Jamie Oleksiak

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WATCH LIVE: Stars host Lightning on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning and Stars meet for the second and final time this season as each club is coming off an extended break. Both Tampa Bay and Dallas enjoyed their bye weeks last week leading into All-Star Weekend. Tampa last played on Jan. 17 (a 7-1 at WPG), while Dallas last played on Jan. 18 (a 7-0 at MIN).

Both the Lightning and Stars enter the second half of the reg. season locked in tight division races. In the Atlantic, Tampa is second with 62 points, eight points behind the Bruins but with three games in hand. Behind the Lightning though are the Panthers (61 pts) and Maple Leafs (57 pts) – each within striking distance of Tampa’s spot. In the Central, Dallas is thirrd with 58 points, four points behind Avalanche in second and 10 points behind the Blues in 1sr . Below the Stars though, the Central is tight. Just seven points separate Dallas in third and Nashville in seventh. Fortunately for the Stars, they have games in hand on the three teams immediately behind them in the division.

Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was one of the two Lightning players in the All-Star Game this past weekend. The honor was well deserved as he leads the NHL with 24 wins to go along with a 2.54 GAA and .917 SV%. While he’s been great all year, the 25-year-old comes into Monday’s game as hot as any goalie in the NHL.

Dallas’ lone All-Star representative Tyler Seguin tallied a goal and assist in the Central Division’s loss in the All-Star Game. The Stars are hoping their top centerman will bring the scoring back home when they take the ice Monday. Seguin has zero goals in the last nine games. With 11 goals through 48 games, he is on pace to score just 18 goals this season, which would be his fewest in a non-shortened season since 2010-11, his rookie year.

The Stars average just 2.56 goals/game, which is tied for the fourth-fewest in the NHL. But they also allow just 2.46 goals/game, which is best in the league. Seguin maintains his lack of offensive output has to do with the team’s defensive frame of mind rather than a lack of production.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning at Dallas Stars
WHERE: American Airlines Center
WHEN: Monday, Jan. 27, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Stars stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Steven StamkosBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Ondrej PalatAnthony CirelliTyler Johnson
Alex KillornCedric PaquettePatrick Maroon
Yanni GourdeMitchell StephensCarter Verhaeghe

Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Mikhail SergachevKevin Shattenkirk
Braydon CoburnJan Rutta

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

STARS
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Alexander Radulov
Denis GurianovJoe PavelskiRoope Hintz
Andrew CoglianoRadek FaksaBlake Comeau
Mattias JanmarkJason DickinsonCorey Perry

Esa LindellJohn Klingberg
Miro HeiskanenRoman Polak
Jamie Oleksiak – Stephen Johns

Starting goalie: Ben Bishop

Brendan Burke will handle play-by-play duties alongside analyst Pierre McGuire at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. Tonight’s studio coverage will be hosted by Liam McHugh with Anson Carter and Keith Jones.

Stars can’t afford to be without Heiskanen for too long

Thursday night wasn’t good for the Dallas Stars. Not only did they lose to the Buffalo Sabres, they also watched as defenseman Miro Heiskanen suffered an upper-body injury during the game.

He’s considered day-to-day for now.

The 20-year-old was hurt after Sabres forward Rasmus Asplund made contact with his head as Heiskanen was falling down to the ice. He then went to the Stars locker room and never returned to the game.

“We all know what he does for us,” Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness said, per the Dallas News. “Our breakouts are a lot better, he joins the rush and he’s a danger on that offensive blue line. Take him out of there, and that’s a big hole. There’s just no getting around that. Injuries happen, and got to keep playing. Got to overcome them.”

Here’s how he got hurt:

It’s easy to see why Heiskanen wouldn’t be pleased with Asplund in the moment, but the contact with the head only occurs because Heiskanen falls forward right before his opponent gets to the corner. But Sweden on Finland crime will never go over well.

The Stars don’t know how long their young defender will be out, but, as Bowness mentioned, it’s clear that they need him back in their lineup quickly. He’s up to seven goals and 24 points in 47 games this season and he averages just over 24 minutes of ice time per game.

The fancy stats also show that when Heiskanen is on the ice the Stars control 55.31 percent of the XGF and 54.19% of the high-danger chances (stats via Natural Stat Trick).

He’s formed a nice duo with Jamie Oleksiak, as they’ve played 384 minutes together at five-on-five this season. If he’s out for an extended period of time, finding someone to slide into that spot won’t be easy.

“He’s an elite player on this team, so anytime you lose one of those guys, it doesn’t matter who it is, it’s going to hurt,” teammate Ben Bishop said after the loss to Buffalo. “Obviously, we’re down a goal there, we rely on those guys.”

On a more positive note, it sounds like they’ll be getting Stephen Johns back after he missed 22 months with post-traumatic headaches. He’ll have to be eased back into the lineup, but he could help fill the void left by Heiskanen. But they’ll likely have to do that as a committee.

