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The Penguins have some major depth issues that need to be addressed

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Nearly one quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season and the Pittsburgh Penguins are probably not exactly where they want to be at this point.

Entering play on Tuesday, when they will host the Buffalo Sabres, they are 17th in the NHL in points percentage, they have the third-worst goal differential (minus-18, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes) after losing games by margins of 10-7, 7-1 and 7-1, and are only a middle of the pack team in terms of their shot attempt and possession numbers. Their goals against numbers overall are ugly (largely due to the three blowout losses), but they are also only 25th in the league in goals per game.

None of that is great.

There are a lot of factors here.

The early season schedule to this point has been brutal, having already played six sets of back-to-back games (often against rested teams — including some of the best teams in the league). For a team that has played 214 games the past two seasons that is a tough way to open the season. Their backup goaltending situation early in the season was a disaster with Antti Niemi giving up goals in bunches.

It is not wrong to think that a better backup goaltending situation to start the year could have maybe produced an extra win, or that once the schedule calms down a little they will start to get back on track a little.

There is another issue at work here too that is going to need to be addressed in a meaningful way: The bottom of the roster, which was decimated by free agency and the salary cap over the summer, is giving them almost no offense to speak of. Or anything, really.

This brings back a problem that plagued the Penguins between the 2010 and 2015 seasons when they were getting bounced early in the playoffs despite having a group of All-Stars at the top of the roster.

Over the past two years general manager Jim Rutherford did a ton of work to build that depth back up and it resulted in back-to-back Stanley Cups.

This past summer a lot of that depth walked out the door in free agency with Nick Bonino (Nashville Predators), Matt Cullen (Minnesota Wild), Chris Kunitz (Tampa Bay Lightning), and Trevor Daley (Detroit Red Wings) all moving on. That also does not include the exit of Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, a pretty significant departure given how bad Niemi turned out to be.

That is a lot of depth to replace in one offseason, and to this point the Penguins have struggled to do it.

Instead of Bonino and Cullen at the third and fourth center spots they opened the season with Greg McKegg and Carter Rowney (currently injured), then traded for Riley Sheahan, a player that has not scored a goal in 97 of his past 98 games.

Ryan Reaves, brought in to add toughness, is playing just seven minutes per night and has replaced Kunitz.

Looking at it from a numbers perspective it is not hard to see how much of a drop this is has been for the offense.

Let’s break their forwards and their production down into two groups of six: The top-six in terms of ice-time and the bottom-six in terms of ice-time.

During the 2016-17 season the Penguins forwards that were 7-12 in ice-time averaged .445 points per game as a group.

So far this year? The 7-12 group is at just .201. A player that averages .201 points per game over 82 games scores just 16 points in a season. A .445 player scores 36.

That is a pretty substantial drop. To be fair we are also comparing a 19-game sampling with a full season. A lot can happen over the next few months. The table below breaks down the past two full seasons, as well as this one, to show where the Penguins were after 19 games and where they ended up.

In each of the past two seasons both groups were slow starters relative to where they ended up at the end of the season. But it wasn’t just a matter of players getting better or seeing their production in crease. In both instances there were pretty significant changes made to the roster.

In 2015-16 pretty much everything about the team changed after the first quarter of the season, from the head coach (Mike Johnston to Mike Sullivan) to almost half of the roster (Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Justin Schultz all being called up or added to the roster during the season).

In 2016-17 it was the call-up of Jake Guentzel that ended up making a huge difference (as well as the return of a lot of injured player).

The point here is if the Penguins are going to have any chance of another repeat run they are going to need to make similar changes at some point before the trade deadline.

In their two years as the Penguins’ third-and fourth-line centers Bonino and Cullen each averaged 15 goals and between 30-40 points.

Right now McKegg and Sheahan are on a four-goal and 11-point pace … combined.

The Penguins didn’t go from postseason disappointments to Stanley Cup champions the past two years because players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin got better or became better leaders or became more clutch. They were the same as they have always been (great). They became Stanley Cup champions again because players like Crosby and Malkin were still great, and they had a great supporting cast of players around them.

This is not to suggest the Penguins would necessarily be in a better situation with Bonino and Cullen and Kunitz at this point. Cullen is 41 years old and has one goal so far in Minnesota. At some point he will slow down. Bonino has played in just five games for the Predators due to injury and the Penguins never could have matched that contract offer under the salary cap. (Keeping Kunitz instead of adding Reaves probably would have been smart).

