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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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Wild Card teams are 4-for-4

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  • The Washington Capitals blew 2-0 and 3-1 leads to drop Game 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes. Former Capitals player and frequent Game 7 star Justin Williams played a big role in Carolina’s 2OT winning goal.
  • With Carolina’s victory, all four Wild Card teams have advanced to Round 2.

Hurricanes 4, Capitals 3 [2OT] (CAR wins 4-3)
The Capitals got off to a terrific start. Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson scored in the first 6:23 minutes of the contest, but rather than fall apart, the Hurricanes dug in. It wasn’t until 2:56 of the third period when the Hurricanes caught up thanks to a Jordan Staal goal. Washington battled hard for the rest of the third period, but once overtime started the game was all Carolina until finally they broke through when Brock McGinn tipped in a Jason Williams shot. With that, the defending Stanley Cup champions are done and a franchise that last made the playoffs in 2009 is going to Round 2.

Three Stars

1. Brock McGinn, Carolina Hurricanes.
He got the series-winning goal and registered an assist on Teuvo Teravainen‘s marker. This was the 25-year-old’s first playoff series and prior to it he had 36 goals in 240 career regular season games. Of those 36 goals, only two were game-winners.

2. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes.

Assisted on three of the Hurricanes’ four goals. He also led both teams with 38:27 minutes of ice time in the 2OT contest. He finished the series with nine assists in seven games.

3. Andre Burakovsky, Washington Capitals.

Got the scoring started just 2:13 minutes into the contest off a superb steal. It was his first goal of the series.

One goal Dougie Hamilton will be happy is forgotten

It didn’t end up defining the game, but Alex Ovechkin outplayed Hamilton on this goal. If Washington won this game, this goal might have been a big part of the story.

Factoids of the night

Thursday’s Games

Game 1: Blue Jackets at Bruins, 7:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Game 1: Stars at Blues, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

No More Champs: Hurricanes oust Capitals in 2OT

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Not even the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals were immune in one of the craziest opening rounds ever seen. Brock McGinn tipped a shot by Justin Williams in double overtime in a series-clinching 4-3 victory for the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7.

Early on, it didn’t look like this would be a dramatic contest. Andre Burakovsky stripped the puck away in the Hurricanes’ zone and then beat goalie Petr Mrazek to put Washington on the board just 2:13 minutes into the game. Just four minutes later, Alex Ovechkin outplayed Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton before feeding the puck to Tom Wilson, who made the game 2-0.

Carolina hung in there though. Sebastian Aho scored a shorthanded goal at 9:51 of the second period to cut the lead in half. Evgeny Kuznetsov regained the two-goal lead at 13:22 of the second period, but Teuvo Teravainen answered right back at 16:37.

Early in the third period, Jordan Staal got a clean shot on Braden Holtby that he managed to get by him. It’s one that Holtby arguably should have gotten, but he didn’t have help on that play either and the end result was the game was tied.

From there, Carolina was a dominant force in overtime and it looked more and more like it was just a matter of time before the Hurricanes beat Holtby one more time. It took a while, but it happened.

Just like that, all four wild-card teams have advanced. Washington is out. Pittsburgh, which won the Cup in 2016 and 2017, is out. Vegas, which got to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, is out. Tampa Bay, which tied an NHL record with 62 wins in the regular season, is out.

This year has reinforced the notion that anything can happen in the playoffs. Carolina will face the New York Islanders in Round 2 and while the Hurricanes might be the underdogs, that hasn’t been a bad spot to be in.

MORE: Round 2 schedule, TV info

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2019: Round 2 schedule, TV info

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We’re down to eight.

With the last Game 7 out of the way in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we can now look ahead to all that Round 2 will bring.

The battle for the 2019 Stanley Cup continues as eight teams vie to become this year’s champion, and there won’t be a repeat after the Washington Capitals got bounced in Game 7 on Wednesday. All four wildcard teams are in. All four divisional winners are out. It’s been a wild ride and there are still three rounds to go.

Here is the full Round 2 schedule with the all-important TV information: 

MORE: 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

For the third consecutive postseason, NBC Sports’ coverage of Stanley Cup Playoff first-round games on NBCUniversal cable networks (NBCSN, USA Network and CNBC), as well as NHL Network, will air side-by-side and will be available for streaming on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app in local markets alongside regional sports network game telecasts. (Local blackouts apply in Las Vegas and Pittsburgh in the first round).


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Capitals, Hurricanes meet in Game 7

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Game 7: Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals, 7:30 p.m. ET (Series tied 3-3)
NBCSN
Call: Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Tonight’s pre-game coverage on NBCSN begins at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones.

NBC Sports begins its exclusive coverage of the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs tomorrow with a Game 1 doubleheader on NBCSN. Coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins, followed by the Dallas Stars-St. Louis Blues series at 9:30 p.m. ET. Thursday’s doubleheader pre-game coverage begins on NBCSN at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live.