Laurent Brossoit

Crosby boosts Penguins to unlikely 14-goal weekend

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If someone told you that the Pittsburgh Penguins exploded for 14 goals in just two games on back-to-back nights, you might have assumed that key players like Evgeni Malkin returned to action. Failing that, maybe you’d ask if Sidney Crosby had been superhuman.

While Crosby was indeed fantastic during Saturday’s 7-4 win against the Wild (good enough to be one of the three stars on a busy day) and Sunday’s stunning 7-2 drubbing of the Jets, it wasn’t all him. Instead, it was a combination of a red-hot Crosby and a seemingly ragtag group of players coming together.

You can see the highlights of Sunday’s win in the video above, and check out Saturday’s score-fest against Minnesota here:

Pittsburgh’s games against the Jets seem to be all about subverting expectations. Earlier this season, Winnipeg won despite a ton of injuries to their defense; this time around, expectations were that Pittsburgh’s list of ailments would mean bad things, but instead the Pens won. In each case, the results were remarkably lopsided, too.

87 is on fire

Crosby’s strong play should not go unnoticed.

With two assists against Winnipeg, Crosby now has a three-game multi-point streak going, generating two goals and four assists for six points during that streak. The 32-year-old’s also scored at least one point during his first six games of 2019-20, collecting three goals and seven assists to total 10 points.

If the star center is slowing down with age, you have to really strain your eyes to see where he’s in heavy decline.

Not just Crosby

That said, 10 of those 14 goals didn’t involve Crosby points, so obviously it’s not just 87.

Sam Lafferty’s arguably had an even better weekend than Crosby. The 24-year-old is rapidly becoming more than a relative unknown who was a fourth-rounder (113th overall) from 2014. Lafferty scored two goals on Sunday after generating a three-point night (his first NHL goal, plus two assists) against the Wild on Saturday. So, yes, Lafferty generated five points to Crosby’s four on the weekend.

Managing five points in less than 27 minutes of total ice time is just kind of ridiculous, and ventures an argument that the Penguins should give Lafferty more opportunities to prove himself, particularly as injuries linger for more prominent players.

Zach Aston-Reese made an argument for player of the game on Sunday, though, generating a three-point night against the Jets (two goals, one assist).

It’s a testament to the Penguins’ knack for finding the occasional gems in the draft or in free agency, as for all we know, all of those injuries might open the door for someone to be a more regular contributor. Such a thing happened for Matt Murray, and to some extent, Jake Guentzel.

Speaking of finding ways to win, judging from this Natural Stat Trick heat map, you wonder if the Penguins might have scouted out a weak spot for Laurent Brossoit, attacked an especially weak spot of Winnipeg’s defense, or maybe it was just a coincidence that so many chances and goals came from the same general area?

via Natural Stat Trick

One wouldn’t expect the lesser-known Penguins to stay so hot for too long, but little bursts like these can make a difference between missing or making the playoffs, or for a team with greater ambitions like Pittsburgh, maybe earning a round or two of home-ice advantage. Piling up points in games that look like losses on paper may also help the Penguins gain enough breathing room to give Crosby some rest down the line. As great as Crosby was in 2018-19 (with his underlying stats inspiring some to wonder if he deserved more Hart buzz), there were signs that he was wearing down for a Pittsburgh team that needed to battle to make the postseason. In an era of sports where teams are more interested in “load management,” the Penguins might want to work a little harder to earn that luxury for Crosby and others.

Either way, the Penguins are showing some moxy, so don’t count them out when they face the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday (a game you can watch on NBCSN at 7 p.m. ET).

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.

It’s Winnipeg Jets Day at PHT

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets. 

2018-19
47-30-5, 99 points (2nd in the Central Division, T-4th in the Western Conference).
Playoffs: Eliminated in Round 1 by the St. Louis Blues in six games.

