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Penguins smash reset button on team’s offseason

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is nothing if not aggressive.

Very aggressive.

There has never been a trade he did not like. As we discovered this past week there has never been a trade that is too impossible to pull off.

Since being hired by the team following the 2013-14 season, Rutherford has already orchestrated 28 trades as the Penguins’ general manager. Along with that he has overhauled the team — both in terms of the actual roster and the style of play — significantly on more than one occasion.

He is also not afraid to undo everything he’s done just months prior if it isn’t working.

He fired Mike Johnston just 110 games after hiring him, making him one of the shortest-tenured coaches in franchise history. After trading a first-round pick for David Perron (a pick that later turned out to be used to select Mathew Barzal, the likely rookie of the year this season) he traded him less than a year later for Carl Hagelin after it was clear that Perron was not producing the way the Penguins hoped that he would.

With the 2018 NHL trade deadline now in the rear view mirror, we can also say that he spent the past few months hitting the reset button on pretty much everything he did over the offseason. Literally, everything.

[Related: Penguins trade for Derick Brassard]

After winning their second consecutive Stanley Cup the Penguins’ summer was more about who they lost than who they brought in. Free agency and the salary cap cost them a significant portion of their depth as Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Chris Kunitz Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey all walked out the door, while goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was lost to the Vegas Golden Knights as part of the NHL expansion draft. Just before the season started they traded Derrick Pouliot, once a highly touted prospect in the organization for Andrey Pedan and a fourth-round draft pick.

To replace all of that depth the only moves the Penguins made were to trade Oskar Sundqvist and a first-round draft pick to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round draft pick (a move of about 20 spots in the draft), sign Matt Hunwick to a three-year contract in free agency, and then bring in Antti Niemi to serve as the veteran backup goalie for Matt Murray. They also tried to count on players like Greg McKegg and Carter Rowney to fill space at forward.

It was, to say the least, not a great offseason, and it left the Penguins with some glaring holes on their roster.

They had no third-and fourth-line centers. Reaves was brought in as a response to all of the physical play that the Penguins’ stars had been receiving and represented a wild shift in philosophy from the way the team had been built in recent seasons (and a drastic shift in the way Rutherford typically builds his teams — he has long been a critic of fighting in hockey) but was never trusted to play more than five or six minutes a night.

Balanced scoring throughout all four lines had been a huge part of the team’s success the previous two seasons and the departures of Bonino, Cullen, and Kunitz with almost no one coming from outside the organization to replace them pretty much robbed them of that strength.

Meanwhile, in the three games that Niemi played he allowed 16 goals in 128 minutes of hockey. The Penguins were outscored 22-6 in those three games.

All of that was a huge contributing factor to a slow start to the season that had them, at times, looking like a bad team (a very bad team) and on the outside of the playoff picture.

As good as the top of the roster is with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel they still needed support from the other lines and on the blue line.

Then the moves started happening.

Niemi was waived after just three starts.

They traded Scott Wilson, a winger that appeared in 78 regular season games and 20 playoff games a season ago, was traded for Riley Sheahan to help address some of the issues at center. After a slow start that seemed to contribute to the team’s depth issues, he has found his game a bit and seems to have solidified that fourth-line center spot.

Jamie Oleksiak, who had very clearly fallen out of favor in Dallas, became the latest reclamation project on the blue line for Sergei Gonchar to work with on defense, following a similar path to past acquisitions Daley and Justin Schultz. He has proven to be a solid addition and entering play on Tuesday has already picked up seven points in 28 games and is a positive possession player. He is a big body that can skate and has booming slap shot. It is early in his Penguins tenure, but he seems to be putting all of the individual pieces together into something that can work in the NHL.

Then, on Friday, just a few days before the NHL trade deadline, Rutherford completed one of his biggest and most complex in-season trades when he roped the Ottawa Senators and Vegas Golden Knights into a three-team trade to bring Derick Brassard to Pittsburgh. That trade brought the Penguins the third-line center they had been searching for since Bonino signed with the Nashville Predators in free agency and bumped Sheahan into the fourth-line spot that he is probably more suited for.

That trade included sending Reaves and the fourth-round draft pick they picked up from Vancouver for Pouliot.

[Related: NHL Trade Deadline Winners And Losers]

Just look at the sequence of events that led to Brassard ending up in Pittsburgh. It is insane. All of these moves happened since the start of the offseason.

