Penguins are a mess after another ugly loss to Devils

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The Pittsburgh Penguins seem to be the cure for whatever is ailing the New Jersey Devils these days.

After starting the season with a four-game winning streak, the Devils have won just three of the 12 games that followed while being outscored by 20 goals (52-32). They have been, for lack of a better word, bad.

Unless they happen to be playing the Penguins as two of those three wins have not only come against their divisional rival — including Tuesday’s 4-2 decision in New Jersey — but they have also outscored them by a 9-3 margin.

That is not a good look for the Penguins. Also not a good look for the Penguins: The fact they are now just 1-5-1 in their past seven games and are showing a lot of the same potentially fatal flaws that held them back at times a year ago, specifically when it comes to the abysmal play of their third-and fourth-lines.

Some numbers to ponder: After Tuesday’s game it has now been nine games since the Penguins received an even-strength goal from their third-or fourth-line. Meaning, a line that has not been centered by Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. The last such goal came in a 9-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Oct. 25 when Matt Cullen scored his first, and only, goal of the season.

During the stretch that has followed, the team has scored only 18 total goals, with only 14 of them coming at even-strength. One of Crosby or Malkin has been on the ice for all 14 of those even-strength goals, and at least one of them has contributed (scoring or assisting) to 11 of them.

It is not just the lack of goals, either. Their third-and fourth-lines are getting crushed in every aspect of the game, whether it’s actual goals (outscored 8-0), shot attempts (less than 44 percent) or scoring chances (also less than 44 percent).

On Tuesday, Crosby had a hand in both goals recording the primary assist on both of them, including an incredible cross-ice pass to Phil Kessel on the power play, and a controversial goal that saw Crosby plow through the crease and skate into Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid, leaving a rebound right on the doorstep for Jake Guentzel to pounce on.

The Devils challenged the goal for goalie interference but the on-ice call was upheld.

General manager Jim Rutherford addressed the depth issues a week ago when he ripped into his team’s slow start and commented on how they are not getting contributions from their depth players.

[Related: Obviously unhappy GM rips Penguins’ slow start]

For a refresher:

“It’s almost like the guys come to the games and say, ‘Let’s just let the top guys do it.’ Let’s let Sid, Geno, Phil and Letang carry us. We’ll just get through the game and move on to the next game. Forget about the work ethic it takes or forget about the role they play. But when those top players aren’t getting it done, whether they’re shut down or they’re just not having a good game, that’s when we need those other guys to come in and contribute and help win games. We’re not getting it.”

That was probably the most on-point and accurate thing he said.

Over the past couple of weeks coach Mike Sullivan has tried a lot of different things to jumpstart individual players in an effort to get them going.

Bryan Rust, fresh off signing a long-term contract extension over the summer, has been off to a terribly slow start and been bumped up to the top line alongside Crosby and Dominik Simon.

Carl Hagelin, who has just three points in 16 games, has remained in the top-six alongside Malkin despite his lack of offense.

With Rust and Hagelin getting those big-minute roles, it means somebody else gets bumped down the line, and on Tuesday it was Guentzel and Phil Kessel (the two most productive wingers on the team) opening the night on the third line being centered by Riley Sheahan … who has two points in 16 games, none in his past seven, and has not scored a goal since the second game of the season.

None of it has worked.

What the Penguins really need right now is for Derick Brassard to get healthy again, and once he does, they need to stick him on the third-line (which is the role they acquired him for; not to play alongside Crosby on the top line as he had been doing prior to his injury) and hope that he starts to produce as they expected him to.

They also need to hope that somebody out of the Rust, Hagelin, Sheahan trio (which accounts for nearly $10 million in salary cap space) starts to contribute something.

Or, as the GM hinted at, maybe even a trade to bring in somebody that might help add some offense.

Whatever the solution might be, they better find it fast because they are only two points out of the bottom spot in the Eastern Conference.

