NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. Flyers-Penguins stream coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
Rutherford’s approach was aggressive. Sometimes overly aggressive. Maybe even at times recklessly aggressive. He never met a trade he did not like, and if a roster move did not work out he wasted no time in reversing it and jettisoning that player. The result was non-stop roster overhaul and constant change. That is not always for the best.
Hextall’s approach is far more methodical. Patient. It is not about the quantity of the moves, but the quality. If you get the right players, that approach can certainly work.
In his first three months on the job in Pittsburgh he has made only two moves to add to the roster, both involving former members of the Philadelphia Flyers. He claimed defenseman Mark Friedman on waivers to add some depth to their blue line, and he sent a couple of draft picks to the Kings at the trade deadline to acquire forward Jeff Carter.
The latter move is by far the most significant, and the one we want to focus on heading into Tuesday’s game between the Penguins and Flyers.
The Carter deal was a bit of a surprise because it really came out of nowhere. There were not any real rumblings that the two sides were a fit, and Carter’s contract (he still has one year remaining after this season at a more than $5M per year salary cap hit) would have seemed to be an obstacle. But with the Kings retaining a portion of his remaining salary, it all worked out.
It is also working out for the Penguins on the ice.
In his first 11 games with the team Carter has proven to be exactly the type of players the Penguins needed to add at the deadline, checking off every box that everybody could have wanted for them.
At 6-3, 219 pounds Carter has the size and strength that Hextall and Brian Burke were adamant that they wanted to add.
But he also still has enough skill and speed to fit with the Penguins’ style of play and not be a drain on their system. He may not be the elite finisher he was earlier in his career, but he can still contribute quite a bit offensively.
He also helps balance out the Penguins lineup even more to help give them four lines that are capable of scoring. That has been the biggest recipe for success for the Penguins in the Sidney Crosby–Evgeni Malkin–Kris Letang era. When their lineup goes three or four lines deep, they tend to do very well in the playoffs. When it does not, they tend to struggle. The addition of Carter down the middle gives them a quartet of centers that includes Crosby, Malkin, Carter, and Teddy Blueger, a quartet that might be as good as any other in the league.
Individually, Carter has been productive already scoring four goals and two assists in his first 11 games.
He has also seemed to have developed a strong chemistry with Jared McCann, a duo that has been excellent together. In their time together the Penguins have posted dominant possession numbers and own a 9-4 goals advantage during 5-on-5 play with them on the ice. If that is foundation of your third line between the Crosby and Malkin lines, with a Teddy Blueger-led shutdown line playing behind it, your team is going to have a solid chance every night.
That depth, especially the way it looks since the trade, is one of the more surprising and encouraging developments for this Penguins team.
It has been so good that when neither Crosby or Malkin is on the ice during 5-on-5 play this season the Penguins have a plus-15 goal differential and score 2.61 goals per 60 minutes. That goal rate is nearly identical to what they score with Crosby (2.63) and Malkin (2.69) on the ice, with a very similar goal differential.
That sort of balance is key for success in the playoffs. No matter how good your top two players are you have to assume that they will not score every single game or control the pace every single game. You need other lines that can contribute. The Penguins now have that, and it has been even better with the arrival of Carter. In the past 11 games the Penguins have controlled more than 55 percent of the shot attempts and scoring chances when Crosby and Malkin are not on the ice, with a 17-9 goals advantage.
It has not only made the Penguins a team that can be competitive when its top two players are not on the ice, it has made the Penguins a team that can excel when they are sitting on the bench.
That had that sort of team during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons and used it to win two Stanley Cups. It has taken them a few years since then to find the right mix again but they seem to be on to something right now.
(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)