AP / Getty Images

Penguins ponder Brassard at wing; best fit for Jack Johnson?

4 Comments

While it’s fair to warn against reading too much into NHL training camps, sometimes they indeed provide a helpful preview for the coming season. If nothing else, they present a worthwhile opportunity for coaches to experiment.

The Pittsburgh Penguins come into 2018-19 with slightly fresher legs, as their title defense fell short in two rounds. They also have some players to work into the mix, whether they landed them at the trade deadline (Derick Brassard) or through free agency and amid salty drama with their former team (Jack Johnson, Torts, and the Blue Jackets).

Tinkering with Brassard

Last year, the Penguins’ hated rivals from Philly yielded a rebound year from Claude Giroux, as he seemed to be revitalized by a move to the wing. Maybe a lot of that revolved around reduced defensive responsibilities, but it was enough of a success story that it makes sense for the Penguins to ponder such a possibility in hopefully getting more out of Derick Brassard.

Mike Sullivan discussed such experiments on Friday.

“We’ve given a lot of thought into it and it’s something that we’ll explore,” Sullivan said of trying Brassard out on the wing. “We know he’s a center by nature but we also know he’s a versatile player. It’s an option that’s on the table.”

With a fully staffed group of Penguins forwards, it’s somewhat challenging to picture how Brassard would work better on the wing than he would as – ideally – a third center who could leverage certain matchup advantages.

Of course, the Penguins know as much as any other team that injuries strike. Brassard himself missed the first week of camp due to a minor chest infection.

The Penguins might as well gather as much data as they can for how Brassard might work with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the event that their customary wingers suffer injuries. Via Natural Stat Trick, Brassard played just 7:01 of even-strength ice time with Crosby during the regular season, and he didn’t even reach two minutes with Malkin. (Phil Kessel was far and away his most common forward partner.)

In the flow of regular-season competition, it makes sense that the Penguins didn’t enjoy a ton of opportunities to tinker with different combinations for Brassard. Now’s the time to see what works, what does not, and what might merely need time to marinate.

The most important thing is that the Penguins are exploring avenues to get the most out of the veteran forward, rather than giving up on Brassard.

And make no mistake about it, this is a crucial season for the 30-year-old, as Brassard approaches 2018-19 as a contract year. Such drive could really manifest itself if he got the chance to play with Crosby and/or Malkin, and for all we know, the next phase of his career could be as a “winger to the stars.”

A formidable pairing

Penguins fans owe it to themselves to read this Johnson-related article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jonathan Bombulie for a host of reasons:

  • An amusing slight of privilege regarding Johnson’s adjustment to Pittsburgh. Gasp in terror at the thought of Johnson not finding a good sushi joint and possibly suffering from a bad hair style.
  • Enjoy a subtler form of shade at John Tortorella, as Johnson spoke about Torts’ grueling training camp, which apparently begins with a two-mile run that must be completed within 12 minutes. Johnson mostly dismissed such concerns, although it’s funny to see him describe the runs as activities that “don’t necessarily translate into how you’re playing or how hockey is.”

The most pertinent information, however, is that the initial plan is to pair Johnson with Justin Schultz.

That gnarly howl you just heard was analytics-minded people recoiling in terror, and possibly seeing their charts break. Seriously, Johnson – Schultz is a duo with the potential to get caved-in possession-wise at a level we rarely see.

Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool brings a lot of the data to the forefront:

One can only picture – again, maybe in horror – the sort of defensive misadventures such a pairing might endure. (Granted, the Penguins can mostly point to Schultz as a relative success story, and the two could at least bring something to the table from a transition standpoint.)

Maybe the Johnson tinkering has just begun, as Sullivan instead paired him with Olli Maatta today:

Frankly, it might be difficult to find the right fit for Johnson because … well, if his career so far provides any evidence, he carries some deep flaws in his own end, and his offensive contributions rarely make up for such issues. The deeper you dig into “fancy stats,” the worse Johnson tends to look, but even simple measures tend to be less-than-flattering.

The Penguins are dug in here, considering the jarring five-year, $16.25 million commitment they made to Johnson. For a team that’s perpetually tight to the cap ceiling, squandering $3.25M per season could be agonizing.

For what it’s worth, GM Jim Rutherford shook off analytics worries about Johnson (not to mention Matt Cullen and Derek Grant) in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey.

“The same as any player, analytics play a role,” Rutherford said. “Our personal opinions and viewings play a role. And where they might fit into what we’re looking for. You look at different players in a different way. What are you looking for in your team? What are some of your needs and how do they fit? All those things. These are guys who fit for us.”

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Of course, the risks with Cullen and Grant are pretty minimal, as each player’s only carrying a $650K AAV in 2018-19.

For a team that already struggles when it comes to turning the puck over in dangerous situations and allowing a ton of odd-man rushes, Johnson may only exacerbate such issues. It’s not surprising that management is resolute in defending the signing – what else can they say? – but there’s a strong chance Pittsburgh will regret this expensive reclamation project.

Then again, Schultz’s career was in a dire place when he was traded from Edmonton, so maybe the Penguins really do “see” something others do not? They’ve pulled off the unlikely before.

