Conor Sheary

Getty Images

Malkin hopes Penguins get ‘wake-up call’ after awful opener

8 Comments

It was almost fitting that former Penguins forward Conor Sheary did some of the greatest damage as the Buffalo Sabres beat Pittsburgh 3-1 on Thursday night.

The Penguins have been bleeding talent in a disturbing way over the last few years, thanks in part to GM Jim Rutherford’s pursuit of grit, even when it comes at the cost of skill. Sheary’s two goals were just the latest reminder of a purge that continues to chip away at the support structure around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, and precious few other players who can move the needle in the right direction.

As The Athletic’s Josh Yohe reports (sub required), Malkin was fuming after Thursday’s ugly loss.

“They (the Sabres) were hungry,” Malkin said. “They played so much faster. I think we only played for 30 minutes. We take a couple bad penalties, and they changed (the) game. Again, (it’s) a young league right now — we need to play hungry, we need to play faster, every puck, we need to win. It’s not good for us how we played. We need to change.”

Malkin said that he hopes that defeat serves as a “wake-up call,” and notes that the Penguins need to take every opponent seriously, whether that opponent is Buffalo or Washington.

While it’s just one game, it’s fair to wonder: the Penguins want to change, but how much can they? How much of their struggles come down to management’s shaky bets on players who are possession black holes, or role players being paid like mid-lineup fixtures?

The numbers from Thursday’s games were downright disturbing.

You can even just look at it with a naked eye, noting that the Sabres — not exactly a possession juggernaut for, oh, the last decade — generated a lopsided 41-29 shots on goal advantage, even though the Penguins received five power-play opportunities (going 1-for-5) while the Sabres only had two (1-for-2).

The deeper you dig, the more troubling the numbers get.

Via Natural Stat Trick, there are some even-strength stats that are a cause for some concern:

  • The Sabres generated a ridiculous 11-1 advantage in high-danger chances.
  • Buffalo also doubled Pittsburgh’s scoring chances at 30-15.
  • Only one Penguins player finished the game above .500 in Corsi For Percentage (Kris Letang at 52.78). This is especially surprising because Sidney Crosby was such a two-way beast last season, rightfully earning some Selke buzz.
  • The pairing of Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz was especially brutal.

Last season was rough for Schultz, but it was fair to chalk at least some of those struggles up to injury issues. If that’s a sign of more to come for Pittsburgh, then that’s disturbing, especially since the Penguins lost another defensive option by trading away Olli Maatta. Either way, Johnson continues to be a disaster for Pittsburgh, and the team needs to do soul-searching about whether or not he should even draw a regular spot in the lineup, even as a bottom-pairing option.

Erik Gudbranson seemingly had a new lease on life when he landed with the Penguins, and that will be an interesting situation to watch. (Gudbranson had a rough Thursday, although he was decent relative to certain teammates.)

***

Again, this was just one game. Malkin preemptively chided a viewpoint that the Penguins could have “20 games to wake up,” but it’s also true that Pittsburgh’s been in tough spots during plenty of seasons of the Malkin – Crosby era, only to find ways to finish strong and at least make the playoffs.

Of course, when you have players like Crosby and Malkin, merely making the playoffs isn’t good enough.

That said, it looks like making the playoffs also might not be easy, either. Again.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

The Buzzer: Starting NHL season on a high note — or falling over

Getty Images
3 Comments

Three Stars

1. Mika ZibanejadRangers

If there’s a single player whose recent work has been lost in the shuffle of New York’s recent plummet, it’s Zibanejad. It’s still kind of hard to believe that the Senators really traded him for Derick Brassard.

There was a lot of scoring in New York’s home win against Winnipeg, and while Artemi Panarin had a nice debut, Zibanejad led the way, scoring one goal and three assists. He also fired seven shots on goal and even blocked two shots.

This could be a big season for Zibanejad, one that makes it impossible to ignore his brilliance — even if the Rangers experience a lot of peaks and valleys.

Fittingly, a lot of other players had big nights in that slugfest, including Jacob Trouba against his former team. Trouba generated a goal and two assists, managing three SOG and two blocked shots.

2. Nikolaj Ehlers, Jets

Good thing Winnipeg didn’t lose this guy in the offseason, as Ehlers topped a lot of wishlists for other fans dreaming of the Jets making a reckless trade. After all, Ehlers had a tough postseason, and if Kevin Cheveldayoff channeled his inner Peter Chiarelli, that might have inspired an overreaction.

This ended up being a good day for Kevin to take off.

Ehlers produced three assists on Thursday, also shooting with abandon (eight SOG). Impressively, all three of Ehlers assists were of the primary variety. If you prefer, you might instead choose linemate Blake Wheeler, who scored two goals on nine SOG.

There are plenty of other nights worth noting, including those of Mikko Rantanen and Conor Sheary, who managed two goals apiece for their respective teams.

3. Matt DuchenePredators

Quite a debut for Duchene.

The speedy center managed an impressive three assists, thwarted from a fourth thanks to a great stop by Devan Dubnyk. It’s quite possible that Duchene could form a fantastic top line with Mikael Granlund and Filip Forsberg. That trio created a lot of offense, and Nashville looks like it could have a winning balance.

Duchene only generated one SOG and “only” went 10-10 on draws, but it was an impressive performance.

Mikhail Sergachev ranks among the better honorable mentions with three assists of his own.

