Should Penguins spend at trade deadline to replace Maatta?

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Sometimes, when a struggling defenseman gets injured, there can be a sort of dark silver lining: it may force a coach to play someone better. Considering how tough it is to find good defensemen, though, there’s the scarier – and probably more likely – reality that they’d be replaced by someone even worse.

That’s the situation the Pittsburgh Penguins are struggling with right now, as they announced that Olli Maatta is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury suffered during Monday’s win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Considering that Evgeni Malkin might get suspended for his stick-swinging, that could be a costly win in the short-term, but the long-term implications are more fascinating.

Should the Penguins dip into the trade market for a defenseman, preferably of the top-four variety?

A thin group

Again, there’s no denying that Maatta has been struggling mightily for some time, but more Jack Johnson is frightening, as you can see from how pitiful they both look via Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool, which uses Corsica’s data.

/Insert horror movie scream.

As far as other Penguins defensemen go:

Schultz has missed most of the season with a pretty freakish injury, having not played since Oct. 13. It seems like he’s slated to return soon, but expecting him to hit the ground running with heavy minutes seems like asking a lot — yet that might be exactly what the Penguins need.

And, let’s face it. Schultz has been a fantastic reclamation project for the Penguins, but he’s most useful when he’s placed in nurturing situations. During four seasons with the Penguins, Schultz has started an average of 55.7-percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, according to Hockey Reference. If he’s asked to shoulder a tougher defensive burden – as he did early this season, albeit in a small sample size – will his game fall apart?

  • Pensburgh and others point out an interesting plug-in option: Ethan Prow.

The undrafted 26-year-old has never played an NHL game, yet he’s tied for second place among AHL defensemen with 37 points this season. Offense isn’t everything, but it’s a positive sign that maybe he can help, and it wouldn’t hurt for the speed-and-skill-oriented Penguins to add another potential weapon.

Shaky market

When you look at TSN’s trade bait list, Craig Custance’s Top 20 Trade Board (sub. required), and other compilations of trade targets, you’ll see a lot of fascinating names, from Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky to more grounded considerations, like Wayne Simmonds.

Things are a lot thinner when you’re looking for defensemen, though.

Normally, I’d personally recommend going after Dougie Hamilton, a defenseman who is likely to exceed his perception. Dougie’s not a perfect option for the Penguins for simple money reasons, though: his (actually decent value) $5.75 million cap hit runs through 2020-21. Hamilton also plays for the Hurricanes, who likely wouldn’t be thrilled about the prospect of enriching a team ahead of them in the East bubble. Similar problems crop up with, say, Trevor Daley.

Granted, there are interesting options here and there. Alec Martinez is a little cheaper than Hamilton ($4M through 2020-21), and the left-hander’s shown he can play on his off-side.

Maybe most importantly, the Kings are eyeing the future, so they might be willing to retain some of Martinez’s salary, and one Penguins issue might be something they’d work with better than others …

Sunk costs

The Penguins have already given up a ton of futures in landing the likes of Nick Bjugstad, and previously, Derick Brassard.

As you can see from Cap Friendly’s chart, the Penguins lack:

  • A second, third, or sixth-rounder in 2019. They have Buffalo’s fourth-rounder and Vegas’ seventh-rounder, with Buffalo’s pick currently slated to be a little better, while Vegas’ is likely to be worse than Pittsburgh’s would-be seventh-rounder. The point is, there aren’t a ton of 2019 picks remaining.
  • They don’t have their 2020 second-round pick.

The Penguins, then, would need to part with first-round picks in bigger trades, or a would-be seller would need to accept a third-rounder or worse in 2020, or wait until 2021 to get a second-round pick. (Maybe the Kings would be willing to take a 2021 second-rounder for Martinez, possibly as part of a larger package?)

Not just eyeing this year

Ultimately, Pittsburgh might just look at the landscape and determine that they don’t need to take a big shot in 2018-19, instead allowing things to play out.

After all, much of the Penguins’ planning has been getting “extended” rentals. Bjugstad is signed through 2020-21, as is Tanner Pearson. Jared McCann is cost controlled through 2019-20.

Much of the context points to sticking with this current setup, or at least not making another big splash.

Who knows when the window will close?

There’s also a danger in assuming that Sidney Crosby (31), Evgeni Malkin (32), Phil Kessel (31), and Kris Letang (31) can fight off Father Time enough to keep the Penguins in the contender mix in 2019-20. Sometimes the drop-off can be very, very steep; just ask those selling Los Angeles Kings.

Yes, the Penguins won their 2017 Stanley Cup with Letang injured, and that repeat run came with a defense that wasn’t world-beating even with Letang feeling spry. That doesn’t mean Pittsburgh can always clear those hurdles, so it’s fair to point out that defense is a clear need.

