Alex Galchenyuk

Kessel returns to Pittsburgh trying to find his game for Coyotes

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When the Arizona Coyotes acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins back in August (for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph) it gave them the type of player the organization had been lacking for years: a bonafide star forward, and one that was capable of scoring at a level that no Coyotes player had reached in close to a decade.

For a team that was just a couple of games away from the playoffs a season ago — despite an absurd season-long run of injuries that consistently decimated the roster — it was the type of move that could not only generate excitement within the fan base (it did, and they have the season ticket sales to prove it), but also give the team the last extra push it needed to get over the hump and end what is currently a seven-year playoff drought.

With Kessel set to make his first visit to Pittsburgh since the trade on Friday night, the Coyotes have put themselves in a great position to end that drought, sitting on top of the Pacific Division after 30 games thanks to their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.

What is perhaps most surprising about their current spot in the standings is they have done it while getting minimal offensive impact from Kessel, even with his two-goal effort in Thursday’s win.

The early numbers are kind of staggering given the high bar Kessel has set for himself over the years offensively.

  • His six goals are his fewest through 30 games since his rookie year in 2006-07 (five goals).
  • He has been held without a goal in 26 of the team’s first 30 games.
  • He has just one even-strength goal on the season, with the other five coming on the power play (including both goals on Thursday — one of which was also an empty-net goal).
  • He is on pace for just 16 goals over 82 games. If he does not improve on that it would be his lowest total since his rookie year (11) and the first time since 2007-08 (his second year in the league when he missed 10 games) he did not top 20 goals in a season.

Some decline in his overall production should have been expected.

Not only because he is another year older (32) and another year away from his prime, but because he went from playing on a veteran, star-laden roster in Pittsburgh that plays one of the most up-tempo styles in the league, to a young Arizona team that, while talented, does not have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the middle of its lineup.

Even with all of that in mind this is still a pretty significant drop across the board, but it does not mean all hope is lost for him this season. Like any elite goal scorer Kessel can be notoriously streaky and score goals in bunches (this is not a knock on Kessel; it’s a reality for all players across the league), and it’s also not the first time he’s started a year slow. In his first year with the Penguins back in 2015-16 he had just nine goals through 30 games before getting hot in the second half, then catching fire in the playoffs on the way to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups.

While Kessel has not exactly lit the world on fire for the Coyotes, the trade has not exactly been a rousing success for the Penguins.

For all of Kessel’s flaws as a player, the Penguins absolutely miss his presence on a power play unit that been mostly dysfunctional this season. A lot of their power play the past few years ran through him, from his ability to gain entry into the zone (a problem for the Penguins this year), to his playmaking, to his ability to finish. Even with all of his struggles in Arizona offensively his five power play goals are more than any player on the Penguins.

They also have not received anything close to what they hoped they would from Alex Galchenyuk, which is starting to become a pretty big issue. He has just two goals through his first 20 games and has mostly been relegated to fourth-line duty. Even with the Penguins missing several regulars in their lineup he has not topped the 10-minute mark in three of the team’s past four games, while general manager Jim Rutherford on Thursday (via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe) that Galchenyuk is not a lock to remain in the lineup when everyone is back. Galchenyuk always seemed like a one-and-done player in Pittsburgh from the very beginning — Joseph is the key long-term piece — but they probably expected more than this.

The funny thing about all of this is the trade has not really done much for either team through the first quarter of the season, but both teams have still managed to put themselves on solid ground.

The Coyotes are healthy and in first place and still have the hope that a Kessel goal-binge is lurking somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

The Penguins are overcoming their injury issues, playing the way they want to play, and finding ways to collect points while they wait for their regulars to return.

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.

Undermanned Penguins shut down Blues: 3 takeaways

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins were facing quite the challenge on Wednesday night.

They had just lost two games in a row, were playing without seven regulars in their lineup (Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bjugstad, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Jack Johnson), and had the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues roll into town riding a four-game winning streak where they had been dominating everyone they faced.

All the Penguins did was put together one of their best and most complete efforts of the season in a convincing 3-0 win.

Three big things that stood out from this one.

