Erik Gudbranson

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.

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

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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: The Penguins made a splash when they sent Phil Kessel to Arizona. In return, they got Alex Galchenyuk, who is talented yet enigmatic at times. They also signed Brandon Tanev in free agency over the course of the summer. Are they better on the ice? Not really. Kessel had picked up 70, 90 and 82 points over the last three years so it’s going to be tough to replace that production. Did Kessel have to be traded to keep peace in the Pens locker room? Yes.

Strengths: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain two of the elite players in the NHL. Crosby picked up 100 points last season for the first time since 2013-14 campaign. He’s showing no signs of slowing down. As for Malkin, he’s coming off a bad year by his standards, but the 32-year-old still managed to score 72 points in 68 contests. Look for the 33-year-old to have a bounce back year. The Penguins are still rock-solid down the middle.

Weaknesses: The defense still has a ton of question marks. Kris Letang is a great player, but can he stay healthy for an entire 82-game season? The 32-year-old has missed significant time over the last few years. This group also has Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson, who combine to make $7.25 million per year. That’s a lot of money for a team that’s always flirting with the upper limit of the salary cap. Justin Schultz and Brian Dumoulin will need to do some heavy lifting.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 6. Mike Sullivan has had plenty of success during his tenure as head coach, but things seemed to get stale in Pittsburgh last year. They’ve shaken things up by getting rid of Kessel. What happens if that doesn’t work? The Pens made the playoffs last year, but they went out with a whimper, as they were swept by the Islanders in the first round. Sullivan has to find a way to push the right buttons if he’s going to stick around for a few more years.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Keep an eye on Malkin, Galchenyuk and Tanev. We’ve talked about Malkin’s struggles last year. On paper, it wasn’t a terrible year, but a player with that much talent should dominant on a nightly basis. He’s already admitted to being a little out of shape last year, which means he should start the season in great physical condition so he doesn’t have to cheat as much offensively. Malkin is one the leaders of this team. They’ll go as far as he’s willing to take them.

Galchenyuk has a lot of pressure on his shoulders. He’s expected to get a shot to play on a line with Malkin, which means he’s going to have to be one of the key contributors on his team offensively. We know he has all the ability in the world, but he has just one 30-goal season to show for it. The Arizona Coyotes gave up on him after just one season, so he has something to prove now that he’s on his third team in three years. He has to replace Kessel’s production.

Tanev isn’t nearly as talented as the other two players on this list, but he’s in the spotlight because of the contract he signed with the Pens this summer. The 27-year-old got a six-year, $21 million deal. That raised some eyebrows on July 1st. Tanev had 14 goals and 15 assists in 80 games with the Winnipeg Jets last year. He’s not the kind of player that’s going to score much, but he’ll give an honest effort and bring a physical element to the team. Will that be enough to justify the contract? We’ll see.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. The Penguins will figure out a way to finish second or third in the Metropolitan Division. There’s still a lot of talent on the roster. Their better days may be behind them, but you can’t count them out just yet.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins re-sign Marcus Pettersson to bargain one-year deal

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All offseason the Pittsburgh Penguins’ goal was to get defender Marcus Pettersson re-signed to a long-term contract. But due to the team’s always cramped position just under the NHL’s salary cap, and without another trade to create more space, they had to settle for a shorter deal.

On Thursday the Penguins announced that they have re-signed Pettersson to a one-year contract that will pay him $874,125.

It is a short-term steal for the Penguins, but if Pettersson is able to duplicate what he did a year ago after joining the team in a mid-season trade he is going to be in line for a significant raise next summer.

“Marcus is a smart, reliable defenseman who improved our defensive corps after coming over from Anaheim last year,” general manager Jim Rutherford said in a statement released by the team. “We are fortunate to have a good, young defenseman of his caliber in our top-six.”

The Penguins acquired Pettersson in a trade that sent Daniel Sprong to the Anaheim Ducks.

He finished the season with two goals and 23 assists in 84 games (yes, 84) split between the two teams. It is not yet known where exactly he will fit on the team’s blue line this season, but he played at his best when he was paired alongside Erik Gudbranson. Whether or not they want to go with that pairing from the start remains to be seen, but it might be their best option when it comes to assembling their best and most balanced defensive lineup given the players they have.

Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin figure to once again be the team’s top pairing.

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.

Tyler Myers needs to live up to big free-agent contract

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Vancouver Canucks.

As last season progressed, it became more and more clear that the Canucks needed a lot of help on their blue line. Not only was the overall talent level not good enough, they also couldn’t stay healthy.

Believe it or not, Vancouver had just one defenseman play more than 70 games last season and that was Troy Stecher, who skated in 78 contests. Ben Hutton (69 games), Derrick Pouliot (62 games), Erik Gudbranson (57 games but was traded to Pittsburgh), Alex Edler (56 games), Chris Tanev (55 games) and Alex Biega (41 games) all missed time for various reasons.

Clearly, that’s not a recipe for success. It wasn’t surprising to see that general manager Jim Benning wanted to make changes to his defense this summer.

Hutton and Pouliot weren’t given a qualifying offers and Gudbranson was traded at last season’s trade deadline. Hutton averaged over 22 minutes of ice time per game last year, while Gudbranson and Pouliot were both over 17 minutes per game. That’s a lot of minutes to replace in one offseason.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Three Questions | X-Factor]

So, what did Benning do? He went shopping!

He re-signed Edler to a two-year, $12 million deal. He brought depth defender and hometown boy Jordie Benn into the fold with a two-year deal and he signed Tyler Myers to a huge five-year, $30 million contract.

If top prospect Quinn Hughes can make the leap straight to the NHL, he’ll add another explosive dimension to the Canucks blue line, but that isn’t a given at this point. So a lot of the improvements the defense makes will fall on Myers’ shoulders.

“In Myers, you’re adding a guy who has played a while in this league, a big guy with a lot of range,” head coach Travis Green said, per Sportsnet. “You’re adding a top-four defencemen, which are hard to find. And I think in Benn you have a veteran guy who understands the value of defending. And I think he’s got some sneaky offensive parts to his game that people don’t think about: his shot, moving the puck out of his zone.”

At $6 million per year, the Canucks will need Myers to replace Hutton’s minutes and he’ll have to do it at a much higher level. Is Myers still capable of playing at that level? In Winnipeg, he was just one of the guys on a very good team. In Vancouver, he’ll need to be a top-four defender night-in and night-out.

During his final season with the Jets, the 29-year-old had nine goals and 31 points while averaging 20:21 of ice time per game over 80 contests. One of the reasons Myers played so much last year was because Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien both missed time. Had they been healthy, he probably wouldn’t have averaged 20-plus minutes. Since his trade to Winnipeg, Myers saw his average ice time drop every year (he went from 23:49 in 2014-15 to 20:21 last year).

Myers has good offensive instincts, as he posted back-to-back 30-point seasons over the last two years, but his defensive play lacks consistency. Can he be the veteran blue liner the Canucks need him to be and are paying him to be?

Yes, Benning just got an extension from the organization, but you can’t help but feel like this is a signing people will look back on and criticize him for if it doesn’t work out the way he expects.

There’s a lot of pressure on Benning, Myers and the Canucks. It’s time for them to show some significant improvement. Last year, expectations were low, but now they have a good group of young forwards and they’ve spent money to improve an average defense.

Did they spend wisely? We’re about to find out.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.