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Let’s talk about why the Penguins traded for Ryan Reaves

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From a big picture perspective the Pittsburgh Penguins acquisition of Ryan Reaves on Friday night isn’t really a major deal. Normally teams swapping fourth-liners and 20 draft spots wouldn’t be the type of move that would move the needle or send any sort of a ripple through the NHL.

This one is a little different.

This is the Pittsburgh Penguins — the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions — ever so slightly deviating from the path that made them the best team in hockey the past two seasons.

As general manager Jim Rutherford put it on Friday night after the trade, “We’re getting a little bit tired of getting beat up game after game.”

Rutherford was critical of the way superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were treated during the postseason and talked about how his team would pretty much have to add one or two players to take care of it since the league does not seem to protect its stars.

Commissioner Gary Bettman quickly dismissed that criticism upon hearing it.

On Friday, Rutherford added that guy and the discussion quickly turned toward the element Reaves brings and what it might mean for the Penguins.

Coach Mike Sullivan talked about how opponents played the Penguins “harder” this past season and that they expect it to continue again this upcoming season, and that Reaves can help with “a little pushback” and how teams “take notice” when he is in the lineup.

Reaves himself talked about what he can provide for the Penguins’ stars.

Here he is, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“It’s more just making sure everybody on the ice knows I’m coming every night. You go run one of my guys, you’ve got 230 pounds coming right back at you. Sometimes that makes guys think twice. When you’re 190 pounds soaking wet and you’re going after somebody on my team, and you’ve got somebody that’s 230 coming after you, sometimes it’s a deterrent, sometimes it’s not. But I think that’s kind of how I’ve established myself over the last year.”

This isn’t the first time the Penguins have been inspired to go down this path due to the treatment of their superstars.

During the 2013-14 playoffs New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi and Marc Staal made a habit out of using the back of Crosby’s head and neck for cross-checking target practice in front of the net.

The response from Pittsburgh was outrage that nobody responded and for the team to add some sort of muscle to help take care of that.

Then this happened the following summer.

That guarantee went unfulfilled.

Liberties were still taken against not only Crosby and Malkin, but also against the Penguins’ other superstar, defenseman Kris Letang. He was on the receiving end of two brutal hits that injured him during the year. One resulting in a lengthy suspension to Zac Rinaldo, and another from Shane Doan that knocked Letang out of the lineup for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs.

They also tried it with Tom Sestito when they brought him in on a pro tryout contract. He ended up playing 17 games in two years with the Penguins. He was ejected from two of them.

Here he is at the time of his initial tryout talking about what he wanted to provide.

“When you play other teams and they have somebody who not only can play but can run their other guys, you see them holding off,” Sestito said. “They’re not going to be running other guys. Their third- and fourth-line guys aren’t going to run your guys.”

The names change. The idea remains the same.

Deter. Make them hesitate. Make them think about it. Answer back.

Still, the abuse continues.

All of this is a little unfair to Reaves because to his credit he has worked hard to improve his game as a hockey player and to be a little more than just hired muscle. He has worked to adapt his style to the faster NHL and to improve his play defensively. There was evidence of that this past season when he set career highs in goals and points.

If the focus on this acquisition were on that, or on his ability to forecheck, this would simply be a trade involving a couple of fourth-liners and we wouldn’t be talking about it right now.

But we keep going back to the presence, and the element, and pushback, and protection, and deterrence, mainly because that’s what the Penguins seemed to be after with this trade. Or at least what they seem to be selling.

So will any of that work? Can Reaves actually provide that sort of protection?

There is no doubt he will be willing to respond after the fact, because even though his fight totals have decreased in recent years he is still a willing heavyweight.

The issue is whether or not he can stop even a little bit of the abuse toward his teammates by making opponents like Washington’s Tom Wilson or Columbus’ Brandon Dubinsky (two of the biggest thorns in the Penguins’ side) take notice.

The easiest way to answer that now is to look at what sort of abuse the Blues — Reaves’ former team — took in recent years.

It was a lot.

Over the past four seasons the St. Louis Blues — Reaves’ former team — were on the receiving end of eight incidents that resulted in supplemental discipline from the NHL (suspension or fine), typically reserved for the dirtiest plays. The only team that was on the receiving end of more during that stretch was the Boston Bruins (10 –and keep in mind, this was a team that had Shawn Thornton and Milan Lucic for most of those years).

During one nine-day stretch in 2014 the Blues lost T.J. Oshie and David Backes to head shots. The two hits resulted in seven games in suspensions while Oshie and Backes both missed playoff games. Reaves was in the lineup both nights.

The next season Minnesota’s Marco Scandella was fined for an illegal hit to the head on Oshie. Last year New Jersey’s Bobby Farnham was hit with a four-game ban for taking a late, cheap run at Dmitri Jaskin while Reaves was on the ice. There are also several other borderline hits that did not result in supplemental discipline (like this, and this, and this).

This isn’t to suggest that Reaves is bad at his job or that he is somehow responsible for those plays.

It is to point out that dirty stuff is still going to happen to star players whether he — or any player like him — is there or not.

Players like Tom Wilson, and Brandon Dubinsky, and Bobby Farnham are paid a lot of money to rattle the cages of players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That is what they do. That is their role and they are going to do it whether there is a physical element in the other team’s lineup or not.

The only thing that can stop it is a significant crackdown from the league to hand out harsher punishments when it happens.

It is very possible that Reaves can be a useful fourth-liner for the Penguins. He will play physical, he will be aggressive on the forecheck, he might chip in a few goals. Is he better than whatever alternative options they could have had for that spot? Or what they had in that spot a year ago? That remains to be seen.

The cost to acquire him really isn’t that high. Oskar Sundqvist seems to have limited upside and the difference between the No. 31 and 51 picks is typically insignificant, especially in what is thought to be a weaker class.

But if the Penguins are hoping for Reaves’ presence to stop opposing players from taking liberties against their stars they are probably setting themselves up for disappointment.

All it might do is get them the occasional pound of flesh in return after the fact and whatever satisfaction that brings them.

Maybe that is all they are looking for. Maybe it is a message to the league itself.

Whatever the reason, it is something they did not need on their way to consecutive championships.

NHL’s top two teams meet as Lightning, Maple Leafs face off

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The NHL’s best team is getting even stronger on Thursday night when the Tampa Bay Lightning will welcome back starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The Vezina Trophy finalist from 2017-18 hasn’t played in more than a month, while the Lightning still managed to go on a 12-3-0 run during his absence including the seven-game winning streak the team is currently riding into Thursday night. It’s a testament to how dominant the rest of the team around him is that they kept piling up wins at such a ridiculous pace.

His return comes at a perfect time for the Lightning and helps set up a titanic regular season matchup of Stanley Cup contenders when the Lightning host the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As far as mid-December regular season games go, it doesn’t really get much more exciting than this.

[Related: Vasilevskiy back for Lightning after Domingue’s stretch of solid play]

The Lightning and Maple Leafs enter Thursday as the top two teams in the NHL, sitting first and second in total points, first and second in goal differential, first and second in goals scored, and are both among the top-10 in terms of fewest goals against. The two teams also boast six of the top-30 individual scorers in the league (including three of the top-seven) and that list doesn’t include Auston Matthews, one of the game’s elite offensive talents, who has 16 goals and 27 total points in only 17 games.

Tampa Bay’s offense has been especially dominant this season and is currently averaging an almost unheard of four goals per game. The last time an NHL team averaged more than four goals per game over an entire season was the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins with an average of 4.41. Only five other teams since then have been above 3.80 over a full season.

Only three teams over the past 25 years have scored more goals than Tampa Bay’s 130 through the first 32 games of a season: The 1995-96 Penguins, 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche, and the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators.

The Maple Leafs are not far behind them with 113 goals (a 3.61 goals per game average) in their 31 games, and they have done that while only getting 20 combined man-games from Matthews and William Nylander, two of their top-three leading scorers from a year ago.

That all brings us to the next big thing regarding Thursday’s game as both star-laden rosters are starting to get back to full-strength.

While the Lightning are getting Vasilevskiy back on Thursday, the Maple Leafs recently welcomed Matthews back to their lineup after he was sidelined with an injury and also have Nylander starting to make an impact after he missed the first quarter of the season due to an unresolved contract issue. The only key player for either team that isn’t playing on Thursday night is Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman.

It’s also a pretty massive game for what it means to the Atlantic Division playoff race because a Lightning win would extend what is already a pretty significant lead.

If the Lightning end up taking this game in regulation it would extend their lead in the Division (and also the lead for the top spot in the Eastern Conference) to eight points. Even if it’s only the middle of December that would still be a significant lead and a gap that would be extremely difficult for any team to make up — even one as good as Toronto. A Maple Leafs win in regulation cuts the gap to four. That is a massive swing one way or another.

If nothing else, this game is a great preview for a potential early playoff matchup.

Barring some sort of second half collapse from either team they have established themselves as the top teams in the Atlantic Division and look like strong bets to finish at least in the top-three, with Tampa Bay positioning itself well for the top spot. Assuming all of that happens, and assuming both teams take care of business in their opening round matchups where they will almost certainly be favored, they would be meeting in the second round. There is a lot of hockey to be played before it gets to that point, and a lot of things still have to happen, but on paper it’s an exciting matchup to think about and we will get to see our first preview of what it might look like this season on Thursday night.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Vasilevskiy back for Lightning after Domingue’s solid stretch of play

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Andrei Vasilevskiy will be back in goal Thursday night as the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Toronto Maple Leafs. It will be the netminder’s first appearance since a fractured foot knocked him out of the lineup a month ago. 

That loss could have spelled danger, even for a strong team like the Lightning; and general manager Julien BriseBois could have gone out and plucked a goalie off waivers or made a trade for the short-term. Instead, they rode Louis Domingue (and Eddie Pasquale for one start) to a 12-3-0 record and enter this matchup between the NHL’s top two teams on a seven-game winning streak.

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It was Nov. 2017 when the Lightning acquired Domingue from the Arizona Coyotes as an insurance policy. When Vasilevskiy’s backup at the time, Peter Budaj, got hurt, Domingue stepped into the No. 2 role and ended up starting 11 games last season.

Having already been an NHL starter in Arizona and having worked previously with Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean, it seemed like a good fit. Domingue’s play in 2017-18 earned him a two-year, $2.3M extension and he’s proven to be worth every penny so far. Not bad for a guy whose career was in limbo just before he landed in Tampa.

In Domingue’s 14 starts since Vasilevskiy’s injury he’s posted a .919 even strength save percentage while facing the second-most shots at 5-on-5 (374) over that span. It hasn’t always been pretty — he’s allowed three or more goals eight times in that stretch — but when you’re on the NHL’s top-scoring team, they’ll bail you out on a bad night more often than not.

“When your starter goes down and you know this isn’t a couple of days thing, it’s a month thing, now you’re looking saying ‘Holy cow, I’m going to be starting a bunch of games in a row here,'” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “So mentally there’s a hurdle there to get over. He was probably sitting there saying I’ve got to make every single save. When you start putting a little too much pressure on yourself… he just needed to relax a little bit and understand we’ll get some goals, just make the saves when you can and if you can help bail us out sometimes, do it. That’s what he’s done of late and been really confident in net.”

Also, during most of his run, Domingue wore a neat mask during Hockey Fights Cancer month which featured drawings done by kids being treated at Children’s Cancer Center of Tampa Bay.

As Vasilevskiy returns, the Lightning now know they have a proven No. 2 behind him who can instill confidence in teammates when he gets the call. And with Vasilevskiy having started 64 games last season, Domingue’s presence will allow Cooper to rest his starter when needed — an issue that came up last season.

