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Penguins make it official with Jack Johnson; bring back Matt Cullen

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford announced two free agent signings on Sunday afternoon — one that was expected, and one that kind of came out of nowhere.

First, the Penguins made it official and signed defenseman Jack Johnson to a five-year contract that will pay him $16.25 million. News of that potential signing first broke last week and it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that pen was going to be put to paper on that deal.

Along with that news, the Penguins also announced that veteran center Matt Cullen is returning to the team after spending the 2017-18 season as a member of the Minnesota Wild. Cullen was an important depth player on the Penguins’ Stanley Cup winning teams in 2016 and 2017 before leaving as a free agent prior to last season. The Penguins reportedly attempted to re-acquire him via trade throughout the season but were never able to make it work. His contract is a one-year deal worth $650,000.

The addition that is going to get the most attention here is Johnson because that is a pretty significant investment in a player whose career has been … let’s say … polarizing. You either love his combination of size and the skating ability he had earlier in his career that helped make him such a prized prospect entering the league, or you absolutely hate the objective evidence his NHL career has produced.

He is coming off of a brutal season in Columbus that saw him end the year as a healthy scratch. He will also turn 32 years old this season and the Penguins are taking a might big gamble that they can “fix” what has ailed him.

Financially speaking, the $3.25 million salary cap hit might not be bad if it was on a shorter-term deal. But a five-year commitment is a lot for a player you’re trying to repair, and it’s certainly debatable as to whether or not there is anything there to salvage when it comes to his play on the ice.

The defense of the signing all revolves around Johnson getting into a better situation (he talked on Sunday about wanting to join a winning environment) and the ability of the Penguins’ coaching staff, led by defense coach Sergei Gonchar, being able to help him the same way they helped improve Justin Schultz and Jamie Oleksiak in previous years (Rutherford said he would always put his money on Gonchar).

The problem is those aren’t exactly perfect parallels to look at.

In the case of Schultz and Oleksiak, the Penguins were dealing with young players in their mid-20s that were stuck in bad situations, they gave up minimal assets to acquire, and were able to help put them into more favorable situations and get a little more production out of them. And in Oleksiak’s case the jury is still very much out on how much he really has improved because it’s still such a small body of work in Pittsburgh.

With Johnson, he is 32 years old, has probably already started to lose a step from where he was when he younger, and has a decade long track record to show just what type of player he is. The results are not encouraging.

Just about every team Johnson has played for has performed worse — significantly worse — from a goals and shots perspective with Johnson on the versus him off of the ice. Observe the difference in shot attempts (CF%) and goal differential (GF%).

That is not an encouraging trend.

Now, one of two things will happen: They will either play Johnson in a top-four role and bump one of Olli Maatta or Justin Schultz down to the third pair, or they will play Johnson in that third-pair role alongside Jamie Oleksiak. Both options present their share of problems. With the former, you’re playing what is probably an inferior player over a better play (is Johnson better than either Maatta or Schultz? I am not sold on that).

With the latter, it just means you committed five years and all of your newfound salary cap space to a third-pairing defenseman when you probably could have gotten the same (or maybe even better) play for less.

It just seems like a big investment to make in a player you’re hoping can improve a decade-long trend of play and that you’re simply hoping for the best on.

The Cullen signing is an interesting one, only because it does not seem immediately clear where he will play or how he will be used.

The Penguins already have four centers under contract with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard, and Riley Sheahan in place. It seems likely, if not inevitable, that one of Brassard, Sheahan, or Cullen will see significant time on the wing.

Cullen, a long-time favorite of Rutherford, was great for the Penguins in a fourth-line role before signing with Minnesota. His departure (along with the free agent departure of Nick Bonino) resulted in the in-season trades to acquire Brassard and Sheahan.

Cullen ended up scoring 11 goals for the Wild this past season.

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.

Alex Ovechkin isn’t slowing down

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At 33 years old Alex Ovechkin is not supposed to be scoring goals at this sort of pace.

