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Spark Penguins need might already be in organization

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are in need of a spark, and general manager Jim Rutherford seems to know it.

On Wednesday he told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he is close to considering a “major” trade to potentially shake things up if things do not start to turn around on their upcoming three-game road trip. It is a bold statement from the general manager of a team that has won the past two Stanley Cups, but nearly halfway through the season it is becoming increasingly clear that this team is lacking … something.

That something could be any number of things.

Defensively they have not been great. They have been plagued by dreadfully slow starts in recent games. They lost a ton of depth over the summer with the free agency departures of Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey (as well as the expansion draft departure of Marc-Andre Fleury), and while their power play is as dangerous as any team in the league, they have been one of the absolute worst teams in the league when it comes to scoring during 5-on-5 play.

Put all of that together and you have a team that enters play on Thursday sitting on the playoff bubble in a highly competitive Metropolitan Division.

I have already written about the Penguins’ depth issues this season, and in the weeks since then the gap between their top-six production and their bottom-six production has only widened. That is a big problem.

The greatest strength the Penguins had the past two years on their Stanley Cup runs was their forward depth and every line’s ability to contribute to the offense. As great as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are they are not going to score every single night. There has to be some offense coming from the other two lines, and this season the Penguins are not getting that. Even with the concerns on the blue line (made worse now by the injury to Justin Schultz) this seems like the biggest area to address.

It might also be the easiest because the solutions might already be knocking on the door.

In each of the past two seasons the Penguins have received huge contributions from call-ups from their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm team. In 2015-16 it was Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and even Tom Kuhnhackl helping to bring a spark to the team.

Last season it was Jake Guentzel, joining the team around this time of year and the scoring 29 goals over 65 games, including a league-leading 13 in 25 playoff games. Finding that sort of cheap production from young talent is essential for teams like the Penguins given their salary cap situation. They do not always have the flexibility under the cap to swing a major trade without giving up a major piece in return.

They might have a couple of options that could provide similar value and a similar spark this season in Dominik Simon and Daniel Sprong, both selected in the 2015 draft.

Simon, who had 16 points in 20 games in the AHL before his recent recall, has been a bright spot in his first two games with the team. He recorded a pair of assists in his season debut against the Toronto Maple Leafs and eventually found himself skating on a line with Crosby. He was one of the few players that seemed to be a real threat to score in their 2-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche earlier in the week and demonstrated some real skill as a playmaker.

Take, for example, this play where he set up Crosby for a one-timer opportunity in the third period.

A little better shot placement, or a goalie that wasn’t as locked in as Jonathan Bernier was that night, and we’re talking about a highlight reel goal right now.

During Wednesday’s practice Simon was skating on a line with Crosby and Guentzel and seems poised to play there on Thursday night when they take on the Vegas Golden Knights.

Following Saturday’s loss against Toronto Simon spoke about playing alongside Crosby and called it, “unbelievable,” adding that “he makes the game so much easier for you. If you lose the puck, he’s there to support you. It felt great.”

It seems, at least in the short-term, he is going to get an opportunity to keep playing on that line. It would be the third time in as many years a call-up gets that chance alongside Crosby as Simon tries to follow in the footsteps of Sheary and Guentzel.

That brings us to Sprong, the team’s second-round pick in 2015 and currently its top prospect.

After ripping apart the QMJHL the past three years (and getting a brief cup of coffee with the Penguins to start the 2015-16 season) Sprong is currently into his first full year of pro hockey. It has been a mixed bag of results at times. He has been streaky at times and he was a healthy scratch a couple of weeks ago, but he is only 20 years old, already has 14 goals in 23 games and is leading the team in both goals and total points by a pretty significant margin.

A couple of weeks ago Rutherford commented on Sprong’s development and said he had received no indication from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaching staff that he was ready for a promotion to the NHL.

Given the aforementioned healthy scratch it is clear that his game is not perfect at this point.

Even with that being said he can still do something — or at least has the potential to do something — a lot of current players on the Penguins roster right now can not do. That, of course, is having the ability to put the puck in the net.

No matter how much the Penguins try to make him one, Sprong may not ever be a great defensive player. But you still need to score goals, and right now the Penguins have a lot of forwards in their lineup that can play a safe, responsible, defensively sound game but are providing them with absolutely zero offense.

They have Ryan Reaves playing five minutes a night providing … well … whatever it is he provides. For whatever reason, NHL teams seem to prefer that sort of one dimensional play (whether it be the dimension Reaves provides, or the play-it-safe, all defense, no offense dimension) over the one dimensional play that can change a game with a quick goal.

