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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.

Will Taylor Hall re-sign long-term?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Let’s ponder three questions for the 2019-20 Devils:

1. Has all the offseason work enticed Taylor Hall to re-sign?

In early June, a report from The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta suggested that Hall had no interest in re-signing with the club.

Fast forward a month, and the team that managed just 74 points in a dismal regular season now had Jack Hughes, the top prospect in the 2019 NHL Draft, P.K. Subban, one of the league’s best defensemen, and were about to embark on adding Wayne Simmonds and Nikita Gusev before August hit.

Ray Shero needed to do something to convince Hall that the Devils were heading in the right direction and perhaps it has worked, although there is still no long-term extension in place for the former Hart Trophy winner.

Hall’s agent, for what it’s worth, says there’s no rush. As does Shero.

And while that may be true, these sort of things only become distractions as the regular season hits in 2019-20. The Devils would certainly need to know by the trade deadline so they could avoid a John Tavares incident.

Two first-overall picks in the past three seasons and a genuine attempt to make the team better has to sit well in Hall’s camp. But there’s always going to be that allure of having the world at his feet with truckloads of money and the ability to chose his destination next summer.

2. What role will Mackenzie Blackwood take on this season? 

Cory Schneider went more than a calendar year without a win and he was horrific to start the season, posting a 0-7-2 record before finally getting that elusive ‘W’ in the middle of February.

From there, he went 6-6-2 with a .927 save percentage down the stretch as he finally looked like the goalie sans the hip issue that had plagued him (and was surgically repaired in May 2018.)

Schneider’s injuries and Keith Kinkaid not being very good allowed the Devils a chance to see what Blackwood could do. And 22-year-old didn’t disappoint, even with the mess in front of him.

In 21 starts he went 10-10-0 with a .918 save percentage and two shutouts.

While Schneider appeared to begin his bounceback from surgery in the last half of the season, Blackwood should see increased time (even if the former is making $6 million a season.) Blackwood appears to be the future in New Jersey and the Devils shouldn’t be married to Schneider being their de facto No. 1.

3. What, if anything, will Shero do the rest of his cap space? 

There’s roughly $8 million still sitting in his kitty, although the team still needs to sign restricted free agent Pavel Zacha.

Evolving Wild’s model has Zacha coming in around the $2 million mark in terms of annual average value, which gives the Devils $6 million-ish to work with they want to strengthen the team further.

Of course, the unrestricted free agent pool has shrunk over the summer, but you wonder if a guy such as Patrick Maroon might make for a good addition in terms of grit and experience.

What about a Ben Hutton on defense to make another improvement on the blue line?

There still may be some bargains out there and the Devils appear to have assembled a team worthy of playoff talk.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

It’s New Jersey Devils Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

2018-19
31-41-10, 74 pts. (8th in the Metropolitan Division, 15th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Jack Hughes
P.K. Subban
Wayne Simmonds
Nikita Gusev
Connor Carrick
John Hayden

OUT
Kurtis Gabriel
Brian Boyle
Keith Kinkaid
Ben Lovejoy
Kenny Agostino
Stefan Noesen
Drew Stafford
Eric Gryba
Eddie Lack

RE-SIGNED
Will Butcher
Mirco Mueller

2018-19 season review

Season grade: F
Offseason grade: A+

Yes, it appears it can all change that quickly for some teams.

Much like the Florida Panthers, who I wrote about last week, the New Jersey Devils can rest easy knowing that last season is going to feel like a distant memory after the summer Ray Shero and Co. put together.

The Devils were very bad last season, so bad that, for the second time in the past three seasons, they were rewarded (thanks to a bit of luck) with the first-overall pick back in June.

They came into the draft lottery with the third-best odds but moved up to spots for the honor of selecting Jack Hughes.

They then shook up the hockey world, dropping a massive trade bomb on the second day of the draft as they acquired P.K. Subban to fortify their blue line.

Getting Hughes and Subban in the same weekend helped take the sting off a poor season where they couldn’t score much and couldn’t stop the puck a whole lot at the other end of the ice.

Just two players cracked the 20-goal plateau, only one player hit 50 points and their goaltending was abysmal. It didn’t help that Taylor Hall was limited to just 33 games because of injury and then there were the rumors of his long-term future not being in East Rutherford.

Some of those questions still remain, especially between the pipes, but there’s a reason for optimism after such a big summer.

Aside from Hughes and Subban, the Devils also added some grit in Wayne Simmonds. It’s a one-year ‘prove it’ sort of deal that will keep Simmonds hungry as he goes searching for a longer-term deal next off season.

And they added a player some consider the best who wasn’t playing in the NHL in Nikita Gusev, a former Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick who was then signed by the Golden Knights last year and then traded to New Jersey in July.

A lot of good has happened since the Devils played their final regular-season game of 2018-19. They’ve had to keep up in an arms race across the Hudson River as the New York Rangers took Kaapo Kakko right after New Jersey took Hughes and added Artemi Panarin in free agency and signed Jacob Trouba to a long-term deal.

Either way, gone should be the days where the Devils aren’t considered a perennial playoff contender.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Golden questions for Nashville Predators

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

Let’s examine three key questions for the Predators next season …

1. Is this really a better winning formula?

The Predators could have a deeper offense by adding Matt Duchene, while still having one of the best defense corps in the NHL if Dante Fabbro can make up for enough of what Nashville lost in P.K. Subban. By subtracting from a strength in hopes of bolstering a weakness, maybe the Predators will find a perfect balance.

There’s an uncomfortable possibility that David Poile might have outsmarted himself here, though.

For one thing, what if the Predators sold low on Subban, whose struggles were a bit exaggerated in 2018-19, and was a Norris finalist as recently as 2017-18? It’s difficult to ignore that Subban’s still someone who wins the shot share battle, while Duchene’s possession numbers have regularly been negative/average.

It’s possible that Fabbro might stumble considerably, considering he’s only played in four regular season and six playoff games at the NHL level. It’s also possible that the Predators have overrated both Duchene as a difference-maker and Roman Josi as a defenseman.

One must also wonder if this team’s just made too many changes over the years. They’ve traded for Subban and traded him away, brought in Kyle Turris in a big trade, were fairly bold in trading Kevin Fiala for Mikael Granlund, and so on. If you’re a stickler for “chemistry,” aren’t you a touch worried?

Duchene hasn’t been on a ton of winning teams during his career, but this is the best roster he’s ever joined … so we’ll see if this works out. At least you can’t accuse the Predators of being too timid.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. What kind of goaltending will they get?

Pekka Rinne‘s had his critics over the years, yet he’s shut most of them up. But speaking of years … Rinne turns 37 on Nov. 3, so there’s a real threat for a decline.

If that drop-off comes in a dramatic way, will promising young goalie Juuse Saros be able to hold down the fort? The 24-year-old was fine in 2018-19 (.915 save percentage), but did stumble a bit at times. Where Rinne is a towering presence, Saros bucks the trend by being a smaller goalie. Might that get exposed with more reps?

If you forced me to choose a duo to roll with in 2019-20, this one would be one of the top options, but as we’ve seen with goalies, that doesn’t mean strong play is a guarantee. With Subban gone and Duchene not exactly a perennial Selke pick, the Predators goalie job could be tougher than ever, and there have been certain stretches where the Predators’ defense already depended upon their goalies more than some might think. (Example: they were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed in 2018-19.)

3. Did they fix their power play?

Duchene changes the Predators’ personnel options, and they changed to a new power play coach in Dan Lambert.

Ideally, those tweaks will modernize a Predators’ man advantage that relied far too much on point shots from defensemen, and sputtered to the tune of a league-worst 12.9 percent success rate.

With Subban gone, that’s one less force pressuring the Predators to play that way, and maybe lean more toward a three-forward, two-defensemen setup, compared to the wider league trend toward four forward, one defenseman setups.

