Riley Sheahan

It’s Florida Panthers Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers. 

2018-19
36-32-14, 86 points (5th in Atlantic Division, 10th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Sergei Bobrovsky
Noel Acciari
Anton Stralman
Brett Connolly
Joel Quenneville – coach

OUT:
Roberto Luongo – retired
James Reimer
Troy Brouwer
Jamie McGinn
Derek MacKenzie
Riley Sheahan

RE-SIGNED:
MacKenzie Weegar
Jayce Hawryluk
Sam Montembeault
MacKenzie Weegar

2018-19 Season Summary

If you’re a Florida Panthers fan, do you even care about last season at this point?

You’d be forgiven if you’ve forgotten already.

Florida’s offseason began with the hiring of Joel Quenneville, one of the NHL’s most successful and respect coaches of all-time, and it only kept gaining speed.

The Panthers added Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari up front and Anton Stralman on the backend. And then they signed perhaps the biggest piece that’s been missing, a stud No. 1 goaltender.

[More: Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

We can debate back and forth about the merit of a seven-year, $70 million deal all day. What you can’t argue is the fact that the Panthers have taken a massive step toward competing with the big boys in the Atlantic Division.

It makes yet another season of playoff-less hockey a little easier to stomach after how aggressive Dale Tallon has been. It’s had pretty much become a given that the Panthers wouldn’t make the playoffs over the past two decades. They’ve reached the postseason just twice in the past 18 years, an undesirable trend in a market that struggles to put butts in seats.

It’s tough to get anything done with inconsistent goaltending and lackluster team defense, two lowlights of Florida’s fifth-place showing the Atlantic last season.

Even with the ninth-best goals-per-game as a team, the Panthers couldn’t outscore their problems from the blue line backward. They collectively allowed the 28th most goals out of the league’s 31 teams.

Stralman coming in should help that, as should the system Quenneville installs along with Bob’s goaltending.

Up front, the Panthers really just need more of the same from guys like Aleksander Barkov, Mike Hoffman and Jonathan Huberdeau. All three hit the 30-goal plateau.

There’s also plenty of secondary scoring off the sticks of Evgenii Dadonov, Vincent Trocheck and Frank Vatrano. All three could conceivably reach the same mark. Trocheck had 31 the year before but was limited to 55 games because of injury last season. Dadonov was two shy with 28 and Vatrano had 24. Brett Connolly, too — and if healthy — showed he can reach at least 20 after playing 81 games last season. He hadn’t played more than 71 in any of his previous seven seasons prior.

And Connolly, a Stanley Cup winner with the Washington Capitals two seasons ago, adds playoff experience, along with Stralman (two Stanley Cup Final appearances) and Acciari (one Cup Final appearance.)

The days of perennial losing in Florida might just be over.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

One month into NHL free agency, who’s left on the market?

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The NHL free agent market opened one month ago today and there was plenty of cash thrown around and faces headed for new places. While there were 126 signings of different varieties on July 1 there have been 167 total in the 30 days since.

Even with all those contracts signed, there are still plenty of potentially helpful unrestricted free agents available on the market. We know how strong the restricted crop that’s left is, but that’s a different story altogether.

Let’s take a look at some of the UFAs still unsigned.

HOME OR RETIREMENT
Niklas Kronwall, 38
Patrick Marleau, 39
Joe Thornton, 39
Justin Williams, 37

Don’t expect any of these four to join new teams. In the case of Marleau, he’d be going home after a few years in Toronto and very quick stop as a member of the Hurricanes. Either these players will return to the teams they’re most identified with on one-year deals or they will hang up their skates.

HEADED FOR A PTO?
Scott Darling, 30
Ben Lovejoy, 35
Marc Methot, 34
Dion Phaneuf, 34
Cam Ward, 35

Per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, all teams must dress at least eight “veterans” for any preseason game. A veteran is a in this sense is considered forward or defenseman who played 30 games in the previous season, a goaltender who dressed in 50 games or played in 30 the previous season, or any player who has 100 or more career NHL games under their belt. That’s why we see lot of veterans on tryout deals in training camp, so these five players, given their ages and on-ice struggles would be placed in the “possible PTO” folder. In some cases a team can bring them in to create competition at a position in order to get the most out of the players currently under contract before ultimately releasing them.

FORWARDS

Brian Boyle, 34 – The feel-good story from the 2017-18 season needs a new home and anyone looking for a bottom line center who can help your penalty kill could get a bargain here. Between the Devils and Predators last season he scored 18 goals and recorded 24 points.

