Oilers play well, still lose as Penguins’ Murray shuts the door

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When you’re a team that scores few goals, even a pretty good effort of a given night can be unraveled by a momentary lapse on the ice.

The Edmonton Oilers put in that pretty good effort on Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN but still came away with the loss, 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And the reason for that was a roughly four-minute stretch in the second period where they stopped doing what had made them successful in the rest of the game. The Oilers owned possession in the first and second periods (53 percent in the first; 70 percent in the second) and came up with a 1-0 lead in the first when Connor McDavid slid a cross-ice pass to Leon Draisaitl.

That lead lasted until early in the second when the Oilers just stopped defending while on the power play. The laziness that ensued produced a short-handed goal for Bryan Rust, who shouldn’t have been allowed the time he had to tuck the puck past Mikko Koskinen.

The 2-1 goal came when no one picked up a streaking Teddy Blueger through the slot. A tough rebound off Koskinen produced a juicy rebound and just like that, the Oilers trailed.

Matt Murray produced another solid outing after he stopped a career-high 50 shots in a 4-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday.

Murray had to come up big again, stopping 38 shots, including a penalty shot from none other than McDavid (who is now 1-for-3 in those situations in his career).

Murray was on point again nearing the mid-way point of the third when he stretched out to stop McDavid once again.

This Matt Murray is the unbeatable Matt Murray that could lift the Penguins into the playoffs by himself down the stretch here if he keeps playing like this.

Speaking of playoffs and down the stretch run, the Penguins picked up two big points and are now three clear (67 points) of the Carolina Hurricanes (64 points) for the final wild card in the Eastern Conference.

Pittsburgh came into the game 1-3-1 in their past five games and just four wins in their past 12. The Penguins were without Evgeni Malkin (serving his one-game suspension for attempted decapitation) and Olli Maatta (who is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury).

The Oilers, meanwhile, are beginning to fall behind in the turtle derby. They’ve lost eight of their past nine contests and sit six points back of the Minnesota Wild for the final wildcard spot in the west. And there’s the loggiest of logjams in front of them queueing up for what appears to be quite the race to the finish line.

Weird stat via the NHL: McDavid is 0-3-3 against the Penguins when Sidney Crosby is in the lineup.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Wednesday Night Hockey: McDavid’s Oilers mirroring Lemieux’s early days with Penguins

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Barring some kind of a miraculous late-season turnaround it is looking like the Edmonton Oilers are going to fall short of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third time in the first four years of Connor McDavid‘s NHL career. If that turnaround is going to happen, it is going to have to start quickly, and collecting two points against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that will be without Evgeni Malkin (suspension) and Olli Maatta (shoulder injury) on Wednesday Night Hockey would probably be a good place to start.

Given that the Oilers are entering the Wednesday having lost seven out of their past eight games, and have only won six of their previous 22 games overall, nothing is going to come easy for them.

If the Oilers do end up missing the playoffs again it is going to be an incredibly disappointing start to the McDavid era in Edmonton.

Over the past decade the only sustained success the Oilers have had was winning No. 1 overall picks in the draft lottery. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov all arrived in Edmonton with the hope and anticipation that a top pick can help rebound a franchise, but none of them came close to matching the McDavid hope. He was supposed to be the guy that would change the fortunes of the franchise and be the player that would lift them out of the doldrums of the league. Overall, he has probably been even better than anticipated and right now in year four is the most dominant, game-changing offensive player in the world. Offensively speaking, he is off to one of the best starts offensively in NHL history.

It is that development that makes the Oilers’ lack of success with him so shocking, and it remains an indictment of the organization around him that they haven’t been able to piece together a consistent winner.

The word “waste” has been thrown around a lot when it comes to McDavid’s early career and the Oilers. But I don’t think we truly grasp just how bad it has been.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

In the history of the league there have only been 16 players who have played at least 200 games and averaged at least 1.28 points per game through their first four NHL seasons. McDavid is one of those 16 players, while he is one of only three (Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin being the other two) who saw their careers begin after the 1995 season.

Take a look at the list and the number of playoff appearances and playoff games they had played in through their first four years (sorted by total playoff games).

Again, this is not an indictment on McDavid or his career personally. This is a statement about the Oilers’ inability to build a team around him. It is fair to point out that a number of these players began their careers in the 1980s when a far higher percentage of the league made the playoffs, so that might skew this a little bit. But even when you look at the more recent players (Crosby, Ovechkin, Forsberg, Lindros, Selanne) there is still a pretty sizable gap in terms of success.

