Olli Maatta

How the Penguins have become one of NHL’s best defensive teams

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It is starting to look like Jim Rutherford was right.

Not long after his Pittsburgh Penguins were swept out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he defiantly proclaimed that the defense he had assembled was probably the best one his team had since he arrived in Pittsburgh. It seemed to be a rather dubious claim not only because of how the Penguins performed for much of the season (including the playoffs), but because he had also been the general manager for a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh.

But nearly two months into the 2019-20 season the Penguins have been one of the league’s stingiest teams defensively and that play is one of the biggest reasons they have been able to overcome a seemingly unending list of injuries to keep piling up points.

Just look at the defensive performance so far this season compared to the same date a year ago, as well as their final numbers from the 2018-19 season.

All numbers via Natural Stat Trick. The numbers in parenthesis are their league-wide rank.

They also boast one of the league’s best penalty killing units, not only in terms of success rate, but also in their ability to also limit shots and chances against.

The Penguins always had one elite defense pair in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin but everything after that was always a question.

So what all has changed?

The arrival of John Marino and development of Marcus Pettersson. One thing that should be pointed out about Rutherford’s “best defense” comment is that there have been some personnel changes on the blue line since then that helped the team get back closer to the winning identity it had lost. Erik Gudbranson and Olli Maatta were traded, while the team also made the under-the-radar acquisition of John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a sixth-round pick.

From the moment they acquired Marino, the Penguins seemed enamored with his potential. After watching him play for the past month-and-a-half it is not hard to see why. He has been a game-changer on the blue line and in his first pro season has already become a 20-minute per night player and has yet to look out of place. He brings some much-needed youth, mobility, and playmaking to a defense that badly needed all three.

Combine his presence with a full season of Marcus Pettersson (acquired in December of last year for Daniel Sprong) and suddenly the Penguins have two young, mobile defenders that can help drive play for what is currently a dirt cheap price against the salary cap. And both have the potential to continue getting better.

The forwards are helping more. One of the common themes throughout the Penguins’ offseason was that they needed to play “the right way,” and that the defensive deficiencies last season weren’t just about the defensemen themselves. They also needed more help from their forwards. They are getting that this season, and it’s not just because the returning players are playing smarter. The offseason additions of Brandon Tanev and Dominik Kahun, as well as getting a full season out of trade deadline acquisition Jared McCann, have brought three more fast, defensively responsible forwards to the lineup, and all are making significant contributions in every phase of the game.

Tanev’s signing drew harsh criticism (including from me) due to the term on the contract but so far he has proven to be everything the Penguins said he would be — a menace due to his speed and an always frustrating player for opponents to go up against. Combined with the arrival of young players Teddy Blueger and Sam Lafferty the Penguins injected a ton of speed, youth, and fresh blood into a lineup that the rest of the league had not only caught up to, but seemingly passed by the previous two years. With Phil Kessel and Arizona and Sidney Crosby currently sidelined the Penguins may not be as explosive offensively, but they are making up for that with their ability to shut teams down.

Better usage and a better identity. Mike Sullivan is turning in a Jack Adams level coaching performance this season and has pushed all of the right buttons so far. He has the team buying into how they need to play, they are back to play fast, and the personnel usage is far better (trusting Marino and Pettersson in big spots; playing Jack Johnson in the third-pairing/PK role he is best suited for).

Rutherford received his fair share of criticism the past couple of years (including from, again, me) and much of it was deserved. The team became too obsessed with “push-back” and getting more physical instead of getting faster and better. There was a constant revolving door of player transactions that made it seem like they didn’t really have a plan. Tom Wilson took up residence in their front office and seemed to drive every decision.

One of the most positive things anyone around Pittsburgh could always say about Rutherford is he is quick to admit his mistakes and move on. He definitely did that by making the team faster and getting it back to what it does best. It may not have been the most direct route, but for the first time in two years the Penguins have the look of the team that was winning Stanley Cups instead of the one that was getting swept in the first round. Better late than never.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Biggest surprises of 2019-20; Who are the luckiest teams?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• K’Andre Miller’s journey has been unique, but he’s now a top prospect for the Rangers. (ESPN)

• Islanders forwards Tom Kuhnhackl and Matt Martin will both miss 4-6 weeks of action. (NHL.com)

• It’s Monday, but it’s never too late to check out Frank Seravalli’s “Friday Five”. (TSN)

• Who has been the most surprising player for each team? (The Hockey News)

• Who have been the luckiest and unluckiest teams in the NHL this season? (Sportsnet)

• How should the media cover feuds in the NHL? (The Hockey Writers)

• Habs Eyes on the Prize debates whether or not Joel Armia can continue scoring at this incredible pace. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Do the Leafs have a hard time “starting on time”? (Pension Plan Puppets)

• What does the Penguins salary cap situation look like now that Erik Gudbranson has been traded away? (Pensburgh)

• The Wild have a few players that have some different habits and preparation rituals. (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

• Hawks defenseman Olli Maatta looks back at his battle with cancer five years ago. (Chicago Sun Times)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Blackhawks have plenty of problems right now

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Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman took a big gamble this offseason that after consecutive non-playoff seasons his core was still good enough to compete and was only in need of a couple of tweaks.

He brought in Robin Lehner to give them some insurance in goal behind Corey Crawford, he traded for defenders Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to try and fix what had become a terrible blue line, and brought back two-time Stanley Cup winner Andrew Shaw because, well, he has never been able to let go of the people that he won with.

So far, there is not much to suggest that gamble is paying off.

At least not yet.

After dropping a 4-0 decision to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday afternoon the Blackhawks are now riding a four-game losing streak and remain near the bottom of the league standings with just two wins in their first nine games. (Remember, they were 5-2-2 after nine games in each of the past two non-playoff series — they have two wins now.) It is their worst start through nine games since 2000-01, and if franchise history is any indicator it has already made a return to the playoffs a real long shot. The only times they have really been able to overcome a start like this were in the Original Six days or the old Norris Trophy days when they could sneak in with a losing record. Neither one of those days are coming back to the NHL anytime soon.

The other problem right now is there isn’t any one particular problem holding them back. It is everything.

The offense has gone cold

The one thing the Blackhawks had going in their favor last season was that the offense went through a bit of a resurgence and was once again among the best in the league. Jonathan Toews bounced back, Patrick Kane was still elite, and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome looked like they were on the verge of becoming cornerstone players. There were still serious depth concerns, but the top players were still making an impact. Right now, nobody is scoring goals. The Blackhawks have just two goals in their past three games and for the season are 26th in goals per game. They needed Toews to show his rebound wasn’t a fluke (he has been invisible so far), Kane to remain elite (he has only been okay), and DeBrincat and Strome to take big steps forward (they have three goals between them in nine games) while also finding secondary scoring somewhere. None of it is happening.

The defense doesn’t look any better

Maatta and de Haan were intriguing additions, but the biggest problem with this group as constructed is the complete lack of mobility. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are franchise icons, but they are 36 and 34 years old respectively and have absolutely lost a step (or more) from where they were when they were foundation players for a dynasty. Maatta is a solid defender, but is also probably one of the slowest defenders in the league. After being one of the worst teams in the league in preventing shots the past few years they have again opened this season near the bottom of the league. They are a bottom-10 team in shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances against during 5-on-5 play, and are also giving up more than 32 shots per game in all situations. None of that is close to good enough. Especially when…

Corey Crawford still doesn’t look right

The big wild card for the Blackhawks this season was going to be the goalie duo of Lehner and Crawford because there was always the possibility they could mask a lot of flaws on defense and steal some games. They have split the starts so far this season, and Lehner has mostly done his part. He has a .922 save percentage in his four starts and has probably stolen points for the team in two of them (he stopped 37 of 39 shots in a 3-2 win against Columbus; then stopped 33 out of 34 shots in a 2-1 shootout loss against Vegas). Crawford has been a different story, posting a sub-.895 save percentage in four of his five starts and now carrying around an .887 mark for the season. He has struggled to stay healthy the past two years, he was not particularly good a year ago when he was on the ice, and he has been even worse so far this season and is turning 35 in a couple of months. Not a promising start.

Put it all together, and you have what is now looking like a bad hockey team.

It is also a team that has missed the playoffs two years in a row and has not won a playoff series in four years. With the three-time Stanley Cup winning coach already gone all of the focus for that is going to start going in the direction of the general manager.

MORE: Brent Seabrook to be healthy scratch Sunday for second time in NHL career

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.

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.”