Derick Brassard, 31 – It’s been a weird few years for Brassard after he scored 46 goals and recorded 118 points in his final two seasons with the Rangers. He was shipped to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad and then moved to Pittsburgh before spending last season with the Penguins, Avalanche and Panthers. He’s shown he can still be productive at the NHL level, but this past season was one to forget.

Patrick Maroon, 31 – He took a discount to come home and helped St. Louis win its first Stanley Cup. It will be hard for Maroon to top what happened in 2018-19, but he showed that his physical style can make a difference on the right team. He may be hoping for a multi-year deal, which could be the reason for the delay in signing.

Jason Pominville, 36 – A solid depth addition, Pominville put up a second straight 16-goal season with Buffalo in 2018-19. He also averaged 1.68 points per game at even strength per 60 minutes over the last two seasons, according to Corsica.

Tobias Rieder, 26 – Like Boyle, Rieder can help your penalty kill, but he saw a sharp drop off in production last season with the Oilers. In 67 games, the forward went goalless and recorded 11 points. Before last season, he had reached double digits in goals in each of his four NHL seasons with the Coyotes and Kings. Rieder looks like a real bounce-back candidate in 2019-20.

DEFENSEMEN

Jake Gardiner, 28 – He may not win any Norris Trophies, but he can play 20 minutes a night, be a power play quarterback, and provide production from the blue line. And at this point in time, his contract demands have likely dropped, so there could be a potential bargain here. Gardiner scored three goals and record 30 points in only 62 games last season with the Maple Leafs. He won’t be any team’s No. 1 right now, but he would definitely bolster a blue line.

Ben Hutton, 26 – Hutton will help a team’s power play and penalty kill and be able to give a team over 20 minutes a night. He tied his career high in goals last season with the Canucks with five and tallied 20 points, the second-highest total of his young career

Other notables: Andrew MacDonald; Dan Girardi; Thomas Vanek, Val Nichushkin; Riley Sheahan; Dmitrij Jaskin; Devante Smith-Pelly; Chad Johnson; Troy Brouwer; Drew Stafford; Marko Dano; Matt Read; Zac Rinaldo.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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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.

Penguins seek consistency as Stanley Cup Playoffs begin

Shortly after the Pittsburgh Penguins clinched their 13th consecutive Stanley Cup Playoff appearance, defenseman Kris Letang sat at his locker and was asked more than once about the significance of what is now — by far — the NHL’s longest active postseason streak.

Every single time he downplayed it as the minimum expectation for the team.

“I don’t expect anything less than that,” said Letang. “With the roster we put on the ice every year, with the quality of players we have, with [Sidney Crosby], [Evgeni Malkin], Phil [Kessel] and these guys, I think we should make it. The expectation is high in this dressing room and this year isn’t going to be any different. It’s the minimum expectation.”

Thanks to a season full of inconsistencies, significant injuries to key players, and at times just downright bad play, it took them until Game 81 to achieve that minimum expectation. But they eventually did it. Now that they are back in the playoffs, beginning their Round 1 series against the New York Islanders on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN), the focus changes to the team’s ultimate goal and what is an almost unreachable bar given the expectations they have set for themselves over the past decade — trying to win yet another Stanley Cup.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“I think once you get in the dance, it’s up for grabs for everybody,” said Letang. “Everybody has the same chances. I don’t think there’s a team that goes in there and goes, ah we’re just going to do a round and be happy with that. The ultimate goal is to go all the way.”

“For sure it is,” said coach Mike Sullivan was asked if it’s fair for the maximum expectation to still be a Stanley Cup.

“I think when we play the game the right way, I think we can compete with any team in the league. We have difference makers throughout the lineup. We have depth at all of our positions. We can get outstanding goaltending. I believe this group is capable of great things, but have to earn it every day.”

Trying to get a read on the this Penguins team has been a year-long challenge because they have looked capable of any possible outcome at any given time. Sometimes it depends on the game, sometimes it depends on the week. That holds true entering the playoffs where anything from a five-game loss in Round 1, to a Stanley Cup seems like a realistic outcome that wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — shock anyone that has watched this team with any regularity this season.

Most recently, the Penguins have finally started to look like the the team they are expected to be, and one that is perfectly capable of doing something special.

With Letang and Evgeni Malkin back in the lineup, and Brian Dumoulin rejoining the team at practice and looking like he could return as early as Game 1 of their Round 1 series against the New York Islanders, they are as healthy as they have been all season.

Matt Murray has been one of the most productive goalies in the league since mid-December and been playing some of the best hockey of his career.

They are not only getting the results in the standings with a 12-4-4 record since the trade deadline (third best in the league since then), but the process behind the results is as good as it can possibly be, and that might be even more important than the points in the standings. According to the analytics database at Natural Stat Trick, the Penguins are a top-five team in expected goals and high-danger scoring chances (they are actually first in this metric) since the deadline. While the approach from general manager Jim Rutherford has looked completely haphazard and at times directionless with the way the team makes trades and then quickly undoes them, you can not argue with the results that the Nick BjugstadJared McCann and Erik Gudbranson trades have produced.

Bjugstad and McCann have solidified the team’s forward depth and fit in their roles in a way their predecessors, Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan, never did.

While the Gudbranson trade was immediately panned by a lot of people (including, uh, me) he has been an almost astonishingly good addition and has more than earned a roster spot once everyone on the blue line is healthy (which it seems they finally are).

When combined with the stars at the top of the lineup, including Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Kessel, and now 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel, every possible ingredient is there for a lengthy Stanley Cup Playoff run, and perhaps even a championship if everything goes right.

[PHT Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup]

But if there is one thing this Penguins team has shown us this season it’s that their biggest opponent may not be any one team in any one round, but their own inconsistency. It is something that has been a year-long battle for them on both a team and individual level.

For as good as the overall record turned out to be (only six teams in the entire league finished with more points), they still had too many stretches where they looked like a team that was deservedly on the playoff bubble. At one point this season they lost nine out of 10 games, a stretch that resulted in Rutherford publicly — and angrily — calling out most of the roster. Even during this late-season surge where they have upped their game to a championship level, there have been some issues that keep showing themselves, from a power play unit that bleeds chances and goals against, to a tendency to lose games late, losing three different games where they had leads in the final three minutes of games. That has left three extra points on the table. Three extra points — points that were right there for the taking — would have had them opening Round 1 on home ice and playing a potential Game 7 at home.

They were only 6-6-3 against the five-worst teams in the league standings. Just two extra wins against those bottom-feeding teams could have meant a division title.

The only consistent thing about them this season has been their inconsistency.

Even their style of play seems to have changed at times depending on the latest roster or lineup move.

When the Penguins won their two most recent championships in 2016 and 2017 their identity was as clear as any other team in the league: Speed. Speed. And more speed.  While that element still very much remains, there have been some deviations from that in terms of the overall roster construction. Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary, two of the players that defined that identity, are gone. Trades for players like Ryan Reaves (since traded again), Jack Johnson, and Gudbranson in recent years seemed to fly in the face of the way they used to build the team, especially their defense.

“It’s a style of play. It’s a mindset, It’s an attitude. It’s all of those things,” said Sullivan after a recent game, when asked what exactly his team’s identity is, or what what he wants it to be.

“Everybody needs to understand what their contribution is and what their role is to that identity to help this team win. We try to define that for our players as clearly as we can. We try to put them in positions to be successful and play to their strengths. This team is built a certain way and we’re trying to play to their strengths, and that is part of the identity as well. It has to start with the attitude and the mindset that we’re hard to play against and we have a certain resilience and resolve and mental toughness about us that we are going to respond to any sort of adversity that comes our way. That is either within a 60-minute hockey game, or from game to game, or week to week, or whatever it may be. That is every bit of important as the style of play.”

With the way they have played through injuries and rebounded from difficult losses, they have definitely showed that resiliency.

They also finally seem to have the right players in the right spots to play to their strengths.

Now they just need to find that consistent level of play that has avoided them all season, because one bad week in April can be the difference between a long playoff run and a long summer.

MORE: Penguins vs. Islanders Round 1 preview

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Bjugstad, McCann filling much-needed roles for Penguins

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has had to make a lot of trades over the past two years (probably more than he has wanted to make), and not all of them have worked out as planned. Two of the biggest moves involved Derick Brassard in an effort to address some of the depth the team lost following its Stanley Cup win in 2017. The first of those trades came just before the 2018 trade deadline when the Penguins, Ottawa Senators, and Vegas Golden Knights completed a massive and convoluted three-team trade to send Brassard to Pittsburgh, seemingly giving them the third-line center they needed to make another run at the Stanley Cup.

From the very beginning it never really worked.

Brassard struggled almost immediately upon arriving in Pittsburgh, never really fit in his new role, and there seemed to be frustration from both sides that it wasn’t working out. Less than a year after that deal, Brassard, Riley Sheahan, and a handful of draft picks were all sent to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad.