IN
Neal Pionk
Gabriel Bourque
Anthony Bitetto
Mark Letestu

OUT
Jacob Trouba
Kevin Hayes
Ben Chiarot
Matt Hendricks (retired)
Tyler Myers
Marko Dano
Nic Kerdiles
Joe Morrow
Brandon Tanev
Par Lindholm
Bogdan Kiselevich

RE-SIGNED
Laurent Brossoit
Seth Griffith
Andrew Copp
Cameron Schilling
Nathan Beaulieu
Logan Shaw
C.J. Seuss
J.C. Lipon

[MORE: Three questions | X-factorMaurice under pressure]

2018-19 Season Summary

As NHL teams headed out to enjoy the Christmas break last December, the Jets were sitting pretty. They had just won 11 of their previous 13 games and were atop the Central Divison, four points ahead of the Nashville Predators.

The winning ways continued into February, but the success slowed down and some real concerns started bubbling up. Patrik Laine, whose early season was highlighted by a hat trick in an NHL Global Series game in his home country of Finland and a five-goal performance three games later, saw his goal scoring come to a halt. After scoring 18 goals in the month of November, the sniper only scored nine times in the team’s final 58 games. The penalty kill’s success dropped 5% and Connor Hellebuyck, coming off a season that saw him a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, couldn’t find consistency.

As Scott Billeck pointed out following the Jets’ playoff exit, there was 19-day stretch in February where the Jets lost twice to the Senators, twice to the Avalanche, and once to the Canadiens, Coyotes and Wild. Let’s not forget about some major injuries as well. Dustin Byfuglien missed 34 games due to a pair of ankle injuries. Josh Morrissey was out 20 games after taking a hit up high.

Despite a 99-point season, the Jets just didn’t feel like a team that was going to make noise in the playoffs. Something was just off.

The Jets finished with five fewer wins and 15 fewer points in 2018-19 than 2017-18. They banked enough points early on to help them remain in the dog fight for the Central Division title, which could be claimed by the Predators by a single point. The Stanley Cup playoff experience would be a short one as they were knocked out by the eventual champion Blues in six games sending them into the summer with questions.

What is Laine’s future? The forward was not happy about his year and remains a restricted free agent as September arrives. The Jets have $16M in cap space to re-sign him and fellow RFA Kyle Connor, who was second on the team with 34 goals. Will general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff go the bridge route with one or both? Will the negotiations bleed into training camp and even the regular season? Can Laine regain his scoring touch and can Connor build off a second straight 30-goal campaign?

The Central is once again shaping up to be one of, if not the toughest division in the NHL. The Jets can’t afford another disappointing season, otherwise there will be the desire for big changes. Will they be able to live up to their potential and make a run in the Western Conference?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Jets’ Hellebuyck earns first shutout of the season vs. Ducks

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The Winnipeg Jets have fallen victim of the bad-team bug a few times this season.

They lost twice to the Ottawa Senators inside one week earlier this year, twice to the Colorado Avalanche in the same time frame and once to the Arizona Coyotes, who weren’t quite yet on the run they’re now in February.

So coming into this road trip late in the season, where they’d play the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks in two of the three games, there was a reason to be worried they’d get caught in the trap.

The good news for the team is that hasn’t been the case this time out. They beat Los Angeles on Monday and put together a 3-0 win against the Ducks on NBCSN on Wednesday Night Hockey for their fourth straight win after a 29-save shutout from Connor Hellebuyck, his first of the season.

Winnipeg is now three points up on the second-place Nashville Predators with a game in hand and a big meeting with their rivals on Saturday back in Winnipeg — a game that could decide the division if Winnipeg can get the win.

First, however, they’ll have to play the streaking Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night in Sin City. For the most part, they didn’t expend too much energy in their Wednesday win, so there should still be some gas left in the tank.

Hellebuyck’s is unlikely to start against Vegas, with the Jets looking like they’ll rest their No. 1 for Saturday’s pivotal big game against the Predators, but he had a relatively easy night. Laurent Brossoit, Winnipeg’s’ exceptional backup, should get the call.

Winnipeg’s defense has been decimated down the stretch, with no Dustin Byfuglien, no Josh Morrissey and now no Nathan Beaulieu, a trade deadline acquisition that was thrust into a top-pairing role. Beaulieu missed the game because of an undisclosed injury, making an already thin blue line that much thinner.