1. There might be a goalie controversy in Pittsburgh, at least for now. With No. 1 goalie Matt Murray mired in a month-long slump, backup Tristan Jarry has been getting more starts over the past couple of weeks and got the call again on Wednesday in a huge home game.

He took advantage of the opportunity and stopped all 28 shots he faced to record his first shutout of the season (and the third of his career).

With that performance he is now up to a .936 save percentage for the season and has earned the win in five of his past six appearances, allowing only 10 goals in those games.

“He was terrific,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan regarding Jarry’s play on Wednesday. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now and is seeing the puck well.”

He also added that Jarry was the team’s best penalty killer on a night where the unit was a perfect 4-for-4

Murray is still probably going to end up being “the guy” in Pittsburgh this season, but with the team trying to fight through an absurd injury stretch they are going to need goaltending to help carry them until they start getting some players back, especially on the blue line.

Right now Jarry is the goalie giving them the best chance.

2. Next man up. After losing wingers Rust and Hornqvist in two different practices over the past week (while already being without Crosby and Bjugstad) the Penguins were quite literally running out of forwards and had to sign veteran Stefan Noesen to a two-way contract. He had been playing for the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on a minor league deal, and was thrown into second-line duty on Wednesday.

He ended up making an immediate impact by scoring a goal late in the second period to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead.

The most impressive thing about the Penguins’ performance on Wednesday is that it was not the big-name players making the impact. The trio of Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, and Kris Letang combined for zero points in the win, while only one of them (Malkin) was even on the ice for any of their three goals (he was on for one). It was the depth players that stepped up and made the impact with Noesen, Teddy Blueger, and Alex Galchenyuk (only his second goal of the season in 20 games) scoring the goals.

As great as the Malkin, Guentzel, and Letang trio is they are not going to score every night, meaning someone else is going to have to chip in some offense for the team to have a chance with so many players out.

They received those contributions on Wednesday.

3. Binnington was a bright spot for the Blues. Jordan Binnington may have given up three goals, but he also made a handful of huge saves that kept this game close and at least gave his team a shot. It is also kind of tough to really fault him too much for the ones that went in. Blueger’s goal to open the scoring in the opening minute came off a deflection right in front, and he was kind of left on an island on the final two.

One of the biggest questions for the Blues this season in their repeat attempt was always going to be whether or not his success from a year ago was something he could sustain over a full season. There has been nothing in his play so far this season to suggest he can not.

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.

Stunning numbers on Flyers, Penguins, Coyotes, and more

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During the 2019-20 NHL season we will take an occasional look at some stunning numbers from around the league. Here is what stood out to us through the first two months of the season. 

The Flyers’ best start since … Eric Lindros played?! This, to me, is literally stunning. The Philadelphia Flyers started December with 35 points, which is their highest point total at the start of the month since the 1995-96 season. That stat comes via NBC Philadelphia’s Jordan Hall. Not sure if this says more about the Flyers’ 2019-20 performance, or the Flyers’ performance between 1996 and 2019.

McDavid and Draisaitl’s dominance. It would not be a stunning numbers update if we did not look at the performance of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl out in Edmonton because everything about these two is completely stunning. They are both at the 50-point mark entering play on Tuesday and are No’s. 1 and 2 in the scoring race. No other players in the league have more than 43 points so far this season. The only other Oilers players in franchise history to hit 50 points through December 1 are Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. No other player on the current Oilers team has more than 19 points this season. These two are the offense.

The Penguins’ absurd injury run. With Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Nick Bjugstad all currently sidelined, the Penguins have more than $25 million in salary cap space sitting in the press box. That represents more than 30 percent of their total salary cap number. Since the start of the season the Penguins have lost 85 man games (and counting) to injuries to Crosby, Rust, Dumoulin, Schultz, Bjugstad, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alex Galchenyuk, Patric Hornqvist, and Jared McCann. It is incredible they are still in a playoff position and played as well as they have.

Quick’s continued decline: The Kings were hoping that Jonathan Quick could bounce back from his brutal 2018-19 performance, but he has been just as bad this season. Since the start of last season he has managed only an .888 save percentage. Among goalies with at least 45 starts during that stretch, that is the worst mark in the league. San Jose’s Martin Jones is the only other goalie with sub-.900 save percentage.

Darcy Kuemper is Arizona’s MVP: In February, 2018, the Arizona Coyotes traded Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood to the Los Angeles Kings for backup goalie Darcy Kuemper. It was a trade that probably snuck under your radar. It is also a trade that might get the 2019-20 Coyotes back in the playoffs. Since arriving in Arizona Kuemper has been one of the league’s most productive goalies, owning a .924 all situations save percentage. Of the 55 goalies that have logged at least 2,000 minutes of ice-time since then, that number places Kuemper sixth in the entire league. His goalie partner in Arizona, Antti Raanta, is fifth (Kuemper has played more nearly 5,000 minutes, while injuries have limited Raanta to just a little over 2,000 minutes). They are one of the best goalie duos in the league, right up there with Boston (Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak), Dallas (Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin), and New York (Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov).

Cale Makar is better than advertised. The Colorado Avalanche top forwards are incredible, and when the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog is healthy and together they are borderline unstoppable. But what is really exciting about the Avalanche and the biggest reason they have emerged as one of the rising NHL powers is the development of their young defense, specifically Cale Makar. He is averaging a point-per-game so far this season (26 points, 26 games) and is off to one of the best starts ever for a rookie defensemen. Since 1979-80 the only defender with more points through his team’s first 26 games was Larry Murphy, who had 29 points in 26 games for the 1980-81 Los Angeles Kings. Combined with Sam Girard and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram the Avalanche have a trio of young defenders that will shape their blue line for a decade or more.

Blues keep rolling. No Vladimir Tarasenko, no problem for the Blues. Since their top forward and most impactful player was sidelined with an injury, the Blues have managed to go on a 13-3-3 run. Leading the way for the Blues offense is David Perron, who is off to one of the best starts of his career with 28 points in 29 games, including five game-winning goals.

Red Wings’ struggles. The Detroit Red Wings have a minus-56 goal differential entering play on Tuesday. The next worst team (New Jersey Devils) is only at minus-31. That goal differential through 30 games is the 23rd worst in the history of the league and the worst since the 1993-94 Ottawa Senators.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Best landing spots for Taylor Hall

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Taylor Hall‘s contract situation with the New Jersey Devils was always going to be a big storyline this season, and with the team off to a disappointing start and the possibility of him re-signing looking slimmer by the day it was only a matter of time until trade talk picked up.

Over the weekend The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported that teams around the league are calling the Devils regarding their top player, and general manager Ray Shero is starting to listen.

With that in mind, this week’s PHT Power Rankings takes a look at the best possible landing spots for the former league MVP.

Which teams make the most sense?

To the rankings!

1. New Jersey Devils. Honestly the ideal situation is Hall staying right where he is in New Jersey with one big if — If he is willing to re-sign there. I am just looking at this from a Devils perspective because trading Hall would be a pretty significant blow to what general manager Ray Shero has tried to build here. It is nearly impossible to get fair value for players of this caliber in trade, they have the salary cap space to make a new contract work, and even though he is no longer considered “young” by NHL standards, he is still at an age where he can absolutely be a part of a contending team in New Jersey around Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Will it work out that way? It is looking less and less likely with each passing day. But you have to keep trying!

Having to trade him after getting just one playoff appearance out of his four years with the team would just seem like a waste and missed opportunity.

So what are the best options assuming they have to trade him?

2. Colorado Avalanche. The worst nightmare for the rest of the Western Conference, and something that is absolutely possible given their situation. The Avalanche roster is already loaded with top-line talent, they have more salary cap space than all but two teams in the league, they have young assets to deal, and they are in a position to win right now. Could you imagine Hall on a team that already has Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Nazem Kadri, and Cale Makar? They would go from Stanley Cup contender to Stanley Cup favorite.

3. Montreal Canadiens. They have been hoarding salary cap space and desperately trying to find an impact forward, going as far as to actually signing a restricted free agent offer sheet (Sebastian Aho) over the summer. They need a star, they need an impact forward, they need something to try and break the cycle of mediocrity the Marc Bergevin era has produced.

