Nick Bjugstad

Penguins losing streak reaches six games after Sharks shutout Flyers ahead
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Panic time? Penguins staying patient during unexpected slide

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PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan’s voice was calm as he urged patience and understanding, qualities that tend to be in short supply around the NHL when the calendar flips to March and the number of regular-season games dwindles.

They’re traits the Pittsburgh Penguins coach hasn’t had to rely on much during his four-plus years on the bench, which include back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. Yet with the Penguins mired in their longest losing streak since 2012 – a six-game skid that’s rendered their appearance at the top of the Metropolitan Division two weeks ago a mere cameo – the typically fiery Sullivan has taken a more muted approach.

”There’s no easy stretch,” Sullivan said Monday. ”That’s just the nature of the league.”

It’s a nature the Penguins have largely been immune to for years. Yet they have looked decidedly vulnerable while getting outscored 24-8 against a schedule littered with teams basically playing out the season. A winless road swing through California last week culminated with a 5-0 loss to San Jose that led captain Sidney Crosby to place the blame squarely on his shoulders.

Though Crosby – who has just one point since a 5-2 romp over Toronto on Feb. 18 pushed Pittsburgh into first place in the Metropolitan – hasn’t quite looked like himself of late, neither has the 19 other guys in the lineup on a given night. Asked if there was any one common thread for a swoon no one saw coming, Crosby shrugged.

”It’s hard to point the finger at one specific thing, but I think putting the puck in the net a little more would give us some breathing room,” he said.

Of course, for the puck to go into the net, the Penguins actually need to shoot it. It’s something one of the league’s most talented offensive teams has struggled to do lately. While on the surface Pittsburgh’s average of 33 shots per game during the losing streak looks healthy, the reality is that the Penguins have fallen into the habit of trying to make the pretty play instead of the right one.

”Sometimes the ESPN highlight reel kind of gets in your mind,” forward Jared McCann said. ”But I feel like sometimes, especially with the way things are going right now, we’ve just got to throw pucks on net. We’ve got to throw it at a goalie’s feet. We’ve got to make the easy shot, sometimes it’ll go in.”

McCann attributed Pittsburgh’s scoring issues partly to bad ”puck luck,” that inexplicable phenomenon associated with the whims of a one-inch piece of vulcanized rubber. Though the Penguins have had the lead just once at the end of their last 24 periods, McCann insists the players aren’t frustrated. There are times when they feel they’ve played well for extended stretches only to have nothing to show for it thanks to a bounce here or a bounce there.

”You’ve got to laugh at it,” McCann said. ”What are you going to do? Sit there and mope? And you’ll just dig yourself deeper and make it worse. I’m trying to stay positive with it.”

Having the NHL’s longest active playoff streak helps. Pittsburgh hasn’t missed the postseason since 2006 and despite its current funk is still in relatively good shape. The Penguins are third in the Metropolitan Division and have three games in hand over Columbus, which currently holds the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. The schedule also is division heavy over the final month, giving Pittsburgh opportunity make up lost ground.

”We have the ability to control our own destiny,” forward Bryan Rust said.

Also, the Penguins, who have been ravaged by injuries for much of the season, are close to having some familiar faces back on the ice.

Defensemen Brian Dumoulin – out since Nov. 30 with an ankle injury – and John Marino – out since Feb. 6 after taking a puck to the face – are both game-time decisions on Tuesday night when Pittsburgh hosts Ottawa. Forward Nick Bjugstad has been cleared for full contact and is close to playing for the first time since mid-November. While forward Dominik Simon is week to week with an upper-body injury and All-Star forward Jake Guentzel won’t be ready until late April at the earliest as he recovers from shoulder surgery, new arrivals Patrick Marleau, Connor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues give Pittsburgh versatility, speed and, in the 40-year-old Marleau, another veteran voice.

There’s no need to panic yet. Still, the wiggle room Pittsburgh enjoyed during its torrid play through December and January is gone. Team owner Mario Lemieux took in practice on Monday with president David Morehouse and general manager Jim Rutherford. Sullivan’s voice – unlike the tone he used while addressing the media – boomed through PPG Paints Arena as he tried to steer his club back on track.

”A team goes through points in the season where it comes a little easier than other points,” Crosby said. ”We’re facing some adversity right now. We’ve faced it all year long with different things. It’s a good test and a good challenge for us.”

New-look Penguins play first game since trade deadline on NBCSN

Hockey fans get their first post-trade deadline glance at the new-look Penguins on Wednesday. Then again, it’s also true that later versions of the Penguins will look different from the group that faces the Kings on NBCSN at 10:30 p.m. ET (stream here).

Penguins roll out new trade deadline additions in these lineups — for now

Like many other NHL coaches, Mike Sullivan likes to tinker with his combinations. Injuries forced Sullivan to do so anyway this season, and the Penguins’ trade deadline investments now give him a plethora of options. When/if certain players come back, the variety will only grow.

