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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.

Prospects like Kaprizov, Romanov, Sorokin won’t be eligible for NHL return, playoffs

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NHL teams hoping to get a playoff/return-to-play boost from the likes of Kirill Kaprizov (Wild), Ilya Sorokin (Islanders), and Alexander Romanov (Canadiens) seem to be out of luck. At least for what’s left of 2019-20 for the NHL, aka the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Athletic’s Michael Russo, TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, and Newsday’s Andrew Gross rank among those who reported as such about Kaprizov, Sorokin, and Romanov, among others.

Kaprizov, Sorokin, Romanov and others can’t play yet — but can burn a year off ELCs

There is a wrinkle, though.

Such reports indicate that Kaprizov, Sorokin, Romanov and others could burn a year off of their entry-level contracts, even though they can’t participate in the NHL return to play to wrap up 2019-20.

Now, would it be logical to burn a year off of entry-level deals for the likes of Kaprizov, Sorokin, and Romanov? Probably not. Overall, there are likely too many drawbacks for the players, teams, or both.

Take Kaprizov and the Wild, for example.

If you want detail about the Kaprizov/Wild/KHL situation, Russo’s covered those bases multiple times at The Athletic, including here (sub required). But to simplify things, the Wild and/or Kaprizov probably won’t go for burning off 2019-20 from a two-year entry-level deal because:

  • The Wild would only really have Kaprizov signed for 2020-21. While that would finally draw him to the NHL, it would merely give them a single season to gauge Kaprizov’s value. And, with the COVID-19 pandemic looming as a continued threat to stability, who knows if they’d even get that season?
  • Considering that the 2020-21 NHL season might start in December or January, Kaprizov would be stuck idle since March. Meanwhile, the KHL aims to begin its 2020-21 season around September. Kaprizov would risk serious uncertainty for limited gain.

So … yeah, teams have some reason to at least consider burning a year off of entry-level deals for the likes of Kaprizov, Romanov, and Sorokin. But it just doesn’t seem like the wisest path, generally speaking.

With that out of the way, let’s take a quick look at Kaprizov and the Wild, Sorokin and the Islanders, Romanov and the Canadiens.

Waiting game continues for Wild, fans, Kaprizov

Plenty of people deem Kaprizov, 23, as the best player in hockey not playing in the NHL.

Kaprizov ranked first in the KHL in goals (33 in 57 games), also finishing close to the scoring title with 62 points. This was no fluke, as Kaprizov also scored the most goals (30) in the KHL during the 2018-19 season. Doing so at such a young age only leaves Wild fans even more anxious to see him.

And, unlike other young scorers, it doesn’t sound like many critique Kaprizov’s overall game. Back in May, The Hockey News’ Matt Larkin collected some rave reviews about Kaprizov, noting comparisons to “Artemi Panarin‘s mind” combined with Vladimir Tarasenko‘s tank-like body.

Sounds pretty good! The Wild should probably think about bringing Kaprizov over, eh? *Ducks*

But, yeah, a Wild team searching for good news and breakthrough talent could sure use Kaprizov. Maybe next season? Sadly, it sounds like at least a medium-sized maybe.

 

Islanders won’t get a peek at Sorokin

When you compare immediate concerns, Ilya Sorokin seems more like a luxury for the Islanders.

After all, the Islanders enjoyed another season of above-average goaltending. Semyon Varlamov was solid, and much like in 2018-19, Thomas Greiss provided comparable work to the Islanders’ would-be No.1. The sum result wasn’t at the level of what Greiss and Robin Lehner accomplished, but plenty of NHL teams must envy the Islanders’ goaltending.

So they don’t “need” Sorokin, seemingly.

But we’ve seen teams put together big playoff runs with rookie goalies intermittently since at least Ken Dryden swooped in, dominated, and leaned pensively on his goal stick for the dynasty-era Canadiens. That thought goes for goalies of various pedigrees, but particularly someone like Sorokin.

The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler didn’t just rank Sorokin as the top drafted goalie prospect in hockey (sub required). Wheeler also believes that Sorokin could end up being a better goalie than fellow Russian netminders Ilya Samsonov, Igor Shesterkin, and Alexandar Georgiev. Look at Sorokin’s superb KHL stats, and you can see why there’s excitement and intrigue.

Besides, at 24, Sorokin’s getting to that age where the Islanders want to see what they have. Varlamov is 31, and Greiss is on an expiring contract and is 34.

However unlikely, a Sorokin-powered playoff run would’ve been the dream. Getting a better idea of where Sorokin ranks on the depth chart would have been nice, too.

Canadiens won’t get to make defense deeper with Romanov

How much of an impact would Alexander Romanov make for the Canadiens? Answers may vary.

The Ahtletic’s Scott Wheeler barely squeezed Romanov on his top 50 drafted prospects list at No. 48 (sub required). That said, Wheeler admitted that he’s lower on Romanov than many in the hockey world. This seems to be true, as Romanov placed 10th on The Hockey News’ future watch list, representing a meteoric rise from 45th the previous year.

Perhaps some of that variance comes down to how much weight given experts put on tournaments vs. season play.

