Matt Murray

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What Penguins need to become championship team again

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There is going to come a point in the next few years where the Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer a playoff team.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are all over the age of 32 and probably only have a handful of high-level years ahead of them. When they start to decline or retire there is going to be no replacing them and no matter what moves the Penguins make today there is not going to be anything that stops them from needing an extensive rebuild in the not-too-distant future. That future is not quite here yet.

After barely making the playoffs and getting swept in Round 1 with a roster that seemed to lose its way, it is not unfair to say that the team has slipped a bit in its standing as a Stanley Cup contender. What do they need to get back closer to the top?

We know the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel duo is going to excel on the first line and the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing is going to be great. After that it is a bunch of questions. The obvious keys focus on Alex Galchenyuk fitting in, Evgeni Malkin being better (especially at even-strength), and Matt Murray playing at his best (all things we already looked at today).

But that alone will not be enough.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor | Three Questions]

1. Rediscover their identity. I touched on this immediately after their Round 1 loss but the single biggest flaw the Penguins have is their sudden fascination with having players that provide “push back.” For a team that won two Stanley Cups under the mantra of “just play” it was a needless overreaction to some perceived injustices from a select few opposing players. The result was a shift away from what made team so tough to play against (balanced offense, mobile defense, speed, four scoring lines) and a rapidly growing collection of long-term, pricey contracts for depth players (Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, Brandon Tanev). The big thing that would help address this: Another mobile, puck-moving defender that can play on the second pair. The big intangible thing: Go back to “just play” instead of worrying about pushing back.

2. A resurgence from a (hopefully) healthy Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist’s status as a team leader and gritty forward with a non-stop motor masked the fact that his play rapidly deteriorated in the second half of the season, to the point where he was a complete non-factor offensively. It was a stunning slump after a strong first half. The thing that stands out about that is there is a pretty firm line that separated his season. That line was another head injury that kept him out of the lineup midway through the season. Was it a fluke slump? Was it a result of the injury? Was it a sign of things to come for him in the future now that he is 32 years old? A combination of all three? Whatever it was, the Penguins have Hornqvist signed for four more years at more than $5 million per season. The work ethic and effort are great, but at that price the Penguins need him to produce more than he did this past year or that contract will quickly turn into another drain on the salary cap.

3. Some young players need to emerge. The big focus during their mid-season turnaround in 2015-16 was on the coaching change. But there was another element at play: A bunch of young players became impact players at the same time (Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl; Guentzel a year later). The Penguins need that again. While the farm system is thin, there are some candidates to take big steps forward at the NHL level. Dominik Simon is polarizing because he is a favorite of the coaching staff and struggles to score goals, but he is a good defensive player and playmaker. Jared McCann is a favorite of the front office because they love his potential and he had a strong showing after the trade from Florida. He needs to show it was not a fluke. Dominik Kahun is an intriguing add from Chicago and is coming off a solid rookie season. And even though this might be for a couple years down the line, Pierre-Oliver Joseph is the exact type of defender they need to emerge and become a regular.

The three superstars at the top are the most important ingredient. But they are only part of the recipe. These three keys are just as important.

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

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.

It’s a big year for Penguins’ Matt Murray

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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 Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray has a lot to prove this season.

He has to prove to the NHL that he is still the goalie that backstopped his team to back-to-back Stanley Cups, and he has to prove to the Penguins that he is worthy of a significant long-term commitment after this season when his current deal expires.

Murray is an interesting player because he has already accomplished more in his first four years than most goalies will accomplish in an entire career. But for all of that team success there is still some debate as to what type of goalie he is and what his long-term prospects are as a No. 1 goalie.

His first two years in the league where as good as any goalie in the history of the league, maintaining a save percentage over .925 (regular season and playoffs) and winning two championships.  He regressed during the 2017-18 season and playoffs and then stumbled badly out of the gate this past season before catching fire when he was finally healthy in mid-December, playing some of the best hockey of his career between mid-December and the end of the regular season.

Looking at his career from a big picture perspective, he has been mostly outstanding when healthy and his play over the final four months of the 2018-19 season was probably one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, the Penguins were even able to make the playoffs. He masked a lot of flaws the team had defensively and their success was driven mostly by how he played.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | 3 Questions]

When he was good, the Penguins won. When he was not good, they did not win.

