How the Penguins have become one of NHL’s best defensive teams

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It is starting to look like Jim Rutherford was right.

Not long after his Pittsburgh Penguins were swept out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he defiantly proclaimed that the defense he had assembled was probably the best one his team had since he arrived in Pittsburgh. It seemed to be a rather dubious claim not only because of how the Penguins performed for much of the season (including the playoffs), but because he had also been the general manager for a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh.

But nearly two months into the 2019-20 season the Penguins have been one of the league’s stingiest teams defensively and that play is one of the biggest reasons they have been able to overcome a seemingly unending list of injuries to keep piling up points.

Just look at the defensive performance so far this season compared to the same date a year ago, as well as their final numbers from the 2018-19 season.

All numbers via Natural Stat Trick. The numbers in parenthesis are their league-wide rank.

They also boast one of the league’s best penalty killing units, not only in terms of success rate, but also in their ability to also limit shots and chances against.

The Penguins always had one elite defense pair in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin but everything after that was always a question.

So what all has changed?

The arrival of John Marino and development of Marcus Pettersson. One thing that should be pointed out about Rutherford’s “best defense” comment is that there have been some personnel changes on the blue line since then that helped the team get back closer to the winning identity it had lost. Erik Gudbranson and Olli Maatta were traded, while the team also made the under-the-radar acquisition of John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a sixth-round pick.

From the moment they acquired Marino, the Penguins seemed enamored with his potential. After watching him play for the past month-and-a-half it is not hard to see why. He has been a game-changer on the blue line and in his first pro season has already become a 20-minute per night player and has yet to look out of place. He brings some much-needed youth, mobility, and playmaking to a defense that badly needed all three.

Combine his presence with a full season of Marcus Pettersson (acquired in December of last year for Daniel Sprong) and suddenly the Penguins have two young, mobile defenders that can help drive play for what is currently a dirt cheap price against the salary cap. And both have the potential to continue getting better.

The forwards are helping more. One of the common themes throughout the Penguins’ offseason was that they needed to play “the right way,” and that the defensive deficiencies last season weren’t just about the defensemen themselves. They also needed more help from their forwards. They are getting that this season, and it’s not just because the returning players are playing smarter. The offseason additions of Brandon Tanev and Dominik Kahun, as well as getting a full season out of trade deadline acquisition Jared McCann, have brought three more fast, defensively responsible forwards to the lineup, and all are making significant contributions in every phase of the game.

Tanev’s signing drew harsh criticism (including from me) due to the term on the contract but so far he has proven to be everything the Penguins said he would be — a menace due to his speed and an always frustrating player for opponents to go up against. Combined with the arrival of young players Teddy Blueger and Sam Lafferty the Penguins injected a ton of speed, youth, and fresh blood into a lineup that the rest of the league had not only caught up to, but seemingly passed by the previous two years. With Phil Kessel and Arizona and Sidney Crosby currently sidelined the Penguins may not be as explosive offensively, but they are making up for that with their ability to shut teams down.

Better usage and a better identity. Mike Sullivan is turning in a Jack Adams level coaching performance this season and has pushed all of the right buttons so far. He has the team buying into how they need to play, they are back to play fast, and the personnel usage is far better (trusting Marino and Pettersson in big spots; playing Jack Johnson in the third-pairing/PK role he is best suited for).

Rutherford received his fair share of criticism the past couple of years (including from, again, me) and much of it was deserved. The team became too obsessed with “push-back” and getting more physical instead of getting faster and better. There was a constant revolving door of player transactions that made it seem like they didn’t really have a plan. Tom Wilson took up residence in their front office and seemed to drive every decision.

One of the most positive things anyone around Pittsburgh could always say about Rutherford is he is quick to admit his mistakes and move on. He definitely did that by making the team faster and getting it back to what it does best. It may not have been the most direct route, but for the first time in two years the Penguins have the look of the team that was winning Stanley Cups instead of the one that was getting swept in the first round. Better late than never.

