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.

Magical playoff ride ends in more disappointment for Sharks

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Magical comebacks, dramatic wins and the most talented roster in San Jose Sharks history weren’t enough to deliver the franchise its first Stanley Cup title.

A team depleted by several key injuries ended its season with a 5-1 loss in Game 6 of the Western Conference final Tuesday night, turning the drama of Game 7 wins in the first two rounds into footnotes on a season that was ultimately a disappointment.

”We didn’t make it easy for ourselves the whole playoffs,” defenseman Brent Burns said. ”We always battled back. We got through a lot as a team. A lot of guys just battled. Just to get this far a lot of things have to go right. We battled together but came up short. It’s crushing to come this far and not get the job done.”

The goal for the Sharks was clear ever since they acquired two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson from Ottawa just before the start of the season. Coach Peter DeBoer told his team the ingredients were in place for that elusive first championship in San Jose. It appeared like that could be the case after the Sharks rallied from three goals down in the third period of Game 7 in the opening round to beat Vegas in overtime and followed that up with another Game 7 win against Colorado in round two.

But with Karlsson unable to play the final four periods of the postseason because of a groin injury that slowed him since January, and captain Joe Pavelski and two-way center Tomas Hertl also out after taking high hits, the Sharks didn’t have enough to handle the Blues.

This season ended like so many others for the Sharks, who have won more games than any other team and the second-most playoff series the past 15 seasons but still are seeking a first championship.

”They all hurt,” said center Logan Couture, who tied a franchise record with 14 goals in the playoffs. ”It doesn’t matter what the roster is. When you get this far in the playoffs or you make the playoffs it hurts. You get in the playoffs you believe you can win.”

Here are some other takeaways from the season:

JUMBO JOE: One motivating factor for the Sharks this postseason was delivering a title for beloved leader Joe Thornton. The greatest player in franchise history turns 40 in July and has not decided whether he wants to come back for another season. Thornton dealt with injuries early in the season, then had a strong stretch as a third-line center late before struggling a bit the final two rounds outside of a two-goal performance in Game 3 at St. Louis.

”He’s the face, he’s the heartbeat of the organization,” DeBoer said. ”I think like all the players in that room, as coaches we’re disappointed for not helping him get there. Because he gives you everything he’s got and should be there.”

CAPTAIN PAVELSKI: No player personified the Sharks’ grueling journey this spring more than Pavelski. His postseason started with a puck that deflected off his face for a goal. The injuries only got worse when his helmet violently crashed to the ice, leading to a bloody concussion in Game 7 against Vegas. That led to the epic comeback with four goals on one disputed major penalty that will go down as the greatest moment in franchise history until the team wins a Cup. Pavelski made a triumphant return in Game 7 of the second round but got hurt again in Game 5 against the Blues. Pavelski turns 35 and heads into an uncertain summer of free agency following a 38-goal season.

KARLSSON’S FUTURE: It was a somewhat disappointing first season in San Jose for Karlsson and now the question is whether it will be his only one. He took about two months to find his groove and then played at an elite level for about six weeks. He hurt his groin in January and was never the same. He missed 27 of the final 33 regular-season games and was never completely healed in the playoffs. He heads into free agency in July and his decision will impact what the Sharks will be able to do with Pavelski and other key pieces.

STEPPING UP: The biggest positive for San Jose this season was the emergence of Hertl and Timo Meier as building blocks for the future. The 25-year-old Hertl was the top-scoring forward for the Sharks with 74 points and showed the capability of manning a top line as a center. The 22-year-old Meier had 30 goals and looks like a long-time fixture as a top-six forward.

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Martin Jones was one of the worst starting goalies in the league during the regular season in his first year of a $34.5 million, six-year contract. He had a career-low .896 save percentage in the regular season and was pulled early in two of his first four postseason starts. He rebounded and was a key part of the first-round win over Vegas but finished the playoffs with an .898 save percentage.

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

A bet on a whim could net Blues fan $100K, another $50K

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If you’re in Las Vegas next year around January and there’s a team in last place, perhaps put a few dollars down on them winning the 2020 Stanley Cup. You never know.

That’s what St. Louis Blues fan Scott Berry did on a business trip at the beginning of the year.

Speaking to The Action Network’s Darren Rovell, Berry bet the $400 he was planning on gambling away on the Blues — at that time a 150-to-1 longshot to win the Cup.

The hotel he was staying at — Paris Las Vegas Hotel — had the Blues at 250-to-1. Telling Rovell it seemed high, he strolled over to the Bellagio and found them at only 150-to-1.

“So I sprinted back to the Paris and put down everything I had planned on spending on gambling — $400,” Berry said. “To win $100,000 sounded really good.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

With the Blues beating the San Jose Sharks in six games with a 5-1 win on Tuesday night, Berry is now on the cusp of turning his January bet into a June haul if the Blues win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Berry wasn’t the only one to throw down some cash, either.

Brendan Chapel, who plays with Berry in a rec hockey league, saw the odds after a message from the latter and dropped $200 of his own hard-earned cash on the Blues. He stands to win $50,000 if the Blues can overcome the Boston Bruins, a series that begins next Monday at TD Garden in Boston.

That’s $600 that could turn into $150,000.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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

Kaapo Kakko has made his case to be top pick at 2019 NHL Draft

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If the IIHF World Championship is a last-chance-hotel of sorts for a few lucky youngsters looking to lift their draft stock, Finland’s Kaapo Kakko certainly hasn’t checked out yet.

If anything, he’s given the New Jersey Devils brass a headache leading up to the NHL Draft on June 21.

A good headache, of course.

Jack Hughes, the American prodigy who’s set the USA Hockey National Team Development Program ablaze, has been the consensus No. 1 prospect for most of the year, and the year leading up to this draft, and perhaps sometime before that, too. He’s a special player who, in 50 games this season with the program’s U-18 team, put up 34 goals and 112 points, 20 more at the U-18 world championships and four assists in four games at the world juniors.

Thus, Hughes is rated as the top prospect in North America from NHL Central Scouting, and the top prospect in the world by several pundits. When you average 2.24 points per game, these things come pretty naturally. When you put up 228 points in 110 games with the USNTDP — a 2.28 point-per-game clip — you become one of the best, if not the best, to ever emerge from the program.

Hughes has earned his stripes heading into Vancouver, but has his reputation warded off Kakko’s rise at the Worlds?

Kakko hasn’t exactly flown under the radar. Not at all, but he’s lived in Hughes’ shadow. At least, he did.

While both are playing at Worlds right now, it’s Kakko who’s getting the big minutes playing on a Finnish team that isn’t nearly as star-studded as the U.S. So while Hughes has a lonely assist in the tournament, and has only really featured in spurts, Kakko has launched a full-on assault on the minds of Devils general manager Ray Shero and his scouting staff.

Kakko has six goals and one assist in seven games played now at the tournament. He’s shown he can take over games with his hat trick vs. Slovakia, and he’s shown his sublime skill.

That’s two-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray between the pipes.

Kakko cares little. Just like he didn’t when he slotted home the game-winning goal to give Finland a gold medal against Hughes’ Americans at the the IIHF World Junior Championship in January.

Kakko is another link in the chain that’s been Finland’s golden years of young prospects who are remarkable. Whatever was in the water 18 to 22 or so years ago should have been bottled.

And it has to make the Devils think.

At 6-foot-2 and nearly 200 pounds already, Kakko comes ready for the NHL game in size. He’s played with men in the Finnish Liiga and is having no issues at all against NHLers at the Worlds either.

In his first full season with TPS, Kakko put up 38 points in 45 games, including 22 goals.

The recent Finnish lineage has included the likes of Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho, Arturri Lehkonen, Mikko Rantanen and Miro Heiskanen, among others. Neither of those guys were first overall picks, yet all of them are making massive impacts of the teams they play on.

Hughes probably still goes first in June, and that might just be alright for the New York Rangers, who sit in the second hole knowing they get one or the other.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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

The 10 dates from the ’18-19 season that led Blues to Stanley Cup Final

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The Cinderella story for the St. Louis Blues continued on Tuesday night.

A convincing 5-1 win pushed the Blues past the San Jose Sharks and into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 49 long years. St. Louis will get its chance at redemption, nearly a half-century in the making, when they face the Boston Bruins beginning next Monday.

But while it is a little less than a week’s wait for the Cup Final to begin, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on just where the Blues came from over the past five months. Truly, the Blues started from the bottom and now they’re here, competing for hockey’s grandest prize.

Here are 10 dates from the 2018-19 NHL season that changed the course of history for the Blues.

Nov. 19, 2018

We’re going to skip back a month and a half before things really kicked off for the Blues on the ice, and look back at the date they made a change behind the bench. A troubling 2-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings — their third shutout defeat in their past four games at the time — and limping along with a 7-9-3 record despite going guns a-blazin’ in the offseason, attracting the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, general manager Doug Armstrong pulled another trigger, this time firing Mike Yeo as head coach and replacing him with Craig Berube, who was an associate coach of Yeo’s.

Jan. 3, 2019

Things under Berube didn’t get off to the best start. The Blues lost their first game with him behind the bench 4-1 to Nashville and two games later got obliterated by Patrik Laine and the Winnipeg Jets in an 8-4 rout. Losses to Arizona (6-1) and Edmonton (3-2 SO) is how the Blues began December. They’d go on to fall twice to Vancouver in 2018’s final month and came back from the Christmas break to post a 6-1 loss to Pittsburgh and a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers. All the losing meant that when the Blues awoke on Jan. 3, they were wallowing in last place in the NHL. Happy New Year.

