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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 Playoff Buzzer: Hats off (again) to Jaden Schwartz

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  • Jaden Schwartz records his second hat trick of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • Vladimir Tarasenko keeps producing.
  • Jordan Binnington records his first career postseason shutout to help bring the St. Louis Blues one step closer to the Stanley Cup Final.

St. Louis Blues 5, San Jose Sharks 0 (Blues lead series 3-2)

This game was every bit as lopsided as the 5-0 final score would have you believe. The St. Louis Blues were simply the better team in every single phase of the game and put together what might have been their best performance of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs to this point. They now return home on Tuesday night with a chance to clinch their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1970 and have to be confident given how well they have played over the past two games. Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko both had multi-point games in the win (Schwartz recorded his second hat trick of the postseason), while Oskar Sundqvist started things off early in the first period to continue his strong playoff run. The Sharks were not only on the wrong end of the score, but they also now have some major injury questions heading into Game 6, especially regarding top defender Erik Karlsson who played just 10 minutes on Sunday as he continues to deal with his lingering injury. Blues goalie Jordan Binnington recorded his first shutout of the playoffs in net.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. His incredible postseason continues. After a disappointing regular season performance that saw him score just 11 goals in 69 games, one of the worst offensive outputs of his career, Schwartz has been a constant force in these playoffs and recorded his second hat trick on Sunday. He is now up to 12 goals for the playoffs, exceeding his regular season total, and is now just one goal away from tying Brett Hull’s franchise record for a single postseason.

2. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues. After a fairly quiet (by his standards, anyway) start to the playoffs the Blues needed their best player to shine in the Western Conference Final. He has. He extended his current point streak to five games on Sunday with a goal and two assists. He now has two goals and five assists in the series, and is up to seven goals and 12 total points in the playoffs. He has always been a big-time performer for the Blues in the playoffs, and he is shining just when they need him most.

3. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues. He did not need to be great on Sunday, especially over the second and third periods when the Blues completely took over the game and dominated, but a shutout in a Western Conference Final game is still a big deal. It his first career shutout in the playoffs.

Highlights of the Day

Sundqvist got things started for the Blues when he capitalized on a bad turnover by Karlsson. It is his fourth goal of the playoffs.

This was just a terrible play by Sharks goalie Martin Jones and it resulted in an easy goal for Schwartz, his first of the game.

Tarasenko’s penalty shot goal in the second period was the first playoff penalty shot goal in Blues franchise history, and it came on a shot that looked to be pretty unstoppable.

Factoids

  • Schwartz became just the third player in Blues franchise history to score at least 10 goals in a single playoff run and the first since Brett Hull during the 1991 playoffs. [NHL PR]
  • The St. Louis Blues have won more games this postseason than in any other postseason in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Vladimir Tarasenko scored the first postseason penalty shot goal in St. Louis Blues history in the second period of Sunday’s game. It was only the second postseason penalty shot the team has ever had. [NHL PR]
  • The Blues have won seven of their first nine road games this postseason, something only 17 other teams have accomplished. [NHL PR]
  • Schwartz is the first player in Blues history to have two hat tricks in a single postseason and the first player for any team since Johan Franzen did it for the 2008 Detroit Red Wings. [NHL PR]

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

GM Armstrong’s roster overhaul has Blues on verge of Stanley Cup Final

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After blowing out the San Jose Sharks on Sunday afternoon in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, the St. Louis Blues moved one step closer to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in nearly 50 years. Given where this team was just a few months ago (when it was at the bottom of the Western Conference standings) it is one of the more stunning stories in what has already been a wild and unpredictable postseason.

But don’t be fooled by where this Blues team was in mid-January. They are good, and they absolutely deserve to be in the position they are in.

They were always better than their first half record would have had you believe, and once they solidified the goaltending position with the arrival — and ensuing emergence —  of Jordan Binnington, as well as the improved defensive play after the coaching change from Mike Yeo to Craig Berube, they have played and looked like a Stanley Cup contender.

While it’s easy to point to the hiring of Berube and the call-up of Binnington as the turning points, general manager Doug Armstrong also deserves a ton of credit for the moves he has made over the past two years for getting this team to where it is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Since the summer of 2017, Armstrong has completely overhauled the forward depth of his roster, adding Ryan O'Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Patrick Maroon, David Perron, Tyler Bozak, and Oskar Sundqvist from outside the organization, while also using one of his two 2017 first-round draft picks on Robert Thomas, who has shown flashes of brilliance during these playoffs as a 19-year-old rookie.

That group of forwards represented four of the Blues’ top-six scorers this season (and four of the top-five among the forwards) and have all made their presence felt in the playoffs at one time or another.

The key for the Blues is not just that they added them, but how they were able to get them many of them.

Let’s start with the trades.

Going back to the summer of 2017, Armstrong made four significant trades that involved all of this.

  • Trading two-first round draft picks (the Blues’ own 2018 first-round pick, as well as a 2017 first-round pick they had previously acquired from the Washington Capitals in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade) and Jori Lehtera to the Philadelphia Flyers for Schenn.
  • Trading Ryan Reaves and a 2017 second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Sundqvist and a 2017 first-round pick.
  • Trading Paul Stastny‘s expiring contract to the Winnipeg Jets for a package that included a 2018 first-round pick.
  • Trading Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for O’Reilly.

What have the Blues gained from all of that? Well let’s just take a look at what each player involved has done from the time of their trade through the end of the 2018-19 regular season.

Look at the difference in production. While Armstrong gave up more assets, he got significantly more production back in return and did so for a cheaper price against the salary cap (even if you subtract the Stastny cap hit out of that since he was leaving as a free agent anyway).

He shed a bunch of contracts he probably didn’t want (Lehtera, Sobotka, Berglund) and some draft picks to get top-line players (O’Reilly and Schenn) and a good young forward (Sundqvist) that has emerged as an effective bottom-six player.

[Blues rout Sharks in Game 5]

Even though he gave up three first-round picks and two second-round picks, he still managed to get two first-round picks back in return. Even if you look at that as a net-loss in terms of assets, the success rate of mid-to-late first-and second-round picks is more than worth it when you look at just how much the Blues were able to get back in their lineup.

Especially if it ends up resulting in a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and especially since the NHL assets he sent away aren’t really anything special (Stastny being the exception — and even he wasn’t guaranteed to be back had he not been traded).

His free agent acquisitions this summer have also, for the most part, panned out.

Perron returned for his third different stint with the Blues and finished with 23 goals and 46 total points even though he played in only 56 regular season games.

Maroon signed a bargain-basement contract and gave the Blues a solid, two-way, possession-driving forward that also happened to score one of their biggest postseason goals when he scored in double overtime of Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars.

The addition that has probably given them the least bang for their buck is probably Bozak ($5 million per year for three years), but even he has been a solid secondary producer.

Overall, pretty much every roster move Armstrong has put his fingerprints on over the past two years has worked out about as well as he and the Blues could have hoped. He is a deserving finalist for the NHL’s general manager of the year award, and is a big reason his team is on the verge of what could be a historic season for the franchise.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Sharks blown out by Blues and now have major injury concerns

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Whatever luck the San Jose Sharks had on their side earlier this postseason completely disappeared on Sunday in what was a complete nightmare of a performance against the St. Louis Blues.

Not only did they get thoroughly dominated in a 5-0 loss, but they had a terrible day from an injury standpoint and will be going into Game 6 of the Western Conference Final (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN) facing elimination with a roster that will almost certainly be far less than 100 percent.

The Sharks’ injury list after Sunday’s game is a significant one and includes some of their top players.

Among them…

  • Defender Erik Karlsson, who entered the game obviously playing through a groin injury, was limited to just 10:32 of ice-time and played just three minutes after the first period, including zero in the third period.
  • Tomas Hertl, one of the team’s best forwards and leading scorers this postseason, exited the game after the second period. He was on the receiving end of a hit to the head from Ivan Barbashev in the first period that was uncalled.
  • Joe Pavelski also left the game in the third period following a high hit from Blues defender Alex Pietrangelo along the boards. Keep in mind that he missed the first six games of their Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche with a head injury.
  • As if all of that was not enough, Joonas Donskoi also exited the game in the third period after he was hit in the mouth by a puck and was bleeding.

Even if all (or some) of those players are available for Tuesday’s game it is entirely possible they will not be 100 percent. That is especially true for Karlsson who was already looking to be limited in what he was capable of doing entering Sunday’s game. When he did play in Game 5 he looked tentative, slow, and was guilty of a brutal turnover that resulted in the Blues’ first goal.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That turnover was just the start of what would be a complete meltdown by the Sharks that saw them record 36 penalty minutes (including two misconducts) and give the Blues two 5-on-3 power plays. Add that to the return of the bad version of Martin Jones in net and you had a perfect recipe for a blowout loss on the ice.

As for the Blues, this was just an all-around impressive performance.

The win improved them to 7-2 on the road this postseason and is significant for a number of reasons. For one, it has them in a position where they are now just one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 1970 season. It was also their 11th win of the playoffs, setting a new franchise record for most wins in a single postseason.

Jaden Schwartz, who scored just 11 goals in 69 games during the regular season, recorded his second hat trick of the playoffs to give him a team-leading 12 postseason goals, while Vladimir Tarasenko extended his current point streak to five games by scoring on a penalty shot in the second period (the first postseason penalty shot goal in Blues franchise history).

The Sharks had a couple of near-misses by ringing a pairing of shots off the goal post next to Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, including one from Evander Kane just 10 seconds into the game, but recorded just 10 shots on goal over the second and third periods, which was a pretty accurate reflection of the shutdown performance by the Blues defensively.

Game 6 of Blues-Sharks is 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday night in St. Louis.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Tarasenko scores first postseason penalty shot goal in Blues history

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The St. Louis Blues put on an absolute clinic in the second period on Sunday afternoon, scoring a pair of goals and outshooting the San Jose Sharks by a 20-6 margin.

The second goal came from star winger Vladimir Tarasenko when he scored on a penalty shot by ripping a laser of a shot behind Sharks goalie Martin Jones, making him look relatively helpless in the process.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

It is a noteworthy goal not only because it gave the Blues a 3-0 lead, but also because it is the first time in Blues franchise history that they have scored a goal on a penalty shot in a playoff game.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It is also only the second time the Blues have had a penalty shot in a playoff game, as Tarasenko’s attempt joined Jimmy Roberts during the 1968 playoffs (Roberts did not score).

Tarasenko’s goal was his seventh of the playoffs and his second of the Western Conference Final. He has now recorded at least one point in every game against the Sharks. He was awarded the penalty shot when he was tripped by Sharks defender Brent Burns on a breakaway.

His goal came after Jaden Schwartz scored his 10th goal of the playoffs earlier in the period, capitalizing on a brutal play by Jones that saw him turn the puck over in front of the net to a wide open Schwartz.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.