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.

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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.

Sharks head into uncertain offseason with key free agents

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — If Joe Thornton comes back for a 22nd season in the NHL, it would only be with the San Jose Sharks. Captain Joe Pavelski is confident he will get a deal done to stay with the franchise he joined as a draft pick back in 2003.

The situation with the other major potential unrestricted free agent is far less certain. After Erik Karlsson‘s injury-plagued first season in San Jose ended with him sitting at home with an injured groin during a Game 6 loss at St. Louis in the Western Conference final, the star defenseman said he hasn’t thought yet about his plans for the summer.

”I’ve been treated with nothing but class and respect here,” Karlsson said Thursday. ”I’ve seen the best side of what this organization and this city has and I like everything I’ve seen. Now I have to kind of regroup and assess everything. A lot of things can happen. It’s a weird business we’re in. I enjoyed my time here. Whatever happens is going to happen for a reason.”

Karlsson had a less-than-ideal season after being acquired as potentially the final piece needed for a championship in a trade from Ottawa on the eve of training camp. He struggled to adjust to his new team early in the season before playing at an elite level for about six weeks when the Sharks looked as good as any team in the league.

Karlsson then injured his groin and missed 27 of the final 33 regular-season games before returning for the playoffs, lacking his usual burst as a skater. Even at less than 100% in the postseason, Karlsson showed flashes of his playmaking with 14 assists and two goals, including the overtime winner in Game 3 against the Blues.

But he was unable to play for a long stretch late in a Game 4 loss and was limited in a Game 5 loss before sitting out the third period. He couldn’t go at all in Game 6.

In the final game, the Sharks were also without Pavelski, who re-injured his knee in Game 5, and forward Tomas Hertl, who had a concussion. That left little in the tank for a team that won a pair of Game 7s already in the playoffs, including an epic three-goal comeback in the final game of the first round against Vegas after Pavelski left with a bloody concussion.

”If you lose your difference-makers, it’s difficult,” general manager Doug Wilson said. ”But this group always bounced back and found a way, for that we’re extremely proud. No excuses, line up, next man up, all those things that you hear, this group lived that. I’ll be honest: I’ve been in this business 40 years. I think the thing that epitomizes this group is the Vegas game, Game 7 where you see the emotional chaos of your captain going down, being carried off and how the group responded, showed you everything you needed to know about this group. I’ll remember that moment forever.”

Pavelski and Thornton have been integral parts of the Sharks for years. Pavelski was a seventh-round draft pick in 2003 and has scored 355 goals in 13 seasons, becoming captain and a fan favorite during his journey.

Thornton arrived in a franchise-altering trade from Boston on Nov. 30, 2005, turning the Sharks into a perennial Cup contender that can never quite win it all.

”They drive the environment,” coach Peter DeBoer said. ”They drive the messaging every day in here. From a coach’s perspective, those guys are invaluable people for us.”

Whether they come back is not yet certain.

The Sharks opted not to extend Pavelski’s contract last summer when he came off a 22-goal season hampered by injuries. But his level of play rose this year with a team-leading 38 goals and he will be eligible to hit the open market in July, shortly before his 35th birthday.

”I know I’m going to be playing hockey next year. Hopefully it’s going to be here,” he said. ”We love it here. I think something will happen, who really knows, but coming off a lot of emotions coming through the playoffs and that round, we’ll sit down and take a look at what will happen here.”

The situation with Thornton is simpler. If he wants to come back for another season at age 40, it would only be with the Sharks. He plans to sit down with his family and Sharks management before making his decision.

Thornton finished this season for a change after needing major knee surgery the past two years. He’s accomplished almost everything in a career, ranking eighth all-time with 1,065 assists and 14th with 1,478 points but hasn’t won a championship.

His teammates and coaches talked all postseason about wanting to win for Thornton and came close before ultimately falling six wins short.

”I didn’t buy into that,” Thornton said. ”I think that was more for you guys. I think this whole area needs a Cup. They’re definitely on the right track, and just disappointing for this area not to be playing, like I said, next week, but this was a really fun team to watch, entertaining team to watch, and an inspirational team to watch.”

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

Arbitrator upholds Voynov suspension but says he served half

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — An arbitrator upheld Slava Voynov’s one-season NHL suspension Thursday but is giving him credit for serving half of it in 2018-19.