Their production from the past two seasons still existed and was a big part of the Penguins success. That is production they are not getting and are unlikely to get from the current cast of players in those roles as replacements.

There are some areas where improvement can come from. Sidney Crosby is going to play better. Kris Letang can (and probably will) play better. Prospect Daniel Sprong is off to a great start in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and could be on the Guentzel path to the NHL at some point later in the season.

The third-and fourth-line center spots, however, have become offensive black holes and with Reaves only playing seven minutes a night (sometimes significantly less) they are pretty much playing with an 11-man forward group.

All of those areas need to be addressed if another postseason run is going to happen this season.

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.

Day 3 of NHL training camps sees Kaprizov talk, Fleury absent again

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Day 3 of Return to Play training camps is another day closer to the puck being dropped for real. Teams are still trying to get back into game rhythm and rekindle the chemistry that was put on pause in mid-March.

The popular phrase “unfit to play” wasn’t uttered as much as it was on Monday and Tuesday. But given the “new normal” of injury reporting in the NHL now, we’ve certainly not heard the last of teams not expanding on why a player wasn’t on the ice.

Let’s take a quick skate around Wednesday’s happenings.

No panic over another Fleury absence

Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was not on the ice for the third straight day. The team stressed his absence was not COVID-19-related. Head coach Peter DeBoer said it’s just maintenance and he expects him to join the team before the weekend.

“He’s feeling good,” DeBoer said. “We’ve got a long runway here before we start. He really practiced hard. He doesn’t have anything significant. The plan is he will be on the ice before the weekend.”

Kaprizov signed, sealed, but yet to be delivered

Three head coaches and four general managers later, Kirill Kaprizov is finally a Wild player. The 2015 draft pick held a Zoom call with reporters and was virtually presented with his No. 97 jersey by GM Bill Guerin.

Wild TV

While Kaprizov is able to burn the first year of his two-year entry-level contract, he won’t be able to play in the Return to Play program. He will be able to practice with the Wild, pending he’s able to join the team before they head to Edmonton. The team is still working on visas for the 23-year-old forward. There’s also the issue of international quarantine once he arrives from Russia.

“He knows everybody’s waiting for him, and he can’t wait to put on the jersey himself, as well,” Kaprizov said through interpreter Alex Buzi. “He hopes that’s going to happen sometime as soon as next week, and he’s really eager and excited to join the team.”

What might Patrik Laine do during his down time in the bubble?

Maple Leafs getting into game mode early

There are roster spots up for grabs for the Maple Leafs, so what better way to help the selection process than a good old fashioned tournament.

That’s what head coach Sheldon Keefe did on Wednesday, splitting the squad up into two teams — Team Auston and Team Freddie — in a best-of-five series featuring officials.

“I think it was great. You’ve got to get used to where the refs are out there again. Coming into the zone, just setting up in the zone, it’s a little different when they’re not there,” said William Nylander said. “They take up some space so running our power play without would leave some extra space that we wouldn’t be used to once the games start. I think that was a great aspect to have included.”

The NHL has stepped in, however, and said no to officials in the future. The risk of exposure for both sides is too great of a risk.

Keeping up with the Kovalchuks

Ilya Kovalchuk played only seven games with the Capitals following the February trade from Montreal. After a forgettable time with the Kings, he was rejuvenated with the Canadiens, and there’s plenty of excitement to see him in that Washington lineup on an extended basis.

The 37-year-old was busy during the break with training and being occupied with his four kids.

“I gotta keep them busy and I want to lead by example, so we’re doing something every day,” he said. “No days off for our family.”

Even the training sessions became a family affair:

Vatanan healthy for Hurricanes

When the Hurricanes play the Rangers, Sami Vatanen will make his long-awaited debut for his new team. The defenseman has been out since suffering a leg injury Feb. 1. He was dealt from the Devils later that month but did not play for Carolina before the pause. Five months later, he’s good to go.

“Health-wise, I feel 100 percent,” Vatanen said. “I have no worries about that. Of course, it takes a little time to get to game speed, but we have a long time still until we start to play, so I will be ready.”

The Hurricanes’ blue line will be bolstered for their series with New York. Not only will they get Vatanen back, Dougie Hamilton will also make a return from injury. He fractured his left fibula in January.

“Dougie’s back, and now we’ve got to find somewhere else to put [Vatanen],” said Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “He’s a talented player. You’re talking power play. That’s what he does. He’s good at it, but there’s a learning curve, and we can’t wait five games to see if it will work with him.”