  • The now-20-year-old defenseman earned top defenseman billing at the 2019 World Junior Championship, and excelled during the 2020 tournament, as well.
  • On the other hand, Romanov’s KHL stats have been modest, including a single goal over two KHL seasons (86 regular-season games).

But, in cases like Romanov’s, it’s often a debate regarding “How good?” The Hockey News’ Matt Larkin wrote that Romanov “looks like a future top-pair defenseman.” Wheeler sees Romanov more as a “sound defenseman” who could help in transition, yet probably won’t put up big numbers.

Either way, the Canadiens absolutely could use a player like Romanov. The better he ends up, the happier they are, of course. But even a steady presence would have helped against the Penguins.

Plenty of other prospects not involved in NHL return beyond Kaprizov, Romanov, and Sorokin

Denisenko at the 2019 WJC. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

Naturally, there are noteworthy players who won’t get to participate in the NHL return to play beyond Kaprizov, Romanov, and Sorokin. This post isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but two other players come to mind:

  • Grigori Denisenko – The Panthers share some of the same space as the Wild and Canadiens as bubble-adjacent teams who could use a boost. Denisenko isn’t considered as surefire as Kaprizov, but there’s a lot to like about the 20-year-old forward. That said, this would hurt even more if Denisenko was a defenseman, because Florida is pretty brutal in that area.
  • Jack Dugan – Like Romanov at 48, Dugan snuck into Wheeler’s top 50 at 47 (Denisenko ranks at 36, Kaprizov sits at six). Wheeler ranks among those that wonder if Dugan would make an immediate impact for the Golden Knights out of the NCAA. Some wonder if Dugan can eventually become a top-six forward. In other words, this isn’t necessarily a Cale Makar-style instant success story.

But Dugan breaks from some of the others on this list in being a prospect for a more proven team. The Golden Knights rank among the top four Western Conference teams, thus they’ll participate in the Round Robin for Seeding. I’d argue that Vegas stands out as one of the best of even that smaller group.

So imagine if Dugan can merely give them a boost? It’s arguable that Dugan could be a bigger deal than maybe a better prospect for a more needy team.

We won’t get to find out, though. While it’s the safer move, it’s a letdown for teams hoping for Kaprizov, Sorokin, Romanov, Denisenko, Dugan, and others.

Also, this means lost opportunities to make bad “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan/Jack Dugan jokes. Bummer.

More on the NHL return to play:

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.

Inside the NHL bubble: testing, what could cause postponement

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Now we wait.

After the NHL and NHLPA agreed to the Return to Play protocols and to a four-year extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, voting by the Board of Governors and full union membership comes next. Once ratified, we can officially say hockey will be back with training camps opening up next week.

The two hub cities will likely be Edmonton and Toronto with Rogers Place hosting the Western Conference and Scotiabank Arena the home for the Eastern Conference. As the two sides agreed to the RTP protocols, we know just how they plan to keep everyone in those “bubbles” safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

For starters, there will be a lot of testing, which we’ll get to. Safety will come first and there are mechanisms on both sides to pull the plug.

Training camps should open Monday, July 13 and the Stanley Cup Qualifiers will begin August 1. Before we get there, here’s how the league will run the “bubbles” in Edmonton and Toronto.

Who can come?

According to the Phase 4 document sent out Monday evening, teams can bring a maximum 52 people, which includes no more than 31 players. Teams must submit their traveling party to the league by July 13, the expected start of training camps. As part of the traveling party, teams must include three coaches, two trainers, one doctor, one security rep, one equipment manager, one massage therapist, one ART therapist/chiropractor, a compliance officer, and one content creator/social media person.

The compliance officer will have the job to “certify, in writing, by 10 p.m. local time each day, to the League Facility Hygiene Officer, that all members of the Club’s Traveling Party remain compliant with all necessary aspects of the Phase 4 Protocol. They also report any noncompliance, and how it will be remedied.”

Tests, tests, and more tests

There will be daily COVID-19 tests for every team’s traveling party. These will be done via nasal swab and there will be temperature checks and symptom screens. That’s a whopping 1,248 daily tests across the 24 teams, not including arena and hotel workers who will also require tests.

What if someone tests positive?

Anyone who shows COVID-19 symptoms must self-isolated and consult with their team’s physician. If that person tests positive, they cannot return to their team’s facilities until they test negative twice in a 24-hour period after their symptoms have subsided.

“The individual can also return to team facilities after a minimum of 10 days in self-isolation following the onset of symptoms if they have had no fever or respiratory symptoms for more than 72 hours.”

If a person tests positive and asymptomatic, they will take a confirmatory test to verify the first positive. Asymptomatic individuals who have their initial tests confirmed by a second test will have to self-isolate until they produce two negative tests within 24 hours or have 10 days pass since the first positive test. Should the confirmatory test come back negative, the asymptomatic person will stay isolated and take another test after 24 hours. If that test comes back negative they will be able to return to their team once cleared by the team physician.

Players who test positive or develop symptoms will not be publicly identified unless approved by the league and union. Expect plenty of speculation each time a player misses practice or a game.

