Getty

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

9 Comments

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.

The Buzzer: Namestnikov’s revenge game; Crosby keeps dominating

Getty
3 Comments

Three Stars

1. Vladislav Namestnikov, Ottawa Senators. Two years ago Namestnikov was skating on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top line alongside Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. After boosting his value, he was then used as a trade chip for the team to land defender Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers before the 2017-18 trade deadline. After a mostly disappointing stay on Broadway, he was traded to Ottawa this past week for another fresh start. So far, so good, and it came at the Lightning’s expense. Namestnikov scored two goals — including the game-winner — for the Senators on Saturday to help his new team get its first win of the season. On paper, this game should have been a mismatch, but the Senators drastically outplayed the Lightning in what was probably the biggest surprise of the day.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. After scoring 50 goals and 100 points a year ago and finishing in the top-four of the league in both categories, Draisaitl is picking up where he left and is once again looking like a superstar. He finished with three points on Saturday afternoon — including two goals — to help the Oilers improve to 5-0 on the season. He and Connor McDavid (two more points on Saturday) are carrying the offense again.

3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins. With the Penguins’ forward lineup dealing with a ton of injuries they are going to need their captain and his line to dominate for them to have a chance to win. Right now, they are dominating. Crosby was great once again on Saturday night, picking up two more points in a 7-4 win over the Minnesota Wild, including a highlight reel backhand goal off the rush. He has recorded at least one point in every game this season and already has eight in the Penguins’ first five games. The Penguins also received some surprising production from their recent call-ups with Adam Johnson and Sam Lafferty both recording their first NHL goals.

Other notable performances on Saturday

  • Brendan Gallagher finished with three points for the Montreal Canadiens as they handed the St. Louis Blues their first regulation loss of the season.
  • Rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov was amazing again for the Washington Capitals as they defeated the Dallas Stars. In his first two NHL starts Samsonov has allowed a total of two goals. He is the future of the position in The District.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk continued his strong start with another goal in the Kings’ 7-4 win over the Nashville Predators.
  • The Winnipeg Jets overcame an early 2-0 deficit against the Chicago Blackhawks to win in overtime on Mark Scheifele‘s second goal of the season. The Blackhawks remain winless.
  • Mark Stone, Will Carrier, and Max Pacioretty all had two points for the Vegas Golden Knights in their big 6-2 win over the Calgary Flames.
  • Semyon Varlamov picked up his first win as a member of the New York Islanders by stopping all three shootout shots against the Florida Panthers. He also made 35 saves through regulation and overtime.
  • Tanner Pearson scored a goal in regulation and then added the game-winning goal in the shootout for the Vancouver Canucks in their win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • The Boston Bruins’ top line was once again dominant as Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron both scored goals in a 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils to keep them winless. Tuukka Rask was also brilliant again and has stopped 90 of the first 94 shots he has faced this season.

Highlights of the Night

It may have come in a losing effort but Kaapo Kakko‘s first NHL goal for the New York Rangers was a beautiful play.

Jacob De La Rose had one of the few highlights of the night for the Detroit Red Wings with this nice looking goal.

The Columbus Blue Jackets handed the Carolina Hurricanes their first loss of the season thanks to this great effort from Pierre-Luc Dubois.

The Colorado Avalanche improved to 4-0-0 on the season and it was new addition Andre Burakovsky scoring the game-winning goal for the second game in a row.

Blooper of the Night

There is really no other choice here, it has to be Jimmy Howard‘s gamble in Detroit that turned into a rather easy goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Rest in Peace

Factoids

  • The Capitals’ win against the Stars was their first regulation win in Dallas since the 1995 season. [NHL PR]
  • Phil Kessel played in his 1,000th NHL game on Saturday night, making him the third youngest active player to play in 1,000 games. [NHL PR]
  • Penguins goalie Matt Murray recorded his 100th career win on Saturday night, making him just the eight goalie since the 1966-67 season record 100 wins in 166 games or less. [NHL PR]
  • The Los Angeles Kings set a franchise record for fasted three goals, scoring three goals in 30 seconds during their win over the Nashville Predators. [NHL PR]
  • The Oilers are the first team in NHL history to come-from-behind to win each of their first five games of the season. [NHL PR]

Scores
Edmonton Oilers 4, New York Rangers 1
Ottawa Senators 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Los Angeles Kings 7, Nashville Predators 4
Winnipeg Jets 3, Chicago Blackhawks 2 (OT)
Boston Bruins 3, New Jersey Devils 0
Montreal Canadiens 6, St. Louis Blues 3
Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Detroit Red Wings 2
New York Islanders 3, Florida Panthers 2 (SO)
Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2
Washington Capitals 4, Dallas Stars 1
Pittsburgh Penguins 7, Minnesota Wild 4
Colorado Avalanche 3, Arizona Coyotes 2 (OT)
Vegas Golden Knights 6, Calgary Flames 2
Vancouver Canucks 3, Philadelphia Flyers 2 (SO)

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 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.

Jimmy Howard’s gamble goes poorly, results in easy Maple Leafs goal (Video)

NHL
2 Comments

Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard had a great start to Saturday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He was giving his team a chance to hang around against one of the best offensive teams in the league and keeping them in it when they were not at their best. But with 30 seconds to play in the second period of what was a tie game, he decided to gamble and charged out of his net to try and win a race to a loose puck so he could knock it away from Maple Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev.

His gamble did not work.

That is unfortunate.

It was all downhill for Howard and the Red Wings from there as they surrendered three more goals to the Maple Leafs in the third period to drop a 5-2 decision.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 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.

Devils lose again, remain winless: 3 takeaways on slow start

Getty
2 Comments

The New Jersey Devils were one of the biggest stories of the offseason thanks to some aggressive roster moves by general manager Ray Shero.

Along with the return of a healthy Taylor Hall, the Devils won the NHL’s draft lottery and selected Jack Hughes No. 1 overall to add to a young core that already included the No. 1 overall pick from the 2017 class (Nico Hischier). They surrounded their newly formed core with the big summer acquisitions of P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds.

Expectations immediately skyrocketed and there was a ton of optimism around the team.

That optimism might be starting to quickly disappear.

Following Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, the Devils remain winless (0-3-2) through the first five games of the season and you have to wonder how much longer it is going to be until head coach John Hynes’ seat starts to get a little warmer.

What has gone wrong for the Devils so far? Here are three key factors.

1. It has been a slow start for the new faces

Out of all the big offseason acquisitions, Gusev is the only that has found the back of the net through the first five games (he has two goals). Other than that, it has been a giant goose egg for everyone else that was expected to make a difference.  Simmonds and Subban have combined for just two assists, while Hughes is going through some early growing pains with zero points and only 10 shots on goal through the first five games.

When it comes to Hughes you had to expect some struggles at times. He is 18 years old and making a massive jump to the NHL. Not everyone is going to step in and immediately be Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, or Connor McDavid. And while Subban is off to a slow start and might be starting to slow down a little, he has enough of a track record and is still good enough that you have to think he is going to shake off this slow start.

Adding to the problems offensively is that Hall, Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri have combined for just two goals so far (both belonging to Palmieri). If you wanted to put a positive spin on this for the Devils it’s that their best players haven’t yet played anything close to their best hockey. They are not going to struggle this much forever.

But as long as they do, goals — and wins — are going to be few and far between.

2. The power play has been awful

Calling it awful might actually be an understatement. After their 0-for-4 performance against Boston on Saturday night the Devils are now 0-for-15 on the season. That is zero goals in 30 minutes of power play time, and it is not like they have been unlucky. Entering play on Sunday their power play unit was one of the worst in the league when it comes to generating shot attempts and getting shots on goal.

3. Goaltending is still an issue 

It is not the biggest issue, but it is still an issue and it was the single biggest question mark the team had entering the season. Through five games the Devils have allowed at least three goals in every game, with Saturday’s game in Boston being the first one where they did not allow at least four. While the team in front of them has not been particularly good on any given night, the duo of Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood has an .863 save percentage after Saturday. No matter what is happening around them, your team has no chance with that sort of production from your goalies.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 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.

Kakko scores first goal, but Rangers fall to still unbeaten Oilers

Getty
4 Comments

It was a pretty significant afternoon at Madison Square Garden on Saturday as the Edmonton Oilers won their fifth consecutive game to open the 2019-20 season with a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers.

This is the Oilers’ first 5-0 start since the 1985-86 season, while they also set an NHL record with their fifth straight come-from-behind victory to open a season.

This particular comeback wasn’t too daunting as they only needed to overcome a one-goal deficit after falling behind late in the first period. That Rangers goal was scored by prized rookie Kaapo Kakko, his first of what the team hopes will be many goals in his career. It was also a pretty spectacular way to get on the board as the 2019 No. 2 overall pick took a perfect pass from Ryan Strome and finished a slick play to beat Oilers goalie Mike Smith.

Have a look.

That would be the lone highlight of the day for the Rangers.

From there the Oilers’ stars took over with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl each tallying multiple points in the win. McDavid finished with a goal and an assist, while Draisaitl scored two goals and added a helper on McDavid’s goal.

The big day continues what have been incredible starts for the Oilers’ top two players. McDavid is now up to 12 points through the first five games, while Draisaitl has 11.

In a lot of ways this season is still very similar to what we have seen from the Oilers in recent years. When McDavid and Draisaitl are at their best they can carry the team on their own, just as they have done through the first five games this season (with a lot of help from offseason acquisition James Neal).

The real test for the Oilers this season will be what happens when their two superstars cool down, because they simply will not keep scoring at a pace like this all season.

Still, these early games count just as much as any other game and it is always important to stack wins and bank points whenever you can, and a 5-0-0 start to a season is always something big to build on.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 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.