Penguins sign goalie DeSmith to cheap, smart extension

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are guilty of their fair share of salary cap snafus (screams in horror at Jack Johnson‘s contract), but they’re among the NHL’s sharpest when it comes to handling their goalies.

Yes, Marc-Andre Fleury has been absolutely outstanding in Vegas, but there are many teams that saddle themselves with problem contracts.

Instead, the Penguins have found ways to carve out impressive flexibility at the position by being proactive.

While Matt Murray‘s struggled with injuries and the occasional bout of inconsistency, he’s only carrying a $3.75M cap hit through 2019-20, and Pittsburgh locked him up after his brilliant work in their 2015-16 championship run.

Now they’ve managed to land some cost certainty with Casey DeSmith, as the team announced a three-year extension that will carry a paltry $1.25M cap hit beginning next season.

“Since joining the Penguins’ organization, Casey has excelled for us at every level, first in Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and now here in Pittsburgh,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “We’re pleased to have him signed with our organization for the next three-and-a-half seasons.”

Rutherford isn’t wrong there.

Obviously, Smith’s NHL numbers jump out at you first. The 27-year-old is 12-7-4 with a splendid .924 save percentage this season, and he also has a .923 save percentage over 40 career NHL games. Sean Tierney’s visualization of Corsica’s Goals Saved Against Average numbers show that DeSmith’s been one of the more valuable netminders so far in 2018-19:

Now, sure, it’s likely that DeSmith will cool off from here, but the Penguins aren’t really making that large of an investment in him. This decision compares nicely to the Predators locking down Juuse Saros for three years at $1.5M a pop (Saros has the better pedigree; DeSmith’s having the better 2018-19).

And, as Rutherford mentioned, DeSmith’s had success at other levels.

Check his AHL and NCAA numbers and you’ll see that DeSmith’s enjoyed success in most other seasons. That might not sounds like much, but compare his work at other levels to, say, Scott Darling, who faced a bumpy road through the ECHL and other leagues before things took off for him starting in 2013-14.

It’s not that difficult to picture a scenario where DeSmith got a much richer deal if he waited, particularly if he was the guy who helped Pittsburgh make a big run.

Instead, the Penguins went low-risk, with some enticing potential rewards.

The best-case scenario is that DeSmith ends up being a legitimate difference-maker who can sport something close to a .920 save percentage at that bargain-basement price. The worst? Maybe DeSmith flops and the Penguins have to buy him out or bury his contract in the AHL, while possibly stunting the growth of Tristan Jarry and others.

Cutting in between, it’s quite possible that DeSmith could be a useful backup who might be able to provide relief if Murray struggles or gets hurt.

***

Looking at the Penguins’ salary structure at Cap Friendly, there are a lot of players above the age of 30 who are receiving a lot of money and sometimes-scary term. There are risks of the Penguins slipping into a Kings-like lull if too many players hit the wall.

Still, Murray and DeSmith will carry just a $5M cap hit next season, compared to $6M per year for 32-year-old Jonathan Quick.

Sure, it’s easier to herd cats than predict which goalies will excel in a given year, but all things considered, this is some masterful work by the Penguins.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Blackhawks on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins are one of the hottest teams in the league, with wins in eight straight games. They defeated the Winnipeg Jets 4-0 on Friday night in a 33-save shutout by Matt Murray. After struggling to start the year and missing time with an injury, Murray has now won seven in a row, matching the best stretch of his career.

Sidney Crosby is riding a six-game point streak (3G, 10A) and has 51 points (19G-32A) in 38 games this season, a 1.34 points per game clip. He hasn’t had a scoring rate that high in a full season since 2009-10 (1.35 ppg). He’ll skate in his 903rd career regular-season game as he closes in on Mario Lemieux’s franchise record (915 GP).

Kris Letang has also tallied a point in six straight games (3G, 6A) and is leading the team in time on ice per game during the winning streak (26:16).