Jan. 6, 2019

A few players ventured to a bar in Philadelphia the night before they were set to face the Flyers. Presumably, we could assume they were drowning their sorrows of a season that had gone completely off the rails. Instead, Laura Branigan came on over the speakers during the Philadelphia Eagles’ playoff game against the Chicago Bears. The song, “Gloria,” would end up turning into their victory anthem. Who knew it would be played so many times in the weeks and months to come. “When I hear it, that’s a good thing, right. That means we’ve won the game,” Berube would later say.

Jan. 7, 2019

The Blues lost Carter Hutton to free agency several months earlier and had placed all their faith in starter Jake Allen. Allen’s play certainly hadn’t helped the team in the first half of the season, a stretch summed up quite succinctly by a .896 save percentage. Enter Jordan Binnington, a 25-year-old career minor leaguer who played a grand total of 13 minutes in the NHL, and had never started a game. By now you know the name, but back then, you didn’t. Nevertheless, Binnington started to push his way into the spotlight, first by blanking the Flyers in a 3-0 win. Binnington stopped 25 shots that night. The next several days and weeks, even, everyone wondered if the skinny kid with the iceman demeanor was just the next Andrew Hammond. We know the answer to that now.

[RELATED: Jordan Binnington’s incredible, season-saving run for Blues]

Jan. 23, 2019 – Feb. 24, 2019

Twelve St. Louis skaters figure into the points in a 5-1 win against the lowly Anaheim Ducks on a Wednesday night in late January. The game by itself isn’t especially important but is the start of something much more grandiose. The Blues began that day four points adrift from the league’s basement but would go on a season-defining 11-game winning streak over the next month that would eventually end in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 24, in the second half of a back-to-back. The Blues gained a whopping 12 places in the overall league standings, going from 25th to 13th. More importantly, they went from sixth place in the Central Division to third.

March 6, 2019

If we’re looking for a date where the Blues announced their intentions to the rest of the league, it may have been an early March game against the Anaheim Ducks. The Blues owned a 3-1 lead midway through the game when a very poor Ducks team staged a comeback. They scored twice to close out the second period to tie the game and then Adam Henrique gave the Ducks a 4-3 advantage. Knowing the Ducks, no lead is safe, and sure enough, Robert Thomas found the back of the net to tie the game. Overtime, surely:

April 6, 2019

The final day of the regular season for the Blues, who won 3-2 in a shootout win against the Vancouver Canucks. For a brief moment, they were first in the Central Division before the Nashville Predators eventually won it later in the day and the Winnipeg Jets slotted into the second spot, tied on 99 points with the Blues. They closed out the season winners of 14 of their final 16 games and narrowly missed out on going from worst to first in a four-month stretch. Still, U.S. Thanksgiving statistics be damned, the Blues were headed to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and were the hottest team entering the postseason.

May 7, 2019

The Blues had won Game 6 two nights earlier to force a Game 7 against the Dallas Stars in Round 2. Two third period goals, including one after a Colton Parayko point shot that drilled Stars goalie Ben Bishop, sealed Dallas’ fate on that night. Two days later, they had to do it all over again. Bishop was shaken up, but the Vezina Trophy finalist dressed for Game 7 and was spectacular. A 1-1 deadlock after 60 minutes meant overtime, and the first period of play solved nothing. Bishop had made 52 saves in the game up until the 5:50 mark of double OT. It was then that Bishop didn’t get all of a puck that dropped behind him, allowing St. Louis native Patrick Maroon to get his stick on it to push it over the goal line. The Blues, in front of a sold out Enterprise Center, were off to the Western Conference Final.

May 15, 2019

The San Jose Sharks had caught a tremendous break in Game 7 of Round 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights. Essentially, a missed call resulted in a major penalty for Vegas’ Cody Eakins. The Sharks, who trailed 3-0, scored four on the ensuing power play and would go on to win in overtime. Fast forward a couple of weeks and the Sharks were on the receiving end of what could have been another series defining missed call. This time, the Sharks are in overtime against the Blues in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final. Timo Meier appears to bat the puck (a blatant hand pass) into the front of the net where an anxiously awaiting Erik Karlsson sits. Karlsson makes no mistake, winning the game to take a 2-1 series lead. The Blues were irate on the ice but Berube went into the dressing room after the game and calmed the troops. Unlike Vegas, the Blues had a chance to right that wrong.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

May 21, 2019

The Blues kept a level head after Game 3’s debacle and came out and took Game 4 by a 2-1 margin. Now a race to two wins, the Blues took the path of least resistance, beginning with a 5-0 blanking of the woeful Sharks in Game 5. Injuries began to mount for San Jose, who were without Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl for parts of Game 5 and all three for Game 6. There, the Blues secured a 5-1 win, putting themselves into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 49 years.

From Jan. 3, where they sat last, to discovering “Gloria,” and finding their diamond in the rough in Binnington, the Blues have put together one of the most memorable and impressive comebacks in NHL history. Now, they have one more hurdle in the Bruins (minus Bobby Orr), the team they last faced in the 1970 Cup Final. Does redemption, nearly 50 years in the making, await?

It would add the final chapter to what’s been a storybook season in St. Louis.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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