Olli Maatta

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Malkin hopes Penguins get ‘wake-up call’ after awful opener

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It was almost fitting that former Penguins forward Conor Sheary did some of the greatest damage as the Buffalo Sabres beat Pittsburgh 3-1 on Thursday night.

The Penguins have been bleeding talent in a disturbing way over the last few years, thanks in part to GM Jim Rutherford’s pursuit of grit, even when it comes at the cost of skill. Sheary’s two goals were just the latest reminder of a purge that continues to chip away at the support structure around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, and precious few other players who can move the needle in the right direction.

As The Athletic’s Josh Yohe reports (sub required), Malkin was fuming after Thursday’s ugly loss.

“They (the Sabres) were hungry,” Malkin said. “They played so much faster. I think we only played for 30 minutes. We take a couple bad penalties, and they changed (the) game. Again, (it’s) a young league right now — we need to play hungry, we need to play faster, every puck, we need to win. It’s not good for us how we played. We need to change.”

Malkin said that he hopes that defeat serves as a “wake-up call,” and notes that the Penguins need to take every opponent seriously, whether that opponent is Buffalo or Washington.

While it’s just one game, it’s fair to wonder: the Penguins want to change, but how much can they? How much of their struggles come down to management’s shaky bets on players who are possession black holes, or role players being paid like mid-lineup fixtures?

The numbers from Thursday’s games were downright disturbing.

You can even just look at it with a naked eye, noting that the Sabres — not exactly a possession juggernaut for, oh, the last decade — generated a lopsided 41-29 shots on goal advantage, even though the Penguins received five power-play opportunities (going 1-for-5) while the Sabres only had two (1-for-2).

The deeper you dig, the more troubling the numbers get.

Via Natural Stat Trick, there are some even-strength stats that are a cause for some concern:

  • The Sabres generated a ridiculous 11-1 advantage in high-danger chances.
  • Buffalo also doubled Pittsburgh’s scoring chances at 30-15.
  • Only one Penguins player finished the game above .500 in Corsi For Percentage (Kris Letang at 52.78). This is especially surprising because Sidney Crosby was such a two-way beast last season, rightfully earning some Selke buzz.
  • The pairing of Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz was especially brutal.

Last season was rough for Schultz, but it was fair to chalk at least some of those struggles up to injury issues. If that’s a sign of more to come for Pittsburgh, then that’s disturbing, especially since the Penguins lost another defensive option by trading away Olli Maatta. Either way, Johnson continues to be a disaster for Pittsburgh, and the team needs to do soul-searching about whether or not he should even draw a regular spot in the lineup, even as a bottom-pairing option.

Erik Gudbranson seemingly had a new lease on life when he landed with the Penguins, and that will be an interesting situation to watch. (Gudbranson had a rough Thursday, although he was decent relative to certain teammates.)

***

Again, this was just one game. Malkin preemptively chided a viewpoint that the Penguins could have “20 games to wake up,” but it’s also true that Pittsburgh’s been in tough spots during plenty of seasons of the Malkin – Crosby era, only to find ways to finish strong and at least make the playoffs.

Of course, when you have players like Crosby and Malkin, merely making the playoffs isn’t good enough.

That said, it looks like making the playoffs also might not be easy, either. Again.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Old cogs, new tricks? Penguins eye reboot after flameout

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CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Penguins began the franchise’s longest offseason in more than a decade with general manager Jim Rutherford talking about the need for its stars to get past the complacency he feared had crept in during consecutive Stanley Cup title runs in 2016 and 2017. Head coach Mike Sullivan stressed the need for “100% buy-in” on a style of play that demands responsibility at both ends of the ice.

Yet after hinting at massive changes, Rutherford opted to take a scalpel to the roster instead of a chain saw.

Phil Kessel is now in Arizona. Olli Maatta is in Chicago. Otherwise, the group that takes the ice Thursday night against Buffalo in the season opener will look a lot like the one that was swept by the New York Islanders in the first round last spring. Whether the Penguins take a step forward following months of self-reflection will depend largely on whether a core group that includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang – all on the other side of 30 – can make the adjustments Sullivan is asking for.

