Jack Johnson

Trade: Penguins save money, send Gudbranson to Ducks

6 Comments

The Pittsburgh Penguins marched to what felt like an anti-analytics drum by bringing in Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson during recent years. It only makes sense, then, that they got rid of Gudbranson by sending him to the Anaheim Ducks, a team that also has a reputation for placing analytics at such a low priority.

Ducks receive: Gudbranson

Penguins get: Forward Andreas Martinsen, 2021 seventh-round pick

The most important thing the Penguins will receive is financial flexibility. Gudbranson, 27, carries a $4 million cap hit for 2019-20 and 2020-21. This provides much-needed savings for a Penguins team that might have needed to move money around once their assortment of IR (Alex Galchenyuk, Brian Dumoulin, Nick Bjugstad) and LTIR (Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust) players start coming back.

There’s a decent argument that Gudbranson takes more away from the table than he brings to it, as you can see from metrics such as Evolving Wild’s multi-season RAPM chart:

Interestingly, Gudbranson actually was strong from a possession standpoint in the 19 games he played with Pittsburgh following a trade with the Vancouver Canucks that sent Tanner Pearson out of Pittsburgh. Much of that hope dissipated to start 2019-20, as Gudbranson’s underlying numbers were as ugly as ever, while he also failed to score a point while averaging 15:09 TOI in seven games.

The Ducks could think of that brief surge in competence, and there’s a minor argument to be made that the truth is at least somewhere in between his lowest moments and the brief flashes of brilliance.

For one thing, Gudbranson spent most of his even-strength minutes this season with Jack Johnson, one of the only big-minutes, first-rounder defensemen who is more notorious than Gudbranson for being underwater.

One would guess that the Ducks look at other, “looks good in jeans”-type factors. Gudbranson’s a big defenseman, has the pedigree that comes with being the third pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, and maybe most importantly … they just lost Luca Sbisa to waivers after signing him, so it’s obvious that the Ducks are hurting for defensemen.

Credit the Penguins for taking advantage of that vulnerability, as now Pittsburgh has flexibility this season — maybe during the trade deadline? — and also maybe a little more room to work with next offseason.

Now if they can somehow trick a team to take Johnson’s horrifying contract off of their hands …

(Note: as you can see here, Andreas Martinsen is somewhere between an AHL/NHL tweener and a flat-out AHL player, so the pick and player are nowhere near as important to Pittsburgh as the cap relief.)

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.

Avalanche vs. Penguins livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

Getty Images

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Colorado is the only perfect team remaining in the NHL. This marks the fourth time in franchise history that the Nordiques/Avs have opened a season at least 5-0-0.

The stars of these two teams, Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon, both hail from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. They both attended Shattuck St. Mary’s boarding school in Faribault, Minn. and both played junior in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before each being selected No. 1 overall. They maintain a great relationship off the ice, including training together in the offseason.

Beyond their explosive top line, Colorado also has benefitted from the development and emergence of young defensemen Cale Makar and Sam Girard. Makar turns 21 on Oct. 30th, and Girard doesn’t turn 22 until May. After showing a glimpse of their talent last postseason, they are off to strong starts in 2019-20.

Makar has at least one point in all five games so far (six pts. total). He’s the fifth defenseman in NHL history to start his regular season career with a five-game point streak. Marek Zidlicky (2003-04, Predators) is the only player from that group who has ever extended that streak six games.

Pittsburgh has won three straight games, and is coming off back-to-back seven-goal performances over the weekend. The Pens beat the Wild 7-4 on Saturday before beating the Jets 7-2 on Sunday. Sidney Crosby has scored at least one point in every game this season, including multi-point efforts in each of the past three contests. His 10 points leads the Pens. This is Crosby’s 950th game, and he is one goal away from 450 for his career.

[COVERAGE OF AVS-PENGUINS BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Colorado Avalanche at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 16, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Avalanche-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

AVALANCHE
Gabriel Landeskog – Nathan MacKinnon – Mikko Rantanen
Joonas DonskoiNazem KadriAndre Burakovsky
J.T. CompherTyson JostColin Wilson
Matt CalvertPierre-Edouard BellemareMatt Nieto

Cale Makar – Sam Girard
Erik JohnsonMark Barberio
Ryan GravesIan Cole

Starting goalie: Philipp Grubauer

PENGUINS
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Brandon Tanev
Dominik KahunJared McCannPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerDominik Simon
Adam Johnson – Joseph Blandisi – Sam Lafferty
(Jared McCann is a game-time decision.)

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Jack Johnson -John Marino

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

MORE: Patience, preparation part of Makar’s NHL path

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Avs-Pens from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa. Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live with analysts Patrick Sharp, Jeremy Roenick and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

Penguins’ injury problems keep piling up

2 Comments

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

Getty Images
8 Comments

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.

Old cogs, new tricks? Penguins eye reboot after flameout

4 Comments

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Penguins began the franchise’s longest offseason in more than a decade with general manager Jim Rutherford talking about the need for its stars to get past the complacency he feared had crept in during consecutive Stanley Cup title runs in 2016 and 2017. Head coach Mike Sullivan stressed the need for “100% buy-in” on a style of play that demands responsibility at both ends of the ice.

Yet after hinting at massive changes, Rutherford opted to take a scalpel to the roster instead of a chain saw.

Phil Kessel is now in Arizona. Olli Maatta is in Chicago. Otherwise, the group that takes the ice Thursday night against Buffalo in the season opener will look a lot like the one that was swept by the New York Islanders in the first round last spring. Whether the Penguins take a step forward following months of self-reflection will depend largely on whether a core group that includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang – all on the other side of 30 – can make the adjustments Sullivan is asking for.

“I think everybody has the ability to adapt to the role that they’re asked to play,” defenseman Jack Johnson said. “It’s just whether or not you want to do it. But everyone in here and the physical capabilities of doing it.”

Capability and willingness are two very different things. The Penguins have plenty of the former. It’s the latter that was lacking at crucial times last season, most notably during that four-game sweep at the hands of the Islanders. The logistics of training camp make progress tough to judge. A better gauge will likely come in a month. Yet Sullivan is upbeat about his team’s receptiveness to the message the staff has repeated incessantly since watching the Islanders celebrate at PPG Paints Arena last April.

“I sense a different attitude, a different mindset right now surrounding this team that for me is encouraging,” Sullivan said Wednesday. “I think when you go through some of the experiences that we went through, when don’t live up to your own expectations, it forces everyone involved to do a little bit of soul searching and figure out how can we get back on the right track.”

The path relies on the Penguins becoming more disciplined and persistent. No inattentive backchecking. No unnecessary risks without having the proper support behind you. No silly penalties that can blunt momentum. All three of them were issues for Malkin during perhaps the most difficult season of his career, and he knows it. The 33-year-old spent a significant portion of the summer back home in Russia focusing on his conditioning and rekindling a passion that ebbed and flowed last winter.

Malkin knows he was part of the problem during a year in which he scored just 21 goals and had a career-worst minus-25 plus/minus ratio. He’s just as eager to be part of the solution.

“We always talk about D-zone you know, turnovers, bad penalties,” Malkin said. “Couple things we need change, like my penalties. Turnovers in neutral zone. Sometimes we need to play simple. And also, first period when we lead (by a) couple goals, we need to play simple, play for team. … Small details, like (if we) fix it, we’ll be fine.”

Sullivan stressed he’s not asking his team’s high-end talent to completely overhaul the approach that’s made them champions. He would just like a renewed focus on the benchmarks of a team that can play into May and beyond.

“I think sometimes there’s a misperception that when I suggest that we need to be hard to play against, it just means physical play,” Sullivan said. “But it’s a whole lot more than that. It starts with our own decisions we make with and without the puck. So there’s a lot that goes into it. We try to define that for our guys specifically and we talk about it daily.”

How well his players translate the talk into action will determine whether Pittsburgh finds a way to keep pace in the hyper-competitive Metropolitan Division. For the first time in years, the Penguins are not among the favorites. Crosby remains at the top of his game in his early 30s. Yet there are questions on the bottom six and whether Alex Galchenyuk – acquired in the trade that sent Kessel to the Coyotes – can mesh with Malkin.

The margin for error Pittsburgh had several years ago has been erased by time and a league that has caught up to the speed advantage the Penguins enjoyed early in Sullivan’s tenure. They can still be among the league’s elite, but their wiggle room is gone. Still, Sullivan made it a point on Wednesday to gather his group and reinforce the belief that the window to be a contender during the Malkin/Crosby era is far from closed.

“I think we have the ability to be a really competitive hockey team,” he said. “But as I said to them, nothing is inevitable. We’ve got to go and earn it. We’ve got to earn it every day. It’s for real now.”