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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.

The Buzzer: Pastrnak nets four; Blackhawks hand Oilers first loss

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Three Stars

1. David Pastrnak, Bruins: Pasta scored four goals and recorded his fifth career hat trick as Boston doubled up the Ducks 4-2. His linemate, Patrice Bergeron, was the last Bruins player to tally four in a game when he achieved the feat on Jan. 6, 2018 against the Hurricanes. According to the NHL, Pastrnak is now the third player in Bruins franchise history, along with Barry Pederson and Cam Neely, to net five regular-season hat tricks before turning 24.

2. Victor Olofsson, Sabres: While Carter Hutton denied the Stars all afternoon during a 25-save shutout in a 4-0 win, it was the rookie winger making history. The 24-year-old Olofsson recorded his fifth power play goal of the season and set an NHL record by becoming the first player to score his first seven career goals with the extra man. Via the AP, the Sabres’ 5-0-1 start has earned them a point in their first six games for the first time since a 6-0-2 start in 2008-09. Their 4-0-0 record at KeyBank Center is their best start at home since 2006-07.

3. Alex Stalock, Wild: Stalock’s 26 saves helped the Wild to their first win of the season with a 2-0 blanking of the Senators. The shutout was Stalock’s sixth of his career and first since Dec. 14, 2017. Minnesota’s shorthanded units get a shoutout here after killing off five Ottawa power plays. (The Senators’ power play, by the way, is now 0-for-17 on the season.)

Other notable performances
• Behind two goals from Brett Connolly, the Panthers erased a 4-1 deficit to top the Devils 6-4. New Jersey is now 0-4-2, their worst start to a season since they started the 2013-14 campaign 0-4-3.

Matt Barzal‘s goal with 27 seconds left forced overtime and Devon Toews completed the Islanders’ comeback with the winner as the Blues surrendered a 2-0 lead with less than six minutes to play.

Nazem Kadri and Mikko Rantanen each had a goal and two assists as the Avalanche downed the Capitals 6-3 to improve to 5-0-0.

James Neal scored his NHL-best eighth goal of the season in a loss to the Blackhawks that ended Edmonton’s undefeated season after five games.

Highlights of the Night

Jonathan Huberdeau needed only 16 seconds to open the scoring vs. the Devils:

• Agile Brad Marchand:

• Former Capitals Andre Burakovsky made his first visit back to D.C. as a member of the Avalanche:

• Nice sequence here by the Avs, which was finished off by Nikita Zadorov:

Factoids of the Night
• The Stars’ 1-5-1 start is the team’s worst since the franchise opened with an identical record in 1990-91 when they were the Minnesota North Stars.

• The line of Pastrnak, Bergeron, and Marchand have combined for 24 points through five games.

• Via AP, the worst start in Devils franchise history was 0-8-1 in 1974-75 when they were the Kansas City Scouts.

Scores
Bruins 4, Ducks 2
Wild 2, Senators 0
Panthers 6, Devils 4
Islanders 3, Blues 2 (OT)
Sabres 4, Stars 0
Avalanche 6, Capitals 3
Blackhawks 3, Oilers 1

————

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.

Sabres’ Olofsson sets NHL record with another power play goal

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The Buffalo Sabres continued their early season surge on Monday with a convincing and thorough 4-0 dismantling of the highly disappointing Dallas Stars.

During the Sabres rookie forward Victor Olofsson (also known as Victor Goal-ofsson) scored yet another goal to open the scoring early in the second period.

It was Olofsson’s fifth goal of the season and the seventh of his young career dating back to his debut during the 2018-19 season. Why is this goal noteworthy? Because all seven of Olofsson’s goals in the NHL have been scored on the power play. That makes him the first player in NHL history to open their career with seven consecutive power play goals (since power play goals became an official stat during the 1933-34 seaosn).

The Sabres’ power play has been dominant through the first six games of the season and is one of the biggest reasons they are off to such a strong start at 5-0-1. Obviously they can not rely on their power play unit to keep scoring at a 42 percent rate (as they are through Monday’s game), but it is not like that is the only source of offense. They also have 14 goals during 5-on-5 play through the first six games. No matter the situation, they are finding ways to score goals.

This start is no doubt creating a lot of excitement in Buffalo, but there is probably an equal amount of skepticism after the way the 2018-19 season unfolded. Even so, the Sabres and their fans have to be thrilled with the current record and place in the standings. Now they just need to do something they have not done in almost a decade and find a way to keep building on it.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 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.

Pastrnak scores 4 goals for Bruins; Marchand ducks retaliation

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The thing that makes the Boston Bruins so scary for the rest of the Eastern Conference is that even when they are not at their best they are still capable of making teams look powerless against them because of their goaltending and the strength of their top players.

That was on display on Monday afternoon when they defeated the Anaheim Ducks, 4-2, to improve to 5-1-0 on the season.

This was not the Bruins’ most complete game of the season, but it was good enough.

David Pastrnak is a goal scoring machine 

The Bruins’ big three at forward are as good as you will find anywhere in the NHL.

Everyone already knows about Patrice Bergeron and his two-way play that allows him to control the game in every situation.

Brad Marchand may not be Bergeron’s equal defensively, but he has blown by him offensively and has been a top-10 scoring forward for about four years now.

Then there is David Pastrnak, who might actually be the best pure goal-scorer out of the three and the one that gets talked about the least. That may soon start to change. He was my sleeper pick for the Rocket Richard award at the start of the year, and he dominated on Monday afternoon with his first career four-goal game, proving all of the offense for the Bruins in their win. It was just the second four-goal game by a Bruins forward over the past 20 years (Bergeron did it during the 2017-18 season, before that you have to go back to Dave Andreychuck in 1999).

He has three consecutive 34-goal seasons, including 38 a year ago in only 66 games. After his performance on Monday the only players with more goals than him since the start of the 2016-17 season are Alex Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov, and Auston Matthews.

This is already the third four-goal game in the NHL this season, joining Edmonton Oilers forward James Neal and Detroit Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha.

There were only four four-goal games in the NHL during the entire 2018-19 season.

Marchand’s troll game is already in midseason form

This is Brad Marchand at his agitating best.

He manages to get an extra shot in at Anaheim’s Max Comtois along the boards, and when Comtois tries to respond and get a shot in of his own Marchand still finds a way to get the best of him.

Marchand does a lot of things that are dangerous and make people justifiably mad, but this right here is kind of funny.

Goaltending masks a lot of flaws

Sometimes even the best teams will need to rely on their goalie to get them two points, and fortunately for the Bruins they have two goalies in Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak that are capable of doing that on any given day.

The duo entered Monday with matching .957 save percentages on the season as they continue to split the early season workload. On Monday it was Halak doing the work in net turning aside 30 of the 32 shots he faced.

This is a great setup for the Bruins because it gives them a No. 1 option in goal every single night, and by splitting the playing time it it allows Rask — still their best and most important goalie — to not get worn down over the course of a long season and be fresh when they need him most (during the Stanley Cup Playoffs).

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 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.

Devils crumble again, blow another 3-goal lead to remain winless

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When Pavel Zacha scored his first goal of the season just one minute into the second period it gave the New Jersey Devils a three-goal lead over the Florida Panthers and seemed to send them on a path that might finally give them their first win of the season.

They not only failed to win their first game of the season, they ended up allowing five consecutive goals on their way to a 6-4 loss, dropping their record to 0-4-2 and sending them off the ice to a chorus of boos from their home fans.

Free agent acquisition Brett Connolly scored two goals for the Panthers to start the rally (including one with eight seconds to play in the second period), while MacKenzie Weegar, Noel Acciari, and Evgeni Dadonov added third period goals to complete the rally and give the Panthers a much-needed win.

Three quick takeaways on the latest Devils’ meltdown to open the season.

1. This is the second time they have lost a three-goal lead

This is almost hard to believe, but Monday’s loss was already the second time this season the Devils have lost a game in which they have at one point held a three-goal lead. They have only played six games! Doing that twice in a full season is bad enough, but to have it happen within the first six games is just an awful look for everyone involved.

Along with Monday’s meltdown, the Devils also lost a 4-0 lead in their season-opening shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets.

2. Jack Hughes can’t buy a break … or a point

For one split second on Monday it looked as if the No. 1 overall pick in the draft was going to finally collect his first point. He had the puck on his stick, Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was down and out, only for Hughes to ring his shot off the post and stay out of the net. He slammed his stick in frustration and remained pointless through the first six games of his career.

This is the longest a No. 1 overall pick has gone without recording their first point since Steven Stamkos went seven games for the Tampa Bay Lightning at the start of the 2008-09 season.

The good news for Hughes is that Stamkos went on to have a solid rookie season with a strong second half and starting the next year was one of the league’s best players. So it is obviously not time to worry about him or his development. The bad news for Hughes is he doesn’t have the same excuse Stamkos had for his slow start — a coach that didn’t want to play him right away.

3. Is it make-or-break time for John Hynes?

Not to put too much on one game, but the next time the Devils take the ice will be  at home against the New York Rangers, their biggest rival and the other big spending NHL team this summer.

These two teams and their rebuilds were always going to be measured against one other given their rivalry and the parallels that existed with their offseasons (the top two picks in the draft, big-name acquisitions all over each roster), and if the Devils lose that game to fall to 0-5-2 — well, Hynes’ already hot seat will no doubt increase a few degrees.

This is all part of a six-game home stand and if the Devils can not find a way to scratch out a couple of wins it is not a stretch to think that some major changes could be on the horizon for what has been one of the league’s most disappointing and underwhelming teams.

They are not just losing, they are getting crushed in every possible area.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 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.