Yeah, it is early (and yeah, they were in a nearly identical spot at this exact same time a year ago). But it is not so early that there should not be some concern.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

The two Metropolitan Division rivals meet for the second of four games this season. On Oct. 4, the Penguins took the first meeting in a wild 7-6 overtime game. Right now the teams, who are two of the NHL’s top offenses (WSH, 3.77 goals/gm /  PIT, 3.54 goals/gm – T-4th) have identical 6-4-3 records.

The Penguins are struggling at the moment and enter Wednesday’s game on a four-game losing streak, including the last two at home by a combined 10-1 score (5-0 vs TOR, 5-1 vs NJ). They’ve never lost five in a row under Mike Sullivan.

Hoping some change will do good, Sullivan split up Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel during Tuesday’s practice.

“We’ve got some balance through our lines. We’re hoping by just simplifying our game and taking some of the thinking out of it and just getting after it out there and trying to establish some momentum, that will help us,” Sullivan explained.

Washington heads into the game in the middle of a five-game homestand. They’re coming off a 4-2 win over Edmonton on Monday and a victory on Wednesday would give them consecutive wins for the first time all year.

[WATCH LIVE – 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Wednesday, November 7th, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Penguins-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Dominik SimonSidney CrosbyBryan Rust
Carl Hagelin – Evgeni Malkin – Patric Hornqvist
Jake GuentzelRiley Sheahan – Phil Kessel
Garrett WilsonMatt Cullen – Zach Aston-Reese

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Brian DumoulinChad Ruhwedel
Olli MaattaJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Casey DeSmith

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovDmitrij Jaskin
Chandler StephensonNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Andre BurakovskyLars EllerBrett Connolly
Jakub VranaTravis BoydDevante Smith-Pelly

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Christian DjoosMadison Bowey

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

MORE: Your 2018-19 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 atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

What will Penguins do with all their centers?

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This past week the Pittsburgh Penguins added free agent Derek Grant on a one-year contract. Not a major signing, but one that still seems to be a little curious given the current construction of the roster.

The 28-year-old Grant, you see, is a center. After bouncing around the NHL and recording just seven points (all assists) in 86 career games, mostly as a fourth-line/depth player, he finally received an increased role with the Anaheim Ducks this past season due to to their rash of center injuries and made the most of it. He scored 12 goals (and added 12 more assists) in 66 games and earned himself a one-way contract with the Penguins.

What makes the signing so curious from a Penguins perspective is it comes just a few weeks after they brought back soon-to-be 42-year-old center Matt Cullen.

That came after they re-signed restricted free agent center Riley Sheahan to a one-year, $2.1 million contract.

Which came just a couple of months after they give up a bounty of assets to acquire Derick Brassard from the Ottawa Senators prior to the NHL trade deadline to give them another big-time third-line center to play behind their two superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

That is … a lot of centers. Six, to be exact, all with NHL contracts, all expected to be on the NHL roster.

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said he wanted to make his team deeper after its second-round exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the additions of Cullen and Grant definitely help accomplish that. It also comes after the Penguins entered last season without much depth at the position following the free agent departures of Nick Bonino and Cullen. They opened the 2017-18 season with the likes of Carter Rowney and Greg McKegg playing NHL roles, a situation that was less than ideal.

It is the exact opposite now.

So what can they possibly do with all of these guys?

Option 1: Somebody moves to the wing. Aside from the fact that Cullen or Grant will probably be healthy scratches from time to time, this is probably the most logical outcome as one of those two could also probably flip to the wing on the fourth line.

The other candidate to move is Brassard who could move to the left side to play in a top-six role.

This, of course, runs counter to the reason the Penguins acquired Brassard in the first place which was to help give them a trio of centers that no other team could match up with. Brassard not only has his best value at center, it also forces one of Sheahan or Cullen up into a third-line spot, both of whom would be a downgrade from what Brassard would likely do.

Brassard’s initial debut with the Penguins following the trade had its ups and downs and probably didn’t work exactly as planned, but it was also only a 26-game sampling. Sometimes it takes time for a player to adjust to a new team, system, etc.