[MORE: NHL, NHLPA agree on protocols to resume season]

Opting out

As we’ve seen in baseball and basketball, players will have the ability to opt-out of participating, penalty-free. They just need to notify their teams in writing within three days of the agreement’s ratification.

What could cause a delay or postponement?

The league and union have the power to cancel, delay or postpone games if there are health and safety risks to players that could affect the “integrity of the competition.”

It’s unknown the specific number of positive tests that could cause a postponement or what would define an “uncontrolled outbreak of COVID-19,” according to the agreement. The union has the ability to contest any ruling coming from Commissioner Gary Bettman by way of an “expedited arbitration of a grievance” in front of an impartial arbitrator.

Not playing by the rules

Violating the protocol could lead to “significant penalties, potentially including fines and/or loss of draft picks.” If a player refuses to be tested he will be forbidden to play and could also be removed from the tournament. Once inside the “bubble” you must be tested.

Players will have their own rooms on designated floors and cannot enter the room of someone else. The bars and restaurants will be open as long as everyone follows social distancing guidelines. There will also be contactless room service and delivery/pick up available from local restaurants.

Up for a round of golf? The NHL will also have trips inside and outside the “bubble” arranged for players with transportation provided. Masks are mandatory.

Speaking of masks…

Masks must be worn at all times except when exercising, eating, or on the ice. Coaches and referees do not have to wear masks during games.

Emergencies and family situations

A number of players could become fathers during the RTP. Once authorized, a person can leave the “bubble” for medical or personal reasons. When they return they must quarantine and cannot rejoin their team until testing negative four times over a four-day period. 

Players will not be able to have their families visit until the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final. Families can stay in their room after quarantining and undergoing testing once inside the “bubble.”

Disinfecting everything

Arena workers will disinfect benches, dasher boards, water bottle areas, and floors while players are in the dressing room. There will be dividers separating the individual water bottles.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results
A look at the Western Conference matchups

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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: Safety inside the NHL bubbles; impact of no home ice

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

• In case you missed it: The NHL and NHLPA have reached a tentative four-year CBA extension. Now we wait for the agreement to be ratified by the NHL’s Board of Governors, the NHLPA’s Executive Board, and then the full union membership. [PHT]

• On safety inside the NHL’s bubbles. [National Post]

• Examining how the loss of home-ice advantage will impact teams for the 2020 playoffs. [TSN]

• The four-plus months off will do wonders for Elias Pettersson. [Canucks Army]

• There are still some questions about the Canucks’ depth at center. [PiTB]

• Why the Gold Plan would be an ideal solution to replace the NHL draft lottery. [HockeyViz]

• They didn’t win the No. 1 overall pick, but later draft rounds could be where the Red Wings build a future core. [Detroit News]

• If the salary cap ceiling does not increase over the next few seasons, that will cause plenty of issues for the Blackhawks. [Second City Hockey]

• How new Sabres GM Kevyn Adams had future success lined up during his time at Miami University. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• Arizona State University forward Dominic Garcia opens up about the racist abuse he’s faced. [NHL.com]

• Taking a look at the most patriotic logos in American hockey. [Hockey by Design]

• Finally, here’s a look at Robin Lehner‘s sweet new Golden Knights pads:

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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.

NHL, NHLPA agree to four-year CBA extension, Return to Play MOU

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We’re another step closer to hockey resuming after the NHL and NHLPA reached a tentative agreement on a Return to Play Plan and a Memorandum of Understanding regarding the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The deal adds four years to the current CBA and updates the league’s off-season critical dates calendar. A four-year extension means the new CBA would expire Sept. 15, 2026. The current agreement was scheduled to expire Sept. 15, 2022.

The next step is the approval process, which means the NHL’s Board of Governors, the NHLPA’s Executive Board, and then the full union membership need to sign off on it.

[MORE: NHL, NHLPA agree on protocols to resume season]

Once all approvals are in order, training camps for the 24-team tournament will begin Monday, July 13 in their home cities. On July 26 teams will then travel to their respective hub cities — likely Toronto or Edmonton — and the Qualifying Round will begin on August 1.

While the hub cities have yet to be officially announced, it’s expected that Edmonton will host the Western Conference and Toronto will serve as the main site for the Eastern Conference. Rogers Place (Edmonton) will likely be the site of the conference finals and 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

WEST
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

QUALIFYING ROUND
No. 5 Oilers vs. No. 12 Blackhawks
No. 6 Predators vs. No. 11 Coyotes
No. 7 Canucks vs. No. 10 Wild
No. 8 Flames vs. No. 9 Jets

EAST
• Capitals
• Flyers
• Bruins
• Lightning

QUALIFYING ROUND
No. 5 Penguins vs. No. 12 Canadiens
No. 6 Hurricanes vs. No. 11 Rangers
No. 7 Islanders vs. No. 10 Panthers
No. 8 Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Blue Jackets

The Qualifying Round series will be best-of-five, while the top four teams in each conference will play three games with points percentage used as a tiebreaker to determine seeds Nos. 1-4 in the East and West. All series beginning with the First Round will be best-of-seven and teams will be re-seeded.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results
A look at the Western Conference matchups

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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.