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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.

NHL Bubble Wrap: Bo knows goals; Avalanche, Islanders take control

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  • Bo Horvat shines again as the Vancouver Canucks take a 2-0 series lead.
  • The Montreal Canadiens win big against the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • Cam Talbot shines for the Calgary Flames.

Colorado Avalanche 3, Arizona Coyotes 2 (Avalanche lead series 2-0)

It was not easy, but the Avalanche were able to get a 3-2 win over the Coyotes to take a 2-0 series lead in their First Round matchup. Andre Burakovsky scored the game-winning goal with just under three minutes to play in regulation to break a 2-2 tie. Nathan MacKinnon also scored a spectacular goal (see it below) to open the scoring in the first period that showed off his incredible gamebreaking speed. The Avalanche are now 4-0-1 in the return to play.

Montreal Canadiens 5, Philadelphia Flyers 0 (Series tied 1-1)

The Canadiens absolutely dominated the Flyers in their first game without head coach Claude Julien to tie their First Round series at one game each. Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Tomas Tatar both scored two goals for Montreal, while Carey Price stopped all 30 shots he faced for his second shutout of the playoffs. The Canadiens angered Flyers coach Alain Vigneault by putting their top power play out on the ice late in a 5-0 game, but hey, this is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. No mercy here.

Vancouver Canucks 4, St. Louis Blues 3 (OT) (Canucks lead series 2-0)

The Canucks young stars shined again on Friday as they beat the defending Stanley Cup champions to take a stunning 2-0 lead in their First Round series. Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson were the driving forces behind the offense, with Horvat scoring a pair of goals including the game-winning goal in overtime. The Blues might be considering a goaltending change going into Game 3 of the series this weekend.

New York Islanders 5, Washington Capitals 2 (Islanders lead series 2-0)

Alex Ovechkin finally got on the board this postseason with a pair of goals, including one in the first minute of the game on the game’s first shift, but it was not enough for an otherwise lackluster Capitals offense. The Islanders shut them down for the second game in a row and took a commanding 2-0 series lead. The Islanders are in complete control of the series and have completely turned their season around from the way they were playing during the stretch run of the regular season. The Capitals are still trying to find that next level.

Calgary Flames 2, Dallas Stars 0 (Flames lead series 2-1)

There is nothing wrong with the way the Stars played in this game. They just happened to run into a white hot goalie in Cam Talbot that played out of his mind. Mikael Backlund and T.J. Brodie scored goals for the Flames while Talbot stopped 35 shots to record his second shutout of the postseason. The Flames were able to get this win without the services of star forward Matthew Tkachuk who did not play after being injured in Game 2 on Thursday night.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks. Another huge game for the Canucks’ captain as he scored two more goals. He already had six goals this postseason, including four in the first two games of their First Round series against the Blues. His two goals on Friday were highlight reel goals, scoring a ridiculous shorthanded goal to start the game and then getting the game-winner in overtime.

2. Cam Talbot, Calgary Flames. Goaltending was one of the big issues for the Flames a year ago, and it has turned into one of their biggest strengths this postseason thanks entirely to the play of Talbot. He was a wall on Friday night in stopping all 35 shots he faced to help steal Game 3 of their First Round series against the Dallas Stars. Without him this game could have gone very, very differently.

3. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens. The Max Pacioretty trade has become one of the rare win-win trades for both teams involved. The Golden Knights get an impact player. The Canadiens got an outstanding two-way veteran in Tatar and an outstanding young player to build around in Nick Suzuki. Both have been excellent at times this postseason, and on Friday it was Tatar’s turn to shine. He scored two goals in the Canadiens’ 5-0 win and was a huge part of their series-tying victory.

Highlights of the Night

Horvat’s first goal of the game was a highlight reel play as he flew through the Blues’ power play to score a shorthanded goal.

Nathan MacKinnon got things started early on for the Avalanche, showing off his speed to beat Darcy Kuemper for the game’s first goal.

Ovechkin scored two goals for the Capitals but it was not enough because of sequences like this from Brock Nelson and the Islanders.

Factoids

  • Horvat is the third different player in Canucks franchise history to score at least two goals in consecutive playoff games. [NHL PR]
  • The New York Islanders are 12-1 when they hold a 2-0 series lead in their franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Carey Price has seven career postseason shutouts, trailing only Jacques Plante and Ken Dryden (10 each) for most in Montreal Canadiens franchise history. [NHL PR]

Saturday Schedule

Game 3: Boston Bruins vs. Carolina Hurricanes, 12 p.m. ET, NBC (Series tied 1-1)
Game 3: Colorado Avalanche vs. Arizona Coyotes, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC (Avalanche lead series 2-0)
Game 3: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)
Game 3: Vegas Golden Knights vs. Chicago Blackhawks, 8 p.m, ET, NBC (Golden Knights lead series 2-0)

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Talbot shuts out Stars as Flames take 2-1 series lead

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The Calgary Flames may not have had Matthew Tkachuk in the lineup for Game 3 of their First Round series against the Dallas Stars on Friday night, but they did have Cam Talbot.

Turns out, that was all they needed.

Talbot turned aside all 35 shots he faced to record a shutout in a 2-0 Flames win that gives them a 2-1 series leads.

Mikael Backlund‘s shorthanded goal goes in the books as the game-winner for the Flames, while T.J. Brodie added a late insurance marker on a booming slap shot. But even with those two goal scorers, Talbot was the star of this game for Calgary in what was a big bounceback performance for the starting goalie.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Talbot got the start in the Flames’ Game 2 loss on Thursday, surrendering five goals in what was probably his worst game of the postseason so far.

Despite that, Flames coach Geoff Ward decided to stick with his starter in the back-to-back situation (sometimes a risky call) and Talbot was more than up to the task by recording his second shutout of the playoffs (and the fourth of his career).

It continues what has been an outstanding performance for him in the NHL return to play. Outside of Game 2 on Thursday he has been one of the Flames’ most valuable players and has played his way into the (very) early Conn Smythe discussion.

It is not an exaggeration to say he was the single biggest difference maker on Friday.

Even though the Flames ended up getting the upper hand on the scoreboard, they were probably not the better team overall as the Stars carried the play for much of the night. Dallas held a pretty commanding territorial edge and seemed to get the best of the chances. But sometimes all you need to get a win in the playoffs is to have the better goalie, and that is what the Flames had on Friday.

They also should not apologize for it. This was a tough spot to be in playing a back-to-back without one of their best players. Maybe it was not their best overall effort, but if you are going to go on a deep run into the playoffs you sometimes need to find ways to steal games where you do not have your “A” game.

Tkachuk did not play for Calgary after being a game-time decision. He was injured on Thursday when he was hit by Jamie Benn and Jamie Oleksiak. There is no word on his status for Game 4 on Sunday.

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames (Flames lead series 2-1)

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Flames 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Stars 5, Flames 4 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Flames 2, Stars 0
Sunday, Aug. 16: Dallas at Calgary, 2 p.m. ET – CNBC
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Calgary at Dallas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Dallas at Calgary – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Dallas at Calgary – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Islanders take 2-0 series lead as Capitals look flat again

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The New York Islanders look to be in complete control of their First Round matchup with the Washington Capitals following their 5-2 win in Game 2 on Friday night.

The win gives the Islanders a commanding 2-0 series lead, as they have completely shut down the Capitals’ offense through the first two games of the series.

For the second game in a row the Capitals scored first — Alex Ovechkin scored his first of the playoffs on the game’s first shift — but were unable to hold on. The Islanders received goals from five different players (Nick Leddy, Matt Martin, Brock Nelson, Cal Clutterbuck, and Anders Lee) and played their frustrating brand of defense that at times rendered the Capitals’ offense completely useless.

That was pretty much the story of this game.

Other than a great showing Ovechkin — two goals, a near-miss in the third period, and six total shots on goal — the Capitals’ offense looked like it was skating in mud all night. They struggled to get to dangerous scoring areas, they could not get any kind of a consistent push in the offensive zone, and when Ovechkin was not driving things there was nobody that even looked to be a threat to score.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Not having top center Nicklas Backstrom certainly hurt, and the other team on the ice absolutely has a role in the outcome, but the Capitals have not yet been able to find their game since the 2019-20 season resumed.

They won only one of their three Round-Robin games and so far have not scored more than two goals in any of the five postseason games they have played. It has been a carryover from the way they played during the stretch run of the regular season.

What has to be especially frustrating is that this is the second game in a row they started off with the lead only to allow the Islanders to later take over. In Game 1 they held a 2-0 lead until the final minute of the second period, only to watch Braden Holtby allow a soft goal and the Islanders pour in four unanswered goals for the win.

On Friday, they got the early goal from Ovechkin and allowed the Islanders to strike for two goals to take the lead. When Ovechkin tied the game in the second period, they allowed the Islanders to reclaim the lead just 15 seconds later when Jakub Vrana turned the puck over at the Islanders’ blue line, giving Nelson a clear breakaway.

For the Islanders this entire postseason remains a complete 180 turnaround from the team we saw at the end of the regular season. That team was a sinking ship trending in the wrong direction as they had lost 11 of 13 and seven in a row. Since the restart they have gone 5-1 and have put themselves in a great position to advance.

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders (NYI lead 2-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Islanders 4, Capitals 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Islanders 5, Capitals 2
Sunday, Aug. 16: Washington at NY Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – USA Network
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Washington at NY Islanders, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Thursday, Aug. 20: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Washington at NY Islanders – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Matthew Tkachuk out for Flames in Game 3

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Some bad injury news for the Calgary Flames going into Game 3 of their First Round playoff series against the Dallas Stars.

Matthew Tkachuk will not play on Friday night after being listed as a game-time decision earlier in the day.

He will be replaced on the second line by Tobias Rieder.

Tkachuk was injured early in the third period of Thursday’s game (a 5-4 Stars win) when he was sandwiched between Jamie Oleksiak and Jamie Benn. It was the third different time during the game that Tkachuk had to exit the game and go down the tunnel. That time, he did not return to the game.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

There is no easy way to replace a player like Tkachuk. While he has the reputation for being a pest that always plays right on the line (and sometimes over it) to infuriate his opponents, he is also a legit first-line player and one of the Flames’ go-to offensive players.

He finished the regular season with 61 points (23 goals, 38 assists) in 68 games.

So far this postseason he has a goal and an assist for the Flames.

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames (Series tied 1-1)

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Flames 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Stars 5, Flames 4 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Dallas at Calgary, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Dallas at Calgary, 2 p.m. ET – CNBC
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Calgary at Dallas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Dallas at Calgary – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Dallas at Calgary – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.