“I think everybody has the ability to adapt to the role that they’re asked to play,” defenseman Jack Johnson said. “It’s just whether or not you want to do it. But everyone in here and the physical capabilities of doing it.”

Capability and willingness are two very different things. The Penguins have plenty of the former. It’s the latter that was lacking at crucial times last season, most notably during that four-game sweep at the hands of the Islanders. The logistics of training camp make progress tough to judge. A better gauge will likely come in a month. Yet Sullivan is upbeat about his team’s receptiveness to the message the staff has repeated incessantly since watching the Islanders celebrate at PPG Paints Arena last April.

“I sense a different attitude, a different mindset right now surrounding this team that for me is encouraging,” Sullivan said Wednesday. “I think when you go through some of the experiences that we went through, when don’t live up to your own expectations, it forces everyone involved to do a little bit of soul searching and figure out how can we get back on the right track.”

The path relies on the Penguins becoming more disciplined and persistent. No inattentive backchecking. No unnecessary risks without having the proper support behind you. No silly penalties that can blunt momentum. All three of them were issues for Malkin during perhaps the most difficult season of his career, and he knows it. The 33-year-old spent a significant portion of the summer back home in Russia focusing on his conditioning and rekindling a passion that ebbed and flowed last winter.

Malkin knows he was part of the problem during a year in which he scored just 21 goals and had a career-worst minus-25 plus/minus ratio. He’s just as eager to be part of the solution.

“We always talk about D-zone you know, turnovers, bad penalties,” Malkin said. “Couple things we need change, like my penalties. Turnovers in neutral zone. Sometimes we need to play simple. And also, first period when we lead (by a) couple goals, we need to play simple, play for team. … Small details, like (if we) fix it, we’ll be fine.”

Sullivan stressed he’s not asking his team’s high-end talent to completely overhaul the approach that’s made them champions. He would just like a renewed focus on the benchmarks of a team that can play into May and beyond.

“I think sometimes there’s a misperception that when I suggest that we need to be hard to play against, it just means physical play,” Sullivan said. “But it’s a whole lot more than that. It starts with our own decisions we make with and without the puck. So there’s a lot that goes into it. We try to define that for our guys specifically and we talk about it daily.”

How well his players translate the talk into action will determine whether Pittsburgh finds a way to keep pace in the hyper-competitive Metropolitan Division. For the first time in years, the Penguins are not among the favorites. Crosby remains at the top of his game in his early 30s. Yet there are questions on the bottom six and whether Alex Galchenyuk – acquired in the trade that sent Kessel to the Coyotes – can mesh with Malkin.

The margin for error Pittsburgh had several years ago has been erased by time and a league that has caught up to the speed advantage the Penguins enjoyed early in Sullivan’s tenure. They can still be among the league’s elite, but their wiggle room is gone. Still, Sullivan made it a point on Wednesday to gather his group and reinforce the belief that the window to be a contender during the Malkin/Crosby era is far from closed.

“I think we have the ability to be a really competitive hockey team,” he said. “But as I said to them, nothing is inevitable. We’ve got to go and earn it. We’ve got to earn it every day. It’s for real now.”

NHL Power Rankings: First look at 2019-20 season

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We kick off our 2019-20 PHT Power Rankings with a look at where every team in the league standings as the season begins this week.

What are expecting?

Do not give up on the Lightning, believe in the Avalanche, and be very, very, very worried about the defense in Winnipeg.

Where does your team stand as the season begins?

To the rankings!

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. They embarrassed themselves in the playoffs and this core has a record of falling short when the chips are on the table. But the same things were said about the Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues for years. They got over the hump. This team can, too. Still the best roster in the league on paper.

2. St. Louis Blues. Adding Justin Faulk to a Stanley Cup winning team is a nice way to end the offseason. Big question is if Jordan Binnington can come close to matching his 2018-19 performance over a full season.

3. Boston Bruins. This team is still loaded. David Pastrnak should be considered a real sleeper to win the goal-scoring crown.

4. Washington Capitals. Feels like the Capitals are kind of sneaking under the radar as a championship contender this season. The core is still in place and they are still great.

5. Colorado Avalanche. Buying all in on the hype. They needed to address their forward depth and they did that and more with Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, and Andre Burakovsky joining the roster. Their young defense is almost as exciting as their forwards.

6. San Jose Sharks. Even after losing Joe Pavelski and Donskoi they still have a great group of forwards and the best defense in the league. There is also no way that Martin Jones can be as bad as he was a year ago. Right? Right?!

7. Toronto Maple Leafs. It is a broken record at this point, but with all of that talent they can no longer tolerate third place finishes and Round 1 exits. At some point, Mike Babcock and Co. have to do something.

8. Vegas Golden Knights. A full year of Mark Stone, one of the league’s best all-around players, is going to be a game-changer.

9. Carolina Hurricanes. Their playoff run was no fluke. All of the focus is on the defense, but their forwards are excellent as well. Andrei Svechnikov looks like he is on the verge of a breakout season.

10. Calgary Flames. This feels low for the team that finished with the top record in the West a year ago, but a lot of things went right for them and I just don’t know how much I trust a full season of Cam Talbot and David Rittich in net.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST / WEST / STANLEY CUP]

11. Nashville Predators. Can Matt Duchene help fix what was a truly depressing power play unit? That unit was the biggest thing holding this team back.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins. A true wild card team that seems like it could be a Stanley Cup contender or miss the playoffs entirely. A lot will depend on Evgeni Malkin bouncing back, Matt Murray staying healthy, and figuring out a capable defense after their top pairing.

13. Dallas Stars. They have elite talent at all three levels (forward, defense, goalie) and Pavelski gives them a much-needed secondary scoring threat for their second line. Still some depth concerns, but this team was a double overtime goal away in Game 7 from reaching the Western Conference Final.

14. Florida Panthers. They addressed their biggest need with the addition of Sergei Bobrovsky, and while his contract will probably be a disaster before it ends, he is good enough in the short-term to help get them back in the playoffs, something they desperately need to do for their fans.

15. New York Islanders. Can Semyon Varlamov do what Robin Lehner did a year ago? If he can’t that is going to leave a big hole that will be difficult to overcome.

16. Columbus Blue Jackets. As long as one of Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins can be passable in net I am not sure the regression is going to be as significant as some think this season. They still have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot.

17. Chicago Blackhawks. They should be able to score, but forward depth is a concern and the defense, even after offseason changes, has big questions. An Olli MaattaBrent Seabrook defense pairing might be the league’s slowest.

18. Minnesota Wild. If everything goes right there is a path back to the playoffs this season. The return of a healthy Matt Dumba and Mikko Koivu would be a good start.

19. New York Rangers. Definitely a better team and what should be an entertaining one with the additions of Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko, but lack of depth down the middle and on defense will be their undoing.

20. New Jersey Devils. If Cory Schneider does not rebound in a big way it could undo what was a wildly successful summer.

21. Arizona Coyotes. Phil Kessel gives them the type of game-breaking offensive talent they have been lacking for more than a decade. Is that enough to get them back in the playoffs?

22. Philadelphia Flyers. Enough good players to be an interesting team and just enough question marks to not fully buy into them.

23. Montreal Canadiens. They were just a couple points shy of a playoff spot, but a lot of teams around them managed to get better while the Canadiens mostly stood pat.

24. Winnipeg Jets. The forwards are great, especially now that Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine are signed, but the state of that defense, especially without Dustin Byfuglien at the moment, is some real nightmare fuel for Winnipeg.

25. Buffalo Sabres. They have two franchise players and made some nice offseason upgrades, but there is a huge gap between them and the top-three teams (and probably top-four, if you include Florida) in their division.