“It’s a team sport and the reason you’ve got guys in line waiting to play is in case injuries happen,” said Cooper. “You don’t want anybody get to hurt, ever, but you can lose your starting goaltender for a month or so. That’s 15 or 16 games. Somebody’s got to fill that void and step in and Louis has done an unreal job.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Sorry, Seattle: NHL GMs learned from Vegas expansion draft

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By STEPHEN WHYNO (AP Hockey Writer)

Hindsight is 43/35 for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That’s how many goals and assists William Karlsson put up for the Vegas Golden Knights after the Blue Jackets let him go in the most recent NHL expansion draft. They also sent first- and second-round draft picks to Vegas to unload David Clarkson‘s contract and hold on to forward Josh Anderson and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo.

”I think we’ve looked at probably 100 times already that, ‘Could we have done something different the last time around?”’ Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. ”Probably not. You’re going to make some mistakes and you might let the wrong guy go. You do your studying, you do your evaluation of your players and you do your projections and it’s not an exact science.”

Maybe the second time’s the charm.

NHL teams face another expansion draft in 2021, when Seattle enters the league. And the Seattle GM, whoever that turns out to be, probably won’t receive the same kind of windfall George McPhee picked up in 2017 to help the Golden Knights make a run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final because some important lessons have been learned.

”We might get to a situation where we’re like, ‘Boy I don’t want to lose any of these guys,’ so a team may have to do it again,” Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said. ”But we’ve lived it now and I think we’ll have a better understanding of it. And if you’re going to (make a trade), you’re going to make sure it’s for the right person. You’re going to be like: ‘I’m giving up a lot of assets here. Is this the right thing to do?”’

McPhee held all the leverage that summer, and he stockpiled talent as a result. Because only seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender (or seven skaters at any position and a goaltender) could be protected, a lot of deep teams were stuck with core players unprotected and willing to do almost anything to keep them.

Just some of the ”fear factor” moves: The Wild traded prospect Alex Tuch and let center Erik Haula go to Vegas to keep Matt Dumba. The Panthers traded Reilly Smith and lost Jonathan Marchessault. The Islanders traded a first-round pick to get rid of Mikhail Grabovski’s contract. The Ducks traded Shea Theodore to clear Clayton Stoner’s salary and keep Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson. The Penguins even sent a future second-round pick to ensure Vegas would take goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Chuck Fletcher, who was Minnesota’s GM, figured out the hard way that expansion means every team loses something. Now with Philadelphia, his approach will likely be to lose as little as possible to Seattle.

”No matter what you do you’re going to lose a good player,” Fletcher said. ”You either let them make the choice for you or you try to help them out by making sure you’re keeping the things you want to keep. It was a great process to go through and I’m sure there were some lessons learned, but at the end of the day, if you have too many players than you can protect, you’ve got to pick your poison.”

A popular choice last time? Teams giving up players to clear salary-cap space. That was the impetus for the Fleury move and others, but so much time to prepare could reduce the need for those trades in the summer of 2021.

”That’s just one thing that I see could happen, that if the teams aren’t financially strapped against the cap then they don’t have to make those sacrifices of young players to get the cap relief,” Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning said.

With two full offseasons until Seattle can plunder 30 NHL teams (Vegas will not participate), a lot of GMs are already planning ahead. Offices in Columbus and Dallas have already been the scene of some long-range preparation while acknowledging a lot can change between now and then. Nill said teams will likely need to decide whether someone is a ”core player” or someone who isn’t going to be around in the future.

All GMs will need to grapple with the impact of no-movement clauses in player contracts that the NHL decreed must be protected in any expansion draft. Ottawa lost defenseman Marc Methot, in part, because Dion Phaneuf wouldn’t waive his no-movement clause. Now that GMs know the rules, deals through 2021 could be affected.