Ovechkin’s Capitals, for example, missed the playoffs in his first two years. By year four, they had made consecutive appearances in the postseason, were in a Game 7 in the second-round following a 50-win regular season, and came back the next season to win 54 games and the Presidents’ Trophy on their way to being one of the most dominant teams in the league.

By year four, Crosby’s Penguins were playing in their second consecutive Stanley Cup Final … and winning it.

Does anyone think the Oilers are a year away from winning 54 games, the Presidents’ Trophy, or the Stanley Cup?

What’s even worse for the Oilers is that when the the likes of Crosby and Ovechkin joined their respective teams, they had far less impact talent around them than the Oilers did when McDavid joined them. They didn’t even really have anyone that was comparable to the young trio of recent top picks in Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle that was already in place in Edmonton (Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal didn’t arrive in Pittsburgh until the year after Crosby; Nicklas Backstrom didn’t join the Capitals until the next year, while Mike Green only played in 20 games in Ovechkin’s rookie year). There should have been a solid foundation in place to build around.

Really, the only comparable to what McDavid and the Oilers have experienced so far is what happened with the Penguins and their franchise-saving player, Mario Lemieux, in the mid-1980s.

The early Lemieux era Penguins were so poorly constructed that even with a player that was on a Gretzky-ian level, and in a league where 16 of the 21 teams (76 percent) made the playoffs, they were unable to get there even once in his first four season. It wasn’t until year five that Lemieux made his first ever playoff appearance.

They were so hapless in the early stages of Lemieux’s career that this situation (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) unfolded at the tail end of year four with the team trying to get No. 66 what would have been his first-ever playoff appearance.

The Oilers haven’t been quite that bad, but the fact that team is the situation they are most comparable to in the early stages of a generational talent’s career is problematic.

A lack of playoff games is also probably not the early career comparison to Lemieux that McDavid wants.

If you’re an Oilers fan reading this and looking for positives it’s that the Penguins eventually got their act together and over the next few years assembled an arsenal of Hall of Famers around Lemieux, won two Stanley Cups, and were one of the league’s elite teams for more than a decade. But given how much work there seems to be needed around McDavid, the Oilers seem like they are several years away from getting there.

Even this year, in a season where McDavid is playing the best hockey of his career and on pace for 123 points, and in a year where the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff field is as mediocre as it has ever been, the playoffs are still falling out of reach. Of the 20 players who have topped 123 points since 1990, only two of them played on teams that missed the playoffs.

One player alone can not make a team in the NHL because they only impact a third of the game.

But history still shows it is awfully hard to squander an offensive player this dominant.

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie. Additionally, Kathryn Tappen will be providing reports and conducting interviews on-site in Pittsburgh.

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.

Should Penguins spend at trade deadline to replace Maatta?

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Sometimes, when a struggling defenseman gets injured, there can be a sort of dark silver lining: it may force a coach to play someone better. Considering how tough it is to find good defensemen, though, there’s the scarier – and probably more likely – reality that they’d be replaced by someone even worse.

That’s the situation the Pittsburgh Penguins are struggling with right now, as they announced that Olli Maatta is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury suffered during Monday’s win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Considering that Evgeni Malkin might get suspended for his stick-swinging, that could be a costly win in the short-term, but the long-term implications are more fascinating.

Should the Penguins dip into the trade market for a defenseman, preferably of the top-four variety?

A thin group

Again, there’s no denying that Maatta has been struggling mightily for some time, but more Jack Johnson is frightening, as you can see from how pitiful they both look via Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool, which uses Corsica’s data.

/Insert horror movie scream.

As far as other Penguins defensemen go:

Schultz has missed most of the season with a pretty freakish injury, having not played since Oct. 13. It seems like he’s slated to return soon, but expecting him to hit the ground running with heavy minutes seems like asking a lot — yet that might be exactly what the Penguins need.

And, let’s face it. Schultz has been a fantastic reclamation project for the Penguins, but he’s most useful when he’s placed in nurturing situations. During four seasons with the Penguins, Schultz has started an average of 55.7-percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, according to Hockey Reference. If he’s asked to shoulder a tougher defensive burden – as he did early this season, albeit in a small sample size – will his game fall apart?

  • Pensburgh and others point out an interesting plug-in option: Ethan Prow.

The undrafted 26-year-old has never played an NHL game, yet he’s tied for second place among AHL defensemen with 37 points this season. Offense isn’t everything, but it’s a positive sign that maybe he can help, and it wouldn’t hurt for the speed-and-skill-oriented Penguins to add another potential weapon.

Shaky market

When you look at TSN’s trade bait list, Craig Custance’s Top 20 Trade Board (sub. required), and other compilations of trade targets, you’ll see a lot of fascinating names, from Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky to more grounded considerations, like Wayne Simmonds.

Things are a lot thinner when you’re looking for defensemen, though.

Normally, I’d personally recommend going after Dougie Hamilton, a defenseman who is likely to exceed his perception. Dougie’s not a perfect option for the Penguins for simple money reasons, though: his (actually decent value) $5.75 million cap hit runs through 2020-21. Hamilton also plays for the Hurricanes, who likely wouldn’t be thrilled about the prospect of enriching a team ahead of them in the East bubble. Similar problems crop up with, say, Trevor Daley.

Granted, there are interesting options here and there. Alec Martinez is a little cheaper than Hamilton ($4M through 2020-21), and the left-hander’s shown he can play on his off-side.

Maybe most importantly, the Kings are eyeing the future, so they might be willing to retain some of Martinez’s salary, and one Penguins issue might be something they’d work with better than others …

Sunk costs

The Penguins have already given up a ton of futures in landing the likes of Nick Bjugstad, and previously, Derick Brassard.

As you can see from Cap Friendly’s chart, the Penguins lack:

  • A second, third, or sixth-rounder in 2019. They have Buffalo’s fourth-rounder and Vegas’ seventh-rounder, with Buffalo’s pick currently slated to be a little better, while Vegas’ is likely to be worse than Pittsburgh’s would-be seventh-rounder. The point is, there aren’t a ton of 2019 picks remaining.
  • They don’t have their 2020 second-round pick.

The Penguins, then, would need to part with first-round picks in bigger trades, or a would-be seller would need to accept a third-rounder or worse in 2020, or wait until 2021 to get a second-round pick. (Maybe the Kings would be willing to take a 2021 second-rounder for Martinez, possibly as part of a larger package?)

Not just eyeing this year

Ultimately, Pittsburgh might just look at the landscape and determine that they don’t need to take a big shot in 2018-19, instead allowing things to play out.

After all, much of the Penguins’ planning has been getting “extended” rentals. Bjugstad is signed through 2020-21, as is Tanner Pearson. Jared McCann is cost controlled through 2019-20.

Much of the context points to sticking with this current setup, or at least not making another big splash.

Who knows when the window will close?

There’s also a danger in assuming that Sidney Crosby (31), Evgeni Malkin (32), Phil Kessel (31), and Kris Letang (31) can fight off Father Time enough to keep the Penguins in the contender mix in 2019-20. Sometimes the drop-off can be very, very steep; just ask those selling Los Angeles Kings.

Yes, the Penguins won their 2017 Stanley Cup with Letang injured, and that repeat run came with a defense that wasn’t world-beating even with Letang feeling spry. That doesn’t mean Pittsburgh can always clear those hurdles, so it’s fair to point out that defense is a clear need.

***

To reiterate, the widespread “eye test” matches the numbers: Maatta hasn’t been very good this season.

Still, things could get even worse for the Penguins defense with him sidelined, so it’s not shocking that some might call for more trade deadline spending.

All things considered, should the Penguins roll the dice by being spenders … or take different types of risks by sticking with what they have?

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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Lightning on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Tampa Bay, which last played on Jan. 19, comes out of the All- Star break with the best record in the NHL at 37-10-2. With 76 points, the Lightning occupy first place in the NHL, and are five points ahead of the Calgary Flames for most in the league entering Wednesday night’s action.

Tampa Bay has been in first place in the NHL since Nov. 29 – just more than two months – and are looking to capture the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time in franchise history. They are currently on pace to win 62 games this season, which would tie NHL record (set by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings – 62 wins).

The last team to win the Presidents’ Trophy and win the Stanley Cup was the Blackhawks in 2013, and before that was the Red Wings in 2008.

[WNH: Sidney Crosby’s Selke Trophy push]

On Monday, the Penguins lost at home to the New Jersey Devils, 6-3, its fourth loss in the last five games (all in regulation – 1-4-0 record since Jan. 12). Pittsburgh has allowed five-plus goals in all four of those losses. This recent stretch of struggles follows Pittsburgh’s hottest streak of the season, when they won 10 of 11 games from Dec. 19 – Jan. 11.

