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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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Jonathan Toews is back

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After seeing his production dip in under 60 points in each of the last three seasons, many believed that we’d already seen Jonathan Toews‘ best days. Last season, Toews posted 0.70 points-per-game which was a career-low for him in his NHL career.

Picking up 20 goals and 52 points in 74 games is far from a terrible year for most players, but Toews isn’t most players. He’s the captain of the Blackhawks and his contract comes with a cap hit of $10.5 million dollars. To make matters even worse, Chicago ended up missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2017-18.

It’s no secret that Patrick Kane has been the team’s MVP this season, but Toews hasn’t been too far behind.

The 30-year-old has picked up 28 goals and 60 points through 60 games and he’s picked up at least one point in 19 of his last 22 contests. He’s also scored in three straight games and he’s amassed 18 points in his last 11 contests. He hasn’t been a point-per-game player since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, when he had 48 points in 47 games.

“I guess you’re always looking to be better, no matter what,” Toews said, per the Chicago Tribune. “So if I’m comparing this season to my previous two years, yeah, things are better. But I still have a higher expectation for myself. Things are falling into place for our team and the power play’s looking better, so I feel I can relax and focus on my game and not worry about doing every single little thing right and maybe take some offensive risks and try to create some offense when our team game’s pretty solid.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

“I always want to create more offense, and even though I’m on the board here and there, I can do a better job of just being more dynamic and offensive every time I get on the ice.”

When taking a deeper look at the numbers, it’s easy to see why Toews has been more successful, especially in the goal department. In the previous two seasons, he had shooting percentages of 10.6 and 9.5 percent. This year, he’s up to 17.2 percent, which is his highest percentage since 2007-08 (17.4 percent).

Interestingly enough, a lot of his advanced numbers have taken a dip this season. Here’s what his advanced metrics look like from last year to this year:

CF%: 56.07 to 48.73
FF%: 53.16 to 47.06
HDCF%: 52.05 to 41.75

(All stats via Natural Stat Trick)

With Toews and Kane leading the way, the Blackhawks have found a way to get themselves back in the playoff hunt. Heading into tonight’s game, the ‘Hawks are just one point behind the Minnesota Wild for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The only problem, is that three other teams also have 59 points.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Worst deadline trades; How Blues almost got Kessel

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• NHL.com takes a look at who will be buyers and who will be sellers at the upcoming trade deadline. (NHL.com)

• ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski breaks down the 20 worst deadline trades in NHL history. (ESPN)

• The Vegas Golden Knights and Vienna Capitals have entered into a collaborative partnership. “Our ambition is always to learn from the best. The Vegas Golden Knights are an outstanding benchmark in the hockey world and this partnership enables us a tremendous amount of opportunities to learn from this club. We are very proud to get the chance for this collaboration,” said Vienna Capitals General Manager Franz Kalla. (NHL.com/GoldenKnights)

• As part of Black History Month, P.K. Subban explains what it’s like to be a role model. (Sportsnet)

• A group of priests are trying to bring back the Flying Fathers, who are the hockey equivalent to the Harlem Globetrotters. (New York Times)

T.J. Oshie plays an energetic brand of hockey and he’ll probably never change. (Washington Post)

• Jaromir Jagr is back after a long absence. (CBC.ca)

• Robert Tychkowski can’t believe the Oilers are in the mess than they’re in. (Edmonton Journal)

• Dave Eastham is the trainer that helped Kevan Miller become a regular on the Bruins blue line. (WEEI)

• Red Wings forward Gustav Nyquist isn’t letting the trade chatter bother him. (MLive.com)

• Remember that time the St. Louis Blues almost traded Keith Tkachuk and David Perron for Phil Kessel? (St. Louis Game-Time)

• NBC’s Pierre McGuire could learn a thing or two from John Tavares:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Miller, Ducks win again; Josi on a tear

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Three stars

1. Ryan Miller, Anaheim Ducks

A night after becoming the winningest American-born goaltender in NHL history, Miller produced a fantastic performance in a 31-save shutout against the Minnesota Wild.

The shutout was Miller’s first of the season and 44th of his career. The Ducks have now won two straight and are three points back of the Wild for the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

The Wild, meanwhile, lost their fifth straight, including their second straight game being banished from the scoresheet. The Ducks are faring well without John Gibson.

2. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators 

Josi scored twice in the third period, including the game-winner, and added an assist in the game for a three-point night

The elite defenseman now has four goals and 11 points in his past eight games for the Predators, who needed a win after going 1-3-1 over their past five games.

The Preds are now just a point back of the Winnipeg Jets for first place in the Central Division although Winnipeg has three games in hand.

3. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers

Huberdeau scored twice and added an assist in a 4-2 win for the Panthers against the struggling Buffalo Sabres.

Huberdeau hadn’t scored in eight games prior to Tuesday’s contest and had just one goal in his previous 14.

Florida is nine points back of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wildcard in the Eastern Conference.

Highlights of the night

Barkov with another dirty move:

Windmill:

Broke all the ankles:

Factoids

https://twitter.com/PR_NHL/status/1098065651539865601

Scores

Panthers 4, Sabres 2
Penguins 4, Devils 3
Lightning 5, Flyers 2
Rangers 2, Hurricanes 1
Canadiens 3, Blue Jackets 2
Blues 3, Maple Leafs 2 (OT)
Ducks 4, Wild 0
Predators 5, Stars 3
Coyotes 3, Oilers 2 (SO)


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=

O’Reilly scores historic overtime winner as Blues win 11th straight

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And then it was 11.

The St. Louis Blues set a new team record for consecutive wins in emphatic fashion when Ryan O'Reilly went bar down on Frederik Anderson 34 seconds into overtime to down the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 on NBCSN on Tuesday.

Mitch Marner came rushing in just before O’Reilly’s winner, but Colton Parayko was able to fend him off. O’Reilly was there to intercept Marner’s attempt at a centering pass and it was off to the races for No. 90, who scored his 26th of the season to extend St. Louis’ remarkable streak.

The Blues came into the game riding a three-game shutout streak — because beating teams simply wasn’t enough anymore. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead thanks to first-period goals from Jaden Schwartz and Parayko.

The game appeared to be heading toward another blank sheet after two periods, but a bad giveaway by Alex Pietrangelo led to Zach Hyman‘s weird angle shot turning into an own goal and bringing an end to the shutout streak at a 2:33:50.

The Leafs were mostly lifeless through the first two periods but Hyman’s goal seemed to be the jolt they needed.

Auston Matthews bagged his 28th of the season just 31 seconds later to tie the game. St. Louis challenged for (non-existent) goaltender interference and the call of a good goal on the ice was upheld.

Jordan Binnington entered the game already having set a Blues rookie record with eight straight wins, including shutouts in his past two outings. ‘Winnington’ could do little on the own goal and Matthews’ goal came off a rebound in front that he couldn’t get to. He managed to stop 31-of-33 shots to extend that record to nine straight.

His personal shutout streak ended at 173:50.

The Blues haven’t trailed in a game since Feb. 5. They were in last place on Jan. 3 but are now six points up on Dallas Stars for third place in the Central Division. What a turnaround.

Meanwhile, a massive open-ice hit that Vince Dunn delivered priority mail to Nazem Kadri seems to have put the latter on the shelf.

Dunn drilled Kadri at the 8:48 mark of the first period, but Kadri stayed in the game. He took another shot, this time more of a glancing blow from Brayden Schenn, who had Toronto’s No. 43 in his crosshairs before missing at the last second.

Kadri did not emerge after the first intermission and was ruled out with a concussion not long after.


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