On the left is the total package of players the Penguins “gave up” and the players they ended up with as a result of all of the movement. On the right is a breakdown of each individual move and how it all fits together to lead to Brassard.

 

Is that a lot of assets to give up for a third-line center? Probably. But he is also a player that will be around for beyond this season. They are going to get two playoff runs with him on the roster playing center behind Crosby and Malkin.

You also have to consider those first-round picks were a 31st overall pick and what could potentially be another late first-round pick this year. Draft history suggests that there is a significant drop in your chances of landing a regular NHL player once the draft reaches the second half of the first-round. Maybe one of those two picks will turn into a player. Maybe.

Sundqvist and Pouliot have not exactly panned out. Gustavsson is a fine (and maybe outstanding) prospect while Cole was a valuable player on two Stanley Cup winning teams. But adding Brassard to the third-line center spot should do more to improve the team than losing Ian Cole off the third defense pairing will do to hurt it. The Penguins already have two young goalies in the organization in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry.

Earlier this season I looked at the Penguins’ depth problems and how little production they were getting from their bottom-six forwards and how much of a drop it was from the previous two seasons.

After 32 games this season the Penguins’ bottom-six forwards (in terms of ice-time per game) were averaging, as a group, just .179 points per game. The top-six was carrying the entire weight of the offense (.832 points per game as a group).

After 63 games the bottom-six is now up to .357 points per game (the top-six is still cruising along at an almost unimaginable .897).

That is before the addition of Brassard (38 points in 58 games) and the departure of Reaves (only eight points in 59 games). That is the sort of depth the Penguins are going to need if they are going to compete for a Stanley Cup again. That is the sort of depth they had the past two years that made them so dangerous. Keep in mind, when they won the Stanley Cup in 2015-16 their bottom-six averaged .344 points per game. In 2016-17 it was .444.

They are getting closer to that level.

Plus, there’s the other elephant in the room here that makes all of this roster movement necessary: The Penguins are chasing history.

They have a chance to do something no team has done in more than 30 years by going for a third consecutive Stanley Cup.

They still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel playing at an exceptionally high level. Those three players are not getting any younger. You only get those players for so long, and you only get this level of production out of them for such a short period of time, that you owe it to yourself as a team to do everything possible to maximize their time with the team.

When Crosby, Malkin, Kessel get old, lose production, or just simply retire the Penguins are going to need to rebuild anyway, and there was not a draft pick or prospect in the organization prior to Monday that was going to change that. When you have a chance to do something only a handful of teams have done, when you have generational talents that are still among the best players in the world, you can not let what might happen five years down the road stand in the way.

Your window is now. You have to go for it.

————

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.

WATCH LIVE: Lightning face off against Blue Jackets on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning have won five straight games and have done so in dominant fashion. They’ve scored five-plus goals in four of the five wins, and have posted back-to-back shutouts, last allowing a goal in their 6-3 win over the Calgary Flames on Feb. 12. Tampa is 7-0-2 in the month of February (last regulation loss – Jan. 30 – lost 4-2 at PIT).

With 92 points, the Lightning occupy first place in the NHL, and are 15 points ahead of the Flames and San Jose Sharks (77 points) for most in the league. They’ve been in first place in the NHL since Nov. 29 and are looking to capture the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time in franchise history. They are currently on pace to win 61 games this season, which would be one shy of the NHL record (set by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-96 – 62 wins).

Columbus beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2 on the road on Saturday, their fifth win in the last six games (5-1-0 record). This stretch of winning follows a five-game losing streak from Jan. 18 – Feb. 2 (all in regulation). Sergei Bobrovsky has led the way, starting all six games (5-1-0 record) with .924 SV% and 2.17 GAA.

Artemi Panarin, who leads Columbus with 67 points, scored tiwce goals in Saturday’s win against the Blackhawks. He now has four goals in the last four games and has recorded 22 pts (11G-11A) in his last 15 games.

While Panarin leads Columbus in points, it’s Cam Atkinson that leads the team with 32 goals, his second career season with 30-plus goals. He’s got 12 points (eight goals) in his last 13 games, including three goals in the last four games, and is averaging a point per game this season (32G-23A; 55 points in 55 games this season).