4. St. Louis Blues. The salary cap is a real obstacle here, but smart teams can find ways to make that work to get the player they want (or need). The Blues look like a Stanley Cup favorite again, but with Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined for most of the season they have a huge hole on the wing. It is a long shot, but it works from a hockey standpoint.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins could definitely use another winger with some finish, and let’s be honest here, finding a way to trade for an impact player like Hall is exactly the type of blockbuster move the Penguins are known for going after as they try to maximize the best years of the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang core. Salary cap space is tight, but it only seems to be a matter of when Jim Rutherford dumps Alex Galchenyuk and/or Nick Bjugstad (once he returns from injury) to clear more space.

6. New York Islanders. They have the goaltending, they are shutting teams down defensively, and they are showing their 2018-19 performance was no fluke. They just need one more impact player up front to bring the whole thing together.

7. Edmonton Oilers. After wasting the first part of Hall’s career then trading him for pennies on the dollar, there has been speculation that they could be interested in a reunion with their former No. 1 overall pick. On one hand it would also give us an opportunity to see the Connor McDavid-Hall combination that we never really had a chance to see. On the other hand, they already had their chance with Hall and blew it.

8. Calgary Flames. After finishing the 2018-19 season with the best record in the Western Conference the Flames have badly regressed this season and have been one of the league’s worst offensive teams. It would also add a fascinating twist and storyline to the Battle of Alberta.

9. Nashville Predators. This entire team is built on big trades and free agent acquisitions, so you know general manager David Poile is not afraid to do something like this. They are not a bad offensive team at this point so it is not like Hall would be addressing a huge need, but the team does look stale and in need of a spark. Their window should not be closing, and with no truly dominant team in the Western Conference they should still have a chance to do something this season.

10. Boston Bruins. They would have to get extremely creative with the salary cap and convince New Jersey to eat some salary, but the Bruins have a window to win right now and need some offense beyond the David PastrnakBrad Marchand duo.

11. Carolina Hurricanes. Not sure how realistic it is given the salary cap, but I am including them just because I think it would be a fun match. They have a ton of draft picks at their disposal to use as trade chips, they are obviously a contender, and adding another impact player like Hall to an already underrated group of forwards would make them a fierce team to defend.

12. San Jose Sharks. It makes no sense, but would it really surprise you if it happened? Or if they tried for it? They have very limited salary cap space, no first-round draft pick this year, and their biggest need is still a goalie. All of that makes it tough to consider them an option. But they are desperate to win a Stanley Cup for Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Erik Karlsson, and with the goalie trade market being slim maybe they just try and outscore their hole in net.

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Face-Off: Guentzel without Crosby; Year of the rookie defenseman

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It’s the start of another week, so that means it’s time for the PHT Face-Off to look ahead to some of the trends and topics that will dominate over the next seven days.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau had a November to remember:

Unless you’re paying really close attention to the Ottawa Senators, you probably didn’t notice how productive Pageau was throughout the month. He found the back of the net 11 times in 16 games in November. That puts him in some pretty elite company with this franchise:

Now, there are two questions surrounding his situation. First, how long can he keep this going? Only nine players have scored more goals than Pageau so far this season. That list includes: David Pastrnak, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Brad Marchand, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, Jake Guentzel, Patrick Kane and Elias Lindholm. That’s elite company to be in heading into the third month of the season.

Second, what do the Sens do with Pageau? He’s clearly having a career year and he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. The 27-year-old has a cap hit of $3.1 million and you’d have to think that he’s going to get a raise. Do they re-sign him? Do they trade him and cash in on some good assets? We’ll see what happens.

• Guentzel can survive without Crosby: 

Guentzel is regarded as a good offensive player, but many fans have wondered whether or not he could keep producing offense without Sidney Crosby by his side. Well, he’s kind of in the middle of answering that question right now.

Crosby underwent surgery to repair a core muscle last month. The Pens captain last played on Nov. 9 against Chicago. Since then, the Penguins have played 10 games. Guentzel didn’t pick up a point in the first two games without Crosby, but he then rattled off a seven-game point streak. He’s up to 13 points in the 10 contests without his linemate.

Crosby isn’t the only that has missed time this season. Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, Alex Galchenyuk and Patrik Hornqvist have also missed an extended period of time. Guentzel has played in all 27 games and he’s probably the team’s MVP right now.

• The year of the rookie defenseman: 

Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko were the first two picks in last year’s NHL Draft and they’ve both played extensively in the NHL this season, but they aren’t dominating the rookie scoring charts. Instead, Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar lead their rookie class in scoring right now. That’s pretty unique considering both players are defensemen.

Hughes is averaging 20:30 of ice time through 27 contests and he’s managed to pick up two goals and 23 points. Very impressive. He’s also just one three-assist performance away from tying Ray Bourque’s rookie record, which is mind-boggling considering there’s still so much time left in the 2019-20 campaign.

As for Makar, he has one three-plus assist performance under his belt, but he leads all rookies in scoring with 26 points in 26 games. The 21-year-old jumped onto the scene for Colorado last postseason and he’s continued to build on the success he had back then.

Can Makar finish the year at a point-per-game pace? If he does, he’ll be a shoe-in to win the Calder Trophy when it’s all said and done. The NHL’s rookie record for most points in a season by a first-year blueliner is 76 points (Larry Murphy with the Los Angeles Kings in 1980-81). It’s incredible to think that the Avs defender is still on pace to surpass that mark heading into December.

• When will Kyle Turris get back into the lineup? 

Nashville Predators forward Kyle Turris is only in the second year of his six-year, $36 million contract. That’s problematic when you consider that he’s been a healthy scratch in each of his team’s last seven games. The 30-year-old had just seven goals and 23 points in 55 games last year and his points-per-game pace has improved slightly this year, as he’s picked up nine points in 19 contests.

Seriously, what are the Predators going to do with him?

It’s tough to envision any team being willing to take that contract off GM David Poile’s hands. Maybe Nashville could get rid of him if they add a significant draft pick to a trade, but that’s unlikely. They could buy him out at the end of this season, but again, that will be expensive. If they chose to go down that route, they’d have $2 million in dead money on their cap until 2028.

“I’m certainly not trying to say this is a good situation or anything close to being a perfect situation,” Poile said, per The Athletic. “It’s just a roster decision. Peter Laviolette is our coach, and he will do anything to win a hockey game. He’s putting his best foot forward —  in this case, his best lineup forward — every night. That’s his job. That’s all I can ask from him.

“I am very confident that Kyle’s going to get a chance to play. Hopefully, he’s in a position to take advantage of it, and we turn the page on that. There’s nothing fair or equal in this business, so I can’t operate like that or what have you.”

• High-end goalies struggling:

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price may just be the three best goalies in the NHL, but their play certainly hasn’t indicated that for most of the season.

Let’s take a look at their numbers individually:

Vasilevskiy: 9-7-1, 2.96 goals-against-average and a .906 save percentage.
Bobrovsky: 9-6-4, 3.48 goals-against-average and a .884 save percentage
Price: 10-9-3, 3.18 goals-against-average and a .898 save percentage.

Raise your hand if you thought Darcy Kuemper (.935) was going to have the best save percentage in the league at the start of December. Connor Hellebuyck and Tuukka Rask are tied for second in that category at .933.

Which one of the three struggling netminders in the Atlantic Division is most likely to come out of this funk first? Is there one of these three that is just going to have a bad season and never wake up from this slumber? This should be an interesting situation to follow.

What’s coming up this week?

• The Sabres will have their Founders’ Night to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the day they were awarded an NHL franchise tonight at 7 p.m. ET.

• Several key players will play against their former teams this week. Artemi Panarin will take on Columbus (Thursday), Phil Kessel gets to see the Penguins (Friday) and P.K. Subban will play Nashville (Saturday).

NHL on NBCSN

• Lightning vs. Predators, Tue. Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. ET.

Wednesday Night Hockey

• Blues vs. Penguins, Wed. Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. ET

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.