Dominik Simon

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Heavy Lifting: Five NHL lines that are carrying their teams

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Let’s take a quick look around the NHL at five lines that are doing the most to carry their teams (or at least their offense) through the first month of the season.

This is always kind of a good news/bad news situation because the good news is your team has a dominant top line that can change a game every night. The bad news is that one line teams do not tend to do very well in the long run. Balance is important!

We are focussing on 5-on-5 production with this look and right now these five teams are fairly dependent on these lines to carry the play.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Edmonton Oilers
The Line: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zack Kassian

This line might be the definition of “heavy lifting.”

This trio has been on the ice for nearly 30 percent of the Oilers’ total 5-on-5 minutes, a substantial workload even by top line standards. Individually, McDavid and Draisaitl are the top-two forwards in the league in even-strength ice-time per game (Kassian is 22nd), both averaging more than 18:30 per game (Mathew Barzal is the only other forward that plays more than 18 minutes of even-strength ice-time per game).

Then we get to the production.

In 124 minutes this trio has outscored teams by an 11-3 margin and been completely dominant. That is 60 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 goals, while the team has been outscored by a 6-8 margin at 5-on-5 when this trio is not on the ice.

It is the same story as it has always been for the Oilers where they need to skate McDavid and Draisaitl into the ground to compete. So far this season it has worked. But we have seen over the past four years that it is not really the best long-term recipe for sustained success.

Boston Bruins
The Line: Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand

When these three are together they are as good as it gets in the NHL.

Bergeron and Marchand are two of the best all-around players in the league, while Pastrnak is quickly turning into one of the most dangerous goal-scorers around. The big question for the Bruins has always been their depth around this line and if they can get enough offense from lines two through four to complement them. Through the first month of the 2019-20 season that concern is still very much the same.

This line has only played 86 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together (about 22 percent of the team’s 5-on-5 total) and has already scored seven goals in those minutes. The Bruins have just six 5-on-5 goals in the remaining 306 minutes of 5-on-5 time that they have played this season, and two of those goals came when Marchand and Pastrnak were together without Bergeron.

As this line goes, so go the Bruins.

Winnipeg Jets
The Line: Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler

With the Jets’ defense in shambles following the offseason, the team has had to rely on the strength of its forwards to remain competitive.

The big line of Scheifele, Laine, and Wheeler has certainly done its part to make sure that happens. Not only in terms of their own production, but also in how much the rest of the team has struggled when they are not on the ice. In nearly 300 minutes of 5-on-5 play without any of these three on the ice, the Jets have managed a grand total of four goals.

Pittsburgh Penguins
The Line: Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Dominik Simon

You could put together a pretty good forward lineup with the players the Penguins have out of the lineup right now. One of the biggest reasons they have kept winning through all of the injuries has been the play of their top line of Crosby, Guentzel, and Simon.

The latter member of this line is a point of much contention in Pittsburgh because he never scores goals himself, but the team loves him on the top line alongside Crosby and Guentzel and the overall numbers justify his existence on that line (it scores more goals with him than it does without him). So far this season Crosby is playing at an MVP level, Guentzel is doing his best to show his 40-goal season a year ago was no fluke, and Simon keeps making plays that keeps the play alive in the offensive zone and leads to offense. In 111 minutes together this trio has already combined to score eight of the the team’s 20 five-on-five goals this season.

New York Rangers
The line: Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad

The third member of this line has mostly been Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich at different times, but the main drivers here are Panarin and Zibanejad.

Panarin has already scored four goals in the team’s first six games and has been everything the Rangers could have expected and hoped when they signed him in free agency. Zibanejad, meanwhile, is off to one of the best offensive starts in franchise history with 11 points in six games. When that duo is together the Rangers have doubled up their opponents on the scoreboard and scored like one of the league’s elite lines.

The problem with this Rangers team in the short-term was always going to be the lack of depth around them, and so far the Rangers have looked rather punchless at even-strength when their top duo is off the ice.

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.

Sidney Crosby bamboozles Avs with absurd backhand goal

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The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Colorado Avalanche 3-2 in overtime on Wednesday, with hockey fans being treated to some Sidney Crosby vs. Nathan MacKinnon.

Now, with hockey, you don’t always get to see two superstars actually face off, as coaches sometimes avoid best-on-best matchups. Delightfully, we’ve seen Crosby vs. MacKinnon quite a bit through the early stages of Wednesday’s games, and both have managed to dazzle.

… Crosby’s won the first round, though. He set up some great chances with pinpoint passes to Dominik Simon and Jake Guentzel, but the Penguins couldn’t get on the board until Crosby took things into his own (back)hands. In a truly mind-blowing display of skill and timing, Crosby corralled a bouncing puck, beat Erik Johnson and Samuel Girard‘s pokecheck attempt, and then waited out Philipp Grubauer to score a highlight-reel goal.

MacKinnon, meanwhile, is off to tougher start. That’s mainly because of a debatable hit by Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist:

MacKinnon seemed shaken up by the hit, yet he didn’t appear to leave the Avs’ bench. Sometimes we see players realize that they were injured after the adrenaline of game action wears off, so this is a situation to watch. (Ed Olczyk mentioned that MacKinnon was “laboring” early in the second period.