”You’re reluctant to give no-move clauses at any time, but certainly with knowing what your expansion protected list is going to be, I think that will make teams a little more cautious,” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said.

According to PuckPedia , there are already 36 players with no-movement clauses for 2021-22. The Penguins, Stars and Blackhawks lead the league with four players each. Don’t be surprised if GMs attempt to change some of those situations to put themselves in a better spot.

”You don’t want to fill your protection list with guys that you have to protect because of the clauses in their contract,” Kekalainen said. ”You want to fill it with the guys you want to protect, so you want to leave that option to yourself.”

DE-IMPROVED PENGUINS

After sitting in last place in the Eastern Conference on Nov. 20, Pittsburgh is 6-2-2 in its past 10 games to surge up the standings. Backup goaltender Casey DeSmith, who has stepped up for injured starter Matt Murray, is a big part of that with his 2.10 goals-against average and .927 save percentage over that time.

”I’m not surprised,” Rutherford said. ”Casey took the long road to the National Hockey League. He worked at it. He’s worked very close with Mike Buckley, our goalie coach, and he’s a goalie that really worked on his fundamentals.”

The Penguins activated Murray off injured reserve Wednesday. Even with Murray’s return, don’t expect Pittsburgh to keep DeSmith on the bench for long.

”You have to have two goalies because if you want to have a long run in the spring, you can’t wear your No. 1 goalie out,” Rutherford said.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The top two teams in the Atlantic Division face off Thursday when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Tampa Bay Lightning.

LEADERS

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 25; Assists: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 39; Points: Rantanen, 52; Ice time: Seth Jones (Columbus), 26:29; Goals-against average: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), 1.91; Save percentage: Rinne, 9.32.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed from Vancouver.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

PHT Morning Skate: 2018 U.S. Hockey HOF class inducted; Weezer at Winter Classic

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Former Michigan coach Red Berenson, three-time Olympic medalist Natalie Darwitz, Nashville Predators GM David Poile, Leland “Hago” Harrington, the first American-developed player to record a hat trick in the NHL, and ex-NHL referee Paul Stewart were inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Wednesday night. Late USA Hockey executive Jim Johannson was honored with the Lester Patrick Trophy. [U.S. Hockey HOF]

• Weezer will be your 2019 NHL Winter Classic (Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET; NBC) entertainment at Notre Dame Stadium when the Boston Bruins take on the Chicago Blackhawks. [Hollywood Reporter]

• The “college hockey line” is working quite well for the Bruins. [Bruins Daily]

Andrei Vasilevskiy is on the verge of returning for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He could be in goal tonight vs. Toronto. [NHL.com]

• Will the Detroit Red Wings ultimately decide to trade Jimmy Howard or keep him? [Detroit News]

• Guy Boucher’s future is among many questions the Ottawa Senators need to answer. [TSN]

• Brent Flahr follows Chuck Fletcher from Minnesota to become the Philadelphia Flyers’ Vice President and Assistant General Manager. [Flyers]

• Teenage defensemen are taking over the NHL. [EP Rinkside]

• Speaking of teenage defensemen, Miro Heiskanen is living up to expectations with the Dallas Stars. [ESPN]

Connor Hellebuyck has rebounded nicely, which is good for the Winnipeg Jets. [Sportsnet]

• A look at Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving’s penchant for dealing first-round picks. [Flames Nation]

• The Derick Brassard trade has done what it was supposed to do. [PensBurgh]

• Teams playing above their heads need to be realistic about their playoff chances. [Yahoo]

• Looking at the NHL’s best forward duos this season. [Nucks Misconduct]

• Ken Hitchcock is having quite the positive affect on the Edmonton Oilers. [The Point]

• A high school club hockey player has been suspended indefinitely from USA Hockey activities after he struck a defenseless player twice with his hockey stick during a game on Sunday. (With video) [WFAA]

• Finally, Darren Dreger was on Wednesday Night Hockey to talk about the the rumors in the trade market:

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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.