Erik Gustafsson leads all Blackhawks defensemen with 23 points and eight goals, both of which are already career highs for the 26-year-old, who is in his third NHL season. Jeremy Colliton scratched Gustafsson on December 2, and since being benched, Gustafsson has responded with 12 points (4G, 8A) in 13 games.

Gustafsson has been on the top pair with Duncan Keith while Henri Jokiharju is at World Juniors. He has also been the primary point man on the power play unit.

“He’s got the world at his feet if he wants…we push him because we know he can do it,” said Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton. “At times, he does do it, as far as his gap and being aggressive to get pucks back, and being physical at times, and even better around his own net. He can do it. It’s not a question of ability. It’s a question of committing to it. So it’s an easy decision to try to hold him accountable, because he can give us so much.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Chicago Blackhawks at Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: PPG Paints Arena
When: Sunday, Jan. 6, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blackhawks-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsDominik Kahun
Artem AnisimovDylan StromePatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatDavid KampfBrendan Perlini
Chris KunitzMarcus KrugerDrake Caggiula

Duncan Keith – Erik Gustafsson
Gustav ForslingBrent Seabrook
Carl DahlstromConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Cam Ward

PENGUINS
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Bryan Rust
Dominik SimonEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist
Tanner PearsonDerick BrassardPhil Kessel
Riley SheahanMatt CullenZach Aston-Reese

Brian Dumoulin – Kris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJack Johnson
Olli MaattaJuuso Riikola

Starting goalie: Casey DeSmith

MORE: Kris Letang is playing the best hockey of his career

The Buzzer: Seguin shines for Stars; Another big night for Avs

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Three Stars

1. Mikko Rantanen

Friday was another night where the Avalanche’s big three forwards (Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog) all factored into the win; in fact, each player nabbed at least one goal. You may be shocked to learn that Colorado is undefeated in 2018-19 when all three notch at least a single tally.

Consider this a “shared” number one between Rantanen, MacKinnon, and Tyson Barrie, as they’re the three players who managed three points on Friday.

You could actually argue that MacKinnon enjoyed the better night, as he logged more ice time, didn’t take any penalties (Rantanen was whistled for four PIM), and fired an impressive eight shots on goal. Rantanen because two of his three points were goals, and one of those goals stood as the game-winner. Again, all three had a great night, so feel free to remix this as the Avalanche sweeping the three stars, if that give you warm and fuzzy feelings.

We’ll get to Barrie’s milestone accomplishment in the factoids section.

2. Matt Murray

Did the Penguins go into the Spider-verse and channel playoff Matt Murray? The 24-year-old generated a 33-save shutout, and it came against the lethal Jets offense, which (clicks on calculator) should then make this could as a double-decker shutout. Or something.

Seriously though, Murray is on a streak that’s just about as impressive as the one his team is on. While the Penguins have won eight in a row, Murray is personally only one behind, as he’s on a seven-game winning streak. He’s generated two shutouts during that run, and the most goals he’s allowed in one game was three, and that only happened once.

The Penguins have added to their winning streak since this post went up, yet the thesis remains: goaltending is leading the way, and Murray + Casey DeSmith are almost certain to cool off eventually. Even so, this is a remarkable run, and Friday stands as one of Murray’s best performances.

3. Tyler Seguin

Seguin joined Rantanen as the only two players to generate two goals on Friday, and while Rantanen managed his three-point output in a 6-1 laugher, the Stars needed every bit of offense that they got from Seguin.

The scapegoated Stars star scored both of Dallas’ goals in a 2-1 OT win against the Capitals, firing four SOG.

Seguin also managed this performance without Jamie Benn, as the Stars’ captain missed the contest with an injury. Seguin’s now has two goals in each of the last two games, while extending his overall point streak to four contests (two goals, two assists).

People are going to rush to give Stars CEO Jim Lites a ton of credit for blaming Seguin and Benn while using language suited for 30-minute HBO stand-up specials, but make no mistake about it: Seguin deserves the praise.

