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.

Building off a breakthrough: Jamie Oleksiak

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

One of the biggest factors in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup runs was the emergence of several young players that provided a spark each season.

In 2016 it was Matt Murray, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary.

In 2017 it was Jake Guentzel.

All of them played significant roles in the second half of the season and the postseason and provided some huge moments.

They did not really get the same sort of breakthrough from their farm system during the 2017-18 season. Daniel Sprong never really got much of a chance (and when he did, did not provide much offense). Dominik Simon played more, but did not fully capitalized on his opportunities. Zach Aston-Reese flashed some potential, but only appeared in 16 regular games and then had his postseason ended in the second round on the hit that earned Capitals forward Tom Wilson a three-game suspension.

So who was the breakout player on this team that was mostly full of established NHL veterans?

It might have been defenseman Jamie Oleksiak.

[Penguins Day: 2017-18 review | Under Pressure: Jack Johnson | Three Questions]

Oleksiak become one of the Penguins’ latest reclamation projects on defense when they acquired him in December from the Dallas Stars for next to nothing.

If nothing else Oleksiak was a decent gamble because of his size, potential, and previous experience with Penguins defensive coach Sergei Gonchar (they actually played together briefly in Dallas, and Gonchar was intrigued by Oleksiak’s potential). There were enough tools there that it was worth the fourth-round draft pick to see if they could get something extra out of him that Dallas was not. If they couldn’t, it didn’t really cost them anything of significance.

It was the very definition of low-risk, potentially high-reward.

The move definitely seemed to pay off, at least in the short-term.

In his debut with the Penguins Oleksiak played the best hockey of his career and started to show at least some of the potential that made him a first-round pick in 2011. The Penguins gave him more freedom offensively, allowed him to join the rush and jump into the offensive zone, and just kind of turned him loose a little bit. The result was Oleksiak setting a new career high in points (17) and nearly matching his career total prior to the season, finishing as a positive in shot attempt metrics, and looking like he might be able to establish himself as a regular on their blue line.

It earned him a three-year, $6.1 million contract extension this summer.

The reputation of the Penguins’ — and Gonchar’s specifically — ability to work with and improve defensemen has kind of taken on a life of its own over the past year and is starting to become a little overstated. They’re not taking these players and turning them into Norris Trophy contenders or top-pairing defenders. And that is certainly the case with Oleksiak. Even now his best use is probably going to be as a solid third — and perhaps maybe a second — pairing defender. But that is still a big step forward from where he was in Dallas where he was not getting much playing time, was struggling to perform in those opportunities, and didn’t look like he had much of a future in the NHL.

MORE: Will Sidney Crosby win another scoring title in his career?

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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.

It’s Pittsburgh Penguins day at PHT

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

2017-18
47-29-6, 100 pts. (2nd in the Metropolitan Division, 5th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in six games to the Washington Capitals, second round

IN
Matt Cullen
Jack Johnson
Derek Grant

OUT
Connor Sheary
Matt Hunwick
Tom Kuhnhackl
Carter Rowney
Josh Jooris

RE-SIGNED
Daniel Sprong
Bryan Rust
Riley Sheahan
Jamie Oleksiak
Tristan Jarry
Dominik Simon

The bid for a third straight Stanley Cup title fell short as the Penguins were knocked out by the Washington Capitals, who slayed a demon en route to the franchise’s first championship. 

It was the culmination of an up-and-down season, one that began with a 10-1 thrashing by the Chicago Blackhawks in their second game and saw the Penguins hold a 19-18-3 record as the calendar turned to 2018. Matt Murray, in his first season as the full-fledged No. 1 in net, again battled through injury, giving the team a chance to see Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith in extended action.

Meanwhile, the Penguins’ big weapons did as they normally do and dominated in the scoring department. Evgeni Malkin (98 points), Phil Kessel (92) and Sidney Crosby (89) all finished top 10 in scoring in the NHL, with Malkin hitting 40 goals for the first time since 2011-12 and Kessel recording a career high in points.

General manager Jim Rutherford continued his trading ways and added Riley Sheahan and Jamie Oleksiak in separate deals, which turned out to be shrewd moves in helping both the team’s bottom six and blue line. A three-way deal at the NHL’s trade deadline brought Derick Brassard to Pittsburgh, but everyone is still waiting for that move to work within the team’s current setup.

[Under Pressure: Johnson | Breakthrough: Oleksiak | 3 Questions]

As a team that spends to the cap annually, there wasn’t a lot of action in free agency, despite thoughts that Rutherford might swing another trade. Matt Cullen was brought back and Jack Johnson was handed a curious five-year, $16.25 million contract. The Penguins have their core pieces locked up, outside of Jake Guentzel, who’s scheduled to become an RFA next summer. They’re ready for another run and with a GM who’s not afraid to make a bold move to improve his team’s championship chances, it’s easy to see why they’ll once again be in the mix of teams hoping to represent the Eastern Conference in the Cup Final.

Prospect Pool

• Filip Hallander, 18, RW, Timra (SHL) — 2018 second-round pick

If he can come close to the comparisons to fellow Swede Patric Hornqvist, that will bode well for the Penguins in the future, especially since they traded up to draft him. Despite a knee injury that slowed him a bit, Hallander impressed the Penguins with his two-way game. He chipped in nine goals and 20 points in 40 games last season with Timra.

• Calen Addison, 18, D, Lethbridge (WHL) — 2018 second-round pick

An offensive defenseman, Addison scored 11 goals and recorded 65 points for the Hurricanes last season. A puck-mover, he still has a ways to go in improving his defensive game, but with Sergei Gonchar having already worked his magic on a number of the Penguins defenseman, there’s a confidence that Addison’s all-around game can develop.

• Daniel Sprong, 21, RW, Wilkes-Barre (AHL) — 2015 second-round pick

With an eight-game taste last season, Sprong should have a full opportunity to stick with the NHL club this season. Rutherford said in May the 21-year-old winger is expected to be a regular in the lineup in 2018-19. He’s a proven scorer, having netted 32 goals in both his final year in junior and last season in the AHL. The Penguins are more than fine down the middle, so if Sprong can become a reliable producer on the wing.

MORE: Will Sidney Crosby win another scoring title in his career?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@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.