Erik Gudbranson

Getty Images

Penguins trade Maatta to Blackhawks for Kahun, draft pick

18 Comments

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made it clear that changes were coming to his team this offseason.

On Saturday evening he made his first one.

The Penguins announced that they have traded defender Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for forward Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round draft pick that originally belonged to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It is a trade that accomplishes quite a bit for both teams.

First, from the Pittsburgh side, it clears up a log-jam the team had on its blue line with as many as eight NHL defenders either under contract or under team control (Marcus Pettersson is a restricted free agent) for this season. That alone made it seem likely that someone was going to be on the move, and especially after the team’s defensive play regressed again this past season and had a particularly brutal playoff run against the New York Islanders. By trading Maatta, it not only clears a roster spot but also sheds more than $3 million in salary cap space given that Kahun is still on an entry-level contract and counts only $925,000 against the cap for the 2019-20 season.

It also gives them some much-needed youth at forward.

Even after Maatta’s departure the Penguins still have a lot of questions to deal with on defense, where Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson are still taking up more than $7 million in salary cap space over the next few seasons (not ideal!), while Justin Schultz is an unrestricted free agent after this season. Will more players be on the move to address that position? Or does this just make it more likely the returning players take on bigger roles and are more set in the lineup? Based on what we have seen the past few seasons more changes are going to be needed.

The 23-year-old Kahun scored 13 goals and added 24 assists for the Blackhawks in 82 games this past season, his first full year in the NHL.

The addition of the draft pick also gives the Penguins six picks in this year’s draft: A first, a fourth, two fifths, and two sevenths.

As for Chicago, Maatta joins a defense that has needed an overhaul for a few years now and provides a fresher, younger face in the lineup. Even though Maatta has six years of NHL experience under his belt he will still only be 25 years old when the 2019-20 season begins. His career has gone through some extreme ups and downs. When he made his debut during the 2013-14 season he looked like a player that had legitimate top-pairing potential in the NHL could be on his way to becoming a cornerstone player in Pittsburgh. But in the years that followed he had to overcome cancer and an extensive list of injuries that sidetracked his career and led to some pretty significant regressions across the board. Injuries have still been an issue before him in recent seasons, but he seems to have understood his limitations and adjusted to the sort of game he has to play to make a positive impact.

He is not going to bring much speed to the Blackhawks’ blue line, and he tends to play a more conservative game when it comes to defending entries at the blue line, but he is a sound player in his own end and while he lacks top-end speed, is still very good with the puck on his stick. When he is at his best, he plays a clean, quiet game that will not get noticed (and there is nothing wrong with that; not everyone is going to be Erik Karlsson).

The problem is he is still prone to getting beat by faster forwards and when it happens it can at times look bad, which then leads to criticism.

He appeared in 60 games for the Penguins in 2018-19, scoring one goal and 14 total points. He averages around five goals and 25 total points over 82 games.

He has three years remaining on a contract that carries a salary cap hit of just over $4 million per season. He alone is not going to fix all of the Blackhawks’ shortcomings on defense, but he is not a bad addition, either.

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.

Stunning numbers from insane Round 1 of Stanley Cup Playoffs

11 Comments

Throughout the 2018-19 regular season we took an occasional look at some stunning numbers around the NHL.

We will continue that in the playoffs after each round and start it off today with a look at some truly stunning numbers from what was an insane two weeks of hockey.

Here is what we found.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Tampa Bay’s all-time clunker of a postseason

The Tampa Bay Lightning were the best team in the NHL during the regular season, tying a league record for most wins (62) and finishing with a league-best goal differential of plus-103.

That was more than 40 goals better than the second-best team in the league (Calgary at plus-62).

They followed it up in the playoffs by not winning a single game and getting outscored by a 19-8 margin, including 19-5 after the first period of Game 1.

How unfathomable was that performance? Not only were they first Presidents’ Trophy winning team to ever be swept, but they were also just the second team to ever win at least 50 games in the regular season and then fail to win even a single playoff game. The only other team to suffer that fate was the 2015-16 Chicago Blackhawks who won 50 regular season games and were swept by the Nashville Predators.

The Lightning are also the only team that has ever won at least 55 games and failed to win a playoff game. Just a bad performance all around.

[Related: Lightning have plenty of questions to answer after playoff failure]

Five minutes

Well, five minutes and 51 seconds to be exact.

What does that represent? The amount of time that the Pittsburgh Penguins spent playing with the lead in their Round 1 series against the New York Islanders. Even Tampa Bay had the lead for at least 48 minutes in its series sweep against Columbus.

It almost seems impossible to have that much talent and spend so little time ahead. It is even more astonishing when you realize the Penguins actually scored the first goal in three of the four games. They just immediately gave it right back every single time.