Commissioner Gary Bettman suspended the former Los Angeles Kings defenseman for the upcoming season and the 2020 playoffs after determining he committed acts of domestic violence. The NHL Players Association appealed the ruling.

Arbitrator Shyam Das upheld Bettman’s decision that Voynov should be suspended for the equivalent of one NHL season but found he should be credited with having already served 41 games of the suspension last season. So Voynov will now be eligible to return midway through next season.

This marks the third time Das has reduced a suspension in the past eight months. He reduced Nashville forward Austin Watson‘s suspension for domestic violence from 27 to 18 games and later shortened Washington enforcer Tom Wilson‘s suspension by six to 14 games for repeated on-ice hits to the head.

The Kings, who terminated Voynov’s $25 million contract in 2015 but retain his rights due to his status on the voluntary retired list, said in a statement Thursday that he will not play for Los Angeles.

”We will now determine the impact of the arbitrator’s decision on our rights to the player and consider our options going forward,” the team said.

The league said in a statement that it was satisfied the arbitrator supported the penalty in regards to the severity of Voynov’s actions.

The league added that ”while we do not believe Mr. Voynov was entitled to any ‘credit’ for time missed, we accept Arbitrator Das’ conclusion that the precise factual context here was unusual – including the fact Voynov has not played in the NHL since October 2014, and that he did not play professional hockey at all during the 2018-19 season.”

The NHLPA said in a statement that ”this fundamental due process right is designed to ensure that, even in difficult cases involving domestic violence, the NHL’s disciplinary procedures and decisions are fair and consistent. The NHLPA continues to work with the NHL to educate players about domestic violence.”

Voynov’s agent, Roland Melanson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Voynov was suspended indefinitely in October 2014 after being arrested and accused of abusing his wife. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor, left the United States to go back to Russia and in July had the conviction dismissed by a judge in Los Angeles. His most recent suspension was imposed in April after he applied for reinstatement.

The 29-year-old Russian last played an NHL game on Oct. 19, 2014. He won a pair of Stanley Cup titles with the Kings in 2012 and 2014.

Since his last NHL game, Voynov played three seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and won a gold medal at the 2018 Olympics. NHL players didn’t compete at the Pyeongchang Games.

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

Canada escapes; U.S., Sweden fall at IIHF World Championship

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KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) — Damon Severson and Mark Stone helped Canada escape to the world hockey championship semifinals while the United States and defending champion Sweden dropped out.

Canada beat Switzerland 3-2 in overtime Thursday night. Severson tied it with 0.4 seconds left on a goal confirmed by video review. Stone ended it at 5:07 of the 3-on-3 overtime off a pass from Pierre-Luc Dubois.

”In these elimination games, you need to have guys step up. (Severson) stepped up for us to get the game tied, and then Dubois makes a ridiculous play to get it finished for us,” Stone said. ”Pretty big goal. It sends us to the semifinals, but I didn’t really have to do much. I just put my stick on the ice, went to the net and Dubois makes that winning goal happen.”

The tying goal came with goalie Matt Murray off an extra attacker. Severson’s shot from the point dribbled over the goal line after it hit goalie Leonardo Genoni’s pad and blocker.

”It’s one of those things that you can’t really make it up. We were very fortunate to get that late goal,” Severson said. ”It was a 2-1 hockey game the entire third period and the goalie was playing great. We got a lot of chances but we just couldn’t seem to sneak one by him. With under a second left I just took a shot and it ended up bouncing in. To score a goal like on a big stage like this is definitely very exciting.”

Stone had a goal and an assist in regulation. Nico Hischier and Sven Andrighetto scored for Switzerland.

In the semifinals Saturday, Canada will face the Czech Republic, and Russia will play Finland.

In Bratislava, Nikita Gusev and Mikhail Sergachyov each had a goal and two assists in Russia’s 4-3 victory over the United States. Kirill Kaprizov and Mikhail Grigorenko also scored. Brady Skjei, Noah Hanifin and Alex DeBrincat scored for the Americans.

”It’s disappointing because we had high expectations, so we’re not happy our tournament’s done so quickly,” Skjei said. ”You know, they’re a really good team. We know that, but we’ve got a good team, too, and we thought we could beat them, and I still think that we could have.”

