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.

Wickenheiser tops 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame class

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The 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame inductees were named on Tuesday. The class includes four players, in alphabetical order: Guy Carbonneau, Vaclav Nedomansky, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Sergei Zubov. Two builders were also inducted: Jim Rutherford and Jerry York. The induction ceremony will take place on November 18 in Toronto.

Let’s take a look at each member of this year’s class, starting with Wickenheiser.

Players

Wickenheiser: Sean Leahy pointed to Wickenheiser as the “lock” to make this HHOF class on Monday, and with good reason.

Wickenheiser becomes the seventh woman named to the Hockey Hall of Fame after winning four Olympic gold medals representing Canada, not to mention seven gold medals at the IIHF world championship. Wickenheiser was a two-time Olympic tournament MVP, and is Canada’s women’s leader in goals (168), assists (211) and points (379) after playing 276 games internationally.

Wickenheiser is currently in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, another testament to the immense respect she earned as a legend of the sport.

Zubov: The Russian defenseman won one Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers, and one with the Dallas Stars (where Carbonneau was one of Zubov’s teammates).

People, particularly Stars fans, have been debating Zubov’s HHOF merits for some time. As one example, Defending Big D pondered the argument as far back as 2013, with Erin Boylen comparing Zubov to the likes of Scott Niedermayer, Brian Leetch, Rob Blake, and other top contemporaries:

Over their respective careers, Zubov had better offensive numbers than Niedermayer and Blake, though not as good as Leetch. Both Zubov and Niedermayer, though not Blake, could have legitimately put up many more points if they didn’t play in defensively-focused systems for long stretches of their careers. He has essentially equal plus-minus statistics to Niedermayer, much better than Blake and Leetch. He was used in all situations and throughout his career was used as a top-pairing, shut-down defenseman.

The debates have been rampant enough among Stars fans that the Zubov HHOF debate has become a regular joke on the podcast “Puck Soup.” After all, for every Zubov proponent, there will be someone else who points out that he never won a Norris Trophy.

Maybe that debate will continue, but there’s some closure, as Zubov gets the nod.

Zubov finished his NHL career with 771 points in 1,068 regular season contests, spending 12 seasons with the Stars, three with the Rangers, and one with the Penguins. Zubov also appeared in 164 playoff games, and Hockey Reference lists some beefy ice time numbers during his Stars days, as he apparently logged 28:58 TOI per game over 114 playoff games with the Stars specifically.

Speaking of players who ended their Hall of Fame careers with the Stars …

Carbonneau: It’s difficult to shake the parallels between Carbonneau and Bob Gainey, but the good news is that such a comparison is a huge compliment to any two-way player.

Much like Gainey, Carbonneau was a tremendous defensive forward, winning three Selke Trophies during his career. Also like Gainey, Carbonneau made a huge impact on the Montreal Canadiens (where he won two Stanley Cups, and all three Selkes) before also making a considerable impression on the Dallas Stars (where Carbonneau won his third and final Stanley Cup as a player).

Carbonneau played 13 seasons with the Canadiens, five with the Stars, and one with the St. Louis Blues. Overall, he generated 663 points and 820 penalty minutes in 1,318 career regular-season games over 19 seasons. Carbonneau was captain of the Canadiens from 1989-90 through 1993-94, and also served as head coach for three seasons.

Nedomansky: As Shen Peng documented for The Hockey News, Nedomansky deserves a mention alongside Alex Mogilny and the Stastny brothers as one of the players who bravely defected to North America to play hockey at the highest levels.

Nedomansky’s path was especially circuitous, as he began his North American playing days in the WHA in 1974-75. “Big Ned” started his NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings in 1977-78, when he was already well into his thirties. He put up some nice numbers in both leagues, and you have to wonder if he’d be a more well-known player if he came overseas during the highest peaks of his prime, in much the same way one might wonder about Igor Larionov and other top Russian players who entered the NHL during the twilight of their careers.

His impact deserves to be documented, so Nedomansky making the Hall of Fame is a great way for more fans to learn about the mark he made on the sport. Peng’s piece is a great place for you to start.

Builders

Rutherford: Jim Rutherford is still a builder as the GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, yet clearly, he’s already in the HHOF, even if he stopped today.

Rutherford played in 457 games during his lengthy NHL career as a goalie (his hockey db photo is worth the trip to the page alone), yet he’s here because of his front office work, helping both the Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes win Stanley Cups as a GM.

York: Jerry York is a legendary NCAA coach, having won four NCAA titles with Boston College, and one with Bowling Green. In 2016, he became the first NCAA coach to win 1,000 games, which is pretty mind-blowing considering the shorter seasons in college hockey.

Blues fans can relax: Berube signs three-year contract

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As silly as it seemed to worry about Craig Berube not being the St. Louis Blues’ head coach after the team won its first ever Stanley Cup, there were those who were sweating the lack of an announcement nonetheless.

After all, we’ve seen some instances in which a coach wins it all, only to change locales. In fact, it just happened with the coach before Berube, as the Washington Capitals didn’t bring back Barry Trotz after winning the 2018 Stanley Cup, only for Trotz to win the Jack Adams with the resurgent New York Islanders. (Also: Mike Keenan.)