In Game 2 they allowed the game-tying goal just three minutes after Erik Gudbranson scored.

In Game 3 they allowed the tying goal less than a minute after Garrett Wilson scored.

In Game 4 they allowed the tying goal less than 90 seconds after Jake Guentzel scored.

And that was it.

At the other end of the spectrum, no team spent more time playing with the lead in Round 1 than the Vegas Golden Knights, 218:55 ahead of the San Jose Sharks. Boston was the only other team to spend more than 200 minutes ahead. Vegas still lost the series, which also seems hard to believe.

Auston Matthews mostly watches another Game 7

There are a lot of things you can criticize Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock for (not winning anything of significance in nearly a decade being near the top of the list) but his bizarre player usage has to be a big one right now. With the Maple Leafs’ season on the line in Game 7, a game they were trailing for more than 40 minutes, a game where they never had to kill a penalty, their best player saw the ice for only 18 minutes and 48 seconds. There is really no excuse for that, especially when this exact same thing happened a year ago when Matthews played only 18:06 in their Game 7 loss to the same Bruins teams. You are paying this guy more than $10 million per year to be your franchise player, how you do not ride or die with him with your season on the line is a mystery.

Nashville’s power play was a giant zero

Literally, a zero.

The Predators failed to score a power play goal against the Dallas Stars, going 0-for-15 in the six game series. It is only the 11th time in NHL history that a team had at least 15 power play opportunities in the playoffs and did not score a single goal.

This is a big reason they are not moving on, and a big area they will have to address over the summer.

Dallas’ top line dominance 

The other big reason the Stars were able to eliminate the Predators was the play of their top line. This wasn’t just a great series for the Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov trio, it was a complete beat down.

That trio played 50 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together and put up the following numbers:

Goals for-Goals Against: 5-0
Shot Attempt Share: 56.5 percent (73 for, 56 against)
Scoring Chance Share: 57.6 percent (49 for, 36 against)
High-Danger Scoring Chance Share: 65.0 percent (26 for, 14 against)

Sure makes things easier for everybody else when you have a line doing that to a team.

Warren Foegele, surprising offensive star for Hurricanes

The Hurricanes used a strong defensive effort and a balanced offensive attack to knock out the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. The surprising offensive star for them was 22-year-old Warren Foegele who scored four goals in the seven games. He did that after scoring just 10 goals during the entire regular season.

1.19 percent

That was the win probability, via MoneyPuck.com, for the San Jose Sharks when they were trailing, 3-0, with less than 10 minutes to play in Game 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights.

It was at that point that everything was flipped upside down when Cody Eakin was given a controversial five-minute major for cross-checking, setting the stage for one of the wildest Game 7s you will ever see.

Brent Burns never seemed to leave the ice

The Sharks have two of the NHL’s best defensemen in Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, and they both logged a ton of minutes in their Round 1 over the Golden Knights. They were 1-2 in the NHL in time on ice, but Burns was on a level all his own. He averaged more than 30 minutes per game (nearly three minutes more than Karlsson, who was second) and played a total of 213:18. Nobody else in the first round played more than 190. That is a lot of ice time.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info
Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Blue Jackets vs. Bruins
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars
Avalanche vs. Sharks

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.

What now? Penguins face crucial offseason after flameout

8 Comments

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jim Rutherford’s question was rhetorical. The answer – whenever the architect the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager arrives at it – will determine how the franchise emerges from the rubble of a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Are guys too content with where they’re at in their careers because they’ve won a couple of Stanley Cups?” Rutherford wondered aloud Thursday as his team packed up for its longest offseason in 13 years.

Just 22 months removed from becoming the first team in a generation to win consecutive championships , captain Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Penguins are at a crossroads.

”It’s disappointing to have this long of an offseason,” said Crosby, who posted the sixth 100-point season of his career but managed just one against the Islanders. ”It’s been a while since we’ve had this much time really.”

Failing to three-peat by losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in six hotly contested games against an archrival – as Pittsburgh did last spring when it lost to Washington in the second round – is one thing. Scoring just six goals while getting outskated, outplayed and outworked by a team with a new coach, a journeyman goaltender and little playoff success over the last quarter century is quite another.

”(The Islanders) played the right way and they were eager to win,” Rutherford said. ”They were determined and the Penguins weren’t.”

Maybe the end shouldn’t have been so stunning. Though the Penguins extended their playoff streak to 13 years and counting, they only sporadically played the kind of intelligent and responsible hockey coach Mike Sullivan has tried to instill from the moment he took over in December 2015.

