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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.

Q&A: Nicklas Lidstrom on his toughest losses, influence of Brad McCrimmon

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Nicklas Lidstrom spent this past weekend in Toronto taking part in the 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame Weekend of festivities. He captained one of the teams during Sunday’s Legends Classic and watched as another European player, Vaclav Nedomansky, was enshrined Monday night.

While the former Red Wings captain, a 2015 inductee, is one of four Swedish players in the Hall of Fame, he sees more and more European players who will find their way to Toronto in the near future.

“I think we will have more representatives and more Europeans coming in as they get older,” Lidstrom told NBC Sports this week. “I know [Marian] Hossa’s been mentioned, Pavel Datsyuk is coming up, Henrik Lundqvist, the Sedin twins are coming up. Just talking about Swedes, but in general I think you’ll see more Europeans as these guys get older.”

Lidstrom has spent part of the fall promoting his book Nicklas Lidstrom: The Pursuit of Perfection, which was released in October.

We spoke with Lidstrom this week about his book, what current defensemen he enjoys watching, and what the “Perfect Human” isn’t good at.

Enjoy.

PHT: You write in the book about your first contract with Detroit and thinking you’ll play a few years and then go back home. What was behind that thinking and were there times later in your career where you contemplated that again?

LIDSTROM: “I didn’t really know what to expect when I first signed with the Wings. I didn’t know what it was like living overseas and playing in the NHL, playing almost twice as many games as I did in Europe at the time. That’s why in my mind I said I’m going to give it a try anyway and play a few years and see how it goes. If I’m not successful I can always move back and play in Sweden again. My mindset wasn’t to play 20 years or play a real long time. It was more just get used to playing and living in the U.S. and the NHL.”

PHT: You also wrote about Brad McCrimmon and how big of an influence he was on you in those early years. Did any of the lessons he taught you — on or off the ice — influence in how you dealt with younger players when you were the veteran?

LIDSTROM: “Yeah, one of the things he mentioned was that you’ve got to go to work every day, meaning you don’t take days off and you’ve got to work hard every day. He said if you do that then you’re a pro. If you do it well you can be a star. That’s something I tried to help younger players with as well, [telling them] just got to go there and work hard and feel good about yourself leaving the rink every day.”

PHT: A lot of players quoted in the book talk about how hard it was to get you off your game. Were you always like that as a player, even as a youth?

LIDSTROM: “No, as I matured and got older I developed that. In my junior years, not that I would lose my temper real bad, but I would try to get even or slash someone back if someone was trying to get under my skin. I would sometimes get sucked into that as a junior player. As I matured and as I got to know the game a lot more and became better I was able to keep my emotions intact and focus on the game.”

PHT: You play through a few different eras of the NHL. Today, there are no Derian Hatcher type defenseman. You have to be a good skater, be able to move the puck well. How do you think a 21-year-old Nick Lidstrom would do in the NHL in 2019?

LIDSTROM: “I think I would have adapted and adjusted to the style of today’s game. That’s what I had to do as a 34-, 35-year-old when they changed the rules in 2005. You have to adjust. You were taught to grab and hold and put your stick around someone’s waist, that was how you were taught when you first came into the league. All of a sudden, that’s a penalty every time you do it, so you had to adjust. As a young player I think I would have been able to adjust to that style, too. I was a mobile defenseman in a younger age, so I think I would have been able to adjust to that type of style earlier, too.”

PHT: Who are the defenseman you enjoy watching the most today?

LIDSTROM: “There’s so many good, young players today. Good skaters, they’re good at moving the puck. They wanted you to be big defenseman and maybe the real skill guys were a couple of every team, or three, four at the most, and now you see the opposite. Now you see skill is what team’s are looking for. They’re looking for skating defensemen and guys that can move the puck and be part of the offense. 

“I saw Rasmus Dahlin here in Sweden a couple of weeks ago when they played Tampa and seeing his style of play, how confident he plays with the puck. Cale Makar, I haven’t seen him play live but I’ve watched some highlights of him recently, too. They’re all good skaters and they can move the puck and they can be part of the offense. There’s a lot more mobility on the backend than there used to be.”

PHT: And the exciting thing is guys like Dahlin and Makar, they’re playing at that level right away. It’s not as if they’re older veterans.