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.

Rangers’ rebuild gets another significant piece with Draft Lottery win

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In a few years New York Rangers fans might look back at this year’s three-game qualifying round sweep at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes as a major turning point for the franchise.

Perhaps the turning point for the franchise.

It was that loss that put the Rangers back in the running for the top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery, which they won on Monday night.

In a normal season, the Rangers, who finished the regular season with the 18th best record in the league, would have had less than a 2 percent chance of winning the top pick in the lottery and would have most likely picked 14th overall.

But because of a perfect storm of events that included them being included in the 24-team return to play format, a “placeholder team” winning the first phase of the draft lottery, and their qualifying round loss, their chances jumped up to 12.5 percent for Monday’s drawing. It was there that their lottery ball came up.

With that comes the opportunity to add another massive piece to an already promising rebuild.

[Related: Rangers win 2020 NHL Draft Lottery]

Assuming the Rangers keep the pick (the No. 1 overall pick has not been traded since 2003) it is expected that they will use it on Alexis Lafreniere, a potential top-line winger that has spent the past three years completely dominating the QMJHL.

It will continue a rather impressive two-year run that has seen them significantly add to the high-end talent throughout the organization, and give them what should be an outstanding core of high-level players to build around. This is not a case where a No. 1 overall pick is going to a team that is starting from scratch and has to completely rebuild. This is a team that could (and perhaps should) be a playoff team as soon as this upcoming season.

They already have an MVP-level player in place after the addition of Artemi Panarin this past summer. His first year in New York was one of the finest offensive seasons in the history of the franchise, and while he does turn 29 next season he should still have several impact years ahead of him. Along with Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider remain top-line players and are signed long-term.

But it’s the young talent on the roster that is perhaps most exciting.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

This is the second year in a row the Rangers had draft lottery luck on their side. A year ago they moved from sixth to second in the lottery, getting the right to select Kaapo Kakko. While he struggled through his rookie season and did not make an immediate impact, he is still only 19 years old, loaded with talent, and has top-line potential.

They also have a potential building block on their blue line in Adam Fox, one of the most impressive rookies in what turned out to be a fantastic 2020 class across the league. If he continues on his current trajectory he should be a top-pairing defender for years.

While the book seems to be closing (and is perhaps entirely closed) on Henrik Lundqvist‘s time with the team, they have two in-house replacements in Alexander Georgiev and the emergence this year of Igor Shesterkin, who had already taken over the starting job down the stretch.

Now they are adding what could end up being the best player of the bunch in Lafreniere.

This does not guarantee the Rangers anything next season or five seasons from now or at any point down the road. It does not mean a Stanley Cup is immediately on the horizon or a foregone conclusion. It not a perfect team by any stretch at this point.

There is still a pretty big hole at center beyond Zibanejad, and the defense needs a lot work after Fox.

But you can find a No. 2 center or a second defense pairing a hell of a lot easier than you can find potential franchise-changing players.

It is the franchise players that you needemphasis on need to win a championship. They are always the players that are most difficult to find and acquire. It usually requires a significant amount of luck, good fortune and perfect timing, something the Rangers have now had on their side in two consecutive years with the draft lottery to land Kakko and (potentially) Lafreniere.

Almost every Stanley Cup winning team in the salary cap era has at least one top-two pick on their roster, with the only exceptions being the 2018-19 Blues, the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings, and the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks (Chris Pronger was a No. 2 pick, but he was not picked by Anaheim). Many of them have had multiple picks in that area.

The rebuild is not over by any stretch, but the amount of potential superstar talent the Rangers have added in the span of one year has certainly accelerated the process.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Lightning vs. Blue Jackets: 5 things to know about their First Round series

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The First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins August 11. Before the NHL postseason resumes play, PHT will preview each of the eight opening round matchups, including Lightning-Blue Jackets

1. Lightning get their chance at redemption

Depending on your outlook this is either the perfect matchup for the Lightning or some kind of cruel joke that will only further their postseason frustration.

