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Penguins ponder Brassard at wing; best fit for Jack Johnson?

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While it’s fair to warn against reading too much into NHL training camps, sometimes they indeed provide a helpful preview for the coming season. If nothing else, they present a worthwhile opportunity for coaches to experiment.

The Pittsburgh Penguins come into 2018-19 with slightly fresher legs, as their title defense fell short in two rounds. They also have some players to work into the mix, whether they landed them at the trade deadline (Derick Brassard) or through free agency and amid salty drama with their former team (Jack Johnson, Torts, and the Blue Jackets).

Tinkering with Brassard

Last year, the Penguins’ hated rivals from Philly yielded a rebound year from Claude Giroux, as he seemed to be revitalized by a move to the wing. Maybe a lot of that revolved around reduced defensive responsibilities, but it was enough of a success story that it makes sense for the Penguins to ponder such a possibility in hopefully getting more out of Derick Brassard.

Mike Sullivan discussed such experiments on Friday.

“We’ve given a lot of thought into it and it’s something that we’ll explore,” Sullivan said of trying Brassard out on the wing. “We know he’s a center by nature but we also know he’s a versatile player. It’s an option that’s on the table.”

With a fully staffed group of Penguins forwards, it’s somewhat challenging to picture how Brassard would work better on the wing than he would as – ideally – a third center who could leverage certain matchup advantages.

Of course, the Penguins know as much as any other team that injuries strike. Brassard himself missed the first week of camp due to a minor chest infection.

The Penguins might as well gather as much data as they can for how Brassard might work with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the event that their customary wingers suffer injuries. Via Natural Stat Trick, Brassard played just 7:01 of even-strength ice time with Crosby during the regular season, and he didn’t even reach two minutes with Malkin. (Phil Kessel was far and away his most common forward partner.)

In the flow of regular-season competition, it makes sense that the Penguins didn’t enjoy a ton of opportunities to tinker with different combinations for Brassard. Now’s the time to see what works, what does not, and what might merely need time to marinate.

The most important thing is that the Penguins are exploring avenues to get the most out of the veteran forward, rather than giving up on Brassard.

And make no mistake about it, this is a crucial season for the 30-year-old, as Brassard approaches 2018-19 as a contract year. Such drive could really manifest itself if he got the chance to play with Crosby and/or Malkin, and for all we know, the next phase of his career could be as a “winger to the stars.”

A formidable pairing

Penguins fans owe it to themselves to read this Johnson-related article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jonathan Bombulie for a host of reasons:

  • An amusing slight of privilege regarding Johnson’s adjustment to Pittsburgh. Gasp in terror at the thought of Johnson not finding a good sushi joint and possibly suffering from a bad hair style.
  • Enjoy a subtler form of shade at John Tortorella, as Johnson spoke about Torts’ grueling training camp, which apparently begins with a two-mile run that must be completed within 12 minutes. Johnson mostly dismissed such concerns, although it’s funny to see him describe the runs as activities that “don’t necessarily translate into how you’re playing or how hockey is.”

The most pertinent information, however, is that the initial plan is to pair Johnson with Justin Schultz.

That gnarly howl you just heard was analytics-minded people recoiling in terror, and possibly seeing their charts break. Seriously, Johnson – Schultz is a duo with the potential to get caved-in possession-wise at a level we rarely see.

Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool brings a lot of the data to the forefront:

One can only picture – again, maybe in horror – the sort of defensive misadventures such a pairing might endure. (Granted, the Penguins can mostly point to Schultz as a relative success story, and the two could at least bring something to the table from a transition standpoint.)

Maybe the Johnson tinkering has just begun, as Sullivan instead paired him with Olli Maatta today:

Frankly, it might be difficult to find the right fit for Johnson because … well, if his career so far provides any evidence, he carries some deep flaws in his own end, and his offensive contributions rarely make up for such issues. The deeper you dig into “fancy stats,” the worse Johnson tends to look, but even simple measures tend to be less-than-flattering.

