Nick Bjugstad

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

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.

Cap crunch: Rangers, Penguins, Flames among teams that need moves

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Even though most of the NHL’s biggest roster transactions have already happened this summer, there are still some significant moves that will be coming over the next few weeks. Many of them will be out of necessity as it relates to getting under the salary cap for the 2019-20 season.

As of Saturday, there are four teams (New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins) that are still over the $81.5 million salary cap (teams can exceed the salary cap by 10 percent in the offseason) and a handful of teams that are close to the salary cap while still needing to re-sign some players.

Let’s take a look at some of the teams that will needing to make another move (or two) over the next few weeks to position themselves under the salary cap.

New York Rangers: After signing Pavel Buchnevich to a two-year contract on Saturday, the Rangers currently sit more than $4 million above the cap with a full roster of 23 players under contract. The offseason additions of Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba drastically altered the cap situation and have them in a position where a significant move is going to be necessary. Possible trade options: Chris Kreider should be at the top of the trade list given what he could bring back and his UFA status next summer, but they could also explore options with Ryan Strome and Vladislav Namestnikov.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Trading Phil Kessel was supposed to help the Penguins ease their salary cap crunch, but acquiring Alex Galchenyuk in that deal and signing Brandon Tanev to a long-term deal negated any savings that might have existed. They still have to re-sign defenseman Marcus Pettersson (they want to give him a long-term deal) and will need to move another contract to do so and remain under the cap. Possible trade options: Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad, Jack Johnson, and Erik Gudbranson are all depth players signed to long-term deals (never a good idea for Stanley Cup contenders). Rust and Bjugstad still have the most value and use to the team, while Johnson and Gudbranson are definitely expendable.

Calgary Flames: After re-signing David Rittich on Saturday to settle their goaltending duo for this season the Flames have between $4 and $5 million of salary cap space remaining for this season. They still have to re-sign Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Magiapane. Without another move they do not have enough salary cap space to re-sign Tkachuk alone as he is in line for a massive raise on his next deal. He is already one of the best young players in the league and will easily be a $6 million-plus player starting this season. Possible trade options: Michael Frolik is the obvious choice here, and his name has been in trade rumors for a while now. He counts more than $4 million against the salary cap this season, and while he is still a useful player he is probably not the most efficient use of the Flames’ limited salary cap space at the moment.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vegas Golden Knights: Dumping Clarkson’s contract off on the Maple Leafs finally put the Golden Knights back under the cap, but they still have the Nikita Gusev situation looming. Based on his KHL production and skillset Gusev could be a top-six winger in the NHL and a welcome addition to any NHL team … including the Golden Knights. The problem is they do not have anywhere near the salary cap space to meet his demands. Their options are either trading Gusev and risk giving up an outstanding player, or moving someone like a Cody Eakin and/or Ryan Reaves to create enough salary cap space to keep him for themselves.

Toronto Maple Leafs: They are now about $3 million over the salary cap after acquiring David Clarkson‘s contract and still have to re-sign restricted free agent Mitch Marner. It looks bad, but they are going to get relief by placing Clarkson and Nathan Horton on the long-term injured list. They should be okay without having to make another significant move, but it will be close and Marner may not be under contract on the first day of the regular season.

Washington Capitals: They will have some major decisions to make over the next couple of seasons with core players. In a more short-term outlook they are, as of Saturday, a little more than $1 million over the league’s salary cap after re-signing Chandler Stephenson on Friday. The Capitals already traded Andre Burakovsky this summer and will probably need another cap-clearing move before October. It’s hard to imagine them shipping out a top-line player right now, so look for smaller moves that could involve the likes of Travis Boyd or Christian Djoos.

Related: Jets, Lightning still have big RFA challenges to deal with

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.

Golden Knights could give up a gem if they trade Gusev

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The Vegas Golden Knights are struggling to walk a negotiating tightrope with intriguing RFA Nikita Gusev. Other teams should do everything they can to upset that balance by acquiring his rights in a trade.