Barring something unforeseen he is going to continue to be the Penguins’ starting goalie for years to come because, 1) he is good, and 2) they have zero organizational depth behind him. It is his spot. So while it is a little odd that have not made a new contract a priority (Jake Guentzel, Mike Sullivan, Jim Rutherford all signed long-term contracts within the organization over the past year — but the starting goalie has not) they still have time to get it done.

And Murray has time to show just exactly what type of goalie he is and what he is worth.

He is definitely the Penguins’ biggest X-Factor this season because with the makeup of their defense he is probably going to be tested often. Again. The Penguins are not as strong in front of him as they were two or three years ago and have a much smaller margin for error, finishing just four points clear of the first non-playoff team this past season. Even playing on a team that has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang as the core there is probably not a single player that will impact what they are capable of more than Murray. They all showed this past season how much his play impacts them in the standings.

If he plays like he did from December-March of this past season, which is pretty close to how he played in 2015-16 and 2016-17 when he was lifting the Stanley Cup, he is going to be in line for a huge contract.

If he plays like he did between 2017 and the end of November in 2018, it might create a little more uncertainty for the Penguins and make his next deal a little more complicated.

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

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.

Penguins questions include defense, trade bait, and Malkin’s bounce-back

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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 Pittsburgh Penguins.

Three pressing questions for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Is the defense good enough?

In the opinion of general manager Jim Rutherford, yes. He has repeatedly defended the construction of his defense and at one point even went as far as to call it the best defense he has had during his time in Pittsburgh. High praise considering he has been in Pittsburgh for two Stanley Cup winning teams.

This team, though, is not coming off of a Stanley Cup win and there is little objective evidence to suggest this defense is anything better than ordinary. They were 12th in the NHL in goals against this past season and even that ranking was driven significantly by the performance of Matt Murray in net thanks to some of the best play of his career from mid-December on.

As a team, the Penguins were one of the worst teams in the league at preventing shots, average in preventing scoring chances, and a little below average on the PK. They have one great defense pairing in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin (one of the best pairings in all of hockey) and then a bunch of flawed players and question marks after that. Other than shipping out Olli Maatta over the summer, the Penguins have done nothing else to change the look of their defense. Rutherford obviously believes in this group, and he is taking a pretty big bet that he is right.

2. Who is the next salary cap casualty or trade chip?

This is probably more of a preseason question than a question for the season, but somebody has to go.

Trading Phil Kessel was supposed to alleviate some of the salary cap crunch, but taking Alex Galchenyuk as part of the return and signing Brandon Tanev in free agency quickly erased that savings. Add that to the returning contracts for Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson and the Penguins have a significant chunk of money going to depth players that probably are not moving them closer to another championship. It has put them in a position where they have to move out someone else.

As it stands, they are slightly over the salary cap and still have to re-sign RFA Marcus Pettersson. After this season, Galchenyuk, Justin Schultz, Jared McCann, Dominik Simon and starting goalie Matt Murray will be in line for new contracts. So who goes?

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Johnson or Gudbranson could be an option to go off the blue line and would probably the ideal trade bait, while Bryan Rust or Nick Bjugstad seem like logical candidates at forward.

3. Will Evgeni Malkin bounce back?

It is a good bet that he will.

The final offensive numbers from this past season look good (better than a point-per-game average) and he had a great start to the season, but his production really slumped over the final three quarters of the season and especially at even-strength. His defensive game was also lacking and he will be the first to say the 2018-19 season was not his best. He can be better, and the Penguins need him to be better. Malkin is a proud player and will no doubt be motivated to show this past season was a fluke and that he is still one of the league’s best and most dominant players. A driven Malkin playing at his best is a season-changing player, and if he gets back to that level it will be more valuable to the Penguins than any other potential offseason addition could have been.

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

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: Ovechkin’s new cereal; Fighting continues to decrease

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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.

• The Calgary Flames are one step closer to getting a new arena. (Calgary Herald)

• Check out the top 11 underappreciated individual seasons in NHL history. (Edit One Nine)

Alex Ovechkin will have a cereal named after him. How do you feel about Ovi O’s? (NBC Sports Washington)

• The Oilers need to get the most out of Connor McDavid every year, but how much can they play him next season? (TSN)

• Fighting continues to decrease in the NHL. (ESPN)

• The Hockey News shares a list of the top 5 2020 NHL Draft prospects playing at the Summer Showcase. (The Hockey News)

• Golden Knights GM George McPhee mishandled another Russian player in Nikita Gusev. (Sinbin.Vegas)

Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s new contract is great news for Penguins goalie Matt Murray. (Pittsburgh Hockey Now)

• That new contract makes Vasilevskiy even more important to the Lightning. (Raw Charge)

• With Vasilevskiy making $9.5 million per year on his new deal, Tuukka Rask doesn’t look so overpaid anymore. (NBC Sports Boston)

• Rangers GM Jeff Gorton has to find a way to get his team under the salary cap. (Blue Shirt Banter)

Dylan Strome is looking to build on his impressive season with the Blackhawks. (NHL)

• The Blackhawks are starting to look much different after the moves Stan Bowman made over the summer. (Daily Herald)

• Jack and Quinn Hughes have both been drafted into the NHL and their brother, Luke, is the next one looking to make it. (Sportsnet)

• How will Alain Vigneault utilize his goalies this season? (Broadstreet Hockey)

• Puck Junk used the FaceApp on some classic hockey cards. (Puck Junk)

• The Devils only have one good faceoff guy on their roster. (All About the Jersey)

• How unlucky were the Vancouver Canucks in 2018-19? (Vancourier)

• Here’s the Ice Garden’s all-time CWHL first-team. (Ice Garden)

• The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to miss veteran Ron Hainsey. (Leafs Nation)

• The hockey world is looking to shed their “white” label. (Seattle Times)

• Which players should the Arizona Coyotes pick up on PTOs? (Five for Howling)

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.

Sabres make big strides this offseason, may not be done yet

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It’s tempting to call the Henri Jokiharju trade the cherry on top of a delicious offseason sundae for the Buffalo Sabres, but GM Jason Botterill can’t quite desert his office just yet, as his work might not be done yet.

Here’s a delicious thought, though: the Sabres would be massively improved even if Botterill did decide to close up shop and spend the rest of the summer reclining and sipping cocktails.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

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Really, you can go back to the 2018-19 season to see the Sabres getting proactive about improving their defense, the team’s most glaring weakness. Botterill really started the party by snagging Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in February, and continued his trend of trading for interesting right-handed defensemen talent by getting a bargain for Colin Miller, then making what looks like a lucrative trade in receiving Jokiharju for struggling prospect Alex Nylander.

Jokiharju, Miller, and Montour could set up a glut on the right, as they’re joined by beat-up blueliner Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, and hypothetical trade generator Rasmus Ristolainen. You can basically set your watch to Ristolainen rumors cropping up, either when Buffalo adds a right-handed defenseman, or even if they just add money. Or maybe get out of bed in the morning.

The logic is simple enough. Ristolainen is, in many ways, a lot like former Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Ristolainen and Myers are both very tall, and they both signed contracts after a spike in production, only to slide rather than continuing to climb afterward (in Myers’ case, the shaky contract he signed way back when with the Sabres just expired).

Ristolainen is 24, and his size and respectable skill could make him intriguing to front offices that … well, frankly, don’t really look very deeply into a wide variety of numbers. If it weren’t for lousy plus/minus stats, Ristolainen would check every “traditional” box (four consecutive seasons of 40+ points, big ice time averages), while looking far worse in fancier ones. Take these RAPM charts from Evolving Hockey, which paint the picture that Ristolainen doesn’t bring a lot of value beyond the power play, and you’ll maybe begin to understand why analytics-minded Sabres fans are anxious for Buffalo to trade Ristolainen while there are at least some NHL front offices who still believe in him:

Again, a significant subset of people – analytics folks, plenty of Sabres fans, and those who meet in the middle of that Venn Diagram – have been clamoring for the Sabres to trade Ristolainen for some time, but this summer’s set of moves makes such arguments more credible than ever.

That’s because …

More help for Eichel, possibly with more help on its way?

One more top-six forward, by way of a Ristolainen trade, could really tie this roster together.

To Botterill’s credit, he’s deftly improved another problem area beyond that once-abysmal defense, as he’s given the Sabres more scoring options beyond “Hopefully Jack Eichel saves us.”

The most important first step was keeping the one true running mate that Eichel had, as they signed Jeff Skinner to a monster contract. While you could argue quite fairly that it’s an overpay overall, I’d also rank it as a necessary evil.

But, again, the Sabres’ 2018-19 season showed that they need more than Eichel – Skinner, as powerful as that duo turned out to be. And now Botterill faced the challenge of adding support without breaking the bank, as Eichel + Skinner = $19M in combined AAV.

You know what? Botterill’s done really well in that regard, too.

Jimmy Vesey isn’t a world-beater, but the Sabres courted him for a while, and now they have him for cheap. Vesey and 2018 summer acquisition Conor Sheary rank as the sort of forwards who won’t revolutionize your lineup, but could nudge you toward competence. It doesn’t hurt that both Sheary and Vesey will have the added motivation of contract years, either.

Marcus Johansson might be my favorite recent forward addition, if not favorite single add overall. The Sabres sat out the most frenzied part of free agency, and were rewarded for showing even just a modicum of patience. A few days after July 1, Buffalo added Johansson for an AAV of just $4.5M, and mitigated most of the health-related risks by only giving him two years of term. Splendid stuff, especially since the winger gets a chance to sign a more robust deal if he can deliver during the next two seasons.

That’s all good stuff; now imagine if Buffalo gets greedy.

Again, people get excited about the idea of Ristolainen being traded, as he’s prominent enough to be part of a blockbuster, as his $5.4M cap hit is both movable and large enough to be part of a hefty deal.

Sabres fans should salivate at some of the names thrown out there, as they could provide that one extra piece that truly rounds out a top-heavy offense into being nicely balanced.

Die By the Blade trots out two interesting scenarios with the Winnipeg Jets: perhaps the Jets would cough up transition machine Nikolaj Ehlers for Ristolainen. If not, what about the intriguing combination of young Jack Roslovic and analytics darling Mathieu Perreault? The Jets have been willing to shrug their shoulders at analytics before (see: Myers, Tyler), so after losing Myers and Jacob Trouba, maybe they’d want Ristolainen?

Ehlers, in particular, excites as a buy-low trade, but he’s not the only option.

Honestly, I was half-joking here, yet if the Oilers would bite on Ristolainen for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade, poor Edmonton fans might get another taste of Peter Chiarelli-style blunders even after Chiarelli’s been replaced by Ken Holland.

Basically: the Sabres could move from what’s suddenly a position of strength to pull the trigger on a Ristolainen deal, and maybe get a top-six forward who simply brings more to the table, at a comparable cap hit. If it’s Ehlers, that player could pan out and bring a lot more to the table than Ristolainen, who profiles as a deeply flawed player.

To be continued?

All of that said, if the right deal doesn’t sprout up for Ristolainen, the Sabres may also look at next summer as the true feeding frenzy.

The Athletic’s John Vogl paints quite the picture (sub required) of the Sabres courting potential free agents if they let certain expiring contracts fade, rather than re-signing people:

They can take Taylor Hall and Nicklas Backstrom to dinner on Delaware Avenue. Jason Botterill can sip mai tais on a Canalside tiki boat with Alex Galchenyuk, Tyler Toffoli, Torey Krug and Roman Josi. If the Sabres are feeling really frisky, they can wine and dine Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Interesting stuff, and for all we know, Braden Holtby could also hit the market if the Capitals decide to roll that way with another cap crunch impending.

***

Even if the Sabres flip Ristolainen for that elusive top-six forward, they’d still need some things to break their way for this to feel like an immediate success.

Ralph Krueger needs to show that he won’t struggle coaching in the NHL after taking a truly unusual path back to the league, which included a lengthy detour with the Premier League. Botterill didn’t plunge into the goalie market, so they’ll hope for good work from Carter Hutton and RFA Linus Ullmark. It’s conceivable that they still might ask too much of Eichel, particularly if they can’t use Ristolainen for an upgrade. The Atlantic Division also looks formidable, with the Panthers at least spending like winners, along with the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins seemingly slated to make everyone else fight for wild-card scraps.

Overall, though, the Sabres improved immensely — and after the undeniable (but maybe unavoidable?) gamble on Jeff Skinner, they didn’t ruin their outlook in the longer term for the sake of short-term gains. By most accounts, they had a strong 2019 NHL Draft haul, to boot. Other teams looking to take those agonizing next steps from a rebuild to actual contention should take notes of what Buffalo did, and may still do.

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.