The Penguins are dug in here, considering the jarring five-year, $16.25 million commitment they made to Johnson. For a team that’s perpetually tight to the cap ceiling, squandering $3.25M per season could be agonizing.

For what it’s worth, GM Jim Rutherford shook off analytics worries about Johnson (not to mention Matt Cullen and Derek Grant) in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey.

“The same as any player, analytics play a role,” Rutherford said. “Our personal opinions and viewings play a role. And where they might fit into what we’re looking for. You look at different players in a different way. What are you looking for in your team? What are some of your needs and how do they fit? All those things. These are guys who fit for us.”

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Of course, the risks with Cullen and Grant are pretty minimal, as each player’s only carrying a $650K AAV in 2018-19.

For a team that already struggles when it comes to turning the puck over in dangerous situations and allowing a ton of odd-man rushes, Johnson may only exacerbate such issues. It’s not surprising that management is resolute in defending the signing – what else can they say? – but there’s a strong chance Pittsburgh will regret this expensive reclamation project.

Then again, Schultz’s career was in a dire place when he was traded from Edmonton, so maybe the Penguins really do “see” something others do not? They’ve pulled off the unlikely before.

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As much attention is lavished on stars like Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Kris Letang, the Penguins – and other contenders – need other players to step up.

When Pittsburgh landed Brassard, the expectation was that he’s provide that additional pop. Some NHL GMs outright groaned at the Penguins landing him, and Vegas GM George McPhee’s logic in helping to aid a trade to Pittsburgh revolved around keeping the center off of a West contender.

In the post-deadline rush, Brassard didn’t meet positive expectations. Meanwhile, the Penguins are gambling big-time that Johnson will defy pessimistic expectations.

Training camp tinkering will likely be forgotten in the long run, yet either way, it’s crucial for Pittsburgh to find the optimal lineups and strategies to contend after falling short last season.

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’ big defense spending continues with Oleksiak

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Perhaps it’s fitting that the Pittsburgh Penguins put a bow on big defense spending by re-signing Jamie Oleksiak, one of the largest humans you’ll see roaming a blueline.

The team announced that they signed the 25-year-old to a three-year contract that will carry a $2,137,500 cap hit. He’s generally listed at 6-foot-7, which is just a couple inches shorter than Zdeno Chara.

(It only seems fair that he was frequently called upon to drop the mitts once he arrived from Dallas then, right?)

In a vacuum, it’s an inoffensive contract, although some will grimace a bit at giving three years to a potential depth defenseman. Your overall opinion of the big blueliner will vary depending upon how you value what he brings to the table. His size is valued by many, and he didn’t take on too much water from a possession standpoint.

There’s little denying that he enjoyed something of a career rejuvenation in Pittsburgh, echoing Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz, even though his gritty style makes him quite different from those fleet-footed defensemen. After averaging just 15 minutes per game with the Stars, Oleksiak’s ice time shot up to an average of 17:24 in 41 contests with Pittsburgh.

That ice time plummeted during the postseason, as he only logged an average of 13:43 per contest.

We’ve seen teams get burned by handing an extension to a defenseman who thrived during a brief audition, such as Brendan Smith‘s disastrous turn with the Rangers, although the Penguins didn’t shell out as large of a cap hit here.

The larger concern might be that the Penguins could be guilty of a mistake a lot of contenders fall victim of: locking up a lot of depth players when it might be wiser to allow more room to scour the market for cheaper options in the bottom of the order. On the other hand, maybe Oleksiak will end up being another successful reclamation project in Pittsburgh?

Either way, the Penguins are locked in with quite a few defensemen, so substantial commitments abound.

It’s a pricey group, too. Via Cap Friendly’s estimates, the Penguins are spending almost $27M on seven defensemen: Oleksiak, Schultz, Kris Letang, Jack Johnson, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, and Chad Ruhwedel.

For some, that’s the price of doing business for a team not far removed from back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.

Others will blanche at the thought that, at times, the Penguins overcome this group, rather than being propped up by it. Those critics surely won’t be over the moon about some of their recent commitments, especially oft-criticized Jack Johnson carrying a $3.25M cap hit mere months after the Blue Jackets couldn’t give him away during the trade deadline.

