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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.

Flames GM takes profane blame for struggles, shoots down trade/firing talk

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With the Calgary Flames mired in a six-game losing streak, and maybe still a bit shaken from how the Avalanche dominated them in Round 1 this year — and, yes, with bold change in the air thanks to Mike Babcock’s firing — some wondered if Brad Treliving might need to do something drastic.

Earlier this week, PHT recommended avoiding such measures, especially if such a move involved trading Johnny Gaudreau at his coldest.

It sounds like the Flames’ GM got the memo, or never needed it. Treliving shot down talk of trading a key player, and also of firing Bill Peters early on through the coach’s second season, while addressing the media on Friday.

The fact that Treliving used salty language only made the candid remarks reverberate further, as PostMedia’s Wes Gilbertson reports.

A GM only gets so many cracks at finding the right coach, so it makes sense that Treliving wouldn’t throw Peters under the bus. It couldn’t make much more sense not to trade Gaudreau and other players who are important to the Flames, too, so this additional quote is crucial.

The key phrases from Treliving, beyond all the horse-blank, are:

  • “The coaches aren’t going anywhere.”
  • “Our top players aren’t going anywhere.”

It’s understandable that Treliving is still leaving the door ajar for less-important players to be traded, but it’s reassuring that he won’t make a panic move.

Especially since, well, Peters and his staff might be taking on a little water, judging by the fact that Milan Lucic at least practiced as a member of the Flames’ (gulp) top power play unit.

While there’s some logic to using Lucic as a big-bodied screener who would be tough to move from the goalmouth area, it’s not necessarily the greatest sign, either. Personally, I’m also a little underwhelmed by the lack of right-handed shots on that top unit, too.

But those are smaller tweaks that might not even last for a full game, and one cannot blame Peters for tinkering when the team is desperate for answers. It’s also key for the Flames’ GM to zoom out and take a longer view of things, so Treliving’s comments count as a comforting sign.

… Granted, there still isn’t a ton of comfort overall. This is a team that recently needed a players-only meeting, and sports an ugly overall record of 10-12-3.

There’s a lot of work to do, and maybe changes need to be made on the periphery, but credit the Flames’ “Riverboat Gambler” of a GM for knowing when to be cautious (perhaps even hold/fold ’em) too.

Maybe Treliving’s vote of confidence and acceptance of blame might clear a few minds and help turn things around?

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.

Can surprisingly scrappy Senators find right competing-rebuilding balance?

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When you’re trying to rebuild an NHL team, winning isn’t the only thing. Sometimes it’s the thing you want to occasionally avoid.

Such a thought comes to mind with the surprisingly scrappy Senators, who’ve rattled off wins in four of five games (and eight of 12) to build a respectable 10-11-1 record. Their 10 regulation/OT wins rank ahead of the Maple Leafs and Lightning, both stuck at nine.

Strong Sens Surge

The Senators have enjoyed particularly great work from a red-hot Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a rising Brady Tkachuk, a sneakily effective Anders Nilsson, and hungry players looking to prove themselves, such as Anthony Duclair.

Ottawa can really hang its hat on just how challenging this red-hot stretch should be on paper, with eight of their last 11 games coming on the road.

It all brings up a fascinating-if-awkward question: how much success would be too much success? What are the best ways to find the right balance between not (at least overtly) sabotaging immediate results in the interest of taking bigger swings in the future?

Consider this a suggested blueprint for 2019-20.

Don’t be shameless about killing the fun

In a great piece for The Athletic (sub required), Hailey Salvian notes that Mark Borowiecki said that the Senators “are getting pretty fired up” about defying the odds, and that “it’s definitely fun.”

It brings to mind a key point: there’s an art to “tanking” while not torching the confidence and habits of the players you want to keep around for the better days. When you look at teams that have been stuck in agonizingly long rebuild cycles such as the Buffalo Sabres, you’ll note players like Ryan O'Reilly burning out at the constant losing, and sometimes getting shipped out of town right when Buffalo might have been more situated to restore his love of the game.

Ideally, the Senators will start to build a structure for the future, while also losing enough to bank some big lottery odds. Judging by head coach D.J. Smith’s comments to Salvian, it seems like the organization is taking a sober approach.

“This is a process,” Smith said. “For us, whether its three years, four years, however long it takes for these kids to develop … But that’s been the best part, we are finding ways to win with the young guys and they are getting minutes and they are getting better.

“My job is to make them better by the end of the year, and if we can win some games along the way, it’s great.”

Building up assets to sell at a high price

Along with developing young players, Ottawa should focus on pumping up the value of non-essential pieces for lucrative trade returns.

If you look at the Senators’ near-comical salary structure at Cap Friendly, you’ll notice a ton of players on expiring contracts, with these standing out the most:

  • Jean-Gabriel Pageau: It’s easy to see why the Senators would want to keep JGP around for the long haul, but if I were Senators GM Pierre Dorion, I’d try to maximize the return for a 27-year-old player who’s on a career-best hot streak, with an unsustainable 24.5 shooting percentage acting as a red flag for his impressive 13-goal, 17-point start through 22 games.

While Pageau’s $3.1M AAV will shrink even more for a cap-challenged contender around deadline time, Dorion should consider selling him at his peak value (right now) if a desperate team would be interested.

If there’s angst about letting Pageau go … well, Ottawa could bring him back in free agency next summer.