***

As much attention is lavished on stars like Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Kris Letang, the Penguins – and other contenders – need other players to step up.

When Pittsburgh landed Brassard, the expectation was that he’s provide that additional pop. Some NHL GMs outright groaned at the Penguins landing him, and Vegas GM George McPhee’s logic in helping to aid a trade to Pittsburgh revolved around keeping the center off of a West contender.

In the post-deadline rush, Brassard didn’t meet positive expectations. Meanwhile, the Penguins are gambling big-time that Johnson will defy pessimistic expectations.

Training camp tinkering will likely be forgotten in the long run, yet either way, it’s crucial for Pittsburgh to find the optimal lineups and strategies to contend after falling short last season.

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: Lightning dominate, Sabres rally and Gaudreau shines

Getty
1 Comment

Three Stars

1. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. Point was a big part of the Lightning’s dominant offensive showing in Chicago on Sunday night when they scored six goals and put 55 shots on goal. Point was a factor in three of those goals, scoring one of them and assisting on two others to give him five goals and eight total points on the season. We know the Lightning have superstars at the top of the lineup, but it is the emergence of secondary players like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Point himself over the past four years that have made this team such a force in the Eastern Conference.

2. David Rittich, Calgary Flames. With Mike Smith struggling in the early part of the season could backup David Rittich start to steal some playing time away from him? He has certainly made a strong case for himself over his past two starts, including Sunday’s game in New York where he stopped 43 out of 44 shots in a 4-1 Flames win. In his two starts this season he has now stopped 67 out of 70 shots.

3. Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres ruined the Ducks’ celebration of Paul Kariya on Sunday night by scoring four consecutive goals to erase what was a two-goal deficit midway through the second period. Kyle Okposo started the rally with his first goal of the season late in the period, and then helped complete when he set up Rasmus Ristolainen‘s game-winning goal early in the third period. Okposo had recorded just three assists in his first eight games before Sunday, so it was a much-needed big night for him on the scoresheet.

Ducks defense looks awful again

The Anaheim Ducks have been relying on their goalies — particularly starter John Gibson — more than any other team in the league this season, surrendering shots and chances at an unsustainable rate.

So far, Gibson has been able to keep them in it and steal a bunch of wins.

This weekend Gibson and Ryan Miller were not able to bail them out.

After getting outshot by a 45-18 margin in a 3-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night, they were outshot 45-28 in their 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday. That is 90-46 over two games in 48 hours. That is … terrible.

They are giving up more than 37 shots on goal per game and have been outshot by a ridiculous margin on the young season.

This team looks like a house of cards teetering on the verge of a collapse if their goalies slip up even a little bit. This is, quite simply, not a good hockey team right now no matter what their record says.

Highlights of the Night

Johnny Gaudreau was a big part of the Flames’ win in New York on Sunday night by scoring a pair of goals, both of them coming on wonderful individual efforts. His second goal — which was also his 300th career point — was the best of the two.

The Lightning were dominant all night and it started very early with this slick Nikita Kucherov goal to put them on the board first.

He made that look easy.

Factoids

The Tampa Bay Lightning set an NHL record for most shots in a single period when they recorded 33 in the second period (we highlighted that here). They also set a franchise record for most shots on goal in a game.

The Calgary Flames won their first game at Madison Square Garden since 2008.

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 6, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Calgary Flames 4, New York Rangers 1

Buffalo Sabres 4, Anaheim Ducks 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.

Blackhawks’ defense still has long way to go

AP
1 Comment

The Chicago Blackhawks have been off to a better-than-expected start this season, especially when you consider they had Corey Crawford, arguably their most important player, for just two of their first seven games entering Sunday’s contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

That surprising start has been primarily due to Jonathan Toews‘ offensive resurgence, Alex DeBrincat‘s continued rise to stardom, and some good fortune in a bunch overtime/shootout games. They still have their flaws, particularly on their defense, and wow did a lot of those flaws get exposed on Sunday night against one of the league’s best teams.

The defense should have been viewed as the weak link on the roster heading into the season, and so far there has not been much to change that perception.

That is especially true after Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Entering Sunday’s game the Blackhawks were 26th in the NHL in goals against and 25th in terms of shots allowed per game. Neither number is anywhere close to good enough, and they are almost certain to be looking even worse after Sunday’s game that saw the Lighting set an NHL record and completely overwhelm the Blackhawks in a game that was not as close as the final score would indicate.

At times it looked like two teams playing two completely different sports.

Just consider these two numbers: 55 and 33.

What do those numbers represent?

The former is the number of shots on goal the Blackhawks surrendered to the Lightning for the entire game, while the latter is how many they gave up in the second period alone, setting an NHL record for most shots on goal in a single period. During that second period the Lightning outshot the Blackhawks by a 33-5 margin and outscored them 3-0. It was, to say the least, the difference in the game.

It also helped show just how far the Blackhawks’ defense has to go to make them a serious contender in the meatgrinder that is the NHL’s Central Division.

It is only the ninth time since the 2010 season that a team recorded 55 shots on goal in a game that did not go to overtime.

