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.

Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”