MORE: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.

‘Luck in disguise’: Layoff helps Blue Jackets get healthy

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Considering they are about to resume the season amid a pandemic, the Columbus Blue Jackets are healthier than they’ve been in a long while.

When the NHL halted play in mid-March because of the coronavirus, injuries to top players had piled up, and coach John Tortorella had started to fret that the youngsters he plugged into the lineup wouldn’t have the steam to carry the Blue Jackets to the playoffs.

All-Star defenseman Seth Jones and top goal-scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand were out with broken ankles. A long list of others had missed games with various injuries, including the two top goalies.

“When Oliver goes out — and he was our best player at that point in time — when Jonesy goes down, we were swimming upstream big time,” Tortorella said after opening practice this week ahead of a five-game playoff qualifying series against Toronto set to begin Aug. 2.

“I’m not sure where we go without those two for another 12 games we had to play,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to say we weren’t going to get in, but it was a struggle.”

Jones and Bjorkstrand are healed and back at full speed. So is veteran Cam Atkinson, who had struggled with a high ankle sprain. Goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, both of whom excelled at different times this season, are healthy and will compete to start in the net against Toronto.

Jones, who had surgery Feb. 11, called the forced layoff “luck in disguise.”

“It’s so nice to see the guys healthy, especially the big-minute players on our team that have been such as asset to us,” captain Nick Foligno said. “I think we felt really strongly about our group even with all the injuries we had, but to add those players it’s an instant boost to your team and your morale. We’re getting back our leaders.”

The season was unusual for the Blue Jackets even before the coronavirus. The team was struggling in early December before a winning streak helped it climb into contention in the Metropolitan Division.

As regulars went down to injuries, Tortorella summoned players who had started the season at the team’s top minor league club in Cleveland. The Blue Jackets stayed in it, and when the season was paused on March 12, they were above the wildcard line in the Eastern Division. When the league decided to go straight to a 24-team postseason upon resumption, Columbus was seeded ninth in the East based on points percentage and drew a matchup with the eighth-seeded Maple Leafs in the play-in round.

Some of those young players, including forwards Emil Bemstrom, Liam Foudy and Eric Robinson are expected to contribute even with the team back to near full strength.

Columbus will face a potent Maple Leaf attack led by stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares. Toronto’s 237 goals were second in the league to Tampa Bay’s 243 when the season was suspended.

“Essentially, we’re all starting from zero, right?” Atkinson said. “So it doesn’t matter what happened during the regular season, what teams were hot, the injuries and what not. We’re just all healed up and ready to go.”

Tortorella said safety is the priority as the team travels to Toronto to enter the “playoff bubble.”

“We’re going to go through all the precautions and do it the right way,” said Tortorella, who on Wednesday was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for the league’s top coach. “There is a point — and I talked to the team — I don’t want this to be a bunch of drama, either, talking about the virus every day. We’re going to protect the players, the league is going to protect the players, we need to get ready to play hockey also.”

Matthews, Toronto’s star center, said Monday he tested positive for COVID-19 last month in his home state of Arizona but was largely asymptomatic and has fully recovered. Columbus has reported no cases.

2019-20 Calder Trophy finalists: Hughes, Makar, Kubalik

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The NHL announced Quinn Hughes (Canucks), Cale Makar (Avalanche), and Dominik Kubalik (Blackhawks) as the 2019-20 Calder Trophy finalists. The wording of the Calder, aka rookie of the year, is that it’s given to the player who was  “most proficient in his first year of competition.”

The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association votes on the Calder Trophy each year. Elias Pettersson took home the Calder Trophy in 2018-19.

This year’s Calder Trophy winner will be announced sometime during the Conference Finals.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule, now with start times]

The Calder Trophy cases for finalists Hughes, Kubalik, Makar

The case for Quinn Hughes

Hughes, 20, topped all rookies — not just rookie defensemen, all rookies — with 53 points in 2019-20. In doing so, Hughes became just the third rookie defenseman to top rookie scoring outright (joining Bobby Orr and Brian Leetch).

By averaging 21:53 time on ice, Hughes ranked second (just a slight bit behind Ethan Bear of the Oilers [21:58]). Alexander Edler (22:37) stood as the only Canucks player who averaged more ice time than Hughes this season.

Hughes joined Makar among rookie defensemen who jumped immediately into big roles, and passed most tests with flying colors.

This RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey captures some of what made Hughes special. He created offense while avoiding many of the mistakes you’d expect a rookie (and an offensive-minded defenseman, in general) to make:

Calder Trophy finalists Quinn Hughes RAPM
via Evolving Hockey

The case for Cale Makar

While Hughes tops some of the volume stats, Makar makes a “quality-over-quantity” argument for the Calder.

Makar scored more goals (12) than Hughes (eight) even though he appeared in fewer games (57 games played to Hughes’ 68). Despite missing that time, Makar finished second among all rookies with 50 points. Averaging .88 points per game is difficult for any defenseman; it’s extremely rare for a rookie. Makar expands the list of rookie defensemen with at least .88 points-per-game with 50+ games played, joining Larry Murphy and Al MacInnis.

Like Hughes, Makar didn’t totally sacrifice defense to create offense. Makar grades well on Evolving Hockey RAPM charts, too:

2020 Calder Trophy finalists Makar RAPM
via Evolving Hockey

[More: Hughes vs. Makar from earlier in 2019-20]

The case for Dominik Kubalik

It will be a tough call between Hughes and Makar, but others enjoyed strong rookie seasons. A certain portion of hockey fans may debate Kubalik vs. other 2020 Calder Trophy finalists for some time. Beyond historic seasons for Hughes and Makar, defensemen like Adam Fox and John Marino made this a special year for rookie defensemen.

But Kubalik turned heads, too, even more than other high-scoring rookie forwards such as Victor Olofsson of the Sabres.

Kubalik topped all rookies in goals with 30, scoring 46 points in 68 games. While the Blackhawks forward is unlikely to become the first Czech-born Calder Trophy winner, he’s the first Czech-born player to lead all rookies in goals.

Hughes, Kubalik, and Makar are all involved in the 24-team 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, so you can get another peak at the 2020 Calder Trophy finalists during the return to play. (COVID-19 permitting.)

NHL AWARD FINALISTS, ANNOUNCEMENT DATES

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.

Cassidy, Tortorella, Vigneault are 2019-20 Jack Adams Award finalists

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Bruce Cassidy of the Bruins, John Tortorella of the Blue Jackets, and Alain Vigneault of the Flyers have been named finalists for the 2019-20 Jack Adams Award, given to the head coach who has “contributed the most to his team’s success.”

All three head coaches aren’t strangers to being a finalist for the Jack Adams. This is Cassidy’s second time in the last three seasons in the top three, while Tortorella and Vigneault have been honored five times. Tortorella has won it twice (2003-04 and 2016-17), while Vigneault took home the award in 2006-07.

Barry Trotz of the Islanders was last season’s winner.

The NHL Broadcasters’ Association vote, with the winner announced during the conference finals.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

The case for Bruce Cassidy: At the time of the March NHL pause Cassidy’s Bruins had the most points (100) and highest points percentage (.714) in the league. That success resulted in a Presidents’ Trophy for the franchise. Boston led the NHL in wins with 44 and hit the 40-win mark for the seventh straight season. Special teams played a big role in another strong year as the Bruins boasted the second-best power play (25.2%) and third-best penalty kill (84.3%). A win would make Cassidy the fourth coach in franchise history to win the award following Don Cherry (1975-76), Pat Burns (1997-98) and Claude Julien (2008-09).

The case for John Tortorella: Despite losing their two biggest stars in free agency, Tortorella’s Blue Jackets didn’t allow that to hold them back. Columbus surprised many and put themselves in position to be part of the NHL’s expanded Return to Play plan. During their final 41 games the Blue Jackets had two separate double-digit point streaks to keep them in the postseason mix. He’s the only coach in franchise history to have won the Jack Adams.

The case for Alain Vigneault: In his first season with the Flyers, Vigneault led them to a .645 points percentage at the time of the March pause and put them among the Eastern Conference’s top four seeds. A nine-game winning streak in mid-February help push them up the standings. He would become the fifth coach in franchise history to win the Jack Adams after Fred Shero (1973-74), Pat Quinn (1979-80), Mike Keenan (1984-85) and Bill Barber (2000-01).

NHL AWARD FINALISTS ANNOUNCEMENT DATES
Ted Lindsay Award: Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin
Calder Trophy: Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, Dominik Kubalik

• Thursday, July 16: Lady Byng Trophy, Masterton Trophy
• Friday, July 17: Willie O’Ree Award, Vezina Trophy
• Monday, July 20: Norris Trophy, Selke Trophy
• Tuesday, July 21: Hart Trophy

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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.