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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.

Ducks’ injury problems could derail hot streak

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The Anaheim Ducks have really been heating up lately, grabbing six wins in their last seven games. A painfully familiar problem could derail all of that promise, however, as injuries are once again mounting.

The Ducks provided two unfortunate updates on Tuesday:

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Ryan Miller: The superb backup suffered an MCL sprain during Sunday’s wild 6-5 shootout win against the Devils. His recovery window is estimated at six weeks, while they’ll evaluate the veteran goalie once more in two weeks.

As you can note from this breakdown from Anaheim’s five-game winning streak, much of the Ducks’ success came from an impeccable goalie duo of Miller and John Gibson. Gibson is the Vezina-level workhorse, but don’t count out Miller’s contributions. He’s continued a so-far-phenomenal run with the Ducks, managing a .922 save percentage in 10 games this season (with four goals allowed against New Jersey hurting his numbers more than a bit).

Anaheim did get at least one bit of good luck here, relatively speaking. The Ducks were able to pluck an experienced goalie in Chad Johnson off of waivers, as they took him off of the St. Louis Blues’ hands. His former Bengals WR namesake celebrated the occasion:

Johnson’s off to a lousy start in 2018-19 (.884 save percentage in 10 games), and really struggled with the Calgary Flames last season. Even so, his .909 career save percentage is still pretty good for a journeyman backup, especially since the Ducks didn’t need to cough up any assets to give him a try.

None of this makes Miller’s loss good news, yet there’s at least a chance that Johnson could hold down the fort whenever Gibson needs a breather.

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Rickard Rakell: the Ducks didn’t provide a timetable for the winger’s return, labeling his injury as a sprained ankle.

The Athletic’s Eric Stephens reports that Rakell was wearing a protective boot this weekend:

Despite being out since Dec. 5, Rakell stands as the Ducks’ second-highest scorer (20 points in 30 games), trailing only Ryan Getzlaf.

While that 6-5 shootout win against the Devils shows that Anaheim can fill the net from time to time (pauses for own-goal jokes), they’ve generally been scoring just enough to win lately. With that in mind, Rakell’s injury really stings, especially if Nick Ritchie and Pontus Aberg start to cool off.

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To review, Miller and Rakell join a growing list of injured Ducks. Corey Perry and Cam Fowler are recovering from significant issues that required surgeries. Patrick Eaves is also dealing with injury/health issues, and it’s fair to wonder how often Ryan Kesler is truly at full-strength.

At the moment, the Ducks are ranked third in the Pacific Division with 37 points in 32 games, as the Sharks have the same 16-11-5 record but own an edge in ROW (16 to 13). They’ll close their current homestand out on Wednesday, then head out on the road for six straight away games, mostly against Eastern Conference teams:

Wed, Dec. 12: vs. Dallas
Sat, Dec. 15: @ Columbus
Mon, Dec. 17: @ Pittsburgh
Tue, Dec. 18: @ Rangers
Thu, Dec. 20: @ Boston
Sat, Dec. 22: @ Buffalo
Thu, Dec. 27: @ San Jose

It hasn’t always been pretty for the Ducks, but credit them for fighting through injuries. Unfortunately, it looks like they’ll need to keep doing so.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Where do ‘fragile’ Blues go from here?

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It’s been quite a week for the St. Louis Blues. Let’s recap:

• After being booed off of their home ice following a 6-1 thrashing by the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday, Brayden Schenn labels the team “a fragile group,” three days after interim head coach Craig Berube did the same.

• Superstar forward Vladimir Tarasenko apologized afterward for the team’s poor play at Enterprise Center, which has seen one Blues victory there since Nov. 11 (1-4-1).

• With tensions high around the team, forward Zach Sanford and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo let some emotions out and engaged in a bit of a scrap during Monday’s practice.

This isn’t the spark that general manager Doug Armstrong envisioned for his team when he fired Mike Yeo and replaced him with Berube. A 3-5-1 record since the change hasn’t helped the Blues climb out of the bottom tier of the Western Conference standings.

Under Berube, the decline that began during Yeo’s time in charge has continued. Their goals per game is down from 2.95 to 2.44; goals allowed is up from 3.11 to 3.78 per game; and the power play went from a 24.2 percent success rate to 20.8 percent. Also, four of those six losses have been by three or more goals, so they’ve been busy fishing pucks out of their net.

Empty seats. Boos. The f-word thrown around. Apologies. Fights at practice. What’s got to change? From Berube’s perspective, nothing. He’s just going to keep hammering home his message until it gets through — if it ever does.

“The way out is the same thing we preach day in and day out,” he said. “You have to go into every game, no matter who you play, and you gotta be committed to giving 100 percent effort and compete as hard as you can, every game. … We’re going to keep at it, we’re going to keep pounding it in their heads until they get it. That’s it.”

What about Armstrong’s point of view? He built this team, which included a big trade to bring in Ryan O’Reilly over the summer. Following Yeo’s firing last month he said his patience with the Blues’ core players was at its “thinnest” and that they were the ones who needed to help get the team out of its funk.

Armstrong also added that there are only so many changes that can be made before that group gets torn apart.

“The core group’s equity that was built up is gone,” he said. “That’s what I have to say. I guess I could say it again that with the next head coach, if we’re having this same conversation, they’ll be players gone.”

