Surging Penguins thriving by keeping it simple

PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan spent a decade in the NHL carving out a niche as a defense-minded forward more intent on blocking shots than taking them.

He wasn’t the fastest, wasn’t the strongest, and he knew it. He survived 11 seasons by playing with a sense of responsibility bordering on obsession.

Nearly 20 years after his final game on the ice, Sullivan’s ethos endures. The quickest way to the Pittsburgh coach’s heart (and the playing time that comes along with it) isn’t some sort of dazzling end-to-end rush but a timely clear. Or a backcheck that thwarts a scoring opportunity. Or being in the right place at the right time all the time.

Maybe that’s why he’s so thrilled with the evolution of his team this season. Pittsburgh put together the best March in the NHL despite a steady stream of high-profile players to the injured list. The entire second line (Evgeni Malkin, Kasperi Kapanen and Jason Zucker) and the majority of the third line (Brandon Tanev and Teddy Blueger) all skated off the ice and out of sight for extended periods.

Yet the Penguins used a 12-3-1 sprint to move into a tie with the Islanders for second place behind Washington in the relentlessly competitive East Division. While the top line anchored by Sidney Crosby has carried a large portion of the scoring load — Crosby, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel combined for 22 goals and 29 assists in March — they’ve been aided by a sensible style of play that’s often made Pittsburgh greater than the sum of its available parts.

“We have guys I feel like sometimes getting hurt every night, and we have that mindset of next man up; whether it’s forward or defense, we’ve got it covered,” said forward Jared McCann, who scored the eventual winning goal in a 2-1 victory over the Islanders on Monday. “We come in, do simple things and we’ve got the skill level on this team that’s going to take over.”

The list of unavailable players grew earlier this week when goaltender Tristan Jarry, who has regained his All-Star form from last season — left after the first period against the Islanders with an upper-body injury that Sullivan described Wednesday as “day to day.”

No biggie. Casey DeSmith came in and stopped 19 of 20 shots as the Penguins wrapped up a 4-0-1 homestand.

The final minutes were a clinic in defending a lead. DeSmith made a pair of saves when the Islanders had the Penguins pinned deep, the second a stop on Scott Mayfield with 3:19 to go. The Islanders never put another puck on DeSmith. Crosby and Mark Jankowski both blocked shots and the Penguins won each of the final four faceoffs to effectively play keep away.

“It’s fun to coach these guys and watch these guys the way they’re playing right now,” Sullivan said. “I think there’s a certain simplicity to our game right now that makes us hard to play against.”

The goal will be keeping that simplicity in place once the bold-faced names find their way back to the lineup. Zucker nearly scored in his return from an 18 -game absence on Monday. Tanev and Blueger are practicing, while Malkin and Kapanen have not begun skating, though both are expected to be available by the playoffs.

Fully healthy, the Penguins are among the most explosive teams in the league. That’s not always a good thing. Pittsburgh went through a similar stretch of solid play in the first half of last season when Malkin and Crosby both missed a month or more. They played more conservatively because they didn’t really have a choice.

An odd thing happened, however, when Pittsburgh got healthy: losses piled up. The Penguins dropped eight of 11 before the COVID-19 shutdown. Then they were stunned in the qualifying round of the playoffs in four games by Montreal.

Letting his most talented players be themselves while also asking them to play all 200 feet of the ice is a battle Sullivan has waged since he took over in December 2015, a run that includes Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.

“I’ve always been a believer as a coach and as a coaching staff that we don’t want to take the sticks out of our player’s hands,” Sullivan said. “We want to allow them and give them the latitude to act on their instincts, and in a lot of instances that’s what separates some of our players from others in the league, and really that’s what makes them what they are. We just have to do it the right way and we’ve got to make sure we manage the puck accordingly in order for us to be a hard team to play against. I think when we do that we’re a competitive hockey team.”

The Penguins were fast, gritty, opportunistic and largely risk-averse during their Cup triumphs. Not so much during recent playoff flameouts.

Asked how his team keeps its blue-collar mentality in place when players like Malkin and Kapanen — remarkably talented playmakers who often thrive when taking chances — McCann admits he’s not sure. Maybe by then everything will be so ingrained they’ll absorb it through osmosis.

“I mean (Malkin and Kapanen) are very very hard to replace,” McCann said. I think when they’re in the lineup they make us a very good team. And when they do come back I think we’ll keep that mindset of keep it simple and if there’s a play to be made, we’ll make it. If it works out, great, if it doesn’t, we’ve got to get back and play in our end first.”

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    Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

    Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

    FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

    General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

    The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    “I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

    Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

    The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

    “It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

    “We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

    Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

    For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

    “I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

    The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

    That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

    “We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

    It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

    A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

    “It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”


    The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

    “Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

    The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.


    Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

    The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

    “They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”


    Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

    “We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

    Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

    And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

    “I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”

    Matthew Tkachuk, Panthers ready for 1st training camp together

    Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

    CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Aleksander Barkov was sound asleep at his home in Finland when the trade that brought Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers was finalized, which isn’t surprising considering it was around 4 a.m. in that part of the world.

    He woke up and read texts from friends reacting to the deal.

    And it wasn’t too long before he got a message from Tkachuk.

    “The first message was `(expletive) right’ and how he was excited to come to Florida,” Barkov, the Panthers’ captain, said at Florida’s media day. “`Let’s take this next step, let’s be a winning team for many years to come.’ That’s who he is. He wants to win. He wants to bring that character to this organization. And I think he’s done some damage already.”

    With that, Barkov was sold.

    And after a few weeks of informally skating with one another, the Panthers start the process of officially seeing what they have in Tkachuk when the team’s training camp – the first under new coach Paul Maurice – opens.

    “We’ve basically had everybody here for a few weeks,” Tkachuk said. “I feel like I’ve been in training camp for a couple of weeks. So today doesn’t feel that new to me. I’ve gotten to know everybody … so let’s get these games going. I’m sick and tired of just practicing and working. I want to start playing some games. I think everybody feels the same way.”

    Maurice was hired over the summer as well, inheriting a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and went to the second round of the playoffs — the first series win for Florida since the run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

    He’s as eager as the players are for the first formal practice, calling it “our first Christmas.”

    “The house is bought. Most of the boxes are unpacked,” Maurice said. “I’ve got two kids that kind of came with me; one’s in Coral Gables, one’s in Estero. Their places are unpacked. They’re out of our house. Once you get down here, for me, you spend most of your days at the rink. So, experiencing all of South Florida, we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

    As part of the deal that went down on July 22, the 24-year-old Tkachuk signed a eight-year, $76 million contract. That’s not the only big cost that the Panthers had to agree to while executing the trade; they also sent Jonathan Huberdeau, the franchise’s all-time scoring leader, and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a left wing who had career bests of 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points last season.

    “I wish all the best to Huby and Weegs,” Barkov said. “They’re great. Everyone loved them. Only good things to say about them. It happens, and for sure, it was best for the team and organization to do this. We move on, and we’ll get ready for a new season.”


    Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is Russian, still makes his home in St. Petersburg, and went there for the bulk of his offseason.

    He said it was not logistically difficult to travel there (or return to the U.S.) this summer, even as the war that started when Russia invaded Ukraine continues. Bobrovsky said last season that he was not trying to focus on anything but hockey, and when asked if it was difficult to be back in Russia as war continues he kept the same approach.

    “I had a good summer,” Bobrovsky said. “I saw friends, I saw family. It’s all been fine. I don’t want to talk about what’s going on. I’m not involved in that stuff.”


    Florida is opening camp with 56 players – 31 forwards, 19 defensemen and six goalies. That group includes brothers Eric Staal and Marc Staal; Marc Staal signed as a free agent in July; Eric Staal is with Florida on a tryout contract.

    Coyotes sign Barrett Hayton right before training camp

    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
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    SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes signed forward Barrett Hayton to a two-year contract right before the start of training camp.

    Terms of the deal were not released.

    The 22-year-old Hayton was a restricted free agent and not initially listed on Arizona’s roster for camp.

    Hayton had 10 goals and 14 assists in 60 games with the Coyotes last season, all career highs.

    Arizona drafted the Peterborough, Ontario native with the fifth overall pick of the 2018 NHL draft. He has 13 goals and 18 assists in 94 career games with the Coyotes.