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.

Remembering Gretzky passing Howe, 30 years later

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Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back 30 years when Wayne Gretzky broke Gordie Howe’s all-time points record … against his former team.

Exactly 30 years ago Tuesday Wayne Gretzky, then a member of the Los Angeles Kings, made NHL history by breaking Gordie Howe’s points record with a late third period goal to tally his 1,851st career point in the league.

In what was perhaps the most fitting way possible, he managed to do it in Edmonton against his former team where he spent the first nine years of his NHL career, winning four Stanley Cups. “The Great One” also accomplished the feat just a little more than a year after he was traded to Los Angeles in one of the biggest trades in sports history. There was already a statue built of him outside the building in which he broke the record.

Gretzky entered the game trailing Howe by just a single point and tied the all-time mark with a first period assist on a Bernie Nicholls goal to give the Kings a 1-0 lead.

He broke Howe’s record with less than a minute to play in the third period, tying the game and sending it to overtime where Gretzky would end up winning the game to cap off the night.

Not only did he break the record in Edmonton on a game-tying in the closing seconds, but it came at the end of what was a three-minute shift for Gretzky, via the October 15, 1989 Associated Press:

A couple of random facts to keep in mind about Gretzky’s climb up the NHL’s all-time points leaderboard and the absurdity of his production…

  • He recorded his 1,850th point in his 11th NHL season at the age of 28.
  • By comparison, Howe played 26 seasons in the NHL and recorded his 1,850th point at the age of 51. Yes, there was a brief three-year retirement and a six-year stop in the WHA thrown in there, but even if you look at Howe’s career when he retired the first time at age 42 (after 25 seasons in the NHL) he was still *only* at 1,809 points. Gretzky shattered that by age 27.
  • The craziest stat about Gretzky’s career is still the fact that if he never scored a goal in the NHL he would have still eventually broken Howe’s point record by 113 points just based on assists alone.
  • At the time of Gretzky’s record setting day, he had already registered 1,207 assists, a mark that (again excluding goals) would have been enough to put him in the top-12 in points all-time at that moment.
  • Gretzky would go on to finish his career with 2,857 points. The NHL’s second-leading scorer, Jaromir Jagr, is 936 points behind him (1,921 points). The gap between Gretzky and Jagr at No. 1 and 2 is the same as the gap between Jagr and the 91st leading scorer of all-time, Dave Keon.
  • The active players that are closest to Gretzky are Joe Thornton with 1,480 points, Sidney Crosby with 1,226, and Alex Ovechkin with 1,218. It is entirely possible — if not likely — that Crosby and Ovechkin will eventually pass Howe’s mark and climb into the top-five, but none of them have any chance of matching Gretzky’s point record, a mark that seems almost unbreakable given the way the game has evolved and become a more defensive and goaltending dominated sport.

For more stories from the PHT Time Machine, click here.

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.

Stewart earns contract with Flyers after month-long PTO

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Chris Stewart’s tryout with the Philadelphia Flyers has come to an end and the result is a one-way contract with the team.

The Flyers announced on Tuesday that they have signed the soon-to-be 32-year-old winger to a one-year, $750,000 contract. Stewart had been on a PTO deal since training camp and due to a salary cap crunch were unable to sign him. That door opened on Monday when Andy Welinski was waived, freeing up the money to make it happen.

“We’re happy to have Chris under contract,” said Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher in a statement. “Chris came into training camp with a great attitude and a strong work-ethic. He brings size and a veteran presence to our lineup.”

Welinski, along with Nolan Patrick, had been on injured reserve and his salary counted against the Flyers’ cap, tying Fletcher’s hands. His $750,000 salary will now come off the books after clearing waivers as he heads to the AHL.

Despite retaining PTO status once the season began, Stewart has been with the Flyers through their three games. He was with them on their early-season jaunt to Europe and has been skating with the team as they take part in their current Western Canada road trip. He’s expected to make his debut Tuesday night in Calgary. Per the Courier Post, the Flyers have been covering the cost of Stewart’s hotel, which is near their training facility, and he’s been receiving per diem.

Before signing his PTO with the Flyers in July, Stewart had not played in the NHL since the 2017-18 season when he suited up for 54 games with the Wild and Flames. He spent last season in Great Britain’s EIHL playing for the Nottingham Panthers.

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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.

NHL on NBCSN: Offseason work paying off for Canadiens’ Drouin

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The ovation lasted a good 40 seconds, and it showed just far the relationship between Canadiens fans and Jonathan Drouin has come since his 2017 trade from the Lightning.

After netting a goal and an assist, it was clear on his face just how much the 24-year-old Drouin appreciated the love from the fans still inside Bell Centre following their 6-3 win over the Blues on Saturday. The two-point night extended the forward’s point streak to five games to start the season, surely boosting his confidence following a quiet preseason on the ice that resulted with his entrance into the trade rumor mill.

Rewind nearly two years when in his first season with the Canadiens Drouin finished with just 13 goals in 77 games — a total well below expectations following the trade that sent defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa. The pressure to succeed immediately was high considering the team handed him a six-year, $33 million extension just hours after acquiring him.

Offensively, Drouin was better last season — scoring 18 goals and recording a career high 53 points — but he wasn’t satisfied, especially with one goal and six points in his final 26 games. He spent the summer with Canadiens assistant coach Dominique Ducharme looking over video, per Sportsnet’s Eric Engels, and the results are finally showing.

[COVERAGE OF CANADIENS-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

“There’s some stuff where I complicate things a little bit,” Drouin said. “It’s been one of my problems when I played junior and in the NHL, when I started in this league. Sometimes it’s just making that easy play where it doesn’t look that great or doesn’t look that good on TV but it’s effective. I think that’s what we looked at more than anything is to be more effective in what I do every game. Whether it’s with the puck or without it, it’s just being more… not conservative, but going after it the way I used to do it back when I played my best games in junior and in the NHL in that playoff [in 2015 with Tampa].”

Those around Drouin are noticing the differences and the improvements he’s made. Canadiens head coach Claude Julien feels this is the best he’s played since joining the team.

“It’s not the others that are making him better; it’s him who’s making them better,” Julien said. “It’s a good sign for us and he deserves a lot of credit for it.”

Drouin entered the 2019-20 season with something to prove. He wasn’t happy with his game in the past and understood the pressure that comes with playing in Montreal. He’s simply put in the work and it’s paying off.

“Mentally I’m more into the games, I’m more focused and it’s been a big change in my game,” he said.

Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter. Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Perron, Slavin lead this week’s top adds

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Jaccob Slavin, Hurricanes – D: For each of the previous three seasons, Slavin recorded 30-34 points, but at the age of 25 it’s not unreasonable to believe that we haven’t seen his peak. This campaign certainly has the potential to result in him setting new career-highs. He’s riding a five-game point streak, which has brought him up to two goals and five points in six games this season.

Zach Aston-Reese, Penguins – LW/RW: Aston-Reese was a standout in Northeastern University, but since turning pro in 2017, he’s needed time to gradually work up the Penguins’ ladder. He still has some climbing to do, but after playing in 14 games in 2017-18 and 43 contests in 2018-19 with Pittsburgh, he seems to have now secured an everyday role with the squad. Aston-Reese is still a borderline player in standard fantasy leagues, but at the least he’s worth keeping an eye on and in the short-term he’s worth gambling to ride his current hot streak of four points in his last two contests.

Justin Schultz, Penguins – D: Schultz had 51 points back in 2016-17, but he hasn’t come close to that level before or since. He’s off to a promising start in 2019-20 though with four assists in six games. What’s particularly noteworthy is that he’s averaging 3:41 minutes of power-play ice time, which is just barely behind Kris Letang. That power-play role has been huge for Schultz with three of those four assists coming with the man advantage. As long as he stays healthy, which was the big problem last season, he has a huge opportunity to be a big contributor.

David Perron, Blues – LW/RW: At the time of writing, Perron is owned in 60% of Yahoo leagues, which I see as on the low end given what he brings to the table offensively. He had 66 points in 70 games in 2017-18 and then 46 points in 57 contests in 2018-19, which translates to an average of 72 points per 82 games over that span. This season seems to be a continuation of that. He has three goals and five points in five games while averaging 18:25 minutes. While he’s an injury risk, he should be regarded as a high-end winger. 

[Ready for the season? Get the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Ilya Mikheyev, Maple Leafs – LW: Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko are two of the biggest names in this season’s rookie pool, but neither has done much offensively yet. Instead, Mikheyev has been one of the league’s top rookies with two goals and five points in six contests. It helps that he’s been getting a good chunk of ice time for a rookie.  He’s averaging 15:55 minutes, which is the third highest for a rookie forward. Mikheyev is still owned in just 6% of Yahoo leagues, so there is still a chance to grab him.