There are some red flags going on with that unit, and maybe the Oleksiak signing will be looked upon as a mistake.

Ultimately, it’s not the sort of decision that will derail the Penguins’ hopes for contending now and in the future. The worry, though, is that the mistakes might start to really pile up for the Pens. After all, flexibility can be crucial in the modern NHL, and GM Jim Rutherford risks painting himself into a corner.

(Then again, the Blackhawks reminded us today that you can often foist your cap problems on other teams, so maybe none of this is all that big of a concern?)

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 make it official with Jack Johnson; bring back Matt Cullen

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford announced two free agent signings on Sunday afternoon — one that was expected, and one that kind of came out of nowhere.

First, the Penguins made it official and signed defenseman Jack Johnson to a five-year contract that will pay him $16.25 million. News of that potential signing first broke last week and it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that pen was going to be put to paper on that deal.

Along with that news, the Penguins also announced that veteran center Matt Cullen is returning to the team after spending the 2017-18 season as a member of the Minnesota Wild. Cullen was an important depth player on the Penguins’ Stanley Cup winning teams in 2016 and 2017 before leaving as a free agent prior to last season. The Penguins reportedly attempted to re-acquire him via trade throughout the season but were never able to make it work. His contract is a one-year deal worth $650,000.

The addition that is going to get the most attention here is Johnson because that is a pretty significant investment in a player whose career has been … let’s say … polarizing. You either love his combination of size and the skating ability he had earlier in his career that helped make him such a prized prospect entering the league, or you absolutely hate the objective evidence his NHL career has produced.

He is coming off of a brutal season in Columbus that saw him end the year as a healthy scratch. He will also turn 32 years old this season and the Penguins are taking a might big gamble that they can “fix” what has ailed him.

Financially speaking, the $3.25 million salary cap hit might not be bad if it was on a shorter-term deal. But a five-year commitment is a lot for a player you’re trying to repair, and it’s certainly debatable as to whether or not there is anything there to salvage when it comes to his play on the ice.

The defense of the signing all revolves around Johnson getting into a better situation (he talked on Sunday about wanting to join a winning environment) and the ability of the Penguins’ coaching staff, led by defense coach Sergei Gonchar, being able to help him the same way they helped improve Justin Schultz and Jamie Oleksiak in previous years (Rutherford said he would always put his money on Gonchar).

The problem is those aren’t exactly perfect parallels to look at.

In the case of Schultz and Oleksiak, the Penguins were dealing with young players in their mid-20s that were stuck in bad situations, they gave up minimal assets to acquire, and were able to help put them into more favorable situations and get a little more production out of them. And in Oleksiak’s case the jury is still very much out on how much he really has improved because it’s still such a small body of work in Pittsburgh.

With Johnson, he is 32 years old, has probably already started to lose a step from where he was when he younger, and has a decade long track record to show just what type of player he is. The results are not encouraging.

Just about every team Johnson has played for has performed worse — significantly worse — from a goals and shots perspective with Johnson on the versus him off of the ice. Observe the difference in shot attempts (CF%) and goal differential (GF%).

That is not an encouraging trend.

Now, one of two things will happen: They will either play Johnson in a top-four role and bump one of Olli Maatta or Justin Schultz down to the third pair, or they will play Johnson in that third-pair role alongside Jamie Oleksiak. Both options present their share of problems. With the former, you’re playing what is probably an inferior player over a better play (is Johnson better than either Maatta or Schultz? I am not sold on that).

With the latter, it just means you committed five years and all of your newfound salary cap space to a third-pairing defenseman when you probably could have gotten the same (or maybe even better) play for less.

It just seems like a big investment to make in a player you’re hoping can improve a decade-long trend of play and that you’re simply hoping for the best on.

The Cullen signing is an interesting one, only because it does not seem immediately clear where he will play or how he will be used.

