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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Winnipeg Jets

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Far worse.

Losing Jacob Trouba hurts, and the defense also waved goodbye to Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot (with addition Neal Pionk arguably being a net negative). Kevin Hayes was clearly a rental, but either way, they once again have a 2C problem with him gone.

Strengths: Assuming the Jets sign RFAs Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, Winnipeg still boasts some serious firepower on offense. It’s tough to shake the feeling that we didn’t see the best out of that forward group at times in 2018-19. Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler produced enough to overlook some possession numbers that were at-times middling, but it was a frustrating year for Laine, while Nikolaj Ehlers hopes to shake off a brutal playoff series where he went pointless.

Weaknesses: Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey are quality defensemen, but that defense group is troubling overall — at least when you’re trying to endure the rigors of a tough Central Division. The Jets could really struggle in their own end, especially if last season’s expected goals nosedive was a sign of a new normal, rather than just a blip on the radar.

Troublingly, it’s not certain that Connor Hellebuyck will bail them out of mistakes; he was fabulous in 2017-18, but then fell back down to Earth with a .913 save percentage last season. It’s unclear if Hellebuyck can bail the Jets out if their defense ends up being as weak as feared.

[MORE: Three questions | X-factorUnder Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Normally, I’d lean almost toward 10, but Paul Maurice is some kind of coaching vampire. The dude’s somehow been consistently a head coach since 1995-96, even though team success has often been fleeting. You’d think the calls for his head would have been even louder considering how the Jets’ play plummeted basically once the calendar hit 2019.

Money Puck’s month-to-month expected goals chart really captures that meltdown dramatically:

Yikes.

When you look at the Jets on paper, you expect more than we saw in 2018-19. How much is that on the players underachieving (or bad luck), and how much does it boil down to a coach who … frankly, hasn’t accomplished enough to make you think “that guy should be a head coach for decades.”

Because Maurice is nearly indestructible, let’s bump that 10 down to an 8 or 9. Turn on the microwave if Laine, Connor, and/or Dustin Byfuglien miss a chunk of the early season and the Jets really sink, though.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Laine, Connor, and Byfuglien.

In the cases of Laine and Connor, they remain RFA situations to watch. They’ll also carry a ton of pressure if they get paid more than people believe they’re worth. These are two players with quite a bit to prove already, and may only bring higher expectations with fatter wallets.

Byfuglien, meanwhile, is fascinating under almost all circumstances — a true anomaly of a player. Humans this large aren’t supposed to be able to rove like Byfuglien can, and he’s a truly unique combination of skill and nastiness. At his size and his age (34), it’s fair to wonder when Byfuglien might buckle under the burden of what will likely be a heavy workload post-Trouba and Myers.

Playoffs or Lottery: As gifted as Winnipeg’s top-end players are, it feels like they’re more likely to fight for a wild-card spot or Central second/third seed than run away with the division, conference, or Presidents’ Trophy. This team had serious problems toward the end of last season, and it’s unclear if they’ve solved them, particularly after losing important players like Trouba.

Even considering some of the red flags, it would be a surprise if the Jets missed the playoffs altogether, though.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

National Women’s Hockey League sells Pride to private owner

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BOSTON (AP) — Miles Arnone and a group of investors have purchased the Boston Pride from the National Women’s Hockey League, making it the only club with a private owner.

The NWHL announced the sale of the Pride on Tuesday. The Buffalo Beauts previously were the only team with a private owner until Terry and Kim Pegula sold it back to the league in May.

The NWHL hired a firm to help find owners for all five of its teams, which had been league-owned and managed. Commissioner Dany Rylan believes having a private owner committed to a team helps boost local marketing and sales.

The fifth NWHL season begins in October. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League ceased operations in the spring.

Dozens of top players have pledged not to compete in North America this season with the goal of establishing a single, economically viable professional league.

Q&A: Max Domi on the pressure in Montreal, getting Canadiens back to playoffs

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Max Domi isn’t afraid of playing under the spotlight. Growing up with a dad who played in Toronto certainly showed him what it was like when the pressure to win is there every single night.

So when the 24-year-old Domi was dealt from Arizona to Montreal in June 2018, the switch in markets didn’t affect him at all. In fact, it may have even played a role in his career season where he scored 28 goals and recorded 72 points. Those totals followed two subpar seasons with the Coyotes where he tallied 18 total goals in his last 141 games in the desert.

“Some people aren’t like that but for me, it forces you to bring out the best in yourself,” Domi told NBC Sports during the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago earlier this month. “I really enjoy being in the spotlight, not just myself personally but our team. That whole city just expects success from not only our team but everyone involved with it. I think it’s a good sense of accountability and I really do enjoy it.”

Domi’s 72 points led the Canadiens last season, the first time he’s been tops in points on his team since the 2013-14 London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League — a team that featured the likes of Bo Horvat, Mitch Marner, and Josh Anderson. Montreal, however, fell just short of their goal of making the playoffs, missing the final Eastern Conference wild card spot by only two points.

We spoke to Domi about his career year, why the Habs fell short, and more.

Enjoy.

Q. Why did it all click you for offensively last season?

DOMI: “A little bit of everything. I think it was a decent year. Unfortunately, we didn’t achieve our goal of making the playoffs. That being said, on a personal level you finally just find your way, right? You get put in a situation where you’re playing for a team that brings out the best in you, the pressure brings out the best in you, the big stage and all the stuff that I grew up around, it’s pretty cool. It’s a huge honor to play for that team. I really do enjoy it on a daily basis.”