Tomas Tatar, Canadiens– LW/RW: Tatar had 25 goals and a career-high 58 points in his first season with the Canadiens and his second campaign with Montreal has the potential to be similarly successful. He already has two goals and five points in five contests while averaging 16:58 minutes. It helps that he’s been playing alongside Brendan Gallagher, who surpassed the 30-goal milestone in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Ryan Dzingel, Hurricanes – LW/RW: Dzingel is one I’m more on the fence about in the long run, but I’m certainly interested in gambling on him at this moment. He’s gotten off to a hot start with two goals and five points in six contests. He’s only averaging 14:17 minutes, which makes it hard to see him sustaining anywhere near his current level of production. Still, he’s a fairly talented forward and he’s doing well enough to be worth taking a chance on at this time.

Sam Lafferty, Penguins – C/LW:  Lafferty is another lower profile rookie who has stepped up early. In his case though, it’s been all thanks to a surge in his last two games. He scored a goal and three points on Saturday and added another two goals on Sunday. Will he keep this up? I strong doubt it. Lafferty is someone to pick up for now while he’s hot, but drop as soon as he slows down.

Mike Smith, Oilers – G:  Smith left something to be desired in 2018-19 with Calgary, but his stint with Edmonton has gotten off to an encouraging start. He’s 3-0-0 with a 2.67 GAA and .907 save percentage in three starts. Edmonton has been one of the most pleasant surprises this season and if that keeps up, Smith will be a primary benefactor. Mikko Koskinen is worth considering for the same reason. Personally, I see Smith as the safer bet given his wealth of experience, but for what it’s worth, Koskinen has gotten off to the better start with a 2-0-0 record, 2.41 GAA, and .914 save percentage in two starts. They’re also likely to split the Oilers’ responsibilities fairly evenly.

Jonathan Drouin, Canadiens – C/LW: Drouin has been one of those players with a ton of offensive upside that seems to keep ending up short of that potential. He matched his career-high in 2018-19 with 53 points, which is solid to be sure, but there’s still that underlining belief that there might be more there from the 2013 third overall pick. Maybe this is the season we’ll get him to take that last step. He’s opened the campaign on a five-game point streak with two goals and six points over that span. 

Players You May Want To Drop

Dustin Byfuglien, Jets – D: This one might seem the most obvious, but it’s also the one I’m most on the fence about. Yes, Byfuglien isn’t playing and he’s been reportedly considering retirement, so he might not play at all this season. But to drop him now means potentially missing out on a 40-50 point defenseman if he decides tomorrow to return to the Jets. However, we’re two weeks into the season now and there’s been no indication that he’s even close to making a decision. Even if he did surprise me by saying today that he’s returning, he’ll need time to get up to speed and after missing training camp and the start of the season, that might be difficult. With every passing day, the odds of him living up to expectations even if he does play diminish and at a certain point you need to start thinking about cutting your losses.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Jakub Voracek, Flyers – RW: Voracek has no points in three games, but what I find particularly concerning is that he’s averaging just 15:33 minutes. That’s down from 18:40 minutes in 2018-19 and 19:27 minutes in 2017-18. So far this season, the most Voracek has played in a game has been 16:06 minutes, which would have been in the bottom-10 for minutes back last season. With his role potentially changing, his offensive output might decline meaningfully.

Chris Kreider, Rangers – LW: Kreider does have two assists in three games, so he’s gotten off to a good start. However, he’s averaging 14:55 minutes per game, which is way down from 17:24 minutes in 2018-19 when he had 52 points in 79 contests. Given how borderline he was to begin with in standard fantasy leagues, that decline is concerning. On top of that, he recently sustained a lower-body injury.  It’s not believed to be long-term, but again he’s borderline to begin with so there’s not a lot of motivation to wait even minor injuries out.

Nazem Kadri, Avalanche – C: Kadri had just 16 goals and 44 points in 73 games last season with Toronto, but there was some hope that the move to Colorado might change things. After all, he’d be moving from a team that was using him primarily as a third-line center to one with a second-line spot for him. So far, that hasn’t worked out with Kadri being limited to a goal and no assists in four contests. Given that he only has center-eligibility, which is a very deep position, I’d be inclined to drop him for now in favor of someone who is offering more immediate help. He is still worth keeping an eye on though.

Jonathan Quick, Kings – G: So far Quick has been a disaster this season. He’s allowed at least five goals per game, which has given him a 0-3-0 record, 6.43 GAA, and .793 save percentage in three starts. That comes after his struggles in 2018-19 with a 16-23-7 record, 3.38 GAA, and .888 save percentage in 46 starts. Certainly the team in front of him isn’t doing Quick any favors, but the Kings are in a transitional phase, so they’re not likely to help him much for the remainder of the season either. This seems like a goaltending situation to avoid where at all possible.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.