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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.

Playoff injuries continue to pile up for Hurricanes

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As the Carolina Hurricanes hope to make it a long and successful Round 1 series against the Washington Capitals, and a deep run during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs in general, they’re not just facing talented opponents. They’re also facing “themselves,” and not just in a mental sense — they have to overcome the limitations on their own bodies.

Injuries are one of the top hurdles you have to overcome alongside bad bounces and hot goalies.

The good news for Carolina so far in Game 4 (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) is that the Hurricanes went up 1-0 with a Warren Foegele goal just 17 seconds into the contest.

The bad news is that while that good trend of a hot streak continued, a negative trend of injuries also persists. Carolina already came into Game 4 without Andrei Svechnikov because of that ill-fated fight against Alex Ovechkin, and they were also missing beefy forward Micheal Ferland thanks to an upper-body injury.

It’s unclear if Jordan Martinook will end up missing significantly time, but he needed help off the ice after an awkward bump into the boards. Martinook briefly returned toward the end of the first period, yet was not seen on the Hurricanes bench to begin the second, and the team eventually announced that he would not return for Game 4.

(You can see that unfortunate bump in the video above this post’s headline.)

Martinook isn’t a huge loss on his own, but when you consider that part of Carolina’s strength is depth and scoring by committee, the ice packs are really piling up. Consider that:

  • Martinook scored a career-high 15 goals and tied a career-high with 25 points this season, and had an assist coming into Game 4.
  • Ferland finished fourth in team scoring with 40 points, including 17 goals, and may have hit 20+ if he wasn’t limited to 71 games played.
  • Svechnikov’s been a fantastic rookie who’s flourished as he’s gained Rod Brind’Amour’s favor as the season went along. Svechnikov generated 20 goals and 37 points during the regular season, and had two goals and one assist for three points in his first three playoff games.

Those are three players who bring different abilities to the table, from grinding to having the sort of sniping skills that can break a tight postseason skirmish open – and the Hurricanes have to hope that most, if not all, of them can return to the lineup as they hope to push this Round 1 match longer.

See if the Hurricanes can tie this series at 2-2 by winning Game 4 against the Capitals, even with a shorthanded group, on NBCSN right now.

[WATCH LIVE]

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.

Barkov, Monahan, O’Reilly are 2019 Lady Byng Trophy finalists

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Next up in the NHL’s 2018-19 awards announcements is the Lady Byng Trophy, which is awarded “to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

The nominees, who are voted for by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association at the conclusion of the regular season, are Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames, and Ryan O'Reilly of the St. Louis Blues.

O’Reilly, who won the award in 2014 and was a finalist in 2018, was announced on Wednesday as one of the three Selke Trophy finalists.

Lady Byng, wife of Canada’s Governor General at the time, presented the Lady Byng Trophy during the 1924-25 season. After Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers won the award seven times in eight seasons, he was given the trophy to keep and Lady Byng donated another trophy in 1936. After Lady Byng’s death in 1949, the NHL presented a new trophy, changing the name to the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Case For Aleksander Barkov: The Panthers forward, who was also a finalist in 2016 and 2018, recorded a career season with 35 goals and 96 points in 82 games. He received 1,833:01 of ice time and only wound up taking four minor penalties, the fewest among the NHL’s top 50 scorers this season.

The Case For Sean Monahan: Like Barkov, Monahan also registered a career season with 34 goals and 82 points in 78 games. In 1,486:16 of ice time, he recorded only six minors, the fifth time he’s finished a season with 20 or fewer penalty minutes. A victory for Monahan would make him the third Flames player to take home the award since 2015 (Jiri Hudler, Johnny Gaudreau).

The Case For Ryan O’Reilly: Another career season here as the Blues forward scored 28 goals and recorded 77 points in 82 games. He also played a career high in minutes with 1,702:13 and was only called for six minors. It was the 10th time in 10 seasons for O’Reilly that picked up fewer than 20 penalty minutes.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
Selke Trophy

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

WATCH LIVE: Hurricanes try to even up; Golden Knights look to advance

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Game 4: Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET (Capitals lead 2-1)
NBCSN

Call: Kenny Albert, Pierre McGuire
Series preview 
Stream here

Game 5: St. Louis Blues at Winnipeg Jets, 8:30 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2)
USA Network
Call: Gord Miller, Ray Ferraro
Series preview
Stream here

Game 5: Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks, 10 p.m. ET (Golden Knights lead 3-1)
NBCSN
Call: Alex Faust, Mike Johnson
Series preview
Stream here

NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Anson Carter, begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Paul Burmeister, Jeremy Roenick, and Patrick Sharp will anchor USA Network’s studio coverage during St. Louis at Winnipeg.

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Flyers turn to winner Vigneault to snap championship drought

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VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning team that just flamed out in the first round of the playoffs is dotted with former New York Rangers who played in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final:

Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, J.T. Miller all helped the Rangers to get within three wins of their first championship since 1994. Five years later, a new team and a stunning elimination. They were used to deeper runs in New York with Alain Vigneault running the show. He led the Rangers to the Cup Final in his first season and bumped the win total by eight in his second.

After a year out of coaching, Vigneault takes over a fallen Philadelphia Flyers franchise. He seems to expect a similar quick fix.

”I was looking for was an opportunity to win; an opportunity in the short term to win a Stanley Cup,” Vigneault said Thursday.

Vigneault also led the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final, is a former NHL coach of the year and will spend the summer as the head coach for Team Canada at the world championships.

”It’s unusual and difficult to find coaches like Alain,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

Indeed, Vigneault has done it all on the bench except win the Stanley Cup and he joins a franchise mired in one of the longest championship droughts in the league. The Flyers haven’t won it all since 1975 or even played for the Stanley Cup since 2010. Even worse, they missed the playoffs this season and haven’t made it past the second round since 2012.

And he thinks the Flyers can win in the short term?

Maybe, because the talent is there: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier all have some heavy miles on their skates but are still productive veterans. There’s still untapped potential in a group of promising 20-somethings that include Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom, Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick. All have shown flashes of stardom along with infuriating inconsistency.

”I can get them to be more consistent. The way that I prepare a team for games I believe permits a player to understand what he needs to do against that team to be successful,” Vigneault said.

Couturier will get an early peek at Vigneault’s system at next month’s world championships in Slovakia. So will Carter Hart, the 20-year-old rookie goalie who nearly carried the Flyers into the playoffs after his December call up. He won eight straight games and pushed the Flyers (37-37-8 for 82 points) to the verge of a wild card spot until they collapsed over the final two weeks.

The Flyers used a record eight goalies this season. Vigneault knows a true No. 1 should be enough to carry the load in a championship chase. Vigneault rode Henrik Lundqvist in New York to within three wins of a championship and Roberto Luongo had four playoff shutouts when the Canucks reached the Final in 2011.

”I was very fortunate to have maybe two Hall of Fame goaltenders,” Vigneault said. ”Maybe we have a young goaltender that’s got a tremendous amount of potential and might become one of the top goalies in the league.”

One thing Vigneault won’t do is ask former Flyers coach Dave Hakstol (fired in December) and former GM Ron Hextall (fired in November) for a scouting report on the team. Both men are part of his staff at worlds. Giroux, the Flyers captain, is the only player Vigneault has called.

Vigneault, who turns 58 in May, has coached 16 NHL seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, Canucks and Rangers. His teams made the playoffs 11 times and he was named NHL coach of the year in 2006-2007 with Vancouver.

”Players look for direction. If you give a player and a team a path and you do this, you do it this way, you put in the time, you’re going to have success,” Vigneault said. ”You do the same thing with your team, they’re going to follow you.”

History suggests players will follow Vigneault. He took two teams in major hockey markets to the Final and did it in large part because of a hot goalie and an overachieving roster. The Rangers wore down because almost every series went the distance (four Game 7s) and Vigneault took them way behind their talent level.

Vigneault has an offensive superstar in Giroux (82 points) but Patrick (a former No. 2 pick) and van Riemsdyk have more name value than skill. No matter, the coach always pays the price in Philly: Vigneault is the fifth coach since the start of the 2013 season, and he’d like this commitment to last.

”You know what we have to do? We have to win,” he said.

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