Highlight of the Night

While Dubnyk’s save might be the most impressive moment of Thursday, it was already covered here, and the Wild still lost to the Predators. So let’s honor a runner-up: sensational Sabres sophomore Rasmus Dahlin burned multiple Penguins for a tremendous goal in Buffalo’s 3-1 win. Dahlin shows the sort of hands you don’t normally see from a defenseman, even a very good one:

Blooper of the Night

The Rangers won a wild game against the Jets 6-4 on Thursday, but Lias Andersson didn’t get off to the greatest start, thanks to a pesky cord:

Factoids

Scores

TBL 5 – FLA 2
NYR 6 – WIN 4
BUF 3 – PIT 1
CAR 4 – MTL 3 (SO)
NSH 5 – MIN 2
BOS 2 – DAL 1
COL 5 – CGY 3
ANA 2 – ARI 1

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

Sabres defenseman Matt Hunwick expected to miss season

Getty Images

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Sabres defenseman Matt Hunwick is expected to miss this season due to a neck condition that bothered the 12-year veteran for much of last season.

General manager Jason Botterill based Hunwick’s prognosis on offseason medical evaluations in making the announcement Wednesday, about two weeks before the Sabres report to training camp.

Hunwick was initially hurt last summer and the injury forced him to miss the first two months of the season. He was limited to playing 14 games.

Buffalo acquired the 34-year-old with forward Conor Sheary in June 2018 as part of a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Hunwick has 25 goals and 119 points in 535 career games. He is entering the final year of his contract and set to make $1.75 million.

Hunwick’s chances of making Buffalo’s season-opening roster were uncertain after the team acquired Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju in separate trades this summer.

The Sabres are expected to place Hunwick on the long-term injured list, which will allow the team to free up space under the salary cap. Buffalo was projected to be about $1 million over the $81.5 million salary cap after re-signing defenseman Jake McCabe and goalie Linus Ullmark earlier this month.

What Penguins need to become championship team again

Getty
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.

Sabres have questions to answer in offensive, defensive zones

Getty Images
1 Comment

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 Buffalo Sabres.

Let’s ponder three burning questions for the Sabres in 2019-20 …

1. How will their goaltending situation play out?

The San Jose Sharks will tell you, confidently, that team save percentage during the regular season means very little.

In their case, they’re not lying, per se. Still, it would be stretching the truth based on a complete anomaly.

And as bad as the Sharks were between the pipes in the regular season, they still had enough talent to put them into the Western Conference Final.

How does this relate at all to the Buffalo Sabres some 2,700 miles away? Well, it outlines how much better the Sharks were in front of Martin Jones despite an inferior team save percentage. The Sabres are a team that couldn’t be saved by outscoring their opponents and therefore their 22nd-ranked team save percentage of .901 had quite the bearing on their outcome in 2018-19.

There wasn’t much between Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark last season. Both played well along with the team early on in the season, when the Sabres were battling for first in the East. That all came crashing down in the second half, however, as team defense took a nosedive, bringing their season along with it.

Ullmark, who signed a one-year extension with the team on Saturday, enters once again as the backup but should see significant time as he did last year, especially if Hutton struggles again.

[A look back at the Sabres in 2018-19]

2. Will the re-tooling on defense do wonders?

Taking advantage of a cash-strapped Vegas Golden Knights team, the Sabres went about acquiring Colin Miller for a couple of picks, a shrewd move by general manager Jason Botterill and one that was much-needed as the team strives for a better defensive effort this coming season.’

Speaking of shrewd moves, they also added Henri Jokiharju after trading Alexander Nylander to the Chicago Blackhawks. Henri Jokiharju was taken in the first round in 2017 and was projected to be a big part of Chicago’s future on the right side. Instead, they traded him away for Nylander who hasn’t developed the way the Sabres would have wanted him to.

All these moves leave the Sabres with nine defensemen on their roster, meaning one should be getting moved prior to the season, both for cap compliance and roster space reasons. The Sabres are above the cap limit by $1 million and have 24 players signed at the moment.

There have been rumors of Rasmus Ristolainen being on his way out, but nothing has materialized in that realm as of yet.

Nevertheless, the additions of Miller and Jokiharju are intriguing, along with having Brandon Montour getting a full training camp with the team and a healthy Jake McCabe back in the fold.

3. Can the Sabres get the secondary scoring they need? 

Buffalo’s big three of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart combined for over 200 points last season, including Skinner’s 40 goals and Eichel’s 82 points.

From there, their next two top scorers came on defense with Dahlin and Ristolainen, the latter who may not be with the team by the time the regular season rolls around.

No other forward on the team had more than 34 points (Conor Sheary) and 16 goals (Jason Pominville), so the Sabres have gone out and tried to rectify that.

The addition of Marcus Johansson is a big one, in terms of puck possession and scoring. Johansson had 13 goals and 30 points in 58 games last season and 11 points in 22 games for the Boston Bruins in the playoffs.

They also acquired Jimmy Vesey, the 17-goal man from last season with the New York Rangers. Vesey hasn’t been the player he was touted as coming out of college as a Hobey Baker winner but perhaps new scenery on a young team can jump-start his career.

There’s also the pending return for Ristolainen if the Sabres can swing a deal. Buffalo won’t be wanting a defenseman in return, which means they could add someone up front to add further depth.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck