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Constant roster shuffling makes Penguins look directionless

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Success at a championship level in professional sports is not only a rare and short-lived thing, it also tends to be quickly and easily forgotten when the winning stops. Or at least when it slows down. So with that in mind we really need to talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins because this is a team that seems to be quickly trending in the wrong direction.

Just two years ago they were doing something that had not been done in the NHL in two full decades by winning their second consecutive Stanley Cup, capping off an incredible run of hockey that was driven by a core of superstar players and a series of roster moves that worked out to near perfection. The acquisitions of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, and a host of call-ups from the AHL were all home runs (or close to it), resulting in a stable, successful roster with very little turnover from 2016 to 2017. Other than the additions of Jake Guentzel (call-up) and Ron Hainsey (trade), it was mostly the same team.

But following the 2017 championship the salary cap, free agency, and what has seemingly been a curious change in direction from the recipe that produced back-to-back championships has stripped the team of most of its depth, and the front office has badly struggled to replace it. The result has been two years of constant roster shuffling that has left the team on the playoff bubble and facing a daunting stretch run that includes six games against the teams they are competing with for a playoff spot (three against Columbus, two against Carolina, one against Montreal) and a number of games against some top-tier teams. Those head-to-head matchups will go a long way toward making or breaking their season, which is a stunning thing to be saying about this team with this core in late February.

Making matters worse in the short-term is the fact they are currently playing without three of their top-four defenders as Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, and Olli Maatta are all sidelined for an undetermined amount of time. That situation likely had at least a little something to do with the continued roster shuffling at Monday’s trade deadline when they flipped Tanner Pearson to the Vancouver Canucks for Erik Gudbranson.

The move was not well received by … well … anyone.

The focus of the criticism has been centered around what Gudbranson can actually bring to the table. Objectively speaking, his career performance has not lived up to the status of a former top-five draft pick. His underlying numbers are among the worst in the league at his position, and the eye test isn’t any more forgiving.

By Gudbranson’s own admission on the way out of Vancouver he was not good enough during his time there.

There is legitimate cause for concern with him as a player.

But focusing on Gudbranson misses the bigger problem in Pittsburgh right now, and that problem is that over the past two years nearly every single roster transaction the team has made has been a failure.

In some cases a spectacular failure.

[Related: Pearson for Gudbranson trade looks ugly for Penguins … on paper]

We know this is true because they keep having to make more trades to undo all of the roster transactions in an effort to correct them.

The cost the Penguins paid to actually get Gudbranson from Vancouver is irrelevant. I don’t know of any other way to put this without sounding like a jerk — so I will just say it and sound like a jerk — but Tanner Pearson is a mostly forgettable, run-of-the-mill NHL player. He might score 15-20 goals for your team, he might finish with 40 points, and within a year of him being on your roster you will probably forget he was ever on your roster until you go down a Hockey-Reference rabbit hole and say, “oh, hey, remember that guy?”

But the Penguins had just acquired that guy two months earlier in exchange for Carl Hagelin, a move that in hindsight looks like it was only done to shake up a core that had maybe gotten too comfortable with itself. Hagelin had his flaws as a player, but he was a huge part of the team’s identity, a popular player in the locker room, a player who won championships with the team, and a player who could still play a capable shut down role and bring the type of defensive conscious so many of the team’s forwards currently lack.

That is not nothing. He was also an expiring contract after this season. Put it all together and that means within a span of two months the Penguins turned a somewhat useful player that was still a part of their identity and what would have been $4M in salary cap space next season into a player whose potential contributions are suspect at best, detrimental at worst, who will be taking up every penny of that salary cap space in each of the next two seasons.

Pearson’s arrival and almost immediate departure was the eighth time since the start of the 2017-18 offseason that the Penguins acquired an NHL player and then jettisoned them within a year.

  • Ryan Reaves, acquired on June 23, 2017 — traded on February 23, 2018
  • Matt Hunwick, signed on July 1, 2017 — traded on June 27, 2018
  • Antti Niemi, signed on July 1, 2017 — waived on October 24, 2017
  • Riley Sheahan, acquired on October 1, 2017 — traded on February 1, 2019
  • Jamie Oleksiak, acquired on December 19, 2017 — traded on January 28, 2019 (it was literally the same trade!)
  • Derick Brassard, acquired on February 23, 2018 — traded on February 1, 2019
  • Derek Grant, signed on July 19, 2018 — traded on January 17, 2019
  • Tanner Pearson, acquired on November 14, 2018 — traded on February 25, 2019

It is not unfair to look at that list and that series of transactions and come to the conclusion that there is a problem somewhere in the organization, whether it is with the pro scouting, or with the coaching staff, or with the final decision-making, or with what they are looking for in players. Something is clearly off here. What other conclusion can you possibly come to?

A team that just two years ago was winning with speed, skill, and puck-moving defense keeps trying to find grit and toughness and keeps making itself slower and less mobile.

The one transaction that was made during this stretch that hasn’t yet been undone, the signing of Jack Johnson, might be the most damaging of the bunch and it’s probably only a matter of when, and not if, that ends in a buyout or a trade.

This much roster turnover and shuffling of players can not be a sustainable way to run a franchise, mostly because it doesn’t even take into account the collateral damage that has come with working to “fix” those trades. They lost Conor Sheary, Hagelin, Ian Cole, and Oskar Sundqvist as part of those transactions, and have also given up a boat load of draft picks and a top prospect (goalie Filip Gustavsson) along the way.

As of now, they have gained Jared McCann, Nick Bjugstad, and Gudbranson out of it all, with the latter two taking up more than $8M in salary cap space over the next couple of years for a team that is already pressed against the salary cap because of their superstars. Will they be worth it? And what other trades will have to be made and what other assets will be given up if (or when) they are not? Because if recent history is any indicator there is almost no chance they finish their current contracts wearing Penguins uniforms.

Maybe they don’t make this latest trade for Gudbranson if the injury situation isn’t what it is. But even with that it’s bizarre to try and plug a short-term hole by acquiring a player with this on-ice track record with this much term and this much money left on their deal. There are other ways to plug a hole without tying up significant cap space in future years.

And quite honestly, if Gudbranson’s play doesn’t show dramatic improvement upon his arrival in Pittsburgh there is an argument to be made they would have been better off just staying with what they had. They might have been better off had they simply done nothing since the start of last offseason because at least then they might have more salary cap space, more assets to deal from, and it’s hard to imagine their spot in the standings being any worse because as of now they are only going as far as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and a healthy Letang can carry them.

Rutherford has built three Cup winning teams in the NHL, and that is not only a big part of his story as an executive, it commands respect. It will probably be enough to someday get him a call to the Hall of Fame (how many three-time Cup winning general managers are not in?)

But it doesn’t leave him above criticism when it is warranted.

Based on where the Penguins are and the series of moves that have been made over the past two years the criticism is definitely warranted because his team looks like it doesn’t know what it is, where it is going, or how it should get there.

MORE: Winners and losers of the NHL trade deadline

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.

Preds hire Scuderi, Bordeleau, Rook as development coaches

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators have hired Rob Scuderi, Sebastien Bordeleau and Dave Rook as development coaches to help polish their prospects for the NHL.

General manager David Poile announced the hirings Tuesday. Scuderi will develop defensemen, with Bordeleau working with forwards and Rook with goaltenders. They will work with Scott Nichol, the Predators’ director of player development and general manager of their AHL franchise Milwaukee.

The 40-year-old Scuderi retired from the NHL in 2016 after 12 years and 783 career games with the Penguins, the Kings and Blackhawks, winning two Stanley Cups.

Bordeleau played three seasons with Predators from their start as an expansion franchise. He was skills coach for the Montreal Canadiens each of the last two seasons and this past season for the Canadiennes of the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

Rook has been a goaltending consultant for Nashville the past five seasons, helping Predators goalies Juuse Saros and Troy Groseneck. He was goaltending coach for Columbus between 2009 and 2011.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Trade: Flyers add Braun to blue line as Sharks shed salary

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One day after the San Jose Sharks handed Erik Karlsson $92 million over the next eight years, they shipped defenseman Justin Braun to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a 2019 second-round pick (No. 41 overall) and a third-round selection in 2020.

“Justin has been an important part of our organization since we drafted him in 2007 and over that time, we have seen him develop not only as a player on the ice but as a man,” said Sharks general manager Doug Wilson in a statement. “He has played a large role in our team’s success since joining the Sharks roster, including appearing in three Conference Finals and competing for the Stanley Cup in 2016. I want to thank Justin and his wife, Jessie, for their commitment to the Sharks organization and wish them all the best in their future.”

In the wake of the Karlsson extension Wilson needed to shed some salary off the Sharks’ cap. This trade does that, freeing up $3.8M from their books for the 2019-20 NHL season. Braun has one year left on his deal and is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020.

Wilson and the Sharks now have a little over $16M in cap space, per Cap Friendly, to try and re-sign some of the team’s restricted free agents like Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc, and figure out what to do with UFAs Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist.

“Under a cap system, choices and decisions need to be made,” Wilson said on Monday. “I don’t think anybody should rush to conclusions on anything. There’s many ways to accomplish different things.”

The Braun acquisition continues an aggressive off-season by Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher. In the span of a week he’s acquired the negotiating rights to pending UFA Kevin Hayes, swapped defensemen with the Washington Capitals by shipping Radko Gudas in exchange for Matt Niskanen, bought out Andrew MacDonald‘s contract, and now added Braun.

This now gives the Flyers a blue line with a left side featuring Ivan Provorov (RFA), Shayne Gostisbehere, Sam Morin, Robert Hagg, and Travis Sanheim (RFA). Who will be on the move out of that group? Judging by how some NHL GMs are talking this week, it could be a very busy summer of player movement.

“I think there’s been more conversation, more communication between the GMs in the last month than maybe ever since I’ve been a GM,” Wilson said. “There’s so much competition, especially for the high-end player. … There’s a lot of things going on.”

MORE:
Sharks set to sweat salary cap after Karlsson extension
Teams looking for defense should seek trades, not free agents
Free agent market for defensemen looks thin without Karlsson

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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.

Lightning re-sign Coburn to $3.4M, 2-year deal

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning have re-signed defenseman Braydon Coburn to a $3.4 million, two-year deal.

Coburn will count $1.7 million against the salary cap in each of the next two seasons. General manager Julien BriseBois announced the contract Tuesday.

The 34-year-old had four goals and 19 assists in 74 games last season when he averaged 17:08 of ice time. Coburn took a $2 million annual pay cut from his last contract, which should help Tampa Bay remain among the NHL’s top Stanley Cup contenders.

Coburn has 228 points in 924 games with the Atlanta Thrashers, Philadelphia Flyers and Lightning. Tampa Bay acquired him in 2015.

This deal comes less than a day after two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson re-signed with San Jose. The Lightning were considered among the favorites to sign Karlsson if he became a free agent.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Sharks re-signing Karlsson sets table for busy NHL offseason

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Erik Karlsson had no wanderlust to test the free agent market before re-signing in San Jose.

”I never thought outside that box,” Karlsson said. ”I’m happy that it didn’t get to that.”

A handful of other teams aren’t so happy because the two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman would have been the best unrestricted free agent available. Karlsson signing a $92 million, eight-year contract with the Sharks is the first big off-ice development since St. Louis won the Stanley Cup because of all the ramifications it could have on the NHL offseason.

With Karlsson off the board, any team looking for a No. 1 defenseman has to either hope veteran Alexander Edler doesn’t re-sign with the Canucks and win that bidding war or go the trade route. Salary-cap concerns for San Jose, Washington and a handful of other Cup contenders could open the door to some significant player movement even before free agency starts July 1.

”I think there’s been more conversation, more communication between the GMs in the last month than maybe ever since I’ve been a GM,” San Jose’s Doug Wilson said Monday. ”There’s so much competition, especially for the high-end player. … There’s a lot of things going on.”

Less than 24 hours after Karlsson signed, the dominos began to fall.

