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The Buzzer: Eberle fights Konecny; Cole’s questionable hit

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Three Stars

1. Blake Wheeler

The Blue Jackets put forth a nice effort on Sunday, but they couldn’t stop Blake Wheeler. He scored four goals (a hat trick plus an empty-netter), including the game-winner as Winnipeg greatly impeded Columbus’ push toward a playoff spot.

Wheeler extended his point streak to six games (five goals, seven assists for 12 points), and he’s been especially hot lately, as he combined Sunday’s four goals with three points (one goal, two assists) from Friday.

The 32-year-old now has 80 points in 65 games this season, the second-best total of his career. He has a strong chance of meeting or passing his career-high of 91 points in 81 games from 2017-18.

2. Mark Scheifele

Wheeler was the only player to manage four points on Sunday, while Scheifele stood ahead of everyone beyond his winger with three (everyone else scored two or fewer).

Scheifele generated his three points via assists, finishing that win against Columbus with a +4 rating. The 25-year-old center now has 75 points in 65 games during the 2018-19 campaign, seven behind his career-high of 82 back in 2016-17.

3. Claude Giroux

Among the many changes over the years in Philly, there seems to be one constant when things are going well: Claude Giroux turning it up a notch.

Sure, they’ve received great goaltending from Carter Hart, and are now getting sneaky-good work from Brian Elliott after the veteran healed up from injuries, but Giroux still drives the bus.

Giroux generated two assists as the Flyers beat the Islanders on Sunday, pushing his point streak to five consecutive games (two goals, seven assists). Remarkably, Giroux’s generated multiple points in four of those five games.

Overall, the 31-year-old forward has 70 points in 66 games.

Unlikely fight

You wouldn’t expect to see a fight between Jordan Eberle and Travis Konecny, but that’s what happened on Sunday, and it was a pretty spirited affair:

Suspension coming for Ian Cole?

The Colorado Avalanche defenseman was ejected for this ugly knee-to-knee on Devin Shore:

Highlights

Filip Chytil‘s no-look assist is probably the best moment from these Caps-Rangers highlights, but you’d likely also be entertained by the way things finished (in Alex Ovechkin‘s favor):

Jakob Silfverberg has an argument for Three Stars inclusion with a goal and an assist, especially if you factor in cool points. What a great way to score his 100th goal:

Factoids

Scores

WSH 3 – NYR 2 (SO)
PHI 4 – NYI 1
VGK 3 – VAN 0
ANA 2 – COL 1
OTT 3 – FLA 2
WPG 5 – CBJ 2
NSH 3 – MIN 2 (SO)
SJS 5 – CHI 2

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.

Constant roster shuffling makes Penguins look directionless

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Success at a championship level in professional sports is not only a rare and short-lived thing, it also tends to be quickly and easily forgotten when the winning stops. Or at least when it slows down. So with that in mind we really need to talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins because this is a team that seems to be quickly trending in the wrong direction.

Just two years ago they were doing something that had not been done in the NHL in two full decades by winning their second consecutive Stanley Cup, capping off an incredible run of hockey that was driven by a core of superstar players and a series of roster moves that worked out to near perfection. The acquisitions of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, and a host of call-ups from the AHL were all home runs (or close to it), resulting in a stable, successful roster with very little turnover from 2016 to 2017. Other than the additions of Jake Guentzel (call-up) and Ron Hainsey (trade), it was mostly the same team.

But following the 2017 championship the salary cap, free agency, and what has seemingly been a curious change in direction from the recipe that produced back-to-back championships has stripped the team of most of its depth, and the front office has badly struggled to replace it. The result has been two years of constant roster shuffling that has left the team on the playoff bubble and facing a daunting stretch run that includes six games against the teams they are competing with for a playoff spot (three against Columbus, two against Carolina, one against Montreal) and a number of games against some top-tier teams. Those head-to-head matchups will go a long way toward making or breaking their season, which is a stunning thing to be saying about this team with this core in late February.

Making matters worse in the short-term is the fact they are currently playing without three of their top-four defenders as Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, and Olli Maatta are all sidelined for an undetermined amount of time. That situation likely had at least a little something to do with the continued roster shuffling at Monday’s trade deadline when they flipped Tanner Pearson to the Vancouver Canucks for Erik Gudbranson.