A year ago the Lightning were the best team in the NHL, steamrolling the league on their way to a record-tying 62-win regular season that made them the clear Stanley Cup favorites entering the playoffs.

They responded by losing four consecutive games to the No. 8 seed Blue Jackets in what was one of the most stunning postseason upsets in recent memory. Even though this particular Tampa Bay core has yet to win a championship, they have not been total failures in the playoffs. They have consistently been one of the final four teams standing in the playoffs and have always been right on the verge of winning a championship only to let it slip right through their fingers. But last year’s postseason showing was an emphatic failure that is still kind of hard to believe.

Now they have a chance at redemption with a rematch against Columbus.

Make no mistake, the pressure is all on Tampa Bay in this series. This is still a team that is expected to win a championship and is the superior roster on paper. But as the Blue Jackets have shown over the past two years none of that really matters when it comes to their early postseason matchups.

2. The health of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman could be huge factor for Lightning

There are so many factors that go into winning a championship. Talent. Luck. Getting the right matchups. And, of course, health. That could be the biggest concern for the Lightning at the start of this series as the status of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman remains uncertain. Stamkos has not played in a game since Feb. 25, while Hedman was injured in the Round-Robin phase of the return to play.

Stamkos is an elite player and obviously makes the Lightning offense significantly more dangerous when he is in the lineup, but they have enough scoring depth up front that they could probably get through this series without him.

Hedman is an entirely different story, though.

Without Stamkos they have other top-line players that can carry the offense. They do not have another Hedman on their blue line. For as good as Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Andrei Vasilevskiy may be, Hedman is the engine that drives this machine. He plays huge minutes, he is a force at both ends of the ice, and is one of the league’s best all-around players. There is a noticeable difference in Tampa Bay’s play when he is not there.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

3. Don’t sleep on the Blue Jackets

Even after their offseason free agency exodus that saw Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel leave town, there was still a lot of reason for optimism with this team. It is still a team capable of doing some damage. There is talent here, and in a lot of the right areas.

Let’s start with the strength of the roster and look at their blue line where they boast one of the league’s top defense pairings in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Individually each one is a bonafide top-pairing defender, but when you put them together it creates one of the most dynamic and productive duos in the NHL. Including the best-of-five series against Toronto, the Blue Jackets outscored teams by a 40-22 margin this season (it was 5-1 against Toronto) when they were on the ice together during 5-on-5 play. They can dominate a game.

At forward, Cam Atkinson has been one of the league’s most overlooked goal-scorers for several years. Since the start of the 2015-16 season his 139 regular season goals places him 25th in the entire league, sandwiched directly between Filip Forsberg and Patrik Laine. He had a quiet regular season, but had a big qualifying round performance against Toronto.

Then there is Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus’ hero from Game 3 against Toronto and one of their most promising youngplayers. He just turned 22 years old a little more than a month ago and is already blossoming into a top-line, two-way center. He is already a tank of a forward and is just now entering his prime years in the league.

4. Another big moment for Joonas Korpisalo

There was no bigger question mark in Columbus at the start of the season than goaltending. They had just lost what was one of the league’s best goalies (a two-time Vezina Trophy winner) and were replacing him with two unproven starters in Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

It would be an understatement to say they both exceeded expectations this season.

While the Blue Jackets are a stingy team defensively and boast an elite top-pairing, goaltending still played a crucial role in the team’s ability to stay in the playoff hunt and get through Toronto in the qualifying round. Even though Korpisalo was briefly sat down against the Maple Leafs he still finished the series with a .956 save percentage and two shutouts, including the deciding Game 5 series clincher. They may need him to be even better against Tampa Bay.

What makes his play even more important is they may not have Merzlikins to turn to if needed. He was injured in the Toronto series and it is not yet known how long he will be sidelined.

5. Prediction: Lightning in 6 games

The Blue Jackets are a good team, and were a great story this season to overcome all of the free agent departures and the injuries that could have sunk them even lower. But Tampa Bay is not going to let this happen again. They will find a way, get their redemption, and maybe start their run toward the championship that keeps eluding them.

No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 13: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Tampa Bay at Columbus – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Rangers win 2020 NHL draft lottery, will pick No. 1 overall

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The New York Rangers were the winners of Phase 2 of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery on Monday night and now own the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

It is expected that winger Alexis Lafreniere will be the top pick in this year’s class.

This is the second years in a row the Rangers have experienced a huge jump in the lottery after moving from the sixth spot to No. 2 where they selected Kaapo Kakko for the 2019 class.

All eight teams that were eliminated from the qualifying round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs were eligible for the top pick, each having an equal 12.5 percent chance of winning. The Rangers, who finished the regular season with the 18th best record in the league, were eliminated from the qualifying round when they were swept in three games by the Carolina Hurricanes.

The first phase of the lottery was held in June and won by a placeholder team that was set to participate in the league’s qualifying round in the return to play, creating the need for the second phase of the lottery held on Monday.

The NHL draft will be held on October 9 and 10.

[RELATED: Rangers’ rebuild gets another significant piece]

This is what the first 15 picks in the draft will look like.

ROUND 1 ORDER
1. New York Rangers
2. Los Angeles Kings
3. Ottawa Senators (via San Jose)
4. Detroit Red Wings
5. Ottawa Senators
6. Anaheim Ducks
7. New Jersey Devils
8. Buffalo Sabres
========================
9. Minnesota Wild
10. Winnipeg Jets
11. Nashville Predators
12. Florida Panthers
13. Carolina Hurricanes (via Toronto)
14. Edmonton Oilers
15. Pittsburgh Penguins (Or Minnesota Wild)

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

2020 NHL Draft Lottery: How to watch, live stream, Phase 2 odds

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The No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft will be announced Monday night during Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream)

All eight teams that were eliminated in the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round are eligible. Each have a 12.5% chance of winning the No. 1 pick. Rimouski forward Alexis Lafreniere is expected to be chosen with the first overall selection.

Phase 1 of the draft lottery was held in June and won by a team involved in the NHL’s Return to Play. That means that one of the Rangers, Predators, Panthers, Wild, Penguins, Jets, Oilers, or Maple Leafs will own the top pick in the Oct. 9-10 draft.

According to the NHL, since the 1995 draft, no team has held the No. 1 pick finishing better than 26th in the standings.

WHAT: 2020 NHL Draft Lottery stream – Phase 2
WHEN: Monday, August 10, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the NHL draft lottery stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Here’s a look at the order of the first 15 picks:

ROUND 1 ORDER
1. Placeholder team
2. Los Angeles Kings
3. Ottawa Senators (via San Jose)
4. Detroit Red Wings
5. Ottawa Senators
6. Anaheim Ducks
7. New Jersey Devils
8. Buffalo Sabres
========================
9. Placeholder team
10. Placeholder team
11. Placeholder team
12. Placeholder team
13. Placeholder team
14. Placeholder team
15. Placeholder team

The seven losing teams from the First Round that do not win the No. 1 pick will fill out spots 9-15 by reverse order of their regular season points percentages. The remaining 16 Round 1 draft picks will be determined by the results of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The prospects

Lafreniere will be the No. 1 pick. We know that. After that? It could go a lot of different ways. Quinton Byfield (Sudbury – C- OHL), Tim Stutzle (Adler Mannheim – C/LW – DEL), Lucas Raymond (Frolunda – LW/C – SHL), Jamie Drysdale (Erie – D – OHL), Marco Rossi (Ottawa – C – OHL), Cole Perfetti (Saginaw – C – OHL), Jake Sanderson (D – USNTDP) are among the top prospects expected to be selected early.

Check out Ryan Wagman’s midseason mock draft to further educate yourself on these players.

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Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule
Power Rankings: Best First Round matchups
Conn Smythe Watch entering First Round