Finland beat Sweden 5-4 in overtime in Kosice. Marko Anttila tied it for Finland with 1:29 left and Sakari Manninen won it in overtime.

”We always believed,” forward Juho Lammikko said. ”We had a lot of chances to put the puck in the net. You never quit until the final whistle. The game before us, you saw Canada score the tying goal with less than a second. It’s a 60-minute game. We didn’t let it bother us when they had the lead. Good things happen when you never give up.”

The Czech Republic topped Germany 5-1 in Bratislava. Jan Kovar scored twice for the Czechs.

”It’s good that we were able to score some goals and, in the end, we were able to put some space between us, but it wasn’t a one-sided win and we all know that,” Kovar said. ”We’re glad that we won, but we’re not really all that excited about the way we played for the most part. We can play better and we’ll need to play better.”

PHT Time Machine: When the Blues made three straight Stanley Cup Finals

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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 at the St. Louis Blues’ fascinating and mostly disappointing history with the Stanley Cup Final.

The St. Louis’ Blues history with the Stanley Cup Final might be the most bizarre of any team in the NHL.

Unless you are old enough to have been watching hockey in the late 1960s, you have no memory or recollection of them ever playing this deep in the season. The idea of the Blues lifting the Stanley Cup, or even playing in the Final, is almost certainly a foreign one to you and had probably been nothing more than a punchline until about three days ago, simply because it was something you just hadn’t ever witnessed.

When they defeated the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, they clinched their spot in the Final for the first time since 1970, the year they lost to their 2019 opponent — the Boston Bruins — on Bobby Orr’s now legendary overtime goal in Game 4 of the series.

It has been a 49-year drought since then that has seen the Blues put a consistently competitive — and sometimes even great — team on the ice only to always have a soul-crushing way of falling just short.

But they have been there!

This is the story of when the Blues, the best of the NHL’s “Great Expansion,” mostly served as a sacrificial lamb in the Stanley Cup Final for the already established Original Six teams.

This is the PHT Time Machine.


The Birth Of The Blues

The 1967-68 season was one of the most significant ones in NHL history as it ushered in the era of expansion. “The Great Expansion,” as it would come to be known by former league president Clarence Campbell.

After being a six-team league between 1942 and 1966, it was obvious that the NHL had woefully fallen behind its major sports counterparts in North America, in terms of both size and national relevance.

The NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball all not only had significantly more teams, they also had teams on the west coast and all had major television deals. And they were all continuing to grow while the NHL remained a stagnant, regional league that was mostly located in the Northeast.

But in February of 1966, the NHL doubled in size in the largest expansion in league history when the league’s owners voted to admit the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Oakland Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, and St. Louis Blues.

The Blues were the last of the teams to be admitted entry into the league and did so even though the city did not make an official bid for a team because there was no suitable ownership situation for a team at the time.

From the Feb. 10, 1966 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (reporting on the entry of the Penguins):

 

The “adequate NHL building” really wasn’t adequate at all and was mostly a decrepit eyesore that was owned by James D. Norris and Arthur Wirtz … the owners of the Chicago Blackhawks.

It was at the insistence of Norris, Wirtz and the Blackhawks that the NHL admit St. Louis (over a potential Baltimore franchise) as they saw it as a means of unloading a piece of real estate they no longer wanted. Considering the clout that Norris, Wirtz and the Blackhawks had in the league, the Blues were in under the initial ownership of Sid Salomon Jr., who purchased the St. Louis Arena from Norris and Wirtz.

He spent years pouring money into the building, increasing its capacity, and renovating it into something functional.

The Beginning of the Blues and Their Initial Success

When the NHL expanded it separated its two groups of teams (the established Original Six team and the expansion six) into two separate divisions, with the existing teams taking up residence in the Eastern Division and the expansion teams playing in the Western Division.

Under this alignment the top-four teams in each division would play each other in the opening two rounds of the playoffs, and the winner of each division would then meet in the Stanley Cup Final.

This guaranteed that an expansion team would be playing for the Stanley Cup in its first year of existence.

Now, this was the late 1960s, and the NHL was still a mostly wild west in terms of management and roster construction.

Teams didn’t know how to properly evaluate players, and with the NHL draft still in its infancy nobody other than Montreal Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock seemed to have a clue as to how to evaluate and value draft picks. This meant there was going to be a lot of inept management taking place, especially as the newly formed expansion teams tried to put competitive teams on the ice knowing that one of them would have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup immediately.

The result of this was a lot of dumb expansion teams unintentionally building a powerhouse in Montreal (we touched on this in a previous PHT Time Machine).

The Blues were clearly the most competent of the expansion teams in the very beginning, simply because they didn’t give away their future to Pollock and the Canadiens.

When they began play during the 1967-68 season, Lynn Patrick had assumed the role of general manager and head coach before surrendering the latter duty after just 16 games with a 4-10-2 record.

His replacement was a 32-year-old assistant who was given his first head coaching job in the NHL.

That assistant? Scotty Bowman.

The Blues would lose six of their first seven games under Bowman before finally starting to show improvement in the second half, finishing with a 23-21-14 record under his watch, doing just enough to snag one of the four playoff spots in the Western Division.

They would go on to win two Game 7s (against Philadelphia and Minnesota) to secure a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.

It was there that they would run into the Canadiens’ dynasty that was in the middle of five consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances (winning four of them) and would ultimately win 10 Stanley Cups between 1965 and 1979.

It was an obvious mismatch on paper and the Blues would end up losing in a clean sweep.

Despite the four consecutive losses, the Blues kept every game close, losing all four by just a single goal, including two of them in overtime.

Two More Returns to the Stanley Cup Final With the Same Result

The Blues’ next two seasons would take on a remarkably similar look to the first one.

They would dominate the other expansion teams in their division, struggle against the Original Six teams, and then get swept in four games in the Stanley Cup Final.

They lost again to the Canadiens in 1968-69 and then then now-famous Bruins series in 1970.

During those first three years in the league the Blues, thanks to a strong defense and the goaltending of future Hall of Famers Glen Hall and Jacques Plante, were a battering ram against their fellow expansion teams and compiled a 75-32-23 record against them in the regular season, then never losing a playoff series to them.

By comparison, they were only 26-51-19 against the Original Six teams in the regular season and 0-12 against in the playoffs, managing just 17 goals in the latter 12 games.

Because of this the Blues have some rather unique Stanley Cup Final history.

They are one of just six teams in the expansion era to have ever played in three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals, joining a list that includes two different versions of the Montreal Canadiens (all three years between 1968 and 1970 and again in the late 1970s), the Philadelphia Flyers (1974-1976) and the 1980s dynasties that belonged to the New York Islanders (1980-83) and Edmonton Oilers (1983-85).

That is the good history.

The bad history is that their collective 0-for in those games leaves them as just one of just a handful of teams that have never won a Stanley Cup Final game (joining Winnipeg, Arizona, Florida, Columbus, and Minnesota — Florida is the only team in that group that has also played in at least one Stanley Cup Final).

Of the 23 teams that have played in at least 10 Stanley Cup Final games (including the original Ottawa Senators in the 1920s and the Montreal Maroons) all of them have won at least four games, while all but two (the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres) have won at least one Stanley Cup.

The aftermath of this was the NHL finally doing a little bit of a realignment for the 1970-71 season. It was at that point that the NHL expanded again, this time adding the Canucks and Sabres. Those two teams would join the Eastern Division with the established teams, while the Blackhawks would shift over to the Western Division with the expansion teams. The NHL also changed its playoff format.

In the previous three years, the format was set up so the first-and third-place teams in each division would meet in the first-round, while the second-and fourth place teams would also play. The winners of each series would play each other in the semifinals.

The change in 1970 was that the winner of the 1 vs. 3 matchup in the East would play the winner of the 2 vs. 4 matchup in the West. This opened the door for two Original Six teams to meet in the Stanley Cup Final and, in the eyes of the NHL, hopefully create a more competitive series. That is exactly what happened as Original Six teams met in the next four Stanley Cup Finals. It was not until the Philadelphia Flyers made it in 1974, starting their run of three consecutive trips to the Finals, that one of the expansion teams would get back.

It would take the Blues another 49 years.

It finally happened, and now they have a chance to complete what would be one of the most stunning in-season turnarounds ever if they can not only get their first ever Stanley Cup Final win, but add three more on top of that.

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

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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.