Highlights of the night

Opinion: someone should check Red Wings forward Andreas Athanasiou for an actual turbo button. How else could you explain this second sixth gear?

This is more of a lowlight, but still:

We should all root for an extended Hurricanes winning streak, just to see if they run out of elaborate celebrations:

Sweet shootout moves from Drew Stafford.

Factoids

A reminder that the Avs have employed some great defensemen, but few of them for very long. Also: that Tyson Barrie probably deserves more hype as an impressive scorer. Barrie scored 57 points last season … and that was in just 68 games. He’s now at 30 in 38 games for 2018-19 after a three-assist (possibly three-star-worthy) Friday, and managed an impressive feat:

In case you’re wondering, John-Michael Liles had 275 points in 523 Avs games, while Barrie hit 278 in 444.

Dylan Larkin has basically half of a season to either tie the single-season record for overtime goals, or he could end up all alone with six or more.

The Jets/Thrashers haven’t won in Pittsburgh in a long time, and the Stars have had similar success against the Capitals when they’ve come to Dallas.

Scores

Penguins 4, Jets 0
Red Wings 4, Predators 3 (OT)
Hurricanes 4, Blue Jackets 2
Stars 2, Capitals 1 (OT)
Avalanche 6, Rangers 1
Devils 3, Coyotes 2 (SO)
Golden Knights 3, Ducks 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Breaking down Penguins’ red-hot streak

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ blazing finish to 2018 would be staggering if this sort of thing hadn’t already happened several times in the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era.

(Seriously, it almost feels like old hat to see Pittsburgh struggle to start a season – to the point that there were concerns about missing the playoffs – only to see them rattle off a ton of wins.)

It’s easy to forget that the Penguins began December with a troubling 10-10-5 record after falling 4-2 to the Flyers. Since then, they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the NHL, surging to 21-12-6, including an active six-game winning streak.

With the Penguins hoping to extend this run into 2019 by beating the Rangers on Wednesday, this seems like as good a time as any to analyze their winning ways.

[Penguins – Rangers preview]

Getting the stops

During a 11-2-1 run over 14 games, the Penguins enjoyed a robust +18 goal differential (49 for, 31 against) despite being outshot 486-458. Even if you chalk up some of that difference to “score effects,” it’s clear that Pittsburgh hasn’t exactly channeled the Dead Puck Era with its defense. A look at possession stats during that span backs up the larger picture of them being middling during this streak, too.

Unsustainably brilliant goaltending has been the biggest difference during the past 14 contests.

To some extent, Casey DeSmith has only been a bit hotter during his past nine games (.932 save percentage) than he has been overall (.926 over 25 GP). Instead, it’s Matt Murray who’s flipped the script, winning all five of his starts with a gorgeous .959 save percentage after abysmal work in October and November.

Goaltending ranks as just one of the areas where Pittsburgh’s results have been erratic, but it’s overall a strength, as Natural Stat Trick ranks the Penguins’ 92.47 even-strength save percentage as the 10th-best in the NHL.

It’s unrealistic to expect Pittsburgh’s goaltending to be anywhere near as strong as it’s been lately, yet if Murray’s rebound is for real, the Penguins must be taken as seriously as ever. Especially since DeSmith’s recent stats at the NHL and AHL levels indicate that he might be able to hold down the forth even if Murray struggles again.

Mostly the usual suspects

Six Penguins generated at least 10 points over the last 14 games:

Kessel (18.4 shooting percentage) and especially Rust (25.8) should see their puck luck cool off a bit, but as much as anything else, this is a reminder of how much of a difference Letang can make when he’s in the lineup.

Also, a prolonged hot streak for Rust could really cement him as Crosby’s other regular winger alongside Guentzel, and such stability is likely to be a boon for a player as cerebral as Crosby.

