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What Penguins need to become championship team again

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There is going to come a point in the next few years where the Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer a playoff team.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are all over the age of 32 and probably only have a handful of high-level years ahead of them. When they start to decline or retire there is going to be no replacing them and no matter what moves the Penguins make today there is not going to be anything that stops them from needing an extensive rebuild in the not-too-distant future. That future is not quite here yet.

After barely making the playoffs and getting swept in Round 1 with a roster that seemed to lose its way, it is not unfair to say that the team has slipped a bit in its standing as a Stanley Cup contender. What do they need to get back closer to the top?

We know the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel duo is going to excel on the first line and the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing is going to be great. After that it is a bunch of questions. The obvious keys focus on Alex Galchenyuk fitting in, Evgeni Malkin being better (especially at even-strength), and Matt Murray playing at his best (all things we already looked at today).

But that alone will not be enough.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor | Three Questions]

1. Rediscover their identity. I touched on this immediately after their Round 1 loss but the single biggest flaw the Penguins have is their sudden fascination with having players that provide “push back.” For a team that won two Stanley Cups under the mantra of “just play” it was a needless overreaction to some perceived injustices from a select few opposing players. The result was a shift away from what made team so tough to play against (balanced offense, mobile defense, speed, four scoring lines) and a rapidly growing collection of long-term, pricey contracts for depth players (Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, Brandon Tanev). The big thing that would help address this: Another mobile, puck-moving defender that can play on the second pair. The big intangible thing: Go back to “just play” instead of worrying about pushing back.

2. A resurgence from a (hopefully) healthy Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist’s status as a team leader and gritty forward with a non-stop motor masked the fact that his play rapidly deteriorated in the second half of the season, to the point where he was a complete non-factor offensively. It was a stunning slump after a strong first half. The thing that stands out about that is there is a pretty firm line that separated his season. That line was another head injury that kept him out of the lineup midway through the season. Was it a fluke slump? Was it a result of the injury? Was it a sign of things to come for him in the future now that he is 32 years old? A combination of all three? Whatever it was, the Penguins have Hornqvist signed for four more years at more than $5 million per season. The work ethic and effort are great, but at that price the Penguins need him to produce more than he did this past year or that contract will quickly turn into another drain on the salary cap.

3. Some young players need to emerge. The big focus during their mid-season turnaround in 2015-16 was on the coaching change. But there was another element at play: A bunch of young players became impact players at the same time (Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl; Guentzel a year later). The Penguins need that again. While the farm system is thin, there are some candidates to take big steps forward at the NHL level. Dominik Simon is polarizing because he is a favorite of the coaching staff and struggles to score goals, but he is a good defensive player and playmaker. Jared McCann is a favorite of the front office because they love his potential and he had a strong showing after the trade from Florida. He needs to show it was not a fluke. Dominik Kahun is an intriguing add from Chicago and is coming off a solid rookie season. And even though this might be for a couple years down the line, Pierre-Oliver Joseph is the exact type of defender they need to emerge and become a regular.

The three superstars at the top are the most important ingredient. But they are only part of the recipe. These three keys are just as important.

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

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.

Maple Leafs expect Hyman, Dermott to miss significant time

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Once you get beyond the sticker shock of the $10.89M cap hit, the Mitch Marner contract is a reason for the Toronto Maple Leafs to rejoice. Rather than the saga drag on deep into the season like the William Nylander fiasco, Marner is gearing up in training camp.

Apparently the Maple Leafs will still be without a noteworthy player or two anyway, even though their losses aren’t nearly as significant as the prospect of being without Marner.

Head coach Mike Babcock estimates that forward Zach Hyman could miss approximately 14-15 games, while defenseman Travis Dermott may be sidelined for a similar span (12-14 games), according to TSN’s Karen Shilton.

If that forecast is correct, then the Maple Leafs could anticipate Hyman and Dermott back sometimes during this range:

Game 12 – Oct. 25: home vs. Sharks
Game 13 – Oct. 26: at Canadiens
Game 14 – Oct. 29: home vs. Capitals
Game 15 – Nov. 2: at Flyers

Naturally, when it comes to injuries, things can change. Ailments can worsen, or players can heal up faster than expected.

All due respect to two useful players in Dermott and Hyman, but the cap management aspect — particularly use of LTIR, and juggling once they’re ready to come back — is likely the most interesting part of this situation.

We already know that Nathan Horton ($5.3M AAV) and David Clarkson ($5.25M) will be on LTIR through the final season of their tragic contracts, providing $10.55M. Hyman carries $2.25M, while Dermott weighs in at $863K. The window for an LTIR stay is at least 10 games and 24 days, so one would expect that Hyman and Dermott would join Clarkson and Horton on LTIR. With Dermott’s cost fairly minimal, things would be most cramped once Hyman is healthy enough to play again. Will Toronto be forced to make a trade, or waive someone they’d rather keep?

