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Penguins’ big defense spending continues with Oleksiak

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Perhaps it’s fitting that the Pittsburgh Penguins put a bow on big defense spending by re-signing Jamie Oleksiak, one of the largest humans you’ll see roaming a blueline.

The team announced that they signed the 25-year-old to a three-year contract that will carry a $2,137,500 cap hit. He’s generally listed at 6-foot-7, which is just a couple inches shorter than Zdeno Chara.

(It only seems fair that he was frequently called upon to drop the mitts once he arrived from Dallas then, right?)

In a vacuum, it’s an inoffensive contract, although some will grimace a bit at giving three years to a potential depth defenseman. Your overall opinion of the big blueliner will vary depending upon how you value what he brings to the table. His size is valued by many, and he didn’t take on too much water from a possession standpoint.

There’s little denying that he enjoyed something of a career rejuvenation in Pittsburgh, echoing Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz, even though his gritty style makes him quite different from those fleet-footed defensemen. After averaging just 15 minutes per game with the Stars, Oleksiak’s ice time shot up to an average of 17:24 in 41 contests with Pittsburgh.

That ice time plummeted during the postseason, as he only logged an average of 13:43 per contest.

We’ve seen teams get burned by handing an extension to a defenseman who thrived during a brief audition, such as Brendan Smith‘s disastrous turn with the Rangers, although the Penguins didn’t shell out as large of a cap hit here.

The larger concern might be that the Penguins could be guilty of a mistake a lot of contenders fall victim of: locking up a lot of depth players when it might be wiser to allow more room to scour the market for cheaper options in the bottom of the order. On the other hand, maybe Oleksiak will end up being another successful reclamation project in Pittsburgh?

Either way, the Penguins are locked in with quite a few defensemen, so substantial commitments abound.

It’s a pricey group, too. Via Cap Friendly’s estimates, the Penguins are spending almost $27M on seven defensemen: Oleksiak, Schultz, Kris Letang, Jack Johnson, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, and Chad Ruhwedel.

For some, that’s the price of doing business for a team not far removed from back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.

Others will blanche at the thought that, at times, the Penguins overcome this group, rather than being propped up by it. Those critics surely won’t be over the moon about some of their recent commitments, especially oft-criticized Jack Johnson carrying a $3.25M cap hit mere months after the Blue Jackets couldn’t give him away during the trade deadline.

There are some red flags going on with that unit, and maybe the Oleksiak signing will be looked upon as a mistake.

Ultimately, it’s not the sort of decision that will derail the Penguins’ hopes for contending now and in the future. The worry, though, is that the mistakes might start to really pile up for the Pens. After all, flexibility can be crucial in the modern NHL, and GM Jim Rutherford risks painting himself into a corner.

(Then again, the Blackhawks reminded us today that you can often foist your cap problems on other teams, so maybe none of this is all that big of a concern?)

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 make it official with Jack Johnson; bring back Matt Cullen

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford announced two free agent signings on Sunday afternoon — one that was expected, and one that kind of came out of nowhere.

First, the Penguins made it official and signed defenseman Jack Johnson to a five-year contract that will pay him $16.25 million. News of that potential signing first broke last week and it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that pen was going to be put to paper on that deal.

Along with that news, the Penguins also announced that veteran center Matt Cullen is returning to the team after spending the 2017-18 season as a member of the Minnesota Wild. Cullen was an important depth player on the Penguins’ Stanley Cup winning teams in 2016 and 2017 before leaving as a free agent prior to last season. The Penguins reportedly attempted to re-acquire him via trade throughout the season but were never able to make it work. His contract is a one-year deal worth $650,000.

The addition that is going to get the most attention here is Johnson because that is a pretty significant investment in a player whose career has been … let’s say … polarizing. You either love his combination of size and the skating ability he had earlier in his career that helped make him such a prized prospect entering the league, or you absolutely hate the objective evidence his NHL career has produced.

He is coming off of a brutal season in Columbus that saw him end the year as a healthy scratch. He will also turn 32 years old this season and the Penguins are taking a might big gamble that they can “fix” what has ailed him.

Financially speaking, the $3.25 million salary cap hit might not be bad if it was on a shorter-term deal. But a five-year commitment is a lot for a player you’re trying to repair, and it’s certainly debatable as to whether or not there is anything there to salvage when it comes to his play on the ice.

The defense of the signing all revolves around Johnson getting into a better situation (he talked on Sunday about wanting to join a winning environment) and the ability of the Penguins’ coaching staff, led by defense coach Sergei Gonchar, being able to help him the same way they helped improve Justin Schultz and Jamie Oleksiak in previous years (Rutherford said he would always put his money on Gonchar).

The problem is those aren’t exactly perfect parallels to look at.

In the case of Schultz and Oleksiak, the Penguins were dealing with young players in their mid-20s that were stuck in bad situations, they gave up minimal assets to acquire, and were able to help put them into more favorable situations and get a little more production out of them. And in Oleksiak’s case the jury is still very much out on how much he really has improved because it’s still such a small body of work in Pittsburgh.

With Johnson, he is 32 years old, has probably already started to lose a step from where he was when he younger, and has a decade long track record to show just what type of player he is. The results are not encouraging.

Just about every team Johnson has played for has performed worse — significantly worse — from a goals and shots perspective with Johnson on the versus him off of the ice. Observe the difference in shot attempts (CF%) and goal differential (GF%).

That is not an encouraging trend.

Now, one of two things will happen: They will either play Johnson in a top-four role and bump one of Olli Maatta or Justin Schultz down to the third pair, or they will play Johnson in that third-pair role alongside Jamie Oleksiak. Both options present their share of problems. With the former, you’re playing what is probably an inferior player over a better play (is Johnson better than either Maatta or Schultz? I am not sold on that).

With the latter, it just means you committed five years and all of your newfound salary cap space to a third-pairing defenseman when you probably could have gotten the same (or maybe even better) play for less.

It just seems like a big investment to make in a player you’re hoping can improve a decade-long trend of play and that you’re simply hoping for the best on.

The Cullen signing is an interesting one, only because it does not seem immediately clear where he will play or how he will be used.

The Penguins already have four centers under contract with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard, and Riley Sheahan in place. It seems likely, if not inevitable, that one of Brassard, Sheahan, or Cullen will see significant time on the wing.

Cullen, a long-time favorite of Rutherford, was great for the Penguins in a fourth-line role before signing with Minnesota. His departure (along with the free agent departure of Nick Bonino) resulted in the in-season trades to acquire Brassard and Sheahan.

Cullen ended up scoring 11 goals for the Wild this past 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.

‘Flower’ blossoms: Fleury back to being great playoff goalie

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Anyone who has played with Marc-Andre Fleury can tell he’s dialed in by watching his mannerisms.

Last year, he rubbed the shaft of his stick after making a save with it on Alex Ovechkin. This year, he continued a career-long tradition of rubbing the post as a sign of appreciation for keeping a puck out.

”That’s when you know he’s in the zone,” Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta said.

Fleury is in one of the best zones of his career in the playoffs with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who have followed up a magical inaugural season with a trip to the Western Conference final. The goaltending of Fleury is the biggest reason they’ve gotten this far and is a continuation of his remarkable playoff reputation rehabilitation.

After taking the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and winning it all in 2009, Fleury lost four of the next five series he played and each postseason posted a save percentage under .900. He has since gotten his groove back, helping the Penguins win the Cup again a year ago, and now leads the NHL playoffs with a 1.53 goals-against average, .951 save percentage and four shutouts.

”I don’t think it was anything physically that he changed,” former Penguins teammate and current Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. ”It was all confidence-driven. He’s always been a guy who’s really competitive and really loose at the same time. I think it was just confidence. I think he needed a fresh start. Maybe he just needed a clean slate, and you perform better when you’re more appreciated.”

It’s impossible not to appreciate the impact ”Flower” has made in the desert as the face of a new franchise as he went 29-13-4 with a 2.24 GAA and .927 save percentage for Pacific Division-winning Vegas. The fresh start might have rejuvenated Fleury more than a decade into his career, but his bounce-back in becoming a great playoff goalie again is six years in the making.

The low point came in 2012. Fleury allowed 26 goals over six games to Philadelphia in a first-round exit. The next playoffs, backup Tomas Vokoun started more games, and it was fair to wonder if Fleury had lost it.

”You learn from losing,” Fleury said Wednesday. ”You learn from tough times and pressure and stuff like that. It made me a better goalie from it.”

Now-Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen was there for some of the struggles but didn’t level them all on Fleury. By 2014, he noticed a different goalie.

”There was a period of time there where maybe (it was) not entirely his fault, a few things went wrong and it snowballed on him and he had a tough go there, I think, mentally for a couple springs,” Niskanen said. ”But by the time of my last year there he was really good again.”

The scars of another second-round exit led to more blame for Fleury, who was scapegoated for a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin not doing more after the Cup in 2009.

”Sometimes it’s the way your team plays in front of you,” said Penguins winger Carl Hagelin, who beat Fleury with the Rangers in playoff series in 2014 and 2015. ”Sometimes, like any other player, you might have a bad series or a bad playoffs and I think for a goalie if you have that, people are going to be all over you.”

Following a forgettable first-round loss to Hagelin and the Rangers in 2015, Fleury had one of his best regular seasons. But he was nevertheless replaced as Pittsburgh’s playoff starter by Matt Murray on the way to the Cup in 2016.

Before he played a substantial role in the Penguins’ second consecutive title run, Fleury agreed to waive his no-movement clause to go to Vegas in the expansion draft. Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, whose 2009 Capitals lost to Fleury in the second round, said Dave Prior was insistent on adding Fleury because the veteran goaltending coach felt there was more improvement to be made in his game.

”He obviously studies goaltenders all around the league and looks at the way that they’re playing the game,” McPhee said. ”He was excited and he really advocated for him in our meetings and thought that he could make him even better than he’s been. We like the calming effect he has on this team. When he plays, he’s really good when you need him the most. Needless to say you don’t get to the third round in this league unless you got a goaltender that’s playing well.”

Fleury will be playing in the third round for the fifth time in his career, a testament to the 33-year-old’s willingness to adjust as he has gotten older, including eating the right food, training meticulously and allowing his body to recover.

”When you’re young, you eat whatever, you never hurt, I never stretched, I could do the splits, it was easier,” Fleury said. ”Now I got to do more to maintain that flexibility and comfortness in the net. The older you get, things tend to linger around longer and you got to find ways to feel loose and feel good when games come around.”

Players are rarely worried about Fleury being tight. Even when Murray took his starting job, Fleury didn’t let it affect his mood at the rink.

”For him it definitely wasn’t easy because I’m sure he knew how he good he is and everybody else knew how good he is,” Maatta said. ”He still kind of kept showing up smiling and being an awesome teammate all the time even though he was probably in a tough spot.”

The laughs during the bad times have endeared Fleury to teammates who watch his playoff success with Vegas with great joy.

”Cares about the group, has fun at the rink, competitive as heck, cares about the right things,” Niskanen said. ”It’s not surprising at all that he’s done as well as he has there. It’s surprising how well the team has done but not him specifically. He’s a really good goalie and a perfect fit for them.”

Freelance reporter W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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WATCH LIVE: Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Sunday as the Washington Capitals visit the Pittsburgh Penguins at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here. 

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Andre BurakovskyNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaLars EllerDevante Smith-Pelly
Chandler StephensonJay Beagle – Brett Conolly

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikJakub Jerabek

Starting goalie: Philip Grubauer

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

[Ovechkin, a durable ‘Russian machine,’ reaches 1,000 games]

WATCH LIVE – 7:30 p.m. ET

PENGUINS
Jake GuentzelSidney CrosbyBryan Rust
Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel (game time decision)
Conor ShearyRiley SheahanPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseJosh JoorisTom Kuhnhackl

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Olli MaattaJustin Schultz
Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

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[CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE]

PROJECTED LINES

Philadephia Flyers

Forwards

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny

Oskar LindblomNolan Patrick – Jake Voracek

Jordan WealValtteri FilppulaWayne Simmonds

Jori LehteraScott Laughton – Matt Read

Defense

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Travis Sanheim – Andrew MacDonald

Robert Hägg – Radko Gudas

Starting Goalie: Alex Lyon

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Forwards

Jake GuentzelSidney CrosbyPatric Hornqvist

Carl HagelinEvgeni Malkin– Bryab Rust

Conor ShearyDerick BrassardPhil Kessel

Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanDominik Simon

Defense

Jamie OleksiakKris Letang

Brian DumoulinJustin Schultz

Olli MaattaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

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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.