Injuries to stars like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang didn’t help. Neither did a significant amount of roster turnover. Yet Pittsburgh’s best stretch came during a 10-3-3 sprint through March , one the Penguins made with Malkin and Letang available only occasionally. Sullivan pointed to an increased ”cooperative effort” by the group with Malkin and Letang missing, a key ingredient in ”what it takes to win.”

When they returned full time for the playoffs, the cohesion vanished.

Malkin ended a wildly uneven year by struggling to find the dominance that once came so easily. Letang, whose play over the first four-plus months helped the Penguins rebound from a decidedly sluggish start, had a handful of miscues against the Islanders that led immediately to pucks in the back of the Pittsburgh net.

The question going forward is whether Letang, Malkin and forwards Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel – all of whom will be 32 or older when next seasons open – can make the necessary adjustments to their respective games over the next six months to make sure they stick around for the rest of a championship window Rutherford insists remains open.

All four have had highly successful careers and were integral parts of the core group that raised two Stanley Cup banners to the rafters at PPG Paints Arena. All four, however, also have a penchant for taking risks, gambles they could afford to make because their talent often helped them recover when those gambles went awry.

That wiggle room is gone. The evidence came during a series in which the Penguins led for less than five minutes.

Crosby – who will be in the conversation for the Selke Trophy given annually to the league’s top defensive forward – insists his longtime teammates can adapt.

Letang isn’t really sure he has to. Asked if he will take a more defensive-oriented approach heading into his 14th season, he bristled.

”At the end of the day, yeah, I wish I could have done something else at different times, but I don’t think the question is to change my whole game,” Letang said. ”I’m not going to change three plays in my whole year for the type of game I play.”

And there’s the dilemma for the front office. The Penguins have to decide whether they need to adjust their style or their personnel – or both. Whether they can find takers for veterans with their names on the Cup multiple times but also multiple years left on lucrative contracts will play a factor. Either way, Sullivan believes there needs to be a renewed focus when his team – however it is constituted – returns in September.

”The challenge is to make sure that there’s 100 percent buy-in throughout the lineup,” Sullivan said. ”I think the area of our identity that we lost a little bit is the hard-to-play-against aspect.”

NOT SO THIN BLUE LINE

Rutherford defended the play of his defenders, Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson specifically. Both are big bodies not known for their skating. Gudbranson was solid after arriving in a trade with Vancouver while Johnson played all 82 games before being a curious healthy scratch for Game 1 against the Islanders.

”I think our defense is probably the best that’s it has been since I’ve been here as a group,” Rutherford said.

SEE YA DAD?

Matt Cullen had seven goals and 13 assists and remained a faceoff wizard – particularly in the defensive zone – in his 21st season. The 42-year-old, however, seems headed for retirement to spend more time with his wife and three boys. His leadership and character will be difficult to replace.

”I think just he’s such a pro in the way he approached every day, the way he led by example, the way he treated guys,” Crosby said. ”He can still play.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Penguins’ playoff exit was two years in the making

34 Comments

The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from it.

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.

Islanders shut down Penguins again to complete sweep

36 Comments

The New York Islanders are still shocking the hockey world.

But at this point maybe it shouldn’t be a shock anymore.

After an incredible regular season that saw them overcome the loss of their former franchise player in free agency, go from worst to first in goals against, and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015-16, they are now moving on to Round 2 where they await the winner of the Carolina Hurricanes-Washington Capitals series.

And they did it emphatically.

They completed a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night with a 3-1 win that pretty much followed the script of the first three games of the series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That script: A suffocating defensive effort, some sensational goaltending from Robin Lehner, and a knack for not only being able to pounce on and convert on every Penguins mistake, but to also be able to almost immediately respond to any counterpunch the Penguins could throw.

For the third game in a row the Penguins scored first, and for the third game in a row were unable to hold the lead for more than a couple of minutes.

Shortly after Jake Guentzel scored his first goal of the series 35 seconds into the game, Jordan Eberle scored for the fourth consecutive to tie the game. Later in the period, Brock Nelson scored his third goal of the series to give the Islanders a lead they would never relinquish.

On the rare occasion where the Penguins did create a chance or put themselves in a position to potentially tie the game, they could get nothing to go their way. Late in the second period, Sidney Crosby rang a shot off the post when Lehner was out of position and looking in the other direction. On a power play attempt in the third period, Phil Kessel appeared to have an open net to shoot at only to have his shot hit the leg of Islanders defender Scott Mayfield and stay out. During their last-ditch empty-net effort, their zone time came to an end when Erik Gudbranson‘s stick broke on a one-time attempt.

That was the kind of series it turned out to be from the Pittsburgh side. They not only played poorly, but they couldn’t even get a break.

The Islanders, meanwhile, looked flawless at times in their execution in shutting down the Penguins hired powered offense and taking advantage of every opportunity.

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.