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Six NHL teams that made themselves worse this summer (so far)

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A good rule of thumb in sports is that if you are not doing anything to make your team better, you are actively making it worse.

Earlier this week we looked at six teams that have done the most to make themselves better this summer (so far) and it’s only natural to take a look the other side of that spectrum with a few teams that have managed, one way or another, to make themselves worse.

We still have a few months to go before the season begins so none of these rosters are complete or final and there is still time for all of them to find ways to improve.

Just consider this as an offseason progress report through the draft and the initial free agency signing period where the biggest moves tend to get made.

1. New York Islanders — The New York Islanders hired the reigning Stanley Cup winning coach and a Hall of Fame, three-time Stanley Cup champion general manager and none of it is going to matter in the short-term.

John Tavares is gone. They lost Calvin de Haan. They acquired a bunch of fourth liners to go with the rest of their fourth-liners and are paying the entire group a ton of money. Robin Lehner should be a little bit of an upgrade in net, and they still have Mathew Barzal to build around, but you can not replace John Tavares with Leo Komarov, Matt Martin and Valterri Filppula and come away looking better.

Losing Tavares stinks, and given the circumstances there probably was not much else they could have done to keep him from going to the Maple Leafs, but that doesn’t mean you have to compound the problem by making all of the other corresponding roster moves.

2. Ottawa Senators — What is really scary here for the Senators is the fact they have not even traded Erik Karlsson yet.

This might be the worst situation of any team in the NHL given everything that is happening with this organization, on and off the ice.

They absolutely had to trade Mike Hoffman but even that made them look bad because they ended up getting a worse return for him than the team they traded him to did. When Karlsson is sent out this might be an early contender for worst team in hockey.

3. Montreal Canadiens — You can’t really blame them for Shea Weber being injured and missing the next five-to-six months following surgery.

You can blame them for trading P.K. Subban for an older player with a worse contract whose career already has a ton of miles on it and was likely to start breaking down physically before that contract expired.

You can also blame them for fumbling Alex Galchenyuk‘s career and then trading him, one-for-one, for a player that doesn’t address their biggest issue (goal-scoring) and has scored just 18 goals over his past 163 games. By comparison, Galchenyuk scored 19 this past season and the only time over the past four years he scored less was when he scored 17 in 2016-17 … in only 60 games.

They also brought back Tomas Plekanec on a one-year contract after he wasn’t particularly good for them a year ago and is now one year older.

It is going to be a lonely year for Carey Price, especially if they finally complete a Max Pacioretty trade.

4. Vancouver Canucks — I just … I just do not get it. I just do not get what is happening here or what the plan is or how the Canucks plan to get better and rebuild this team back into something that is worth watching. There is nothing wrong with adding Jay Beagle or Antoine Roussel to your team in a bottom-six role if you are contending team because they could probably help out and be useful in such a role.

But why — WHY!? — if you are the Vancouver Canucks, a team that has not made the playoffs in three years and has won fewer games than every team in the NHL (Vegas excluded) during that stretch, do you need to not only sign them, but sign them to matching four-year contracts?!

Do they necessarily make the Canucks worse? Probably not, because it’s not like the Canucks’ bottom six last year wasn’t a disaster, but how do long-term contracts to bottom-six players make the long-term situation here any better?

Combine that with the fact that Henrik and Daniel Sedin (still productive players a year ago) are retired and the fact that Brandon Sutter is probably going to have to take on an increased role as a result and it just looks like another bleak season on the horizon in Vancouver.

5. Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks’ biggest issue in 2017-18 was goaltending thanks to the combination of Corey Crawford missing most of the season while none of his replacements were up to the challenge of filling that spot. As the 2018-19 season draws near we still have no real concrete update on Crawford’s status as he recovers form his mystery “upper-body injury” and their approach to improving the depth behind him was to sign, quite literally, the least productive goalie in the NHL (at least among goalies that have received regular or semi-regular playing time) over the past six years.

Chris Kunitz might still have a little something left in the tank as a depth player and the price is certainly right on him, but the addition of Ward and the uncertainty around Crawford is scary.

They have been mentioned as possible landing spot for Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk, and that would be a great way to improve a defense that has rapidly declined in recent years. Whether or not they can get it done remains to be seen, but the roster as constructed (as of this moment) looks similar to the one that disappointed a year ago.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins — With all due respect to Jim Rutherford, Mike Sullivan, and Sergei Gonchar and everything they have accomplished over the past three years I am going to need to see something from Jack Johnson to prove he will not drag their defense down the way he has literally dragged down every defense he has played on throughout his career.

