Penguins’ power play will always be high risk, high reward

PITTSBURGH — Whenever the Pittsburgh Penguins have had some sort of defensive breakdown, or danger zone turnover, or simply a “what the heck was that!?” kind of play with the puck this season coach Mike Sullivan has usually followed it up after the game by talking about the delicate balancing act he has to walk with his roster.

He talks about playmaking being a part of the team’s DNA and wanting to allow his players to use that to their advantage. And why wouldn’t he? When you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang on your roster you have an advantage over almost every other team in the league every single night.

You want them making plays.

But he also wants it happening in a controlled, measured way, where it’s not just a free-for-all where they start exchanging chances with other teams for 60 minutes because for as much fun as that would be for you and me to watch it is probably not something that is going to win on a consistent basis. Along with that, he talks about playing “the right way” and having the right “defensive conscious” and the right mindset.

Given the way the season has gone, with the Penguins going through equal stretches of dominance and sloppiness, he has had to hit these talking points a lot.

Monday’s 6-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils was another one of those nights, and his team’s power play unit was one of his focal points after an 0-for-4 night on the man-advantage that saw them give up yet another shorthanded goal to put the game out of reach in the second period.

The Penguins’ power play unit is one of the more complicated and sometimes maddening groups in the league because it has the potential to change a game … for both teams.

For the Penguins, it can serve as their deterrent because teams know once that unit hits the ice it can be lethal in its precision to pick an opponent apart and light up the scoreboard. You simply can not take penalties against them because there is a very good chance they will make you pay for it. They are scoring on more than 26 percent of their chances this season and have been the absolute best unit in the league in terms of success rate (23.7 percent) since Sullivan took over behind the bench in the middle of the 2015-16 season.

[Related: Penguins, Stars reverse last year’s Jamie Oleksiak trade]

That is the positive impact it can provide for the Penguins.

The negative impact is that can also be a ticking time bomb because of the chances they give up the other way, and this season that has burnt them one too many times.

The shorthanded goal they allowed on Monday night was already the league-leading 11th shorthanded goal they have allowed this season. Given the number of chances they give up that number could probably be significantly higher, and it has been a point of concern for Sullivan and the Penguins coaching staff all season.

Following Monday’s game he was asked if there ever comes a point where he thinks about making changes to the unit, whether it is personnel, system, or anything else he can do to stop the bleeding the way other way.

“I think we’re probably there,” said Sullivan, before hitting all of the talking points that he is probably tired of talking about this season.

“As a coach it’s always a fine line because you want to show faith and trust in your guys, and as I’ve said all along this year our first power play unit has been a difference-maker for this team for a long time. They are all really good players. But we have to take more responsibility for having a defensive conscious when guys are in trouble. And it doesn’t seem like we’re recognizing the danger, and we don’t take care of the puck. We’re careless with some of the decisions we make with the puck and it costs us. We’re trying to get out group to heed the lessons, and if we don’t heed the lessons then something needs to change.”

This is where the balancing act is going to become a challenge for the Penguins’ coaching staff.

Making changes that are too drastic and significant could needlessly weaken a group that has the potential to dominate, and for whatever flaws they have they still score a ton of goals. If the ultimate goal of your power play unit is to put the puck in the net, this group is still as good as it gets in the NHL and it has few peers on its level.

Part of the reason it is at that level is because of the talent it has, the plays they are capable of making, and just how … let’s say fearless they can be. It may border on reckless at times, but they definitely don’t live in their fears. Players like Crosby, Malkin, and Letang have the ability to make plays most other players in the league won’t (or can’t) even attempt.

When it all clicks, it makes magic. When it doesn’t … you get 11 shorthanded goals against in 49 games.

What probably stands out about that number is this same group, with the same players, only allowed three shorthanded goals all of last season. They only gave up seven the year before and only five the year before that. Only four teams in the league allowed fewer shorthanded goals than the Penguins’ 15 over that three-year stretch.

Now, they are on pace to give up more shorthanded goals this season than they did in the previous three years combined.

On the surface, you probably want to look at that and think something is different about this group or that they are suddenly being more careless.

But that is misleading because those same issues have always existed this group, they just haven’t always shown up in a way that is easily noticeable that you can point to on the stat sheet and say, “see … this is the problem! Fix this!”