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Tampa Bay Lightning at Columbus Blue Jackets
Where: Nationwide Arena
When: Monday, Feb. 18, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Lightning-Blue Jackets stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Ondrej PalatSteven StamkosTyler Johnson
Yanni GourdeBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliJ.T. Miller
Adam ErneCedric PaquetteMathieu Joseph

Victor HedmanDan Girardi
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

BLUE JACKETS
Artemi Panarin – Pierre-Luc Dubois – Cam Atkinson
Nick FolignoBoone JennerJosh Anderson
Eric Robinson – Alexander WennbergOliver Bjorkstrand
Kole Sherwood – Riley NashLukas Sedlak

Ryan MurraySeth Jones
Zach WerenskiDavid Savard
Scott HarringtonMarkus Nutivaara

Starting goalie: Sergei Bobrovsky

John Forslund (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Patrick Sharp and Anson Carter.

Winning with Binnington: Blues goalie making most of chance

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Jordan Binnington doesn’t let much get to him.

When junior goaltending coach Greg Redquest tried to put him through a post-practice skate, he came away seeing the same chill Binnington.

”He doesn’t sweat,” Redquest said. ”He’s just too cool.”

Binnington is playing cool and has made the St. Louis Blues the hottest team in the NHL. After finally getting his call-up from the minors at age 25, Binnington is 12-1-1 with four shutouts in his first 14 starts and the Blues have won 10 in a row to go from out of the race to firmly in a playoff position.

When Binnington made his first start Jan. 7, St. Louis sat dead last in the Western Conference, nine points back of a playoff spot. The Blues turned to him to make a difference. No pressure, kid.

”With a little bit of pressure comes opportunity, right?” Binnington said. ”You try to do your best to feel confident and prepared for the moment, so you just work hard off the ice and on the ice in practice, and when the moment finally comes, hopefully you’re prepared. That’s kind of how I looked at it.”

It has been a near-perfect look. Binnington has stopped 356 of 380 shots for a 1.58 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. He’s the first goalie since Curtis Sanford in 2005-06 with multiple 30-save shutouts.

That kind of play is just what the Blues needed to crawl out of a hole dug before Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo as coach.

”He’s played really well,” Berube said. ”He’s stopped the ones he’s supposed to stop, and he’s looked really confident in net, and aggressive.”

A lack of confidence has never been the problem. Redquest, who coached Binnington for four seasons with the Ontario Hockey League’s Owen Sound Attack, said the goalie’s technique has always been on point, with the need for just a few tweaks here and there.

The mental part of the game was a work in progress. Redquest, who still works with Binnington in the summer, said if a bad goal gets in, sometimes he’d just ask about what Binnington did the previous night to get his mind off it and back on track.

Binnington hasn’t allowed many goals, but he has shown an uncanny ability to shake them off, not allowing more than four in a game so far.

”If the puck goes in, it doesn’t bother him,” Redquest said by phone Monday ”(Blues veteran goalie) Jake Allen, he plays a little bit deeper in the goal than Jordan. Jordan comes out and challenges a bit more and everything hits him, and it’s just hitting him. And he’s so patient. He won’t overplay anything.”

So what took so long for Binnington to get this chance? Mostly a numbers game, with the Blues committed long term to Allen and rotating Brian Elliott, Carter Hutton and Chad Johnson into the crease in recent years.

Binnington bided his time in the American Hockey League, competing and building a friendship with Pheonix Copley along the way. The two came to blows in a game last year but are now both in the NHL.

”I think we both understood that having that competition is healthy and it pushed us both to be better goalies and learn from each other,” said Copley, who is the Washington Capitals’ backup. ”We had a really beneficial relationship for both of us.”

Binnington earned AHL All-Star honors last year and had three shutouts in his first 16 games this season under head coach Drew Bannister and assistant Daniel Tkaczuk, whom he knew from juniors. When Johnson didn’t work out and was put on waivers, Binnington got the opportunity he had been waiting for, and fit right in with the Blues.

”That’s where your surroundings come in,” Binnington said. ”There’s good people around you that can keep you going in the right direction and believe in yourself. If the opportunity came, you want to be prepared for it, so that’s kind of what my mindset was. Thankfully, it came.”

The Blues are thankful, too. They’ve played better in front of their goalies since Berube took over, but Binnington making so many expected and unexpected saves has changed the course of St. Louis’ season.

