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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.

NHL players in favor of ‘international flavor’ All-Star idea

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Nathan MacKinnon enjoyed when the NHL All-Star Game featured North America against the World in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Something similar could be coming back next year, but with a twist.

The league is in talks with players to bring what Commissioner Gary Bettman called a ”distinct international flavor” to 2021 All-Star Weekend in South Florida. Not quite North America versus the World but more like a miniature 3-on-3 tournament with players representing the U.S., Canada and other top hockey countries.

It’s not a replacement for the Olympics, but players are largely in favor of spicing up All-Star festivities and playing for more than divisional pride.

”Ooh, that would be cool,” Canada-born Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin said. ”I wonder if that would get it even more competitive. I’m not sure. It would be interesting.”

Think about MacKinnon, Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby playing for Canada against Americans Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane and Jack Eichel, or Sweden’s Victor Hedman, Elias Pettersson and Filip Forsberg facing off against Finland’s Patrik Laine, Aleksander Barkov and Mikko Rantanen.

”I think any time you get some country rivalries going, there’ll be a little more aggressiveness,” U.S.-born Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. ”It would be cool.”

The NHL is five years into holding a 3-on-3 All-Star tournament by division. The winning team gets to split $1 million, and the wide-open ice has proven more entertaining than the old format.

”I like the 3-on-3 the most,” said Seguin, who has made six All-Star appearances. ”I played in a couple of the 5-on-5 games and they were fun, but I think the 3-on-3 is the best.”

Given the success of the 3-on-3, it would be silly to abandon it now. But after the league and players couldn’t come to an agreement on holding a World Cup of Hockey in the winter of 2021, an international All-Star tournament would be a consolation prize.

”I don’t think anything really means as much as the Olympics, to be honest with you,” Kane said. ”But I think it’s always an honor to play for your country.”

After the International Olympic Committee didn’t give the NHL the same insurance, travel and accommodations benefits in 2018 as the previous five games, the league ended its streak of participating. And despite significant investment in and fascination with the Chinese market, there’s no guarantee NHL players go to Beijing in 2022.

”I can’t say that with certainty – not to give people false hope,” Bettman said. ”From our standpoint, we believe and our experience both with going to five Olympics and then not going to Pyeongchang tells us that going is extraordinarily disruptive to the season.”

Because the 2016 World Cup of Hockey featured a Team North American with the best age 23 and under players from the U.S. and Canada, Crosby, McDavid and MacKinnon have never played together, and neither have Matthews, Kane and Eichel. Doing so at All-Star Weekend would provide some entertainment, but Kane is still holding out hope that it can happen for real in Beijing.

”I think sometimes (NHL executives) portray that view on the Olympics and then there’s always I think some room to maybe try and figure it out,” he said. ”It’s becoming pretty close to that date where you probably need to decide if we’re going or not. It would be fun. I think we could put a pretty good American team together. Obviously some other teams would have some good young players, as well, but it would be fun to play with some of those guys.”

The 10 players that will impact NHL playoff race in second half

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With the NHL All-Star break wrapping up and the second half of the 2019-20 season ready to begin, we are taking a look at some of the players, coaches, and general managers that could have the biggest impact on the Stanley Cup Playoff races and which teams end up making the postseason.

Here, we focus on 10 players that could stand out the most.

For the six coaches and general managers that could make the biggest impact, click here.

1. Elvis Merzlikins (Goalie), Columbus Blue Jackets. You don’t have to dig very deep to figure out how the Blue Jackets have exceeded all preseason expectations and played their way back into a playoff spot: It’s the goaltending. For as good as Joonas Korpisalo was to start the year, the play of Merzlikins is what has really helped turn this season around.

Since taking over in place of the injured Korpisalo, Merzlikins is 9-2-0 in his 11 starts (Matiss Kivlenieks also won a start in the middle of that stretch) with a save percentage well over .940. The Blue Jackets don’t score a lot of goals, they don’t have a ton of resources to deal from to strengthen the roster at the deadline, and while Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are both great defensemen, the team surrenders a lot of shots and doesn’t have great defensive metrics. But goaltending is the great equalizer in hockey and right now it is making all the difference for Columbus.

2. Sergei Bobrovsky (Goalie), Florida Panthers. While the Blue Jackets have found a tandem that works in net, their former goalie has made a very different impact with his new team. A bad one. There is plenty of reason for Panthers fans to finally be excited about their team, and they do enter the post-All-Star break stretch with a solid playoff footing despite the early struggles of Bobrovsky. He doesn’t have to be the Vezina Trophy goalie he was earlier in his career, but if he can bounce back in the second half the Panthers could become a very dangerous team given the strength of their offense.

