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.

Berube’s coaching style well-suited to Blues’ roster

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

It’s not often that an interim coach is handed the keys to a last-place team and ends up winning the Stanley Cup in the same season.

Not impossible, as Craig Berube proved last season. Just incredibly unlikely.

Berube was as much of an X-factor for the Blues as, say, Jordan Binnington. Without Berube, who knows where the Blues would have ended up. The man known as a ‘Chief’ brought a disjointed team together and began sprinting toward the finish line at a fervent pace.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The decision to hand Binnington the reins, an 11-game winning streak that followed suit, and a renewed camaraderie amongst the players all happened under Berube’s watch after Mike Yeo was handed his walking papers near the end of November.

“Craig made an enormous impact on our team when he took over last November,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said after the team stripped the interim tag and handed Berube a three-year deal. “He restored our identity and provided our players with a clear sense of direction.”

If that’s not X-factor material, I don’t know what is.

Berube is now tasked with maintaining the team culture he created with, by-and-large, the same contingent of players that he led to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

It’s a tall order.

Nothing was really expected from Berube when he took over. Sure, Blues fans and brass alike would have wanted to see things pointing in the right direction, but never could they have imagined what took place from Jan. 7 onward.

Ask any Blues player and they’ll say it was Berube that was the team’s catalyst as they reversed their fortunes.

Berube, as Armstrong said, instilled an identity and within a month or so, it began to take shape on the ice.

Berube showed that you don’t have to have a flashy team with many superstars to get the job done. And he’ll have another go at proving that is, indeed, the case.

He’ll have the “Stanley Cup hangover” to contend with an, perhaps, a pinch of complacency, even if it is only early on.

The biggest thing the Blues can do is get off to a good start. Stave off any of those hangover effects by stringing a few wins together to begin the season.

You won’t find the impact of a coach in a simple math equation (or a complex one, either.) But simply having a team believe in your cause is a massive boon to any bench boss. The players can now attest that Berube’s direction works, so they can certainly get behind his next installment as he develops the team into the rugged, hard-to-deal-with type that never gave up in last season’s playoffs.

There will be no surprises from the Blues this year. No underestimations from unsuspecting teams.

It will be on Beruble to navigate through that and more.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Blues’ Binnington faces whole new world in 2019-20

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

Come out of nowhere, steal the No. 1 job, win a Stanley Cup and get a nice payoff all inside six or so months.

It seems hardly believable. Impossible, really.

Yet there stands Jordan Binnington, a 26-year-old formerly journeyman goalie who, prior to puck drop in a Jan. 7 game against the Philadelphia Flyers, was simply a nobody in the NHL world.

Two-and-a-half hours and 25 saves later, Binnington had his first NHL win in his first NHL start and his first NHL shutout all under his belt. A flash in the pan? Far from it, apparently.

Binnington would feature in 29 games in the second half of the season for the Blues. His 24-5-1 record with a .927 save percentage and five shutouts during that span would pull the Blues all the way from the league’s murkiest spot in the basement to third-place in the Central Division.

And from there, he’d start all 26 games the St. Louis Blues played in the playoffs on their magical run to the Stanley Cup. Binnington would set rookie records for wins in a postseason and, ultimately, lift Lord Stanley with a 16-10 record, including a 32-save, .970 performance in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final to cement the Blues worst-to-first achievement.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three questions | X-Factor]

These things simply don’t happen, and yet Binnington willed it into existence with a ‘Do I look nervous to you?’ attitude that was only backed up on the ice.

Binnington’s emergence earned him a two-year, deal worth $4.4 million annually, making him the highest-paid goalie on the Blues (a mere $50,000 more than Jake Allen) and No. 1 status between the pipes heading into the 2019-20 season.

He’s earned it. And now the hard work begins.

There was no pressure on Binnington last season. Every win was met with awe, not expectation. If he had come in and failed, he wouldn’t have been labeled as a bust. If he had crashed out in the first round of the playoffs, he still would have been considered a success.

Winning the Stanley Cup? It’s still hard to fathom, really.

But now Binnington has some statistics to his name. The bar he set for himself is in the realm of the NHL’s elite. And somehow, he has to now make that translate into a full slate of NHL starts — perhaps as many as 60 next season.

That’s where the pressure lies.

Binnington is unproven as a full-time NHL starter, like Carter Hart in Philadelphia. Both had great seasons, but both only played half the year. So questions remain.

There’s nothing, at least at the moment, to suggest that Binnington can’t handle it. Sure, his save percentage dipped in the playoffs, but he handled the pressure of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final with apparent ease.

He appears to be a true iceman when it comes to that.

Nevertheless, he’s now playing for a bigger payoff in two years after having bet on himself over the next two seasons. His long-term financial gain also hangs in the balance.

Binnington gave fans what they craved and now they’re only going to want more.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Can Blues repeat as Stanley Cup champions?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Blues.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

1. Can they do it all over again?  

If winning the Stanley Cup is the hardest thing to do in hockey, then winning it two years on the trot is that much more difficult.