The other issue with moving one of their centers to the wing? They already have a lot of wingers. Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel, and Patric Hornqvist are the top ones. Then there is Bryan Rust, Carl Hagelin, free agent addition Jimmy Hayes (potential AHL player), and a crop of youngsters that includes Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon, and Zach Aston-Reese. Moving one — or two — of the centers to the wings is going to take one of the latter group out of the equation, either relegating them to the press box or back to the American Hockey League.

Sprong, the team’s top prospect, is expected to be on the roster but he hasn’t fully seemed to gain the trust of the coaching staff to this point in his career and, quite honestly, his situation has reached the “believe it when you see it” point when it comes to his playing time and spot on the roster.

Option 2: Somebody gets traded. Crosby and Malkin are obviously on the untouchable list, while Cullen and Grant were just signed so they are not going anywhere, either — at least not yet.

That leaves Brassard or Sheahan, with Brassard probably being the most likely player to be used as trade bait because of the value he might still bring back and the fact he has the largest contract and the Penguins are firmly pressed against the league’s salary cap.

The optics of that would certainly be bad because it would look like they are admitting that acquiring him in the first place was a bad idea (it wasn’t), and they probably wouldn’t get back the value they gave up to get him. His value to them as a third-line center is more than it is as a second-line winger or as trade bait.

Option 3: Don’t worry about it, somebody is going to get hurt and depth is good. That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Evgeni Malkin has played more than 70 games in a season just two times in the past nine years. Cullen is going to be 42 years old. Grant is a bit of a mystery because he really hasn’t produced at an NHL level outside of this past season when his shooting percentage was 18 percent. The glut of centers will probably take care of itself.

One thing you have to say about Jim Rutherford is that he recognizes his mistakes and is not afraid to correct them, with Mike Johnston and the way he undid all of his offseason moves a year ago being the two most notable examples. After opening last season with only two NHL quality centers on the roster (something that definitely hurt the team) he made sure this summer that is not going to happen again.

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

Penguins, Rust agree to four-year extension

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have re-signed their playoff wizard and two-time Stanley Cup champion forward Bryan Rust to a four-year contract worth $14 million.

The deal carries an average annual value of $3.5 million for the forward, who had a career-year after scoring 13 goals and amassing 38 points in 69 games this season. It’s a nice bump in pay for 26-year-old, who made $640,000 last season.

Rust, a third-round draft pick in 2010, became best known for his playoff scoring prowess during the Penguins back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 2015-16 and 2016-17, scoring 13 times in 46 total games.

He’s also become quite the clutch player when facing playoff elimination, scoring 10 goals and adding an assist in 18 games.

Pittsburgh fans will remember Rust fondly for his two-goal effort against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the 2016 Eastern Conference final, a game the Penguins won 2-1.

Rust’s new deal puts the Penguins roughly $5 million under the cap going into next season, likely forcing them into trading away a roster player.

Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak is their lone restricted free agent (he was qualified on Monday) while they have forwards Carter Rowney, Tom Kuhnhackl and Riley Sheahan are set to become unrestricted free agents come Sunday.

Talks with Sheahan are ongoing, despite the Penguins not extending him a qualifying offer on Monday.

Carl Hagelin is set to become a UFA after next season, so perhaps his name gets thrown into the ring. He’s making $4 mill this season. The Penguins trade deadline acquisition in Derick Brassard, set to make $3 million, will also become a UFA after next season.

And there’s always that speculation about Phil Kessel that never seems to end.

Which teams benefit most from potential buyouts?

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Today is the day that the NHL’s buyout window officially opens. Teams that are looking to rid themselves of certain contracts to open up cap space can do so by buying players out from June 15-30.

With the salary cap projected to increase from $75 million to anywhere between $78-82 million, we may see teams be less willing to bite the bullet because of the additional space. But that doesn’t mean certain organizations won’t go this route to give them a little more breathing room heading into the summer.

PHT’s Adam Gretz took a look at some of the buyout candidates for 2018, so feel free to check out his list by clicking here.

Now, we’ll look at which teams stand to benefit most from buying out a player or two.

• Minnesota Wild

The Wild already have over $67.5 million committed to the salary cap for 2018-19 and they still have to ink restricted free agents Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba to a new contracts. If they hope to make an impact signing or two in free agency, they’ll have to find a way to open up some cap space.

This is where Tyler Ennis comes into focus. Ennis is coming off a season eight goals and 22 points in 73 games. The 28-year-old has a long injury history and he comes with a cap hit of $4.6 million next season. According to Cap Friendly’s buyout calculator, buying out Ennis would cost the $2.167 million on the cap next season and $1.216 million two seasons from now. That works out to a cap savings of $2.433 million in 2018-19. Every penny counts for Minnesota.

• Pittsburgh Penguins

There’s an excellent chance the Penguins will look to tinker with their lineup after being eliminated by the Washington Capitals in the second round of the playoffs. To do that, they might need to find some additional cap space via trade or by buying out a player or two.

The most common player linked to a buyout on the Pens roster is Matt Hunwick. The 33-year-old is set to earn $2.25 million per year over the next two seasons. For a guy that was a healthy scratch for the most part in the second half of the season and in the playoffs, that’s too much money.

If GM Jim Rutherford decides he’s seen enough from Hunwick, he could save almost $1.8 million in salary next season by buying him out. The problem, is that the veteran blueliner would be eating into the Penguins’ salary cap for the next four years. His buyout cap hit would go from $458,3000 to $1.208 million to $708,333 over the final two years.

An outside-the-box buyout candidate might be Carl Hagelin, who comes with a $4 million cap hit in the final year of his contract, but that’s a long shot. The Pens could probably find a taker for him via trade, which would eliminate their need to buy him out. A hypothetical buyout would save them over $1.5 million next season. Again, it’s extremely unlikely, but it’s interesting to look at because he’s in the final year of his contract.

• Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning have already spent almost $67.8 million for next season. That doesn’t include the money they’ll have to pay RFA J.T. Miller.

Bolts GM Steve Yzerman isn’t shy about buying players out, as he already did so with defenseman Matthew Carle back in 2016 (Carle’s contract counts for $1.83 million for two more years).

In order to make room for youngsters like Slater Koekkoek or Jake Dotchin, the Lightning could opt to buy out Braydon Coburn, who has one year remaining on his contract at $3.7 million. The 33-year-old wasn’t terrible last season, but paying $3.7 million for a guy that averaged 16 minutes of ice time per game is a lot. Buying him out would cost Yzerman $1.233 million over the next two years. That’s a cap savings of $2.466 million next season, but it’ll also cost them $1.233 million in 2019-20.

The Lightning may also be tempted to buy out forward Ryan Callahan, who has had his share of significant injuries over the last few years. The 33-year-old has two years left on his current deal that comes with a cap hit of $5.8 million (he’s the second-highest paid forward on the team behind Steven Stamkos).

Buying out Callahan would save Yzerman $3.13 million over the next two seasons. It would also cost him $1.567 million three and four years from now. That’s a steep penalty to pay down the road, but it’s something to look at for a team that’s in win-now mode.

The issue with Tampa is simple. Saving money in 2018-19 is great and all, but paying buyout money in two years from now could become a problem because Nikita Kucherov, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman and Yanni Gourde will all need to be paid again before next summer.

• San Jose Sharks

The Sharks already took care of some major business when they locked up Evander Kane to a seven-year, $49 million contract extension this offseason. Now, they have $67.49 million invested in their current group of players and they still have to re-sign RFA Tomas Hertl and potentially UFA Joe Thornton.

Assuming those are the two moves they’re going to make, the Sharks will have enough cap space to make that work. Here’s the thing, they’ve also been linked as a potential landing spot for John Tavares.

If they want to take a serious run at JT, they’ll need all the flexibility they can get. That means that they could let Thornton walk, but it also means that they can stand to buy out the final year of Paul Martin‘s contract.

Martin, who has one year remaining on his current deal, is set to count for $4.85 million on the cap. Buying him out would save GM Doug Wilson $2.833 million in 2018-19.

The 37-year-old spent time in the minors and he was made a healthy scratch often enough. It would be surprising to see a team take on his salary via trade. This might be the Sharks’ only option if they want to open up money for a big splash in the free-agent market.

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.