Let’s just take a quick look at what the Penguins’ power play has given up over the past four seasons in terms of goals against, shots against, and scoring chances against. The number in parenthesis is where they rank in each category.

Despite being one of the best teams in the league at not allowing shorthanded goals the past three seasons they were still one of the worst (and more often than not) the absolute worst team in the league at giving up shots, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances with the man-advantage.

If anything, they have actually been a little bit better this season when it comes to preventing chances and have simply gotten worse goaltending in those spots.

Does that mean the problems didn’t exist before? Of course not.

One of our biggest failings in analyzing and watching hockey is that we only look at mistakes when they end up in the back of the net. If you turn the puck over at your own blue line and give up an odd-man rush or a breakaway and that player misses the net or gets stopped by your goalie does that mean the mistake didn’t happen? It happened, and just because it didn’t end up in the back of your net this time doesn’t it mean it won’t end up there next time.

As far as personnel changes. There is always the possibility that they could split up Crosby and Malkin, something that has happened on occasion over the past few years. But it doesn’t really work. The power play unit when Malkin is on the ice without Crosby gives up even more chances and shots the other way (which would be a problem), and neither unit scores as well or generates as many chances as when they are on the ice together.

Here are those numbers from 2015-16 through 2017-18.

Malkin definitely seems to be the common denominator in the chances and shots against numbers spiking, so putting him on his own unit doesn’t seem like the best approach for a power play that is trying to cut down the number of chances against. And you’re certainly not going to take him off the power play unit entirely because when he and Crosby are together they can still be so dangerous.

They are a couple of weeks away from getting Justin Schultz back and he has had success on the top unit in the past, so that is always the possibility.

Other than that, it comes down to X’s and O’s and trying to change the DNA of superstars that want to make plays. That is easier said than done, and if you happen to do it you run the risk of having more of a negative impact than a positive impact. You might give up less, but you also might score a lot less.

No matter how you look at it or analyze it this is just what the Penguins power play unit is going to do.

They are going to make skilled, risky plays that are sometimes going to work, and work at a rate that is better than almost any other team in the league.

That also carries a lot of risk, and that risk has always been there whether it has ended up in the back of their own net or not.

(Scoring chance, shot, and power play data via Natural Stat Trick)

More: PHT Power Rankings: 10 people that will impact the NHL playoff race

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.

Why the Wild are better off being terrible next season

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When you ponder what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly in the NHL, don’t forget the importance of self-awareness.

For all of Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton’s lizard tongued blunders through his first year at the helm, the Wild’s biggest problem that owner Craig Leipold is in denial about his team.

It’s been about a year since Leipold shared this message, yet all signs point to the Wild refusing to embrace a true rebuild. In ignoring their reality, the Wild only dig the hole deeper by making more mistakes, and dragging their feet on finding better answers.

Instead of getting the best of both worlds of competing and “rebuilding on the fly,” the Wild are stuck in purgatory: too bad to credibly contend, too competitive to get the picks that help teams win championships. Leipold’s paid for a contender while the Wild have slipped to the level of outright pretenders.

In catering to Leipold, both Chuck Fletcher and current GM Paul Fenton created quite a mess. The Wild’s Cap Friendly page might as well include a horror movie scream mp3 every time you load it up.

Allow this take, then: the Wild would be better off bottoming out in 2019-20, rather than battling for mediocrity.

[The Central Division might not give the Wild much of a choice.]

Changing perceptions?

Most directly, an epic Wild collapse would help them get higher draft lottery odds.

The indirect benefits are considerable, if not guaranteed. Most importantly, Leipold may finally realize that the current plan isn’t working. Failing to even be “in the mix” may also inspire the Wild to trade away certain players, and for those players to make the process easier by waiving various clauses.

  • To start, there are players who might are in their primes, but may slip out by the time the Wild can truly compete. Jared Spurgeon is the biggest example with his expiring contract, but it continues to make sense to shop Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin heads the list of other considerations.
  • If the Wild end up cellar dwelling, it might be easier to convince Mikko Koivu and Devan Dubnyk to accept trades, and perhaps even to part ways with Eric Staal. (Trading Staal would be awkward since he gave the Wild a sweetheart deal, but sometimes things have to get awkward before they get better.)
  • Via Cap Friendly, the Wild’s commitments for 2020-21 go down to $59.46M, and really open up in 2021-22 (just $37.36M to seven players). So, if the Wild are too stubborn or cowardly to trade some of the above players, Fenton could get something close to a clean slate if they merely let them walk or retire. This thought makes a Spurgeon decision especially important.

On Parise and Suter …

Speaking of money regrets, the Wild should try to get Parise and Suter off the books, even if it’s tough to imagine them actually pulling that off.

  • Honestly, if Parise went on LTIR, I’d view it as far more credible than plenty of other cases. He’s had significant back issues, and those don’t tend to go away, particularly for 34-year-olds with a lot of mileage.
  • Suter seems impossible to trade, but we’ve seen other seemingly impossible trades actually happen.
  • Maybe there’d be a hockey deus ex machina, like expansion draft creativity, or a compliance buyout?

Not the best odds, yet Fenton would be negligent if he didn’t explore many avenues to ease concerns.

Hope can come quickly

A long rebuild would be a tough sell, but maybe Fenton could sell a Rangers revamp to Leipold: going all-in for a short period of time to bring in picks, prospects, and generally gain flexibility.

[More on the Rangers’ rebuild]

While I doubt that many teams can recreate the Rangers’ mix of wisdom and luck, the bottom line is that the Wild have gone a long time since they focused on getting blue chip prospects. Look at the Wild’s draft history and you’ll see how rare high first-rounders have been lately, and how often they’ve lacked higher picks altogether.

To sweeten the deal, the 2020 NHL Draft crop is getting quite a bit of hype, too.

Imagine the Wild landing a lottery pick, some picks and prospects through trades, and Kirill Kaprizov’s long-awaited NHL leap. If they hoarded cap space, they could strike for their own answer to Jacob Trouba and/or Artemi Panarin. Suddenly, the Wild go from drowning slowly in quicksand to seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

***

Things can change quickly in sports. The Wild could make their “poor, sad, dejected, beaten down” fans far happier with some bold changes, but they must sway their most important fan: their owner. If a truly lousy season is the only way for Leipold to clue in, then it might just be worth it for the Wild.

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.

What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?

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Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise confirmed a key hire on Wednesday, naming Ron Francis as its first general manager.

The Hall of Fame center spent just under four years as Carolina Hurricanes GM, and with that, his work inspires mixed reactions. Let’s consider the good, bad, and mixed to try to get a feel for what Francis offers Seattle as its new boss.

Net losses

The Hurricanes never made the playoffs during Francis’ time as GM, and faulty goaltending was the biggest reason why. At the time, gambling on Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as replacements made some sense – though the term Darling received heightened the risks – but both gambles were epic busts.

With Alex Nedeljkovic (37th pick in 2014) still developing, it’s possible that Francis drafted a future answer in net, yet his immediate answers came up empty. Matching the luck that the Vegas Golden Knights have had with Marc-Andre Fleury seems somewhat unlikely, but Francis needs to do better with that crucial position in his second GM stint.

Building a strong young roster on a budget

It says a lot about Francis’ work in Carolina that The Athletic’s (sub. required) Dom Luszczyszyn graded the Hurricanes as the NHL’s most efficient salary structure, and apparently by a healthy margin.

Some of those great contracts were offered up by current GM Don Waddell (or Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho), yet Francis and his crew authored some stunners. Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce boast some of the best bargain contracts in the NHL.

[RELATED: NHL Seattle tabs Ron Francis as first GM]

With a clean slate in Seattle, maybe Francis and his crew can create similar competitive advantages?

Drafting wise, the Hurricanes had some big wins under Francis, most notably stealing Aho in the second round in 2015. Still, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, maybe spare yourself the thought of Carolina getting Charlie McAvoy or Alex DeBrincat instead of Jake Bean at No. 13 in 2016, and some other gems instead of Haydn Fleury at No. 7 in 2014. Maybe Fleury and Bean are late bloomers, but it’s tough to imagine them looking like the right moves. If NHL teams truly have learned from the last expansion draft, Seattle will be more draft-dependent than Vegas has been so far, so Francis may be asked to hit homers instead of singles with key picks.

(NHL GMs make enough blunders that Seattle may still get some Jonathan Marchessault-type opportunities, though, so we’ll see.)

Investing in analytics

Whether it’s Francis or Waddell, it’s difficult to distinguish which smart Hurricanes moves stem from them, and which ones boil down to brilliant analytics work from the likes of Eric Tulsky. The thing is, if Francis listens to advice in Seattle, does it really matter?

A lot must still come together, but it’s promising that Seattle already hired a promising mind in Alexandra Mandrycky. Mandrycky was hired before Francis, so there’s a solid sign they may end up on the same page.

If your reaction is “One analytics hire, big deal,” then … well, you should be right. This list of publicly available analytics hires from Shayna Goldman argues that Seattle is off to a good start, and could leave some turtle-like teams in the dust if they keep going:

To take advantage of the expansion draft, you might need to be creative. Leaning on analytics could be key to eking out extra value.

***

Ultimately, we only know so much about Francis.

While George McPhee took decades of experience into Vegas, Francis was only Hurricanes GM for a touch under four years. Such a thought softens the “no playoffs” criticism, and while some of his work was hit-or-miss, it’s crucial to realize that Francis left the Hurricanes in a generally better place than when he took over.

Will his approach work for an expansion franchise in Seattle? To some extent, it will boil down to “taking what the defense gives him,” as Francis might be able to find savvy deals like Vegas did with Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and what Francis managed himself in exploiting Chicago’s cap issues to land a star in Teravainen. It’s also worth realizing that Seattle offers different variables than Carolina did, including possibly giving Francis a bigger budget to work with.

Overall, this seems like a reasonable hire, but much like Seattle’s roster or even its team name, Francis can be filed under “to be determined.”

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.

Ron Francis hired as NHL Seattle’s first GM

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NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke said last month during the NHL Draft in Vancouver that the group wanted to hire a general manager sooner rather than later.

Well, 226 days after the NHL awarded them a franchise that will begin play in the 2021-22 NHL season, Seattle has a GM and his name is Ron Francis.

“Announcing Ron Francis as our team’s first general manager is a dream come true,” said Leiweke in a statement. “He is truly hockey royalty and is the perfect fit for the team we are building. He has a proven track record in hockey management, a dedication to the community and an eagerness to innovate which fits our vision. In our search, we looked for someone who is smart, experienced, well-prepared and progressive. I am confident that he will maintain our commitment to excellence and ultimately guide us to a Stanley Cup.”

NHL Seattle, still working on a name and team colors, wants to follow the same blueprint that the Vegas Golden Knights did when they assembled their staff before entering the league for the 2017-18 season. This is one big step among many before they finally hit the ice as a franchise.

Francis, who will oversee player personnel, coaching staff, amateur and pro scouting, player development, analytics, sports science and AHL minor league operations, was last in NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes. He joined the organization in 2011 as director of hockey operations and three years later took on the role of GM. In March of 2018, Francis was reassigned to president of hockey operations after Tom Dundon bought the team. One month later the Hockey Hall of Famer was fired. Since January he had been working at a Raleigh commercial real estate firm.

According to the Seattle Times, which first broke the story on Tuesday night, Francis’ deal is likely in the five-year range and “midrange” in terms of salary compared to other NHL GMs.

Under Francis, the Hurricanes failed to make the the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four years. He oversaw the trade that sent longtime captain Eric Staal to the New York Rangers, as well as the deal that brought Teuvo Teravainen to Raleigh. His scouting staff helped draft the likes of Warren Foegele, Sebastian Aho, highly-touted forward Martin Necas, and Noah Hanifin, who would later be a piece to bring in Dougie Hamilton via trade. 

[MORE: What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?]

The summer of 2017 was an interesting one for Francis. After years of tight purse strings, he finally was able to spend some money. His biggest signing that did not work out was the four years and $16.6 million given to Scott Darling to solve their problem in goal. But the one that worked and could still pay off if he decides to keep playing is bringing back Justin Williams, who has helped changed the culture around the team during this past season of success.

In a completely different environment with much different expectations, Francis has lots to prove in his second chance as an NHL GM.

It will be difficult to copy the success that the Golden Knights had in their inaugural season, and judging by how Francis ran his ship in Carolina, he’ll be about patience and not sacrificing the future for today — and he’ll probably be able to spend some money on a more consistent basis.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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