Losing Hyman and Dermott for what sounds like close to a month isn’t great to begin with, but things could be especially tricky once they can actually play.

Although the Maple Leafs solved some of their biggest riddles, they’ll still need to answer more questions in the short term, so Babcock could be a busy man — almost as busy as Kyle Dubas.

(H/T to Rotoworld.)

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

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.

Bruins get another major bargain with McAvoy contract

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Over and over again, the Boston Bruins find ways to sign core players at stunning discounts. They pulled off another steal with budding star defenseman Charlie McAvoy on Sunday.

Remarkably, they signed McAvoy for slightly less than what the Blue Jackets gave Zach Werenski. McAvoy’s contract is for three years, with just a $4.9 million AAV. That’s … incredible value.

Like with Werenski, it’s structured in a way that can make a future contract hefty, and open the door for eventual UFA status. But for a team that’s focused on now as much as the Bruins happen to be, this is even better. It also makes affording Torey Krug‘s next contract feel a lot more feasible. Also, Cap Friendly points out that McAvoy needs more time to reach UFA status than Werenski and Timo Meier, two players who’ve set a standard for how many RFAs approached negotiations this offseason.

When people try to beat up on the Maple Leafs for their expensive top guys, they often (almost unfairly) bring up Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak only costing about $20 million combined – less than John Tavares and Auston Matthews put together. This could be another contract people cite when they shake their head in awe at what the Bruins have done.

(Now, they just need to make sure not to give away any contracts to the likes of David Backes.)

About the only knock on McAvoy, 21, is that he’s dealt with some injury issues. Beyond that, he’s a really well-rounded defenseman, one who’s been instrumental in extending Zdeno Chara‘s career.

Check out how his RAPM charts at even-strength stack up against Werenski, via Evolving Hockey:

McAvoy made a resounding first impression during the 2016-17 postseason, making his NHL debut at that stage, and impressively logging 26:12 per playoff game. He then started strong in 2017-18, generating seven goals and 32 points in 63 games. This past season provided much of the same, as McAvoy scored seven goals and 28 points in 54 regular-season contests and delivering strong work in postseason appearances.

Again, the main concern is staying on the ice, as otherwise McAvoy’s passed his early tests with flying colors.

Cap Friendly estimates the Bruins’ remaining cap space at about $3.2M, and it’s possible that RFA defenseman Brandon Carlo might eat up all of that, or almost all of that breathing room.

This is fantastic stuff by the Bruins. Again.

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

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.

Pavelski, Perry switch to Stars after long stays in first home

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FRISCO, Texas  — Joe Pavelski joined the Dallas Stars as an expensive free agent coming off one of his best goal-scoring years, while Corey Perry quietly signed a low-cost deal for one year after playing the fewest games of his career because of a knee injury.

That’s where the differences end for the veteran forwards trying to help the Stars make back-to-back playoff trips for the first time in more than a decade. The Stars will try to get past the second round after a Game 7 overtime loss to St. Louis, eventual winners of the Stanley Cup.

Pavelski and Perry both ended up on the same team after lengthy careers with the clubs that drafted them – 13 years for Pavelski in San Jose and 14 seasons for Perry with Anaheim, including a Cup title.

”It’s different. It’s fun,” said Pavelski, who signed a $21 million, three-year deal. ”It’s an exciting part of our career and it’s a change that I think you come in and you embrace that there’s going to be different things and learn to do it their way and help add to that how you can.

”It’s definitely fun to have a guy coming in with a similar situation.”

Pavelski scored 38 goals last regular season, three off his career high, and helped the Sharks reach the Western Conference finals. San Jose had the most successful stretch in franchise history during the four years he was captain, winning six playoff series.

The 35-year-old figures to play on one of the top lines, probably alongside either captain Jamie Benn or 2018-19 scoring leader Tyler Seguin. The Sharks wanted to re-sign Pavelski but couldn’t make it work under the salary cap after giving defenseman Erik Karlsson a $92 million contract.

Circumstances are a bit different for Perry, who is younger than Pavelski (34) but has seen declining production the past three seasons. Perry might miss the Oct. 3 opener at home against Boston after breaking a bone in his foot two days before the start of training camp.

Even when he’s healthy, Perry isn’t likely to fill a leading role similar to that of Pavelski. Both were drafted in 2003 – Perry with the 28th overall pick in the first round by the Ducks, Pavelski in the seventh round by the Sharks.

”It’s a new chapter,” said Perry, who signed for $1.5 million after the Ducks bought out the final two years of the contract for the franchise leader in games (988). ”It’s something different. I’m embracing it as change is sometimes a good thing, rejuvenates myself and my career.”

Benn figures Dallas is as good a place as any for two guys to start over after each spent so long with the only team he had known.

”I’m sure it’s pretty different for them,” Benn said. ”But we make it pretty easy for guys to come into this group. It’s something I take pride in being a captain is we want guys to be comfortable right from Day 1. I think they’re pretty comfortable. They’re fitting in well.”

The Stars are counting on Pavelski for offense after finishing near the bottom of the league in goals during Benn’s lowest-scoring full season since his rookie year in 2009-10. While Seguin led Dallas in points (80), goals (33) and assists (47), Benn scored just 53 points (27 goals, 26 assists).

”Obviously, he’s a goal-scorer,” Seguin said of Pavelski. ”But the biggest thing for him, too, is he’s another threat out there. You have him in the slot now and guys got to respect him. It’ll open up guys like me maybe for one-timers now and Jamie in front, so who knows.”

Despite career lows across the board because of the knee injury, Perry is a former champion (2007) and the only player on the Dallas roster with a 50-goal season (50 in 2010-11, when he was the NHL MVP).

”I think they’re a little different some ways,” Seguin said. ”I think with Joe you saw how San Jose rallied around him. He’s kind of more of a quiet leader. I think Corey Perry, he’s got the ultimate hockey player resume. He’s won everything. He’s been in every situation, and he’s going to know what to say at those moments.”

Seguin has emerged as a leader a year after signing a $79 million, eight-year extension that kicks in this season, adding him to a mix that includes Benn, veteran forward Alexander Radulov and goalie Ben Bishop, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season.

But there’s always room for more, particularly for a franchise that hasn’t made consecutive trips to the playoffs since the last of five straight postseason appearances in 2008.

”I think we have a couple of levels still to go in how we want to be and what we want to be about as a team,” second-year coach Jim Montgomery said. ”Those two are going to help propel us there.”

Pavelski and Perry start with some common ground.

Far from Czech home, Kubalik adjusts to life with Blackhawks

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CHICAGO — Dominik Kubalik is leaning on David Kampf while he transitions to life in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks. He peppers his Czech countryman with all sorts of questions.

”I think he’s a little bit mad at me right now,” a grinning Kubalik said, ”because I’m still asking ‘What’s that?’ and ‘Where are we going?’ and ‘Where’s the training room?’ Stuff like that.”

The Blackhawks have their own questions about Kubalik, one of the biggest variables in their pursuit of the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2017.

It sure looks as if Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane might play together on Chicago’s top line, and close friends and former juniors teammates Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat are a good bet for the second line. Kubalik is in the mix to play alongside one of those potent duos.

It would be quite an opportunity to walk into as a 24-year-old rookie, but Kubalik isn’t looking ahead.

”Everything is pretty new,” he said. ”I’m just trying to get used to it as quick as possible. But I feel great.”

Kubalik skated with Strome for at least part of Saturday’s session on the second day of training camp. Strome played against Kubalik at the world championships and saw him in the Ontario Hockey League a few years ago.

”He’s got a real hard shot, fast skater, some good hands,” Strome said. ”So I think he’s going to add a different element to our team. He’s got a great one-timer. He knows where to go and knows how to find open ice. Big body, too, so it’s a lot of good attributes to have in a player.”

Coach Jeremy Colliton said Kubalik has been ”as advertised” so far.

”It’s going to be somewhat of an adjustment for him,” Colliton said. ”He has played over here in North America before, so that’s good. But it’s still going to take some practices and games.”

Kubalik was drafted by Los Angeles in the seventh round in 2013. But the 6-foot-2 winger never played for the Kings, who shipped him to Chicago for a fifth-round pick in January.

He had spent most of his career in the Czech Republic before playing for HC Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland for part of the 2017-18 season and again last year.

Kubalik had 25 goals and 32 assists in 50 games for the Swiss club last season, and then had a goal and five assists in five playoff games. He also had six goals and six assists in 10 games at the worlds.

The move to Ambri-Piotta was a key moment for Kubalik in his journey to the NHL.

”I was still thinking that I just need to make another step in my career,” he said. ”So I decided to, if there was a chance to go to Switzerland, felt pretty good about it. So I tried it and it actually worked pretty well.”

Kubalik plans to stick to his strengths in his transition to the NHL.

”I think I’m playing pretty simple,” he said. ”I don’t want to handle the puck for a while. I want to just put it as quick as possible to the net. If there is a chance to shoot, I’m just going to take it.”

While Kubalik is learning his way around Chicago, there was at least one familiar face in the locker room when he joined the Blackhawks. He played with Kampf on a U-20 team in the Czech Republic a couple years ago.

He also could make his NHL debut in his home country when Chicago begins the season in Prague on Oct. 4 against Philadelphia.

”I don’t really want to think about it. It’s still pretty far away,” he said. ”But obviously I know it would be probably amazing.”