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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.

If Bruins keep getting secondary scoring, look out

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The Boston Bruins have long been considered a “one-line team,” and that’s not such a bad thing when that one line features Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak.

You’d think that the Bruins would have lost Game 7 against the Maple Leafs and Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, what with that one line essentially being held scoreless.*

Nope. The Bruins won both of those games, which leaves them with a 1-0 series lead against the Blue Jackets to begin Round 2.

[Read all about the Bruins’ 3-2 OT win here.]

* – Bergeron scored an empty-netter in Game 7, but it was a 5-1 goal that barely beat the buzzer and meant even less to the outcome of that decisive contest.

Consider some of the less-obvious players who’ve come through for the Bruins lately, and we’ll ponder how likely it is that they’ll be able to continue to contribute.

David Krejci

But first, an obvious player, as Krejci is a player whose play (73 points this season, tying a career-high) screams that the Bruins really haven’t only been a one-line team, in the first place. It’s probably true that Krejci isn’t quite the pivot who topped all playoff point producers in 2012-13 (26, seven more than anyone else) and 2010-11 (23), but he remains worthy of more attention than he gets on a team with justifiable spotlight-takers in Bergeron, Marchand, and Zdeno Chara.

The Bruins might end up needing even more from the supporting cast members below if Krejci needs to miss some time. NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Krejci is considered day-to-day, and it’s possible he got hurt here.

Even if Krejci plays, there’s the chance he wouldn’t be at full-strength, so these players may need to continue to step up as the series moves on to Game 2 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC; stream here).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Charlie Coyle

The headline-grabber, naturally, is Coyle. He was already heating up during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Game 1 was his masterpiece, as Coyle scored the goal that sent Game 1 to overtime, and then tapped home the 2-1 OT-winner.

If you ever want a snapshot of how dramatically luck can shift from terrible to incredibly friendly, you could do worse than to look at Coyle right after the trade deadline versus Playoff Coyle.

Through 21 regular-season games after being traded to Bruins: two goals, six points, a pitiful 4.8 shooting percentage on 42 SOG.

Through eight playoff games: five goals, six points, an absurd 35.7 shooting percentage on 14 SOG.

Obviously, the truth about Coyle is somewhere between the guy who couldn’t buy a bucket during the regular season with Boston, and the player who’s scored a goal on his last three shots on goal.

Coyle finished 2018-19 with 34 points, but he generally strikes as a 40-50 point player, and has shown a decent ceiling with a career-high of 56 points in 2016-17. You can’t really expect spectacular scoring from Coyle, but if this run really heightens his self-confidence, he could really give the Bruins a chance to win the depth battle, at least some nights. That’s not as spectacular as scoring OT goals, but in the likely event that the top line starts scoring again, it makes the Bruins frightening.

Marcus Johansson

Goal scorers are the guys who “hit the long ball” to a great passer’s Maddux, but you merely need to watch replays of the two Coyle goals to see that Marcus Johansson was just as instrumental in those tide-changing tallies.

It’s tough not to root for a player like Johansson. When he was traded from Washington to New Jersey, it seemed like the Capitals got cap-crunched, and the Devils were really building something. Unfortunately, thanks in large part to a bad hit by Johansson’s now-teammate Brad Marchand, Johansson suffered serious health issues, and really hasn’t been the same player.

The Bruins were smart to give Johansson a shot via a rental, though, and the B’s could really be onto something if he finds chemistry with Coyle. Johansson’s 30 points in the regular season are actually a lot more impressive when you consider that he was limited to 58 games played, and if he can stay healthy, the Swede could put together a stellar contract year (er, contract playoff run?).

Again, don’t expect Coyle and Johansson to do Game 1 things during the rest of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet the chemistry and confidence could start soaring at this rate.

(And, hey, Coyle’s contract ends after 2019-20, so really, they’re both more or less playing for their futures.)

Jake DeBrusk

As the Bruins’ frequent second-liner alongside Krejci, DeBrusk quietly put up 27 goals despite being limited to 68 games. He had some memorable moments during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and remains a strong contributor for Boston. In fact, if Krejci misses time, DeBrusk could show how much havoc he can create on his own.

Sean Kuraly/Noel Acciari/Joakim Nordstrom

OK, these guys weren’t exactly high-scorers during the regular season, and their contributions might not be super-dependable. Acciari’s goal on Sergei Bobrovsky to start the scoring in Game 1, and Kuraly’s big 3-1 goal against Frederik Andersen in Game 7 of Round 1 were both goals that the netminders really should have had. Still, if those guys can get the occasional goal and avoid being deep underwater on tougher nights, that could be big. (Some nights will be easier than others.)

Kuraly, in particular, shows a nice burst that can cause headaches for opponents, and his possession stats have been positive so far now that he’s managed to get healthy enough to appear in the playoffs.

***

Don’t let some hit-posts and other near-misses fool you; the Bruins are still going to lean heavily on their top trio, and barring health issues or a truly profound cold streak, they’ll likely deliver.

You need another players to pick up during the grind of the postseason, particularly against teams that are gameplanning to stop Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak. The Bruins have been getting needed contributions from their supporting cast, and while that luck is almost certain to eventually cool off, there’s a solid chance that Coyle and Johansson could be bigger contributions than they were during the regular season.

That makes the Bruins a scary postseason opponent, especially if Krejci’s issues are short-lived.

The Bruins hope to build on their 1-0 series lead against the Blue Jackets in Game 2 at TD Garden at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday (NBC; stream here).

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.

Coyle’s clutch as Bruins take 1-0 series lead vs. Blue Jackets

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Some deadline deals never work out for teams once they hit the playoffs. Others take a little time to find their stride.

And then there’s some that make an immediate impact.

While Charlie Coyle‘s arrival in Boston earlier in the year wasn’t much to write home about, his presence in the Stanley Cup Playoffs has been nothing short of sensational.

And the Boston Bruins can thank Coyle for a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven Round 2 series against the Columbus Blue Jackets after he scored two monumental goals for the Bruins in a 3-2 overtime win on NBCSN on Thursday.

Coyle’s wasn’t the biggest name to get a plane ticket to a new destination. He was added depth for a Bruins team were bolstering their lineup for a run at Lord Stanley. But sometimes depth plays a crucial part for a playoff team, and Coyle now has five goals and an assist in eight playoff games with his new club.

Coyle came through in the clutch not once, but twice on Thursday.

Boston had jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first period on a shorthanded goal by Noel Acciari (more depth) as Boston tried to deliver the knockout blow in a flurry of offense in the opening period.

The Blue Jackets withstood the storm, much like they did against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. As the game progressed, Columbus slowly found its stride. They hadn’t played in a week after sweeping the Lightning in the biggest shocker of Round 1. They looked, perhaps, too relaxed.

But when the third rolled around, a gift of manna emerged from the heavens in the forms of a 13 stretch where the Blue Jackets turn the game on its head.

Boston will probably say this one was just a blip on the radar after the win. Columbus, meanwhile, will say they stuck with it and use some solace.

Both statements have some semblance of truth embedded in them, but in a race to four wins, it only matters that the Bruins found a way.

And that way was directed by Coyle.

The former Minnesota Wild forward tied the game with less than four minutes remaining to ultimately send the game to overtime, where he’d write the conclusion to the story as he tapped in a perfect pass from fellow trade deadline acquisition Marcus Johansson to seal the victory.

Boston probably deserved to win, truth be told. The possession numbers and expected goals favored them heavily and they were able to rebound from the 180 that happened. The playoffs are as much about rebounding from adversity as they are about trying to avoid it altogether.


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

Blue Jackets’ magic hasn’t run out, pushes Bruins to Game 1 OT

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For a while there, the story of Bruins – Blue Jackets Game 1 seemed to boil down to Columbus failing to take advantage of a Boston team that came off a lengthy, challenging series against the Maple Leafs. But, instead of rest vs. rust, the focus is on Columbus pulling off another “did that really just happen?” moment.

The Blue Jackets hadn’t been able to get a goal past Tuukka Rask for most of Game 1, while Sergei Bobrovsky managed to keep Columbus in it when the team seemed to be shaking off rust (or simply getting outplayed by the Bruins).

It was only a 1-0 lead for Boston, though, and that flip-flopped to a 2-1 advantage for the Blue Jackets, as Riley Nash and Artemi Panarin scored two goals just 13 seconds apart. Check those goals in the video above.

The Bruins didn’t collapse after that stunning spree, though, as Charlie Coyle buried the 2-2 goal after a nice Marcus Johansson pass.

Round 1 provided hockey fans with 10 overtime games, and the first Game 1 of Round 2 now pushes it to 11. You can stream that game here; meanwhile, Blues – Stars Game 1 can be streamed via this link.

2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: PHT predicts Round 2

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So after a Round 1 that was full of unexpected endings, what can even expect from Round 2? How many more brackets might get busted over the next two weeks — if they weren’t already busted after what we just witnessed?

Here are some fun facts about Round 1:

• 14 of the 16 top point producers from the regular season are not in the Second Round

• 5 of 8 winning teams overcame a series deficit

• 7 of the top 10 regular-season teams eliminated

• 3 Game 7s – most in the opening round since 2014 (3 Game 7s in entire playoffs last year)

• Ten games required overtime, matching the total from the entire 2018 postseason.

• For the first time in NHL history, the top team from each conference and all division winners were eliminated in the opening round. Washington’s defeat guarantees that there will be a new Stanley Cup champion for the 19th time in the past 20 seasons.

• Only three other rounds in NHL history have featured two Game 7s that required overtime, with each occurring on either the same day or on consecutive days: the 1997 Conference Quarterfinals (2 on April 29), 2011 Conference Quarterfinals (April 26-27) and 2012 Conference Quarterfinals (April 25-26). No postseason in NHL history has ever featured more than two Game 7s that have required overtime.

• Overall, 10 of 46 games required overtime in the First Round (21.7%), matching the total from the entire 2018 postseason (10 of 84 GP; 11.9%).

Now let’s move on to Round 2. Here’s who we think will advance to the conference finals. Who do you have moving on?

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1