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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.

Penguins ship Hunwick, Sheary to Sabres in cap-clearing deal

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It was only two days ago that Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford joked, “I’m a creative. I’m not a magician” when asked about finding room to fit John Tavares on the roster. But on Wednesday, he managed to clear some salary cap room and find a taker for defenseman Matt Hunwick’s contract, thanks to his former assistant Jason Botterill.

The Penguins and Buffalo Sabres completed a trade on Wednesday that sees Hunwick and winger Conor Sheary head to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a conditional 2019 fourth-round pick that can become a third-rounder. (Per Darren Dreger, the pick becomes a third-rounder if Sheary scores 20 goals or 40 points or the Sabres move Hunwick before next year’s NHL draft.) No salary is retained. The move clears $5.25 million of cap space, bringing Pittsburgh’s total to a little over $10 million for Rutherford to play with, according to Cap Friendly.

[Penguins, Rust agree to four-year extension]

It’s been a busy week for Rutherford having already re-signed Bryan Rust, Dominik Simon and Daniel Sprong to new deals. This trade allows him to attempt to bring back defenseman Jamie Oleksiak and forward Riley Sheahan. While Oleksiak was given a qualifying offer this week, Sheahan was not and can become an unrestricted free agent on Sunday. That will still leave some money freed up to add to the blue line or on the wing.

The contracts of Sheary ($3 million cap hit) and Hunwick ($2.25 million cap hit) each run through the 2019-20 NHL season. Sheary has scored 41 goals over the last two seasons, with 37 of them coming at even strength. But with Sprong coming, it was clear his time in Pittsburgh was up. With his speed, he could thrive playing next to Jack Eichel. Hunwick, meanwhile, suited up for only 42 games this past season and was one of the Penguins’ worst blue liners in possession, per Corsica, while averaging 17:31 a night. He couldn’t crack Mike Sullivan’s top six for any of their 12 playoff games this spring.

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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.

Malkin, Dumoulin practice again, will be game-time decisions

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After dropping Game 2 of their second-round series against the Washington Capitals, it looks like the Pittsburgh Penguins could be getting some reinforcements for Game 3.

Evgeni Malkin, who missed the first two games of the series because of a leg injury, was on the ice for the Pens morning skate. Brian Dumoulin, who left Sunday’s game after taking a hit to the head from Tom Wilson, was also on the ice during the skate.

Both players are considered game-time decisions for tonight’s game.

The fact that the Penguins were able to get a split in Washington without Malkin was pretty significant. Getting him back for Game 3 would be huge for obvious reasons. The 31-year-old had 42 goals and 98 points in 78 games during the regular season and three goals and two assists in five postseason contests.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Malkin’s return would also allow Riley Sheahan to slide back into his fourth-line role. Sheahan had been centering Dominik Simon and Phil Kessel on Pittsburgh’s second line.

As for Dumoulin, much was made about Wilson not being suspended for the hit on the Pens defenseman, but head coach Mike Sullivan isn’t going to allow his team to get caught up in that.

The Penguins have relied on Dumoulin to play significant minutes throughout the postseason (he’s averaging 21 minutes per game), so him potentially being available would also give them a significant boost.

Carl Hagelin was also on the ice, but he wore a full visor and a non-contact jersey. Sullivan said Hagelin is also considered a game-time decision, but it seems unlikely that he’ll be available for Game 3.

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.