3. Johnny Gaudreau (Forward), Calgary Flames. The Flames have regressed this season after finishing the 2018-19 season as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. At the center of that regression is an offense that has gone from being one of the league’s highest scoring, to one of its lowest scoring. With only five goals in his first 29 games Gaudreau was a big factor in that team-wide decline offensively. He is currently on pace for the worst offensive output of his career, but over the past month or two has really started to show signs of breaking out and getting back to being the offensive difference-maker he is. If that continues down the stretch it could make all the difference in the Pacific Division.

4-5. Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie (Defensemen), Toronto Maple Leafs. Everyone knows the Maple Leafs’ flaw. Everyone knows the issue. It is defense. With Morgan Rielly sidelined for at least two months, the Maple Leafs are going to need Muzzin and Barrie to be great. Muzzin, probably the team’s best defensive player, has been sidelined since late December and it’s not a coincidence the team has struggled since then. Barrie was a huge offseason pickup, but has not yet met expectations. A healthy Muzzin and Barrie making the impact the Maple Leafs had hoped for would go a long way toward not only solidifying the Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes, but also giving them a chance to finally make a run beyond the first round.

6. Carter Hart (Goalie), Philadelphia Flyers. His first full season has had some inconsistencies to it, and he is currently sidelined with an injury, but Hart has the upside and ability to impact the Flyers’ playoff chances more than any other individual player on the roster. He and Brian Elliott both have league average numbers this season, but Hart showed last year as a rookie (and has at times this season) that he is capable of far more than that. If he can get to that level on a regular basis there is no reason this can not be a playoff team, even in the wildly competitive Metropolitan Division.

7. Taylor Hall (Forward), Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes made their big trade deadline acquisition months before the actual deadline, and Hall gives them the exact type of difference-maker they have needed up front. If Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper are healthy, the Coyotes have the goaltending to win with a very good defense in front of them. They can shut teams down. The one thing they lacked was a top-line scorer. Hall provides that and seems to be settling in with 12 points in his past nine games. He carried the Devils to a playoff spot two years ago in his most recent fully healthy season, and he has a much better supporting cast on this team.

8. Jaccob Slavin (Defenseman), Carolina Hurricanes. Dougie Hamilton is most likely done for the season, and you simply can not replace what he has done this season, especially offensively. He has been arguably the best all around defenseman in the league so far. There is no trade to be made to add that back. There is no player sitting in the press box or player in the AHL that can step in and do it. Slavin is the Hurricanes’ best defensive player (and one of the best in the NHL), and without Hamilton in the lineup he becomes their biggest offensive presence on the blue line as well. That is a big role, but he should be capable of filling it.

9. Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Forward), Ottawa Senators — for now. He does not play for a playoff team just yet, but he will. With Hall already traded and the Rangers not necessarily guaranteed to trade Chris Kreider, Pageau might be the biggest name available on the trade market and he would be a significant add to any contender given his two-way play. He provides a shutdown defensive game as a second-or third-line center while also being on pace for more than 30 goals this season. Every playoff team in the league could find a use for a player like that, and he could be the type of secondary player that changes a game or two in the playoffs.

10. Dustin Byfuglien (Defenseman), Winnipeg Jets. On one hand, if he was going to play this season it seems like there would be more progress toward that right now. So maybe this is a long shot. But, if he did return it would be quite an add to a Jets defense that needs all the help it can get. They have managed to stay in the race for more than half of the season with a makeshift defense. They have the forwards, they have the goalie, they just need help on the blue line and there remains the possibility for a top-pairing player to walk through the door at some point. It would help.

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 6 coaches and general managers that will impact NHL playoff race

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With the NHL All-Star break wrapping up and the second half of the 2019-20 season ready to begin, we are taking a look at some of the players, coaches, and general managers that could have the biggest impact on the Stanley Cup Playoff races and which teams make the postseason.

Here, we focus on six general managers and coaches that could stand out.

For 10 players that could impact the Stanley Cup Playoff races, click here.

1. Ken Holland (General manager), Edmonton Oilers. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are outstanding. They are the best offensive duo in hockey and there probably isn’t anyone even all that close to them. For the second year in a row they are on track to finish among the top-four scorers in the league (literally top-two at the moment) while they carry an overwhelming majority of the Oilers’ offense. But two players on their own can only take an NHL team so far.

They need help, and it’s going to be up to Holland to provide it. He has some big decisions to make over the next few weeks and months, not only when it comes to the tricky situation regarding a new contract for Zack Kassian (this seems like an overpay waiting to happen) but also adding more depth to a team that can not continue to waste two superstars in the prime years of their careers.

2. Stan Bowman (General manager), Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks’ roster moves this past summer were the actions of a team and general manager that still believed it had a window to compete with its veteran core. So far, it’s hard to argue that it’s really worked. For as hot as they have been over the past few weeks they are still only on pace for 87 points this season and are currently three points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Hardly an insurmountable deficit, but probably not as easy as it may seem.

