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Penguins’ big defense spending continues with Oleksiak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Red Wings’ free agent plan at odds with rebuild

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When it comes to putting together their team, the Detroit Red Wings seemingly still believe they can eat their cake and have it too.

It’s fantastic if you can accrue futures and ice a competitive team, but GM Ken Holland’s plan hasn’t exactly worked like gangbusters lately. The Red Wings have missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for two straight seasons, and before that, they were dispatched in the first round three seasons in a row.

PHT readers have generally disagreed with this one foot in, one foot out style of management.

In August 2017, 70.36 percent of PHT readers voted in favor of a long rebuild for Detroit. Then, in late March 2018, about 73.36 percent of PHT readers believed that Ken Holland wasn’t the right choice to lead a rebuild.

So … yeah, that’s a pretty strong majority of people who questioned the Red Wings’ direction.

Still, there had been promising signs lately. Holland showed some serious aptitude in a key rebuild area by landing a bounty of draft picks for Tomas Tatar. Between deals for Tatar and Petr Mrazek, Holland loaded up on five draft picks.

Better yet, the consensus is that Detroit landed one of the best hauls of the 2018 NHL Draft, including a strong first round where they landed Filip Zadina with the sixth pick and expected mid-first-rounder Joe Veleno with the 30th choice. It seemed like the rest of the weekend went swimmingly, a notion that Detroit Free-Press chronicles here.

This is all fantastic stuff, and Zadina wasted little time in delighting Red Wings fans.

So, the signals are all there, right: the Red Wings are finally turning the page?

Eh, maybe not completely. MLive.com’s Ansar Khan provided a detailed free agent update for Detroit on Thursday, and if most of those situations come to fruition, there’d be some mixed signals. In particular, the belief that the Red Wings might not just give contracts but term to aging veterans is more than a little troubling.

Via Khan, here are some possibilities:

  • The Red Wings seem close to bringing Mike Green back with a two-year deal.

Now, that’s not the end of the world. Green continues to provide offense from the blueline (exactly a point every other game in 2017-18 with 33 in 66 contests), and the Red Wings aren’t exactly teeming with quality defensemen. At 32, Green isn’t ancient, and he wouldn’t rank as a scary 35+ contract.

Green probably qualifies as “an old 32,” though. Injuries have frequently been an issue for the scoring defenseman, and his neck issues are a significant concern. The 2018-19 season will already mark his 14th NHL season.

It’s not as though Green would be the only “seasoned veteran” on defense. Niklas Kronwall is 37 and hurting. Both Jonathan Ericsson and Trevor Daley are 34, and each are signed through 2019-20. As of this writing, Danny DeKeyser is the baby of the non-prospects group at 28, and Detroit probably wishes he wasn’t signed at $5M clip through 2021-22.

Woof.

  • Detroit appears to be one of the frontrunners for goalie Jonathan Bernier, who is no spring chicken himself at 30.

Again, term is where you furrow your brow a bit. Khan reports that the Red Wings might offer Bernier a three-year contract.

That’s quite a bit of term for an aging backup. Now, there’s the possibility that the plan could be to transition the starting job from Jimmy Howard to Bernier, as Howard is entering a contract year. Maybe the Red Wings envision a platoon situation both now and in the future.

Look, Bernier is one of the better goalie options in a shallow market for netminders … but what’s the upside here, really?

  • Finally, Khan reports that the Red Wings might make the nostalgic decision to sign Valtteri Filppula.

For one year, you could make that argument, but Khan reports that a potential deal would be for two seasons instead. For a marginal forward who is already 34 years old.

(Yes, Filppula really is 34 already. Life moves fast, gang.)

***

It’s possible that none of these situations work out. For one thing, Khan reports that Green is hoping for someone to offer up three years.

Loading up on middling veterans would be fine if the gameplan was to give a bunch of players one-year deals as stopgaps while prospects marinate in junior, the NCAA, and the AHL. There’s no denying that the Red Wings like to bring their blue chippers along gradually.

Possibly handing out two or three years of term inspires some discouraging thoughts, however.

Will these veterans serve as an excessive barrier to up-and-comers gaining valuable NHL experience? The Red Wings run the risk of locking themselves into purgatory with moves like these: being too competitive to land more high first-rounders, yet not good enough to contend.

Now, the painful truth is that someone must fall in that range in any given season. The Red Wings are just increasing their odds of being stuck in limbo.

