Penguins look like a bad hockey team right now

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PITTSBURGH — Now that they are officially into the second half of the season we have seen enough from the Pittsburgh Penguins to confidently say, at this point, they might actually be a bad hockey team.

A bad hockey team that only seems to be getting worse. At least as they are currently constructed.

On Thursday night they were completely and thoroughly dominated by a Carolina Hurricanes team they are currently chasing in the standings. The game not only had no business being as close as the 4-0 score might indicate (and it really doesn’t even indicate that of close game a game), it was also their second loss to the Hurricanes in less than a week.

They scored a total of one goal in those two games, surrendered six, and were outshot by a 66-49 margin.

Against a team that they are, again, in direct competition with for a playoff spot.

Given the context of where they are in the standings and what the game meant, Thursday’s performance was, simply put, ugly.

Really, really, really ugly.

It was also not a fluke. They have had too games this season where they have completely laid an egg on the ice for it to be considered one.

It was such a lackluster effort that Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward, after stopping all 21 shots he faced to record his first shutout of the season, called it a “relatively comfortable night” for himself.

Most goalies do not talk about having comfortable nights against the Penguins.

Here is where this puts the Penguins as they head into Friday’s game against the New York Islanders (another team they are chasing in the standings and another big game they can not afford to lose).

  • The Penguins find themselves three points behind Carolina for the second Wild Card spot while the Hurricanes still have two games in hand.
  • The Penguins have not won back-to-back games since Dec. 1 and 2. Since the start of December they have played 16 games. They have won only seven of them, with only three coming in regulation.
  • The Penguins have the worst points percentage of any team in the Metropolitan Division, and as I noted on Tuesday heading into their game against the Philadelphia Flyers, they are going to need to play at an extraordinarily high level the rest of the way to secure a playoff spot. After Thursday’s loss they will need 52 points in their final 40 games to reach 95 points, usually the low point for what it takes to get a playoff spot. That is a .650 points percentage. Their current points percentage on the season: .511.

“I don’t think it’s any one thing, I think it’s a combination of things,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after Thursday’s game when asked about his team’s current struggle to piece together consecutive wins.

“It could be something different every night. It starts with a compete level, a mindset, and a willingness to win puck battles, things of that nature.”

Captain Sidney Crosby echoed a similar sentiment.

“We just haven’t put games together We’ve had one good game, then it’s exactly the way our record shows. If we knew the reason I think we would find a way to put them together. I think the main thing is our compete level and finding that nightly we haven’t been able to do it.”

Earlier this season there was a lot of talk about how tough the early schedule was given the number of back-to-backs they had and the number of games they had to play the past two seasons. Including playoffs the Penguins played 213 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, more than any team in the history of the league has played over a two-year stretch. It is a lot, and there is a reason so few teams are able to repeat as Stanley Cup champions and why winning more than two in a row is almost impossible: It takes a lot, and it can be a mental and physical grind.

But the Penguins are not the first team that has played a lot of hockey over a two-year stretch by going on Stanley Cup Final runs. Since the start of the 1990 season the Penguins are the seventh team to have played in consecutive Stanley Cup Finals.

The 1991 and 1992 Penguins played 209 games over their two-year stretch. The 1997 and 1998 Red Wings played 206. The Dallas Stars played 210 over the 1999 and 2000 seasons. The New Jersey Devils played 212 between 2000 and 2001. The Penguins and Red Wings played 208 and 209 respectively during their back-to-back runs in 2008 and 2009.

Every single one of those teams not only came back the third year to make the playoffs, all but one (the Devils) won at least one round in the playoffs. They averaged more than 45 wins in the third season.

As mentioned above, the Penguins are going to need to pretty much match their 2016-17 regular season performance the rest of the way just to get in.

The problem isn’t necessarily the schedule or fatigue. It isn’t necessarily a mindset or a compete level. Those factors might be a part of it, but it’s not all of it.