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To reiterate, the widespread “eye test” matches the numbers: Maatta hasn’t been very good this season.

Still, things could get even worse for the Penguins defense with him sidelined, so it’s not shocking that some might call for more trade deadline spending.

All things considered, should the Penguins roll the dice by being spenders … or take different types of risks by sticking with what they have?

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.

Should Penguins be worried about missing playoffs?

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Things are starting to look a little dicey for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins showed gumption in forcing a 3-3 tie after going down 3-1 on Saturday, but the Tampa Bay Lightning beat them nonetheless, and earned that 5-4 decision in regulation. Pittsburgh’s now on a troubling four-game losing streak, and they’ve only won three of their last 11 games (3-7-1).

It was a nasty game, with Sidney Crosby getting involved in some of the physical stuff.

The good news is that, as of this writing, the Penguins are still ranked as the second wild-card team in the East. The bad news is that a healthy buffer has now transformed into a tiny margin for error.

Here’s an update regarding the most relevant teams next to the Penguins in the standings: the Blue Jackets (currently holding the third seed in the Metro), and nearest bubble teams.

Blue Jackets, third in Metro: 30-20-3, 63 points, 53 games played, 30 regulation/overtime wins

Penguins, last WC: 28-20-7, 63 points, 55 GP, 27 ROW
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Hurricanes: 28-21-6, 62 points, 55 GP, 27 ROW
Sabres: 27-20-7, 61 points, 54 GP, 23 ROW
Flyers: 25-23-7, 57 points, 54 GP, 23 ROW

Seeing Columbus also at 63 points might bolster some hope, but that can be deceptive considering the Blue Jackets’ two additional games in hand. When you look at the Hurricanes, the margin is slim considering their matching ROW totals and one-point difference, while the Sabres could match Pittsburgh’s 63 points by winning their next game. Buffalo would still trail from a tiebreaker standpoint, but it all really highlights the notion that the Penguins could fall all the way out of the East’s top eight if they don’t stop the bleeding.

(The Flyers still look like a far-flung competitor, but with the way Carter Hart is playing, you never know.)

You can pile up some excuses if you really feel like it.

Evgeni Malkin is currently on IR, and the Penguins have basically not had Justin Schultz all season. Matt Murray‘s injury issues rarely seem to cease lately.

There’s also the quite-relevant point that the Penguins have struggled to make the playoffs more than a few times during the Malkin – Sidney Crosby years, and yet they’ve typically been a legitimate threat if the big names can get healthy by April.

The Penguins play five of their next seven games at home, so there are opportunities to get back on track.

Still, for a team that was creating some distance from the pack from December through mid-January, the Penguins must feel a little weary about a real battle against some viable opponents in the Sabres and Hurricanes. Both of those teams are hungry to finally break playoff droughts and take the next steps toward contending, while the Penguins are straining to stay where they’ve been for so long.

It won’t be easy, and you can’t totally dismiss those who are getting worried.

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.

Penguins’ Murray suffers yet another injury

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The Pittsburgh Penguins embarked on a three-game road trip with an all-too-familiar and unpleasant update: Matt Murray is injured.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said that Murray didn’t miss a Wednesday practice because of a maintenance day, instead deeming it an upper-body injury that leaves Murray day-to-day. On the bright side, Sullivan said it was not a concussion, according to reports including Penguins Inside Scoop.

Looking at Murray’s recent injury history, and realizing that teams sometimes describe concussions as upper-body injuries, it’s understandable that some jumped to the concussion conclusion. Murray somehow only missed one game in October with a concussion, and missed nine games with one last season (in March).

The 24-year-old also missed some time in 2018-19 with a lower-body injury, so it feels like the only breaks Murray usually catches are literal ones.

Murray’s season has been up-and-down when he’s actually been on the ice, too. His numbers are a touch disappointing but not disastrous overall (15-9-1, .909 save percentage), yet if you look at his split stats, Murray’s been all over the place; he generated a .959 save percentage in five December games after suffering through an .850 slog in five November contests.

That’s frustrating, and for as brilliant as his postseason work has often been, you have to wonder if the Penguins truly feel that they can count on the two-time Stanley Cup winner.

On the bright side, the Penguins have Casey DeSmith, who’s been as sturdy (.918 save percentage, 13-9-4 record) where Murray’s been more erratic. This latest stretch is another example that the Penguins made a wise value proposition with his extension.

One other bright side: Murray and other injured Penguins are on that three-game road trip, so this might just be a blip on the radar. Those other injured Penguins are Evgeni Malkin and long-injured defenseman Justin Schultz, so things could look up for Pittsburgh in a hurry, if all three situations work out.