Special, indeed

The Penguins’ power play has been connecting at a league-best 30.8-percent rate since Dec. 4. The good news for the rest of the NHL is that Penguins are unlikely to maintain that pace. The bad news is that, as you’d expect, the Penguins were still really strong in that area before the hot streak.

Interestingly, the Penguins’ penalty kill was fantastic before this stretch, and was comparably effective during it.

It’s plausible that Pittsburgh’s PK might slip from elite to middle-of-the-pack, yet special teams seems likely to be a net positive for the Penguins thanks to all of that talent on the man advantage.

Conclusions

Despite this hot streak, the Penguins aren’t an absolute lock for a berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Islanders could feasibly knock them out of third place in the Metro, which would create a dogfight between Pittsburgh and strong Atlantic teams (Buffalo, Montreal, or Boston?) for one of the two wild-card spots. They can’t exactly kick back and relax just yet.

That said, it’s easy to picture the Penguins looming as a real threat in the coming postseason, even if their headline-grabbing star power will keep them from truly “sneaking up” on contenders like the Lightning, Maple Leafs, or Capitals.

Are the Penguins as good as this recent streak indicates? That’s unlikely, because their goaltending is virtually certain to cool off.

There are enough factors for the Penguins to remain scary, however, and the reasons even go beyond the reliable talking point of “they employ Crosby and Malkin.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Pens look to extend win streak to 7 vs. Rangers

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Oh, how things have changed for the Penguins over the last few weeks. Not only have they rattled off six consecutive victories, they’ve also won eight of their last nine contests. Pittsburgh’s gone from being outside of the playoffs to third in the Metropolitan Division in no time. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning (27) picked up more points than the Penguins (23) in the month of the December. So, you get the point. The Penguins have been unbelievable over the last month.

One of the big reasons they’ve been able to go on this run, is because of goalies Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith. Since returning to the lineup from an injury, Murray has gone 5-0-0. He’s also put up a 1.38 goals-against-average and a .959 save percentage during that span. Let’s compare those numbers to what he did earlier on during the season. From Oct. 4 to Nov. 17 (11 games), Murray had a 4-5-1 record with a 4.08 goals-against-average and a .877 save percentage. He’s been a lot better.

As for DeSmith, he was between the pipes for Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the Minnesota Wild. He has a 12-6-4 record with a 2.40 goals-against-average and a .926 save percentage.

“I think they’ve got a nice, healthy competition amongst themselves right now,” Pens head coach Mike Sullivan said of his two goalies. “They’re both at their very best. They’re making timely saves for us. They’re making saves at key times in the game that give us a chance to either maintain a lead or get momentum back, whatever it may be.”

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Of course, having Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel will help any netminder. As you probably figured out, those three lead the team in scoring this season. Crosby has 48 points, Kessel as 46 and Malkin has 40.

This won’t be an easy matchup for a Rangers team that has won back-to-back games on the road against Nashville and St. Louis.

Unlike the Penguins though, the Rangers aren’t in the Eastern Conference playoff picture right now, as they find themselves six points behind Montreal for the final Wild Card spot and seven points behind Pittsburgh for third in the Metro. That’s not too bad considering many expected the Rangers to be much lower in the standings.

Chris Kreider is one of the big reasons why the Rangers have been competitive this year. After missing 24 games with a blood clot last season, The 27-year-old has put up 20 goals and 31 points in 38 games this year (he’s on pace to surpass the 40-goal mark for the first time in his career). He’s riding a five-game point streak and he’s picked up six points in his last three contests.

Veteran goalie Henrik Lundqvist has had an up and down year, but he’s coming off an impressive 39-save performance against the Blues on Monday night. The 36-year-old has seen his numbers dip over the last few years. His individual stats are slightly better this year than they were last year though, as he has a 2.81 goals-against-average and a .916 save percentage. If they’re going to make a push for a playoff spot, they’re going to need King Henrik to play like he did Monday.

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.