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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.

Koskinen has Oilers thinking playoffs again

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A lack of quality goaltending was one of the reasons the Edmonton Oilers missed the playoffs last season. Cam Talbot, who was an integral part of Edmonton’s run to the playoffs in 2017, saw his numbers slip in a big way in 2017-18. Now, it’s another goalie that has the Oilers back in the playoff hunt.

Many hockey fans were left scratching their heads when Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli signed Mikko Koskinen to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. The move was a little random considering Koskinen hadn’t suited up in the NHL since the 2010-11 season. The 30-year-old had spent the previous five seasons in the KHL.

Talbot opened the year as the starter and Koskinen didn’t make his first appearance of the season until the nine-game mark, but things have changed. Not only is Koskinen coming off 24-save shutout over the rival Flames on Sunday, but he’s also been victorious in four of his last five and he has just one regulation loss since Nov. 20 (seven games).

Not only did Koskinen put an end to Calgary’s five-game winning streak on Sunday, he also helped extend his team’s streak to three games. So all this means is that the Oilers are just a single point behind the Vegas Golden Knights for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference and they’re also one point away from the San Jose Sharks, who are in third in the Pacific Division. The Oilers have played two fewer games than Vegas and one less than San Jose.

He now owns a 9-3-1 record with a 2.06 goals-against-average and a .929 save percentage. He’s been totally unbeatable at home, as he’s a perfect 6-0 with an 0.91 goals-against-average and a .970 save percentage. That’s unreal. His numbers on the road are a little less flattering, but he’s done enough to go 3-3 away from Rogers Arena.

If we take a deeper look at his numbers, only Pekka Rinne and Jaroslav Halak have better save percentages and only Rinne has a better goals-against-average. Of course, the small sample size is important to keep in mind, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Finn has played really, really, really well.

As good as Koskinen’s been, the Oilers will probably need Talbot at some point in the near future. Over the last five seasons, Koskinen has played more than 41 games just once. He’s currently on pace to play in 38 games, but you’d have to imagine that he’ll keep getting starts if he stays hot. Anyway, a wall will be probably be hit at some point.

But right now, Oilers fans aren’t worried about walls, they’re just glad to be back in the playoff hunt.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL’s broken playoff format; Can Matthews score 50?

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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.

• We’re still a few years away from the Seattle expansion draft, but The Tennessean is already looking ahead to who the Preds would protect in 2021. (The Tennessean)

• Speaking of protection lists, who will the Blue Jackets protect in 2021? (The Cannon)

• The New York Post’s Larry Brooks explains why the NHL’s playoff format is broken. (New York Post)

• The Ottawa Senators have gone through some tough times this season, but there are positives that have emerged. One of them is promising center Colin White. (Ottawa Citizen)

• Even though he’s missed some time with a shoulder injury, it’s not impossible that Auston Matthews scores 50 this season. (Toronto Sun)

• The Hockey News breaks down 10 things we’ve learned about the NHL so far in 2018-19. (The Hockey News)

• Sportscaster Rob Simpson is almost done visiting all 31 NHL arenas in 31 days. He’s doing all this to benefit Hockey Fights Cancer. (NHL.com)

• As you’d imagine, Matthew and Brady Tkachuk broke their share of windows while playing hockey in their driveway. (TSN.ca)

• Sports Illustrated takes a deeper look at the connection between being a younger sibling and becoming a goalie. (Sports Illustrated)

• Ready for this random fact? Former Flyers goalie Antero Niittymaki was a perfect 17-0-0 against the Atlanta Thrashers during his career. I told you it was random. (Broad Street Hockey)

• It’s been a tough year for Kevin Shattenkirk in New York. What does the future hold for the veteran defeseman? (Blue Shirt Banter)

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.

The Buzzer: Is it too early to give Pettersson the Calder?

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Three Stars

1. Elias Pettersson

What’s easier: giving Pettersson the top star of Sunday, or just cutting through the red tape and handing him the Calder right now?

OK, the NHL can’t do that. After all, someone might close the 11-point gap between Pettersson (30 points) and every other rookie (Colin White‘s in second with 19), especially if the league is robbed of the glory of more Pettersson in the event of an injury.