The Stars currently find themselves in third place in the Central Division with a record of 27-16-4. They’re tied for second with Colorado, but the Avs hold the tie-breaker (they have more regulation/overtime victories). The Winnipeg Jets, who are currently fourth in the division and just outside the playoff picture, are four points behind Dallas.

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’ playoff exit was two years in the making

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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.

Golden Knights could win big thanks to Seattle’s expansion draft

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What if the Vegas Golden Knights “win” the expansion draft … again?

In a fascinating article that’s absolutely worth your time (sub required), The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun ran down how the Golden Knights could leverage the fact that they’re exempt from exposing players to Seattle’s expansion draft to land some great trades from teams who don’t want to lose players for nothing.

Parking ticket

The possibilities are almost overwhelming, especially if GM George McPhee finds creative ways to get assets, picks, and players from teams unable to protect certain guys Seattle might otherwise get. What if McPhee gets really creative by pushing the limits to help teams essentially “circumvent” the expansion draft?

One idea might be to “park” a player in Vegas for the expansion draft, giving the Golden Knights some sort of asset, only for Vegas to send that player back later on?

The league will allegedly take measures to make sure that doesn’t happen.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told LeBrun that “you can’t park players on Vegas,” hinting that, since the NHL must approve all transactions, they could reject a shady-looking deal.

“I don’t see that happening, they’re just not part of this expansion,” Daly said. “Obviously, we’ll make sure that Vegas isn’t used in the process by other clubs to circumvent the purpose of intent of the expansion draft rules, but I don’t anticipate that happening.’’

Actually enforcing circumventing moves could end up being easier said than done, however.

Thin line between “parking” and a valid trade

Sure, the league could stand in the way of truly blatant moves, much like they shot down that cap-circumventing Ilya Kovalchuk contract with the New Jersey Devils.

But what about more straightforward trades, where a team senses they’d lose a player, so they give up on that guy for picks and prospects? This is a league where Taylor Hall was traded one-for-one for Adam Larsson, so how far could the NHL go in making value judgments for potential trades?

LeBrun provides an example of the Predators theoretically trading P.K. Subban to Vegas as the odd man out, and down the line, that could make sense even outside of the expansion draft. After all, Subban will be getting up there in the years by then – he’s already 29 – and Nashville might legitimately prefer to stick with their other key defensemen, what with Roman Josi nearing a raise and Subban carrying a $9M cap hit.

And, really, how long can you keep a player “parked” before he’s fair game again?

Let’s say a player is sent to Vegas for a season, only to return to his original team. What would make such a move unacceptable when you remember the path of Jamie Oleksiak? The Penguins traded a fourth-round pick to Dallas for the towering defenseman back in Dec. 2017, only to get their draft pick back from Dallas when they returned Oleksiak to the Stars on Jan. 28 of this year. None of this is to say the Oleksiak trades were nefarious. Instead, there’s precedent for recent returns, so even handing out “parking violations” might be quite challenging.

Frankly, it all sounds like a nightmare for the NHL to try to police.

Really, though, the greatest “deterrent” arguably should be just how poorly teams handled trades to the Golden Knights to avoid protection issues.

Repeating history?

Most infamously, the Panthers sent Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas, to a) get rid of Smith’s contract and b) protect the likes of marginal defenseman Alex Petrovic. But check out this trade history and you’ll see other teams who pulled a muscle trying to beat the system. The Blue Jackets ended up doing all sorts of maneuvering, only to make the wrong call on William Karlsson. The Wild fared very poorly. Plenty of teams loaded up Vegas with draft picks, and in just about every case, the Golden Knights profited greatly from those GMs outsmarting themselves.

Seattle will try to do the same thing, but teams will be wary of making those mistakes again — plus they’ll have Vegas to work with.

Also, it’s easy to say you don’t want to repeat history with past mistakes, but Flames GM Brad Treliving gave an interesting take on that to LeBrun:

” … Are people going to be a little more hesitant because of the history and success Vegas has had of doing side deals? Maybe,” Treliving said. “But at the end of the day, you’re not going to say, `I’m not going to do this because something did or didn’t happen last time.’ You’re going to make the best decisions for the club. It’s always easy to Monday morning quarterback it, but the biggest thing is that everyone is going to be more familiar with the process. It’s the same rules.”

At some point in reading this post, you might be thinking that Vegas has an unfair advantage. Shouldn’t they have to give up a player in Seattle’s expansion draft after being able to go through the NHL’s teams like a buffet during their own expansion draft?

LeBrun reports that some GMs grumbled to him about that exemption, but the gripes lose their muster when you remember that the Golden Knights also aren’t getting a cut from the $650 million expansion fee from Seattle.

Ultimately, it is what it is when it comes to Vegas being exempt.

The Golden Knights could really be a wild card during expansion draft time, so good luck to the NHL in trying to keep all of that in control. Like Vegas’ zany pregame shows, this also only makes it a tougher act for Seattle to follow, too.

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.