One team in the salary cap era has been able to pull off a repeat and they had some guy named Sidney Crosby on those teams. The point is that it’s uber-difficult, but a question that every Cup champion faces.

This is the challenge the Blues now face with more or less the same team they won the Cup with this past June. Not much has changed in St. Louis since Alex Pietrangelo hoisted Lord Stanley for the first time in franchise history.

But can a team that was in last place in January and now feeling the effects of the Stanley Cup hangover do it all over again?

The NHL’s tightest-knit group has all the chemistry one could ask for and it’s largely intact from a season ago. And now they have all of that experience to lean upon, as well. But the Central Division is no push-over and several teams have strengthened their squads while the Blues have chosen to rely on what’s within.

It’s certainly a tall order.

2. Will Alex Pietrangelo’s lack of a contract extension be a distraction? 

He’s the team’s captain, talisman and one of the best defensemen in the NHL. And he’s (at this point) entering the 2019-20 season with a year left on his current deal and unrestricted free agency waiting for him next summer.

If you go back to December of last year, you’ll find a lot of ink was spilled where the best trade destinations for Pietrangelo would be. The Blues were an awful team at that point and the Blues, perhaps, could have capitalized on such an intriguing asset. They didn’t and were rewarded in the playoffs with a special performance.

His play during the Stanley Cup run will only have upped his asking price on the free-agent market. And the Blues need to decide on what to do before a John Tavares-like scenario becomes their own reality.

3. Is Jordan Binnington for real? 

We’re going to cover this in a separate post, but it bears mentioning here.

Binnington should probably have won the Calder Trophy for the NHL’s best rookie after he won 24 of 30 decisions he figured in with a .927 save percentage and five shutouts. The most impressive part of all of this is he didn’t start a game until early January.

Now, he could face a schedule with a workload double what he played last season. Those are uncharted waters for 26-year-old.

Binnington made the most of his opportunity when handed one last year. There were no expectations then, however. Now, they’re higher than ever.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

It’s St. Louis Blues Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

2018-19 

45-28-9, 99 points (3rd in the Central Division, tied for fourth in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Won Stanley Cup

IN:
Nathan Walker
Derrick Pouliot
Jake Dotchin
Andreas Borgman

OUT:
Jordan Schmaltz
Adam Musil
Nikita Soshnikov
Jakub Jerabek
Patrick Maroon

RE-SIGNED
:
Jordan Binnington
Joel Edmundson
Jordan Nolan
Samuel Blais
Zach Sanford
Robby Fabbri
Oskar Sundqvist
Carl Gunnarsson
Nolan Stevens

[MORE: Three questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2018-19 Summary

Well, that went pretty well, didn’t it?

No matter how many times you hear it, it’s still unbelievable to see the NHL standings on Jan. 3, 2019 and the Blues at the very bottom — 31st overall. Fast forward 160 days and they were hoisting the Stanley Cup celebrating the franchise’s first championship.

It was quite a season for the Blues, who fired head coach Mike Yeo on Nov. 20 after a 7-9-3 start. General manager Doug Armstrong turned to assistant coach Craig Berube to right the ship as the organization planned for a coaching search that would go far and wide.

Under Berube, the Blues didn’t improve much, going 9-10-1 in their first 20 games under the interim bench boss. But then came Jan. 7 and a game at Philadelphia featuring goaltending Jordan Binnington making his first NHL start, which ended with a shutout. Two weeks later they began a franchise-record 11-game winning streak that powered them up the Central Division standings. The winning ways continued through the end of the regular season as St. Louis earned 65 out of a possible 90 points in their final 45 games to finish tied for second in the division and fourth in the Western Conference.

Riding their red-hot goaltender and being led offensively by their summer acquisition in Ryan O’Reilly, the Blues took care of the Winnipeg Jets in six games, then the Dallas Stars in a memorable seven-game series before topping the San Jose Sharks in six games to reach the Stanley Cup Final. Their final foe, the Boston Bruins, needed seven games to be defeated, with O’Reilly winning Conn Smythe Trophy honors.

Through the unforgettable ride, the Blues adopted the 1981 Laura Branigan song “Gloria” as their theme after several players heard it in a Philadelphia bar in January. The DJ kept playing the song at the request of a customer and the players decided it would be played in the dressing room following wins.

“Play Gloria!” soon became the rallying cry and took over the city. Also becoming an important part of the Blues’ season was retiring anthem singer Charles Glenn, who continued performing as he battled multiple sclerosis, and 12-year-old Laila Anderson, who was diagnosed with a rare disease called Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocystosis. She became friendly with several players and was well enough to attend several games during the season and playoffs, including the team’s Game 7 victory over the Bruins in the Cup Final.

It’s interesting to think what would have happened had Armstrong not had the patience with the roster that he did and chose to blow up the team’s core before things changed. He stayed the course, chose the right coach to replace Yeo, and rode a hot Binnington to an unforgettable finish.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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 at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.