NHL on NBCSN: Bjugstad, McCann filling much-needed roles for Penguins

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has had to make a lot of trades over the past two years (probably more than he has wanted to make), and not all of them have worked out as planned. Two of the biggest moves involved Derick Brassard in an effort to address some of the depth the team lost following its Stanley Cup win in 2017. The first of those trades came just before the 2018 trade deadline when the Penguins, Ottawa Senators, and Vegas Golden Knights completed a massive and convoluted three-team trade to send Brassard to Pittsburgh, seemingly giving them the third-line center they needed to make another run at the Stanley Cup.

From the very beginning it never really worked.

Brassard struggled almost immediately upon arriving in Pittsburgh, never really fit in his new role, and there seemed to be frustration from both sides that it wasn’t working out. Less than a year after that deal, Brassard, Riley Sheahan, and a handful of draft picks were all sent to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad.

The early returns on that trade have been overwhelmingly positive for the Penguins, and are just one of the reasons they head into Tuesday’s game against the Washington Capitals (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN) on a 5-1-1 run over their past seven games and working to secure a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

McCann has made probably the most positive and significant contribution to the Penguins since the trade, already scoring eight goals in his first 19 games with the team, including a pair of two-goal efforts during this most recent seven-game stretch.

Bjugstad has added five goals in his first 19 games with the team.

Keep in mind that in Brassard’s 66 games with the Penguins, including playoffs, he scored only 13 goals. With the way McCann is going might match that total on his own before the playoffs begin this season.

Both he and Bjugstad have provided the complementary scoring that the Penguins have lacked, and struggled to replace, over most of the past two seasons.

Following the Penguins’ 4-2 win over the Bruins on Sunday night, a game where McCann scored two more goals, including a beautiful shorthanded goal, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was asked specifically why McCann and Bjugstad have excelled for the Penguins and why it never worked for Brassard. His answer was simple.

“They’re two real good players,” said Sullivan. “They’ve embraced the roles that we’ve put them in. When guys bring a certain level of enthusiasm and they embrace the challenge, that for me  is where it starts, with that attitude of wanting to make a difference and wanting to help this team win games. I think both of these guys are really excited to be Penguins. They’re excited about the roles that we’ve put them in.”

It is probably not a coincidence that Brassard has admitted on more than one occasion since the trade that it was difficult in Pittsburgh because they couldn’t find the right fit, and that he maybe lost some of the passion and emotion he had in his previous stops because of it.

Sometimes players need a fresh start to get that back and get into a role where everything feels comfortable and works.

Just like teams sometimes need a fresh start with different players.

While the Penguins obviously liked Bjugstad enough to trade for him and take on his $4 million salary cap hit through the end of the 2020-21 season, McCann always seemed to be the key addition because of his age (still only 22), contract (still one more year on an entry-level deal after this one), and his upside. So far they have both been significant additions for a team that needed a spark. They have also helped provide some essential secondary scoring, something they were not getting from the duo of Brassard and Sheahan.

MORE: PHT Power Rankings: Capitals playing like champs again

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Pittsburgh. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Keith Jones and Anson Carter.

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.

Blue Jackets’ offense shut down again in big loss to Penguins

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PITTSBURGH — John Tortorella raised quite a few eyebrows on Thursday when he not only decided to start backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo for what was, to this point, his team’s biggest game of the regular season, but also decided to not even dress his regular starter, Sergei Bobrovsky.

The official explanation was for Bobrovsky to get some additional rest and work on his game, and not because of his career-long struggles against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Given the importance of the game, the dire situation Columbus is in when it comes to the Eastern Conference playoff race, and the fact Bobrovsky is supposed to be their starting goalie that explanation doesn’t really fly.

This is not the time to “rest” your starter. This is the time you lean on him. So in that sense, it was a pretty bold decision. Actually, it probably isn’t even fair to call it bold because it is too much of an understatement.

[Related: Blue Jackets sit Bobrovsky versus Penguins]

Having said all of that, Tortorella’s decision wasn’t really the difference in the end because it doesn’t matter who your goalie is if you can’t score any goals. And that is exactly what happened to the Blue Jackets on Thursday night. They did nothing.

The Blue Jackets dropped their eighth consecutive game to the Penguins, fell four points behind them in the standings, and continued their post-trade deadline struggles in what could be a massive 3-0 loss. The two teams meet again on Saturday night in Columbus in what figures to be a must-win game for the Blue Jackets if they have any hope of catching the Penguins in the standings. A regulation win would at least bring them back to within two points; but a regulation loss would push them six points back with less than a month to play in the regular season. That gap would almost impossible to make up, especially no more remaining head-to-head meetings after Saturday.

There are a couple of issues here for the Blue Jackets.