LIDSTROM: “That’s what’s so impressive. Rasmus is 19 and Cale [is 21]. I’m so impressed with how they come in and really take charge of the game. You didn’t see that when I came in or even 10 years ago you didn’t see many players that young coming in and being so important to their teams. That’s another thing that’s impressive: how the young guys and young stars of the league have been able to step in and contribute right away.”

PHT: For all of the team awards you’ve won — Stanley Cups, gold medals — is there a loss in your career that still bothers you to this day when you think about it?

LIDSTROM: “Always when you think back at some of the losses, the one we had in the Olympics in 2002 against Belarus in the quarterfinals was a tough one. That was a real tough loss for us where we were huge favorite and came out on the wrong end of it. 

“The last Stanley Cup Final that I played in, 2009, was hard, too. We beat Pittsburgh the year before. We had a good team and they had a good team, too, which is why it went to seven games. It was disappointing losing that Game 7 at home.”

PHT: When that puck was squirting out to you in Game 7, were you confident you were about to score before [Marc-Andre] Fleury dove across?

LIDSTROM: “No, I can’t say I was confident because the puck was kind of coming on my off side, so I couldn’t get a lot on it. If the puck had squirted out on the other side it would have been like a one-timer. I had to focus more on getting it on net, but I didn’t get as much on it as I would have liked. That’s why when it came from the off side it makes it a little harder to get all of it. I wasn’t overly confident at all that I would score. I knew it was only within seconds of the buzzer, too, so I knew I had to get a shot off quick.”

PHT: Finally, you’ve had the “Perfect Human” nickname for a long time. But tell me, what is something Nicklas Lidstrom isn’t good at?

LIDSTROM: [laughs] “My wife would tell you a bunch of things. I was so detailed in getting ready for games and focusing on everything around the game, but away from the rink my car could be dirty, I could be sloppy with dishes or things around the house. You’re not as focused as you were at the rink. Those kinds of things.”

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Life after Babcock; goalie gambles not paying off

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Confidence should be gained for the Maple Leafs now that Mike Babcock is gone and Sheldon Keefe is in. [Toronto Star]

• The fun is gone in Toronto. [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Babcock is out, but now the pressure is upped on management. [Leafs Nation]

• “The NHL has to stop letting player safety depend on referees’ judgment calls.” [RMNB]

• “Why punching your opponent in hockey is fine but spitting on him is not.” [The Guardian]

• A look at Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and other NHL players carrying large offensive burdens for their teams. [ESPN]

• Jamie McGinn has been released from his tryout with the Blues, while Troy Brouwer inks a one-year deal. [Blues]

• Some goalie gambles haven’t paid off for a number of GMs. [Yahoo]

• It’s been a mixed bag of results for the Sabres’ blue line. [Die by the Blade]

• In good news for the Sabres, assistant coach Don Granato, who’s been out since Oct. 1 while battling severe pneumonia, was back at practice on Wednesday. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• The Blue Jackets have faced a pretty tough schedule to start the season. [1st Ohio Battery]

Yanni Gourde should not longer be considered underrated; he’s just that good. [Raw Charge]

• Sharks’ Evander Kane pushes growth of hockey at Oakland middle school. [NBC Sports Bay Area]

• Finally, a great development for Ryan Straschnitzki, who was paralyzed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash last April:

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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.

USA Hockey snub leads Alex Carpenter on Chinese adventure

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Once Bobby Carpenter’s flight from Beijing touched down in Boston, he raced to the Lawrence Larsen Rink in nearby Winthrop, Massachusetts, to catch his daughter’s Canadian Women’s Hockey League game.

Time was of the essence because, immediately following the game, Alex Carpenter was boarding a flight for China, of all places, with her new Shenzhen Vanke Rays teammates.

It was late January 2018, and Carpenter had gone some eight months without seeing his daughter while he coached Kunlun, the Chinese team in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League. Just as important, this also represented his first chance to speak to Alex personally since she was surprisingly left off the U.S. Olympic team preparing to play at the Winter Games in South Korea.

”I wanted to talk to her and make sure she was positive when she went over,” recalled Carpenter, who spent 18 seasons playing in the NHL. ”So, I just kind of said, ‘This is great. I’m glad you’ve got somewhere to play right now. Don’t worry about the other thing.”’

Some two years later, Alex Carpenter has no regrets or hold any lingering resentment over being left off a team that would go on to win its second gold medal and first since 1998.

