Bryan Rust

Getty

What Penguins need to become championship team again

7 Comments

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

Getty Images

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.

Cap crunch: Rangers, Penguins, Flames among teams that need moves

Getty

Even though most of the NHL’s biggest roster transactions have already happened this summer, there are still some significant moves that will be coming over the next few weeks. Many of them will be out of necessity as it relates to getting under the salary cap for the 2019-20 season.

As of Saturday, there are four teams (New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins) that are still over the $81.5 million salary cap (teams can exceed the salary cap by 10 percent in the offseason) and a handful of teams that are close to the salary cap while still needing to re-sign some players.

Let’s take a look at some of the teams that will needing to make another move (or two) over the next few weeks to position themselves under the salary cap.

New York Rangers: After signing Pavel Buchnevich to a two-year contract on Saturday, the Rangers currently sit more than $4 million above the cap with a full roster of 23 players under contract. The offseason additions of Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba drastically altered the cap situation and have them in a position where a significant move is going to be necessary. Possible trade options: Chris Kreider should be at the top of the trade list given what he could bring back and his UFA status next summer, but they could also explore options with Ryan Strome and Vladislav Namestnikov.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Trading Phil Kessel was supposed to help the Penguins ease their salary cap crunch, but acquiring Alex Galchenyuk in that deal and signing Brandon Tanev to a long-term deal negated any savings that might have existed. They still have to re-sign defenseman Marcus Pettersson (they want to give him a long-term deal) and will need to move another contract to do so and remain under the cap. Possible trade options: Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad, Jack Johnson, and Erik Gudbranson are all depth players signed to long-term deals (never a good idea for Stanley Cup contenders). Rust and Bjugstad still have the most value and use to the team, while Johnson and Gudbranson are definitely expendable.

Calgary Flames: After re-signing David Rittich on Saturday to settle their goaltending duo for this season the Flames have between $4 and $5 million of salary cap space remaining for this season. They still have to re-sign Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Magiapane. Without another move they do not have enough salary cap space to re-sign Tkachuk alone as he is in line for a massive raise on his next deal. He is already one of the best young players in the league and will easily be a $6 million-plus player starting this season. Possible trade options: Michael Frolik is the obvious choice here, and his name has been in trade rumors for a while now. He counts more than $4 million against the salary cap this season, and while he is still a useful player he is probably not the most efficient use of the Flames’ limited salary cap space at the moment.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vegas Golden Knights: Dumping Clarkson’s contract off on the Maple Leafs finally put the Golden Knights back under the cap, but they still have the Nikita Gusev situation looming. Based on his KHL production and skillset Gusev could be a top-six winger in the NHL and a welcome addition to any NHL team … including the Golden Knights. The problem is they do not have anywhere near the salary cap space to meet his demands. Their options are either trading Gusev and risk giving up an outstanding player, or moving someone like a Cody Eakin and/or Ryan Reaves to create enough salary cap space to keep him for themselves.

Toronto Maple Leafs: They are now about $3 million over the salary cap after acquiring David Clarkson‘s contract and still have to re-sign restricted free agent Mitch Marner. It looks bad, but they are going to get relief by placing Clarkson and Nathan Horton on the long-term injured list. They should be okay without having to make another significant move, but it will be close and Marner may not be under contract on the first day of the regular season.

Washington Capitals: They will have some major decisions to make over the next couple of seasons with core players. In a more short-term outlook they are, as of Saturday, a little more than $1 million over the league’s salary cap after re-signing Chandler Stephenson on Friday. The Capitals already traded Andre Burakovsky this summer and will probably need another cap-clearing move before October. It’s hard to imagine them shipping out a top-line player right now, so look for smaller moves that could involve the likes of Travis Boyd or Christian Djoos.

Related: Jets, Lightning still have big RFA challenges to deal with

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.

Bruins, Blues factor into top Game 7 moments in playoff history

There’s nothing quite like a Game 7. When it’s Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final, you turn the amplifier up to 11.

Whenever you get moments to catch your breath from Game 7 of Blues – Bruins airing on NBC right now (stream here), check out the video above for reminders of how wild these decisive contests can get.

Early on in the video, both Bruins and Blues fans will find moments they’d like to ignore, including the Too Many Men on the Ice debacle for Boston, and that painful Steve Yzerman goal against St. Louis. The clips go way back, but when they become more recent, things get better for the Bruins and Blues. (Not so much for, say, the Maple Leafs.)

Also things to look for:

Will Wednesday’s game earn a spot on a future version of this countdown? Bet on it.

Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday (stream here).

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.

Key players getting healthy for Bruins, Penguins, Blues

Getty Images
7 Comments

The Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, and St. Louis Blues have managed to hang in there when it comes retaining spots in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but help appears to be on the way for all three teams.

It’s not clear if that help will arrive by Tuesday’s games for each team, yet it seems like each outlook is fairly promising, which is huge because some star players are involved. Let’s go in alphabetical order.

Boston Bruins: Head coach Bruce Cassidy said that it “looks like” David Pastrnak will play against the New York Islanders, although Pastrnak’s considered a game-time decision. As you can see from the Morning Skate, Pastrnak has been hard on himself for missing time with a thumb injury related to a fall off the ice. (Although it might have happened on ice, just not on a rink.)

Pastrnak has been sidelined since Feb. 10. The Bruins have been able to manage a slew of injuries in recent years, so this is no different, but Pastrnak could really help Boston take those extra steps to ensure that they’ll get home-ice advantage in the first round against the Maple Leafs.

It also seems like Torey Krug might be getting closer to a return. Imagine how dangerous this Bruins team might be if everyone’s at, or near, full-strength?

Pittsburgh Penguins: Kris Letang has been sidelined since Feb. 23, and it seems like he’s another game-time decision after practicing in a normal full-contact jersey on Tuesday.

You’d have to think that Letang would have been a serious Norris candidate if he didn’t miss so much time this season, as he boasts great possession stats to go with 53 points in just 60 games. (Even missing all those games, Letang ranks seventh in scoring among defensemen.)

Letang probably suffered his latest injury during the Penguins’ loss to the Flyers outdoors, when he was tangled up with Shayne Gostisbehere:

With two consecutive losses and a prominent (though, with Montreal fading out of contention, not really “must-win”) game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, it might be tempting to push the elite defenseman back into action. The Penguins would be wise to consider his unfortunately bumpy health history, though, and try to delicately walk the line between getting him back up to speed while reducing the risks of re-injury.

The Penguins recently got Bryan Rust back, so this team’s getting healthier as the postseason approaches. At least, they hope so.

St. Louis Blues: When the Blues announced that Vladimir Tarasenko would be “re-evaluated” about 10 days after March 10, it sure seemed ominous.

Instead of merely being looked at again, Tarasenko’s set to return for the Blues during Tuesday’s (March 19) game against the Edmonton Oilers. Hockey players, right?

“He will be in tonight. That’s really good news for us,” Craig Berube said. “He’s fine, he obviously never had a lot of practice time, but he looks fine. He’ll be alright.”

With a middling 4-4-2 record in their last 10 games, St. Louis will welcome the shot in the arm. They also only have a two-point edge on the Dallas Stars for the Central’s third spot (both with 10 games remaining), so there’s added incentive to bring Tarasenko back, and heat up once again.

More: Find out where these teams rank in the Push for the Playoffs.

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.