A big part of it is still simply a lack of talent in a lot of key areas, and it all stems from an offseason of inactivity that saw the depth that made them so lethal the past two seasons get ripped apart while they did nothing to counter it. As currently constructed the Penguins are right back to where they were toward the end of the Ray Shero-Dan Bylsma era — a top-heavy team of superstars that doesn’t have enough complementary pieces to really be a true force.

If you wanted to argue that Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are not playing as well as they did the past two years, you would not be wrong. It’s not an unfair observation, at least when it comes to their point production. Both players are down and when so much of your team is built around two players that is going to hurt. But they are still performing at a top-line level. Their numbers might be sub-par for them, but they are still more than most teams will get out of their top players.

The Penguins didn’t win the past two Stanley Cups because Crosby or Malkin did anything more than they used to do — they won because the team had four lines that could all score on any given night. On the nights where their top players were shut down (and that will happen quite a bit over an 82-game season plus playoffs) they still had other players that could score. Depth matters.

A year ago when the Penguins did not get a goal from Crosby or Malkin in a game (whether because one or both was out of the lineup, or because they simply did not score) the Penguins still had a .466 points percentage and averaged 2.5 goals per game. Certainly not dominant, but still somewhat passable considering how important those two players are.

So far this season when neither Crosby or Malkin score the Penguins have a .333 points percentage and are averaging only 1.9 goals per game.

Say it with me again: Depth matters.

Given what the Penguins lost and what they did to replace it this should not be a surprise, but it’s back to the 2011-2015 days of hoping that one or both of them can carry the offense all on their own.

Over the summer the Penguins lost Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz off of that forward group. That trio of players scored 40 goals for them a year ago.

The three players that are currently replacing them on the roster (Riley Sheahan, Carter Rowney and Ryan Reaves) are on pace to score 12.

That is going to make a significant dent. I’ve written about the Penguins’ lack of depth before this season and it’s not about whether or not the Penguins should have tried to keep the players they lost, because financially they simply could not do it. There was no way they could fit Bonino under the salary cap, while Cullen had family ties to Minnesota.

Sometimes things just don’t work out.

But they had to do something more than what they did.

They had to have a better backup plan than just assuming Carter Rowney or Greg McKegg could adequately come close to replacing what Bonino and Cullen did for them.

They had to do something more than trade for Ryan Reaves, a complete 180 turn from the type of player that used to make up their fourth-line, and essentially turn themselves into a three-line team because they don’t even trust the fourth line to play any sort of meaningful minutes. They didn’t have to use what available cap space they had on Matt Hunwick, Reaves and Sheahan.

For as many times as general manager Jim Rutherford pushed the right buttons in 2015 and 2016, he pushed all of the wrong ones this summer.

Now, having said all of that, the question the Penguins have to answer is whether or not they try to salvage this season and make a couple of more trades, or if they just ride it out, see where the current roster takes them, and regroup with a better offseason?

For as bleak as things look right now this season as long as they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang on the roster they owe it to themselves to try and win. You only get players like that for so long, and you almost never get a chance to make history by winning multiple Stanley Cups in a short period of time. You never want to punt on any season with that core, especially when we saw how a few changes mid-season sparked them just two years ago.

Sometimes that spark comes with a price when it comes to giving up young talent or a part of your future, and that can be risky. On the other hand, banners hang forever.

If there is any glimmer of hope the Penguins can cling to at this point in the season it’s that Crosby, Malkin and Letang can — and probably still should — be a little better than they have been. That will help. We also haven’t even gotten into the struggles of Matt Murray this season because he too can (and needs to) be better.

But even if all of that happens they are still going to need to address the obvious deficiencies they have with their scoring depth and perhaps even a little on the blue line. Unless they do that it’s hard to envision them making any sort of noise in the playoffs again.

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.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

“I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

“It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

“We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

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Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

“We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

“It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

NEW COACHES

The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

“Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

CAMP TRYOUTS

Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

“They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

EARLY START

Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

“We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

“I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”