Penguins’ playoff exit was two years in the making

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The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from it.

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.

P.K. Subban, NHL make $100K donation to fund for George Floyd’s daughter

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P.K. Subban has announced a $50,000 donation to the GoFundMe page for George Floyd’s daughter and added that the NHL is matching that amount.

The Devils defenseman took to social media to add to the voices around hockey speaking up about Floyd’s death last week.

“What does ‘change the game’ mean? ‘Change the game’ means change the narrative,” Subban said. “The narrative has been the same — no justice. There needs to be justice. Justice has to happen; change needs to come, but we need everyone. We need everyone and all people to look at our lives and see where we can help that change and do our part. I’m committed to that. I’m committed to that through and through.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the fund for six-year-old Gianna Floyd is nearing $900,000 from over 26,000 donors.

[NHLers speak out on death of George Floyd, U.S. protests]

In 2015, Subban, while a member of the Canadiens, made a $10 million pledge to the Montreal Children’s Hospital.

Other NHLers helping out

Subban wasn’t the only NHLer going good on Wednesday. Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins announced a $25,000 donation to the Boston branch of the NAACP as well as $25,000 to Centre Multiethnique de Quebec.

Capitals forward Tom Wilson Tweeted that he’ll be donating to East Of The River Mutual Aid Fund as well as to the Fort Dupont Cannons Hockey Program.

Finally, Andrei Svechnikov lent a hand to the Wake County Boys and Girls club. The Hurricanes forward donated 2,500 disposable masks and 25 5.25-gallon containers of hand sanitizers for COVID-19 relief efforts.

For more on the George Floyd protests around the U.S., follow the NBC News live blog.

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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.

Will 2020 Stanley Cup be the toughest ever to win?

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During the latest episode of “Our Line Starts,” Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might just be the toughest to ever win.

However you feel about that, others argued similarly. Back in mid-April, Golden Knights forward Max Pacioretty also argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might require the most from players.

“I think this will be the hardest Stanley Cup to win out of all of them,” Pacioretty told Gary Lawless of the Golden Knights’ website. “Look at all the obstacles. Who knows when we’re going to play, where, fans or no fans, everything is up in the air …”

Again, Pacioretty made that observation in April, before the NHL announced its return-to-play plans. Jones and Sharp argued their point with more information about the process. The larger arguments remain pretty similar, though.

Of course, as Jones and others also note, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear. Laying out a play to hand out the 2020 Stanley Cup doesn’t mean you’ll reach that destination.

But Pacioretty and others provide some room for debate. Could a run for the 2020 Stanley Cup prove to be the toughest of them all?

How a run to the 2020 Stanley Cup could be especially difficult

While the sheer uncertainty of the situation provides the best fodder, you could also lean on the nitty gritty details. Consider how difficult the path could be for a Qualifying Round team trying to win the 2020 Stanley Cup.

Said team would jump into a high-stakes, best-of-five series with a potentially dangerous opponent. Only then would they make the typical “Round of 16” you’d associate with the postseason.

The NHL hasn’t announced how long each (traditionally best-of-seven) First Round and Second Round series would be. However, we do know that the league aims for best-of-seven series during the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, along with the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

So … yeah, that could present a treacherous path. Especially for teams in that Qualifying Round, but Round Robin teams like Pacioretty’s Golden Knights wouldn’t have it easy, either. And that’s before we get into the logistics of living in a hub city, potentially away from family, friends, and other comforts.

NHL seasons have faced other extraordinary/unusual challenges

Yes, these are strange times — in some ways, unprecedented — but the NHL’s seen other serious challenges.

As you may know, the league faced serious disruption from another epidemic. The 1919 Stanley Cup was not awarded thanks to “The Spanish Flu.” (Gare Joyce recently looked back at that, and how it may illuminate the league’s struggles with COVID-19, for Sportsnet.)

If the NHL manages to award the 2020 Stanley Cup, it won’t be alone in the league forging on during tough moments. Back in 2017, Stan Fischler looked back at the NHL operating during World War II, and all of the challenges that ensued.

Each team had many players who were on active service during the war. In hockey’s “Victory Lineup” at the start of the 1942-43 season, the Boston Bruins had 16 players, the Canadiens 11, the Chicago Black Hawks seven, the Brooklyn Americans eight, the Detroit Red Wings eight, the New York Rangers 19 and the Maple Leafs 14.

Pacioretty himself weighed the significant challenges of going for the 2020 Stanley Cup with some unusual advantages. Most obviously, players will be as healthy as they’ve ever been this late in a season.

Considering how people often complain of rigorous travel, one perk of the “hub city” system would involve far more limited movement. (From a quality of life standpoint, that’s probably mostly negative. Players would prefer to see friends and family, and the comforts of home. But still, it’s worth at least mentioning in passing.)

2020 Stanley Cup not the only unusual circumstance

Thanks to lockouts and/or lockout-shortened seasons, we’ve also seen players enter postseasons in less typical circumstances. Sure, some will worry that the 2020 Stanley Cup winner might get the “asterisk treatment.” There are people who probably still discredit, say, the 2005-06 Hurricanes for winning it all during an unusual season.

Overall, Jones, Sharp, and Pacioretty all have decent larger points. The sheer uncertainty of this situation should make it difficult. That’s especially true for the NHL players who are most aptly “creatures of habit.”

Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman candidly spoke about the many obstacles the NHL faces in determining a 2020 Stanley Cup winner while managing risks. It won’t be easy to win it all, but then again, it rarely is, right?

Check out the full episode of “Our Line Starts” below:

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.

Decision on NHL Return to Play hub cities weeks away

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As the NHL moves towards resuming play this summer, the league must first narrow down the list of hub cities.

When Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the NHL’s Return to Play plan last week, he noted 10 cities in the U.S. and Canada are under consideration. Two will be chosen with the strong likelihood one will also host the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

First, here are the 10 cities in the running:

• Chicago, IL
• Columbus, OH
• Dallas, TX
• Edmonton, AB
• Las Vegas, NV
• Los Angeles, CA
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
• Pittsburgh, PA
• Toronto, ON
• Vancouver, BC

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

Appearing on the Ray & Dregs podcast, Bettman gave an update on the process.

“I’m going to probably have to make a decision collectively on this probably in three weeks,” he said on the May 28th episode. “I think in two weeks we’ll start narrowing down further. Somewhere around three weeks we’re going to have to pull the trigger and finalize the arrangements and make the deposits.”

Standing out

In order to play host, a hub city will need secure hotels, facilities for games and practices, and good transportation. Most importantly, there will need to be low COVID-19 case rates, cooperation from local government, and the availability for mass testing.

The three Canadian cities face the biggest challenges. The government has a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for anyone entering the country. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said discussions are “on-going” between public health officials and the NHL.

How badly does Edmonton want in? Alberta premier Jason Kenney sent a request to Trudeau asking that NHL personnel be exempt from travel and quarantine restrictions to improve their chances.

Vegas, baby, Vegas

Meanwhile, Las Vegas has emerged as a favorite. Nevada is about to enter Phase Two this week, with businesses and casinos set to reopen. That’s a huge boost for the city’s chances given the amount of available hotels. The lack of ice sheets compared to other cities could be helped by the installation of additional surfaces, reported The Athletic last week. The total package is a reason why the conference finals and Cup Final could also take place there.

Host cities with a team involved, however, may not get to root them on. The league may put them in the other hub city or, if they do stay home, the players would have to follow the NHL’s guidelines. “[I]f a team happens to be in its own market, the players I don’t think should be planning on going home,” Bettman said.

The NHL is expected to move into Phase 2 this week with players in small groups doing voluntary non-contact skating and off-ice training. The next step would be training camps opening up no earlier than July 10 and a possible resumption of the season by early August.

MORE RETURN TO PLAY:
Breaking down the Eastern Conference series

A look at the Western Conference matchups
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
Qualifying Round storylines

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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.

Our Line Starts podcast: Previewing key NHL Return to Play matchups

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In the latest edition of Our Line Starts, Liam McHugh, Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones break down the NHL Return to Play plan and take a look at a few potential hub cities. Plus, they preview some of the more exciting playoff matchups, including Penguins vs. Canadiens, Hurricanes vs. Rangers, Oilers vs. Blackhawks and Predators vs. Coyotes.

3:55-5:40 Is the Return to Play format fair?
6:45-8:05 Hub city discussion
8:05-10:50 Can Montreal upset Pittsburgh?
10:50-13:40 Intriguing Hurricanes-Rangers matchup
13:40- 15:50 Bracket vs Re-seed debate
16:30-18:45 What to make of Oilers vs Blackhawks
18:45-21:05 Coin flip between Coyotes and Predators

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports