Previewing the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

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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 Penguins made a splash when they sent Phil Kessel to Arizona. In return, they got Alex Galchenyuk, who is talented yet enigmatic at times. They also signed Brandon Tanev in free agency over the course of the summer. Are they better on the ice? Not really. Kessel had picked up 70, 90 and 82 points over the last three years so it’s going to be tough to replace that production. Did Kessel have to be traded to keep peace in the Pens locker room? Yes.

Strengths: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain two of the elite players in the NHL. Crosby picked up 100 points last season for the first time since 2013-14 campaign. He’s showing no signs of slowing down. As for Malkin, he’s coming off a bad year by his standards, but the 32-year-old still managed to score 72 points in 68 contests. Look for the 33-year-old to have a bounce back year. The Penguins are still rock-solid down the middle.

Weaknesses: The defense still has a ton of question marks. Kris Letang is a great player, but can he stay healthy for an entire 82-game season? The 32-year-old has missed significant time over the last few years. This group also has Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson, who combine to make $7.25 million per year. That’s a lot of money for a team that’s always flirting with the upper limit of the salary cap. Justin Schultz and Brian Dumoulin will need to do some heavy lifting.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 6. Mike Sullivan has had plenty of success during his tenure as head coach, but things seemed to get stale in Pittsburgh last year. They’ve shaken things up by getting rid of Kessel. What happens if that doesn’t work? The Pens made the playoffs last year, but they went out with a whimper, as they were swept by the Islanders in the first round. Sullivan has to find a way to push the right buttons if he’s going to stick around for a few more years.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Keep an eye on Malkin, Galchenyuk and Tanev. We’ve talked about Malkin’s struggles last year. On paper, it wasn’t a terrible year, but a player with that much talent should dominant on a nightly basis. He’s already admitted to being a little out of shape last year, which means he should start the season in great physical condition so he doesn’t have to cheat as much offensively. Malkin is one the leaders of this team. They’ll go as far as he’s willing to take them.

Galchenyuk has a lot of pressure on his shoulders. He’s expected to get a shot to play on a line with Malkin, which means he’s going to have to be one of the key contributors on his team offensively. We know he has all the ability in the world, but he has just one 30-goal season to show for it. The Arizona Coyotes gave up on him after just one season, so he has something to prove now that he’s on his third team in three years. He has to replace Kessel’s production.

Tanev isn’t nearly as talented as the other two players on this list, but he’s in the spotlight because of the contract he signed with the Pens this summer. The 27-year-old got a six-year, $21 million deal. That raised some eyebrows on July 1st. Tanev had 14 goals and 15 assists in 80 games with the Winnipeg Jets last year. He’s not the kind of player that’s going to score much, but he’ll give an honest effort and bring a physical element to the team. Will that be enough to justify the contract? We’ll see.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. The Penguins will figure out a way to finish second or third in the Metropolitan Division. There’s still a lot of talent on the roster. Their better days may be behind them, but you can’t count them out just yet.

MORE:
• 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.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.