What is next for the Penguins?

1 Comment

When Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang made their NHL debuts for the Pittsburgh Penguins early in the 2006-07 season, joining a second-year Sidney Crosby, it ushered in a new era of hockey for the franchise.

That era, even in its infancy, carried massive expectations for both the team and the individual players.

They were not just supposed to be good. They were supposed to be great. Crosby was supposed to be The Next One. Malkin was supposed to be a superstar of his own. Letang, as well as recent top picks Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal, were supposed to the foundation of a championship supporting cast.

Given how high the expectations were it seemed almost impossible for all of them to be reached. They not only met them, they may have exceeded them.

Since the start of the 2006-07 season, when Malkin and Letang joined Crosby, the Penguins have objectively been the most successful franchise in the sport. No team has won more regular season games (728), more playoff games (103), scored more goals (3,879) appeared in more Stanley Cup Finals (four), or won more championships (three; Chicago did match that, but nobody has exceeded it).

Individually, Crosby and Malkin have been two of the most productive and best players in the league, combining for four scoring titles, three MVP awards, three Conn Smythe Trophies, and two Rocket Richards. For 16 years they have mostly been unmatched.

[NHL Power Rankings: Top Second Round storylines]

It seems entirely possible that the era came to a close on Sunday night with their Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers.

The Penguins, on top of the NHL for so long, now find themselves at a crossroads. They have lost in the First Round of the playoffs in four consecutive years and now lost five consecutive playoff series going back to the 2018 postseason. Yes, they may have played well enough to win the past two series over the past two years, but they didn’t. And enough flaws started to expose themselves to prevent it.

They now enter an offseason where Malkin, Letang, Bryan Rust (another two-time Stanley Cup champion), Evan Rodrigues, and Rickard Rakell are unrestricted free agents and a fairly new front office (with a new ownership group) has to decide what direction to take them in.

Not everybody is going to be back (the salary cap alone will prevent that, not even getting into decision making) and it is a given that this roster is going to look dramatically different next season.

In terms of the potential free agents, the most damaging loss would 100% be Letang. He is still an elite defenseman and by far their best player at the position. There is no replacement for him on the roster or in free agency, and because of that, he should take priority. But that will not be easy. He is going to be highly sought after and could probably pick his destination and price tag (Montreal?). Losing him would be by far the most devastating blow to the current roster. You can find another No. 2 center. You can replace a second-line winger. There are not many No. 1 defenseman floating around out there for the taking.

Malkin seems like he might be the most likely to return given his relationship with Crosby and their desire to finish their careers together. Plus, I am not sure there is a logical destination for him elsewhere in the league. Of the two, he is the one that has slowed down the most and has the most questions in the short-term, and there are not many teams with the salary cap space to sign him for his market rate. The question is how good is he still, and what sort of impact can he still make?

• Rust has developed into an outstanding two-way player, but his price tag is probably going to be significant given the way he has played and produced in recent years and he would be out of his mind to not see what that could turn into on the open market. That is also a contract the Penguins might want to shy away from, even if he is still really good right now.

• Rodrigues was a huge surprise this season and would be a fine player to bring back as a jack-of-all-trades. Rakell always seemed like a pure rental, but he, Crosby, and Guentzel had sensational chemistry in their limited ice-time.

[Conn Smythe watch: McDavid, Makar lead after First Round]

Beyond the free agents there are other big decisions to make. Kasperi Kapanen and Danton Heinen are restricted free agents, but neither seem a given to get a qualifying offer. Brian Dumoulin took a huge step backwards this season, never looked right and is entering the final year of his contract. Between him, John Marino, Marcus Pettersson, and Mike Matheson, they have a quartet of defenders each counting more than $4 million against the salary cap. Do they look to clear some of those out and create more salary cap flexibility?

The biggest question, though, is probably more of a philosophical question than anything related to any individual players or contracts.

Can this team still compete with the potential changes they are facing, or is it time to start a rebuild?

That question is difficult to answer because the team as currently constructed has definitely plateaued, and you can not hide from the recent playoff results. They definitely played well enough to advance in each of the past two seasons, but four first round losses in a row is what it is.

But Crosby is not slowing down, and as long as he is playing the way he is there is still reason to believe you can be a playoff team. Jake Guentzel is also a magnificent player on the wing (one of the best in the league) and there is reason to believe that Tristan Jarry can be an above average starter in goal.

On top of that, they also have a top-tier coach and the whole of its defensive play was far greater than the sum of its parts all season. The three blown leads in Games 5-7 of the playoffs are concerning and not a good look, but by every objective measure this was a playoff-caliber defensive team all season. They are also entering an offseason where they have some salary cap space to play with (and can create even more if they can move out a contract) in an offseason where there are several intriguing free agents.

As long as Crosby and Guentzel are playing at their level you do not want to pull the plug on that and not try to give them a chance.

This era is definitely coming to a close, and next year’s roster is certainly going to look very, very different. We just do not know exactly how different, and what Ron Hextall and Brian Burke think of their chances with those pending changes. Is it re-tool time, or full-blown rebuild? We will find out in the next few weeks and months.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

Andrei Kuzmenko
Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

UP NEXT

Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

He found a little of both.

The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

“It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

“That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

“We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

“It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

UP NEXT

Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.