Karlsson was linked to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, and it took less than 24 hours for the first direct responses to him re-signing with the Sharks. New York on Monday night acquired defenseman Jacob Trouba from the Jets, and Tampa Bay on Tuesday re-signed veteran Braydon Coburn to a $3.4 million, two-year deal – cap space it likely would have needed for Karlsson if he was available.

San Jose needed to clear room and did some of that by trading defenseman Justin Braun and his $3.8 million cap hit to Philadelphia for a 2019 second- and 2020 third-round draft pick.

The trade talk is just heating up ahead of the draft Friday and Saturday in Vancouver. Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang and Nashville’s P.K. Subban are among the high-profile players who could be on the move.

”There’s lots of things on the go,” Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. ”It’s probably an unprecedented time of conversation.”

Many of the moves that come from those conversations will set the table for free agency, where Columbus winger Artemi Panarin, center Matt Duchene and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky are the top three players available.

Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner, Dallas winger Mats Zuccarello, Islanders winger Anders Lee, Sharks forward Joe Pavelski, Bruins winger Marcus Johansson and Hurricanes winger Micheal Ferland are among the other possibilities. The salary cap is expected to increase by $3.5 million to roughly $83 million, and money will be spent.

”It’s a pretty good class this year,” Colorado GM Joe Sakic said. ”(We) already have targeted players in mind if they become available that we’ll want to talk to about joining our club. We see positions of need, of what we’re looking to do. There’s a few guys we’re going to want to talk to if they become available. We’ll be more aggressive this year with that, but if it doesn’t work out with the players we want to talk to, we’re not just going to go spend on anybody.”

Sakic’s Avalanche have the most projected cap space in the league with $36 million, according to PuckPedia . The Flyers and rival New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and Islanders will also have cap space to burn and a need for an elite defenseman or two.

”They’re not easy to find,” Philadelphia GM Chuck Fletcher said. ”Certainly, if we can find a guy that can play in our top four that we’d have the ability to acquire, we’ll certainly look at it.”

BUT FIRST, THE DRAFT: New Jersey is widely expected to select American center Jack Hughes first overall, leaving Finnish winger Kaappo Kakko for the Rangers.

”Obviously one team’s going to indicate to us exactly how it might go for the rest of the draft,” Rangers GM Jeff Gorton said. ”I think we’re in a good spot. We know that we’re going to get a really good player no matter what happens to us.”

Chicago picks third and will get a nice boost to aid its turnaround after missing the playoffs the past two seasons.

BITE OUT OF SHARKS: Committing $11.5 million a year to Karlsson cuts significantly into San Jose’s offseason maneuvering with Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi set to be unrestricted free agents and emerging star Timo Meier needing a new contract as a restricted free agent.

”Under a cap system, choices and decisions need to be made,” Wilson said, not ruling out bringing back Pavelski and others. ”I don’t think anybody should rush to conclusions on anything. There’s many ways to accomplish different things.”

RUSSIAN PACKAGE DEAL: Panarin and Bobrovsky played together with the Blue Jackets for two seasons and are hitting free agency at the same time. When Panarin switched agents to be represented by Bobrovsky’s agent, Paul Theofanus, it raised eyebrows that the Russian countrymen might want to go to the same team.

With some creative roster work, the Florida Panthers could be the ideal landing spot for Panarin and Bobrovsky and go from close to the playoffs to real contenders.

CAPITALS CONCERNS: Even though Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals are no longer reigning Cup champions, Hagelin insisted he wouldn’t have signed an $11 million, four-year contract with them if he didn’t think they could win it again over that time. To do so, GM Brian MacLellan will have to navigate a difficult cap situation around pending free agent winger Brett Connolly and restricted free agent Andre Burakovsky and knowing deals with center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby expire next summer.

”I hope (Connolly and Burakovsky are) still here,” Hagelein said. ”But at the end of the day, Conno, he’s a UFA so it’s up to him what he wants. You understand if a guy tests the market to see what’s out there. But I hope both of those guys come back.”

AP Sports Writers Pat Graham and Josh Dubow contributed to this report.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports