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Pressure is on Rutherford, Sullivan after Kessel trade

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The Phil Kessel era in Pittsburgh reached its inevitable conclusion on Saturday evening when the Penguins shipped the star winger to the Arizona Coyotes for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph. It finally ended months of rumors, speculation, and even some drama that constantly swirled around an inconsistent regular season and disappointing postseason that seemed to give management and the coaching staff an unquenchable thirst for change.

Whenever that change was discussed, everything that was talked about always made Kessel the most likely candidate to be on the move.

General manager Jim Rutherford repeatedly talked about too many players on the team becoming too comfortable and complacent.

There was talk about commitment and “playing the right way.”

There were salary cap concerns as the Penguins were once again pressed firmly against the ceiling and having little flexibility to make the changes they wanted to make.

Then there was the seemingly tumultuous relationship between Kessel and head coach Mike Sullivan as the two did not always see eye-to-eye.

After trying to send Kessel to the Minnesota Wild earlier this summer, only to have Kessel utilize his no-trade clause and block the deal, Rutherford finally found a match with the Coyotes, reuniting Kessel and Rick Tocchet, his former assistant coach in Pittsburgh.

Kessel and Rutherford seemed to disagree over the nature of the departure, with Rutherford saying on Saturday that Kessel had requested a trade during the season, and Kessel simply saying that is not how it happened. Who is telling the truth is anyone’s guess, but now that the trade is completed the how and why is mostly irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what the Penguins’ roster now looks like and what they do in the coming weeks and months (and years) to make it better.

In the short-term it is almost impossible to argue that the roster is better from a talent standpoint.

[Related: Penguins send Kessel to Coyotes for Galchenyuk]

That puts a ton of pressure on Rutherford and Sullivan because they now have some big tests ahead of them, and they are going to need to be right every step of the way.

The popular sentiment coming out of Pittsburgh in the immediate aftermath is the Penguins probably did better than expected given how little leverage they had in trying to make a Kessel trade. It was obvious the Penguins were motivated to move him and he had significant control over where he went, reportedly loading his approved trade list with teams he knew the Penguins would not trade him to. If I were a betting man, I would wager that list included a lot of Metropolitan Division teams, as well as maybe Boston and Toronto, Kessel’s two previous stops in the NHL. That certainly put them in a corner.

Getting a good NHL player and promising prospect in that context probably is a pretty decent haul if you were hellbent on trading him.

But you don’t win championships or give yourself a chance to win championships by simply doing better than everyone expected you to do when trading an elite offensive player.

You win championships by having better players than everybody else. That is now the short-term problem for the Penguins.

At this point there are not any secrets when it comes to Galchenyuk and what he is as a player. He possesses a lot of the same flaws that Kessel does defensively and away from the puck, but does not provide the strength of being a world-class offensive player. You may not like Kessel’s defensive play, but there are only a very short list of players in the world that are better than him when it comes to producing offense. You at least have that going for you when you have him on your roster. If you are going to be a one-trick pony, that is a pretty damn good trick to have at your disposal.

I do not know that Kessel’s style of play, approach, or attitude changed all that much over the past few years. He is what he is as a player and he is who he is as a person. What changed is the Penguins stopped winning Stanley Cups. You tolerate the quirky, all-offense, no-defense winger when he is helping to hang banners and taking part in parades.

When all of that stuff stops, it is no longer something most hockey men want to put up with.

Now the Penguins have one less elite offensive player, and unless Galchenyuk somehow puts it all together and scores 30 goals for the first time in three years — a season that is now looking more and more like the outlier in his career — they downgraded their roster in the short-term.

Arguing against that as we sit today is arguing against facts and logic.

Because of that, the entire trade, as well as the direction of the Penguins after the trade, hinges almost completely on the development of Joseph, what the Penguins do with the new salary cap space they now have, and whether or not they were right about needing to change the culture of the team … and if that even matters.

This is where the challenge for Rutherford and Sullivan comes in.

Joseph is an intriguing add because despite the claims of Rutherford earlier this offseason when he said this is the best defense he has ever had in Pittsburgh, his defense is actually quite a mess once you get beyond Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. They also didn’t have anyone in the prospect pool that looked to be even worthy of a mention as a top prospect.

Joseph, almost by default, immediately becomes the team’s best defense prospect and actually plays a style that would seem to suit the Penguins when they are at their best. That is good. The key is going to be developing him into something useful at the NHL level. The problem is the Penguins really haven’t done a good job of developing young players over the past few years. They have to get it right with Joseph, not only to justify this move, but because they NEED someone like him to be good. But that is probably a year or two away from becoming a factor, not only because of where Joseph in his development (he has never played above the QMJHL) but because of the logjam the Penguins still have on their blue line.

The more immediate issue is the newfound salary cap space.

When it comes to this offseason, the Kessel-for-Galchenyuk swap doesn’t really do anything to remedy the team’s short-term cap issues as it only saves them about $1.9 million. That gives them, via CapFriendly, around $5 million in salary cap space.

Given their own RFA’s they have to re-sign, probably wanting to keep a little wiggle room under the cap at the start of the season, and the cost of any new UFA signing it doesn’t really give the Penguins much added flexibility under the cap without making another move to ship out more salary. Rutherford hinted he may now be able to add someone on Monday at the start of free agency, but unless someone takes a huge discount to go to Pittsburgh, or he makes another trade, he will only be adding a fringe player around the edge.

They do not see any real salary cap savings until next summer (and the summer after that), and that is assuming they do NOT re-sign Galchenyuk. If they do, he probably costs at least $5-6 million and pretty much erases that newfound cap space they got by trading Kessel. At that point they would be betting that Galchenyuk would be a better use of that cap space than Kessel would. Even taking into account a decline from Kessel, that seems like a tough bet to make.

The bigger issue, though, is that if Rutherford is going to make a move in free agency he has to do a better job than he has the past few years where he has not only slowly shifted the Penguins away from what made them a success, but has also made some objectively bad moves.

The Penguins are not in a salary cap crunch because they are paying their stars. It is because they have made some bad investments with their second-and third-tier players. How much better would their salary cap situation look this summer if they did not commit more than $7 million to the duo of Jack Johnson or Erik Gudbranson? Or the more than $5 million per year (for another five years) they have going to an aging and apparently rapidly declining Patric Hornqvist?

Just look at what the Penguins have done in free agency the past two offseasons.

  • In July 2017 they signed Antti Niemi to be their new backup goalie behind Matt Murray. Niemi didn’t last two months with the team before being waived.
  • That same summer they signed Matt Hunwick to a three-year, $6.75 million contract. It was a fit that was so bad from the start the Penguins had to trade Conor Sheary along with Hunwick just to dump salary one year ago to create cap space.
  • They used that new cap space to sign Jack Johnson to a five-year, $17 million contract exactly one year ago, a contract that has already become an albatross on their cap.

That is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the revolving door of other roster moves that have led to a decline in success.

Salary cap space is only as good as what you do with it. The Penguins have not maximized what little space they have had in recent years. That trend can not continue.

Then we get to Sullivan and the pressure that is now on him.

Whether it is the reality of the situation or not, the optics from the outside are that he won out over Kessel in what can probably only be loosely described as a power struggle. The player that didn’t conform to the way he wanted to play is gone. The culture changes and maybe the team begins to play the “right way” (in their view) as a result.

But all of it better work out for his sake because there can be no denying his seat is white hot after the way the team fizzled out in the playoffs. Sullivan is entering a season where he is a lame-duck coach, and the general manager does not seem to have much urgency when it comes to signing him to a contract extension.

Adding to the fire is that the Penguins just hired Mike Vellucci, the reigning Calder Cup winning coach in the American Hockey League, to be the new head coach of their top farm team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That came after Vellucci mutually agreed to part ways with the Carolina Hurricanes organization. Why would he resign from an organization he has been a part of for so long, where he has had recent success, to take a lateral job in another organization?

In his words, it was because he was “presented with an exciting opportunity that makes sense for my future.”

Allow me to translate that: He thinks he has a faster path to an NHL head coaching job in Pittsburgh than he did in Carolina, and that would not be an incorrect assumption. He and Rutherford have a connection from their Carolina days, and he would seem to be the obvious in-house replacement if the team with the lame-duck coach stumbles out of the gate.

If you want to argue that the Penguins had to trade Kessel, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they did. Maybe change was necessary. Maybe he was the significant core player on the roster that made sense to move. Maybe he wanted to move.

They still have a lot of work to do to get better as a result of it, no matter the reason, and they are not anywhere near getting there.

Unless something changes drastically in how they evaluate players, what they value in players, and how they utilize their salary cap space none of what took place over the past 24 hours will matter as they run the risk of their remaining championship window in the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang era closing even sooner than it needs to.

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.

Stewart earns contract with Flyers after month-long PTO

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Chris Stewart’s tryout with the Philadelphia Flyers has come to an end and the result is a one-way contract with the team.

The Flyers announced on Tuesday that they have signed the soon-to-be 32-year-old winger to a one-year, $750,000 contract. Stewart had been on a PTO deal since training camp and due to a salary cap crunch were unable to sign him. That door opened on Monday when Andy Welinski was waived, freeing up the money to make it happen.

“We’re happy to have Chris under contract,” said Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher in a statement. “Chris came into training camp with a great attitude and a strong work-ethic. He brings size and a veteran presence to our lineup.”

Welinski, along with Nolan Patrick, had been on injured reserve and his salary counted against the Flyers’ cap, tying Fletcher’s hands. His $750,000 salary will now come off the books after clearing waivers as he heads to the AHL.

Despite retaining PTO status once the season began, Stewart has been with the Flyers through their three games. He was with them on their early-season jaunt to Europe and has been skating with the team as they take part in their current Western Canada road trip. He’s expected to make his debut Tuesday night in Calgary. Per the Courier Post, the Flyers have been covering the cost of Stewart’s hotel, which is near their training facility, and he’s been receiving per diem.

Before signing his PTO with the Flyers in July, Stewart had not played in the NHL since the 2017-18 season when he suited up for 54 games with the Wild and Flames. He spent last season in Great Britain’s EIHL playing for the Nottingham Panthers.

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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.

NHL on NBCSN: Offseason work paying off for Canadiens’ Drouin

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The ovation lasted a good 40 seconds, and it showed just far the relationship between Canadiens fans and Jonathan Drouin has come since his 2017 trade from the Lightning.

After netting a goal and an assist, it was clear on his face just how much the 24-year-old Drouin appreciated the love from the fans still inside Bell Centre following their 6-3 win over the Blues on Saturday. The two-point night extended the forward’s point streak to five games to start the season, surely boosting his confidence following a quiet preseason on the ice that resulted with his entrance into the trade rumor mill.

Rewind nearly two years when in his first season with the Canadiens Drouin finished with just 13 goals in 77 games — a total well below expectations following the trade that sent defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa. The pressure to succeed immediately was high considering the team handed him a six-year, $33 million extension just hours after acquiring him.

Offensively, Drouin was better last season — scoring 18 goals and recording a career high 53 points — but he wasn’t satisfied, especially with one goal and six points in his final 26 games. He spent the summer with Canadiens assistant coach Dominique Ducharme looking over video, per Sportsnet’s Eric Engels, and the results are finally showing.

[COVERAGE OF CANADIENS-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

“There’s some stuff where I complicate things a little bit,” Drouin said. “It’s been one of my problems when I played junior and in the NHL, when I started in this league. Sometimes it’s just making that easy play where it doesn’t look that great or doesn’t look that good on TV but it’s effective. I think that’s what we looked at more than anything is to be more effective in what I do every game. Whether it’s with the puck or without it, it’s just being more… not conservative, but going after it the way I used to do it back when I played my best games in junior and in the NHL in that playoff [in 2015 with Tampa].”

Those around Drouin are noticing the differences and the improvements he’s made. Canadiens head coach Claude Julien feels this is the best he’s played since joining the team.

“It’s not the others that are making him better; it’s him who’s making them better,” Julien said. “It’s a good sign for us and he deserves a lot of credit for it.”

Drouin entered the 2019-20 season with something to prove. He wasn’t happy with his game in the past and understood the pressure that comes with playing in Montreal. He’s simply put in the work and it’s paying off.

“Mentally I’m more into the games, I’m more focused and it’s been a big change in my game,” he said.

Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter. Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Perron, Slavin lead this week’s top adds

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Jaccob Slavin, Hurricanes – D: For each of the previous three seasons, Slavin recorded 30-34 points, but at the age of 25 it’s not unreasonable to believe that we haven’t seen his peak. This campaign certainly has the potential to result in him setting new career-highs. He’s riding a five-game point streak, which has brought him up to two goals and five points in six games this season.

Zach Aston-Reese, Penguins – LW/RW: Aston-Reese was a standout in Northeastern University, but since turning pro in 2017, he’s needed time to gradually work up the Penguins’ ladder. He still has some climbing to do, but after playing in 14 games in 2017-18 and 43 contests in 2018-19 with Pittsburgh, he seems to have now secured an everyday role with the squad. Aston-Reese is still a borderline player in standard fantasy leagues, but at the least he’s worth keeping an eye on and in the short-term he’s worth gambling to ride his current hot streak of four points in his last two contests.

Justin Schultz, Penguins – D: Schultz had 51 points back in 2016-17, but he hasn’t come close to that level before or since. He’s off to a promising start in 2019-20 though with four assists in six games. What’s particularly noteworthy is that he’s averaging 3:41 minutes of power-play ice time, which is just barely behind Kris Letang. That power-play role has been huge for Schultz with three of those four assists coming with the man advantage. As long as he stays healthy, which was the big problem last season, he has a huge opportunity to be a big contributor.

David Perron, Blues – LW/RW: At the time of writing, Perron is owned in 60% of Yahoo leagues, which I see as on the low end given what he brings to the table offensively. He had 66 points in 70 games in 2017-18 and then 46 points in 57 contests in 2018-19, which translates to an average of 72 points per 82 games over that span. This season seems to be a continuation of that. He has three goals and five points in five games while averaging 18:25 minutes. While he’s an injury risk, he should be regarded as a high-end winger. 

[Ready for the season? Get the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Ilya Mikheyev, Maple Leafs – LW: Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko are two of the biggest names in this season’s rookie pool, but neither has done much offensively yet. Instead, Mikheyev has been one of the league’s top rookies with two goals and five points in six contests. It helps that he’s been getting a good chunk of ice time for a rookie.  He’s averaging 15:55 minutes, which is the third highest for a rookie forward. Mikheyev is still owned in just 6% of Yahoo leagues, so there is still a chance to grab him.

Tomas Tatar, Canadiens– LW/RW: Tatar had 25 goals and a career-high 58 points in his first season with the Canadiens and his second campaign with Montreal has the potential to be similarly successful. He already has two goals and five points in five contests while averaging 16:58 minutes. It helps that he’s been playing alongside Brendan Gallagher, who surpassed the 30-goal milestone in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Ryan Dzingel, Hurricanes – LW/RW: Dzingel is one I’m more on the fence about in the long run, but I’m certainly interested in gambling on him at this moment. He’s gotten off to a hot start with two goals and five points in six contests. He’s only averaging 14:17 minutes, which makes it hard to see him sustaining anywhere near his current level of production. Still, he’s a fairly talented forward and he’s doing well enough to be worth taking a chance on at this time.

Sam Lafferty, Penguins – C/LW:  Lafferty is another lower profile rookie who has stepped up early. In his case though, it’s been all thanks to a surge in his last two games. He scored a goal and three points on Saturday and added another two goals on Sunday. Will he keep this up? I strong doubt it. Lafferty is someone to pick up for now while he’s hot, but drop as soon as he slows down.

Mike Smith, Oilers – G:  Smith left something to be desired in 2018-19 with Calgary, but his stint with Edmonton has gotten off to an encouraging start. He’s 3-0-0 with a 2.67 GAA and .907 save percentage in three starts. Edmonton has been one of the most pleasant surprises this season and if that keeps up, Smith will be a primary benefactor. Mikko Koskinen is worth considering for the same reason. Personally, I see Smith as the safer bet given his wealth of experience, but for what it’s worth, Koskinen has gotten off to the better start with a 2-0-0 record, 2.41 GAA, and .914 save percentage in two starts. They’re also likely to split the Oilers’ responsibilities fairly evenly.

Jonathan Drouin, Canadiens – C/LW: Drouin has been one of those players with a ton of offensive upside that seems to keep ending up short of that potential. He matched his career-high in 2018-19 with 53 points, which is solid to be sure, but there’s still that underlining belief that there might be more there from the 2013 third overall pick. Maybe this is the season we’ll get him to take that last step. He’s opened the campaign on a five-game point streak with two goals and six points over that span. 

Players You May Want To Drop

Dustin Byfuglien, Jets – D: This one might seem the most obvious, but it’s also the one I’m most on the fence about. Yes, Byfuglien isn’t playing and he’s been reportedly considering retirement, so he might not play at all this season. But to drop him now means potentially missing out on a 40-50 point defenseman if he decides tomorrow to return to the Jets. However, we’re two weeks into the season now and there’s been no indication that he’s even close to making a decision. Even if he did surprise me by saying today that he’s returning, he’ll need time to get up to speed and after missing training camp and the start of the season, that might be difficult. With every passing day, the odds of him living up to expectations even if he does play diminish and at a certain point you need to start thinking about cutting your losses.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Jakub Voracek, Flyers – RW: Voracek has no points in three games, but what I find particularly concerning is that he’s averaging just 15:33 minutes. That’s down from 18:40 minutes in 2018-19 and 19:27 minutes in 2017-18. So far this season, the most Voracek has played in a game has been 16:06 minutes, which would have been in the bottom-10 for minutes back last season. With his role potentially changing, his offensive output might decline meaningfully.

Chris Kreider, Rangers – LW: Kreider does have two assists in three games, so he’s gotten off to a good start. However, he’s averaging 14:55 minutes per game, which is way down from 17:24 minutes in 2018-19 when he had 52 points in 79 contests. Given how borderline he was to begin with in standard fantasy leagues, that decline is concerning. On top of that, he recently sustained a lower-body injury.  It’s not believed to be long-term, but again he’s borderline to begin with so there’s not a lot of motivation to wait even minor injuries out.

Nazem Kadri, Avalanche – C: Kadri had just 16 goals and 44 points in 73 games last season with Toronto, but there was some hope that the move to Colorado might change things. After all, he’d be moving from a team that was using him primarily as a third-line center to one with a second-line spot for him. So far, that hasn’t worked out with Kadri being limited to a goal and no assists in four contests. Given that he only has center-eligibility, which is a very deep position, I’d be inclined to drop him for now in favor of someone who is offering more immediate help. He is still worth keeping an eye on though.

Jonathan Quick, Kings – G: So far Quick has been a disaster this season. He’s allowed at least five goals per game, which has given him a 0-3-0 record, 6.43 GAA, and .793 save percentage in three starts. That comes after his struggles in 2018-19 with a 16-23-7 record, 3.38 GAA, and .888 save percentage in 46 starts. Certainly the team in front of him isn’t doing Quick any favors, but the Kings are in a transitional phase, so they’re not likely to help him much for the remainder of the season either. This seems like a goaltending situation to avoid where at all possible.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

PHT Morning Skate: Faith in Quick; remembering Ted Green

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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.

• Todd McLellan is keeping the faith in a struggling Jonathan Quick. [LA Times]

• How an increase in cap space for the Flyers means good news for Chris Stewart, who remains on a PTO deal with the team. [Courier Post]

• How Blues’ goaltender Jordan Binnington is planning to silence his doubters. [ESPN]

• It’s early, but Ralph Krueger’s message is working so far for the Sabres. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• The frustrations levels are rising for the Devils. [NHL.com]

• Remembering longtime player, coach, and seven-time Stanley Cup winner Ted Green, who passed away last week at age 79. [Edmonton Journal]

• Bill Guerin is eager to make his mark as a first-time NHL GM with the Wild. [Tribune Review]

• Why it’s time for the Capitals to turn to Ilya Samsonov. [Puck Prose]

• ECHL forward Daniel Perez is among the Hispanic players who see Scott Gomez as a role model. [NHL.com]

• A look at Lucas Raymond, one of the top prospects in the 2020 NHL Draft. [Draft Analyst]

• How soon will the NHL’s early season offensive boon last? [Spector’s Hockey]

• Why Rasmus Sandin heading down to the AHL is the right move by the Maple Leafs. [Sportsnet]

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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.