Let’s go forward line by forward line based on NHL.com’s projected combos for Wednesday, since that’s where Pittsburgh made acquisitions.

Jason ZuckerSidney CrosbyConor Sheary

As new-look as the Penguins feel, there seems to be warm-and-fuzzy feelings for the reunion of Crosby and Sheary. Personally, I never understood why Pittsburgh broke them up in the first place. (Especially if the answer is troublingly “to afford bad defenseman Jack Johnson.”)

In a lineup breakdown from The Athletic’s Josh Yohe (sub required), both Crosby and Sheary amusingly described each other as easy to play with. Sullivan’s comments provided a little more substance.

“He brings a speed element,” Sullivan said of Sheary. “He can finish. He’s good in traffic. A lot of attributes that Conor brings to the table are complementary to Sid.”

Sheary can think the game at a reasonable level with Crosby, and the early returns on Zucker indicate the same. (On paper, Zucker seems like a no-brainer fit for Crosby, but in reality not everyone clicks with 87.)

Still, there are a number of different factors that could break these fellows up. What if Jake Guentzel beats the timeline for recovery from his shoulder surgery, at least for the playoffs? Will Penguins eventually want a right-handed shot with Crosby instead of two other lefties?

This seems like a good mix overall, at least to start, though.

Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Business as usual there, basically. Rust and Hornqvist can work with Crosby if needed, so that’s nice.

Patrick MarleauEvan RodriguesDominik Simon

Trade deadline additions make two-thirds of this third line, and the potential is interesting. Simon ranks as the most feasible candidate to move up, possibly with Crosby again. While Marleau ranks as a bigger name, Rodrigues stands out as a fascinating wild card.

People have been noting Rodrigues’ potential as a hidden gem for some time.

(His underlying numbers still look good at Hockey Viz, although things slipped a bit in 2019-20 compared to more robust work in 2017-18 and 2018-19.)

The sheer variety of useful players in the Penguins’ top nine is really something, especially when you realize that Jared McCann could end up being a more regular fit as third-line center. Nick Bjugstad already feels like old news, considering the revolving door of Penguins forwards, yet he’s another interesting player if health eventually permits.

Sam LaffertyTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Then you have what seems to be a pretty strong fourth line from a defensive standpoint. Quite a group.

(Oh yeah, and there’s also Zach Aston-Reese. Healthy scratches could eventually become straight-up awkward if most/everyone actually gets healthy.)

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Defense and other considerations for Penguins

NHL.com projects Pittsburgh’s Wednesday defensive pairings as such:

Jack Johnson — Kris Letang

Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz

Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Naturally, injuries have been a factor for the Penguins’ defense (and also goalies including Matt Murray). Moving past players who have worked past injuries like Letang and Schultz, Pittsburgh has some significant blueliners on the shelf. It’s possible Brian Dumoulin may return with time to shake off rust before the playoffs, while rookie revelation John Marino is recovery from surgery after a wayward puck broke bones in his cheek.

In other words … the Penguins’ defense could continue to look quite different as things go along, much like their forward groups.

Despite all that turbulence, the Penguins figure to be a formidable opponent, particularly after stocking up with Zucker, Sheary, Marleau, and Rodrigues in recent times. Catch your first look at that new-look group against the Kings on Wednesday on NBCSN.

More: Kings aim to upset Penguins

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.

Trying to make sense of Panthers’ plan after Trocheck trade

Panthers trade
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It was only about a month ago that things were really starting to look up for the Florida Panthers.

They were in the middle of a six-game winning streak, had the highest scoring offense in the league, and at least looked like a solid bet to make the playoffs for just the sixth time in franchise history. Given the moves they made over the summer the playoffs should have been a very realistic goal, if not an expectation.

They can still get there, but they are probably only a 50-50 shot (at best) entering the stretch run as they compete with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.

On Monday they made one of the most curious decisions at the NHL trade deadline when they dealt forward Vincent Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes for Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark, and two prospects.

It is a strange trade for the Panthers on pretty much every level.

For one, Trocheck is the best player changing teams here and is still signed for a couple of more years at a reasonable salary cap hit.

There’s nothing wrong with Haula and Wallmark as players. They’re legit NHLers and have a place on a good team. But neither one is an upgrade over Trocheck or has the upside that he does when he’s at his best. Haula is also an unrestricted free agent after this season. If he doesn’t re-sign, the trade comes down to Wallmark and the development of two solid-but-not-great prospects.

Even more curious was general manager Dale Tallon’s explanation for the trade. Basically, he just wanted to shake something up for a team that has struggled since the All-Star break.