Will those changes be enough to improve that woeful unit? Maybe positive regression would have taken care of some of that bad production, anyway?

The Predators might flat-out need a better power play if their new-look team isn’t as impressive at even-strength, so we’ll see.

***

There are a lot of questions swirling around Nashville, but the most fascinating one is: are they actually better than they were last season? The Predators certainly are gambling a lot on that being the case.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Canucks reportedly give GM Jim Benning an extension

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If the Minnesota Wild – Paul Fenton fiasco reminds us of anything, it’s that as bad as a GM can be, a struggling NHL franchise usually comes down to more than one person flubbing major decisions.

That thought comes back to the forefront with Friday’s report from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that the Vancouver Canucks handed a contract extension to frequently (and usually justifiably) ridiculed GM Jim Benning. Rick Dhaliwal, also of Sportsnet, reports that the extension is believed to be for three years.

It’s important to note that, curiously, the Canucks have not officially announced that extension for Benning just yet. Some wonder if maybe the franchise realizes this sort of move isn’t something that will receive, um, unanimous support from Canucks fans, media, and other onlookers.

If there’s one silver lining even for Benning haters, it’s that Benning is no longer a “lame duck” GM, as he was slated to go into 2019-20 in the final year of his contract.

That’s relevant because a GM without job security can be a dangerous thing. Rather than focusing on the long-term future, an especially flawed GM might instead just focus on immediate returns, with a “that won’t be my problem anyway” attitude about drawbacks down the line. Such a prospect would absolutely be terrifying with Benning.

Unfortunately, Benning’s already running the team in that way, anyway.

Rather than taking a sober approach that the Canucks are better off with a steady rebuild, Vancouver’s instead taken one positive (Benning’s drafting netting them blue chippers in Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes, etc.) and tried to accelerate to a level of contention by making highly questionable win-now moves.

The worst contracts really sting. Years after making a terrible $6M bet on Loui Eriksson, Benning showed how much he learned by making a terrible $6M bet on Tyler Myers. At best, spending $6M combined on Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel would be something a contender would do in hopes of getting over the top. Vancouver making that decision reeked of a delusional front office.

J.T. Miller‘s a fine player, but giving up a first-round pick for him is, again, something an obvious contender would do, not a team that could very well still miss the playoffs by a mile. As a true Benning trademark, it’s also a dubious value proposition, as the Lightning were looking to shed salary, yet they got Miller’s money off the books and got a first-round pick for their troubles.

(Conditions of that pick mean it is a 2021 first-rounder if Vancouver missed the playoffs in 2019-20, but who’s to say they won’t miss it in both of the next two seasons?)

Not every Benning signing or trade acquisition is a huge blunder, but the mistakes really pile up, and even more defensible ones (Micheal Ferland, keeping Alexander Edler) would make more sense if Vancouver’s contending chances weren’t so iffy.

All of these mistakes really start to stack up, to the point that they nullify Benning’s rare strokes of genius. Yes, he’s made some fantastic moves in the draft, but the Canucks aren’t in a great position to fully take advantage of strong players on entry-level contracts because of all of the bloated salaries around them.

That can be seen most clearly in the case of Brock Boeser still needing a deal as an RFA. The Canucks are, somehow, cap-challenged, with a bit more than $5M in room, according to Cap Friendly. That’s … honestly pretty inexcusable, and it all revolves around an inflated viewpoint of what this team is truly capable of at this time.

And this reported extension argues that it’s not just Jim Benning who has a faulty view of what the Canucks are capable of.

The Canucks haven’t spent their money very wisely lately, and they’ve missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. There are some reasons for longer-term optimism, but this remains a flawed roster, with contracts that could box Vancouver into a corner.

You would think the Canucks wouldn’t be thrilled to sign up for more of that, but clearly the Canucks think differently. Time will tell if they end up being right, but the early returns aren’t very promising — at least when it isn’t draft weekend.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.