He is not supposed to be scoring goals the way he was when he was in his mid-20s.

The typical aging curve for NHL players, even the elites, says they are supposed to be slowing down at this point in their career and seeing their numbers slide south in a downward trend.

But as Ovechkin has shown throughout his brilliant career, he is not typical.

He is also not slowing down.

With three more goals on Tuesday night in the Capitals’ 6-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings, the game’s greatest goal-scorer added to his league leading total and now sits atop the NHL with 25 goals through his team’s first 30 games.

He also extending his current point streak to 12 consecutive games.

[Related: Capitals among NHL elites in this week’s PHT Power Rankings]

These numbers are impressive, even for Ovechkin. Especially when you consider he has never at any point in his career scored more goals through his team’s first 30 games (22 was his previous high at this point) and is currently on a 68-goal pace for the season.

These numbers are downright comical because they are completely unheard for a player this age. They are bordering on absurd.

Since 1987 no player in the NHL at age 33 or older has ever scored this many goals through 30 games (no one had more than 22).

In the history of the league only 13 different players have recorded a 50-goal season over the age of 30, while only three (Jaromir Jagr, Bobby Hull, and John Buyck) have recorded one at age 33 or older.

Ovechkin is now literally halfway there with still 52 games to play this season.

It would not be unfair to say he has had some puck luck on his side so far, and that was especially true on Tuesday night where two of his goals came off of fluky bounces. He also has a 21.5 percent shooting percentage that is seven points higher than his previous career best (14.6 in 2007-08, when he scored 65 goals) and nine points higher than his career average. That sort of pace is unsustainable in the modern NHL, even for somebody as great as Ovechkin.

But even if he shot at his normal career average (12.6 percent) over the rest of the season that would still be another 25 goals based on his current shot output. That would put him at exactly 50 goals for the season, and what very well might be an eighth goal-scoring crown.

It is expecting a lot given that no one has ever really done anything like this at this age, but would you want to bet against him?

The defending champs have now won 11 of their past 14 games and extended their lead in the Metropolitan Division with Tuesday’s win.

(H/T to Hockey-Reference database for historical goal data in this post)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Blues goal disallowed on season’s weirdest play

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The St. Louis Blues are, in their own words, a fragile team at the moment and can not catch a break.

Even when it seems like they may have been able to catch one.

In the first period of Tuesday’s game against the Florida Panthers, defender Robert Bortuzzo innocently dumped the puck into the offensive zone from just outside the blue line, where it bounced off of referee Tim Peel’s midsection and ended up in the back of the net behind Roberto Luongo.

It was bizarre. It was flukey. It was strange. It was also illegal.

From the NHL’s situation room:

At 5:17 of the first period in the Panthers/Blues game, Robert Bortuzzo’s shot deflected off an official and into the Florida net. Rule 78.5 states that apparent goals shall be disallowed “when the puck has deflected directly into the net off an official.” No goal St. Louis.

Peel was shaken up as a result of the play and had to leave the ice.

Fortunately for the Blues they were able to score four goals in the third period that did count to pick up a much-needed 4-3 win over the Panthers.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Red Wings on NBCSN

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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.

The Capitals and especially Red Wings probably wouldn’t admit this – at least on the record – but both teams should be pretty happy about where they are right now.

For the defending Stanley Cup champions, it’s a familiar place. Through early ups and downs, the Caps have mostly shook off an expected Stanley Cup hangover, finding away to grab the Metropolitan Division lead. Also familiar: Alex Ovechkin keeps lighting the lamp, as the prolific sniper already has 22 goals (to go with 36 points) in just 29 games.

If the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs began on Tuesday, the Red Wings would be on the outside looking in. Even so, the Red Wings have 32 standings points coming into their game against the Capitals, placing them 10th in the East. That’s not half-bad when you realize that this team is very much in a rebuilding process, whether they like it (and accept it) or not.

[Speaking of which, is coach Jeff Blashill part of that future?]