Matt Cullen was an incredible depth player on their past two Stanley Cup winning teams, is by all accounts a great locker room presence, and costs next to nothing against the salary cap. That is all great for the Penguins. But he is also going to turn 42 years old this season and father time eventually comes for everybody. You could argue that it started to get the best of Cullen in 2017-18 when the Minnesota Wild were absolutely caved in possession-wise when Cullen was on the ice. Are they really better than they were at the end of the season, even when taking into account the likelihood that Derick Brassard has more to offer than he showed in the playoffs? Not convinced.

Rutherford’s tenure in Pittsburgh has been a healthy mix of brilliance and head-scratching decisions. You can not argue with two championships in four years. But that does not mean he is above criticism or second-guessing because just last summer he had an offseason that made the roster worse and resulted in him jettisoning every player he acquired within a year. This summer so far does not look much better.

At the same time, also not convinced that he does not have another blockbuster up his sleeve that will turn the look of the offseason around. That is just how it goes with Trader Jim.

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: Penguins host Bruins on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Two of the NHL’s top teams meet for the second time in four days as the Bruins head to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins. Sunday’s matchup will be the third and final game between these two this season. Boston won the first two meetings

After losing in Boston Thursday, the Penguins had a chance to get right back to it with a game against the Red Wings Friday night. Pittsburgh started slow, trailing 1-0 to the league’s worst team through two periods. But early in the third Bryan Rust scored his 20th of the season on the power play to even the score. And in overtime it was the captain Sidney Crosby who netted the game-winner on the power play to help Pittsburgh escape with a win.

Since returning from his 28-game absence, Crosby has 6 points (3G-3A) and has scored a goal in each of his three games.

With All-Star goalie Tuukka Rask (concussion) on injured reserve, the Bruins are now relying on Jaroslav Halak as their primary goalie. After starting the season on a tear, Halak has not been as sharp over the past six weeks.Halak has started (and won) both games against the Penguins this season. Over his career, he is 11-8-2 in 21 starts against Pittsburgh, with a 2.53 GAA and .921 SV%.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

WHAT: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 19, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Bruins-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskCharlie CoyleAnders Bjork
Danton HeinenPar LindholmKarson Kuhlman
Joakim NordstromSean KuralyChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
John MooreMatt Grzelcyk

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Dominik KahunEvgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Alex GalchenyukAndrew AgozzinoPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Jusso Riikola – Chad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

NHL on NBC: Bruins want to be more than ‘teddy bears’ vs. Penguins

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Considering the Bruins’ comfortable lead atop the Atlantic Division, most teams would gladly take on Boston’s “problems.”

Still, for the Bruins — and few other teams, but yes, also the Penguins, their opponents on Sunday afternoon — it’s about more than division titles. After falling a Game 7 shy of winning the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, this group boasts lofty aspirations.

The Bruins aim to fine-tune during this stretch of the 2019-20 season, and to some, that means reestablishing their identity.

Bruins try to shed ‘Teddy Bears’ criticism

The B’s didn’t just lose Tuukka Rask to an injury on Tuesday when Emil Bemstrom delivered an errant elbow during Columbus’ 3-0 win. Their perceived lack of a response meant that some lost respect for this group.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty went as far as to call the Bruins “teddy bears.”

The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa also opined (sub required) that “The Big, Bad Bruins are dead.”

Bruins players seemed to get the memo in beating the Penguins 4-1 on Thursday. Haggerty and others praised the team’s physical response, including a rare Torey Krug fight against Patric Hornqvist.

“It’s not about going out there and trying to run them out of the rink. Looking at our roster, we don’t have that kind of group anymore,” Krug said after that win, via Haggerty. “But we talked about sticking together and competing harder and sacrificing a little more. That doesn’t mean putting a guy through the glass, but it means going into the corner and having the willingness to get hit, or to hit somebody else, in order to come out of there with the puck. I think that desperation was lost there for a few games, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction and we can kind of grasp that concept again. It’s been part of our DNA for years, so as long as we can get back to that [we’ll be good].”

Some lingering questions for Bruins

Again, you could argue there’s some mild soul-searching going on for Boston.

Blame it on a drop in physicality, or perhaps some other factors, but I’d personally be a little more concerned about dipping underlying numbers.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

Looking at sites like Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference, there’s been a dip in key categories. They’ve hogged the puck less often, and have been on the wrong end of high-danger chances (owning just 45.6 percent of that category, via Hockey Reference).

These numbers shouldn’t make anyone pull a fire alarm. It’s not that the Bruins have been terrible. Instead, there are some red flags that the Bruins should improve their play. Sean Tierney (Charting Hockey)’s expected goals share chart captures the sometimes middle-of-the-pack feel to the Bruins’ stats:

Bruins xg

Would the Bruins dominate the puck if they add more edge? Maybe, but either way, there are signs that the B’s have room to improve.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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.

The Buzzer: Elvis, Ovechkin, and others who rocked

Elvis Ovechkin three stars pht buzzer
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Three Stars beyond Elvis and Ovechkin

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago blowing out Toronto will lead to some hand-wringing, no doubt. Yet, as much as that was on a tough night for Frederik Andersen, give the Blackhawks some credit. Toews topped all in that game with an outstanding four-point performance (two goals and two assists).

Saturday continued what’s been one heck of a month for Toews. The Blackhawks captained pushed his January total to 15 points (5G, 10A). Toews reached that total in just eight games, scoring at least one point in seven contests.

Scratch that. Toews has been on fire for a while now. He started off ice-cold with only two points in 11 October games. Toews took off after that, and has generated an impressive 41 points in his past 28 contests.

Underrated rookie Dominik Kubalik contributed to Chicago’s win, too, with three points (2G, 1A).

2. Riley Sheahan, Edmonton Oilers

Sheahan scoffs at Toews’ slow start. The journeyman forward failed to score a point in 12 October games, and managed one in 11 November contests. Sheahan went and matched his December points total (four in 14 GP) in one contest on Saturday.

That’s right, he generated four points, scoring an empty-netter plus three assists. Connor McDavid dominated in his own right with two goals, but Sheahan helped the Oilers rout the Coyotes. Josh Archibald generated three points (1G, 2A) as well.

This just in: the Oilers have a lot of “that guy’s still around?” forwards. It’s honestly cool to see some of them have such a strong day, and maybe take a bit of the pressure off McDavid here and there.

3. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s as though Atkinson never missed any time. After scoring a goal and an assist in his first game in almost one month on Thursday, Atkinson generated three points (2G, 1A) on Saturday. This gives Atkinson seven points (4G, 3A) in his past four contests.

Others give Atkinson a run for his money, even beyond the next section. Jason Zucker (1G, 2A) and James van Riemsdyk (1G, 2A) both contributed to their respective teams’ blowouts. Atkinson’s extra goal gives him the edge.

OK, now let’s consider Elvis and Ovechkin

Saturday featured enough strong performances that it feels better to give these two a mention. After all, they already received their own posts. Yes, these two probably rank as the “real” third and fourth stars of Saturday, or higher, depending upon your personal taste.

Highlight of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury is suffering through a tough season, big-picture wise. “The Flower” keeps adding to his resume of breathtaking saves, though:

Comic relief

Jamie Benn provides us with a reason to laugh. At least those of us who aren’t immediately transported to our own memories of hilarious blunders.

That video summarizes the Stars’ night succinctly, as the Wild beat them 7-0.

Factoids

  • Ovechkin nabbed consecutive hat tricks to push his career goals total to 692. He passed Mario Lemieux (11th all-time, 690) and tied Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time (692). Mark Messier sits just two goals away at eighth with 694. Ovechkin also generated consecutive hat tricks for the third time in his career. In doing so, Ovechkin joined Joe Malone (four times) and Wayne Gretzky (three) as the only players to generate consecutive hat tricks three or more times, according to NHL PR. Again, this post delves deeper into Ovechkin’s latest accomplishments.
  • Ovechkin’s teammate John Carlson reached 60 points. Carlson managed the feat in just 49 games, getting to 60 faster than any Capitals defenseman; Mike Green held the previous mark with 60 by game 57. Opinion: Green deserved better treatment from hockey folks during his peak years.
  • Merzlikins authored the 18th instance of a rookie goalie getting a shutout of at least 41 saves, via NHL PR.
  • Cale Makar scored his 11th goal, setting a new record for goals by a rookie Avalanche defenseman.
  • Dominik Kubalik reached 20 goals in his 47th game. NHL PR points out that Kubalik ranks among sixth Blackhawks to reach 20 goals in 50 games or less.

Scores

WSH 6 – NYI 4
COL 5 – STL 3
EDM 7 – ARI 3
OTT 5 – CGY 2
CHI 6 – TOR 2
MTL 5 – VGK 4 (SO)
FLA 4 – DET 1
PHI 4 – LAK 1
CBJ 5 – NJD 0
NSH 2 – BUF 1
MIN 7 – DAL 0
VAN 4 – SJS 1

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.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

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.