His special Sunday really highlighted the gap between the Canucks wunderkind and everyone else. Pettersson scored the game-winning goal to go with four assists for a five-point performance. The kid is special, and you really don’t need the “for a rookie” caveat.

2. Brock Boeser

Normally, it might be best to lean away from placing two teammates in the top three, but sometimes you just have to acknowledge the truth. These two forwards are a blast to watch. The Boeser + Pettersson combo doesn’t merely make the Canucks palatable. If you’re not ready to go, they can absolutely dominate, stealing games for Vancouver in the process.

Boeser collected a hat trick as the Canucks bombarded the Blues by a 6-1 score:

3. Josh Morrissey

This is a tough call, as Morrissey’s teammate Mark Scheifele and Ducks forward Ondrej Kase also deserve serious consideration with their own three-point Sundays.

Morrissey gets the nod because his goal was a game-winner (Scheifele had three assists, while Kase’s goal and two assists lacked the GWG). Granted, it was the GWG in a lopsided game but … hey, we’re splitting hairs, here.

There were some nice goalie performances, yet with Mikko Koskinen being the only guy getting a shutout – and a light one, needings 24 saves – let’s hand the bronze to a skater.

Morrissey celebrated his first game in a week by collecting those three points as the Jets routed the Flyers. Along with the goal and two assists, Morrissey managed a +2 rating, three SOG, and one blocked shot.

Highlights

Admittedly, it’s strange to use the word “harmonious” to describe a hockey play, especially when Brad Marchand is involved. Such a description comes to mind here, though, as Marchand, David Krejci, and Torey Krug combine for an absolutely beautiful overtime game-winner:

While it doesn’t match the sheer beauty of that Krug tally, Connor McDavid scored the only goal of Edmonton’s 1-0 win against Calgary on another nice bit of puck movement:

Sunday featured at least a couple throwback “pad-stacking” saves, including this one by John Gibson:

Not hockey, but if you have even a passing interest in the NFL, this Miami Dolphins play is just bodacious. Honestly, “Miami Miracle” doesn’t even feel too over-the-top.

Lowlight

Here’s not how to help Cory Schneider, a goalie who’s been struggling for quite some time: the Devils were guilty of three own-goals on Sunday, with this one possibly being the most egregious:

Factoids

Montreal’s tight win against Chicago is more impressive when you realize the procession of penalties they faced, particularly during a high-stick-happy third period:

Could Mikko Koskinen be the latest goalie to flourish under Ken Hitchcock? He already started off pretty well for Edmonton, but the “low-event” Oilers have really helped him heat up:

More impressive: Marc-Andre Fleury‘s wins total(s), or his sweet, sweet pads?

Scores

VAN 6 – STL 1
WPG 7 – PHI 1
BOS 2 – OTT 1 (OT)
MTL 3 – CHI 2
ANA 6 – NJD 5 (SO)
VGK 4 – DAL 2
EDM 1 – CGY 0

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.

Milan Lucic gets in heavyweight fight after thunderous hit

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Much to the Edmonton Oilers’ chagrin, Milan Lucic isn’t the all-encompassing threat he once was. To be more precise, he’s not exactly the type who will score enough to justify his $6 million cap hit very often these days.

Lucic is still an enormous human, however, and sometimes you get a taste of what made him such a menacing presence in the past. Sunday stood as one of those examples, as Lucic delivered a thunderous check on Calgary Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic, then went toe-to-toe with Anthony Peluso in what seemed like a pretty even fight.

(You can watch it all in the video above.)

If you’re around an old-school type, you’ll probably overhear something about how this fight somehow propels the Oilers to victory rather than Ken Hitchcock’s patented “Connor McDavid scores the only goal” formula. Lucic kindly obliged following his first scrap of 2018-19:

Either way, the Oilers snagged a 1-0 win against the Flames, and Lucic looked like a beast, at least for that stretch. It hasn’t always been pretty, yet Edmonton will take it, especially when “it” qualifies as a win against their nearby rivals.

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.