26. Anaheim Ducks. Probably one of the best goalie duos in the league and some intriguing young forwards will get a chance to excel, but still too many holes.

27. Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and Quinn Hughes offer long-term hope. The rest of the roster does not.

28. Edmonton Oilers. It looks like they are on the verge of wasting another prime season of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, which is still difficult to comprehend.

29. Detroit Red Wings. Steve Yzerman is going to need some time to get this thing back on track.

30. Los Angeles Kings. Even if Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick bounce back there just isn’t enough talent around them to matter.

31. Ottawa Senators. Anything other than the worst record in the league would be an accomplishment.

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.

Shaw looking to help Blackhawks return to playoffs

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CHICAGO — Andrew Shaw started chirping right away. A few lines for Jonathan Toews. A few more for a couple new teammates.

It was like he never left.

Trying for a turnaround after two down years, the Chicago Blackhawks once again dipped into their past as part of a flurry of offseason moves. General manager Stan Bowman reacquired Shaw in a trade with Montreal in June, looking to add more grit and energy to a lineup that seemed like it needed a spark at times last year.

The 28-year-old Shaw returns to Chicago a married father, with another child on the way. But the pesky forward said his game remains very similar.

”Maybe just a little less reckless,” he said. ”Still physical, still hits, but just try not to lead with my head anymore.”

Shaw was selected by Chicago in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. He helped the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2013 and 2015 before he was dealt to the Canadiens three years ago.

The addition of Shaw gives coach Jeremy Colliton another versatile piece. He could grab a spot on one of Chicago’s top two lines, or provide some offense on the third or fourth group. Shaw set career highs with 28 assists and 47 points in his final season with Montreal. He scored a career-best 20 goals during the 2013-14 season with the Blackhawks.

”Whether he’s top six or he could be on the fourth line, he’s still going to contribute,” Colliton said. ”We want to have that sort of personality throughout our lineup. I think we have a bunch of guys who can move up and down.”

Shaw became one of Chicago’s most beloved players during his first stint with the team, and he said he has been greeted warmly since he came back this summer.

”Love. I mean pure love. It’s awesome,” he said. ”People coming up to you, recognizing you, glad to have you back, saying they missed you. It feels good. It feels good to be loved.”

WHO’S HERE

The Blackhawks acquired Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta in a pair of June trades to help bolster their defensive pairings. But de Haan is coming back from right shoulder surgery and Maatta has struggled with injuries over the years, in addition to concerns about his skating ability.

WHO’S NOT

Chicago traded promising young defenseman Henri Jokiharju to Buffalo in July for Alex Nylander, a talented forward who hasn’t lived up to expectations since he was selected by the Sabres with the eighth overall pick in the 2016 draft. The progress of the 20-year-old Jokiharju and 21-year-old Nylander will be closely watched in Chicago and Buffalo over the next couple seasons.

KEY PLAYERS

The addition of Robin Lehner gives Chicago one of the best goaltender situations in the league. Lehner agreed to a $5 million, one-year deal in free agency after he went 25-13-5 with a 2.13 goals-against average last season with the New York Islanders. Corey Crawford was sidelined by a concussion during each of the past two seasons, but showed flashes of his stellar form last year. If Lehner or Crawford goes down, the Blackhawks have Collin Delia waiting in the minors.

OUTLOOK

Chicago allowed a whopping 291 goals last season, second worst in the league behind Ottawa, and finished with the NHL’s worst penalty kill at 72.7%. Bowman made several moves this summer to address those issues. If they don’t work out, it could be another long year.

PREDICTION

Life is tough in the rough-and-tumble Central Division, home of the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues and the loaded Predators and Jets. But if de Haan and Maatta can stay healthy and Chicago gets more secondary scoring from its bottom two lines, it could return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

Malkin, Penguins try to bounce back after early playoff exit

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PITTSBURGH — Evgeni Malkin was talking about himself. The longtime Pittsburgh Penguins center might as well have been talking about his team.

