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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.

Golden Knights chase Gibson, demolish Ducks

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Heading into Wednesday’s 5-0 win for the Golden Knights, you could see Vegas and Anaheim as two teams suffering through very different circumstances.

On one hand, John Gibson was frequently bailing out Anaheim despite the Ducks allowing waves of scoring chances. Conversely, the Golden Knights fired shot after shot, yet found themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard far too often to start 2018-19.

Well, the Golden Knights got to Gibson (and Ryan Miller) early and often on Wednesday, and it didn’t really require a barrage of shots … even if the dour Ducks defense sure seemed overwhelmed as ever.

Alex Tuch gave Vegas a 1-0 lead heading into the first intermission, but the Golden Knights truly shot as accurately as archers during the second period. They added two more goals to end Gibson’s night early (three goals allowed, nine saves), and it didn’t stop there. As if to cement the notion that this wasn’t all Gibson’s fault, Cody Eakin‘s second goal of the night looked alarmingly easy considering that it came shorthanded:

Sure, there were some odd moments, like Nick Holden receiving unlikely credit for this goal:

Perhaps Vegas receiving the bounces they haven’t enjoyed much this season (but practically bathed in during that magical 2017-18 campaign) amplified the score a bit, yet the Golden Knights seemed like the faster, more dangerous team when the game was actually in reach. They made it look easy at times against a Ducks team that honestly seems pretty hapless against oft-criticized head coach Randy Carlyle.

As you might expect in a lopsided contest, there were some promising overall developments for Vegas, ones that the Golden Knights likely hope to carry over beyond this one-sided affair.

While Gibson’s looked like his best self from last season much of this year (but not tonight), Marc-Andre Fleury has failed to channel his magic from 2017-18 on most evenings this season. He was dynamic when he needed to be against the Ducks, however, stopping all 29 shots for the 51st shutout of his NHL career.

The Golden Knights must be heartened by the work they saw from Max Pacioretty, too. “Patches” came into Wednesday with a paltry two goals and zero assists in 14 games, including a five-game pointless streak, prompting some to compare him unfavorably to Tomas Tatar already. One game isn’t going to keep this from being a tough start. Even so, two assists (on the first two goals of the game, when the match was still in dispute) could really boost the winger’s confidence.

Vegas still has some work to do, and Anaheim remains ahead of the Golden Knights following this result. The Golden Knights can take quite a bit from this win nonetheless, including some comfort in seeing that their efforts can yield results, from goals to victories.

Meanwhile, the Ducks get another reminder that Gibson can’t save their tails every night.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

The Buzzer: Rantanen, Avs beat Bruins in battle of NHL’s best lines

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Three Stars

1. Mikko Rantanen

Tonight’s game between the Avalanche and Bruins featured a heavyweight battle between possibly the two best top lines in the NHL, and those trios delivered.

While David Pastrnak (one goal and one assist) ranked among the B’s who contributed, the Avs really had no answer for Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog.

All three of those Colorado stars scored at least a goal in the Avs’ 6-3 win, yet Rantanen stood tallest with a goal and two assists. With that three-point performance, Rantanen now holds a pretty comfortable NHL points lead at 29 (MacKinnon, Patrice Bergeron, and Connor McDavid are tied at second with 26).

If you’re outrageous and need another nugget, consider that both of Rantanen’s assists were first ones, so he also racked up primary points on Wednesday.

2. Cody Eakin

The trio of Eakin (two goals), Alex Tuch (one goal, one assist), and Max Pacioretty (two assists) loomed large during Vegas’ dominant 5-0 win, doing their damage when the game was still within reach.

You could make an argument for his linemates – Tuch’s goal was the GWG, for one thing – but Eakin grabbed two goals, including a matter-of-fact backhander during a shorthanded rush.

As much as the Golden Knights must miss Paul Stastny, Eakin has been heating up lately. This impressive performance extends the former Dallas Stars center’s point streak to fie games (four goals, two assists).

3. Corey Crawford

OK, this is a tough one. After all, Marc-Andre Fleury‘s shutout (29 saves) features one more save than the one Corey Crawford authored (28 saves). “MAF” made some dazzling saves to maintain that goose egg, too.

