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.

Defending champion Blues surrounded by tough teams in West

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St. Louis had better dig in for its repeat bid.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues will have their hands full in the Western Conference, which seems to have a slew of contenders. And, every team in the entire league is going to give the Blues its best shot each game.

”There’s going to be a whole different feel for us that we’ve got to figure out, ‘OK, how can we elevate our game?’ We’re not going to catch teams by surprise,” said Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, last season’s playoff MVP and top defensive forward. ”We’re going to need to make changes and grow ourselves to be better this year and to do it again.”

Dallas, Vegas, Calgary, Colorado, San Jose and Winnipeg all go into the season with a shot to knock off St. Louis and keep the Cup in the West after the coveted trophy was won by Eastern Conference teams the previous three years. And even though the Nashville Predators appears to be somewhat overlooked this season, it’s not wise to count them out in the race, especially with the addition of center Matt Duchene.

The Central Division, which may earn both wild cards again in the conference, may be the strongest in the NHL.

”It’s hard not to say the Central with the Blues being in it,” Arizona center Derek Stepan said.

SHINING STARS

Dallas seems set up for success with star players all over the place, giving the franchise a legitimate chance to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2008.

Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn provide plenty of scoring power. Second-year coach Jim Montgomery can roll four lines after the front office bolstered the team’s depth by signing 35-year-old Joe Pavelski, who was an All-Star last year with San Jose for the third time in four years.

”Getting a guy like Pavelski to us is going to be huge for us obviously with the net front (presence) and leadership-wise in the locker room,” defenseman John Klingberg said.

The 27-year-old Klingberg is potentially going into the prime year of his career and 20-year-old Miro Heiskanen is a future star on the blue line, coming off a 33-point rookie season in which he was durable enough to play all 82 games.

Goaltender Ben Bishop looks like he might be at his best at the age of 32. His save percentage led the league last year and he ranked second in the NHL in goals-against average, giving up fewer than two a game for the first time in his career.

THIRD TIME A CHARM?

The Golden Knights are hoping their third year is more like their first, when they reached the Stanley Cup Final, and not like their second season that ended in the first round with a Game 7 loss to the Sharks. Vegas returns its top nine scorers and three-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury as the franchise makes another run with familiar faces. Talented forward Mark Stone starts his first full season with the Golden Knights after signing an eight-year deal in February.

”We have something to prove to show that we are a top team in the NHL,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault.

GROUNDED JETS

Winnipeg’s chances may hinge on when, or possibly if, restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor sign to stay with the franchise.

”If we don’t have those two guys for the whole season, which I don’t think is going to happen, then it does change our team a little bit because then we’ve lost a lot of players,” Winnipeg Jets winger Nikolaj Ehlers said.

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

Connor McDavid is one of the game’s greats and teammate Leon Draisaitl is a 100-point scorer, but the Edmonton Oilers might be relegated to playing only in the regular season for a third straight year and 13th time in 14 seasons.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews may not have enough talent around them to avoid missing the playoffs a third straight year in Chicago for the first time in more than a decade.

– The Minnesota Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year, $98 million contracts in 2012 and they may miss the playoffs two straight years for the first time since then.

– The Los Angeles Kings hired former San Jose and Edmonton coach Todd McLellan, but he will have a hard time stopping the franchise from falling short of the postseason in two straight years for the first time since a six-season drought that ended in 2010.

– Under first-year coach Dallas Eakins, the Anaheim Ducks may miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2000-2002.

– The Arizona Coyotes have failed to make the playoffs for seven straight years, a drought that trails only Buffalo’s in the NHL, and probably will extend the run this season. The Vancouver Canucks could sit out a fifth straight year, which would be a franchise record.

Senators ink Chabot to massive eight-year, $64 million deal

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Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has a reputation of being a little tight with his wallet, but on Thursday morning he handed out a massive extension to one of his better young players.

The Senators announced that they’ve signed Thomas Chabot to an eight-year, $64 million contract extension. The 22-year-old put up 14 goals and 55 points in 70 contests last season. He also averaged over 24 minutes of ice time per game in his second NHL season.

“Thomas is an exceptional talent and an outstanding teammate, who is impactful both on and off the ice. He is the type of player that can develop into a core member of a championship-level team in the National Hockey League,” said Senators general manager Pierre Dorion. “He is an NHL all-star; an elite skater and puck-mover who plays with pace and determination. We are convinced Thomas will have a significant impact on the Ottawa Senators as we develop and grow into a highly competitive team over the coming seasons and we are extremely proud that Thomas will continue to be a key part of our team’s future success moving forward. Today is a great day for the Ottawa Senators franchise.”

Chabot still has one year remaining on his entry-level contract, so this extension will only kick in at the start of the 2020-21 season.

Per Cap Friendly, Chabot has a modified no-trade (10-team no-trade) clause in the final four years of the extension.

This is a major signing for the Sens. Not only does it keep their best player under team control for the next nine years, it also shows a commitment to keeping and paying their high-end talent. Also, the fact that Chabot is willing to commit to Ottawa and the Senators franchise for a long time.

After the Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone fiascos, the Sens couldn’t afford more bad press with their star players. So the fact that Melnyk was willing to open the vault to lock up a young player is a good sign. They already locked up Colin White to a six-year extension this summer and they will have to do the same thing with Brady Tkachuk in the next two years.

Ottawa has some good pieces on their roster, but the young talent isn’t surrounded with enough quality. After Chabot, their blue line is made up of Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, Mark Borowiecki, Dylan DeMelo, Christian Wolanin and Christian Jaros. None of those guys is worthy of being on a top pairing right now.

As good as the Chabot news is, it’s still going to be a while before the Sens become contenders again.

MORE:
Previewing the 2019-20 Ottawa Senators

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Previewing the 2019-20 Ottawa Senators

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: The Senators made quite a few moves during the off-season, but it’s hard to argue that they’re a better team than they were last year. They were also the worst team in the NHL last season, so it’s hard to argue that they’re worse. The organization is stuck in the middle of a rebuild. Expectations in Ottawa aren’t very high coming into the season and it’s easy to see why. Erik Karlsson is no longer on the team, Mark Stone is also not on the roster anymore. They added Artem Anisimov, Connor Brown and Tyler Ennis up front and Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev. There’s so much parity in the NHL that many teams will compete for playoff spots, but Ottawa won’t be one of them.

Strengths: There’s no denying that the Senators have some good young talent on this roster. Brady Tkachuk should take another step forward after impressing in his rookie year, Colin White just earned a six-year extension this summer and Thomas Chabot, who signed an eight-year extension on Thursday, is already starting to emerge as a stand out on the blue line. Unfortunately, those players aren’t well surrounded right now when it comes to talent. It’ll take some time, but the Senators will be good again at some point.

Weaknesses: Outside of Chabot, the defense really isn’t that good. It’s made up of Zaitsev, Hainsey, Mark Borowiecki, Dylan DeMelo, Christian Wolanin, and Christian Jaros. You can argue that each of those players should be on a bottom-pairing. So you can see why many aren’t expecting much from this team this year. They may play hard for new head coach D.J. Smith, but winning won’t come easy to this group.

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Hopefully it’s a one on 10, right now. Smith was just hired this off-season and management can’t be expecting him to get many positive results this season. The former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant has nothing to lose heading into this year. The team is expected to be bad, so if he can get anything out of them, people will be lining the streets to give him his due. But even a dysfunctional Senators organization can’t put this new head coach on the hot seat just yet.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Keep an eye on White, Tkachuk and Chabot. Anyone who has seen them play knows what they’re capable of doing on the ice, but watching them perform during what should be a difficult season should be interesting. These are young players that will have ups and downs. They’re talented, but how will they deal with all the losing? Will they be able to put up impressive numbers despite not being surrounded with the best talent. Can they drive the play? Again, all three players have a very bright future, but tough times are ahead for them.

Playoffs or Lottery: If you haven’t figured it out yet in the first five paragraphs of this article, the Senators will very likely be a lottery team. There simply isn’t enough talent on the roster to compete with the other teams in the conference that will be competing for a Wild Card spot. Is Ottawa better than Montreal, Florida, the Rangers, the Devils or the Flyers? They’re not. All of those teams stayed the same or got better and none of them made the playoffs last season. There’s been so much chaos around the organization that they’re almost starting from scratch.

MORE:
• Senators ink Chabot to massive eight-year, $64 million deal

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

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Ron Hextall’s new job; Martin Jones has to prove himself

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• All signs are pointing to a bridge deal between Tampa Bay and Brayden Point. (The Hockey News)

• Was Patrik Laine right when he complained about the way the Jets were using him? (TSN)

Carter Hart and Jakub Voracek will use sticks with designs made by kids with childhood cancer. (NHL.com)

Alex Ovechkin will receive the Wayne Gretzky International Award from USA Hockey. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• Ron Hextall found himself a new job as a part-time advisor for the LA Kings. (NBC Sports Philly)

• Sharks goalie Martin Jones has to prove himself all over again after a rough season. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• For the Kings to get back to the Stanley Cup Final, Rob Blake knows his team has to do a great job of developing young talent. (LA Times)

• The Oilers and Jets could be realistic trade partners. (Oilers Nation)

Elias Pettersson continues to amaze everyone in Vancouver heading into his second year. (Sportsnet)

Kyle Okposo is ready to give the Buffalo Sabres everything he’s got. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

Tanner Fritz is fighting for a playoff spot now that he’s over the blood clot. (NHL.com/Islanders)

Dominik Kubalik could be a break-out candidate for the Chicago Blackhawks. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• The Pens’ lack of room under the salary cap will affect the depth of their squad. (Pittsburgh Hockey Now)

• How Marc Bergevin is quietly preventing a disaster from happening. (A Winning Habit)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.