”I don’t think it’s worth being bitter about. It was outside of my control,” said Carpenter, who had helped the U.S. win four previous world championships and a silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Games. ”It was decisions they made and I can’t do anything about it now.”

What matters is U.S. college hockey’s top women’s player in 2015 is back on the national team after helping the U.S. win its fifth consecutive world championship and ninth overall in April.

And the former standout at Boston College is still benefiting from her decision to play in China.

Carpenter is now in her third season playing for the Vanke Rays, who switched to the KHL-backed Women’s Hockey League after the CWHL folded last spring. The therapeutic move to leave her frustrations behind in North America has turned into a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for the 25-year-old.

”I think you just kind of learn to put things behind you and know that’s not the end of the world,” she said. ”I couldn’t have even imagined this in a million years. Sometimes you still can’t believe that you get to do this much traveling and playing in such a great league.”

Through games Tuesday, Carpenter is leading the eight-team league with 14 goals and 34 points in 14 games, while juggling her national team duties and the jet lag that comes with it.

Earlier this month, Carpenter traveled from China to Pittsburgh to participate in the U.S. team’s training camp, which included two exhibition games against Canada. Then, she was back on a flight to Krasnoyarsk in central Russia, where she had two assists in a 6-3 win on Nov. 13.

”You kind of get used to it after a while,” Carpenter said of a travel schedule in which the Vanke Rays’ closest road game is about a nine-hour flight. ”You just sleep when you can, eat when you can. It’s pretty basic.”

The key is she’s still playing, while many of her national team counterparts are relegated to practicing and competing in the occasional barn-storming game following their decision to not play professionally in North America and its lone remaining league, the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League.

The quasi-boycott came in the aftermath of the CWHL’s demise and led to the world’s top players to form the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association and push for a new league with a sustainable economic model.

Carpenter supports her colleagues and keeps track of developments in China. And it’s not lost on Carpenter that she and her Vanke Rays teammates are treated far better and have more access to resources than she had during her one NWHL season with the Boston Pride in 2016-17.

”We’d show up to rinks and not have dressing rooms until an hour or two before the game,” she said. ”Those kind of brought me back to my youth days.”

In Shenzhen, Carpenter has her room and board paid for, and players have daily ice times set aside and access to a workout facility. Carpenter made an impression at the recent Team USA camp on coach Bob Corkum, who noted she was in better game shape than players who elected to stay in North America.

”She’s as good as she wants to be,” Corkum said. ”Offensively she’s off the charts.”

Corkum replaced Robb Stauber and isn’t interested in what happened in the past. Upon welcoming Carpenter back at a camp in January, Corkum informed the entire team that he and his staff would strive to develop an open and honest relationship.

”I don’t really know what happened with the last people, and I would prefer to keep it that way, and treating Alex like any other player,” Corkum said. ”She’s been a great teammate and a great ambassador for the women’s game. I expect to see a lot more from her in the years to come.”

Bobby Carpenter has moved on, too. Not happy with how his daughter was treated before the 2018 Winter Games, he’s proud of how Alex has taken advantage of this opportunity.

”In hindsight, it couldn’t have worked out any better,” said Carpenter, who spends many early mornings watching his daughter’s games on YouTube. ”I think she’s focused on today, which is really important. If you’re focused on today, you work hard because it’s today. You don’t take anything for granted.”

The Vanke Rays are a multi-national squad which lists seven Americans, including national team defenseman Megan Bozek, six Canadians, and Finland national team goalie Noora Raty. Aside from playing, they’re also asked to help develop women’s hockey in China in advance of the 2022 Winter Game in Beijing.

The experience has provided Carpenter a unique perspective in seeing the women’s game grow, while also seeing the deficiencies that still exist.

”Obviously, we’re all together and fighting for the same things,” Carpenter said. ”I would love to see the day where we can be able to play professionally within North America.”

Should that happen, she’ll face a big decision over whether to stay in China.

”I’d have a lot of thinking to do,” Carpenter said. ”But it would definitely be pretty amazing to see that within your own country, and I think that would definitely sway my decision to come back.”

Our Line Starts podcast: What now for Maple Leafs? Issues in Calgary, Buffalo

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Kathryn Tappen, Mike Milbury, Keith Jones, and special guest Bob McKenzie react to the breaking news of Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday. Why now? What’s next? All your questions answered. Plus, Pierre McGuire interviews Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports