Brandon Tanev

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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.”

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.

It’s Winnipeg Jets Day at PHT

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets. 

2018-19
47-30-5, 99 points (2nd in the Central Division, T-4th in the Western Conference).
Playoffs: Eliminated in Round 1 by the St. Louis Blues in six games.

IN
Neal Pionk
Gabriel Bourque
Anthony Bitetto
Mark Letestu

OUT
Jacob Trouba
Kevin Hayes
Ben Chiarot
Matt Hendricks (retired)
Tyler Myers
Marko Dano
Nic Kerdiles
Joe Morrow
Brandon Tanev
Par Lindholm
Bogdan Kiselevich

RE-SIGNED
Laurent Brossoit
Seth Griffith
Andrew Copp
Cameron Schilling
Nathan Beaulieu
Logan Shaw
C.J. Seuss
J.C. Lipon

[MORE: Three questions | X-factorMaurice under pressure]

2018-19 Season Summary

As NHL teams headed out to enjoy the Christmas break last December, the Jets were sitting pretty. They had just won 11 of their previous 13 games and were atop the Central Divison, four points ahead of the Nashville Predators.

The winning ways continued into February, but the success slowed down and some real concerns started bubbling up. Patrik Laine, whose early season was highlighted by a hat trick in an NHL Global Series game in his home country of Finland and a five-goal performance three games later, saw his goal scoring come to a halt. After scoring 18 goals in the month of November, the sniper only scored nine times in the team’s final 58 games. The penalty kill’s success dropped 5% and Connor Hellebuyck, coming off a season that saw him a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, couldn’t find consistency.

As Scott Billeck pointed out following the Jets’ playoff exit, there was 19-day stretch in February where the Jets lost twice to the Senators, twice to the Avalanche, and once to the Canadiens, Coyotes and Wild. Let’s not forget about some major injuries as well. Dustin Byfuglien missed 34 games due to a pair of ankle injuries. Josh Morrissey was out 20 games after taking a hit up high.

Despite a 99-point season, the Jets just didn’t feel like a team that was going to make noise in the playoffs. Something was just off.

The Jets finished with five fewer wins and 15 fewer points in 2018-19 than 2017-18. They banked enough points early on to help them remain in the dog fight for the Central Division title, which could be claimed by the Predators by a single point. The Stanley Cup playoff experience would be a short one as they were knocked out by the eventual champion Blues in six games sending them into the summer with questions.

What is Laine’s future? The forward was not happy about his year and remains a restricted free agent as September arrives. The Jets have $16M in cap space to re-sign him and fellow RFA Kyle Connor, who was second on the team with 34 goals. Will general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff go the bridge route with one or both? Will the negotiations bleed into training camp and even the regular season? Can Laine regain his scoring touch and can Connor build off a second straight 30-goal campaign?

The Central is once again shaping up to be one of, if not the toughest division in the NHL. The Jets can’t afford another disappointing season, otherwise there will be the desire for big changes. Will they be able to live up to their potential and make a run in the Western Conference?

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.

What Penguins need to become championship team again

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There is going to come a point in the next few years where the Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer a playoff team.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are all over the age of 32 and probably only have a handful of high-level years ahead of them. When they start to decline or retire there is going to be no replacing them and no matter what moves the Penguins make today there is not going to be anything that stops them from needing an extensive rebuild in the not-too-distant future. That future is not quite here yet.

After barely making the playoffs and getting swept in Round 1 with a roster that seemed to lose its way, it is not unfair to say that the team has slipped a bit in its standing as a Stanley Cup contender. What do they need to get back closer to the top?

We know the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel duo is going to excel on the first line and the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing is going to be great. After that it is a bunch of questions. The obvious keys focus on Alex Galchenyuk fitting in, Evgeni Malkin being better (especially at even-strength), and Matt Murray playing at his best (all things we already looked at today).

But that alone will not be enough.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor | Three Questions]

1. Rediscover their identity. I touched on this immediately after their Round 1 loss but the single biggest flaw the Penguins have is their sudden fascination with having players that provide “push back.” For a team that won two Stanley Cups under the mantra of “just play” it was a needless overreaction to some perceived injustices from a select few opposing players. The result was a shift away from what made team so tough to play against (balanced offense, mobile defense, speed, four scoring lines) and a rapidly growing collection of long-term, pricey contracts for depth players (Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, Brandon Tanev). The big thing that would help address this: Another mobile, puck-moving defender that can play on the second pair. The big intangible thing: Go back to “just play” instead of worrying about pushing back.

2. A resurgence from a (hopefully) healthy Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist’s status as a team leader and gritty forward with a non-stop motor masked the fact that his play rapidly deteriorated in the second half of the season, to the point where he was a complete non-factor offensively. It was a stunning slump after a strong first half. The thing that stands out about that is there is a pretty firm line that separated his season. That line was another head injury that kept him out of the lineup midway through the season. Was it a fluke slump? Was it a result of the injury? Was it a sign of things to come for him in the future now that he is 32 years old? A combination of all three? Whatever it was, the Penguins have Hornqvist signed for four more years at more than $5 million per season. The work ethic and effort are great, but at that price the Penguins need him to produce more than he did this past year or that contract will quickly turn into another drain on the salary cap.

3. Some young players need to emerge. The big focus during their mid-season turnaround in 2015-16 was on the coaching change. But there was another element at play: A bunch of young players became impact players at the same time (Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl; Guentzel a year later). The Penguins need that again. While the farm system is thin, there are some candidates to take big steps forward at the NHL level. Dominik Simon is polarizing because he is a favorite of the coaching staff and struggles to score goals, but he is a good defensive player and playmaker. Jared McCann is a favorite of the front office because they love his potential and he had a strong showing after the trade from Florida. He needs to show it was not a fluke. Dominik Kahun is an intriguing add from Chicago and is coming off a solid rookie season. And even though this might be for a couple years down the line, Pierre-Oliver Joseph is the exact type of defender they need to emerge and become a regular.

The three superstars at the top are the most important ingredient. But they are only part of the recipe. These three keys are just as important.

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.

Penguins questions include defense, trade bait, and Malkin’s bounce-back

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Three pressing questions for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Is the defense good enough?

In the opinion of general manager Jim Rutherford, yes. He has repeatedly defended the construction of his defense and at one point even went as far as to call it the best defense he has had during his time in Pittsburgh. High praise considering he has been in Pittsburgh for two Stanley Cup winning teams.

This team, though, is not coming off of a Stanley Cup win and there is little objective evidence to suggest this defense is anything better than ordinary. They were 12th in the NHL in goals against this past season and even that ranking was driven significantly by the performance of Matt Murray in net thanks to some of the best play of his career from mid-December on.

As a team, the Penguins were one of the worst teams in the league at preventing shots, average in preventing scoring chances, and a little below average on the PK. They have one great defense pairing in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin (one of the best pairings in all of hockey) and then a bunch of flawed players and question marks after that. Other than shipping out Olli Maatta over the summer, the Penguins have done nothing else to change the look of their defense. Rutherford obviously believes in this group, and he is taking a pretty big bet that he is right.

2. Who is the next salary cap casualty or trade chip?

This is probably more of a preseason question than a question for the season, but somebody has to go.

Trading Phil Kessel was supposed to alleviate some of the salary cap crunch, but taking Alex Galchenyuk as part of the return and signing Brandon Tanev in free agency quickly erased that savings. Add that to the returning contracts for Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson and the Penguins have a significant chunk of money going to depth players that probably are not moving them closer to another championship. It has put them in a position where they have to move out someone else.

As it stands, they are slightly over the salary cap and still have to re-sign RFA Marcus Pettersson. After this season, Galchenyuk, Justin Schultz, Jared McCann, Dominik Simon and starting goalie Matt Murray will be in line for new contracts. So who goes?

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Johnson or Gudbranson could be an option to go off the blue line and would probably the ideal trade bait, while Bryan Rust or Nick Bjugstad seem like logical candidates at forward.

3. Will Evgeni Malkin bounce back?

It is a good bet that he will.

The final offensive numbers from this past season look good (better than a point-per-game average) and he had a great start to the season, but his production really slumped over the final three quarters of the season and especially at even-strength. His defensive game was also lacking and he will be the first to say the 2018-19 season was not his best. He can be better, and the Penguins need him to be better. Malkin is a proud player and will no doubt be motivated to show this past season was a fluke and that he is still one of the league’s best and most dominant players. A driven Malkin playing at his best is a season-changing player, and if he gets back to that level it will be more valuable to the Penguins than any other potential offseason addition could have been.

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.