The move was not well received by … well … anyone.

The focus of the criticism has been centered around what Gudbranson can actually bring to the table. Objectively speaking, his career performance has not lived up to the status of a former top-five draft pick. His underlying numbers are among the worst in the league at his position, and the eye test isn’t any more forgiving.

By Gudbranson’s own admission on the way out of Vancouver he was not good enough during his time there.

There is legitimate cause for concern with him as a player.

But focusing on Gudbranson misses the bigger problem in Pittsburgh right now, and that problem is that over the past two years nearly every single roster transaction the team has made has been a failure.

In some cases a spectacular failure.

[Related: Pearson for Gudbranson trade looks ugly for Penguins … on paper]

We know this is true because they keep having to make more trades to undo all of the roster transactions in an effort to correct them.

The cost the Penguins paid to actually get Gudbranson from Vancouver is irrelevant. I don’t know of any other way to put this without sounding like a jerk — so I will just say it and sound like a jerk — but Tanner Pearson is a mostly forgettable, run-of-the-mill NHL player. He might score 15-20 goals for your team, he might finish with 40 points, and within a year of him being on your roster you will probably forget he was ever on your roster until you go down a Hockey-Reference rabbit hole and say, “oh, hey, remember that guy?”

But the Penguins had just acquired that guy two months earlier in exchange for Carl Hagelin, a move that in hindsight looks like it was only done to shake up a core that had maybe gotten too comfortable with itself. Hagelin had his flaws as a player, but he was a huge part of the team’s identity, a popular player in the locker room, a player who won championships with the team, and a player who could still play a capable shut down role and bring the type of defensive conscious so many of the team’s forwards currently lack.

That is not nothing. He was also an expiring contract after this season. Put it all together and that means within a span of two months the Penguins turned a somewhat useful player that was still a part of their identity and what would have been $4M in salary cap space next season into a player whose potential contributions are suspect at best, detrimental at worst, who will be taking up every penny of that salary cap space in each of the next two seasons.

Pearson’s arrival and almost immediate departure was the eighth time since the start of the 2017-18 offseason that the Penguins acquired an NHL player and then jettisoned them within a year.

  • Ryan Reaves, acquired on June 23, 2017 — traded on February 23, 2018
  • Matt Hunwick, signed on July 1, 2017 — traded on June 27, 2018
  • Antti Niemi, signed on July 1, 2017 — waived on October 24, 2017
  • Riley Sheahan, acquired on October 1, 2017 — traded on February 1, 2019
  • Jamie Oleksiak, acquired on December 19, 2017 — traded on January 28, 2019 (it was literally the same trade!)
  • Derick Brassard, acquired on February 23, 2018 — traded on February 1, 2019
  • Derek Grant, signed on July 19, 2018 — traded on January 17, 2019
  • Tanner Pearson, acquired on November 14, 2018 — traded on February 25, 2019

It is not unfair to look at that list and that series of transactions and come to the conclusion that there is a problem somewhere in the organization, whether it is with the pro scouting, or with the coaching staff, or with the final decision-making, or with what they are looking for in players. Something is clearly off here. What other conclusion can you possibly come to?

A team that just two years ago was winning with speed, skill, and puck-moving defense keeps trying to find grit and toughness and keeps making itself slower and less mobile.

The one transaction that was made during this stretch that hasn’t yet been undone, the signing of Jack Johnson, might be the most damaging of the bunch and it’s probably only a matter of when, and not if, that ends in a buyout or a trade.

This much roster turnover and shuffling of players can not be a sustainable way to run a franchise, mostly because it doesn’t even take into account the collateral damage that has come with working to “fix” those trades. They lost Conor Sheary, Hagelin, Ian Cole, and Oskar Sundqvist as part of those transactions, and have also given up a boat load of draft picks and a top prospect (goalie Filip Gustavsson) along the way.

As of now, they have gained Jared McCann, Nick Bjugstad, and Gudbranson out of it all, with the latter two taking up more than $8M in salary cap space over the next couple of years for a team that is already pressed against the salary cap because of their superstars. Will they be worth it? And what other trades will have to be made and what other assets will be given up if (or when) they are not? Because if recent history is any indicator there is almost no chance they finish their current contracts wearing Penguins uniforms.