Vegas? They’re likely to regret trading Gusev to keep players with far less potential.

An exciting talent

It’s hasty to call Gusev “the next” Artemi Panarin. Yet, for teams that couldn’t ferment enough interest to bring in “The Bread Man,” it’s tantalizing to wonder if Gusev could be the next forward to make a successful leap from the KHL to the NHL. While Panarin’s become a full-priced star, he too began his career on the cheap with Chicago; it’s asking too much for Gusev to deliver at that level, but teams should put themselves in position to take advantage of the considerable value he’s likely to bring.

You see, the Vegas Golden Knights currently hold Gusev’s rights as an RFA, yet even after trading away Colin Miller and Erik Haula to clear room, they’re still in a tight salary cap situation. That situation might just squeeze out Gusev.

Golden Knights GM George McPhee acknowledged the possibility of a trade to The Athletic’s Jesse Granger (sub required) on July 1.

“There’s definitely an interest in him,” McPhee said. “We’ve had people call us on him. We’ll see what develops. I can’t tell you what will happen, but we’ll work on it. He’s been very, very good on the international stage. He wants to play in the NHL. He worked very hard to get over here, and we’re going to accommodate him one way or another, either here or with another club.”

There are some interesting mysteries surrounding Gusev, from how a team might land him, to how much of an impact we can expect from a guy who’s found chemistry with the likes of Nikita Kucherov.

Mysterious value

It’s not easy to predict Gusev’s NHL impact, but the odds are high that he will make a positive impact. He’s distinguished himself at multiple levels, from international play, to winning the KHL’s MVP for a stirling season where Gusev generated 82 points in 62 games, and was also productive in the playoffs. While 2018-19 marks his peak so far, he’s enjoyed other strong seasons, including generating 71 points in the KHL in 2016-17.

The challenges of translating overseas work to play in the NHL likely make contract talks tricky, but I’d argue it also sets the stage for teams to land fantastic value. How much is Gusev worth before he’s played a single shift at the NHL level, at 26? Would a team be better off going with a one-year deal, or something with additional term? Granger reports that there’s as much as a $2M gap between Gusev and the Golden Knights, which sounds dicey at first. Yet, if Gusev is asking for something along the lines of $4M AAV for two years, as Igor Eronko reports, then the Golden Knights risk throwing away a golden goose.

I’ll say this: I’d risk $4M-ish on Gusev over multiple years of Brandon Tanev at $3.5M, any day of the week.

Beyond the mystery of what Gusev might get paid, there’s also the question of what the Golden Knights might demand in a trade.

Vegas should find better ways to clean up its mess

As a reminder, Vegas is in a vulnerable position; Cap Friendly estimates their space at about $2.675M, and they either need to sign RFA Malcolm Subban or find a different backup goalie option, among other situations to resolve.

Really, potential poor trade return options might be the key factor that wakes up Vegas to the possibility that they’re risking a big mistake.

The Golden Knights would likely be wiser to save money by shedding inessentials; this post suggests that contenders bribe rebuilding teams to take on shaky contracts, and Vegas should explore those avenues multiple times, rather than letting Gusev get away for pennies on the dollar. Cody Eakin‘s a luxury as a bottom-six forward at $3.85M, and likely to move on after 2019-20 one way or another, with that contract expiring. Personally, I see Ryan Reaves‘ $2.755M as a colossal overpay, and trading away that cap hit would also force Gerard Gallant to play a more useful forward, whether that ends up being Brandon Pirri or a prospect like Cody Glass. Nick Holden‘s tough to justify at $2M, either.

Personally, I’d move all three of Eakin, Reaves, and Holden if it meant keeping Gusev. That flies even if Gusev was a bit pricer than $4M per year.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Gusev could be push a strong VGK team to an even higher level

Vegas is already spending big money to contend, and they already have a strong top-six. In adding Gusev to Alex Tuch (and Cody Glass, if he transitions smoothly), Vegas would create matchup nightmares left and right. McPhee himself told Granger that would be a “heck of a lineup,” so why let that slip through your fingers to keep replacement-level players?

