the playing time fairly evenly, though Fleury will get the majority of the reps early as Murray recovers from a broken hand.

Both players insist they’re fine with whatever role they’re assigned and if they weren’t, it’s not like general manager Jim Rutherford particularly cares.

“I’m happy we have two good goalies regardless of whether they have injuries or not,” Rutherford said.

REUNION TOUR: The “HBK” line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel was Pittsburgh’s most dynamic during the playoffs, combining for 56 points. Kessel led the way (12 goals, 10 assists) to exorcise some of the demons from his tumultuous time in Toronto. In the smooth skating Hagelin and the savvy Bonino, Kessel found ideal running mates. While replicating that level of production will be difficult over the course of an 82-game season, it’s a pretty sweet starting point.

YOUNG D: One of the reasons the Penguins let Lovejoy walk is because of a surplus of talent along the blue line, including 22-year-old Derrick Pouliot. The former first-round pick is still trying to put it all together after spending the last two years bouncing between the NHL and the minors. Sullivan has impressed upon Pouliot the importance of making the simple play instead of the hard one, a differentiation that Pouliot has often struggled with. The Penguins have paired him with Trevor Daley at times in the preseason in hopes Daley’s intelligent approach will rub off.

 

Previewing the 2019-20 Calgary Flames

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: This was an offseason of mostly lateral moves for the Flames, exemplified by Calgary bringing in an uncertain but slightly younger goalie (Cam Talbot) for an aging and all-over-the-place netminder (Mike Smith).

The Milan LucicJames Neal trade seems like a loss for the Flames, but then again, Neal just didn’t fit for Calgary, to the point that things bordered on awkward.

Let’s consider the Flames marginally worse. In all honesty, the biggest hits came in Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when they were embarrassed by the Avalanche.

Strengths: When you look at the best of the best in Calgary, the Flames boast talent that can hang with just about anyone. Mark Giordano‘s been considered an uncrowned Norris Trophy defenseman for some time, and he finally sat on that throne after 2018-19. Johnny Gaudreau is one of the most sublimely gifted playmakers in the NHL, and thus helps his top line usually rank among the best in the league most seasons. Matthew Tkachuk isn’t just an antagonist; like Brad Marchand, he’s also a player who annoys opponents because he’s also really good.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, the Flames are still a bit lacking when it comes to depth at both the forwards and defense positions. If Gaudreau’s line falters and Tkachuk’s trio cannot score, the Flames are in trouble — and there’s quite a bit of a drop from Giordano to other blueliners.

Goaltending remains a big question, too. Can Talbot form a strong tandem with David Rittich?

[MORE: Under Pressure: Treliving | 3 QuestionsTalbot the X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): For the most part, Bill Peters’ first season in Calgary was a success, although the postseason was rough, and you wonder if some blame Peters for lacking answers as Colorado mopped the floor with his Flames.

Peters’ seat warms up in part because his “riverboat gambler” GM Brad Treliving as made a lot of big bets, and many some are wondering if Calgary should cash out. Coaches often get sent out with fired GMs, so that’s something to consider.

Overall, I’d put Peters at about a four.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Cam Talbot, Matthew Tkachuk, Milan Lucic.

Talbot went from being a fantastic backup with the Rangers to a workhorse early on for the Oilers — to the point that Edmonton wore him out like an NFL RB who saw far too many carries. Talbot’s stature in the league plummeted, yet at 32, he’s not so old that a rebound is totally out of the question.

Tkachuk stands with a handful of high-profile RFA stars who still need new contracts. He’ll be fascinating to watch as those negotiations play out, whether we’re debating the merits of a deal soon, or watching as things drag out into the season. Either way, he’ll draw attention, especially when he has that mouthpiece dangling obnoxiously out of his maw.

