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

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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.

Karlsson, Hertl out for Game 6; Pavelski game-time decision

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If the San Jose Sharks are going to force a Game 7 in the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues they are going to have to do it on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live Stream) without a couple of their most important players.

Coach Pete DeBoer announced after the morning skate that defender Erik Karlsson and forward Tomas Hertl are not available for Game 6 against and that they did not even accompany the team on the road trip to St. Louis.

Both players exited the Sharks’ Game 5 loss on Sunday due to injury.

Karlsson has been hampered by a nagging groin injury that has resurfaced in the playoffs, while Hertl had to leave the game after he was on the receiving end of a high hit from Blues forward Ivan Barbashev. There was no penalty called on the play and Barbashev was not disciplined by the league.

Captain Joe Pavelski also exited Sunday’s game with an injury and did not take part in the morning skate on Tuesday but is a game-time decision according to DeBoer.

Pavelski had previously missed the first six games of the Sharks’ Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche after he was injured in their Game 7 win against the Vegas Golden Knights. He has five points (two goals, three assists) since returning to the lineup.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

While Pavelski at least seems like a possibility to play, the losses of Karlsson and Hertl are going to be significant for the Sharks.

Even though Karlsson has been limited by injury for much of the season he has still been an impact player and played a huge role in the team’s Round 1 comeback against the Golden Knights. He has 16 total points in 19 games and is the league’s fifth-leading scorer in the playoffs. It was obvious he was struggling in the Sharks’ Game 4 loss but still attempted to play in Game 5. It did not go well as he was clearly unable to play up to his normal level and logged just 10 minutes of ice time, with only three of those minutes coming after the first period.

Hertl, meanwhile, has been one of the Sharks’ most dynamic forwards and has scored some of their biggest goals this postseason, including a game-winning shorthanded goal in double overtime to help the team fight off elimination in Round 1, and one of the power play goals in their come-from-behind Game 7 win against the Golden Knights.

He has 10 goals (third among all players in the playoffs) and 15 total points.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Canes’ Martinook, de Haan have offseason surgeries

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Carolina Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook and defenseman Calvin de Haan have had offseason surgeries.

General manager Don Waddell said Tuesday that Martinook had a procedure on a core muscle while de Haan’s surgery was on his right shoulder.

Martinook is expected to recover in 4-6 weeks while de Haan will be out 4-6 months.

The 26-year-old Martinook had a career-best 15 goals with five game-winners, and was in and out of the lineup during the playoffs due to injuries. The 28-year-old de Haan injured his shoulder against Pittsburgh on March 31 but returned for Game 4 of the first-round playoff series against Washington.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NH and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Blues seeking a shot at redemption as they try to close out Sharks

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A lot has happened in the past 49 years.

Cell phones, Instagram, selfies and, for the purposes of this story, a whole lot of hockey. What hasn’t happened in nearly half a century, however, is a St. Louis Blues team opposite another in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Blues could get with the times if they’re to find a way past the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream).

Some history…

It was 1970 when St. Louis made their third straight appearance in the Cup Final, their most recent. Having been swept in their previous two attempts, both at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, the Blues were now coming up against another Original Six team with Bobby Orr’s Boston Bruins.

Different team, different legends, same result.

The Bruins snatched the broom from the Canadiens and repeated the process against the Blues thanks, in part, to one of the most iconic goals in NHL history that Number 4 scored in overtime to clinch the Stanley Cup.

The Blues are one win away from a chance at redemption, nearly 50 years in the making.

“It’s probably tough to put into words,” Blues forward Jaden Schwartz said. “It’s something that everyone’s worked for and dreamed about. You don’t want to look too far ahead. We all know how important and how hard that last win’s going to be. It would be a dream come true.”

The Sharks are treading familiar water heading into the game, something the Blues are acutely aware of.

“We’re close. We’re very close right now,” Blues forward Patrick Maroon said. “I think the guys know that. It’s in the back of their heads, but we know that that’s a good hockey team over there too and they’re not going to give up.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Some, even, won’t talk about it just yet.

“We will talk about it when we get there,” Alexander Steen said.

No team has been to more Stanley Cup Playoffs than the St. Louis Blues and not hoisted hockey’s holy grail at some point in June. Their 42 playoff appearances is far and away the most by any team (Buffalo is second with 29). A win Tuesday would also end the second-longest Cup Final drought in NHL history (behind only Toronto).

“It’s gonna be a lot of emotion and it’s important our players keep it in check,” head coach Craig Berube said. Our players have done a pretty good job of … focusing. I don’t expect anything different. It’s important at the start of the game you’re simple and direct. Keep your emotions in check and not let them get out of control.”

MORE: Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

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 Wraparound: Sharks find themselves in familiar waters ahead of Game 6 vs. Blues

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

The San Jose Sharks have been here before.

In Round 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Sharks faced elimination in three straight games after falling behind 3-1 in that series. They rallied, of course, including a 2-1 overtime win in Game 6 in hostile territory at T-Mobile Arena.

“We’re still alive,” said playoff leading scorer Logan Couture. “We’ve been in this spot before, going to Vegas down 3-2 in a very difficult building. St. Louis is similar, it’s a tough building against a good team. A structured team. We scored one goal in the last two games, that’s not going to cut it. We’re not doing enough around their net or creating enough opportunities on second chances.”

It may sound a tad odd, but the Sharks may have the Blues exactly where they want them ahead of a pivotal Game 6 matchup on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream).

San Jose is a dreadful 0-6 when leading a series this postseason but is 10-3 when trailing or tied, including a perfect 4-0 record when facing elimination. We probably shouldn’t get this twisted — the Sharks tempting their own demise isn’t exactly ideal. But if anyone thinks the Sharks are dead in the water, their record speaks for itself.

And if you’re the superstitious-type, the Sharks lost 5-0 to the Golden Knights in Game 4 of Round 1 to be put on the verge golf-course duty and then never lost again in that series.

“We’ve been here before,” Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer said. “Had to go on the road and win in Vegas in order to get to a Game 7. You’re never comfortable when your back’s against the wall like that, but we have been here before and found a way and I’m confident we can do that again.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

To “do that again” the Sharks will have to overcome their 3-5 record on the road in the postseason (St. Louis is 4-5 at home, conversely). More importantly, however, they may have to do it with some of their best stuck in the infirmary.

Erik Karlsson did what he could in Game 5, but could only play 10:32 with a groin injury that he aggravated in Game 4. With the way Game 5 went, and with the type of injury Karlsson has, resting him was the right choice but it’s still to be determined whether EK65 can do much — or anything — in Game 6.

Tomas Hertl took a hit to the head from Ivan Barbashev in the first period of Game 5 — one that went uncalled — and missed the entirety of the third period. His status, too, is up in the air.

And then there’s captain Joe Pavelski, who was hit by Alex Pietrangelo in the later stages of the third and he, too, left the game.

DeBoer offered no updates on the status of three of his best players on Monday, and we may not really know the status of the trio until pre-game line rushes.

Martin Jones didn’t have his best game last time out but has been a rock when the Sharks have faced elimination.

  • Round 1 Game 5: 30 saves on 32 shots
  • Round 1 Game 6: 58 saves on 59 shots
  • Round 1 Game 7: 34 saves on 38 shots
  • Round 2 Game 7: 27 saves on 29 shots

This all adds up to a 4-0 record with a 1.87 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage when the pressure is on.MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info


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