So, again, another team should be swirling like a bloodthirsty shark (and hope that the San Jose Sharks don’t get involved, because Doug Wilson is a beast).

Again, there’s always a chance that things don’t work out — Vegas might be overreacting to the Vadim Shipachyov situation, for one — but you won’t find many better risk-reward values in July.

If Vegas must sell, buyers should swarm

Really, most NHL teams should be in the bidding, although some have cleaner cap situations than others. Here are some of the teams who should be calling McPhee the most:

  • Habs Eyes on the Prize discusses Gusev as an excellent consolation prize for the Montreal Canadiens after the Sebastian Aho offer sheet didn’t work out, and this article also provides some insight regarding why Gusev is such an intriguing talent.
  • The Athletic’s Rob Rossi offers up a hypothetical three-team trade where the Penguins would get Gusev, give up Nick Bjugstad, and well … it’s a lot (sub required).
  • Even after paying up to keep Anders Lee, the Islanders might feel a little bummed out after falling short with Artemi Panarin. Gusev may occasionally drive Barry Trotz up the wall, but would be worth it for a team that could stand to add more skill.
  • Winnipeg Jets – Things are going to be tight with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor needing new contracts, but Gusev could help ease the sting of the talent losses of Jacob Trouba and Kevin Hayes.
  • Buffalo Sabres – Keeping Jeff Skinner was crucial; landing Colin Miller was uplifting. The Sabres still see a huge drop-off from Skinner – Jack Eichel to everyone else on offense, so Gusev could help to stem the tide. They’re also paying Skinner and Eichel $19M combined, not to mention uncomfortable money to the likes of Kyle Okposo, so the Sabres would likely delight in getting a potential bargain for a change. This would also make their offseason a little less reliant on the smaller move on trading for Jimmy Vesey.
  • Columbus Blue Jackets – Maybe the team that lost Panarin could land the “next” Panarin? (Note: again, the comparison isn’t really fair to Gusev … but it’s fun to imagine another superlative talent arriving in the NHL. Hey, it’s the offseason, the time when teams dream that Tyler Myers can be worth $6M.)
  • New Jersey Devils – The Devils are aggressively trying to improve, both to take advantage of rookie contracts, and also keep Taylor Hall around. Why not see if Gusev nudges that talent level (and Hall’s interest in re-signing) forward even more?

In a bolder league like the NBA, I’d be certain that all of the teams above, and more, were straining to take Gusev off of the Golden Knights’ hands. The risk is just so small compared to potentially significant rewards.

I’m not sure if there would be as many suitors in the less-creative, more conservative NHL, but all it takes is one team to trade for Gusev to mean a move happens. The Golden Knights would be wise just to remain Gusev’s team, instead, but we’ll see.

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.

Golden Knights could get playoff boost from KHL scoring leader Gusev

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The Vegas Golden Knights looked a little overwhelmed by the sheer talent of the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If only they had, say, the leading scorer from the KHL this season …

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Nikita Gusev’s agent J.P. Barry confirmed that the 26-year-old forward has been released from his contract from St. Petersburg SKA of the KHL. Dreger reports that this opens up Gusev to sign a one-year entry-level contract with the Golden Knights for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Gusev is expected to join the Golden Knights by this weekend.

Barring a change-up that would put Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann rushing to join the Penguins to shame, one would think that this weekend would exclude Game 2 on Friday night (10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Live stream), but who knows about Game 3 on Sunday (10 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Live stream)?

Overall, it’s difficult to tell if Gusev can get into the mix by Round 1 in general … but we’ll see.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

On one hand, it’s easy to see why people would be excited about this development.