One thing the Penguins need to improve is on the power play. They are just 2-for-13 (15.4%) on the power play in their last four games, and have allowed three shorthanded goals in the last six games. In fact, Pittsburgh leads the NHL with 11 shorthanded goals allowed this season. Last year they were tied with Tampa Bay and San Jose for the fewest shorthanded goals allowed (3).

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Tampa Bay Lightning at Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: PPG Paints Arena
When: Wednesday, Jan. 30, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Lightning-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Ondrej PalatSteven StamkosYanni Gourde
Tyler JohnsonBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliJ.T. Miller
Adam ErneCedric PaquetteMathieu Joseph

Victor HedmanDan Girardi
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Mikhail SergachevAnton Stralman

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

PENGUINS
Jake GuentzelSidney CrosbyDominik Simon
Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Tanner PearsonMatt CullenPatric Hornqvist
Riley Sheahan – Teddy Blueger – Garrett Wilson

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Olli MaattaJuuso Riikola
Marcus PetterssonJack Johnson

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

MORE: Kendall Coyne Schofield to serve as NBC Sports analyst on Wednesday Night Hockey

Coyne will join the broadcast team of John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst) and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) for the call from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Wednesday night.

Trade: Penguins, Stars reverse last year’s Jamie Oleksiak deal

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On Dec. 19, 2017, the Pittsburgh Penguins sent a conditional 2019 fourth-round draft pick to the Dallas Stars in exchange for Jamie Oleksiak in an effort to strengthen what was at the time a very shorthanded defense. It was not a trade that moved mountains or shook the NHL to its core, and unless you are a fan of either team you probably forgot that it ever happened. Maybe you didn’t even realize that it happened.

It is worth noting today, just a little more than one year later, because those same two teams got together on Monday and decided to call a do-over on the whole thing.

It was then that the Penguins sent Oleksiak back to the Stars in exchange for … a 2019 fourth-round draft pick.

The same pick they sent Dallas a year ago.

For all intents and purposes the Penguins rented Oleksiak for one year and then sent him right back where they got him from as if the whole thing never happened.

Let’s break this down to figure out just what everybody is getting out of this, starting with Dallas.

Oleksiak, a first-round pick by the team in 2011, was once a promising prospect in the Stars’ farm system but never really developed as hoped and he certainly never seemed to fit with former coach Ken Hitchcock last season. So they shipped him away last year and gave him a fresh start with a Penguins team that desperately needed some additional defensive depth.

He returns to the Stars after a year away in almost exactly the same manner, hoping to help fill some depth on a blue line that has been without Marc Methot and Stephen Johns all season. General manager Jim Nill said on Monday after the trade, via The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro, that he wanted to add a “weight guy” to bring some size and big-minute ability to the Stars’ blue line. Oleksiak is one of the biggest players in the league so he definitely fixes the size issue that Nill was looking to address, but that ignores one really important question: Is Oleksiak going to actually improve the Stars’ defense when it comes to scoring and preventing goals, which should be the number one question that gets asked anytime you add or subtract a player from your roster.

That is a question that will be answered over the coming weeks and months.

After arriving in Pittsburgh Oleksiak’s game definitely seemed to take a step forward, and he played well enough in the eyes of the Penguins that they were willing to sign him to a three-year contract that pays him more than $2.1 million per season. Despite that promising development, and the brand new contract, he wasn’t always a regular in the Pittsburgh lineup this season and didn’t really log a ton of big minutes when he was. He showed flashes of putting all of his skills together, but it was never consistent.

So now he goes back to the team where it all started getting yet another fresh start.

In 36 games this season Oleksiak scored four goals to go with seven assists for the Penguins.

As for the Penguins, they now shed that salary and create some additional salary cap space for themselves for both this season and in the future. That will probably proved to be important once general manager Jim Rutherford really starts working the trade lines in an effort to complete his roster for a playoff run. The return of the draft pick also gives them eight draft picks in 2019, including three fourth-round selections, to use as trade capital.

It also helps ease the log-jam they were set to have on defense whenever Justin Schultz returns in the coming weeks. When that happens the Penguins would have had as many as nine NHL defenders on their roster (Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Schultz, Marcus Pettersson, Jack Johnson, Jusso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel, and Oleksiak) without making any additional moves. A trade seemed likely at some point.

With Oleksiak now back in Dallas and Schultz not quite ready to return it seems likely that Riikola will get a more extended look in the short-term, likely on the second pairing alongside Maatta.

More: PHT Power Rankings: 10 people that will impact the NHL playoff race

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.