Here’s the road trip, which begins in Florida against the Panthers on Thursday:

Feb. 7:  at Florida
Feb. 9: at Tampa Bay
Feb. 11: at Philadelphia

After that, the Penguins play five of six games at home, although one of those “home” games is actually the neutral side 2019 Stadium Series against the Flyers. (With two fairly recent upcoming matches against Philly, the Penguins have to hope that their unfriendly neighbors cool off soon.)

So, overall, it could be worse for Murray and the Penguins, and it has been before. It still must be frustrating for a goalie and team that would really like to solidify not only a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but also ideally enter the postseason on a high note.

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.

Penguins’ power play will always be high risk, high reward

PITTSBURGH — Whenever the Pittsburgh Penguins have had some sort of defensive breakdown, or danger zone turnover, or simply a “what the heck was that!?” kind of play with the puck this season coach Mike Sullivan has usually followed it up after the game by talking about the delicate balancing act he has to walk with his roster.

He talks about playmaking being a part of the team’s DNA and wanting to allow his players to use that to their advantage. And why wouldn’t he? When you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang on your roster you have an advantage over almost every other team in the league every single night.

You want them making plays.

But he also wants it happening in a controlled, measured way, where it’s not just a free-for-all where they start exchanging chances with other teams for 60 minutes because for as much fun as that would be for you and me to watch it is probably not something that is going to win on a consistent basis. Along with that, he talks about playing “the right way” and having the right “defensive conscious” and the right mindset.

Given the way the season has gone, with the Penguins going through equal stretches of dominance and sloppiness, he has had to hit these talking points a lot.

Monday’s 6-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils was another one of those nights, and his team’s power play unit was one of his focal points after an 0-for-4 night on the man-advantage that saw them give up yet another shorthanded goal to put the game out of reach in the second period.

The Penguins’ power play unit is one of the more complicated and sometimes maddening groups in the league because it has the potential to change a game … for both teams.

For the Penguins, it can serve as their deterrent because teams know once that unit hits the ice it can be lethal in its precision to pick an opponent apart and light up the scoreboard. You simply can not take penalties against them because there is a very good chance they will make you pay for it. They are scoring on more than 26 percent of their chances this season and have been the absolute best unit in the league in terms of success rate (23.7 percent) since Sullivan took over behind the bench in the middle of the 2015-16 season.

[Related: Penguins, Stars reverse last year’s Jamie Oleksiak trade]

That is the positive impact it can provide for the Penguins.

The negative impact is that can also be a ticking time bomb because of the chances they give up the other way, and this season that has burnt them one too many times.

The shorthanded goal they allowed on Monday night was already the league-leading 11th shorthanded goal they have allowed this season. Given the number of chances they give up that number could probably be significantly higher, and it has been a point of concern for Sullivan and the Penguins coaching staff all season.

Following Monday’s game he was asked if there ever comes a point where he thinks about making changes to the unit, whether it is personnel, system, or anything else he can do to stop the bleeding the way other way.

“I think we’re probably there,” said Sullivan, before hitting all of the talking points that he is probably tired of talking about this season.

“As a coach it’s always a fine line because you want to show faith and trust in your guys, and as I’ve said all along this year our first power play unit has been a difference-maker for this team for a long time. They are all really good players. But we have to take more responsibility for having a defensive conscious when guys are in trouble. And it doesn’t seem like we’re recognizing the danger, and we don’t take care of the puck. We’re careless with some of the decisions we make with the puck and it costs us. We’re trying to get out group to heed the lessons, and if we don’t heed the lessons then something needs to change.”

This is where the balancing act is going to become a challenge for the Penguins’ coaching staff.

Making changes that are too drastic and significant could needlessly weaken a group that has the potential to dominate, and for whatever flaws they have they still score a ton of goals. If the ultimate goal of your power play unit is to put the puck in the net, this group is still as good as it gets in the NHL and it has few peers on its level.

Part of the reason it is at that level is because of the talent it has, the plays they are capable of making, and just how … let’s say fearless they can be. It may border on reckless at times, but they definitely don’t live in their fears. Players like Crosby, Malkin, and Letang have the ability to make plays most other players in the league won’t (or can’t) even attempt.

When it all clicks, it makes magic. When it doesn’t … you get 11 shorthanded goals against in 49 games.

What probably stands out about that number is this same group, with the same players, only allowed three shorthanded goals all of last season. They only gave up seven the year before and only five the year before that. Only four teams in the league allowed fewer shorthanded goals than the Penguins’ 15 over that three-year stretch.

Now, they are on pace to give up more shorthanded goals this season than they did in the previous three years combined.