Every now and then, a “change of scenery” really does work out, at least if you keep expectations in check. The Flames may end up playing to Lucic’s strengths more effectively than the Oilers, or Lucic may simply have needed a reboot. Or he’s just washed. It could be that last one.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. It seemed like a few Flames played over their heads, and Giordano’s getting up there in age at 35, so there’s a risk that Calgary lags behind the Sharks and/or Golden Knights during the regular season. Still, with the Pacific being as weak as it is, it would be a surprise if the Flames missed the postseason altogether.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Arizona Coyotes

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)
 
For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Better. The Coyotes made a splash when they acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins this off-season. Assuming he comes in with the right attitude, Kessel alone makes the Coyotes a better team. The ‘Yotes haven’t had a sniper like him in a long time and head coach Rick Tocchet’s ability to get the most out of Kessel should help Arizona in a big way. Let’s not forget, this Coyotes team is young, too. So, there should be some internal progression as well.

Strengths: Arizona has quietly built up some solid depth down the middle of the ice. When healthy, Nick Schmaltz produced offensively, as he accumulated 14 points in his first 17 games with his new team. If he can keep that up, the Coyotes will be that much tougher to stop. They also have veterans like Derek Stepan and Carl Soderberg that will make important contributions this year. We’ve already talked about Kessel and what he brings to the table, but they also have other dynamic forwards on the wing like Clayton Keller and Christian Dvorak, too.

The Coyotes also have a deep blue line with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jakob Chychrun and Jason Demers. And their goaltending is stable with Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper.

[MORE: Under Pressure: Kessel | X-factor | Three questions]

Weaknesses: Overall depth might be an issue up front. Do they have enough players in the bottom-six that can contribute offensively when their offensive-minded players go quiet? Overall, this is a well-balanced team that could use more depth, but which team doesn’t need that?

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Let’s go with a four for Rick Tocchet. He’s not really on the hot seat going into the season, but his team also has to show some significant signs of improvement this year. They finished ninth in the Western Conference last year (they missed the playoffs by four points), so they have to improve this year or the seat will get hotter for Tocchet.

Three Most Fascinating Players: You can’t have a fascinating players section on the Coyotes roster and not talk about Kessel. We know what Kessel is capable of doing on the ice, but how will he mesh with his new teammates off the ice? Can he be the leader Arizona needs him to be? We’re starting to hear more and more about his fractured relationship with some of his old teammates in Pittsburgh. The Coyotes have to be hoping that something similar doesn’t happen to them.

Schmaltz is also an intriguing name. After being acquired from Chicago, he nearly scored at a point-per-game clip. Can he post similar numbers over an 82-game stretch? Schmaltz has all the talent to succeed at the NHL and now he has a golden opportunity to be one of the offensive catalysts on an up-and-coming roster that should push for a playoff spot this year.

The goaltending situation will also be something to keep an eye on. Raanta was limited to just 12 games last season after he had a career year in 2017-18. But once he was forced from the lineup Kuemper came in and did a nice job of keeping the Coyotes competitive. Does Raanta bounce back? Does Kuemper keep rolling? It might be a little bit of both.

Playoffs or Lottery: This is a tough one. It would be amazing to see the Coyotes sneak into the playoffs. The issue is finding which of the top eight teams they’ll finish ahead of this season. If the Rantanen hold out lasts long, can they sneak in ahead of Colorado, who finished in the last Wild Card spot last year? Maybe, but that’s still not a given. I think the Coyotes will miss the playoffs by less points (four) than they did last year.

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

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Dan Girardi hangs up his skates after 13 NHL seasons

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Dan Girardi has announced his retirement from hockey after 13 NHL seasons with the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I would like to thank all my coaches, family, friends and teammates for supporting me throughout my entire hockey career,” Girardi said in a statement. “I want to thank the New York Rangers for giving me a chance to fulfill my childhood dream of playing in the NHL. Throughout those 11 incredible years I have made so many friends on and off the ice. I bled Ranger blue and gave it my all for my team, the city and the Garden faithful.

“I also want to thank the Tampa Bay Lightning for helping me continue my career by giving me a chance to play for such an amazing organization, city and fan base. The last two years in Tampa Bay have been so much fun for me and my family. I will always fondly remember my time here. Finally, I want to thank my wife Pamela for always being there for me and holding down the fort and to Landon and Shaye for always being daddy’s No. 1 fans.”

Undrafted out of the Ontario Hockey League, Girardi was invited to Rangers camp in 2005 and earned himself a two-way contract. After a year-and-a-half in the ECHL and AHL, he was called up to the NHL where he would remain until the end of the 2018-19 season. He would help lead the Rangers to the postseason 10 times, which included a trip to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

Following his 11 seasons in New York, Girardi was bought out of the final three years of his contract in 2017 and would sign on with the Lightning for the final two seasons of his career.

The 35-year-old Girardi finishes with 927 NHL games played, 56 goals, 264 points, and 1,954 blocked shots, the most by any player since the league began recording the stat in 2005-06. His 143 playoff games puts him 30th all-time by a defensemen.

“I gave my all every single night and left it all out on the ice,” Girardi said. “Now it’s time for the next chapter of my life to begin and I couldn’t be happier…and so is my body.”

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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Anaheim Ducks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse. The Ducks have been competitive for over a decade, so it wasn’t surprising to see them take a step back last year. Unfortunately for Anaheim, their core is getting older and they really didn’t improve their roster very much over the course of the summer. They lost Corey Perry and some other depth players, but they didn’t add any significant pieces. They hired Dallas Eakins as their new head coach, but it’ll be tough for him to make a significant difference. It’s tough to argue that this group is better.

Strengths: Their biggest strength is between the pipes. John Gibson put together an incredible season last year. His numbers may not jump off the page but make no mistake, he was the reason they weren’t out of it earlier than they were. The 26-year-old had a 26-22-8 record with a 2.84 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage last season. If the Ducks are going to improve this season, they’ll need some of their kids like Troy Terry, Max Jones, Sam Steel, and Max Comtois to take steps forward and need their goalie to stand on his head on a nightly basis. Gibson is one of the top goalies in the league and that shouldn’t change in 2019-20.

Weaknesses: Their overall depth has taken a hit over the last few years. Sure, they still have good players like Ryan Getzlaf and Adam Henrique down the middle, and Rickard Rakell, Ondrej Kase and Jakob Silfverberg on the wings. They also have Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Cam Fowler on defense. The rest of the team has taken a bit of dip. Perry’s gone and Ryan Kesler is injured, and Patrick Eaves is likely retired. When you’ve been good for so long, these things will eventually happen.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 1. Let’s give Eakins some time. He’ll have plenty of challenges ahead with the edition of the Ducks. It’ll be important for him to assess the talent at his disposal quickly and he’ll need to figure out a way to get the most out of this group of players. Again, success probably won’t come as early as this season, but if the Ducks allow him to shape the roster how he sees fit, they could make strides in the near future. How much time he gets to build this program remains to be seen, but he can’t be on the hot seat yet!

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure: Getzlaf | X-Factor]

Three Most Fascinating Players: It’ll be interesting to see how some of the young players perform this season. Daniel Sprong, Nick Ritchie and Brendan Guhle should all be part of this roster when training camp ends. How much will they contribute though?

Sprong was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. In 47 games with the Ducks, he put up 14 goals and 19 points, which isn’t terrible. Can he build on that season? We’ve mentioned that Anaheim’s depth may be a problem for them this year, so getting added contributions from talented youngsters like Sprong will be key. There’s no denying his ability on the ice, but the 22-year-old needs to put it all together now. 14 goals in 47 games works out to a 24-goal campaign over 82 contests. Can he flirt with 25 goals?

Ritchie is also a fascinating case. The 23-year-old was drafted 10th overall by the Ducks back in 2014, but he hasn’t had as big an impact as many expected him to since turning pro. Ritchie had nine goals and a career-high 31 points in 60 games in 2018-19. He needs to pick it up. He needs to lead the next waive of young players in the organization. He’s got size, he’s got skill and now he needs to make an impact on this Ducks roster. He can’t just be another depth player.

As for Guhle, he was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres last season. The former second-rounder played in just six games with Anaheim last season. The Ducks have Fowler, Manson and Lindholm on their blue line, but there are openings behind those three players. Guhle has to show that he’s capable of making this roster and eating up some important minutes for Anaheim this season. The 22-year-old needs to add stability to the Ducks on the back end.

Playoffs or Lottery: They’ll be in the lottery this year. Again, they have some talented players, but they don’t have enough of them. It’ll take some time for them to draft and develop the next generation of Ducks, but that re-tooling had to begin eventually. No playoffs for the Ducks this year.

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

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.