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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.

Mikko Rantanen turning into ‘driving force’ for Avalanche

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One of the goals entering the 2018-19 NHL season for Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar was to push Mikko Rantanen to become a more consistent, impact player. Through seven games, the young Finnish star is leading the NHL in assists with 11 (eight of which are primary) and his team in points with 13, showing that even after a 29-goal, 84-point performance last season there’s more to come.

“He’s a hard-working guy in the off-season and also during the season. I think he’s just scratching the surface of his potential,” Bednar told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “He’s still a young player, both age-wise and from an experience standpoint in the league. I think that he has another level that he can get to, we’re going to try to push him to that level here this year as a coaching staff and demand more of him. He can still become more consistent. But he’s a real receptive guy. He’s a highly-intelligent, highly-skilled player and he’s got great size and strength, too. Sky’s the limit for Mikko.”

The soon-to-be 22-year-old Rantanen has registered a point in all seven Avalanche games this season, including a four-point night against the New Jersey Devils Thursday that saw him have a hand in all three of Gabriel Landeskog’s goals.

At 6-4, 215 lbs., Rantanen is able to use his size to his advantage to fend off opponents and has shown he can handle the responsibilities of playing on the Avs’ top line. Bednar thought he was the team’s best forward against the Calgary Flames and New York Rangers in the past week, describing him as the “driving force” of the trio with Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon.

Rantanen, the No. 10 overall selection in the 2015 NHL Draft, got his first taste of the NHL during a nine-game stint at the start of the 2015-16 season. With a revolving door of linemates, he averaged only 8:57 of ice time and failed to record a point. He was still going through the adjustment phase of transitioning from the big ice sheets in Europe while playing for TPS, his hometown team, to the smaller ones in North America, which force players into making quicker decisions.

Going down to AHL San Antonio and getting 20 minutes a night helped Rantanen greatly. He would score 24 goals and record 60 points in 52 games for the Rampage, a clear sign he was ready for a second shot at the NHL.

The Rantanen-Landeskog-MacKinnon line was put together during the 2016-17 season and it became apparent that the chemistry between the three would give Bednar a weapon to unleash. Rantanen would pot 20 goals and record 39 points that season and add power play duties to his list of responsibilities.

“I think knowing the league, knowing his opponents, pushing himself to be a difference-maker every night and getting more consistent in year two,” Bednar said. “[He] was healthy to start the season, he got dinged up his first year and it gave him a little bit of a slow start, so he was out of the gates right away playing well.”

The jump in production was a result of his linemates and experience. Rantanen’s off-season training routines haven’t changed much since arriving in North America. He’s always worked on improvement his quickness, but most everything else is pretty standard. The one change he did make was going from a 100 flex on his stick to a 90 as he looked for something whippier.

But while Rantanen, who credits Landeskog and Jarome Iginla as big influences during his rookie year, was finding success during his rookie season, his team wasn’t as the Avalanche failed to make the playoffs for the third straight season and finished dead last in the NHL. 

It was a tough balance between personal success and team failure.

“It’s not easy. Young guy, first full year in the league and we won only 22 games, so it’s really hard, actually,” Rantanen said. “I think it’s probably harder for the older guys because as a young guy everything is new. You go to the new rinks, you play first time wherever you go on the road. Everything is kind of new, so you’re still enjoying it even though it’s not nice to lose because then the team attitude is not great.”

Last season, with a year together under their belts, the Avalanche’s top line took off. MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog finished top three on the team in points, with MacKinnon (39-58—97), who ended up a finalist for the Hart Trophy, and Rantanen (29-55—84) posting career years. Landeskog would finish with the second-most goals (25) and points (62) of his career and the team would grab the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.

“Our line was a big reason, we started pretty much right away,” Rantanen said. “We played the whole season together, so I think the chemistry builds up when you play together so long… I was more ready last year mentally than rookie year because you’ve been one year in the league, so you kind of know what to expect.”

Opponents know what kind of handful Rantanen, Landeskog and MacKinnon will be in trying to stop them on a nightly basis. So far, it’s been an uphill battle for other teams with MacKinnon netting seven goals, Rantanen recording 13 points and Landeskog chipping in five goals and eight points. 

The issue confronting other teams is that all three have dynamic skill sets. Landeskog is strong down low in creating chances; MacKinnon can out-skate anyone and has one of the league’s best shots; and Rantanen is a playmaker who can find himself in the right place at the right time.

As Bednar said, there’s still another level that Rantanen can reach, which bodes well for the Avalanche going forward and serves as a warning for the rest of the NHL.

“He’s so big and he’s got good vision. He sees the ice so well,” said MacKinnon. “He’s a great passer and he creates a lot of room for me. He protects the puck. He’s so good down low, so it takes a lot of heat off me. The way he controls the play. I’m lucky to play with him, for sure.”

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: Stars look to get back to winning ways vs. Wild

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Friday night’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and the Dallas Stars at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Dallas heads to Minnesota looking to rebound after back-to-back losses to the Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils, games that saw them score a combined single goal in six periods of hockey.

That kind of production doesn’t win games and highlights how the Stars can struggle when their top line of Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin aren’t putting pucks in the back of the net. The line has combined for 28 points this season but only Radulov was able to notch an assist (a secondary one at that) in the past two games.

The good news for Dallas is they return home to American Airlines Arena where they are 3-1-0. Now, they need to start playing the same game as they were when they began the season strong out of the gate.

“We have to be five guys in the picture, whether on forecheck, or rush defense, or in the defensive zone,” Stars coach Jim Montgomery told NHL.com. “We’re just not connected. You don’t see the five guys together. That’s what we are missing now. We can’t sustain offense or get the puck out quickly because we are not together.”

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Finding a way to win on the road will be top of the order for the Wild on Friday.