Given all their injuries on the back end, the shutout performance by the team is remarkable, even against the Ducks. Winnipeg is slated to get Big Buff and Morrissey back in time for the playoffs, which is critical if they’re to make a deep run once again.

Kyle Connor has a goal and an assist for the second straight game for the Jets. The sophomore has 12 points in his past 14 games.

The Ducks, who came into the game winners of six of their past night, seemed more interested in pestering the Jets rather than playing hockey against them. They didn’t give up six first period goals this time around, or lose 9-3. So that was an improvement over their last meeting.

Like many nights this season, this wasn’t Anaheim’s. If nothing else, the loss helps their lottery chances. All the winning they’ve been doing lately hasn’t helped, however.


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

Jets struggling to fight way out of slump

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There’s a big difference between being a team in first place and being a first-place team.

The Winnipeg Jets are a team in first place these days (in that regard, the standings don’t lie). But they are nowhere close to being a team worthy of their spot in the standings (and this is where the standings are misleading).

You can call what the Jets are going through a slump if you’d like. You can refer to it as a blip on the radar screen or team facing a bit of adversity. There’s some truth ruffling around in there. The season is long. But Winnipeg’s problems run deeper than the adjectives being used to describe their recent stretch.

And that’s when you see that the slump might actually be a trend, and not one that started last week with a pair of losses to the Ottawa Senators and now a pair of defeats to the Colorado Avalanche (including an atrocity-on-ice in a 7-1 loss on Wednesday night).

The slide begins further back, let’s say around Christmas — when the Jets lost both Dustin Byfuglien and Nikolaj Ehlers to injury and seemingly stopped playing the same way they used to. And while they’ve have found wins since then — including a couple of emphatic ones along the way against Tampa Bay and Vegas — a slow drip has worked itself into a concerning leak.

The Jets are a good case study when it comes to relying too heavily on an unsustainably-good power play and great goaltending while not playing well enough five-on-five to cover off the two if one or both wells run dry.

The Money Puck chart above shows how far Winnipeg’s expected goal differential has dipped. It’s severe. Their expected goals-for has also been on a moonwalk backward since around the same time, which makes sense given how far that differential as fallen.

The numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise. Anyone who’s watched the Jets regularly can see a team that’s a shade of their former selves.

  • They’re slow.
  • They appear uninterested.
  • They lack urgency and can’t match the intensity of their opponents
  • Their power play has fallen off the face of the earth.
  • Swiss cheese would be jealous of how many holes they’ve developed in their defense.
  • Patrik Laine left his game in November.
  • Discipline has gone out the window
  • Paul Maurice’s stubbornness has led to sub-optimal lines being trotted out game after game with predictable results.

Both wells have certainly run dry.

So how can a team sitting in first place, in what’s thought of as the toughest division in hockey, have so many issues? Like a bad infection, it’s had time to develop.

The Jets have slid seven spots from the eighth-best possession team last season to 15th this year. Their high-danger shots-for has gone from seventh to 22nd. Their goals-for/60 has plummeted from third to 14th.

In essence, the team has regressed. And without the benefit of that elite power play recently, Winnipeg hasn’t been able to outscore the issues they’re experiencing five-on-five.

If not for the excellent play of their goaltenders this year, they’d be in worse shape.

Connor Hellebuyck had a slow start to the season, but the Jets managed to outscore some of his woes. Laurent Brossoit has been a godsend as a backup, and they haven’t really needed to outscore anything with him in net because he barely gives up goals and has one of the best goals saved above average (GSAA) numbers in the entire NHL.

Hellebuyck has regained some of that form that saw him become a Vezina runner-up last season, but even his recent stellar play couldn’t help when seven flew past him on Wednesday night. Hellebuyck, quite frankly, was the only reason why that number wasn’t doubled.

“We were f—ing awful,” Jets forward Adam Lowry said in a candid meeting with reporters in Denver following the game. (The entire scrum is well worth the watch).