First, what does it say about your confidence in your starting goalie if you can’t start him in this game against this team?

Second, and perhaps more importantly, after going all in at the trade deadline and trading away almost every draft pick they have in 2019 (as well as a couple of prospects) to get Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid, the Blue Jackets are now in a situation where they are not even close to a guarantee to make the playoffs.

They are just 2-4-0 since the trade deadline, with none of those wins coming in regulation. They needed overtime to beat a Philadelphia Flyers team that is not going to make the playoffs and barely outlasted a depleted New Jersey roster that is among the worst in the league in a shootout on Tuesday night. They have scored just nine goals in the six games, have been shutout twice (once to Edmonton) and been beaten twice by the Penguins in two huge head-to-head games.

That is obviously not what they had in mind when they went all in at the trade deadline to try and take advantage of the remaining months they have with Artemi Panarin and Bobrovsky before they inevitably leave in free agency.

For as bad as the situation looks right now the Blue Jackets are definitely not out of this thing yet. Even though Saturday’s game against the Penguins is huge when it comes to their chances of catching them, the Penguins are not the only team the Blue Jackets are competing with in this race. Even with all of their recent struggles they are still only two points back of the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes, so they are well within reach. They are not going to get there though if they can not start to find some consistent and sustained offense.

As for the Penguins on Thursday, Phil Kessel started the scoring with an early power play goal to snap what had been a 16-game goal-less drought, while Nick Bjugstad and Sidney Crosby also scored in the win.

Matt Murray stopped all 25 shots he faced to record his fourth shutout of the 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.

WATCH LIVE: Blue Jackets visit Penguins on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Thursday night’s matchup between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game is the start of a home-and-home that will wrap up the season series between Columbus and Pittsburgh. The Penguins have won both meetings so far, including their game last week in Columbus. Overall, the Pens have won seven in a row in the regular season vs. the Blue Jackets.

This home-and-home series figures to have massive implications on the playoff race. Entering this game, just two points separate third in the Metro from being outside of the playoffs entirely.

Columbus picked up a much-needed two points on Tuesday with their 2-1 shootout win over New Jersey. The Jackets had been 1-3-0 since the trade deadline, so the win was a tangible measure of progress to keep them right in the playoff mix. However, the reaction in the locker room afterwards was hardly celebratory. The Jackets played very poorly, mustering only 18 shots on goal (a season-low) against a Devils team that had nearly half of its regular lineup out due to injury.

Pittsburgh also went past regulation on Tuesday, defeating Florida 3-2 in OT, thanks to Jake Guentzel’s second goal of the game. He now has 33 goals this season. Sidney Crosby had three points to surpass the 1,200-point threshold.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: PPG Paints Arena
When: Thursday, March 7, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUE JACKETS
Artemi PanarinPierre-Luc DuboisJosh Anderson
Nick FolignoMatt DucheneCam Atkinson
Ryan DzingelAlex WennbergOliver Bjorkstrand
Brandon DubinskyBoone JennerRiley Nash

Zach WerenskiSeth Jones
Markus NutivaaraDavid Savard
Scott HarringtonAdam McQuaid

Starting goalie: Joonas Korpisalo

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Jake Guentzel
Zach Aston-ReeseEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Dominik SimonNick BjugstadPatric Hornqvist
Teddy BluegerMatt CullenGarrett Wilson

Brian Dumoulin – Zach Trotman
Jack JohnsonJustin Schultz
Marcus PetterssonErik Gudbranson

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

John Forslund (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Pittsburgh. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Mike Johnson.

Penguins push Blue Jackets out of top 8, and other East bubble updates

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As much as the Blue Jackets look bold in adding Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel during the trade deadline and not moving Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, one thing doesn’t look different. They’re still seemingly going to need to finally solve the riddle of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Now, it’s true that both the Penguins and Blue Jackets could both make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It’s almost certain that three playoff spots will boil down to four teams: Columbus and Pittsburgh, plus the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens. With things as tight as they are right now, there will probably be some serious twists and turns until the 2018-19 regular season ends on April 7.

It’s chilling to the Blue Jackets to realize that, if the playoffs began on Tuesday night, they’d be on the outside looking in. Painful stuff to absorb shortly after betting big on a deep playoff run.

With that in mind, the Blue Jackets have to hope that Tuesday represents the dark Second Act before the heroes prevail in the end, partying with Wookies.

So let’s break down Tuesday, when “The Penguins Strike Back.”

Penguins 5, Blue Jackets 2

Columbus loaded up, while the Penguins have also mortgaged a portion of their future by recently giving up picks for Nick Bjugstad/Jared McCann, and making questionable moves including adding derisive defenseman Erik Gudbranson.

Tuesday represented the first of three remaining games against the Penguins, with the head-to-head games closing off with a home-and-home series on March 7 and 9.