Sure, the Red Wings will be underdogs in this contest. They’d already carry that role out of context, but that’s especially clear being that they’re wrapping up a back-to-back set after beating the Kings 3-1 on Monday.

Washington would be foolish to take Detroit lightly, however. The Red Wings are 4-2-1 in their last seven games, enjoying solid seasons from Dylan Larkin (29 points) and Gustav Nyquist (27).

Can the Capitals take business at home? Find out on NBCSN.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Detroit Red Wings at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Tuesday, Dec. 11, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Red Wings – Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

RED WINGS

Gustav Nyquist — Dylan Larkin — Justin Abdelkader

Thomas VanekFrans NielsenAndreas Athanasiou

Tyler BertuzziLuke GlendeningMichael Rasmussen

Christoffer EhnJacob De La RoseMartin Frk

Niklas KronwallMike Green

Jonathan EricssonNick Jensen

Trevor DaleyDennis Cholowski

Starting goalie: Jonathan Bernier

CAPITALS

Alex Ovechkin — Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie

Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovBrett Connolly

Chandler StephensonLars EllerDevante Smith-Pelly

Dmitrij JaskinNic DowdTravis Boyd

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson

Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen

Christian DjoosMadison Bowey

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

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

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.

Which defenseman should Hurricanes trade?

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It’s no secret that Carolina is deep on defense. It’s also no secret that they could use a forward or two to score more goals.

Hurricanes GM Don Waddell acknowledged as much on Sportsnet Central at Noon on Tuesday, telling Jeff Marek and Nick Kypreos that a) he’s been receiving a lot of calls about a possible trade for one of those defensemen, b) that the Hurricanes want an immediate return, not futures, and c) they’re looking for a forward. This backs up Pierre LeBrun in last week’s edition of TSN’s Insider Trading, who stated that they’re hoping to land a top-six guy as soon as possible.

Waddell himself admits that trades don’t happen often during this time of year, but it can often be better to be proactive. And, if nothing else, the Hurricanes might want to consider how certain decisions might make certain players more or less “marketable.”

Let’s look at the five defensemen one could (perhaps loosely) deem “premiere,” by Waddell’s words. More realistic movers will receive extra attention, and the defenders are listed in order of their 2018-19 cap hits.

Dougie Hamilton, RD, 25 years old, $5.75 million cap hit through 2020-21

Yes, it would be a bit odd if the Hurricanes traded Hamilton mere months after that big trade during the weekend of the 2018 NHL Draft. They’d also be selling low, as Hamilton’s off to a mediocre offensive start (three goals, 10 points in 28 games) and is averaging one fewer minute per game (20:32 TOI average) than he did during his final year with Calgary.

Yet, for a savvy team, Hamilton remains enticing.

Just about every sign points to him being more useful in a different situation, especially if you sprinkle in better luck. Hamilton is a strong possession player even relative to teammates on a dominant puck possession team, and a low on-ice percentage indicates that he’s not getting bounces.

PHT’s been beating this drum for some time now, but the situation is practically screaming for Hamilton to be the Hurricanes’ top power-play defenseman. The logic wouldn’t just revolve around restoring trade value, as he simply seems to be the most explosive scoring option on that blueline. Much like with Calgary, it’s maddening that the Hurricanes aren’t finding more time for Hamilton in these situations. The Hurricanes want more goals, and while you’re best served having forwards take most of the shots on the power play, it’s not outrageous to wonder if Hamilton could provide added punch if better optimized.

Maybe there’s just an impasse with Rod Brind’Amour? If so, the Hurricanes may be wise to cut their losses, and Hamilton could very well be worth the cost of a decent top-six forward. While his contract has some term on it, that affordable rate – at least for a rehabilitated Hamilton – could make for a bargain, and some helpful cost certainty.

Jaccob Slavin, LD, 24, $5.3M through 2024-25

It’s tough to imagine the Hurricanes trading away their biggest minute-eating defenseman (23:22 per game). Slavin is young, and his contract looks solid now, but could grow to outright-fantastic as the cap rises.

