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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.

Wild’s new GM faces tough task in finding ‘finishing touches’

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If you look at NHL GM gigs like flipping a home, then some jobs call for a massive renovation, and it must be fun to deal with a “fixer-upper.” But what about when someone wants you to turn an already-expensive house into a mansion?

That’s essentially what’s being asked of longtime Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton as he takes over the Minnesota Wild job from Chuck Fletcher.

Wild owner (and former Predators owner) Craig Leipold at least had a sense of humor about his demands during the press conference that introduced Fenton as GM.

“Our goal is to bring a Stanley Cup to the State of Hockey. But, no pressure, Paul,” Leipold said, via The Athletic’s Michael Russo.

For those who are waiting to interject with a comment along the lines of “Yes, but every team talks about winning the Stanley Cup in these situations” … well, that’s true. Sometimes you can root out some semi-useful information in reading between the lines during these moments, though.

Take, for instance, the video clip below. On one hand, Fenton wants to “move the puck” and play an uptempo style that virtually every team discusses (aside from a relative outlier here or there, like Peter Chiarelli wanting “heavy and hard hockey”). On the other hand, there are some interesting kernels to consider. Fenton at least seems open-minded to making things work with head coach Bruce Boudreau, which is certainly a fair question since he wasn’t a bench boss handpicked by Fenton. Multiple comments also indicate that the Wild hope to ascend to the level of contender rather than going into a rebuild, as “finishing touches” indicate.

If anyone’s ready for a GM job, it’s Fenton. He’s been rising up the Predators organization since 1998, earning glowing reviews from Nashville GM David Poile. There’s a reason he’s been on plenty of GM candidate lists for years.

Minnesota could especially benefit if Fenton observed how Nashville flourished after making courageous trades such as the P.K. SubbanShea Weber swap. Not everyone has the stomach for such risks, but those gambles often separate contenders from pretenders.

There are a number of reasons why Fenton might fail, or at least could struggle. Let’s dive in.

Jumping right into the deep end

The 2018 Stanley Cup Final is nearly upon us. The draft isn’t far away on June 22, and free agency is right afterward. Wild fans have to hope that Fenton’s experience in scouting and his familiarity with the Central Division will come in handy, as this next stretch is a true “trial by fire.”

Fletcher left quite a mess of long-term contracts, most obviously in challenging deals for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, so the Wild aren’t exactly bursting with cap space.

[A deep dive on the mess Fletcher left behind. It’s a mixed bag at best.]

It’s up to Fletcher to try to land pending RFAs Jason Zucker and Mathew Dumba to team-friendly deals after each player enjoyed easily the best seasons of their NHL careers. Over the years, the Predators have piled up some really nice contracts for players they developed, most notably Viktor Arvidsson, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis. Bargain extensions often come down to timing, however, as you can see in Ryan Johansen getting a Getzlaf-like deal. Fenton faces two challenges in getting Zucker and Dumba signed to affordable contracts, whether that means going short-term or trying to bring the annual price down by handing out more term.

If “finishing touches” boil down to small tweaks and savvy shopping in the discount aisle, that’s fine.

Something more drastic could be highly difficult to pull off …

Central issue

… Because the Wild are in a true meat grinder of a Central Division.

Consider this: Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck was being comically hasty in discussing his team becoming a “dynasty.”

That said, when you consider how young and talented that core is, you never know. At minimum, the Jets are structured in a way where they’ll be on-paper favorites against the Wild for the foreseeable future.

Fenton will need to make beautiful music to get his Wild to outmatch his old boss in Nashville, while it’s possible that the Blues and Stars are the ones who are “finishing touches” away from legitimate contention. You can’t totally count out the Blackhawks either (what if Corey Crawford was healthy all season?) and the Avalanche seem like they’re onto something.

One could envision Fenton making the right moves and the Wild still stalling in this first-round limbo. The Central Division is that tough, and there’s a genuine fear that Minnesota simply doesn’t have a high enough ceiling to break through.

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There’s a school of thought that the Wild might be better off rebuilding, or if that’s too extreme, maybe a brief “reload.”

Minnesota definitely has some talent, and the Wild can look like a contender on better nights. Still, that series against the Jets felt telling; you wonder if they’re doomed to be stuck at good when they need to be great.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Canadiens reward Antti Niemi with extension after turnaround

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There weren’t many positives in Montreal during the 2017-18 regular season, but Antti Niemi‘s play was certainly one of them. On Tuesday, the team announced that the veteran has signed a one-year, $950, 000 deal. He was scheduled to become a free agent on July 1st.

Niemi’s journey to the Canadiens organization was a bumpy one. After being bought out by the Dallas Stars last offseason, he signed a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He started the year as Matt Murray‘s backup, but he quickly found himself on waivers in October after a string of poor performances (he had an 0-3 record, a 7.50 goals-against-average and a .797 save percentage during his time with the Pens).

The Florida Panthers decided to put in a waiver claim on the 34-year-old netminder, but not much changed in his play during his brief time in the Sunshine State. He suited up in just two games with the Panthers before going back on waivers in November.

With Carey Price out of the lineup, the Canadiens decided to roll the dice on Niemi and that’s when things changed for the better. By reuniting with his former goalie coach in Chicago, Stephane Waite, Niemi was able to get his career back on the rails. The pair won a Stanley Cup together in 2010 and, again, they showed that they form a great partnership.

In 19 games with an injury-riddled Canadiens team, Niemi had a 7-5-4 record with a 2.46 goals-against-average and a .929 save percentage. Those numbers are remarkable when you consider just how bad the Canadiens were in 2017-18.

As great of a story as this is, this new one-way contract doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be one of the two goalies on the NHL roster come October. Carey Price will be the undisputed starter going into camp, while Niemi and Charlie Lindgren battle for the backup job. Both players are on one-way deals, so the Habs will be paying one of their AHL goalies a lot of money no matter who heads down to AHL Laval next fall. Both contracts can totally be buried in the minors without counting toward the salary cap.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Where will Mark Hunter go after leaving Maple Leafs?

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The hockey world hasn’t heard from Maple Leafs assistant general manager Mark Hunter since the team promoted Kyle Dubas to GM last week. Well, on Tuesday, the team announced that the two sides have mutually agreed to part ways.

“Following extensive discussions with Mark, he and the Toronto Maple Leafs have mutually agreed to part ways,” said Leafs president Brendan Shanahan. “I’d like to sincerely thank Mark for everything he’s done for this organization over the last four years and I wish him nothing but the best in the future.”

Many speculated that Hunter wasn’t happy about being passed over for the general manager opening that eventually went to Dubas, and this kind of confirms that theory. During his tenure with the Leafs, Hunter was in charge of the pro scouting, amateur scouting and player evaluation. He played a big part in Toronto’s rapid rebuild.

So now, Hunter is free to pursue other opportunities outside of the Leafs organization. But according to TSN hockey insider Bob McKenzie, he can’t join another team until after the NHL Entry Draft and free agency. That seems fair considering he has a lot of intel into Toronto’s off-season plans and because he’s departing with term left on his contract.

It’ll be interesting to see if Hunter decides to join forces with former Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello, who officially became the Islanders president of hockey ops on Tuesday morning. After all, current Isles GM Garth Snow is on thin ice, so there could be an opening for a new general manager in the near future. Assuming they move on from Snow, Hunter could be in line to get the job if he decides to go there. If Snow sticks around, he could still join the team in a different capacity.

If things don’t work out with the Islanders, Hunter could always join another NHL team with a front-office opening. Getting a GM gig might be a little difficult considering there aren’t any more openings right now, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get a good gig elsewhere. The Montreal Canadiens have already made some changes to their management group by allowing Rick Dudley to move on to Carolina. Could Hunter be a fit there? It would be a heck of a statement for him to go from Toronto to Montreal.

Of course, if Hunter doesn’t like the NHL offers on the table, there’s also a possibility that he could return to the OHL with the London Knights. When the Leafs came calling in 2014, Hunter was serving as part owner and general manager of the Knights (he remains a co-owner of the team with his brother, Dale, and Basil McRae).

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Islanders hire Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations (Update)

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It’s expected this week that the New York Islanders will officially announce the hiring of Lou Lamoriello to run their hockey operation department, according to Arthur Staple of The Athletic.

It’s unclear at the moment what specific role the 75-year-old Lamoriello will have within the organization. It’s possible he takes over the role of president of hockey operations or general manager, or potentially both. His son, Chris, is the Islanders’ assistant GM.

Last month, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that Lamoriello would not return as their GM after three seasons at the helm.

Staple also confirmed a Hockey30 report that Lamoriello met with Islanders captain John Tavares last week ahead of this move. Tavares is set to become an unrestricted free agent only July 1.

There are many questions to be answered as we wait for the Islanders to announce this move. First, what does this mean for the beards of Nick Leddy and Andrew Ladd, as well as the mustache of Cal Clutterbuck?

Next, where does current GM Garth Snow stand? He’s been running the show since 2006 and has a contract for at least four more seasons. The team has made the playoffs only four times during his tenure and advanced out of the first round once. The fan base demanded change once this season went off the rails, with billboards purchased in Brooklyn calling for Snow’s firing. During an end-of-season press conference in April, Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky said Snow and head coach Doug Weight would be staying for now, but that he would be “evaluating all aspects of our hockey operations.”

The next question is the biggest and that has to do with Tavares. He’s said time and time again that he wants to re-sign, but hasn’t inked an extension and hasn’t given any indication what factors would sway him one way or the other. A new arena on Long Island is coming. But is this change in management and whatever Lamoriello told him in their chat enough to convince him to not explore free agency and commit to staying with the franchise? Only time will tell. But this change could be a good first step forward for the franchise.

UPDATE: The Islanders made the news official on Tuesday morning, with Lamoriello getting the title of president of hockey operations. “He will have full authority over all hockey matters with the organization” was also noted in the press release. Farewell, Garth?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.