The early returns on that trade have been overwhelmingly positive for the Penguins, and are just one of the reasons they head into Tuesday’s game against the Washington Capitals (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN) on a 5-1-1 run over their past seven games and working to secure a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

McCann has made probably the most positive and significant contribution to the Penguins since the trade, already scoring eight goals in his first 19 games with the team, including a pair of two-goal efforts during this most recent seven-game stretch.

Bjugstad has added five goals in his first 19 games with the team.

Keep in mind that in Brassard’s 66 games with the Penguins, including playoffs, he scored only 13 goals. With the way McCann is going might match that total on his own before the playoffs begin this season.

Both he and Bjugstad have provided the complementary scoring that the Penguins have lacked, and struggled to replace, over most of the past two seasons.

Following the Penguins’ 4-2 win over the Bruins on Sunday night, a game where McCann scored two more goals, including a beautiful shorthanded goal, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was asked specifically why McCann and Bjugstad have excelled for the Penguins and why it never worked for Brassard. His answer was simple.

“They’re two real good players,” said Sullivan. “They’ve embraced the roles that we’ve put them in. When guys bring a certain level of enthusiasm and they embrace the challenge, that for me  is where it starts, with that attitude of wanting to make a difference and wanting to help this team win games. I think both of these guys are really excited to be Penguins. They’re excited about the roles that we’ve put them in.”

It is probably not a coincidence that Brassard has admitted on more than one occasion since the trade that it was difficult in Pittsburgh because they couldn’t find the right fit, and that he maybe lost some of the passion and emotion he had in his previous stops because of it.

Sometimes players need a fresh start to get that back and get into a role where everything feels comfortable and works.

Just like teams sometimes need a fresh start with different players.

While the Penguins obviously liked Bjugstad enough to trade for him and take on his $4 million salary cap hit through the end of the 2020-21 season, McCann always seemed to be the key addition because of his age (still only 22), contract (still one more year on an entry-level deal after this one), and his upside. So far they have both been significant additions for a team that needed a spark. They have also helped provide some essential secondary scoring, something they were not getting from the duo of Brassard and Sheahan.

MORE: PHT Power Rankings: Capitals playing like champs again

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Pittsburgh. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Keith Jones and Anson Carter.

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.

Constant roster shuffling makes Penguins look directionless

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Success at a championship level in professional sports is not only a rare and short-lived thing, it also tends to be quickly and easily forgotten when the winning stops. Or at least when it slows down. So with that in mind we really need to talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins because this is a team that seems to be quickly trending in the wrong direction.

Just two years ago they were doing something that had not been done in the NHL in two full decades by winning their second consecutive Stanley Cup, capping off an incredible run of hockey that was driven by a core of superstar players and a series of roster moves that worked out to near perfection. The acquisitions of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, and a host of call-ups from the AHL were all home runs (or close to it), resulting in a stable, successful roster with very little turnover from 2016 to 2017. Other than the additions of Jake Guentzel (call-up) and Ron Hainsey (trade), it was mostly the same team.

But following the 2017 championship the salary cap, free agency, and what has seemingly been a curious change in direction from the recipe that produced back-to-back championships has stripped the team of most of its depth, and the front office has badly struggled to replace it. The result has been two years of constant roster shuffling that has left the team on the playoff bubble and facing a daunting stretch run that includes six games against the teams they are competing with for a playoff spot (three against Columbus, two against Carolina, one against Montreal) and a number of games against some top-tier teams. Those head-to-head matchups will go a long way toward making or breaking their season, which is a stunning thing to be saying about this team with this core in late February.

Making matters worse in the short-term is the fact they are currently playing without three of their top-four defenders as Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, and Olli Maatta are all sidelined for an undetermined amount of time. That situation likely had at least a little something to do with the continued roster shuffling at Monday’s trade deadline when they flipped Tanner Pearson to the Vancouver Canucks for Erik Gudbranson.

The move was not well received by … well … anyone.

The focus of the criticism has been centered around what Gudbranson can actually bring to the table. Objectively speaking, his career performance has not lived up to the status of a former top-five draft pick. His underlying numbers are among the worst in the league at his position, and the eye test isn’t any more forgiving.

By Gudbranson’s own admission on the way out of Vancouver he was not good enough during his time there.

There is legitimate cause for concern with him as a player.

But focusing on Gudbranson misses the bigger problem in Pittsburgh right now, and that problem is that over the past two years nearly every single roster transaction the team has made has been a failure.

In some cases a spectacular failure.

[Related: Pearson for Gudbranson trade looks ugly for Penguins … on paper]

We know this is true because they keep having to make more trades to undo all of the roster transactions in an effort to correct them.

The cost the Penguins paid to actually get Gudbranson from Vancouver is irrelevant. I don’t know of any other way to put this without sounding like a jerk — so I will just say it and sound like a jerk — but Tanner Pearson is a mostly forgettable, run-of-the-mill NHL player. He might score 15-20 goals for your team, he might finish with 40 points, and within a year of him being on your roster you will probably forget he was ever on your roster until you go down a Hockey-Reference rabbit hole and say, “oh, hey, remember that guy?”

But the Penguins had just acquired that guy two months earlier in exchange for Carl Hagelin, a move that in hindsight looks like it was only done to shake up a core that had maybe gotten too comfortable with itself. Hagelin had his flaws as a player, but he was a huge part of the team’s identity, a popular player in the locker room, a player who won championships with the team, and a player who could still play a capable shut down role and bring the type of defensive conscious so many of the team’s forwards currently lack.

That is not nothing. He was also an expiring contract after this season. Put it all together and that means within a span of two months the Penguins turned a somewhat useful player that was still a part of their identity and what would have been $4M in salary cap space next season into a player whose potential contributions are suspect at best, detrimental at worst, who will be taking up every penny of that salary cap space in each of the next two seasons.

Pearson’s arrival and almost immediate departure was the eighth time since the start of the 2017-18 offseason that the Penguins acquired an NHL player and then jettisoned them within a year.

  • Ryan Reaves, acquired on June 23, 2017 — traded on February 23, 2018
  • Matt Hunwick, signed on July 1, 2017 — traded on June 27, 2018
  • Antti Niemi, signed on July 1, 2017 — waived on October 24, 2017
  • Riley Sheahan, acquired on October 1, 2017 — traded on February 1, 2019
  • Jamie Oleksiak, acquired on December 19, 2017 — traded on January 28, 2019 (it was literally the same trade!)
  • Derick Brassard, acquired on February 23, 2018 — traded on February 1, 2019
  • Derek Grant, signed on July 19, 2018 — traded on January 17, 2019
  • Tanner Pearson, acquired on November 14, 2018 — traded on February 25, 2019

It is not unfair to look at that list and that series of transactions and come to the conclusion that there is a problem somewhere in the organization, whether it is with the pro scouting, or with the coaching staff, or with the final decision-making, or with what they are looking for in players. Something is clearly off here. What other conclusion can you possibly come to?

A team that just two years ago was winning with speed, skill, and puck-moving defense keeps trying to find grit and toughness and keeps making itself slower and less mobile.

The one transaction that was made during this stretch that hasn’t yet been undone, the signing of Jack Johnson, might be the most damaging of the bunch and it’s probably only a matter of when, and not if, that ends in a buyout or a trade.

This much roster turnover and shuffling of players can not be a sustainable way to run a franchise, mostly because it doesn’t even take into account the collateral damage that has come with working to “fix” those trades. They lost Conor Sheary, Hagelin, Ian Cole, and Oskar Sundqvist as part of those transactions, and have also given up a boat load of draft picks and a top prospect (goalie Filip Gustavsson) along the way.

As of now, they have gained Jared McCann, Nick Bjugstad, and Gudbranson out of it all, with the latter two taking up more than $8M in salary cap space over the next couple of years for a team that is already pressed against the salary cap because of their superstars. Will they be worth it? And what other trades will have to be made and what other assets will be given up if (or when) they are not? Because if recent history is any indicator there is almost no chance they finish their current contracts wearing Penguins uniforms.

Maybe they don’t make this latest trade for Gudbranson if the injury situation isn’t what it is. But even with that it’s bizarre to try and plug a short-term hole by acquiring a player with this on-ice track record with this much term and this much money left on their deal. There are other ways to plug a hole without tying up significant cap space in future years.

And quite honestly, if Gudbranson’s play doesn’t show dramatic improvement upon his arrival in Pittsburgh there is an argument to be made they would have been better off just staying with what they had. They might have been better off had they simply done nothing since the start of last offseason because at least then they might have more salary cap space, more assets to deal from, and it’s hard to imagine their spot in the standings being any worse because as of now they are only going as far as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and a healthy Letang can carry them.

Rutherford has built three Cup winning teams in the NHL, and that is not only a big part of his story as an executive, it commands respect. It will probably be enough to someday get him a call to the Hall of Fame (how many three-time Cup winning general managers are not in?)

But it doesn’t leave him above criticism when it is warranted.

Based on where the Penguins are and the series of moves that have been made over the past two years the criticism is definitely warranted because his team looks like it doesn’t know what it is, where it is going, or how it should get there.

MORE: Winners and losers of the 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.