The Penguins already have four centers under contract with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard, and Riley Sheahan in place. It seems likely, if not inevitable, that one of Brassard, Sheahan, or Cullen will see significant time on the wing.

Cullen, a long-time favorite of Rutherford, was great for the Penguins in a fourth-line role before signing with Minnesota. His departure (along with the free agent departure of Nick Bonino) resulted in the in-season trades to acquire Brassard and Sheahan.

Cullen ended up scoring 11 goals for the Wild this past season.

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 Penguins’ reported interest in Jack Johnson is baffling

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On Wednesday the Pittsburgh Penguins cleared a significant amount of salary cap space over the next two years by sending forward Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick to the Buffalo Sabres for a draft pick.

That trade, combined with the bump to the league-wide cap ceiling for 2018, has given the Penguins more than $10 million in salary cap space to work with this summer. Only needing to re-sign Jamie Oleksiak and Riley Sheahan, that newfound cap space gives them plenty of options in free agency or the trade market and could make them contenders for a number of impact players. It also helped them correct what was a pretty significant mistake in last summer’s free agent signing period when gave Hunwick a three-year contract that paid him more than $2 million per season. It became apparent very early in the season that Hunwick and the Penguins were not a great match as the veteran struggled throughout much of the season and eventually found himself as a healthy scratch.

That signing not working out — and the ensuing trade — is just one of the reasons Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is looking to upgrade the team’s blue line this summer.

[Related: Penguins ship Hunwick, Sheary to Buffalo in cap-clearing trade]

One player the team seems to be targeting in free agency: Former Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson.

Over the past couple of weeks there has been plenty of smoke surrounding the Penguins and Johnson with both Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Aaron Portzline of The Athletic reporting that the two sides could be a possible match. On Wednesday there seemed to be a little more fuel thrown on that fire when reports began to surface out of Pittsburgh that Johnson could be joining the Penguins on Sunday when the free agent signing period officially begins.

According to Mackey, the Penguins intend to sign Johnson to a five-year (five-year!) contract on Sunday for a dollar amount that could be in the $3-3.5 million range. Mark Madden of 105.9 the X, the Penguins’ flagship radio station, first reported the five-year term.

Assuming all of this plays out this would be a pretty bizarre series of events for the Penguins.

For one, even though the reported contract numbers would represent a sharp reduction in salary from Johnson’s previous contract, that is still a significant amount of money for a team that is perpetually pressed against the league’s salary cap ceiling. Especially for a player that is 31 years old (and will turn 32 during the season), coming off of a career-worst year offensively, and whose season ended with him being a healthy scratch on a fringe playoff team that was bounced in the first round.

None of that should sound encouraging.

Johnson entered the NHL more than a decade ago with much fanfare. He was the third player selected in the Sidney Crosby draft (behind Crosby and Bobby Ryan) and that pre-draft hype has followed him around for most of his career, at least in the sense that hockey people seem to love him no matter how much evidence there is to suggest that he isn’t as good as they thought he was going to be.

Objectively speaking the numbers are ugly.

Since entering the NHL in 2006-07 Johnson’s minus-109 mark is the worst among all NHL players.

Flawed as plus/minus is, when you are talking about more than a decades worth of data, and also taking into account that Johnson has played on some pretty good teams during his career, there should be cause for concern that he has finished as a plus-player just once in his career. He has been minus-5 or worse in every other season. Six times he has finished as a minus-12 or worse.

From a shots perspective things are just as bad.

Since the start of the 2006-07 season (Johnson’s debut year) there have been more than 356 defensemen that have played at least 100 games in the NHL. Johnson’s 48 percent Corsi rating is 275th out of that group.

Just looking at the past five years his 47.9 mark is 204th out of 259 defenders.

In other words: When Jack Johnson is on the ice his team is getting badly outshot and badly outscored. That is a terrible combination.

So why in the world are the Penguins interested in this?

They obviously need some additional help on the blue line and definitely need some additional depth. But is this the best way to get it? Is this the best allocation of resources?

In recent years the Penguins have had some success taking on reclamation projects on defense and getting more out of them than other teams have been able to with the additions of Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, and most recently Jamie Oleksiak.

