Obviously unhappy GM rips Penguins’ slow start

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have been the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde team so far this season, going through stretches where they have looked like the Harlem Globetrotters on ice, and other times, especially recently, where they have been more Washington Generals.

Entering Wednesday’s game in Washington they were riding a four-game losing streak where they had been outscored by a 19-6 margin.  For the season they are near the bottom of the league in goals against and shots against, their once fearsome power play has struggled so much that coach Mike Sullivan opted to split up his top unit to open Wednesdays’ game and throw all of his lines and defense pairings into a blender, while nobody outside of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel or Kris Letang is providing any offense to speak of.

This is not sitting well with general manager Jim Rutherford, and he made that all very clear during his radio show on the team’s flagship radio station (105.9, The X) before Wednesday’s game.

Rutherford has always been one of the more candid general managers in the league and is never afraid to share his opinions.

Boy did he ever share his opinions on Wednesday.

Some of the highlights include…

First, on the team’s general inconsistency and how everything fell apart following their four-game winning streak in Canada.

“What I’m seeing I don’t like. Nobody likes it. We’re trying to figure out what’s gone wrong here. We went through Canada, it was a great trip where the guys came together, that team chemistry that we’ve been looking for even from last year, it was really strong and it was all coming together. It was almost like when we cleared customs coming back into the United States, we left it all there. I’d like to say we have an answer for it, but we don’t right now. We’re watching it really close. We don’t think the team’s not good enough, because if it wasn’t we wouldn’t have played the way going through Canada. But certainly if this continues in short order we’re going to have to make some changes.”

On the team’s work and energy level…

“We’re not playing with any energy or determination. We’re just trying to get through the games. These other teams are coming, they’re outworking us, and they deserve to beat us. In some of these games probably deserve to beat us worse than the score indicates. It’s just getting back to the basics and guys getting back to work and coming back to the rink determined to win, and I haven’t seen it since we came from back from Canada and it’s very concerning.”

On whether or not this team needs a BIG change…

“We really believed coming out of camp we were a contending team. We start those first four or five games and we were very inconsistent, then we played very well for four games, and then we went back to being a bad team where we didn’t play well at all. We have the players that can work through it. Sometimes they can. Sometimes they can’t. I wonder if this group has been together for too long and maybe we need to change it up, but that’s what I will watch for in the next game games.”

On young players that have found early success in the NHL and just signed big contracts, and other players that might be playing for future contracts…

“Things change, because at a young age, guys win Stanley Cups, a lot of guys go their whole career and they don’t even get close to it. We’ve had a few that have won a couple, then they get bigger contracts, and they kind of settle in and they forget what got them to where they are today. And then we have some guys that are working toward a contract next offseason, and so maybe they change their game. Maybe they think scoring more goals or getting more points is going to get them more money, so they get away from their game and what their role is. And I see that happening with some of the guys on both ends of my point here, so that’s what I was saying earlier, has this team been together too long, and that’s what you have to watch for, when do you have to make those changes. The players are doing everything they can to tell me now’s the time.”

On the lack of depth and players outside of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang not carrying their weight…

“It’s almost like the guys come to the games and say, ‘Let’s just let the top guys do it.’ Let’s let Sid, Geno, Phil and Letang carry us. We’ll just get through the game and move on to the next game. Forget about the work ethic it takes or forget about the role they play. But when those top players aren’t getting it done, whether they’re shut down or they’re just not having a good game, that’s when we need those other guys to come in and contribute and help win games. We’re not getting it.”

Oh, and let’s not forget the goalies, Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith

“In the two years we won the Cup we were playing at times the way we are playing now. But between Fleury and Murray they were phenomenal in goal. They were hard to score against. That is not what we’re getting now. We aree getting inconsistent goaltending.”

There is an awful lot to unpack here, and for the most part, nothing he said is really incorrect.

The team’s energy level often times seems to be lacking, at least compared to their opponents. As one of the oldest teams in the league they no longer seem to have the same jump or speed to their game as they did two years ago, especially as the rest of the league has seemingly caught up to them (and perhaps even surpassed them) when it comes to playing a certain way. The depth scoring, which was a huge staple of the Stanley Cup winning teams in 2015-16 and 2016-17, has completely evaporated as nobody beyond the four top players (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang) is providing any sort of consistent offense. And the goalies? Well, they entered play on Wednesday with a combined team save percentage of just .903, including a dismal .886 mark for Murray.

So, yeah, there is a lot wrong there.

You can listen to his entire show here.

But while Rutherford is mostly spot-on with his criticisms, it is only fair to point out that he, too, has had some missteps over the past two years that are absolutely contributing to the team’s slow start and current position.

His moves during the summer of 2017 backfired so badly that within one year every player he acquired or signed was already jettisoned off of the team (many of them did not make it through the season with the Penguins).

The Derick Brassard trade, for one reason or another, has not panned out the way anyone expected to it after it was made.

This offseason saw the team trade Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick in a salary dump trade, only to have it be followed up by the curious signings of Jack Johnson and 42-year-old Matt Cullen.

The Penguins had a similar slow start to the 2017-18 season and were able to pull themselves out of it, finish in second place in the Metropolitan Division, and get back to the second round of the playoffs. But they were still pretty far off from the team that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in the years before that.

So far this season they seem to be even further away from it, and now the general manager is left to contemplate some big changes. If he is going to make them, he needs to do better than he has the past two years.

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.

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


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

Report: Police say Greg Johnson’s death an apparent suicide

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DETROIT (AP) — A police report says the death of former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson was an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit News.

The paper said Wednesday it had obtained a Rochester Police report, and that Johnson was found by his wife shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7. A gun and a single bullet were found near him. No suicide note was left.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner declined to discuss findings from an autopsy, according to the paper.

Johnson was with Nashville for the franchise’s first season in the league. He spent the last seven years of his career with the Predators. He also played for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago during his 12 years in the NHL.

The Detroit News said Johnson’s agent, Tom Laidlaw, declined to discuss the specifics surrounding the former player’s death. Johnson was 48.

PHT Morning Skate: Penguins need summer miracle again; Devils begin new chapter

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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.

• The Pens need to make another mid-summer magical change. (Pensburgh)

• Maple Leafs almost certain to lose any trade involving Mitch Marner. (Editor In Leaf)

Zack Kassian to get his chance to play alongside Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl. (The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Spooner heading to Switzerland next season. (Sportsnet)

• The RFA waiting game for big-name players is the norm now, in Winnipeg and the rest of the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Each team’s worst contract heading into the 2019-20 season. (Puck Prose)

• Biggest fantasy winners thus far in the offseason. (Yahoo Sports)

• Devils begin a new chapter with additions of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

• Oft-Overlooked Hurricanes On the Rise. (Featurd)

• The oddsmakers are taking the Colorado Avalanche seriously, and so should you. (The Hockey News)

• NHL Network analyst believes Andre Burakovsky will score ‘a minimum’ of 20 goals next season. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• The Nashville Predators should go all-in and trade for William Nylander. (Pred Lines)


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

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.