Maybe they don’t make this latest trade for Gudbranson if the injury situation isn’t what it is. But even with that it’s bizarre to try and plug a short-term hole by acquiring a player with this on-ice track record with this much term and this much money left on their deal. There are other ways to plug a hole without tying up significant cap space in future years.

And quite honestly, if Gudbranson’s play doesn’t show dramatic improvement upon his arrival in Pittsburgh there is an argument to be made they would have been better off just staying with what they had. They might have been better off had they simply done nothing since the start of last offseason because at least then they might have more salary cap space, more assets to deal from, and it’s hard to imagine their spot in the standings being any worse because as of now they are only going as far as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and a healthy Letang can carry them.

Rutherford has built three Cup winning teams in the NHL, and that is not only a big part of his story as an executive, it commands respect. It will probably be enough to someday get him a call to the Hall of Fame (how many three-time Cup winning general managers are not in?)

But it doesn’t leave him above criticism when it is warranted.

Based on where the Penguins are and the series of moves that have been made over the past two years the criticism is definitely warranted because his team looks like it doesn’t know what it is, where it is going, or how it should get there.

MORE: Winners and losers of the NHL trade deadline

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.

The Buzzer: Boudreau fumes; Are Blackhawks for real?

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Three Stars

1. Jonathan Drouin / Phillip Danault

These two Montreal Canadiens forwards were Thursday’s two four-point producers. Drouin scored two goals and two assists, while Danault generated a goal and three helpers.

If you had to pick one for the top spot, it would probably be Drouin, as it really stands out how emphatic and confident he was. The once-maligned forward fired a whopping nine shot on goal, helping Montreal overwhelm Winnipeg.

(The Jets were not happy.)

There were a ton of very strong three-point performances on Thursday, but for the next two spots, goalies win out.

2. Anders Nilsson

Yes, the Ducks are terrible right now. On many nights, Anaheim’s been out-shot, even when the Ducks have fallen behind by quite a bit early on. Teams likely eased off the gas a bit, and the Ducks still didn’t put much pressure on opponents.

Thursday was a little different.

Nilsson needed to make 45 saves in this one, including a 1-0 first period where the Ducks generated a 17-8 SOG advantage. That’s quite the shutout, even against a team that’s basically in crisis mode.

3. Jordan Binnington

Hey, when you beat Andrei Vasilevskiy in a goalie duel, you’re doing something right.

OK, Vasilevskiy had this save and made 38 overall, but Binnington generated a 32-save shutout. The Blues needed every one of those in a 1-0 OT win, and Binnington delivered.

It’s also something of a “week-time” achievement award. Binnington’s been a huge part of the Blues’ bold surge back into the West postseason picture, and this win really highlighted that. Binnington’s only allowed four goals during a four-game winning streak, and his save percentage is now at .931 over 12 games.

Feel free to make other arguments in the comments, as Thursday was just brimming with great performances.

One not-so-great performance, though:

Boudreau’s had it

The Wild lost Mikko Koivu for the season, have lost four in a row, and should probably be sellers at the trade deadline.

Things are tense, and Bruce Boudreau has already been trying to squeeze every point out of a so-so roster. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that he’s losing his cool, but he really let players like Mikael Granlund have it after Minnesota fell 4-1 to the also-struggling Edmonton Oilers.

” … There’s some players there that are just a shell of the players I’ve known for the last two-and-a-half years,” Boudreau said during a grim presser.

Did Boudreau also make a sly “Seinfeld” reference?

If things really get bad, maybe Boudreau quits one day, then tries to walk into the locker room as if nothing happened?

Highlights of the Night

Anton Khudobin gave Vasilevskiy serious competition for save of the night.

Connor Hellebuyck made a beautiful stop, too. He was a Winnipeg Jet who showed up.

Mathew Barzal with a beauty.

Scary moments

With so many games on Thursday, there were some injuries and other developments that might become clearer on Friday or the weekend.

But we already know of some scary moments. Evgeny Kuznetsov seems to have avoided injury after a highly questionable Ian Cole hit, but Cole was punched many, many times for doing so, thanks to Tom Wilson. The Ducks also must cross their fingers after John Gibson was accidentally walloped by a teammate.