Then again, those reasons might prop him up as the sort of player who could land a truly outstanding return. During that TSN Insider Trading segment, Darren Dreger mentioned that Hurricanes’ left-handed defensemen were being looked at – not just righties, where they’re most overloaded – so Slavin’s worth at least mentioning.

Again, I wouldn’t count on it, though.

Justin Faulk, RD, 26, $4.833M through 2019-20

Honestly, when the Hurricanes landed Hamilton, I figured that Faulk’s days were numbered … to the point that he might not have even begun the season with Carolina. That’s obviously not the case, and Faulk continues to be the QB of a power play that’s been disappointing at best, and his pedestrian scoring numbers (just eight points in 28 games despite that plum job) factor into the bewilderment over Hamilton’s light usage.

Faulk’s possession stats are pretty strong, although they’re actually a little behind relative to his teammates (again, Carolina’s quite gawdy when it comes to “heating up their Corsi”).

It made some sense to trot out Faulk on the top power play unit earlier this season, as the Hurricanes might have viewed pumping up Faulk’s trade value as the tiebreaker against giving Hamilton that role. That course really isn’t doing anyone favors at this point – especially the Hurricanes, who could be dangerous with at least an adequate power play – but it’s not all bad news.

While his standing in the league isn’t what it once was (anyone else forget that Faulk is a three-time All-Star?) Faulk is on an affordable contract that expires after next season. Good right-handed defensemen are hard to find, so it’s conceivable that a team might give up some decent pieces for Faulk.

Calvin de Haan, LD, $4.55M through 2021-22

It was a touch surprising that the Hurricanes made their defense even deeper by signing the former Islanders defenseman this summer, yet it was also lauded as an analytics-friendly move. By those measures, De Haan is mostly living up to those standards.

Like other Carolina blueliners, he’s not getting the scoring stats that are easiest to market, however, as De Haan has just four points.

Considering the significant term of his contract, middling scoring stats, and the notion that he’s sneaky-good, a De Haan trade feels quite unlikely. And that’s perfectly fine for Carolina.

Brett Pesce, RD, $4.025M through 2023-24

The logjam of quality right-handed defensemen dealt the harshest blow to Pesce. His possession stats are troubling relative to his teammates, he’s not scoring much (four points in 19 games), and his ice time has dropped by almost two minutes per game to 19:04.

Take a look at this visualization via Bill Comeau’s SKATR tool, and you’ll see the glaring drop from 2017-18 to 2018-19:

via Bill Comeau

Yikes. Hamilton and Faulk are both in spots where their market value would likely be depressed, but it’s especially glaring with Pesce. Considering his talent (again, those possession stats are still promising) and contract, it’s really tough to imagine Carolina moving him. That said, it’s also likely that plenty of NHL people still hold him in high regard, so he’s listed.

Others: Trevor van Riemsdyk (RD) and Haydin Fleury (LD).

These two aren’t really in that “premiere” tier (in Fleury’s case, at least not yet?). Theoretically, one could be moved if a lower-cost swap would happen, though.

***

One can only speculate about what other NHL GMs would take, and what they would give up, so there are a ton of scenarios that could play out.

Personally, the most realistic ones would involve moving Faulk or Hamilton. To an extent, they both have redundant skills/roles, right-handed shots, and contracts that are fairly movable.

The notion that a trade would likely come later, rather than sooner, points in two very different directions. On one hand, the Hurricanes don’t get to clear that logjam. They lose extra games to integrate a new player into the system after a hypothetical move. Conversely, the Hurricanes could get hotter offensively, which could restore/drive up trade value for the likes of Hamilton or Faulk.

Ultimately, the Hurricanes have a better chance of taking that next, crucial step to the playoffs if they strike a balance. There’s a lot to like about this team right now, but moving an excess defenseman for that elusive additional forward could provide that extra oomph.

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.