The Penguins stunned what must have been an-at-first elated Blue Jackets crowd with a 3-0 first period. Pittsburgh must have been fearing that they’d squander another lead like they did against the Flyers at the 2019 Stadium Series when Columbus wound that edge down to 3-2, but the Pens ultimately won. Evgeni Malkin‘s game-winner was surely one Bobrovsky would like back:

So far, the Blue Jackets have lost both of their games against the Penguins this season, which must really bug John Tortorella — who hasn’t been shy about sharing his hatred for the Pens.

The Blue Jackets found no solace looking at the scoreboard, either.

Hurricanes 6, Kings 1

The main drama here revolved around whether the Hurricanes would come up with another riff on “bunch of jerks.” Carolina won easily, and yes, they did present something new to troll those who grumble at those win celebrations.

Canadiens 8(!), Red Wings 1

Although Monday’s regulation loss to the lowly Devils must have been frustrating, you’d almost expect a less relentless rendition of the Canadiens to close out back-to-back games.

If Montreal was fatigued, they had a funny way of showing it, as they absolutely demolished Detroit. Any worries about back-to-back losses to cellar dwellers went away during Montreal’s five-goal second period.

***

There was quite a bit of movement in the skintight standings:

Metro 3: Hurricanes: 34-23-6, 74 points, 33 regulation/OT wins, 63 games played

WC 1: Canadiens: 34-23-7, 75 points, 32 ROW, 64 GP
WC 2: Penguins: 33-22-8, 74 points, 32 ROW, 63 GP

Ninth place: Blue Jackets: 35-24-3, 73 points, 35 ROW, 62 GP

While Tuesday represents the worst-case scenario for Columbus, the Blue Jackets’ current position is misleading, as they can win that game in hand and then move back in front of everyone.

There are possible situations where this wouldn’t happen, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the Blue Jackets’ (or Hurricanes’) fate comes down to if they can beat (or at least wrestle some standings points away from) the Penguins, as Carolina and Columbus each have two games remaining against Pittsburgh.

(In case you’re wondering … Columbus faces Montreal and Carolina once more, while the Habs and Hurricanes face each other one more time.)

Anyone who genuinely believes they know which of these four teams will secure the three East spots is probably bluffing. If Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen is wrong about his confidence in his own team standing tall, then that gamble would end up become an enormous bust.

Tuesday made that reality feel more possible, but expect things to change, possibly almost every night.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Constant roster shuffling makes Penguins look directionless

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Success at a championship level in professional sports is not only a rare and short-lived thing, it also tends to be quickly and easily forgotten when the winning stops. Or at least when it slows down. So with that in mind we really need to talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins because this is a team that seems to be quickly trending in the wrong direction.

Just two years ago they were doing something that had not been done in the NHL in two full decades by winning their second consecutive Stanley Cup, capping off an incredible run of hockey that was driven by a core of superstar players and a series of roster moves that worked out to near perfection. The acquisitions of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, and a host of call-ups from the AHL were all home runs (or close to it), resulting in a stable, successful roster with very little turnover from 2016 to 2017. Other than the additions of Jake Guentzel (call-up) and Ron Hainsey (trade), it was mostly the same team.

But following the 2017 championship the salary cap, free agency, and what has seemingly been a curious change in direction from the recipe that produced back-to-back championships has stripped the team of most of its depth, and the front office has badly struggled to replace it. The result has been two years of constant roster shuffling that has left the team on the playoff bubble and facing a daunting stretch run that includes six games against the teams they are competing with for a playoff spot (three against Columbus, two against Carolina, one against Montreal) and a number of games against some top-tier teams. Those head-to-head matchups will go a long way toward making or breaking their season, which is a stunning thing to be saying about this team with this core in late February.

Making matters worse in the short-term is the fact they are currently playing without three of their top-four defenders as Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, and Olli Maatta are all sidelined for an undetermined amount of time. That situation likely had at least a little something to do with the continued roster shuffling at Monday’s trade deadline when they flipped Tanner Pearson to the Vancouver Canucks for Erik Gudbranson.

The move was not well received by … well … anyone.

The focus of the criticism has been centered around what Gudbranson can actually bring to the table. Objectively speaking, his career performance has not lived up to the status of a former top-five draft pick. His underlying numbers are among the worst in the league at his position, and the eye test isn’t any more forgiving.

By Gudbranson’s own admission on the way out of Vancouver he was not good enough during his time there.

There is legitimate cause for concern with him as a player.

But focusing on Gudbranson misses the bigger problem in Pittsburgh right now, and that problem is that over the past two years nearly every single roster transaction the team has made has been a failure.

In some cases a spectacular failure.