(No wonder Alex Pietrangelo’s name popped up in trade rumors over the weekend.)

Speaking with the Post-Dispatch this week, Armstrong expressed his frustration at a lack of consistency in the Blues’ play and their inability to find another gear when needed. When adversity strikes, it snowballs and there isn’t enough resiliency in the group to fight back.

So where do the Blues go from here? Their already thin playoff hopes are hanging by a string and it doesn’t appear that a turnaround is going to happen thanks to some extended winning streak. Fourteen points back in the Central Division and 11 points out of a wild card spot, Armstrong will have some tough decisions to make in reshaping this roster going forward.

If his patience was already thin when he made a coaching change, what’s left nine games later when the move hasn’t shown itself to have made a positive impact?

MORE: Your 2018-19 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 at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL on NBCSN: Will Blashill be part of Red Wings’ future?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When you start the season with one win in your opening 10 games and you’re Jeff Blashill, your seat will be quite warm. Blashill’s future with the Detroit Red Wings was already in jeopardy, even going back to the end of the last season, but since that slow start they’ve won 13 of their last 21 games and taken points in 15 of them. That run has put them three points out of a wild card spot in a jumbled Eastern Conference.

With the way the Red Wings have played and the way some of their younger players like Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Dennis Cholowski, Tyler Bertuzzi, and a pre-injury Anthony Mantha have taken strides forward through 31 games, the hot seat talk around Blashill has quieted for now. But as he coaches in the final year of his current contract, who’s behind the Detroit bench in 2019-20 still remains a big question.

[WATCH LIVE – 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Blashill wanted his team to be “miserable” to play against on a nightly basis, hence the “sixty minutes of hell” t-shirts that the players have worn this season. The Red Wings have 10 fighting majors so far, so there’s a definite toughness bred into the current roster. They’re getting balanced scored up front, a healthy Mike Green (3 goals, 16 points) is producing like the old Mike Green, and Jimmy Howard is upping his trade value (.936 even strength save percentage) with every start.

Those are all encouraging signs for a franchise in a transition phase. The playoffs may not be the end game this season, but when you consider the Red Wings’ current state, seeing those young pieces develop shows there’s light at the end of the tunnel. There are still decisions to make which could affect the “re-tooling” of the roster. Nyquist, Howard, Niklas Kronwall, and Thomas Vanek can all become unrestricted free agents this summer. They would certainly be able to bring in assets that general manager Ken Holland can use for the future if some of them waive their no-trade/movement clauses. But those are decisions that can be made closer to the February trade deadline barring some complete drop-off.

How this season ends for the Red Wings will ultimately determine Blashill’s fate. Should Holland feel the need to make a change, it could be an easy search for a successor with Dan Bylsma already there as an assistant — an assistant that Blashill wanted after they worked together at the 2018 IIHF World Championship.

For now, the progress is there under Blashill, and what once was a hot seat has now cooled considerably.

John Walton (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.

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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: Unique pucks for Winter Classic; Caps’ Cup beer

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

• There will be some unique pucks used during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 (1 p.m. ET, NBC) when the Chicago Blackhawks take on the Boston Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium. The biscuits used during the game and other NHL “tentpole events” this season will feaure thermochromic coatings that will change from purple to clear to indicate the puck’s temperature is above freezing, telling the officials it should be replaced. [NHL.com]

• Pierre Dorion is in unique territory trying to sign two star players — Matt Duchene and Mark Stone — to eight-year extensions. [TSN]

• Would the Philadelphia Flyers take a run to bring Sergei Bobrovsky back to town? [NBC Philadelphia]

• A Baltimore brewery is coming out with the perfect beer in honor of the Washington Capitals. Fans will soon be able to enjoy some Cup Stand Pilsner. [RMNB]

• Which Pittsburgh Penguins defense pairings are working and which ones need to change? [Pensburgh]

• The time is right for more people of color to get the call from U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. [Color of Hockey]

• Has anyone not named Rantanen, Landeskog or MacKinnon picked up the pace in production this season for the Colorado Avalanche? [Mile High Hockey]

• Carter Hutton should be back in net for the Buffalo Sabres this week after missing Saturday’s game with an upper-body injury. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• Apparently it’s not too early for headlines like this: “Pettersson building early case as greatest Canuck in team history” [Sportsnet]

• “This fragile style of play is a contagion infecting everyone on this team and needs to be cured immediately.   The first step of the cure has been accomplished:  identification of the problem.  Now for the hard part the treatment, is Coach Berube part of that cure?” [Bleedin’ Blue]

• Why the NHL Department of Player Safety needs some fixing. [TXHT Hockey]

• We’re in the midst of a pretty enjoyable NHL scoring boom. [Featurd]

• Josh Ho-Sang is back up with the New York Islanders, but Barry Trotz says he feels “zero pressure” to insert him into the lineup. [Islanders Insight]

• Things look bleak now, but with the way that Adam Boqvist is playing for the OHL’s London Knights there’s some hope down the line for the Chicago Blackhawks. [NBC Chicago]

• Calgary Flames defenseman Oliver Kylington is showing he’s here to stay in the NHL. [EP Rinkside]

• Finally, if you missed it over the weekend, one week after Eeli Tolvanen scored his first NHL goal for the Nashville Predators, his brother Atte became the 11th goalie in NCAA history to score:

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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.