The first problem: The defense is still lousy and a lot of their improvement has simply been from the goaltending performances of Robin Lehner (mostly him) and Corey Crawford. The second problem: Both goalies are UFA’s after this season, and Lehner in particular wants to be paid his fair market value. Defenseman Erik Gustafsson is also a UFA.

How does Bowman play this? His offseason makes it look like he’s not ready to punt on the remaining prime years of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. But the team also still has flaws and has a couple of pending UFA’s that might have some value. Trading Lehner and/or Gustafsson would be putting up the white flag on the season. But is the team as currently constructed good enough to truly add to for a run? The middle-ground between Stanley Cup contender and rebuilding lottery team is a terrible place to be for an NHL team.

3. John Hynes (Head coach), Nashville Predators. This might be a long-shot, but the Predators are not totally out of this yet. Yes, they still have a six-point gap between them and a wild card spot, but they also have multiple games in hand on every team they are chasing, including FIVE on the second wild card team as of Sunday. Games in hand are not wins in hand, but it helps. The two biggest things holding Nashville back this season have been goaltending and special teams. The goaltending might be out of his hands, but special teams are one area where a coach can make a noticeable impact and special teams were the one area his recent Devils teams had the most success. Let’s see what he can do here.

4. Lou Lamoriello (General manager), New York Islanders. Lamoriello hasn’t been very active since taking over as the Islanders’ general manager, with his only noteworthy trade being the acquisition of Matt Martin before the start of the 2018-19 season. The time might be here for him to do something because this team just looks like it could use something different. They are closer to the playoff bubble than you might realize, they are still a bottom-10 team offensively, and they are just 13-12-3 in the 28 games since their 17-game point streak ended. They need another scorer (maybe two?) if they are going to be a serious Stanley Cup contender.

5. Peter DeBoer (Head coach), Vegas Golden Knights. Based on what we have seen over the first half of the season the goaltending will probably be the biggest factor in Vegas’ second half, but all eyes are going to be on DeBoer given the circumstances around his hiring. Not only did he change sides in what has quickly become one of the NHL’s fiercest rivalries, but he is replacing a coach in Gerard Gallant that had taken an expansion team to the playoffs in each of its first two seasons and was only point out of a playoff spot in year three when he was fired. Gallant helped set a high bar already in Vegas, and now Golden Knights’ management is betting that DeBoer is the person to get them a Stanley Cup.

6. Joe Sakic (General manager), Colorado Avalanche. Sakic is worth a mention here because he has one of the league’s most talented teams, plenty of trade chips to deal from, and more salary cap space to play with than every team but Columbus. He could add pretty much anyone he wants to a team that is already a Stanley Cup contender.

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.

Blues All-Stars proud to represent franchise on home ice

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ST. LOUIS — After the cheers died down and the puck dropped, the Blues All-Stars wanted to give their fans inside Enterprise Center more reasons to make noise on Saturday night. But while they offered some hope coming back late in the first period of their semifinal with the Pacific Division, the Central Division team would ultimately fall 10-5 and see their All-Star Weekend come to a close earlier than desired.

“It’s not the result we wanted, but it was fun to be out there,” said Jordan Binnington, who was playing in his first All-Star Game. “I think the boys had fun and it was overall a fun weekend. But now it’s time to get back to business.”

Between Binnington, Alex Pietrangelo, David Perron, Ryan O’Reilly, and head coach Craig Berube, the hosts were well represented. That was on display during the opening face off when Berube put out a starting lineup featuring all four of his players.

“He asked me before the game [about the lineup],” Pietrangelo said afterward. “I said, you really have one job — it’s to start us. Don’t mess it up.”

That moment was just one of many on the night that highlighted the team, their fans and the organization. Celebrity fans Jenna Fischer and Jon Hamm, along with Blues alums Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull served as honorary coaches. Anthem singer Charles Glenn, who retired after last season as he battles multiple sclerosis, returned to a roaring ovation from the sold out crowd as he belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The energy would jump up a notch a little later when Laila Anderson, the team’s inspiring young fan, introduced the four Blues players.

“She was really good,” said Perron. “She had a good voice and was pretty loud. She had fun doing it, so it certainly was special for all of us.”

Hosting All-Star Weekend was another unforgettable moment in a year filled with them for the Blues. From the rollercoaster ride of last season ending with the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title, to the team getting off to a strong start in the 2019-20 season, there’s a lot of good momentum with the franchise.

“It’s pretty special,” Pietrangelo said. “Pretty fun to put on a show for our home crowd. We have good fans and we put on a show this weekend. Everybody saw that.”

MORE ALL-STAR COVERAGE:
Pacific wins close All-Star Game final
Best moments from 2020 NHL All-Star Game

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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.