[Related: Pearson for Gudbranson trade looks ugly for Penguins … on paper]

We know this is true because they keep having to make more trades to undo all of the roster transactions in an effort to correct them.

The cost the Penguins paid to actually get Gudbranson from Vancouver is irrelevant. I don’t know of any other way to put this without sounding like a jerk — so I will just say it and sound like a jerk — but Tanner Pearson is a mostly forgettable, run-of-the-mill NHL player. He might score 15-20 goals for your team, he might finish with 40 points, and within a year of him being on your roster you will probably forget he was ever on your roster until you go down a Hockey-Reference rabbit hole and say, “oh, hey, remember that guy?”

But the Penguins had just acquired that guy two months earlier in exchange for Carl Hagelin, a move that in hindsight looks like it was only done to shake up a core that had maybe gotten too comfortable with itself. Hagelin had his flaws as a player, but he was a huge part of the team’s identity, a popular player in the locker room, a player who won championships with the team, and a player who could still play a capable shut down role and bring the type of defensive conscious so many of the team’s forwards currently lack.

That is not nothing. He was also an expiring contract after this season. Put it all together and that means within a span of two months the Penguins turned a somewhat useful player that was still a part of their identity and what would have been $4M in salary cap space next season into a player whose potential contributions are suspect at best, detrimental at worst, who will be taking up every penny of that salary cap space in each of the next two seasons.

Pearson’s arrival and almost immediate departure was the eighth time since the start of the 2017-18 offseason that the Penguins acquired an NHL player and then jettisoned them within a year.

  • Ryan Reaves, acquired on June 23, 2017 — traded on February 23, 2018
  • Matt Hunwick, signed on July 1, 2017 — traded on June 27, 2018
  • Antti Niemi, signed on July 1, 2017 — waived on October 24, 2017
  • Riley Sheahan, acquired on October 1, 2017 — traded on February 1, 2019
  • Jamie Oleksiak, acquired on December 19, 2017 — traded on January 28, 2019 (it was literally the same trade!)
  • Derick Brassard, acquired on February 23, 2018 — traded on February 1, 2019
  • Derek Grant, signed on July 19, 2018 — traded on January 17, 2019
  • Tanner Pearson, acquired on November 14, 2018 — traded on February 25, 2019

It is not unfair to look at that list and that series of transactions and come to the conclusion that there is a problem somewhere in the organization, whether it is with the pro scouting, or with the coaching staff, or with the final decision-making, or with what they are looking for in players. Something is clearly off here. What other conclusion can you possibly come to?

A team that just two years ago was winning with speed, skill, and puck-moving defense keeps trying to find grit and toughness and keeps making itself slower and less mobile.

The one transaction that was made during this stretch that hasn’t yet been undone, the signing of Jack Johnson, might be the most damaging of the bunch and it’s probably only a matter of when, and not if, that ends in a buyout or a trade.

This much roster turnover and shuffling of players can not be a sustainable way to run a franchise, mostly because it doesn’t even take into account the collateral damage that has come with working to “fix” those trades. They lost Conor Sheary, Hagelin, Ian Cole, and Oskar Sundqvist as part of those transactions, and have also given up a boat load of draft picks and a top prospect (goalie Filip Gustavsson) along the way.

As of now, they have gained Jared McCann, Nick Bjugstad, and Gudbranson out of it all, with the latter two taking up more than $8M in salary cap space over the next couple of years for a team that is already pressed against the salary cap because of their superstars. Will they be worth it? And what other trades will have to be made and what other assets will be given up if (or when) they are not? Because if recent history is any indicator there is almost no chance they finish their current contracts wearing Penguins uniforms.

Maybe they don’t make this latest trade for Gudbranson if the injury situation isn’t what it is. But even with that it’s bizarre to try and plug a short-term hole by acquiring a player with this on-ice track record with this much term and this much money left on their deal. There are other ways to plug a hole without tying up significant cap space in future years.

And quite honestly, if Gudbranson’s play doesn’t show dramatic improvement upon his arrival in Pittsburgh there is an argument to be made they would have been better off just staying with what they had. They might have been better off had they simply done nothing since the start of last offseason because at least then they might have more salary cap space, more assets to deal from, and it’s hard to imagine their spot in the standings being any worse because as of now they are only going as far as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and a healthy Letang can carry them.

Rutherford has built three Cup winning teams in the NHL, and that is not only a big part of his story as an executive, it commands respect. It will probably be enough to someday get him a call to the Hall of Fame (how many three-time Cup winning general managers are not in?)

But it doesn’t leave him above criticism when it is warranted.

Based on where the Penguins are and the series of moves that have been made over the past two years the criticism is definitely warranted because his team looks like it doesn’t know what it is, where it is going, or how it should get there.

MORE: Winners and losers of the NHL trade deadline

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.