Jets captain Blake Wheeler said his team gave up, the first he’s seen such an occurrence during his time in Winnipeg — even through the seasons where they had nothing to play for.

There wasn’t much else to be said following Wednesday’s display. Both were raw. And both were true.

Fixing what is ailing the Jets is a question with no answer at the moment, but it has to begin with trying to find optimal placement for some of its pieces.

Laine’s slump is by no means the reason why the Jets are where they are. He’s far from the biggest issue with the team. But getting him going again is part of the solution, and finding suitable linemates to do so is a must.

Maurice brought the blender out on Wednesday but it was no use in a game as terrible as the one the Jets played.

Laine needs a driver at the moment, so moving a guy like Mathieu Perreault to his opposite wing would be a good start (it’s shown well in a limited fashion in the past). Perhaps putting Andrew Copp in between those two should be explored as well.

Putting Copp back with Lowry and Brandon Tanev would be another option. That line was elite last season in terms of possession and the Jets sorely need some sustained offensive zone time five-on-five.

The return of Ehlers will eventually help, but his timetable is still murky.

Maurice’s biggest task is sorting it out now, something he’s acknowledged but has struggled to find the proper diagnosis.

“We are concerned,” Maurice said last weekend following their second loss to the Senators in a week.

Asked to elaborate on those concerns, Maurice mentioned pretty much everything.

“Just our game,” he said. “There’s not a lot going for us. We’re struggling in all pieces of it. It’s how we generate our offense, how we defend, our special teams. Probably not our goaltending, our goaltending has been good.”

After Wednesday’s game, Maurice had far fewer words, spending just 40 seconds with reporters.

The man with 1,500-plus NHL games as a bench boss needs to figure out how to extract the same formidable Winnipeg Jets that were considered a Stanley Cup contender not long ago.

The last two weeks — and really, the past couple of months — have brought that into question.

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

Copley latest young, promising goalie to sign team-friendly deal

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It’s been a subtle but important trend in the NHL over the last year — highly-rated, young backup goalies signing very team-friendly deals on clubs that are (or will be) up against the salary cap.

The latest came on Monday when Washington Capitals backup Pheonix Copley inked a new three-year pact with the club to the tune of $1.1 million annual average value.

He became another promising netminder that a team signed a ‘smart deal’ in recent months.

Here’s the list:

Copley has proved he is on the right track as a full-time NHL backup this season. His .903 save percentage in all situations isn’t pretty, sure. But consider his five-on-five is sitting at .921, a very respectable number on a team that leads the league in minor penalties taken this season and has taken a nosedive as of late.

DeSmith, by comparison, is a .925 and Saros is just behind and a .924 in 5v5 situations. All three are in the Top 30 among goalies in goals saved above average, too, with each of them on the positive side of that category.

All three are backups with good-to-great upside and are signed to deals that aren’t forcing the team to choose between them and another roster player.

Copley and Saros project to be future signings, with Saros is the heir to Pekka Rinne’s’ throne and Copley the competent backup behind Ilya Samsonov if the Capitals decide to move from Braden Holtby after next season, or an asset down the line if Holtby re-ups. DeSmith is an excellent insurance policy for the oft-injured Matt Murray in Pittsburgh, having already proved his worth in that role this season.

You can throw another guy like Minnesota Wild puck-stopper Alex Stalock into this mix, too, after he signed late last month.

It’s a trend that could catch on elsewhere, as well.

The Winnipeg Jets would likely love to sign Laurent Brossoit to similar terms, for example. He’s having a stellar season in Winnipeg after escaping from Edmonton.

Los Angeles has decisions to make with Jack Campbell and Cal Petersen, both who have shown promise this season filling in for Jonathan Quick.

And then there’s the not-so-distant aspect of this: they represent expansion draft protection, allowing these teams to expose the mandatory one goalie without having to expose the team’s No. 1 (Saros will be the exception here).

The risk with these deals is low. We’ve already seen high-risk this year, with the Oilers shelling out $13.5 million for Mikko Koskinen, who has similar numbers to Copley but is three years his senior. It’s the above contracts that make that Koskinen extension so perplexing.


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