It would not hurt the Penguins at all to remove a Reaves or even a Carl Hagelin to insert somebody that can potentially inject some offense into the lineup. At the moment a team that has two top-lines and two fourth-lines. That is not the type of balance they need to compete for another Stanley Cup, let alone win one.

At some point before the trade deadline they are are probably going to have to address the third-line center spot from outside the organization. Even with a couple of goals in his past few games Riley Sheahan is probably not the answer there (though, he might be a decent fourth-line option).

But they can still make some in-house changes on the wings to potentially spark the offense without having to swing a major trade, something that at this point is probably easier said than done. A real look for Simon and perhaps Sprong at some point could potentially balance out the lineup a lot more than it currently is, whether it be with one of the younger players getting a look at the bottom of the lineup, or somebody else getting bumped down a spot while the youngsters get a look up top. Keep in mind the fourth line in their Stanley Cup clinching game this past spring had Matt Cullen (13 goals in 72 games), Bryan Rust (15 goals in 57 games) and Chris Kunitz (nine goals in 71 games, and more than 250 career goals) skating on it.

They need to find that sort of balance again. Before they turn to a trade, it might be wise to see if their own in-house prospects can help deliver it.

It has worked for them before.

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 Buzzer: Toews powers Blackhawks, Petterson’s return, first place Isles

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Three Stars

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks. The Chicago Blackhawks are having an awful season, which has to be even more frustrating for them when you consider their superstars up front have been great all year. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane continued that on Sunday as both had five points in an 8-5 win over the Washington Capitals, continuing what has been one of the best individual seasons for Toews offensively in his career. Those five points for Toews included a hat trick. Just a shame for the Blackhawks it all happening during a season when everything around the top players has gone away.

2. Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson has been a franchise-changing player for the Vancouver Canucks and has been one of the biggest reasons they are still in the Western Conference playoff race. He returned from injury on Sunday after missing more than two weeks and tallied two points, including his 23rd goal of the season early in the first period to open the scoring. He also assisted on the game-tying goal mid-way through the third period.  He is rolling toward the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year and nobody is even close him in this rookie class.

3. Cal Clutterbuck, New York Islanders. The New York Islanders remained in first place thanks to their win over the Anaheim Ducks and the Washington Capitals’ loss to the Blackhawks on Sunday. They are not only in first place, but they actually have a three-point lead over the rest of the pack and are top-five team in the league in total points in the standings. They have now won five games in a row and 15 of their past 18. Cal Clutterbuck had the big game for the Islanders on Sunday with a pair of first period goals.

Highlights of the Night

It took Nino Niederreiter just 30 seconds to score his first goal as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night. Then he scored another later in the period as the Hurricanes went on to rout the Edmonton Oilers.

It was not a great game for goalies in Chicago on Sunday afternoon, but we do need to give some love to these two saves by Blackhawks goalie Collin Delia.

Robin Lehner stopped all 19 shots he faced for the now first-place New York Islanders.

Factoids

  • Darcy Kuemper is one of four goalies without a regular loss since the start of the new calendar year. He improved to 5-0-2 since Jan. 1 with the Arizona Coyotes’ win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday evening. [NHL PR]
  • Nino Niederreiter’s two goals on Sunday were more than Victor Rask, the player he was traded for this past week, scored for the Carolina Hurricanes all season. [@SaraCivian]
  • Andrei Svechnikov recorded his 20th point of the season on Sunday night, making him one of four players from the 2018 NHL draft class to have already hit that mark this season. [NHL PR]

Chicago Blackhawks 8, Washington Capitals 5

New York Islanders 3, Anaheim Ducks 2

Vancouver Canucks 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Arizona Coyotes 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2

Carolina Hurricanes 7, Edmonton Oilers 4

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.

Canucks’ Pettersson returns Sunday after five-game absence

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The man who will likely be crowned as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year is back in the lineup for the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday.

Elias Pettersson will suit up for the Canucks against the Detroit Red Wings after missing five games with a knee injury. Pettersson sprained his MCL after getting tangled up with Montreal Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi back on Jan. 3.

After Saturday’s practice, Pettersson told the assembled media that there was a good chance he would play on Sunday. And with the team activating him off injured reserve today, that chance turned into a confirmation.

“I don’t like to watch hockey, I like to play it,” Pettersson said.

He’s pretty good at the latter.

Pettersson’s start to the season, despite missing two now because of a concussion and the aforementioned knee injury, has been nothing short of sensational.