Q. : What about Montreal helped revitalize your career?

DOMI: “Just the personality that I have and the way that I grew up, you crave that pressure and the atmosphere of not only just the rink but the energy around the city about the team. I’ve been lucky enough to play in an Original Six team and, you know what, as far as I’m concerned I’m the luckiest guy in the world and I actually enjoy every second of it.”

Q. What was missing last season that didn’t get the Habs to the playoffs?

DOMI: “It’s funny, when you look back at it everyone always says you’ve got to win these points in October, November, and yeah, of course, you know that, but then you’re kicking yourself come February: Ah, damn, only if we would have just buried them on that power play there. It makes a difference, it really does. Missed the playoffs by two points, it’s a tough pill to swallow, but honestly, in the long run it’s going to be better for our group because we have the bitter taste in our mouth and we’re very hungry and eager to get going and we know what it takes now. We were also essentially playing playoff hockey in the second half of the year because we were in such a dogfight with a few other teams. The exposure we got to those games and the pressure and the character our team showed and resilience we showed, I think that’s a really positive step forward. We’ve just got to carry that into this year.”

Q. Why did Montreal have so much trouble scoring on the power play (13.2%) and how does it improve?

DOMI: “I think we can all give a little bit more. Obviously, it’s not really our job to figure out who’s in what position and that stuff, that’s the coaching staff, but once they figure that out and they tell us then it’s on us to be better. We have the personnel to do it, that’s for sure, we’ve just got to go and execute and find ways to get better. Last year’s behind us, we’re not really thinking about that. It’s a negative way of thinking and doesn’t do anyone any good.”

Q. Why do you believe the Canadiens be a playoff team this season?

DOMI: “We’ve got a lot of work to do, for sure, just as every other team does, but it’s still early and we’re not really focused on the end goal. We’ll kind of keep that in our locker room and we know what we’re capable of and all that stuff. As of right now we’re just getting ready for camp and getting acclimated with everything and [getting] back in the swing of things and we’ll take it game by game.”

MORE:
Burning questions for Montreal Canadiens in 2019-20
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

Previewing the 2019-20 St. Louis Blues

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: The Blues are bringing back mostly the same team that won the Stanley Cup just a few months ago and that is generally a pretty good sign for a team’s chances. Whether or not they are any better or worse depends on your perspective and what your expectations are. There is a very good chance they finish as a better regular season team, but end up doing worse in the playoffs for no other reason than winning the Stanley Cup two years in a row is a brutally difficult task. If they finish with, let’s say, 105 or 106 points but get eliminated in Round 2 or 3 a year after winning the Stanley Cup are Blues fans going to be disappointed with that result? Going to guess they will not be.

Strengths: Their defensive play. They are a lockdown team that is one of the best in the league at limiting shot attempts against and as long as they get competent goaltending are one of the toughest teams in the league to score against. They have two great blue liners in Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, do not really have a true weakness anywhere on their defense, and have one of the best shutdown centers in the league in Ryan O'Reilly. Their other strength: Having one of the league’s elite goal-scorers in Vladimir Tarasenko. Since the start of the 2014-15 season only Alex Ovechkin (236) and John Tavares (183) have more goals than Tarasenko’s 182. Tarasenko has also played in fewer games than both during that stretch.

Weaknesses: It is probably more of a question mark than a “weakness,” but what will Jordan Binnington be able to do over a full season? His call-up was a turning point in the season and he fixed the team’s biggest early season flaw. But can he play at that level from the start of the year and maintain through the playoffs? That is the big unanswered question for the Blues entering the season and it will go a long way toward determining what they are capable of.

[MORE: Three questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Craig Berube has been behind the team’s bench for less than a year and in that time the Blues went 38-19-6 during the regular season (that is a 106 point pace over 82 games) and then won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. His coaching hot seat rating is a 1 out of 10. It is probably even lower than that.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Robert Thomas, Jaden Schwartz, and Robby Fabbri are three players to watch.

The final numbers for Thomas’ rookie season do not really jump off the page, but keep in mind that he was 19 years old and playing meaningful minutes for a championship team. That is impressive, and even though it did not always result in goals or points you could see the potential he has and why the Blues are so excited about what he is capable of in the NHL. Does he take a big step in year two?

Schwartz had what was probably the worst regular season of his career offensively, scoring just 11 goals in 69 games, a massive drop from what he normally produces. It was almost entirely the result of a 6 percent shooting percentage that was entirely driven by a lot of bad luck. Every other aspect of his performance was right in line with what the Blues expect and it was only a matter of time until he bounced back. He did just that in the playoffs with 12 goals in 26 games, exceeding his regular season total. There is no reason to believe he will not be a 25-30 goal scorer again this season.

Fabbri is going to be fascinating just to see if he can get his career back on track. He is talented and had such a promising start four years ago only to be robbed of three years due to injuries. Can he get some better injury luck and still become the player the Blues hoped he would be?

Playoffs or lottery: As long as Binnington does not have a massive regression there is no reason this is not a playoff team again. They were built to win a year ago and the slow start in the first half was simply the result of not having any goaltending. Once they fixed that, combined with the improvement they saw under Berube, this team was a machine. They are not going away.

More
Blues turn back the clock with alternate jersey
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.