The Blackhawks have been trending in the wrong direction defensively (both from a shots and goals perspective) for several years now as that core on defense has gotten older or moved on to new teams. Once a team that dominated opponents territorially and never let them set up shop in their end, the Blackhawks are now a team that consistently bleeds shots and scoring chances against and needs its goaltenders to be great to have a chance.

There are several problems with the unit.

First, Connor Murphy has not played a singe game this season as he recovers from a back injury. He was probably one of the team’s best defenders a year ago and has been a major loss at the start of the year.

Gustav Forsling, who has shown promise over the past two years, has also not played yet this season due to a wrist injury.

When it comes to the players that are in the lineup there just isn’t enough high end talent here.

At the top you have Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, both of whom were cornerstone pieces of the Blackhawks’ mini-dynasty between 2010 and 2015, but are now on the wrong side of 33 and are a fraction of what they once were (especially Seabrook). Once you get beyond them there is just a stunning lack of quality depth as they have tried to piece together a makeshift unit of various veteran free agents like Jan Rutta, Brandon Mannning, Erik Gustafsson, and Brandon Davidson.

None of them are particularly great.

Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, has shown a ton of promise this season and is already playing some big minutes and being given a major role at the age of 19. But he’s still 19, and he’s going to have some growing pains at times and he had a particularly tough time on Sunday matching up against the Lightning.

Jokiharju and 2018 first-round pick Adam Boqvist are going to be the future of that unit, and the return of a healthy Murphy at some point should help at least a little bit in the short-term.

But they are probably a few years and a lot of help around them from being where they need to be as a unit. Even with the strong start to the season the Blackhawks’ best hope to contend this season is going to be continued strong play from their forwards and the return of a healthy and productive Corey Crawford.

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.

Ducks retire Paul Kariya’s No. 9

4 Comments

Before the Anaheim Ducks played host to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night they honored the career of one of the best — and most important — players to ever wear their uniform by officially retiring Paul Kariya’s No. 9.

Kariya, the No. 4 overall pick in the 1993 draft, was the first player ever selected in the NHL draft by the franchise and quickly became the organization’s first superstar, playing nine seasons with the club between the 1994-95 and 2002-03 seasons. During his time with the Ducks he scored 300 goals and 369 assists (669 total points) in 606 games, and was a central figure in the team’s run to the 2002-03 Stanley Cup Final.

It was during that series where he was knocked out by New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens. Concussions and injuries would later derail his career and ultimately lead to his early retirement following the 2009-10 season.

He is among the top-five players in Ducks history in games played, goals, assists, and total points, while his 1.10 point-per-game average with the team is first in franchise history.

After playing for the Ducks he also spent time with the Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues, finishing his Hall of Fame career with 402 goals and 989 points in 989 games.

His number is now in the rafters in Anaheim next to his longtime linemate and teammate, Teemu Selanne.

Prior to Sunday’s game all of the current Ducks players wore jerseys with the No. 9 on the back.

You can see highlights of the jersey retirement ceremony in the video above.

Later this season the Ducks will also retire Scott Niedermayer’s No. 27.

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.

Maple Leafs looking for their ‘mojo’ after back-to-back losses

Associated Press
4 Comments

“We got to get our mojo back.”

The sky is far from falling in Toronto, but Mike Babcock knows the secret of his Maple Leafs is finally out.

The Leafs dropped their second straight game for the first time this season on Saturday in a 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues.

That loss followed a 3-0 shutout defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier in the week, the first time Toronto’s dominant offense had been blanked this season.

There have been a few firsts over the past two games, but perhaps for every team in the league, there’s finally a blueprint out there on how to find success against Toronto.

The Leafs have constructed high-danger chance after high-danger chance since the start of the season (they’re third in the NHL with 92 of them) but over the past two games, they haven’t converted on any of them.

Toronto generated 20 high-danger opportunities over the two games but just couldn’t sort pucks into the back of the net in those contests.

Since getting zero goals off 20 chances over their first two games, Toronto had been on a tear, converting 10 goals off chances over their next five games in five-on-five scenarios.

In simpler speak, the likes of Auston Matthews and Co. haven’t been scoring at the same rates they were before their mini-slump here. The well has run dry when playing five-on-five right now and it’s been detrimental to Toronto’s success.

Babcock said after Saturday’s game that his team is finding out it’s hard to score in the NHL. And team’s adjust.

The better you are, the bigger the bullseye when another team takes the ice across from you. And the book on the Maple Leafs is that they’re fast, they transition well and they work well in space.

“The last couple nights, [we] haven’t won enough battles and races. You don’t feel very good about what’s going on,” Babcock told TSN on Sunday. “You have to get back to work, [and hopefully] let your ups be longer than your downs.”

Clog those lanes, play a little tighter and bog the game down seems to be doing the trick over the past two games.

Toronto’s schedule doesn’t get much easier with back-to-back games against the Winnipeg Jets in a home-and-home mini-series next week. The Jets won their second straight game for the first time this season and are beginning to find scoring from all four of their lines.

Winnipeg is a big and bruising team that can frustrate opposing offenses. Quickly righting the ship will be a stiff challenge in the coming days.

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