”Obviously he’s playing outstanding,” center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”With Binner coming in with the way he’s been playing, I think it’s a spark. I think he’s coming in excited and playing with great energy. It provides a spark, for sure.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Tarasenko’s resurgence helping Blues make their move in Western Conference

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There are a lot of factors behind the St. Louis Blues’ rapid climb up the Western Conference standings.

You should definitely start with the play of rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, who has been sensational since his call-up from the American Hockey League and helped stabilize what was a mess of a position earlier in the year.

There is also the recent play of star forward Vladimir Tarasenko who has now recorded at least a point in each of his past 12 games and 18 out of his past 20.

This recent surge has helped improve his overall season numbers to what should be his expected level of production, and now has him on pace for a very typical Vladimir Tarasenko season of around 35 goals and 70 points.

After the first three months of the season, it did not look like he was going to get there as he was off to one of the worst starts of his career with only 11 goals and 11 assists through the first 37 games.

Since then he has been exactly what you would expect Vladimir Tarasenko to be with 29 points in the 20 games that have followed, including his recent-12 game stretch where he has helped drive the Blues’ offense.

One way of looking at this season on an individual level is that it’s been incredibly streaky, and that would absolutely be correct. And it also goes back to a point I’ve made for years about elite players in the NHL — their streakiness when it comes to their point production isn’t a flaw. It’s what makes them great and such game-changers. Everybody always strives for “consistency” in the NHL, and whenever a supremely talented player puts together an unstoppable run they’re always hounded with questions like, “why can’t they do this all the time?” and “imagine if they played like this every night!”

Well, yeah. Imagine that. They would probably be the best player of all-time if they scored two or three points every single night. But that is just not a realistic goal. The players that are consistent and steady in their production — or at least somewhat consistent — are players that are, for lack of a better word, ordinary. Average. There is nothing wrong with being an “average” NHLer, of course, and it’s not a slight in any way to be called that. You’re still among the top people in the world at what you do to make it to that level. But those players are also not really capable of elevating their game to any level beyond that. The handful of players that can do that are the special ones because they make a significantly bigger impact in those six-to-10 game hot streaks than a player that just goes along recording their point or two every four or five games.

Take Tarasenko’s recent run as an example. It is not just that he has a point in 12 consecutive games that is helping the Blues. It is that six of those games (including each of the past five) have been multi-point games, including four games with three points. When an individual player records three points in a game their team wins more than 90 percent of the time. If you have three points, that means your team has at least three goals in the game and that is usually a pretty good starting point to get a win. He has probably single-handedly been the difference in at least three or four games for the Blues during this 10-game winning streak. In at least two of those three-point games the Blues were winners by two goals or less.

It is an impossible standard to expect a player to maintain that sort of pace over 82 games, especially in this era of offense.

It is always going to be a short-term burst of domination that probably gets followed by a cold streak where the points dry up.

You can live with that because those short-term bursts of domination are going to lead to more wins over the long-haul than a player that just tallies a single point on a regular schedule.

There is nothing wrong with being streaky. In the case of players like Tarasenko, it just means they are capable of elevating their game to a level few other players can and are able to carry the offense on their back for games at a time.

 

MORE: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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.

Jagr, back from injuries, plays in Czech second-league game

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HAVIROV, Czech Republic (AP) — Jaromir Jagr is back again.

The Czech winger and 13-time NHL All-Star has recovered from a series of injuries that prevented him from playing for more than a year and appeared in a game Monday for the Kladno Knights, the hometown club he owns in the Czech Republic.

Jagr, 47, played on the top line alongside center Tomas Plekanec, another former NHL player.

He didn’t score in nearly 18 minutes but celebrated as Kladno, boosted by his presence, won 2-0 at Havirov in a Czech second-league game.

”Above all, I’m happy that I was finally able to play,” Jagr said. ”It’s not easy in my age just to train.”

Kladno, in fourth place, is seeking to reach the playoffs and qualify for the top league. It is 13 points behind first-place Jihlava but trails second-place Vsetin by three points with three more regular season games to go.

Jagr returned home after the Calgary Flames released the NHL’s second all-time leading point-scorer on Jan. 28, 2018, but he was injured in his fifth game for Kladno.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports