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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: Bemstrom, Foligno power Blue Jackets past Senators

Nick Foligno #71 of the Columbus Blue Jackets, right, and Boone Jenner #38 of the Columbus Blue Jackets celebrate Foligno's second period goal against the Ottawa Senators
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Three Stars

1) Nick Foligno, Columbus Blue Jackets

John Tortorella has long advocated for teams to not have games on the same day as the NHL Trade Deadline. Coincidentally, the Columbus Blue Jackets won the only game scheduled, defeating the Ottawa Senators in overtime, 4-3. Foligno opened the scoring when he slid a puck past Marcus Hogberg. He later knotted the game at 2-2 with a redirection 12:32 into the middle frame.

2) Emil Bemstrom, Columbus Blue Jackets

Right place, right time. Zach Werenski’s shot created a juicy rebound and Bemstrom was in the right place to put home the game-winning goal. Boone Jenner picked up his second assist of the night and the Blue Jackets moved into the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with the victory.

3) Connor Brown, Ottawa Senators

The human element in sports is often overlooked but the Ottawa Senators put together an admirable performance after seeing several significant pieces dealt earlier in the day. Brown led the way with two goals before the Senators ultimately came up short in overtime. Chris Tierney made a no-look backhand pass from behind the cage to set up Brown 10:48 into the first period. Brown would later add a power-play goal in the middle frame to give the Senators a 2-1 lead.

Highlight of the Night

Tierney showed off spectacular vision when this no-look pass made it to Brown.

Stat of the Night

Scores

Columbus Blue Jackets 4, Ottawa Senators 3 (OT)


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Winners and losers of the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline

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A busy day of movement around the NHL has come to an end. There were plenty of big names who were dealt today, as well as a number of draft picks heading to teams hoping to be a club adding pieces at this time of year in the future.

It was a record day of trades, according to the NHL. There were 32 deals made on Monday involving 55 players, breaking the record of 31 trades set at the 2010 deadline. The 2018 and 2019 deadlines combined only saw a total of 38 trades.

So now that the 3 p.m. ET deadline has passed, who are the winners and losers?

Let us know in the comments who you think had the best and worst day.

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WINNER: Rob Blake

Already with a strong prospect pool, the Kings GM added to it with a bevy of deals as the franchise retools for the future. Blake turned Jack Campbell, Kyle Clifford, Tyler Toffoli, Alec Martinez, and Derek Forbort into two 2020 second-rounders, a 2020 third-rounder, a 2021 second-round pick, a conditional 2021 third-rounder, a 2022 conditional fourth-round pick, Trevor Moore, and the rights to Tyler Madden. Let’s also not forget he sent Martinez to the Golden Knights and managed to not have to retain any salary for a player whose contract expires after next season.

Canucks strengthen up front by acquiring Tyler Toffoli

LOSER: Joe Thornton

Maybe he didn’t want a trade, or maybe there wasn’t an option that intrigued GM Doug Wilson enough. But while long-time teammate Patrick Marleau gets to chase after a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh, Thornton remains in San Jose on a team that is going nowhere, wasting what might be one of his last chances at a championship. — Gretz

WINNER: Embarrassing photos from your youth

Thank you, Christina Marleau.

LOSER: Calgary Flames

With a banged up defense group, GM Brad Treliving added Erik Gustafsson and Derek Forbort. But when you see how wide open the Pacific Division is and how the Oilers attacked the deadline, wouldn’t it have been wise for Calgary to bolster up front as well?

WINNER: Don Waddell

Vincent Trocheck, Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei will strengthen their center position and blue line. The Skjei addition, however, is a curious one when you remember that he’s signed for four more years with a $5.25M cap hit and the Hurricanes will need space to re-sign Dougie Hamilton and Andre Svechnikov in the summer of 2022. But for a team that wants to build off last year’s run, they’re certainly better than they were on Sunday.

• Hurricanes send package featuring Haula to Panthers for Trocheck

LOSER: Dale Tallon

Florida is chasing a playoff spot and they send Trocheck out and bring in Haula, Lucas Wallmark and two prospects. Oh, and they made the deal with a team also in the wild card mix. Haula can be a UFA this summer, while Trocheck still has term on his deal. If this was an attempt at a wake-up call by Tallon it’s a weird one. We won’t know if the two prospects will make an impact for years, but for the now there’s a lot of hope that Haula can stay healthy and be productive as he once was.

WINNER: Ilya Kovalchuk and Marc Bergevin

It’s been quite a few months for the Russian forward. After a failed stint in LA, Kovalchuk landed in Montreal, found his passion again and played well and now goes to a Cup contender. Due to that, the Habs GM brought him in for practically nothing and flipped him for a third-round pick. Nice bit of business.