Gusev topped all KHL regular-season scorers with 82 points in 62 games; in fact, second place point producer and former NHL forward Nigel Dawes was pretty far behind with 69. Gusev also generated 19 points in 18 playoff games, the second best total. Gusev also won a gold medal with Russia during the 2018 Winter Olympics, scoring 12 points in six games.

Yes, KHL successes don’t always directly translate to NHL success, yet we’ve also seen Artemi Panarin and Alexander Radulov go from strong work overseas to dominant play in the NHL. One could picture Gusev combining with, say, Alex Tuch to form a pretty frightening third line — or at least one that might keep up with Joe Thornton‘s also-frightening third line for San Jose. For all we know, Gusev could be a difference-maker during Round 1, and maybe beyond.

On the other hand, for all of the successes the Golden Knights have had in their first two years, there are a few reminders that not every player integrates well into this mix.

Vadim Shipachyov and Gerard Gallant mixed like oil and water, as Slepyshev went from being a KHL scorer with fascinating potential to a disaster (and ultimately, a footnote). There isn’t just the worry of a bumpy ride from the KHL to the NHL. Gallant didn’t have much success with a newcomer in Tomas Tatar, who became a healthy scratch during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and then returned to being effective during the 2018-19 regular season with the Montreal Canadiens.

Gallant certainly wasn’t making any promises when asked about Gusev — in fact, he admitted that he doesn’t know much about the forward (or at least that’s what he said).

“I don’t know much about him, and George (McPhee) mentioned it today there’s some reports out there,” Gallant said on April 11, via David Schoen and Ed Graney of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “If he joins us, then we’ll see what’s going to happen. But I don’t know the player well enough.”

Schoen confirmed Dreger’s report, and Barry’s additional comments make this sound like a work in progress:

It’s all a bit of a mystery, but hey, mysteries are fun, right?

For more on Friday’s Game 2 matchups, read The Wraparound.

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 seek consistency as Stanley Cup Playoffs begin

Shortly after the Pittsburgh Penguins clinched their 13th consecutive Stanley Cup Playoff appearance, defenseman Kris Letang sat at his locker and was asked more than once about the significance of what is now — by far — the NHL’s longest active postseason streak.

Every single time he downplayed it as the minimum expectation for the team.

“I don’t expect anything less than that,” said Letang. “With the roster we put on the ice every year, with the quality of players we have, with [Sidney Crosby], [Evgeni Malkin], Phil [Kessel] and these guys, I think we should make it. The expectation is high in this dressing room and this year isn’t going to be any different. It’s the minimum expectation.”

Thanks to a season full of inconsistencies, significant injuries to key players, and at times just downright bad play, it took them until Game 81 to achieve that minimum expectation. But they eventually did it. Now that they are back in the playoffs, beginning their Round 1 series against the New York Islanders on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN), the focus changes to the team’s ultimate goal and what is an almost unreachable bar given the expectations they have set for themselves over the past decade — trying to win yet another Stanley Cup.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“I think once you get in the dance, it’s up for grabs for everybody,” said Letang. “Everybody has the same chances. I don’t think there’s a team that goes in there and goes, ah we’re just going to do a round and be happy with that. The ultimate goal is to go all the way.”

“For sure it is,” said coach Mike Sullivan was asked if it’s fair for the maximum expectation to still be a Stanley Cup.

“I think when we play the game the right way, I think we can compete with any team in the league. We have difference makers throughout the lineup. We have depth at all of our positions. We can get outstanding goaltending. I believe this group is capable of great things, but have to earn it every day.”

Trying to get a read on the this Penguins team has been a year-long challenge because they have looked capable of any possible outcome at any given time. Sometimes it depends on the game, sometimes it depends on the week. That holds true entering the playoffs where anything from a five-game loss in Round 1, to a Stanley Cup seems like a realistic outcome that wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — shock anyone that has watched this team with any regularity this season.

Most recently, the Penguins have finally started to look like the the team they are expected to be, and one that is perfectly capable of doing something special.