It’s nice to spread the wealth to multiple teams in the three stars, and beyond that, the margin of error was different. While Fleury was maintaining a shutout, Crawford couldn’t make a mistake, as the Blackhawks only managed one goal in that 1-0 victory against the Blues. Maybe Chicago would have offered more if forced, although the Blackhawks’ 18 SOG don’t inspire much confidence.

The sheer meaning of Crawford’s shutout pushes it over the top.

Most immediately, it ended Chicago’s eight-game losing streak.

More personally, Crawford managed his first shutout in more than a year, and in doing so powered new head coach Jeremy Colliton to his first win as an NHL head coach.

Was Fleury’s shutout objectively better? Maybe, so consider him 3a to Crawford’s 3b if it’s really important to you.

Injuries

Highlights

Rantanen definitely helped MacKinnon score the game-winner:

Jake DeBrusk deserves three stars consideration thanks to his two goals in a losing effort for Boston:

Little Flower? MAFjr?

Nick Holden also had a two-point night, thanks in part to this odd tally:

Factoids

Blake Wheeler kept his point streak going, even if it was *yawn* just one assist. Slacker.

MAF is moving up the ranks.

Scores

CHI 1 – STL 0
WPG 3 – WSH 1
COL 6 – BOS 3
VGK 5 – ANA 0

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Which wrestling move did Jets’ Morrissey use on Capitals’ Oshie?

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Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey‘s takedown on T.J. Oshie of the Washington Capitals inspires some key questions:

  • Should there have been a penalty?
  • Should there be a suspension involved?

Former NHL player Jeff O’Neill believes that Morrissey’s infraction paralleled that of Michael Matheson on Elias Pettersson, which drew a two-game suspension earlier this season.

Let’s look at them side-by-side:

All of those questions pale in comparison to the burning one, though: what kind of professional wrestling move most resembles what Morrissey did to Oshie?

If you’ve spent time on Hockey Twitter, you’ll realize that there’s a remarkable convergence between hockey fans and fans of pro wrestling, whether it be WWE or the days when WWE was the WWF.

Personally, I was taken aback by comparisons to the DDT, which was (of course) made famous by Jake “The Snake” Roberts. I put it closer to “The Rock Bottom,” which was – naturally – administered by The Rock before he starred in every big-budget action film in existence.

There were some lively replies, with people mentioning “The Sidewalk Slam” (that could be the ticket) and a hurricanrana (I strongly disagree). What say you, PHT readers? I think we can all agree that it’s crucial that we get this right.

Oh yeah, and the Jets beat the Capitals 3-1 on Wednesday, while Washington is experiencing some injury worries for Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Blackhawks blank Blues, end eight-game losing streak

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The St. Louis Blues hit some posts. Vladimir Tarasenko lost a tooth and thwarted an empty-net goal. But, for all their efforts, the Blues couldn’t score against Corey Crawford.

Instead, the Blackhawks won 1-0 on Wednesday, ending an eight-game losing streak (five under Joel Quenneville, three under Jeremy Colliton). This was a significant effort for a few reasons beyond the obvious need to get back in the win column:

  • 33-year-old Colliton gets his first win as an NHL head coach.
  • Crawford stopped all 28 shots for his first shutout since November of 2017.
  • Remember when Brent Seabrook was the butt of a few jokes? Well, he earned some retribution in this one, scoring the game’s only goal, with some help from Jay Bouwmeester, another occasionally hard-luck, expensive defenseman:

It was a low-event game overall, with the Blues generating a significant SOG advantage of 28-19, but they couldn’t solve Crawford. This was a painful evening for Tarasenko and others, sometimes literally:

The Blackhawks improve to 7-8-4 for 18 points in 19 games, remaining second-to-last in the Central Division. St. Louis continues to look up at Chicago and every other team in the Central, as the Blues’ record slips to 6-7-3 (15 points in 16 games).

As the Blackhawks adjust to a new head coach, it’s tough to shake the impression that the Blues might be teetering toward a similar change of direction. Fair or not, letdowns like being shut out by a shaky Chicago defense (albeit with an on-task Crawford) will not help Mike Yeo’s case.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.