On one hand, MacKinnon struggled at times …

On the other, he managed to score later in the game, so who knows if there will be lingering issues?

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.

Avalanche vs. Penguins livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Colorado is the only perfect team remaining in the NHL. This marks the fourth time in franchise history that the Nordiques/Avs have opened a season at least 5-0-0.

The stars of these two teams, Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon, both hail from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. They both attended Shattuck St. Mary’s boarding school in Faribault, Minn. and both played junior in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before each being selected No. 1 overall. They maintain a great relationship off the ice, including training together in the offseason.

Beyond their explosive top line, Colorado also has benefitted from the development and emergence of young defensemen Cale Makar and Sam Girard. Makar turns 21 on Oct. 30th, and Girard doesn’t turn 22 until May. After showing a glimpse of their talent last postseason, they are off to strong starts in 2019-20.

Makar has at least one point in all five games so far (six pts. total). He’s the fifth defenseman in NHL history to start his regular season career with a five-game point streak. Marek Zidlicky (2003-04, Predators) is the only player from that group who has ever extended that streak six games.

Pittsburgh has won three straight games, and is coming off back-to-back seven-goal performances over the weekend. The Pens beat the Wild 7-4 on Saturday before beating the Jets 7-2 on Sunday. Sidney Crosby has scored at least one point in every game this season, including multi-point efforts in each of the past three contests. His 10 points leads the Pens. This is Crosby’s 950th game, and he is one goal away from 450 for his career.

[COVERAGE OF AVS-PENGUINS BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Colorado Avalanche at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 16, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Avalanche-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

AVALANCHE
Gabriel Landeskog – Nathan MacKinnon – Mikko Rantanen
Joonas DonskoiNazem KadriAndre Burakovsky
J.T. CompherTyson JostColin Wilson
Matt CalvertPierre-Edouard BellemareMatt Nieto

Cale Makar – Sam Girard
Erik JohnsonMark Barberio
Ryan GravesIan Cole

Starting goalie: Philipp Grubauer

PENGUINS
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Brandon Tanev
Dominik KahunJared McCannPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerDominik Simon
Adam Johnson – Joseph Blandisi – Sam Lafferty
(Jared McCann is a game-time decision.)

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Jack Johnson -John Marino

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

MORE: Patience, preparation part of Makar’s NHL path

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Avs-Pens from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa. Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live with analysts Patrick Sharp, Jeremy Roenick and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

Penguins’ injury problems keep piling up

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Well, at least the Pittsburgh Penguins won one of their first three games.

That’s the most positive thing you could probably muster for a team that’s fighting it right now.

It’s somewhat amusing that, while it was surprising that the Winnipeg Jets beat the Penguins 4-1 with a decimated defense on Tuesday, the Penguins are keeping their medical staff pretty busy lately, too.

In Pittsburgh’s case, the injuries are piling up mostly on the forward side.

We already found out that Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad are expected to be out long-term, and while updates softened that term to be more about weeks than months, it still puts the Penguins in a bind. Injuries keep stacking up from both a quantity and quality standpoint; the team announced that Alex Galchenyuk has been placed (at least briefly) on IR, forcing a call-up of Adam Johnson. While Galchenyuk carried an issue into the regular season and likely re-aggravated it, Patric Hornqvist was shaken up while getting hit by a puck working in the “dirty areas” where he both thrives and often gets hurt.

About the only good news is that Galchenyuk and Hornqvist might be dealing with issues that are more minor.

Oh yeah, the Penguins are also dealing with an injury to occasionally hyper-clutch forward Bryan Rust so … yeah, this is all a lot.

If you look at the Penguins’ current line combinations at Left Wing Lock, it becomes obvious how much things will fall upon Sidney Crosby‘s shoulders, and also to Matt Murray. While Jake Guentzel and Dominik Simon make for a respectable set of wings around Crosby, there’s not a lot of scoring punch beyond that top line.

That defense also looks rough, even more or less at full-strength.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie brought up an interesting report in a recent edition of Insider Trading: the Penguins have been shopping oft-criticized defensemen Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson, both before the season and amid these injury headaches.

Really, if there’s any time the Penguins could get Johnson and/or Gudbranson off the books, that would likely be wise. It’s possible that, particularly with Johnson, it could be a case of “addition by subtraction.” Beyond that, they clog up quite a bit of the Penguins’ cap, which is relevant as Pittsburgh is one of the many contenders who are always wiggling to try to stay under the ceiling. Johnson, 32, would be a drag at his $3.25M AAV for just 2019-20; his contract is pretty terrifying when you realize it runs through 2022-23. Gudbranson is more palatable being that there have been flashes of competence during his short time with the Penguins, and also that he’s younger (27) and not under contract for as much term ($4M AAV through 2020-21), but chances are strong that the Penguins would be better off flipping him if they can add more viable talent — or even just clear some room to target that help closer to, say, the trade deadline.

Either way, it’s a messy situation, mixing the Penguins’ self-inflicted wounds of making some bad moves in recent years, and bad injury luck that strikes teams both wise and foolish.

There’s a chance that both Galchenyuk and Hornqvist could be back soon, possibly against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday, but this remains a Penguins team that’s limping through the early goings of the 2019-20 season.

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.

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.