On the surface, you probably want to look at that and think something is different about this group or that they are suddenly being more careless.

But that is misleading because those same issues have always existed this group, they just haven’t always shown up in a way that is easily noticeable that you can point to on the stat sheet and say, “see … this is the problem! Fix this!”

Let’s just take a quick look at what the Penguins’ power play has given up over the past four seasons in terms of goals against, shots against, and scoring chances against. The number in parenthesis is where they rank in each category.

Despite being one of the best teams in the league at not allowing shorthanded goals the past three seasons they were still one of the worst (and more often than not) the absolute worst team in the league at giving up shots, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances with the man-advantage.

If anything, they have actually been a little bit better this season when it comes to preventing chances and have simply gotten worse goaltending in those spots.

Does that mean the problems didn’t exist before? Of course not.

One of our biggest failings in analyzing and watching hockey is that we only look at mistakes when they end up in the back of the net. If you turn the puck over at your own blue line and give up an odd-man rush or a breakaway and that player misses the net or gets stopped by your goalie does that mean the mistake didn’t happen? It happened, and just because it didn’t end up in the back of your net this time doesn’t it mean it won’t end up there next time.

As far as personnel changes. There is always the possibility that they could split up Crosby and Malkin, something that has happened on occasion over the past few years. But it doesn’t really work. The power play unit when Malkin is on the ice without Crosby gives up even more chances and shots the other way (which would be a problem), and neither unit scores as well or generates as many chances as when they are on the ice together.

Here are those numbers from 2015-16 through 2017-18.

Malkin definitely seems to be the common denominator in the chances and shots against numbers spiking, so putting him on his own unit doesn’t seem like the best approach for a power play that is trying to cut down the number of chances against. And you’re certainly not going to take him off the power play unit entirely because when he and Crosby are together they can still be so dangerous.

They are a couple of weeks away from getting Justin Schultz back and he has had success on the top unit in the past, so that is always the possibility.

Other than that, it comes down to X’s and O’s and trying to change the DNA of superstars that want to make plays. That is easier said than done, and if you happen to do it you run the risk of having more of a negative impact than a positive impact. You might give up less, but you also might score a lot less.

No matter how you look at it or analyze it this is just what the Penguins power play unit is going to do.

They are going to make skilled, risky plays that are sometimes going to work, and work at a rate that is better than almost any other team in the league.

That also carries a lot of risk, and that risk has always been there whether it has ended up in the back of their own net or not.

(Scoring chance, shot, and power play data via Natural Stat Trick)

More: PHT Power Rankings: 10 people that will impact the NHL playoff race

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Oilers’ CEO vows to get it right this time

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Will Connor McDavid ever escape Edmonton and their perpetual rebuild? (The Ringer)

• The mess that the Edmonton Oilers have become starts at the top (Spector’s Hockey)

• Take it with however many grains of salt you want, but Bob Nicholson is promising to get it right this time in Edmonton (Edmonton Sun)

• A look at the longest losing streaks from recent back-to-back Stanley Cup champs (Nova Caps)

• Puck and player tracking is coming, and it’s going to transform how we understand the game (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• A look at the puck and player tracking trial run at the NHL All-Star Game this past weekend (NHL.com)

• More time on the overtime clock? Perhaps it’s time (TSN)

• Should the Arizona Coyotes push for Lord Stanley this season? (Five for Howling)

• The bargain bin: six players who could provide good value at the trade deadline (Sportsnet)

• An inside look at Jack Hughes, the top NHL draft prospect Flyers fans are craving (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

Elias Pettersson has thrown a wrench in the Canucks’ rebuild plans. A good wrench (The Province)

• That Patrick Marleau jersey Auston Matthews donned for the All-Star Skills? Yeah, you could own it and help out a charity at the same time (NHL.com)

• The week off for the sliding Buffalo Sabres probably couldn’t have come at a better time. They now feel refreshed (Times-Herald)

• How Dylan Sikura is dealing with NHL growing pains and rediscovering his confidence (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Fresh of a 6-3 defeat on Monday to the New Jersey Devils, PHT’s Adam Gretz imagines the Penguins’ defense with a healthy Justin Schultz (Pensburgh)

• What do the stats say? Why, they say the Vegas Golden Knights have a top-5 defense of course (Sin.Bin Vegas)

• The Bruins return from their mandated week off on Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets. Here are a few burning questions concerning the Bs (Bruins Daily)

• The decision to send Tyson Jost to the minors appears to be paying off (Mile High Hockey)

• Vincent Lecavalier taken to hospital after Florida pileup (Tampa Bay Times)

• Here’s a list of 10 venues that should host an NHL All-Star Game (Puck Prose)

• Barry Trotz is a good dude:


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck