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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.

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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.

Senators assistant GM Randy Lee resigns

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It’s been an off-season to forget for Randy Lee. After being charged with two counts of harassment stemming from an incident involving a 19-year-old shuttle bus driver in Buffalo, he decided to resign from his position as assistant GM of the Sens (he also served as their farm team’s general manager) on Tuesday evening.

“My suspension has given me more time to spend with my loved ones than ever before. For the past 23 years, my family has taken a back seat to my career. My focus now is on putting them first,” Lee told the Ottawa Sun.

“At the same time, I have to think about my obligations to the hockey team. They need an assistant general manager who can focus completely on the coming season. Until this matter is behind me, however, I’m not in a position to that.”

The Senators have already announced that they’ll begin their search for Lee’s replacement immediately. Finding someone to step in right away may be easier said than done at this point. Most teams may not be willing to give Ottawa permission to speak to some of their employees. Promoting from within the organization might make the most sense for now.

Lee spent 23 years with the Senators. He spent four years as the team’s assistant general manager. He also served as director of hockey operations, director of player development, conditioning coach and video coach during his time in the organization.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Devils go ‘heritage’ route with 2018-19 third jersey

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It’s third jersey season and on Tuesday the New Jersey Devils were the latest NHL team to unveil an alternate look for the 2018-19 campaign.

They’re going old school and bringing back the white, red and green uniforms that they wore for a 10-year period between 1982 and 1992. The team is calling it a “heritage” jersey and SportsLogos.net pointed out why:

A “heritage uniform” can only be worn a maximum of six times per season and can be scrapped after one year while a third or “alternate” uniform must be worn a dozen times and for at least three seasons. At least that’s what I’ve been told.

How about those gloves?

Devils

The Devils say they will wear this uniform four times at Prudential Center this season, and considering they’re the white jerseys and not the reds from that era, maybe there’s a chance we see them during a few road games.

What do you think? Already have visions of Stephane Richer, John MacLean and Ken Daneyko dancing in your head?

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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.

Three questions facing Ottawa Senators

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Ottawa Senators.

1. What happens to Erik Karlsson?

It’s only normal that we mention Karlsson’s name a few times thorughout PHT’s Ottawa Senators Day. After all, he’s the face of the franchise, one of the best players in the league and he and his family have been the victims in a pretty strange scandal involving former teammate Mike Hoffman and his fiancee.

Karlsson has been eligible to sign an extension since July 1st of this year, but he hasn’t done so. Based on everything that’s been reported over the last few months, the Sens came close to trading him to the Vegas Golden Knights minutes before February’s trade deadline. In the end, the deal fell through.

Many expected Karlsson to be dealt before the draft, at the draft or around free agency, but Sens general manager Pierre Dorion obviously hasn’t found a deal he’s willing to accept from another team. Ottawa also reportedly made the Swede a contract offer which was below market value. As you can see, he didn’t accept that, either.

So what happens now? It’s mid-August, and a deal hasn’t been made. Either the Sens continue holding out for the best possible return, or they hope that by trading Hoffman, they’ve given themselves a shot at bringing Karlsson back.

For that to happen, owner Eugene Melnyk is going to have shell out some serious coin over the next few years. And, of course, they have to pray to the 28-year-old is willing to look past all the warts and deficiencies of his current team.

The ending to this story should be interesting.

2. Should they keep Brady Tkachuk for the whole season?

Just a few days ago, Tkachuk announced that he was leaving Boston University after just one season. Many people assumed that this meant he was going to turn pro no matter what, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Sure, he can stick with the Sens all season or he could even spend the year playing in the minors. But his junior hockey rights belong to the OHL’s London Knights, which means he could be heading there if things don’t work out in Ottawa.

Do the Sens really want to expose Tkachuk to what’s happening in their locker room right now? Do they want place him in a situation where he’s part of a team that loses more than it wins? We’ll find out in the fall. But in the end, if they feel he’s good enough to play a regular role in an NHL lineup right away, they should keep him.

[2017-18 review | Under Pressure: Pierre Dorion | Breakthrough: Thomas Chabot]

The key will be to see what kind of role Guy Boucher is willing to give him in his first season. Boucher doesn’t tend to trust rookies very easily, so if he doesn’t plan on utilizing him in a top-nine role and giving him some time on the man-advantage, there’s really no point in keeping him in the NHL.

3. Do they have to make a strong push for a playoff spot just because they don’t own their first-round pick in 2019?

The simple answer is no. There’s no point in sacrificing future assets just to make sure the Colorado Avalanche don’t get the first, second or third overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. If the Sens happen to be competitive (against all odds) that’s one thing, but they can’t move youngsters for veterans or hold on to some of their potential unrestricted free agents instead of trading them for pieces.

The fact that they dealt their first-round pick away stinks for them. They just have to live with it now. There’s nothing they can do about. If they’re out of the playoff hunt early and they realize they can’t re-sign Matt Duchene, Mark Stone and/or Erik Karlsson, they have to unload them.

Even if they’re in the chase for a playoff spot, they can’t afford to lose all those guys for nothing. It’s a really delicate situation Dorion and Melnyk are in right now because the organization appears to in shambles and a lot of their key players aren’t locked in to long-term deals.

Sens management can enter the season with a plan, but the players have all the cards right now. There’s no need to do something drastic right now. If they happen to get back on track with this group of players, that’s great. More power to them. That just appears to be unlikely at this point.

They can’t get sucked into chatter about not having their own pick. That’s not a reason to go all in. They have to live with the consequences of making a trade that simply didn’t work out. No one could have predicted that the Duchene deal would have turned out like this. They Sens felt like they had a shot to go for it, so Dorion pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal early on the season. Often, we find out that certain trades or moves don’t work. That’s what happened here. Don’t make it worse by trying to get short-term results.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Building off a breakthrough: Thomas Chabot

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Ottawa Senators.

There’s been a lot of doom and gloom around the Ottawa Senators over the last year. After being one goal away from making it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, the Sens totally fell apart after they made an aggressive trade for Matt Duchene last year.

Finding positives in a lost season isn’t always easy, but Thomas Chabot certainly took a positive step in his development. The 21-year-old got his first extended look in the NHL and he managed to put up a respectable nine goals and 25 points in 63 games.

He averaged 17:31 of ice time during the regular season, but he finished the year by playing over 20 minutes in 10 of his final 12 contests. Even though he’s far from being a finished product, Chabot has shown that he has all the necessary tools to become an impact blueliner at the highest level.

Sens head coach Guy Boucher trusted Chabot enough to pair him with Erik Karlsson last season (the two played almost 400 minutes together). Having one of the best defensemen in the NHL by his side definitely helped the youngster grow. Without Karlsson by his side, Chabot had a CF% of 44.82 percent. With Karlsson, that number jumped up to 52.93 percent. That’s a significant difference.

“I’ve been following the (Karlsson) situation closely,” Chabot said, per NHL.com. “And I’d obviously like for him to stay with us. I had the chance to play with him last season and I learned so much from watching him work. He’s talented at everything he does. Even his own teammates, we sometimes can’t believe the plays that he makes.

“He’s a mentor to me, I’m trying to model my playing style after his. He’s also a really cool guy outside the rink.”

Losing Karlsson would hurt Chabot and the Senators, but it looks like he’ll eventually be playing for a different organization, so they’ll have to face reality sooner or later. But losing Karlsson will also mean that this blue line will become Chabot’s. He’s the one who has the most upside, which means they’ll need him to take charge.

[2017-18 review | Under Pressure: Pierre Dorion | Three Questions]

Parting ways with a franchise player like Karlsson is never ideal for any organization. In this case, at least the Senators can say that they have a potential stud waiting in the wings. Is he ready for that kind of responsibility right now? Probably not. But at least they can rest a little easier knowing that they have a potential number one defenseman coming.

No matter what moves are made, they’ll need Chabot to take another positive step forward in a hurry. He’ll have to find a way to avoid that sophomore slump that many second-year players go through when they get to the NHL.

As bad as things look in Ottawa, at least they can say they have a young building block on defense.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.