With Trotz, there was a succession plan already in place in Washington, so they move on with Todd Reirden. The Blues clearly weren’t penciling in Berube as a sure-thing, either, what with Berube being a mid-season replacement for Mike Yeo, and Berube carrying the “interim” title for a curious amount of time.

Well, any mild concerns were put to rest, anyway, on Tuesday. The Blues announced that Berube has been signed to a three-year contract.

[Berube helped Blues find identity after early-season struggle]

It’s slightly disappointing that the money details haven’t leaked (yet?), as it would be intriguing to find out what Berube is getting paid. As much as winning it all drives up your bargaining power, there’s also not the greatest market for coaching jobs by late June, and Berube is likely relieved to not only coach a clearly talented team, but also to find a stable position.

(Stable by the almost inherently unstable standards of coaching jobs in the NHL, at least.)

The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford tracked down some quotes on the re-upping, including from Blues GM Doug Armstrong.

It’s been quite the whirlwind year for Berube. He took over for Yeo, saw the ascent of Jordan Binnington, earned a Jack Adams nomination, and then made some deft moves in helping the Blues win the Stanley Cup. Berube’s three-year extension is well-earned, and while he likely isn’t losing any sleep over it, you could very well argue that his Jack Adams case was even better than that of Trotz.

With this question answered, we can move on to the next one: can Berube and the Blues back this all with a strong encore?

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.

Trade: Avalanche clear space for free agency; Coyotes get Soderberg

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Are the Colorado Avalanche loading up for a big free agent push this summer, or are they merely worried about how much it will cost to re-sign RFA star Mikko Rantanen? Or is it a little of both?

Such thoughts come to mind with Tuesday’s trade, as the Avalanche send center Carl Soderberg to the Arizona Coyotes. It’s largely a cash-clearing deal from Colorado’s perspective, considering the current details reported by The Athletic’s Craig Morgan, TSN’s Darren Dreger, and others:

Coyotes receive: Soderberg, a 33-year-old forward whose $4.75 million cap hit expires after 2019-20.

Avalanche receive: Kevin Connauton, 29-year-old defenseman, whose $1.375M cap hit expires after 2019-20. Also, the Avalanche receive a 2020 third-round pick.

One team clears cap room, the other profits

If there’s a theme of recent moves, it’s that one team is hoping to land a big fish in free agency, while another is happy to take on another contract to get better in a more modest (and maybe safer) way.

The Nashville Predators received a paltry return for P.K. Subban in that stunning trade, and on face value, the Avalanche didn’t receive much for Soderberg, either.

But, of course, context matters: both the Predators and Avalanche made their moves to save cap space.

Puck Pedia places Colorado’s cap space at just a little bit less than $38M, with 14 roster spots covered, and Rantanen headlining an RFA list that also includes Alex Kerfoot. The Avalanche boast some absolute bargain deals – most obviously in Nathan MacKinnon, yet also getting nice value in Gabriel Landeskog and Tyson Barrie – and Soderberg’s expiring contract was another reminder that the future was bright. Apparently the Avalanche believe that the future is now … although they’d probably argue that they’re enjoying both, as their 2019 NHL Draft weekend was acclaimed after they nabbed Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook.

Don’t sleep on the Coyotes’ takeaway, though.

Soderberg a hidden gem?

Soderberg might not be the sexiest talent in every way, yet he might have been the best example of Colorado’s sneaky value outside of their top guys. The bad news is that MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Rantanen generated the vast majority of the Avs’ offense during the past few seasons. The better news is that players like Soderberg and Kerfoot were strong two-way players who could hold down the fort when those guys weren’t on the ice.

Soderberg scored 23 goals for Colorado last season, and his 49 points ranked fifth-most on the team. There are a number of ways where he seems sneaky-good, including where he falls on this Goals Above Replacement chart among Avalanche forwards (visualization by Sean Tierney; data via Evolving Hockey).

Impressive, right? Surprising, even, considering that Soderberg compares so well to Rantanen, at least by those metrics.

The Coyotes have been building their roster by taking on other teams’ cap concerns, as much as by drafting, particularly since some of their picks haven’t worked out quite as planned (Clayton Keller rules; if Dylan Strome is going to rule, it will be for Chicago).

In Soderberg, the Coyotes might only be leaning into what almost got them into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: grinding opponents into a paste. On paper, the Coyotes figure to play a not-so-pretty style, but it’s increasingly trending toward being effective. At least, Soderberg inches them closer to having waves of quality players, maybe enough to wash over opponents and back into the postseason. Maybe their style will end up being desert-dry, but this gives them another quality two-way player, and at a reasonable price.

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In a vacuum, this trade is a nice win for the Coyotes. However, if the Avalanche win by landing Artemi Panarin, then chances are, they’ll be OK taking the L in this one.

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.

Dates of note from the 2019-20 NHL schedule

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The 2019-20 NHL schedule has arrived and the 1,271-game regular season journey to the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins Oct. 2 and ends April 4. We’ll have banners being raised, old friends being reacquainted, outdoor games, games in Europe and CBA fun to deal with.

