Alex Galchenyuk

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Penguins excited for fresh start after disappointing finish

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CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Penguins are excited for a fresh start.

Sidney Crosby and the Penguins became the first team in a generation to win consecutive championships a little more than two years ago. But the Penguins stumbled into an extended offseason last spring when the New York Islanders swept them from the first round of the playoffs.

That left general manager Jim Rutherford to wonder aloud after the season whether some of his players were too content because they’ve won a couple of Stanley Cups.

Crosby and the Penguins are out to prove that’s not the case.

”I think there’s a certain level of hunger and urgency and desperation you have to have if you’re getting through the playoffs,” Crosby said Friday as the Penguins opened training camp.

”Sometimes you think because you have experience that it automatically gives you an edge. It does if you use it, but if you don’t, it doesn’t do much for you.”

Coach Mike Sullivan believes his team can be a championship-caliber group again. But he stressed a daily focus and attention to detail, a brand of intelligent and responsible hockey Sullivan has tried to instill since he took over in December 2015.

”I think this team is capable of doing some real good things,” Sullivan said. ”But we have to earn it every day. It’s not inevitable. There’s a nice feeling around the team. I think everyone is excited about the opportunity and possibilities that we have.”

The Penguins traded winger Phil Kessel to Arizona for Alex Galchenyuk in the offseason.

The 31-year-old Kessel scored 27 goals and 82 points last season, his fourth with the Penguins. He was a vital part of Pittsburgh’s run to consecutive Stanley Cups, finishing second to Crosby for the 2016 Conn Smythe Trophy, while scoring 18 goals and 45 points, as the Penguins became the first team in nearly two decades to win back-to-back titles.

Rutherford spoke of a culture change in the dressing room following the season, and while Kessel is now in Arizona, the Penguins will still need to replace his production.

”Phil produced for us, it’s no secret,” Crosby said. ”Nobody has to come in here and put up the same stat lines he did. It’s pretty tough to fill those shoes. I think collectively we’re going to have to find ways to make up for that.”

Evgeni Malkin seeks a bounce-back season after the 2012 NHL MVP, and two-time scoring champion, ended a career-worst minus-25 with just 21 goals, his lowest full-season output in almost a decade. The 33-year-old spoke said Friday he wants to be a better leader this season.

”Last year, I’m not happy, for sure,” Malkin said. ”Now, it’s a new challenge this year. I want back, my highest level. I can still play at the top level. I want to show everyone I’m not done.”

Malkin skated alongside Galchenyuk and free agent pickup Brandon Tanev on Friday.

The 25-year-old Galchenyuk has put up five consecutive 40-point seasons, and can play both ends of the ice. The 27-year-old Tanev spent his first four seasons in Winnipeg, and also has a reputation as a strong penalty killer and a hard-working, two-way player. He set career highs with 18 goals and 29 points last year.

Pittsburgh also traded for forward Dominik Kahun in the offseason. The 24-year-old played in all 82 games for Chicago in his first NHL season and finished with 13 goals and 37 points. On Friday, Kahun played on a line with Crosby and 24-year-old Jake Guentzel, who scored 40 goals last season.

Crosby and the Penguins are eager to add the new faces into the mix.

”I think it’s exciting to build an identity and have a fresh start,” Crosby said. ”When we won, we didn’t sit here talking about June. Just like the fact that we got swept last year, it really doesn’t matter at this point. We’re all starting from the same spot.”

Offensive upgrades helping playoffs become expectation for Coyotes

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The obstacles of struggling to score goals and staying healthy didn’t force the Arizona Coyotes to wither and eye the NHL draft lottery last season. Instead, it was a “next man up” mentality that head coach Rick Tocchet continued to bark out to his players that put the team deep into the race for one of the Western Conference wild card spots.

The effects of losing a different teammate seemingly every week to another injury could have led to a team fading away, but the Coyotes’ close proximity to the wild card race was a key factor in not letting the situation take a toll on the roster.

“It’s a big kudos to our coaching staff and our general manager and our leadership group and our young guys to stick with the process, even though we had new bodies coming in almost every day,” Coyotes forward Derek Stepan told NBC Sports during last week’s NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago.

The Coyotes finished with 386 man-games to injury or illness last season, third-highest in the NHL. But their goaltending, led by Darcy Kuemper, who filled in for the injured Antti Raanta, was a big bright spot, as was their penalty kill, which tied for league best at 85%. The area of goal scoring, however, needed some help. Their 131 even strength goals were worst in the league, per Natural Stat Trick. To help solve that problem Alex Galchenyuk was traded to Pittsburgh for Phil Kessel, who is currently 43 goals away from 400 in his career.

[MORE: How Phil Kessel can transform Coyotes’ offense]

It’s the confidence built up after overcoming last season’s hurdles and the addition a top offensive star in Kessel that has Stepan believing the playoffs can be a reality next spring.

“I certainly don’t see why we wouldn’t expect that,” Stepan said. “We were close last year. I think Chayka did a really good job of adding pieces to help us on the offensive side of the puck. It comes with that work ethic that we had at the end of last year, we kind of built that identity. I’m going into [the season] expecting to be in the playoffs this year.”

Stepan, who wasn’t sure yet if Tocchet would start him on a line with Kessel, added that the trade “re-energized” the Coyotes roster and with some internal improvements what held them back last season won’t stand in their way in 2019-20.

As far as integrating Kessel’s unique personality into what he described as a tight-knit dressing room, the veteran Stepan is eager to add the sniper to the group.

“I’m OK with him being a different cat,” Stepan said. “We’ve got a lot of dogs on our team. We could use a cat.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Werenski’s blueprint; Female referees gaining experience

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta still wants to own an NHL team. (Sportsnet)

• The structure of Zach Werenski‘s new deal could be used as a blueprint for future RFA deals. (TSN)

• What does the Werenski contract mean for Bruins RFAs Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

Alex Galchenyuk is starting to build some chemistry with Evgeni Malkin. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• It looks like Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger is planning to start the season with Rasmus Ristolainen. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• What will the Blues bottom-six forward group look like come the start of the regular season? (St. Louis Game-Time)

• Barrett Hayden might be the most important addition for the Coyotes this season. (Arizona Republic)

• Female officials are thrilled to get NHL experience. (NHL.com)

• The Nashville Predators will look to dethrone the St. Louis Blues. (Predlines)

• The Lightning could easily find a way to use Patrick Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk on their lethal power play. (Raw Charge)

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.

What should Penguins expect from Malkin?

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With the 2019-20 season approaching, we’re in that sweet time for NHL fans. Every team is undefeated, and our cups runneth over with “best shape of my life” articles.

To the credit of Rob Rossi’s piece on Evgeni Malkin at The Athletic (sub required), that piece goes far deeper than your typical offseason tropes. Rossi digs into Malkin’s seemingly frayed relationship with Phil Kessel, but also his struggles with isolation from his family, insecurities about language in America, and what was a tough 2018-19 season for “Geno.”

It’s a worthy read.

To some degree, the most “important” information comes at the conclusion of that lengthy article, as Malkin reveals that he wants to be with the Penguins over the long haul.

“It’s (a) huge next three years,” Malkin says. “I still want to play 100 percent — and sign (for) three more years with Pittsburgh.”

That’s an interesting comment, as few were really wondering all that much about Malkin’s status, being that his current $9.5 million cap hit runs through 2021-22. Still, with Malkin already 33 and Sidney Crosby now 32, questions about the Penguins’ future will only become more prominent.

That age related question figures in sharply with the most oft-asked non-Kessel-related questions revolving around Malkin’s offseason: can Malkin “bounce back,” and how much can he rebound?

Let’s dig into the details surrounding Malkin’s chances of answering those questions in a good way.

A body breaking down?

It’s tempting to give Malkin some leeway because he dealt with some injuries in 2018-19.

Unfortunately, it’s also tough to avoid the worry that, like with Letang, injuries might just be a consistent headache for Malkin. After all, hockey players with a ton of mileage on their frames don’t tend to get healthier at age 33 and beyond.

Malkin was limited to 68 games in 2018-19 after managing to appear in 78 in 2017-18. Unfortunately, 2017-18’s relatively healthy year feels like an outlier; Malkin averaged 62 games played from 2013-14 through 2016-17, and has been dogged by issues for a long time now.

To some extent, injuries might just be “the price of doing business” for Malkin, who thrives on occasionally trying to drive through multiple defenders, and who sometimes thrives on a sneaky nastiness. It brings a troubling thought to mind, then: even if Malkin stays on the ice, might his body betray him when he tries to dominate in the same ways as he did during his prime?

Rossi’s piece touches on that, discussing how Malkin sometimes strained to make plays last season:

He tried to compensate by cheating up ice. Except he could not get back fast enough to help defensively. He forced high-risk passes because he could not consistently burst through the neutral zone or dance around opposing skaters. He put himself in harm’s way with reckless dashes into the corners. Had he not, he never would have been able to win races to loose pucks.

A bar set too high?

Malkin might not be able to gain space like he used to, and it’s fair to wonder if he might go from a supernatural shooter to a merely … very, very good one.