Pettersson led all rookies with 22 goals and 42 points prior to his latest injury and will return still leading all rookies.

And his absence from the Canucks, who are battling for a playoff spot, has been notable:

Still, they were 2-1-2, picking up points in four-of-five.

The Canucks are one point behind the Minnesota Wild for the final wild card in the west.

UPDATE: He’s already scored. 


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

Toews hat trick, five-point afternoon leads Blackhawks past Capitals

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Stout defense and solid goaltending, two traits that Sunday’s game between the Chicago Blackhawks and visiting Washington Capitals had neither of.

But goal scoring? Yeah, there was a metric tonne of that in an 8-5 win for the Blackhawks on NBC.

Jonathan Toews scored a hat trick and added two assists for a five-point afternoon. Patrick Kane had a five-point game of his own, notching two goals and adding three helpers to push his point streak to eight games. Dylan Strome had a goal and two apples.

For the Capitals, they didn’t get one goal from their forwards. John Carlson led the way with two goals. All five of their goals came care of their defenseman — six if you include Dmitry Orlov’s own goal (he also scored one on the right net, too).

It was a game that reeked of two teams desperate to end their respective losing streaks. Chicago owned the longest of the two, coming into the game winless in five. The Capitals’ streak, meanwhile, extended to five, which extended their season-long drought.

The Caps came into the game outscored 14-4 in that time. You’d think scoring one more than they had in their previous four would be enough, but when Braden Holtby gets pulled after 22:30, allowing four goals on 11 shots, it’s probably not going to end well.

Goaltending wasn’t of particular importance in the game.

Collin Delia got the start for the Blackhawks and did enough in the end, despite allowing a few ugly ones. There weren’t a lot of notable saves in this one, but Delia made the save of the game with this effort in the second period.

Alex DeBrincat also found the back of the net, notable because he now has seven goals in his past seven games and 25 on the year.

DeBrincat is now three shy of the 28 he threw up in his rookie season last year and still has 32 games to get there. He’s likely going to crush that record in his sophomore season.

None of that is surprising given he can do things like this:

While Washington seems secure for the moment in terms of a playoff spot, their stock in Metropolitan Division is plummeting.

The New York Islanders leapfrogged them already with their four-game winning streak and could buy themselves some breathing room now with a win over the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday.

The win for Chicago moves them out of the Western Conference basement, one point up on the lowly Los Angeles Kings. The Blackhawks are in a different battle down the stretch here, with the best lottery odds on the line for June’s NHL Draft.


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: Blackhawks meet Capitals on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Capitals have hit their biggest road block in their title defense after going 3-5-2 in their last 10 games, including four straight losses (0-3-1). The last time Washington lost four straight games was in March of 2017. During this four-game losing streak, the Caps have been outscored 12-1 in 5-on-5 play, and the lone goal in that scenario came against Nashville with the team trailing 7-1 late in the third period.

The last time the Capitals lost five straight games was Oct. 26 to Nov. 4 2014.

Alex Ovechkin enters this game tied with Dave Andreychuk for 14th place on the all-time goals (640) list. He is also only five points away from tying Hockey Hall of Famer Sergei Fedorov for the most in League history by a Russian player (1,179).

The Blackhawks have lost seven of their eight games in the new year (1-4-3), including five straight losses (0-3-2) and are once again last in the NHL. Since Jeremy Colliton took charge on November 6, Chicago has lost 24 of their 34 games under their new head coach (10-18-6) after going 6-6-3 in 15 games under Joel Quenneville. The Hawks are coming off a 4-3 loss to the Rangers on Thursday.

A bright spot for Chicago has been its power play which has now scored in seven consecutive games (9-for-21, 42.9 percent). That hot streak has put them in the middle of the pack in the NHL at 18.9 percent for the season.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET – NBC]

What: Washington Capitals at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: United Center
When: Sunday, Jan. 20, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
Live stream: You can watch the Capitals-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Drake CaggiulaJonathan ToewsPatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatDylan StromeDominik Kahun
Brandon SaadDavid KampfMarcus Kruger
John HaydenArtem AnisimovChris Kunitz

Duncan KeithBrent Seabrook
Carl DahlstromConnor Murphy
Slater KoekkoekErik Gustafsson

Starting goalie: Collin Delia

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaLars EllerTom Wilson
Andre BurakovskyEvgeny KuznetsovBrett Connolly
Chandler StephensonNic DowdDevante Smith-Pelly

Dmitry OrlovJohn Carlson
Michal KempnyMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikMadison Bowey

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk, and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Pierre McGuire will have the call from United Center.