Finally, there’s this scare for Oilers defenseman Kris Russell.

Factoids

Speaking of records, the Blackhawks are suddenly looking more viable thanks to a six-game winning streak. The standings don’t look that promising yet, but Chicago’s chances have at least risen above laughable all of a sudden.

Considering how dire things looked at times this season, being two points back of the second wild-card team (St. Louis) is impressive. The caveats are crucial and obvious: there are teams ahead, and most have games in hand advantages. But ask those Blues and they’ll tell you that things can turn around quickly, at least considering how lousy the West bubble teams have often been.

Scores

CAR 6 – BUF 5 (OT)
FLA 3 – PIT 2 (OT)
NYI 2 – NJD 1 (SO)
LAK 3 – PHI 2 (SO)
WSH 4 – COL 3 (OT)
MTL 5 – WPG 2
OTT 4 – ANA 0
VGK 4 – DET 3
STL 1 – TBL 0 (OT)
NSH 3 – DAL 2 (OT)
EDM 4 – MIN 1
CHI 4 – VAN 3 (OT)
SJS 5 – CGY 2
CBJ 4 – ARI 2

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.

Fight: Tom Wilson ‘rains rights’ on Cole for hit on Kuznetsov

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Some say revenge is a dish best served cold. Others say living well is the best revenge. What about “beating someone in a fight, then doing an obnoxious-brilliant eagle goal celebration?”

OK, that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but that last route was the one the Washington Capitals chose in a 4-3 OT win against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday.

The most memorable span began in the third period. First, Avs defenseman Ian Cole delivered a highly questionable hit on star Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov. Tom Wilson did not take kindly to that hit, so he “rained rights” on Cole. Like, a lot of rights.

NBC Sports Washington has footage of the hit and the one-sided fight.

Kuznetsov went through concussion protocol, and at the moment, seems to be fine. He was certainly feeling good when he not only returned to the contest, but scored the OT-winner, and did his trademark cele:

If that didn’t sting Cole enough, Kuznetsov burned him big time after the game in giving his take on the check.

“I don’t know why he decided to make that hit,” Kuznetsov said, via the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan. “Maybe he was so mad he was playing in the D-zone all game. When you get tired, you get frustrated a little bit.”

Kuznetsov also provided a great line about going through concussion protocol. He’s almost as good at providing quips as he is at making plays.

(In case you’re wondering, the Avs actually generally won the possession battle, and Cole only looked bad relative to his teammates, at least going by Natural Stat Trick’s numbers. But, come on, a saucy zinger doesn’t always need to be accurate, right?)

This was Wilson’s fifth fight of 2018-19, by the way. Cole … should probably avoid fighting people like Wilson, if possible. Just a friendly suggestion.

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.

More on trade: Penguins lock in; Panthers prep Panarin pursuit?

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In a previous post, PHT went over the elements of the fascinating trade between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers, noting the immediate cap concerns and some stats for the players involved. There’s more to chew on when you zoom out even further to the big picture for the teams — and to some extent, the entire league, considering potential trade deadline implications.

So, consider this peeling back another layer to this complex onion of a move. Let’s refresh your memory with the terms of the trade, and then get started.

Penguins receive: Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann.

Panthers receive: Derick BrassardRiley Sheahan, one second-round pick in 2019, and two fourth-round picks (one from the Penguins, one from the Wild via the Jamie Oleksiak trade) in 2019.

Florida faces fascinating fork in the road

If you’re grading the Florida Panthers here, I’d advise you to write the letter grade with a pencil, not a permanent marker. There’s an undeniable air of “To be continued …” here.

You could turn into Charlie Kelly unearthing fictional conspiracy theories with all of the trade tree possibilities here, as the Panthers:

  • Gained about $5.25M in cap space for 2019-20 in shedding Bjugstad and McCann, being that Brassard ($3M) and Sheahan ($2.1M) will see their contracts expire after this season.

  • Replenished/supplemented draft picks by getting three from the Penguins. Not long ago, Florida was looking a bit stark for 2019; by getting a third for Alex Petrovic, a second back in this trade, and two extra fourth-rounders, the Panthers have ammo to make future moves.
  • They could flip Brassard (and maybe even Sheahan?) again for even more picks.