From 2015-16 through 2017-18, Malkin’s shooting percentage never dipped below 16.7, and went as high as 17.6. To give you a sense of how rare that rate is, Malkin’s 17.2 shooting percentage was the fourth-highest of any player with at least 300 SOG during that frame, and Malkin easily led all with at least 500 (he scored 102 goals on 592 SOG).

In 2018-19, Malkin was still pretty efficient (scoring his 21 goals on 187 SOG, good for 11.2 percent), but no longer outrageous. Frankly, it was probably unfair to count on Malkin to keep this going …

Be careful what you wish for 

… Considering the likely players around him.

Yes, Kessel has become a drag defensively, but Alex Galchenyuk – a likely running mate for Malkin – is basically described as a lesser Kessel.

It sure feels like a lot is riding on the power of “chemistry,” as plenty of people believe that the Penguins took significant steps back this offseason. Malkin and other forwards figure to carry heavy puck-lugging burdens, at least when Kris Letang‘s pairing is off the ice.

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Could Malkin have a much better year in 2019-20? Absolutely.

He might get a new lease on life with the Kessel drama behind him. Malkin may merely be healthier, or might get bounces where he didn’t the year before.

Still, it’s probably wise to keep expectations in check. Maybe Malkin hasn’t succumbed to Father Time totally just yet — hopefully he hasn’t, as a driving Malkin is still a frightfully wonderful sight — but he may lose those battles more and more at age 33 and beyond.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Power Rankings: Eight NHL teams in danger of regressing this season

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A week ago we looked at the NHL teams that could be on the verge of a bounce back during the 2019-20 season.

This week the focus shifts to teams that could be on the verge of sliding in the opposite direction. Does that mean these teams will be bad or miss the playoffs? Not at all. It just means they may not be as good or go as far as they did a year ago.

Which teams seem to have the most potential to regress this season? To the rankings!

Potentially significant regression

1. Columbus Blue Jackets. They still have some great young players and a lot of reasons for optimism from a big picture outlook, but the short-term window looks questionable because they lost a lot from last year’s team, including their two best players, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky is the big departure that hurts because he was one of the best goalies in the league and they replacing him with two unknowns at the moment.

2. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets’ regression started last year as they were nowhere close to the team they were expected to be in the second half of the season. They are bringing back much of that same roster, minus a few players on defense (including the big loss, Jacob Trouba). Patrik Laine should be better and more productive than he was this past season, but their salary cap situation is about to get messy and this team still has some real flaws.

3. New York Islanders. This season will be a big test to find out how much of their turnaround was Barry Trotz magic, or unbelievable goaltending from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. The Islanders were not a great offensive team and did not really address that this offseason, while they may have taken a step back in goal with Semyon Varlamov replacing Lehner.

Potential for a noticeable regression 

4. Calgary Flames. The Flames were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL a year ago, climbing to the top of the Western Conference standings. A lot of things went right along the way to help them get there. But there are a lot of questions that need to be answered heading into this season. Will Elias Lindholm be a point per game player again? Does Mark Giordano, now age 36, have another Norris caliber year in him? Will the goaltending hold up? How much will they use Milan Lucic? This should still be a playoff team, but it is probably not the top seed in the Western Conference again.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins. The core is getting older and the supporting cast is not what it was a couple of years ago. The wild card here is Evgeni Malkin. If he is able to come back with a huge year it might be able to make up for some of the shortcomings elsewhere. The forwards are still good, but trading Phil Kessel for Alex Galchenyuk and signing Brandon Tanev may not be an upgrade. They have a great top pairing on defense but nothing but question marks behind them.

6. San Jose Sharks. It is actually a testament to how good this team was a year ago that it won as many games as it did and went as far as it did with the goaltending that it had. That same goaltending situation is still in place, but will the rest of the team be as good? Re-signing Erik Karlsson was a huge win during the offseason, but losing Joe Pavelski to the Dallas Stars could be significant.

Nowhere to go but down

7. Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning had a pretty good offseason, and even though they traded away J.T. Miller for salary cap reasons they still found some nice bargains in Kevin Shattenkirk and Pat Maroon that could be nice depth additions. But let’s be real here, they are probably not going to win 62 games and be a 128-point team again. Funny thing is, no one in Tampa Bay will care if they end up getting handed the Stanley Cup at the end of the playoffs.

8. St. Louis Blues. The exact opposite situation as the Lightning. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that the Blues end up having a significantly better regular season, especially if Jordan Binnington proves to be for real in net. But history has proven time and time again that winning the Stanley Cup two years in a row is a brutally difficult task and has only been done three times since 1990.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV 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.