But none of those players required the type of immediate commitment they would be giving Johnson. All of them were originally acquired for minimal assets (Daley was acquired for Rob Scuderi, while Schultz and Oleksiak were acquired for mid-round draft picks). The other factor: Schultz and Oleksiak were both in their age 25 seasons when they were acquired and had at least shown flashes that they had more to offer in the right setting. Johnson, again, will turn 32 years old this season. What we have seen from him at this point in his career is a pretty good indication that this is what he is as a player. And if you’re looking for a potential player to “fix,” that is a huge commitment for a question mark.

There is nothing wrong with a team wanting to sign Jack Johnson in free agency. Yes, his entire career he has been woefully miscast as a top-pairing defenseman and has consistently shown he is probably not suited for that role.

But in the right setting, on the right contract, in the right role, there might be some value for a team to find. Based on every piece of evidence we have to look at throughout Johnson’s career, the right contract and the right role is not a five-year commitment for an apparent top-four role on a cap-strapped team.

Rutherford is a three-time Stanley Cup champion and has made some fantastic trades/transactions during his time in Pittsburgh. But he is not invincible. He is not immune to mistakes, as evidence by the fact that literally every addition he made last summer has already been jettisoned by the Penguins. If they actually go through with a five-year, $16 million contract for Johnson with the hopes of playing him in a top-four role it would not be a shock to see them trying to get out of that contract before it expires as well.

More NHL Free Agency:
PHT Power Rankings: The top-20 NHL Free Agents
• Ilya Kovalchuk, Kings agree to terms on three-year deal
• John Carlson gets $64 million payday as Capitals lock up defenseman

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.

No surgery needed for Capitals’ Backstrom, Kuznetsov

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The Washington Capitals met the media for the final time this season during locker clean out day on Wednesday and we got to see a sober and clean shaven Alex Ovechkin, plus we learned about the various injuries some players dealt with during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

First, Nicklas Backstrom, who missed four games due to a hand injury, revealed that he suffered two fractures in his right index finger blocking a Justin Schultz shot in the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It got better after he returned in the Eastern Conference Final, but was still pretty swollen following the series. He won’t require surgery.

“I tried to play Game 6 [vs. Penguins], the hand was too swollen with the fracture,” Backstrom said via the Washington Post. “That was probably the worst finger to have, too. Any other finger it probably would’ve been fine. But this one is the one that I actually use. I got better and better every week. Which is good. They did a great job with all the treatments and stuff. It sucked at the time but we got it done. I got to play again.”

Forward Andre Burakovsky revealed he broke both thumbs during the season, including his right one during the first round.

Evgeny Kuznetsov left Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final late in the first period after taking a hit from Brayden McNabb of the Vegas Golden Knights. The forward did return for Game 3 and scored a goal and assisted on another during a 3-1 win. He will also not need surgery to repair the injured shoulder.

[Highlights from Capitals’ Stanley Cup parade]

In the grossest injury of the Final, defenseman Brooks Orpik, who had already suffered a hand injury in the first round, said that the tip of his left pinkie had to be reattached after being slashed by Erik Haula in Game 2. 

“It probably looked worse than it was, to be honest with you,” he said. “It was tough to look at, but the trainers did a really good job. It was never something I thought would keep me from playing.”

Marc Methot knows the feeling.

Most Capitals also noted that they’d be open to visiting the White House, a week after Devante Smith-Pelly said he would not attend any celebration with the U.S. president.

Finally, the most important question about this summer seems to moving towards getting an answer. Head coach Barry Trotz, who is not signed beyond July 1, said he and general manager Brian MacLellan have spoken about an extension and will work through “a few issues” to get a new deal done.

“[I]f he wants to be back, he’ll be back,” MacLellan said on the ice after the Capitals’ Cup victory last week.

MORE:
Ovechkin, Holtby get Jimmy Fallon to drink out of Stanley Cup
Don’t forget how great Kuznetsov, Backstrom were for Capitals

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.