What now? Penguins face crucial offseason after flameout

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jim Rutherford’s question was rhetorical. The answer – whenever the architect the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager arrives at it – will determine how the franchise emerges from the rubble of a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Are guys too content with where they’re at in their careers because they’ve won a couple of Stanley Cups?” Rutherford wondered aloud Thursday as his team packed up for its longest offseason in 13 years.

Just 22 months removed from becoming the first team in a generation to win consecutive championships , captain Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Penguins are at a crossroads.

”It’s disappointing to have this long of an offseason,” said Crosby, who posted the sixth 100-point season of his career but managed just one against the Islanders. ”It’s been a while since we’ve had this much time really.”

Failing to three-peat by losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in six hotly contested games against an archrival – as Pittsburgh did last spring when it lost to Washington in the second round – is one thing. Scoring just six goals while getting outskated, outplayed and outworked by a team with a new coach, a journeyman goaltender and little playoff success over the last quarter century is quite another.

”(The Islanders) played the right way and they were eager to win,” Rutherford said. ”They were determined and the Penguins weren’t.”

Maybe the end shouldn’t have been so stunning. Though the Penguins extended their playoff streak to 13 years and counting, they only sporadically played the kind of intelligent and responsible hockey coach Mike Sullivan has tried to instill from the moment he took over in December 2015.

Injuries to stars like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang didn’t help. Neither did a significant amount of roster turnover. Yet Pittsburgh’s best stretch came during a 10-3-3 sprint through March , one the Penguins made with Malkin and Letang available only occasionally. Sullivan pointed to an increased ”cooperative effort” by the group with Malkin and Letang missing, a key ingredient in ”what it takes to win.”

When they returned full time for the playoffs, the cohesion vanished.

Malkin ended a wildly uneven year by struggling to find the dominance that once came so easily. Letang, whose play over the first four-plus months helped the Penguins rebound from a decidedly sluggish start, had a handful of miscues against the Islanders that led immediately to pucks in the back of the Pittsburgh net.

The question going forward is whether Letang, Malkin and forwards Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel – all of whom will be 32 or older when next seasons open – can make the necessary adjustments to their respective games over the next six months to make sure they stick around for the rest of a championship window Rutherford insists remains open.

All four have had highly successful careers and were integral parts of the core group that raised two Stanley Cup banners to the rafters at PPG Paints Arena. All four, however, also have a penchant for taking risks, gambles they could afford to make because their talent often helped them recover when those gambles went awry.

That wiggle room is gone. The evidence came during a series in which the Penguins led for less than five minutes.

Crosby – who will be in the conversation for the Selke Trophy given annually to the league’s top defensive forward – insists his longtime teammates can adapt.

Letang isn’t really sure he has to. Asked if he will take a more defensive-oriented approach heading into his 14th season, he bristled.

”At the end of the day, yeah, I wish I could have done something else at different times, but I don’t think the question is to change my whole game,” Letang said. ”I’m not going to change three plays in my whole year for the type of game I play.”

And there’s the dilemma for the front office. The Penguins have to decide whether they need to adjust their style or their personnel – or both. Whether they can find takers for veterans with their names on the Cup multiple times but also multiple years left on lucrative contracts will play a factor. Either way, Sullivan believes there needs to be a renewed focus when his team – however it is constituted – returns in September.

”The challenge is to make sure that there’s 100 percent buy-in throughout the lineup,” Sullivan said. ”I think the area of our identity that we lost a little bit is the hard-to-play-against aspect.”

NOT SO THIN BLUE LINE

Rutherford defended the play of his defenders, Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson specifically. Both are big bodies not known for their skating. Gudbranson was solid after arriving in a trade with Vancouver while Johnson played all 82 games before being a curious healthy scratch for Game 1 against the Islanders.

”I think our defense is probably the best that’s it has been since I’ve been here as a group,” Rutherford said.

SEE YA DAD?

Matt Cullen had seven goals and 13 assists and remained a faceoff wizard – particularly in the defensive zone – in his 21st season. The 42-year-old, however, seems headed for retirement to spend more time with his wife and three boys. His leadership and character will be difficult to replace.

”I think just he’s such a pro in the way he approached every day, the way he led by example, the way he treated guys,” Crosby said. ”He can still play.”

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

PHT Morning Skate: Luongo’s future; What Perry meant to Ducks

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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.

• Take a look back at the Dallas Stars team that won the Stanley Cup 20 years ago. (Dallas News)

Tomas Hertl cemented himself as a top-line center in 2018-19. (Fear the Fin)

• The Nashville Predators should seriously consider trading their first-round pick this year. (Predlines)

• One long-time NHL scout believes that the 2019 draft class is one of the deepest in recent memory. (Winnipeg Free Press)

Kevin Hayes‘ new contract with the Flyers complicates things for the Vegas Golden Knights and pending RFA William Karlsson. (Knights on Ice)

• Corey Perry gave the Ducks organization everything he had. (OC Register)

• Could Joe Pavelski be a good fit for the Colorado Avalanche? (Mile High Sticking)

• Jason Botterill’s first two drafts with the Buffalo Sabres have gone pretty well. (Die by the Blade)

• Can the Penguins accomplish everything they want to do this offseason without trading Phil Kessel? (Pittsburgh Tribune)

• There are still moves for Rangers GM Jeff Gorton to make at the draft. (Blue Shirt Banter)

• Cardiac Cane makes a case for the Hurricanes to trade Brett Pesce. (Cardiac Cane)

Jesse Puljujarvi would be a great addition for the New Jersey Devils. (Pucks and Pitchforks)

• Joel Bouchard did a good job with the Canadiens’ AHL team last season. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• The Bruins are unlikely to buy out veteran forward David Backes this offseason. (WEEI)

• Will Roberto Luongo keep playing next season? He’s reportedly expected to give the Panthers an answer soon. (NHL.com)

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.

Watch Kenan Thompson’s fantastic NHL Awards monologue

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While the Adam Sandlers, Steve Martins, and Chris Rocks of the world are the most famous people to come from “SNL,” the performers who were “lifers” land among the most talented. Kenan Thompson is one of those performers who stood the test of time, much like Darrell Hammond and Tim Meadows.

So, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising just how great Thompson was as a host of the 2019 NHL Awards, but either way, he knocked it out of the park on Wednesday.

It says a lot about the quality of the show that, even deep into the telecast – award shows are long, basically always – people were still laughing and smiling. From the emotions of Carey Price surprising a young fan, to Robin Lehner‘s speech about mental health, to the bonkers segments with “Tony Babcock,” the show had a little bit of everything.

And Thompson’s fantastic monologue really set a fun tone with legitimately great jokes.

Considering that the NHL wouldn’t want Thompson to go scorched earth like Norm MacDonald did during that unforgettable ESPYS appearance, this was a great mix of funny and wholesome.

Though, that’s not to say that there weren’t any spicy zingers.

  • Watch as the Tampa Bay Lightning go stone-faced when Thompson makes a great barb about the Bolts getting swept.

Actually, it was mainly Andrei Vasilevskiy looking displeased. Also, notice Nick Foligno grinning widely in the background. Hmm, I wonder why he might enjoy that joke?

  • Enjoy the juxtaposition of many hockey people generally not reacting to jokes while their significant others laugh like the rest of us.
  • Enjoy some great deep cuts, from jokes you’d be more likely to expect, to a really creative bit about The Pope Mobile being a penalty box on wheels, and the Pope getting five minutes for “cross-checking.” (Thompson deserved cheers, not boos, for that one.)
  • Also, Thompson has a point about the Blues using “Gloria” instead of the actual Blues.

Overall, the 2019 NHL Awards are going to be a tough act to follow. Here’s hoping Thompson gets to try it in 2020, because he (and basically everyone else involved, Jillian Fisher was a great addition, too) did a truly fantastic job.

While it’s not quite at the same level as Thompson’s monologue, the cold open included John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, and Laila Anderson (!), so you might enjoy it, too:

More: Rounding up the NHL Awards.

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.

2019 NHL Awards: All the winners, video, more

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A lot naturally happened during the 2019 NHL Awards and there are still some winners left to highlight. Before we do that though, let’s recap some of tonight’s big winners:

Calder Trophy: Elias Pettersson

Lady Byng: Aleksander Barkov

GM of the Year: Don Sweeney

Norris Trophy: Mark Giordano

Masterton Trophy: Robin Lehner

Selke Trophy: Ryan O’Reilly

Jack Adams: Barry Trotz

Vezina Trophy: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay: Nikita Kucherov

Now let’s tackle the other winners.

King Clancy Trophy: Jason Zucker,

Zucker and his wife Carly began the Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio with a $160,000 donation and have raised over $1.2 million in under a year. The project allows kids and their families at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital to watch Minnesota Wild games in a space that mimics the experience of being at the game.

Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award: Wayne Simmonds

Before being traded to the Nashville Predators in February, Simmonds was deeply involved with the Flyers’ community efforts. Among other things, he was a board member for the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation for six years. He also spent four years as an honorary chairman of their annual golf tournament, which is the foundation’s biggest fundraiser.

Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award: Rico Phillips

Of course, the Art Ross Trophy went to Nikita Kucherov, the Rocket Richard Trophy went to Alex Ovechkin, and the Jennings Trophy was shared by Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.

First All-Star Team:
G: Andrei Vasilevskiy
D: Brent Burns
D: Mark Giordano
C: Connor McDavid
RW: Nikita Kucherov
LW: Alex Ovechkin

Second All-Star Team:
G: Ben Bishop
D: Victor Hedman
D: John Carlson
C: Sidney Crosby
RW: Patrick Kane
LW: Brad Marchand

All-Rookie Team:
G: Jordan Binnington
D: Rasmus Dahlin
D: Miro Heiskanen
F: Elias Pettersson
F: Anthony Cirelli
F: Brady Tkachuk

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Nikita Kucherov caps NHL Awards haul with Hart Trophy

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Things didn’t go as planned for Nikita Kucherov and the Tampa Bay Lightning once the postseason began, but the 2019 NHL Awards serve as a helpful reminder that they made history through the 82-game regular season.

No Lightning player enjoyed a better season than Kucherov, and he was awarded appropriately on Wednesday. Kucherov won the 2019 Hart Trophy, which joins the 2019 Ted Lindsay Award (the player-voted version of the Hart), and the scoring title, i.e. the 2019 Art Ross Trophy.

He also enjoyed a wonderfully awkward comic segment with “Tony Babcock,” aka Thomas Middleditch, so it was a big night for Kucherov.

Kucherov beat finalists Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers) for the Hart Trophy, which is the sort of sentence you lead with when you’re making a Hall of Fame argument.

Here are the voting results:

Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy last year, McDavid captured the 2016-17 Hart Trophy, and Sidney Crosby last won it in 2013-14.

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.