Capitals land Ilya Kovalchuk from Canadiens

LOSER: Everyone hoping for a blockbuster

Since the Coyotes remain in the playoff hunt, it was clear that Taylor Hall was going to stay put. But when rumors started surfacing that the Islanders and Wild had discussed a Zach Parise for Andrew Ladd swap that perked everyone up. Talks between Bill Guerin and Lou Lamoriello, which began about this deal in the summer, never led to anything solid, unfortunately. It would be a complicated deal to make given the salary cap hits for each player, but both reportedly waived their movement clauses to make it happen. Guess we’ll just have to wait until the summer to see if something can be done here.

WINNER: Draft pick hoarders

The climb is too steep, so Bergevin saw the writing on the wall and began looking toward the future. In dealing Kovalchuk, Nate Thompson, Matthew Peca, and Nick Cousins the Habs now have 14 picks in the 2020 draft — a draft they host — and 10 more in 2021. That’s a good amount of assets to stock a prospect cupboard or add some bodies through trades. Or, maybe, through another summer offer sheet?

Same goes for the Senators, who are in a full-on rebuild. GM Pierre Dorion has accumulated 13 picks in the 2020 draft and already has four in the first two rounds in the 2021 draft. Considering how Eugene Melnyk spends his money — sorry, doesn’t like to spend his money — Ottawa will only be able to get to where they want to be by building through the draft.

The Devils have the possibility of owning three first-round picks in 2020 if certain conditions are met following the Taylor Hall and Blake Coleman trades. Detroit has six in the opening three rounds this June, and we already mentioned LA above.

LOSER: Colorado Avalanche

Joe Sakic’s two moves Monday were adding Vladislav Namestnikov and goaltender Michael Hutchinson. With the injuries they’re currently dealing with and the cap space they own to add some pieces, it’s a surprise they were relatively quiet. Maybe Sakic went all-in on Kreider and that was shot down once he re-signed with the Rangers, or the price set was too much for his liking.

You’d think if Sakic was going to give up a prized prospect like a Bowen Byram it would be for a player with term, but no deal of that nature came to fruition or was even rumored to be a possibility. In his eyes, when Nazem Kadri, Matt Calvert, and Mikko Rantanen return, those will be considered Colorado’s additions. We’ll find out in a few months if standing pat was the right move here.

WINNER: Ken Holland

He didn’t complete a massive blockbuster, but the additions of Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Ennis, and Mike Green are strong additions for a team that already has two MVP candidates and is playing in a very winnable division. Depth was their big concern, and they addressed it for a decent price — Gretz

Oilers get Athanasiou from Red Wings; Ennis from Senators

LOSER: Jacob Markstrom

The Canucks goaltender, who has been the team’s MVP this season, is expected to miss the next several weeks after suffering a knee injury over the weekend. That explains why GM Jim Benning went out and acquired Louis Domingue from New Jersey for Zane McIntyre.

Markstrom has played his way into the Vezina and Hart Trophy conversations with what he’s done in Vancouver, and set himself up for a nice raise after July 1.

WINNER: Robin Lehner

He may not get as much playing time as he did in Chicago, but he goes from a sinking ship to a Chicago team that should be a bonafide Stanley Cup contender in Vegas. — Gretz

LOSER: Stan Bowman

He had the right idea, I just don’t know that it worked out the way he thought it would. The Blackhawks absolutely had to trade Lehner and Gustafsson. It would have been nonsensical not to. But everyone in Chicago had to be expecting more than a disappointing young goalie, a prospect, and a second-and third-round pick. Did he overplay his hand? Did he just mess it up? Whatever it is, it was the right idea just seemingly a poor execution of it. — Gretz

WINNER: The Ovechkins

The couple announced their own acquisition on Monday:

LOSER: Overthinking every little thing on Trade Deadline day

Johnny Gaudreau left the ice early on Monday prompting a flurry of speculation that the Flames were about to trade him. Sorry, turns out he just had to pee.

WINNER: New York Rangers

They didn’t trade Chris Kreider and kept him for seven years at a reasonable $6.5M cap hit. GM Jeff Gorton also freed up some cap space for the summer (Tony DeAngelo extension?) and added a first-round pick by sending Brady Skjei to Carolina.

LOSER: New York Rangers

At the same press conference where team president John Davidson announced the Kreider extension he also revealed that Pavel Buchnevich and Igor Shesterkin were in a Sunday night car accident. Buchnevich is considered day-to-day but Shesterkin suffered a rib injury and will be out for the next several weeks. Welcome back to the fold, Henrik Lundqvist.

WINNER: Boston Bruins

GM Don Sweeney added Ondrej Kase and was able to rid himself of 75% of David Backes’ contract in one move. Kase, when healthy, is a productive forward and signed for $2.6M through the end of next season.

LOSER: Dallas Stars

Jim Nill was in on Joe Thornton, but it was a quiet day in Big D. We know they Stars are strong defensively, but their biggest need was help on offense as they sit in the bottom five in the NHL in goals per game. The pressure is on to win in Dallas and taking an inactive approach to the deadline is a gamble. Defense wins championships, sure, but other contenders around them in West look a step ahead of them up front at the moment.

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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.

Maple Leafs keep Tyson Barrie, re-sign Jake Muzzin

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Trade deadline day isn’t just about the trades that get made. Sometimes the trades that do not get made can just as intriguing and get as much attention. That takes us to Toronto where the pressure is mounting and the walls are seemingly closing in on the Maple Leafs as they fight just to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In the days leading up to the trade deadline speculation and rumors were circling around defenseman Tyson Barrie and whether or not the Maple Leafs would move him on Monday. But when all was said and done after the 3 p.m. ET trade deadline, Barrie remained with the Maple Leafs on what was a mostly quiet day for the team.

The biggest move they made on Monday was officially re-signing veteran defenseman Jake Muzzin to a four-year, $22.5 million contract extension that will run through the end of the 2023-24 season.

Like Barrie, he would have been eligible for unrestricted free agent this offseason.

Barrie has been under intense scrutiny in Toronto all season after coming over from the Colorado Avalanche in the offseason blockbuster that sent Nazem Kadri the other way. He got off to a miserable start under former coach Mike Babcock, and even though his overall play has improved as the season has gone on he has still found himself in the crosshairs for criticism probably more often than he should be.

Even with his contract situation, trading him never seemed to be a realistic scenario that would improve the team in the short-term or long-term. For one, with Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci both out of the lineup due to injury the Maple Leafs would have needed to find another defenseman coming back the other way (or in a different trade). That would have been a lot of moving parts and shuffling of deck chairs for probably a minimal upgrade. If any upgrade at all.

As for Muzzin’s deal, he will be 32 years old next season when the contract begins and will pay him through his mid-30s. There is always a risk with that but it’s not an outrageous amount of money for a top-four defenseman that should still have a few good years left in him. With Barrie’s contract expiring after this season, Muzzin and Rielly are the only two defensemen on the roster with a salary cap hit over $2 million for next season. They also figure to get contributions from recent first-round picks Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren in the coming years. Both of them will be on entry-level contracts for the next two years after this season. So there is some flexibility there.

Prior to Monday the Maple Leafs acquired goalie Jack Campbell and forwards Kyle Clifford and Denis Malgin in pre-deadline trades.

MORE: PHT’s Trade deadline live blog

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.

Trades: Hurricanes get Vatanen from Devils, Brady Skjei from Rangers

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The Carolina Hurricanes were one of the busiest teams at the NHL trade deadline on Monday, and given their current injury situation they probably needed to be.

With defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce both sidelined longer-term with injuries, the Hurricanes added Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei in separate deals with the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers.

In exchange for Vatanen, the Hurricanes are sending a conditional 2020 4th round pick, forward prospect Janne Kuokkanen, and Fredrik Claesson to New Jersey.

Vatanen, who has been injured for the past couple of weeks, is an unrestricted free agent after this season.

For Skjei, the Hurricanes sent a 2020 first-round pick to the Rangers.

The Hurricanes have two first-round picks in the 2020 class (their own and Toronto’s) and will send the lesser of those two picks to the Rangers.

Skjei is signed for five more years at a salary cap hit of $5.25 million per season. He joins Jaccob Slavin, Jake Gardiner, and Pesce as defensemen on the roster that are signed through at least the 2022-23 season. Hamilton is still signed through the end of next season.

The Hurricanes also added Vincent Trocheck in a blockbuster deal with the Florida Panthers earlier on Monday.

While all of these moves either address significant short-term needs (Vatanan and Skjei) and add potential impact talent to the roster (Trocheck) the biggest question for Carolina down the stretch will be the health of their two goalies, James Reimer and Petr Mrazek.

Both were injured on Saturday night in the Hurricanes’ 6-3 win against Toronto, resulting in emergency goalie David Aryes entering the game and getting the win. Both goalies are expected to be sidelined due to their injuries and there is currently no timetable for their returns. With no trade for a goalie completed before Monday’s trade deadline, that leaves the Hurricanes with a goalie duo of Alex Nedeljkovic and Anton Forsberg. The performance of those two for however long the Hurricanes need to rely on them will do more to impact the team’s playoff chances than any trade made on Monday.

The Hurricanes next game is on Tuesday against the Dallas Stars.

They enter the week in the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 74 points. They are tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for that spot but still have two games in hand. They are also just two points back of the New York Islanders for the first wild card spot, and three points back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division.

 

MORE: PHT’s Trade deadline live blog

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.