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After chaotic arrival, Penguins’ newcomers could provide key depth

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PITTSBURGH — When the Pittsburgh Penguins took the ice for warmups on Friday night before their game against the Ottawa Senators they were not anywhere close to having a full NHL roster.

They were already shorthanded because superstar center Evgeni Malkin was out of the lineup due to an undisclosed upper-body injury, perhaps the result of his fight with Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos on Wednesday night.

Then there was the issue of Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann.

Both players were acquired earlier in the day in a four-player, three-draft pick blockbuster with the Florida Panthers that saw Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan go the other way. With Brassard and Sheahan on their way to Florida, Bjugstad and McCann were desperately trying to get to Pittsburgh in time for puck drop.

If they didn’t make it on time the Penguins were only going to have 10 forwards at the start of the game.

They quite literally could not have cut it any closer.

At 6:56 p.m. ET, less than 10 minutes before game time, the scoreboard at PPG Paints Arena showed both players frantically running down the tunnel toward the Penguins’ locker room.

It was around that time the official game rosters and lineups were published with both players in the lineup. It did not matter what time they were dressed or when they got there, they were playing. Period.

It was not until the national anthems were wrapping up that both players finally emerged from the tunnel and joined their new team on the bench.

Then with no warmups, no pre-game meeting, and really no chance to even introduce themselves to their teammates they were thrown right into a game with their new team.

Bjugstad ended up playing 16 minutes and recorded two shots on goal and an assist in the Penguins’ 5-3 win, while McCann played 10 minutes.

“Usually I have my coffee and do some stretches, but I didn’t have any of that today,” laughed Bjugstad. “We got here around I think 6:50, ran out there, basically made it for the anthem. I have dreams every once in a while where I’m late to a game and that’s kind of what it felt like. Luckily, it worked out pretty good.”

McCann said their day began like any other. They took part in the morning skate in Florida in preparation for the Panthers’ game against the Nashville Predators and then returned home at lunch time. It was then that they got the phone call and were informed by the Panthers that they had been traded to the Penguins.

After briefly speaking to Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford they were on a jet headed to Pittsburgh.

Both players said they had little to no interaction with the coaching staff prior to the game.

“It was basically just say hi to the coaches and get on the ice,” said McCann when asked about their last-minute arrival to the building, while admitting he had no idea what time he actually entered the building, only recalling their sprint from the car to the locker room.

“They didn’t have time to say anything to us,” added Bjugstad. “There was the anthem, there were a few things said on the bench and that was it. I got a call earlier in the day from Jim [Rutherford] and Mike [Sullivan] and they said we’re going to try to play you tonight and it was kind of a whirlwind from there. Definitely excited to get that first one out of the way. This is going to be fun to be with these guys.

“We didn’t have much time. But we’ll always remember that, sitting on the plane wondering if we were going to make it on time. We need to thank our pilots for getting us here on time.”

Even after all of that chaos, they don’t really have any time to get settled in their new city before having to hit the road again. After their frantic day on Friday that included a trade, travel, and then playing in an NHL game they had to board another plane to Toronto for a 7 p.m. ET game against the Maple Leafs on Saturday night.

It is about as hectic of a 24-hour period an NHL player can have.

“I thought they had strong games tonight under difficult circumstances,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “We’re really excited about both guys. They’re really good guys and I think they’re excited to be Pittsburgh Penguins.”

[Related: Penguins land Bjugstad; Panthers get Brassard, picks]

Now that they both are Pittsburgh Penguins, their new duty is to provide some depth and stability to the bottom half of a roster that has been constantly overhauled over the past couple of years.

Friday’s trade continued what has been a now two-year trend by the Penguins of undoing every transaction within a year of completing it.

Last offseason they added Ryan ReavesMatt Hunwick, and Antti Niemi.

Within a year all three were traded.

During the season they acquired Jamie Oleksiak, Sheahan, and Brassard in three separate trades in an effort to bolster the depth that had been lost after their second consecutive Stanley Cup win in 2017. Within a year all three of those acquisitions are also now gone, and it is again worth pointing out that the trade that saw them move Oleksiak was a literal re-do of the trade where they originally acquired him.

On one hand, it shows that general manager Jim Rutherford will work quickly to correct his mistakes when he makes them and isn’t stubborn enough to keep hoping they will work.

It also shows an incredible sense of urgency in doing whatever it takes to try and win another championship with the current core of Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel. You only get players of that caliber for so long and you owe it to them, your franchise, and your fanbase to go all in on winning while you have them.

On the other hand, is this really a sustainable way to run a team with this much constant overhaul? Not only is it a sign that the moves you are making are not working, but it’s costing even more assets to correct them. Just think back to all of the assets they gave up to originally acquire Brassard before last year’s trade deadline. He was not cheap and not only cost them their 2018 first-round draft pick, but also one of their top prospects in goalie Filip Gustavsson as well as Reaves, who was originally acquired as part of a trade that saw them give up their 2017 first-round draft pick.

Then they had to give up three additional draft picks as part of the deal to get Bjugstad and McCann. That is a lot of roster movement to end up at this spot.

Time will tell if this latest trade works out as expected.

The Penguins obviously like that both players are younger than Brassard and Sheahan and have term remaining on their contracts beyond this season.

They also may be better fits in the roles the Penguins need them to play. Brassard just never seemed to work in Pittsburgh as a third-line center, a role that he had never played at any point in his career. No matter what they tried to do to get him going, it just never clicked.

Sheahan had his moments, but they just never came consistently enough.

Bjugstad’s career has been derailed by injuries at times over the past few seasons but he has shown the ability to be a 20-goal, 50-point forward, while McCann is reportedly a player the Penguins have had their eyes on for quite some time.

Their debut in Pittsburgh went about as well as could have been expected given the circumstances.

Now, they have a little under half a season to get up to speed with their new team and try to provide the essential depth they will need to help the Penguins make another run at the Stanley Cup.

More: Penguins lock in; Panthers prep for Panarin pursuit?

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.

Backstrom expected to return for Capitals vs. Blue Jackets

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Nicklas Backstrom had a smile on his face and no concerns about missing another game.

“I’m good to go,” Backstrom said. “It’s like that guy in `Mighty Ducks.’ I woke up, no pain.”

Backstrom was referring to the fictional Adam Banks character who returned from a wrist injury in time for a championship game. The Washington Capitals are getting the real standout Swedish center back while they’re on a roll.

The Capitals are expected to have Backstrom back Monday when they host the Columbus Blue Jackets. He missed the past eight games with an undisclosed upper-body injury, and Washington went 6-1-1 in that time.

With Backstrom ready to go, the Capitals are set to have their full, healthy lineup on the ice for the first time this season. Despite injuries, they lead the NHL with 22 wins and 49 points through 31 games.

“As of right now, we are playing good hockey and we are getting the points we needed,” Backstrom said Sunday. “It is still early in the season, so you have to keep build, build and build. We are a team that is building for upcoming things.”

Upcoming are matchups against the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning, a popular preseason pick to win the Stanley Cup. But Backstrom is of course referring to the playoffs, where the Capitals are looking to bounce back from last season’s first-round exit and make another championship run like they did in 2018.

There’s no reason to think they couldn’t do that, especially given their success more than a quarter of the way through the season without the full complement of healthy bodies.

“That shows the depth that we have all the way through our lineup,” coach Todd Reirden said. “That’s been a good problem to have, and it’s allowed us to see some other players get opportunities and showcase some of the abilities they have.”

Backstrom’s return puts Washington’s lineup back in regular order. He’ll take his regular place between Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, allowing Reirden to keep the hot second line of Jakub Vrana, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie together.

Braden Holtby is expected to start in goal against Columbus.

The Buzzer: Stars Wars Storm Surge; Bob beats Blue Jackets

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

Heading into Saturday, Aho only scored in one goal (a goal and an assist) in his past five contests. He made up for that dry spell in a big way against the Wild, generating a hat trick plus two assists.

His third goal was an empty-netter, but Aho’s first tally ended up being the game-winner. Aho was really clicking with Teuvo Teravainen, who finished the night with three assists.

Aho now has 27 points through his first 30 games in 2019-20.

2. Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning made life miserable for the Sharks on Saturday, feasting by way of a 7-1 score.

Killorn was a big part of that, generating a goal and three assists for four points. Killorn now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game streak, giving Killorn 22 points in 25 games in 2019-20.

As effective as Killorn has been over the years, his career-high is 47 points. Chances are, he’s going to slow down (example a 15.7 shooting percentage so far this season, against a 10.5 career average), but if reasonably healthy, Killorn should blow that previous number out of the water.

There were other Lightning players who played really well, as you’d expect from a blowout. Steven Stamkos ranked among those who collected three points, while Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves to exaggerate the distance between the two teams.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Really, you can take your pick between Malkin and Jake Guentzel, as they both enjoyed one-goal, two-assist nights on Saturday, and they both clearly play off each other quite well. As much as Guentzel has been conjoined to Sidney Crosby during his young (and underappreciated) career, it seems like he can click with Malkin, too. Obviously, it’s not difficult to transition from one “NHL 100” player to another who should have made the “NHL 100,” yet … we’ve seen wingers who cannot find chemistry with one or more of Malkin and Crosby. So credit to Guentzel for being deadly with both, and likely making life a little easier for each of them.

Malkin now has a fantastic 26 points in just 19 games, and may very well have his biggest year in a while if he can stay healthy — an uncomfortably familiar phrase for the Penguins for quite some time. (Heck, even spanning back to Mario Lemieux.)

Guentzel now has 31 points in 30 games, and a solid chance to exceed last season’s excellent career-high of 76 points.

Highlight of the Night

Uh, you think the Kings were expecting Johnny Gaudreau to pass when he did? (Don’t lie.) This is just a tremendous combination of speed, skill, and vision as he set up Sean Monahan:

Star Wars Storm Surge

Yay or nay on the Star Wars-themed Storm Surge from the Hurricanes? I’d say solid enough, although it lacked a Bunch of Baby Yoda so … maybe not ideal.

Factoids

  • The Blue Jackets spoiled Sergei Bobrovsky‘s shutout bid a bit more than halfway through the third period. Still, Bob had a strong night with 33 saves. Hot take: Columbus is still probably relieved to not be spending to the tune of Bob’s $10M AAV, considering how infrequently Bob has looked this good.
  • NHL PR notes that the Avalanche extended a point streak to 14 games, while they also gave the Bruins their first regulation loss at home this season.
  • Brady Tkachuk received a fine from the Department of Player Safety for cross-checking Scott Laughton. More on that wild game here.
  • A bit esoteric, but interesting, from NHL PR: Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are the fifth pair to generate at least 300 points each in 320 games or fewer. They’re the first pairing to pull that off since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

Scores

PHI 4 – OTT 3
VAN 6 – BUF 5 (OT)
COL 4 – BOS 1
PIT 5 – DET 3
TBL 7 – SJS 1
FLA 4 – CBJ 1
CAR 6 – MIN 2
TOR 5 – STL 2
NSH 6 – NJD 4
DAL 3 – NYI 1
CGY 4 – LAK 3

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.

P.K. Subban gets a warm tribute during his return to Nashville

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It would have been silly for Nashville Predators fans to boo P.K. Subban during his return to “Smashville.”

Subban didn’t choose to be traded from Montreal to Nashville, and he didn’t elect to be sent from Nashville to the New Jersey Devils, either.

Sports fans aren’t always so rational, though. Really, it makes sense: spending so much money, time, and emotional energy on a game isn’t exactly the most rational thing to do. So there was some concern about how Subban would be received, especially since he’s already booed in an honestly uncomfortably large number of NHL arenas already.

Subban and others can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as while not everyone greeted Subban with open arms in as literal a way as Roman Josi did with their hug on Saturday, the team gave Subban a fantastic welcome back tribute video:

Not only does that video include some of Subban’s great moments during his three seasons with the Predators (that Stanley Cup Final appearance, a Norris Trophy win), it also captures some of the off-the-ice qualities that make Subban so fun and entertaining (and make people sometimes get perplexingly, maybe troublingly mad about him). He got up and decided to sing some Johnny Cash upon arriving in Nashville, was a fantastic charitable presence, and was a lot of fun.

(No Listerine was spilled in the making of the ad, but you can’t have it all.)

Anyway, good on the Predators and their fans for welcoming P.K. back.

As a reminder, Montreal Canadiens fans greeted him with love upon his return, too:

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.

Avs’ rising star Cale Makar shaken by hit from Bruins’ Marchand

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The Colorado Avalanche have done a masterful job, for the most part, when it comes to rolling with injury-related punches to key players such as Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. They have to hope that Saturday didn’t send another such haymaker their way.

Rising star defenseman Cale Makar (who just fell under a point per game on Saturday with 28 in 29 contests) was clearly shaken up by a hard hit by Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

It didn’t seem like a heinous hit by Marchand, although there are some who wonder if it was a bit high.

Either way, Makar’s reaction is troubling. You can see him shake his head multiple times following the hit, which gives the impression that he could have suffered a concussion. That doesn’t guarantee that Makar did, but it’s a situation to watch — and one the Avalanche should absolutely be careful about.

The Avalanche ended up beating the Bruins 4-1 on Saturday.

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.