With Letang and Evgeni Malkin back in the lineup, and Brian Dumoulin rejoining the team at practice and looking like he could return as early as Game 1 of their Round 1 series against the New York Islanders, they are as healthy as they have been all season.

Matt Murray has been one of the most productive goalies in the league since mid-December and been playing some of the best hockey of his career.

They are not only getting the results in the standings with a 12-4-4 record since the trade deadline (third best in the league since then), but the process behind the results is as good as it can possibly be, and that might be even more important than the points in the standings. According to the analytics database at Natural Stat Trick, the Penguins are a top-five team in expected goals and high-danger scoring chances (they are actually first in this metric) since the deadline. While the approach from general manager Jim Rutherford has looked completely haphazard and at times directionless with the way the team makes trades and then quickly undoes them, you can not argue with the results that the Nick BjugstadJared McCann and Erik Gudbranson trades have produced.

Bjugstad and McCann have solidified the team’s forward depth and fit in their roles in a way their predecessors, Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan, never did.

While the Gudbranson trade was immediately panned by a lot of people (including, uh, me) he has been an almost astonishingly good addition and has more than earned a roster spot once everyone on the blue line is healthy (which it seems they finally are).

When combined with the stars at the top of the lineup, including Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kessel, and now 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel, every possible ingredient is there for a lengthy Stanley Cup Playoff run, and perhaps even a championship if everything goes right.

[PHT Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup]

But if there is one thing this Penguins team has shown us this season it’s that their biggest opponent may not be any one team in any one round, but their own inconsistency. It is something that has been a year-long battle for them on both a team and individual level.

For as good as the overall record turned out to be (only six teams in the entire league finished with more points), they still had too many stretches where they looked like a team that was deservedly on the playoff bubble. At one point this season they lost nine out of 10 games, a stretch that resulted in Rutherford publicly — and angrily — calling out most of the roster. Even during this late-season surge where they have upped their game to a championship level, there have been some issues that keep showing themselves, from a power play unit that bleeds chances and goals against, to a tendency to lose games late, losing three different games where they had leads in the final three minutes of games. That has left three extra points on the table. Three extra points — points that were right there for the taking — would have had them opening Round 1 on home ice and playing a potential Game 7 at home.

They were only 6-6-3 against the five-worst teams in the league standings. Just two extra wins against those bottom-feeding teams could have meant a division title.

The only consistent thing about them this season has been their inconsistency.

Even their style of play seems to have changed at times depending on the latest roster or lineup move.

When the Penguins won their two most recent championships in 2016 and 2017 their identity was as clear as any other team in the league: Speed. Speed. And more speed.  While that element still very much remains, there have been some deviations from that in terms of the overall roster construction. Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary, two of the players that defined that identity, are gone. Trades for players like Ryan Reaves (since traded again), Jack Johnson, and Gudbranson in recent years seemed to fly in the face of the way they used to build the team, especially their defense.

“It’s a style of play. It’s a mindset, It’s an attitude. It’s all of those things,” said Sullivan after a recent game, when asked what exactly his team’s identity is, or what what he wants it to be.

“Everybody needs to understand what their contribution is and what their role is to that identity to help this team win. We try to define that for our players as clearly as we can. We try to put them in positions to be successful and play to their strengths. This team is built a certain way and we’re trying to play to their strengths, and that is part of the identity as well. It has to start with the attitude and the mindset that we’re hard to play against and we have a certain resilience and resolve and mental toughness about us that we are going to respond to any sort of adversity that comes our way. That is either within a 60-minute hockey game, or from game to game, or week to week, or whatever it may be. That is every bit of important as the style of play.”

With the way they have played through injuries and rebounded from difficult losses, they have definitely showed that resiliency.

They also finally seem to have the right players in the right spots to play to their strengths.

Now they just need to find that consistent level of play that has avoided them all season, because one bad week in April can be the difference between a long playoff run and a long summer.

MORE: Penguins vs. Islanders Round 1 preview

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.