That additional cap space gives Florida room to work with if they want to shoot for Artemi Panarin, (and/or?) Sergei Bobrovsky, or other big-time free agent targets. If I were in the Panthers’ position, I’d be most aggressive in targeting Panarin, or someone like him (example: Mark Stone).

“We’ve freed up a lot of space for an aggressive summer in free agency,” GM Dale Tallon said after the trade, according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.

With Panarin in particular, the Panthers needs to really search their minds about trying to cut in line by essentially aiming for a sign-and-trade by the deadline, instead of the summer.

Going for a Panarin-type now would mean parting with assets, yet on the other hand, the Panthers would guarantee that they’d land that player if they agreed to an extension.

Such a scenario could very much be worth Florida’s while. After all, while the Panthers have some strengths for a would-be free agent (Florida tax breaks, Florida weather, maybe not Florida Man), they’ve also lacked success as a franchise. The Panthers could avoid losing out to a more established contender by simply bypassing the free agent process and getting a deal done by the deadline.

In the long run, this could be a lot like the NHL’s answer to the New York Knicks trading Kristaps Porzingis in hopes of landing someone like Kevin Durant.

If it works, the Panthers could land a tide-changing talent. This team already has Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, and Mike Hoffman. Imagine that group with a Panarin-level difference-maker added to the mix?

On the other hand, there’s the risk that the Panthers would be left with little but cap space, possibly leaving them stuck in a familiar situation, much like the sad-sack Knicks.

Time will tell, but it sure seems like Florida is betting big on its future, and that will be an exciting situation to watch.

[More on the immediate aspects of the trade]

Penguins gain *and* lose flexibility

Intriguingly, the Penguins are more versatile on the ice after this trade — but also might box themselves into a corner.

As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey notes, Pens GM Jim Rutherford values the forward balance this trade could strike, particularly since Bjugstad can play at RW but also at third-line center, where he’s currently slotted.

“It gives us guys who can play in the top-nine, in Nick’s case, the top-six,” Rutherford said. “It makes our top-12 stronger. Now we have guys who will play on our fourth line that can move up into the top-nine on any given night. We have more balance in our forwards than we’ve had all year.”

The Penguins are making calculated risks when it comes to shooting for short and mid-term competitiveness, but like some other aging contenders, you have to wonder if something will have to give.

Alone, spending $5.35M in cap space on Bjugstad and McCann won’t wreck the Penguins’ cap situation. It really wouldn’t be surprising if they end up being fantastic bargains for a team that is perpetually strapped for cash.

But GM Jim Rutherford is continuing to commit this team to moves beyond next season, rather than taking “rentals.”

Tanner Pearson‘s $3.75M cap hit runs through 2020-21. Jack Johnson‘s still-baffling $3.25M won’t run out until 2022-23. McCann’s deal expires after next season, but Bjugstad runs through 2020-21.

That money starts to add up. Via Cap Friendly, the Penguins are slated to allot $78.83M to just 16 players in 2019-20.

They’ve also been bleeding draft picks. Look at Brassard alone and you’ll see that they gave up a first-rounder in 2018 and third-rounder in 2019 (plus a package including Ian Cole and Filip Gustavsson) to land him, and then sent out three picks in this latest trade.

A lot of these moves look pretty positive for the Penguins. After all, they’re getting more than one shot to reap rewards from Bjugstad, as they did with Brassard before him.

On the other hand, if the Penguins are wrong – or if market forces dictate that certain free agents become cheaper than expected, like in the odd MLB situation – then they’ll have less agility to zig and zag. There’s a risk of not having quite enough talent to beat other contenders, while also draining your prospect pool so shallow that you’re stuck in limbo for an extended period of time.

Then again, maybe that’s just the price of doing business in the salary cap era.

***

In a vacuum, this is already a highly interesting trade, and one where the impact changes based on when you’re looking back in hindsight.

It gets even bigger if the Penguins strike the perfect balance for another Stanley Cup run, the Panthers maneuver to land a big fish in free agency or … maybe both?

How do you think this will play out, and what would you do next, particularly if you were running the Panthers? The 2019 trade deadline could end up being endlessly fascinating, and the summer of free agency might be even better. It’s a great time to sizzle on the hockey hot stove.

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.