Via The Athletic’s George Richards:

“Since the All-Star break, our team has really struggled and we wanted to find a way to shake things up and see what would work,” Tallon said on Monday afternoon, an hour after the NHL’s trade deadline for the 2019-20 season had passed.

“The more we got into discussions over the past 10 days or so, teams starting making offers. Some of them were pretty fair, some better than others. We just decided this was the right path to add more depth throughout the organization, for the big club and the minor-league team, and it was conscious from all of us that this was a fair deal and something we should do not only for the present but for the future.”

Something about this just seems flawed. Do you really weigh a couple of weeks so highly that you trade a player that, as recently as the beginning of this season, was considered one of your core players to “add more depth throughout the organization?” Especially when that player’s trade value is probably at a low-point, and without even addressing the team’s biggest current need? And in the middle of a push to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a year where you’ve invested millions of dollars and a ton of assets?

If anything the justification at the time could have been that it created enough salary cap space to add a defenseman in another move before the trade deadline, but that did not even happen.

It just seems like less than ideal asset management, something that has been a reoccurring — and significant — problem for the Tallon-led Panthers.

The expansion draft fiasco that saw them give away Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to the Vegas Golden Knights three years ago has been well documented. Last year they dealt Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann for a collection of spare parts and mid-round draft picks to help clear salary for a free agency splurge. They ultimately landed their prized free agent — goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky — on a massive contract, and then followed that up by putting him behind a porous defensive team that can not stop anyone. Now this trade happens.

In the end it is probably not a trade that is going to ruin the season, and they very well could still end up making the playoffs even after sending Trocheck away. But it is not necessarily the result that is concerning here. It is the process that seemingly went into the decision that is most concerning (panic move when things are going bad, selling key player at low value, questionable asset management). It is the sort of process that has repeatedly burned the Panthers in recent years.

Related: NHL Power Rankings: Teams that improved the most at 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.

Report: Penguins’ John Marino sidelined with broken cheek

The Pittsburgh Penguins have another significant injury to deal with.

Defenseman John Marino reportedly broke three bones in his cheek on Thursday night in the team’s 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning when he was hit in the side of the face by a Steven Stamkos slap shot.

It was initially believed that Marino had escaped significant injury, but further evaluation on Friday revealed the nature of the injury.

The injury news was initially reported Dejan Kovacevic of DKPittsburghsports.

The play happened late in the third period. You can see it here.

No team in the NHL has missed more man games due to injury this season than the Penguins, and it is not just the number of games that have been an issue. It is also the quality of player that has been sidelined. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Patric Hornqvist, Justin Schultz, and Nick Bjugstad have all missed significant time this season. And now they have to add Marino to that list.

At this point there is no timeline for how long he could be out of the lineup.

The Penguins’ current injured list already includes Guentzel, Dumoulin, and Bjugstad.

Make no mistake, this is a costly injury for the Penguins.

Not only has Marino been one of the league’s best rookies this season, he has been one of the most impactful defensive players in the entire league (regardless of position or experience level) and has helped transform the Penguins’ defense into a Stanley Cup contending unit. But with Dumoulin and Marino now out of the lineup, they are going to be missing their two best defensive players on that blue line.

Along with his defensive play, Marino also has five goals and 20 assists offensively. He scored a goal in Thursday’s game before the injury.

The Penguins acquired Marino during the offseason from the Edmonton Oilers for a conditional sixth-round draft pick.

UPDATE 2/10: Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan confirmed that Marino would have surgery, but did not specify the injury. There is also no timetable for the defenseman’s return.

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’ Guentzel to miss 4-6 months after shoulder surgery

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A brutal year for injuries just got worse for the Penguins.

One day after he crashed into the end boards following a goal, the Penguins announced that Jake Guentzel underwent shoulder surgery and will miss the next 4-6 months.

Guentzel had a goal and three points in the 5-2 win over Ottawa on Monday. The goal, which was his 20th of the season, was also the 200th point of his NHL career. He currently leads the team in goals and points (43).

“It was really scary,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said afterward. “Those are always dangerous when you fall that distance from the boards.”

Already without Sidney Crosby, Justin Schultz, Nick Bjugstad, and Brian Dumoulin, this is just another missing body on a Penguins team that’s still played well (24-11-4–52) despite missing over 150 man games to injury.

“I hope the injured guys are back soon and I hope he’s not out so long,” said Evgeni Malkin. “It didn’t look good. But everyone understands it’s hockey. It’s tough. Sometimes we have a couple injuries. But I need to play better next game if Jake does not play.”

Guentzel’s injury also means he’ll miss out on his first NHL All-Star Game after being named to the Metropolitan Division team. Teammate Kris Letang, who is part of the Last Men In vote, could be a potential replacement to represent the Penguins or the league could keep it a forward for forward swap and invite Malkin or Bryan Rust to St. Louis next month.

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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.