They’ve gone 0-2-0 in road games so far this season and are facing a Stars team that has been solid at home. That said, Minnesota has found success against the Wild in recent times, with an 11-4-4 record in their past 19 meetings (including a 5-3-2 record in their previous 10 games in Texas).

The Wild aren’t doing themselves any favors early on, allowing 38.2 shots per game. Their savior at the moment has been Devan Dubnyk, who’s been sensational with his .940 save percentage despite seeing nearly 40 shots per game in his five starts.

The Wild have struggled to find the back of the net as well with just 14 goals through five games. Couple that with their porous possession numbers (45.64% as a team), and it’s no wonder Dubnyk has been shelled game after game.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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

PHT Morning Skate: McDavid or Matthews?; Goalie concussion concern

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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.

• The best player in the NHL debate rages on. (NHL.com)

Corey Crawford‘s lengthy absence due to a concussion has the NHL worried. (TSN.ca)

• Power play goals are up (as is scoring) in the NHL season. Here’s an analysis as to why. (Sportsnet)

• Your team might have one. Here’s a list of the NHL’s underperforming stars. (ESPN)

• Matt and Ashley Duchene brought out the creativity to announce their pregnancy. (Daily Hive)

• Like arena food? Here are some tasty looking options coming to a rink near you. (Business Wire)

• An excellent story here on the biggest “tells” in hockey. (The Athletic)

• The NHL paid USA Hockey to support the US Women’s National Team. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• A story on the wonderful art of fly-by stick replacement in the NHL. (Sports Illustrated)

• The search for Seattle’s AHL affiliate is on. (Sonics Rising)

• Tomas Hyka’s NHL odyssey lands him on the Golden Knights second line. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

• On Duncan Keith and his unfinished legacy. (The Hockey Writers)

• Ken Holland isn’t looking over his shoulder with Steve Yzerman on the horizon. (Sportsnet)


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

The Buzzer: Murray shuts out Leafs; Raanta spoils Crawford’s return

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Three Stars

1. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins. It has been a tough start to the season for Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. When he has been in the lineup, he has not played well. Then he was sidelined with the third concussion of his career and missed three consecutive games. Then he had to return to the lineup, on the road, against the highest scoring team in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs. How did that return to the lineup go? He stopped all 38 shots he faced and was sensational in the Penguins’ 3-0 win. He looked like the two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie in this game.

2. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche. The Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils were two of the most surprising playoff teams in the NHL a year ago, and were both led by MVP caliber performances from their best players (Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall respectively, with Hall actually winning the award). They faced off in New Jersey on Thursday night and it was the Avalanche coming away with the win, handing the Devils their first loss of the season. MacKinnon and Hall both had big games (Hall had three points; MacKinnon had two) but it was Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog that was the star in this one, recording a hat trick, including two goals in the third period as the Avalanche rallied for the win. His goals in the third period were the game-tying and game-winning goals.

3. Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks. The other hat trick of the night belonged to San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture in his team’s rout of the Buffalo Sabres. This game was a laugher from the beginning as the Sabres were just completely overmatched against a far superior team. It all started with a Buffalo double-minor in the opening minutes of the game that the Sharks turned into two quick power play goals, including Couture’s first. He added his second goal early in the third period and then completed the hat trick with an empty-net goal. He now has four goals on the season. This was also a big night for the Sharks power play as it scored three goals in the win.

Red Wings remain winless

There are only two winless teams remaining in the NHL — the Florida Panthers and the Detroit Red Wings. The Panthers had Thursday night off. The Red Wings did not. Their season-opening losing streak continued with a 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, dropping them to 0-5-2 on the season with what is — by far — a league-worst minus-18 goal differential. No other team in the league has a goal differential worse than minus-10. The Buffalo Sabres and Los Angeles Kings are tied for second-worst at minus-9. Speaking of the Kings…

The Kings look awful

General manager Rob Blake has not been happy his team’s performance so far this season, and they responded on Thursday night by getting completely dominated by the New York Islanders in what was a completely embarrassing 7-2 loss. They did not have Anze Kopitar as he was sidelined due to illness, and it was goalie Jonathan Quick‘s first game back from injury, but there is no excuse for how bad the rest of the team performed. The Kings cut what was a 3-1 deficit to just a single goal early in the third period, but then completely unraveled in the minutes after that by giving up four consecutive goals in eight minutes. There is nothing positive about this team right now.

Highlights of the Night

The highlight of the night was Anthony Duclair‘s goal against the Philadelphia Flyers. This is just ridiculous, one of the many great goals they scored on the night.

The other highlight of the night: Connor McDavid, doing Connor McDavid things. He is completely unstoppable right now, stealing wins for the Oilers every night.

Factoids

Corey Crawford made his return to the Chicago Blackhawks’ lineup on Thursday night and played pretty well in a 4-1 loss (he played better than the final score would indicate, anyway). It was the Blackhawks’ first regulation loss of the season and it came at the hands of Crawford’s former backup, Antti Raanta, who was absolutely outstanding for the Arizona Coyotes. He also loves playing at the United Center.

Speaking of the Coyotes, their four goals on Thursday night were more goals than the scored (three) in the first five games of the season. Combined. They also scored their first even-strength goals of the season in the win.

More Connor McDavid stats.

 

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Toronto Maple Leafs 0

Colorado Avalanche 5, New Jersey Devils 3

Columbus Blue Jackets 6, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Detroit Red Wings 1

Winnipeg Jets 4, Vancouver Canucks 1

Arizona Coyotes 4, Chicago Blackhawks 1

Edmonton Oilers 3, Boston Bruins 2 (OT)

San Jose Sharks 5, Buffalo Sabres 1

New York Islanders 7, Los Angeles Kings 2

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.