Check out the full schedule on NHL.com

Here’s a look at some notable dates on the 2019-20 season’s schedule:

CBA FUN

Sept. 1, 2019 – As the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiration date approaches in 2022, the NHL has the first crack to terminate the agreement as of Sept. 15, 2020.

Sept. 19, 2019 – Should the NHL pass, the NHLPA can choose to end the agreement early on Sept. 15, 2020.

OPENING NIGHT WITH A BANNER RAISING

Oct. 2, 2019 – Washington Capitals at St. Louis Blues

The defending champion Blues open their season with a Stanley Cup banner-raising party at Enterprise Center. This will be the fourth straight year that the Capitals (2016, 2018) or Blues (2017, 2019) will have been involved in a banner raising celebration.

Opening night will also feature the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Ottawa Senators, the Vancouver Canucks visiting Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, and a playoff rematch as the Vegas Golden Knights host the San Jose Sharks.

THE REMATCH

Oct. 26, 2019 – St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins

The last time these two met was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. They’ll meet for the first time next season back at TD Garden in late October.

TOP PICKS DEBUT AND MEET

Oct. 3, 2019 – Winnipeg Jets at New York Rangers

Kaapo Kakko makes his NHL debut at Madison Square Garden against fellow Finn Patrik Laine.

Oct. 4, 2019 – Winnipeg Jets at New Jersey Devils

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft will make his debut as Jack Hughes plays his first regular season game for the Devils. Also debuting that night with his new team will be P.K. Subban, who will also make his return to Nashville on Dec. 7.

Oct. 17, 2019 – New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils

Jack vs. Kakko for the first time in their NHL careers.

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OUTDOOR GAMES

Oct. 26, 2019 – Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets

The Western Conference division rivals meet at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan in the Heritage Classic.

Jan. 1, 2020 – Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars

The Winter Classic will take place at the Cotton Bowl in Texas featuring a rematch of Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Feb. 15, 2020 – Los Angeles Kings vs. Colorado Avalanche

For the second time, the NHL brings a Stadium Series game to a U.S. Service Academy as the Kings and Avalanche meet at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

NHL GLOBAL SERIES

Oct. 4, 2019 – Chicago Blackhawks vs. Philadelphia Flyers.

Jakub Voracek and David Kampf will get the opportunity to play in front of their fellow Czechs with the game taking place at O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic. 

Nov. 8-9 – Buffalo Sabres vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

A nice homecoming for Johan Larsson, Rasmus Dahlin, Linus Ullmark, Victor Hedman, and Anton Stralman as they battle at Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden.

HOCKEY DAYS

Feb. 8, 2020 – Ottawa Senators vs. Winnipeg Jets; Toronto Maple Leafs at Montreal Canadiens; Nashville Predators at Edmonton Oilers; Calgary Flames at Vancouver Canucks

Hockey Day in Canada will feature all seven Canadian teams in action.

Feb. 16, 2020 – Detroit Red Wings at Pittsburgh Penguins; Boston Bruins at New York Rangers; St. Louis Blues at Nashville Predators; Chicago Blackhawks at Winnipeg Jets 

Hockey Day in America (on NBC and NBCSN) will see nine games beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET and the last game starting at 8:30 p.m. ET.

ALMOST SUPER SATURDAY

We need to wait until Seattle joins the NHL for every team to be in action in one day, but the 2019-20 season will end on April 4 with 30 of the league’s teams in action. Hopefully there will be some drama left on the final day.

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REUNIONS

The San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights will exchange pleasantries in the first two games of the season on Oct. 2 and Oct. 4. Their playoff series was intense and epic, so there should be plenty of fun to be had in these two games.

Jack Hughes visits older brother Quinn and the Vancouver Canucks for the first time when the New Jersey Devils head west on Oct. 19.

Dave Tippett visits his old team for the first time when the Arizona Coyotes host the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 24, 2019.

It might be a better reception in Edmonton when well-liked Ralph Krueger leads his Buffalo Sabres against the Oilers on Dec. 8, 2019. Same goes for Dallas Eakins when the Anaheim Ducks visit on March 23.

There’ll be shotskis and Stanley Cup memories when Joel Quenneville and the Florida Panthers visit the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 21, 2020.

Jacob Trouba, if he does indeed end up signing in New York, makes his first trip back to Winnipeg to see his old friends on the Jets on Feb. 11, 2020.

The reception will be an interesting one when Alain Vigneault goes back to Madison Square Garden as Philadelphia Flyers head coach on March 1, 2020.

SALUTE TO THE SEDINS

The Vancouver Canucks will retire the jerseys of Henrik and Daniel on Feb. 12, 2020 before their game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

ALL-STAR WEEKEND

Jan. 24-26, 2020 – NHL All-Star Game, St. Louis

The best of the best will head to St. Louis for All-Star Weekend, which will once again feature the divisional three-on-three tournament on Sunday afternoon following the NHL Skills event on Saturday night.

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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.