  • Craig Anderson: The cynical rebuilding thing to do would be to keep Anderson (not playing well) and Nilsson (playing very well) in a platoon situation to lose more games. There’s a different bonus that could happen here, though: if Anderson plays at least competently, a team might look at him as a decent insurance policy, even at 38. Especially if Ottawa retained some of his $4.75M AAV … which isn’t a guarantee with Eugene Melnyk writing the checks, but still.
  • Anthony Duclair, Mikkel Boedker, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ron Hainsey, etc.: The Senators have a wide variety of expiring contracts for different tastes, in some cases with unclear injury situations (Namestnikov is on IR). If Ottawa can get value from trading any of them — even Duclair — they probably should.

***

For those grimacing at the notion of the Senators not putting their full weight behind a playoff push, consider a point Salivan made in passing: Ottawa had 21 points in 22 games last season, too.

The Senators’ greatest focus should be on the future, but they don’t need to totally look beyond the present to do so. Finding the right balance could really help in the construction of this rebuild.

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.

Beyond Benn and Seguin: Breaking down Stars’ hot streak

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If it weren’t for the virtually unbeatable New York Islanders, the Dallas Stars would probably be considered the hottest team in the NHL.

About a week ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz chronicled the revitalization of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the Stars’ biggest stars (don’t mix up your capitalization there, gang). In particular, the strong work from Benn and Seguin stood out after yet another browbeating from management, in the latest case being head coach Jim Montgomery — who later apologized for throwing the two under the bus.

The numbers back up hot play from Benn and Seguin lately, but this video of Benn rampaging against Mark Scheifele and the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday presents the argument in a more violent and entertaining fashion:

Yet, in a team sport like hockey, you usually don’t go on a five-game winning streak without other players stepping up, and that’s especially true when you zoom out to Dallas’ 12-1-1 run since Oct. 19.

Truly, it’s remarkable to compare the Stars’ 2019-20 season through Oct. 18 (when they went 1-7-1) and this blistering run that’s improved the Stars to an overall record of 13-8-2.

Let’s take a look at the other forces driving Dallas’ success. Feel free to play the Stars’ cheesy and/or great Pantera-powered goal song while reading this post.

(Of course it’s called “Puck off.”)

As you’d probably expect, the goalies have been lights out

Last season, the Stars survived (and even thrived) on a steady diet of “Benn + Seguin + all-world goaltending from Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.” You might not be surprised to learn that they’ve all been key catalysts for this impressive run.

Through the Stars’ ugly first nine games of 2019-20, they allowed 29 goals and only scored 17. Remarkably, the Stars have allowed fewer goals (26) in the 14 games since, while generating 49. I’m no mathematician nor am I a goalie coach, but if you’re allowing less than two goals per game in the modern NHL, you’re probably going to win a lot.

Bishop sports an outstanding .942 save percentage during the hot streak, and Khudobin is right behind him with a .941 in that span.

Scoring variety

When the Stars handed Joe Pavelski a deal with a $7.5 million AAV, they likely expected the veteran forward to help them find scoring beyond Benn and Seguin — even if Pavelski landed with those two, and merely opened up easier matchups for the likes of Alexander Radulov.

After a bumpy start, Pavelski and others have provided offense beyond Dallas’ dynamic duo. Pavelski matches Benn’s 10 points during the past 14 games, and they’re both tied with seemingly defense-only forward Radek Faksa.

(If Faksa turns into the Stars’ answer to Sean Couturier — a defensive forward whose considerable scoring touch was eventually unlocked — then watch out.)

Right behind Seguin’s 15 points in 14 games is a player who basically deserves at least his own paragraph: Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old defenseman has 12 points in his past 14 games, and while he’s soaking up puck luck that probably isn’t sustainable, the bottom line is that he’s a star. He continues to average the ice time of a workhorse defenseman, and may not have to wait long for Norris hype. (It’s promising, too, in its own way that the Stars are thriving while John Klingberg‘s had a tough go of things.)

With Corey Perry gearing up (nine points during the 14-game run) and Roope Hintz back in the mix after dealing with injury issues, it sure seems like Dallas’ attack is more varied than last season. That could be scary, considering how tough they were to contain as Hintz gave them a bit more variety once he really broke through during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Promising metrics

Expecting long-term world-class goaltending is dangerous, especially with older goalies like Bishop (33) and Khudobin (also 33).

But the promising thing is that there are a lot of positives to take away from Montgomery’s system. During this hot streak, the Stars haven’t just been riding some positive bounces, they’ve also generated the third-best differential for high-danger scoring chances during that time, and look good to great by just about all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength measures.

Money Puck’s expected goals differential chart for the Stars really drives the point home in an aesthetically pleasing and almost blunt way:

Yes, the Stars are playing a bit over their heads … but maybe not so far that this isn’t a sign that they’re here to stay?

The truth about the Stars is likely somewhere in between their red-hot 14-game streak and the rough nine-game start to 2019-20. It will be fascinating to see where they end up once 2019-20 shakes out, and considering the mix of youth and veterans on this team, what kind of ceiling this group might have.

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.

Off Script: Eddie Olczyk opens up about his battle with colon cancer

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NHL on NBC analyst and 2019 NHL Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador Eddie Olczyk discusses his career and fight with colon cancer in an interview with Kathryn Tappen in a 30-minute special.

Olczyk was named the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador earlier this month and November marks Hockey Fights Cancer Month throughout the league.

Olczyk was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in Aug. 2017 and after a long journey was deemed cancer-free seven months later. Since beating cancer, he has been dedicated to be an advocate for those fighting the disease and their families.

MORE: Book excerpt from Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life

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