”I want to show to everyone I’m not done,” Malkin said. ”(I want to show) everything – power skating, stickhandling, scoring, play in the D zone, faceoffs. I just want to come back at my top level for sure.”

Something the dynamic Russian wasn’t at a year ago. His 21 goals marked a career-low in a season in which he played at least 50 games. His 51 assists looked great on paper, but his inattentive defensive play at times made him something he’s never been during his long partnership with star Sidney Crosby: a liability.

Malkin certainly looked a step slow during Pittsburgh’s first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders. He was hardly the only one. The Penguins were outclassed, outskated and outworked over the course of four games, leaving Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford hinting at the necessity of a culture change heading into the franchise’s longest offseason since 2006, the year before Malkin arrived.

Ultimately Rutherford opted to make only modest adjustments, the most notable sending productive but mercurial forward Phil Kessel to Arizona for Alex Galchenyuk, trading soft-spoken defenseman Olli Maatta to Chicago for Dominik Kahun and signing winger Brandon Tanev to a six-year deal in free agency.

Pittsburgh hopes the additions help them recapture the identity the club forged while winning consecutive Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, when the Penguins wore opponents down with their speed and heady play. It would certainly help matters if veterans like Malkin follow suit. The 33-year-old shed some weight in the offseason and understands he’s much closer to the end of his career than the beginning. That realization has brought Malkin a welcome sense of urgency.

”We have a great team,” Malkin said. ”We have a couple, maybe two, three, four chances to win again. Maybe not many (more) years that I’ll play in the NHL. I understand that. I want to just have fun and enjoy it every day.”

Sullivan and Rutherford both chastised their more established players – without naming names – in April for losing some of the edge that carried them to championships. Rather than blowing it up, they opted instead for to hold on to Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang, whose high-risk, high-reward style cost Pittsburgh in the playoffs. Both players are in their 30s. Both are among the best at their position when they’re at their best. The key is finding a way to make that happen more consistently over the 82-game grind.

”I think this team is capable of doing some real good things,” Sullivan said. ”But we have to earn it every day. It’s not inevitable. There’s a nice feeling around the team. I think everyone is excited about the opportunity and possibilities that we have.”

If not, the cosmetic changes the roster underwent in the offseason could be significantly more substantial next summer.

WHO’S HERE: F Alex Galchenyuk, F Brandon Tanev, C Dominik Kahun.

WHO’S NOT: F Phil Kessel, D Olli Maatta, C Matt Cullen.

KEY PLAYERS: The Penguins will continue to go as Crosby and Malkin go. While Malkin struggled last season, Crosby put together his sixth 100-point season while also burnishing his reputation as one of the top defensive forwards in the league. Jake Guentzel put up an eye-popping 40 goals while playing alongside Crosby, a total that could rise with Guentzel expected to be a significant part of the top power play. Jared McCann provided some juice after arriving in a trade with Florida in February (11 goals, 7 assists in 32 games) and provides both depth and discipline at both ends. Goaltender Matt Murray appeared in just 50 games last year due to various injuries, including a concussion. Though there’s quality depth behind him, if he can inch toward 60 starts that’s a positive development.

OUTLOOK: The expectations for a deep playoff run remain in place, though the memories of Pittsburgh’s run of consecutive Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 are fading. Galchenyuk’s arrival helps make the Penguins a little younger and fresh legs are welcomed after a tired and uninspired postseason exit. Pittsburgh, however, will need Murray to stay healthy and avoid the malaise that befell them for large portions of last year.

PREDICTION: Such are the expectations in Pittsburgh that a 100-point season – the franchise’s 10th in the last 12 full season – and a 13th consecutive playoff berth was considered a disappointment. Though Rutherford hinted at major changes, he only moved one significant piece of the club’s Cup-winning core. The postseason streak should reach 14 straight years, but in an increasingly competitive division, the Penguins will likely fall short of reaching the Eastern Conference finals.