At least there’s still time for them to change their minds, or for those free agents to do it for them by signing elsewhere.

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.

The Penguins’ reported interest in Jack Johnson is baffling

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On Wednesday the Pittsburgh Penguins cleared a significant amount of salary cap space over the next two years by sending forward Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick to the Buffalo Sabres for a draft pick.

That trade, combined with the bump to the league-wide cap ceiling for 2018, has given the Penguins more than $10 million in salary cap space to work with this summer. Only needing to re-sign Jamie Oleksiak and Riley Sheahan, that newfound cap space gives them plenty of options in free agency or the trade market and could make them contenders for a number of impact players. It also helped them correct what was a pretty significant mistake in last summer’s free agent signing period when gave Hunwick a three-year contract that paid him more than $2 million per season. It became apparent very early in the season that Hunwick and the Penguins were not a great match as the veteran struggled throughout much of the season and eventually found himself as a healthy scratch.

That signing not working out — and the ensuing trade — is just one of the reasons Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is looking to upgrade the team’s blue line this summer.

[Related: Penguins ship Hunwick, Sheary to Buffalo in cap-clearing trade]

One player the team seems to be targeting in free agency: Former Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson.

Over the past couple of weeks there has been plenty of smoke surrounding the Penguins and Johnson with both Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Aaron Portzline of The Athletic reporting that the two sides could be a possible match. On Wednesday there seemed to be a little more fuel thrown on that fire when reports began to surface out of Pittsburgh that Johnson could be joining the Penguins on Sunday when the free agent signing period officially begins.

According to Mackey, the Penguins intend to sign Johnson to a five-year (five-year!) contract on Sunday for a dollar amount that could be in the $3-3.5 million range. Mark Madden of 105.9 the X, the Penguins’ flagship radio station, first reported the five-year term.

Assuming all of this plays out this would be a pretty bizarre series of events for the Penguins.

For one, even though the reported contract numbers would represent a sharp reduction in salary from Johnson’s previous contract, that is still a significant amount of money for a team that is perpetually pressed against the league’s salary cap ceiling. Especially for a player that is 31 years old (and will turn 32 during the season), coming off of a career-worst year offensively, and whose season ended with him being a healthy scratch on a fringe playoff team that was bounced in the first round.

None of that should sound encouraging.

Johnson entered the NHL more than a decade ago with much fanfare. He was the third player selected in the Sidney Crosby draft (behind Crosby and Bobby Ryan) and that pre-draft hype has followed him around for most of his career, at least in the sense that hockey people seem to love him no matter how much evidence there is to suggest that he isn’t as good as they thought he was going to be.

Objectively speaking the numbers are ugly.

Since entering the NHL in 2006-07 Johnson’s minus-109 mark is the worst among all NHL players.

Flawed as plus/minus is, when you are talking about more than a decades worth of data, and also taking into account that Johnson has played on some pretty good teams during his career, there should be cause for concern that he has finished as a plus-player just once in his career. He has been minus-5 or worse in every other season. Six times he has finished as a minus-12 or worse.

From a shots perspective things are just as bad.

Since the start of the 2006-07 season (Johnson’s debut year) there have been more than 356 defensemen that have played at least 100 games in the NHL. Johnson’s 48 percent Corsi rating is 275th out of that group.

Just looking at the past five years his 47.9 mark is 204th out of 259 defenders.

In other words: When Jack Johnson is on the ice his team is getting badly outshot and badly outscored. That is a terrible combination.

So why in the world are the Penguins interested in this?

They obviously need some additional help on the blue line and definitely need some additional depth. But is this the best way to get it? Is this the best allocation of resources?

In recent years the Penguins have had some success taking on reclamation projects on defense and getting more out of them than other teams have been able to with the additions of Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, and most recently Jamie Oleksiak.

But none of those players required the type of immediate commitment they would be giving Johnson. All of them were originally acquired for minimal assets (Daley was acquired for Rob Scuderi, while Schultz and Oleksiak were acquired for mid-round draft picks). The other factor: Schultz and Oleksiak were both in their age 25 seasons when they were acquired and had at least shown flashes that they had more to offer in the right setting. Johnson, again, will turn 32 years old this season. What we have seen from him at this point in his career is a pretty good indication that this is what he is as a player. And if you’re looking for a potential player to “fix,” that is a huge commitment for a question mark.

There is nothing wrong with a team wanting to sign Jack Johnson in free agency. Yes, his entire career he has been woefully miscast as a top-pairing defenseman and has consistently shown he is probably not suited for that role.

But in the right setting, on the right contract, in the right role, there might be some value for a team to find. Based on every piece of evidence we have to look at throughout Johnson’s career, the right contract and the right role is not a five-year commitment for an apparent top-four role on a cap-strapped team.

Rutherford is a three-time Stanley Cup champion and has made some fantastic trades/transactions during his time in Pittsburgh. But he is not invincible. He is not immune to mistakes, as evidence by the fact that literally every addition he made last summer has already been jettisoned by the Penguins. If they actually go through with a five-year, $16 million contract for Johnson with the hopes of playing him in a top-four role it would not be a shock to see them trying to get out of that contract before it expires as well.

More NHL Free Agency:
PHT Power Rankings: The top-20 NHL Free Agents
• Ilya Kovalchuk, Kings agree to terms on three-year deal
• John Carlson gets $64 million payday as Capitals lock up defenseman

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: How Caps could have kept Schmidt; tough ice in Vegas

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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.

• If your team is looking to sign a great right winger in free agency, they may be in trouble. Sportsnet looks at the 10 best right wingers that are scheduled to hit the market. (Sportsnet)

• It was a tough year for the Montreal Canadiens, so don’t expect them to part ways with the third overall pick. (NHL.com)

Johan Franzen‘s wife opens up about the difficulties the former Red Wing is having with post-concussion syndrome. Sad story. (FranzenResidence.com)

• The outcome of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final will affect Alex Ovechkin‘s legacy. (New York Times)

• There’s no doubt that losing Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft was a huge blow for the Caps, but keeping him would have been too costly. (Washington Post)

• Why does the Kings’ Stanley Cup ring have a “#FTF” on it? Dustin Brown explains in the latest edition of “Beyond the Ice”. (NHL.com/Kings)

• Former Leafs captain Mats Sundin has some words of advice for the organization as they continue their search for the next captain. “It would be easy to say Auston, he should be the captain. Saying that, it has to be a player and a person that wants to carry that responsibility and actually play better wearing the ‘C’.” (Toronto Sun)

• It won’t be easy, but the Capitals need to adjust to the difficult ice conditions in Vegas. (NBC Sports Washington)

• If Game 1 taught us anything, it’s that the Golden Knights are able to play their game whether they’re ahead, tied or behind. (SinBin. Vegas)

• Now that his hockey career is over, Radim Vrbata will head back to the Czech Republic. He’s also planning on taking the next year totally off. (Arizona Sports)

• A number of people are disappointed that USA Hockey hired John Vanbiesbrouck as assistant director for hockey operations years after he directed a racial slur at Trevor Daley. (Color of Hockey)

• Speaking of the Vegas ice, the heat in Nevada has already started causing problems for the ice crew. (TSN)

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.

Penguins should bet on a Kris Letang rebound

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The relationship between Kris Letang and Pittsburgh Penguins fans. Sometimes it’s complicated.

For more than a decade Letang has been a No. 1 defenseman for the Penguins, and for many of those years he has been a top-10, and at times maybe even a top-five, player in the league at his position. But there’s always been a sense (at least from this perspective) that he has never really been fully appreciated for just how good he has been, and the criticisms are always the same.

Turns the puck over too much.

Not good in his own end and takes too many chances.

Makes too much money.

Gets hurt too much.

There is an element of truth to some of that, but it doesn’t mean what his harshest critics think it means. Yes, he is guilty of turnovers at times. But so is every high-level player that plays a lot of minutes and always has the puck on their stick. Take a look at the NHL’s leaders in giveaways at the end of any season. It is a list of All-Stars. He does take some chances and at times gambles, whether it be pinching in the offensive zone or trying to make a play out of his own zone. But that is also a part of what makes him the dynamic player that he is. He is capable of doing things and making plays due to his skating and skill that other players not only can not make, but probably can not even attempt.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

It basically comes down to this: He is going to make some mistakes, but as long as the positive plays outweigh the negative plays you have to to take the bad with the good.

Sometimes his freakish athletic ability makes it possible for him to wipe out his own mistake with a brilliant play of its own.

And while he has missed a significant portion of his career due to injury, he’s probably been a little underpaid given the market rate for top-pairing defenseman that play at his level.

But because the bad plays are usually the result of that aggressiveness they will stand out more. And because hockey is a game of mistakes, we tend to focus almost exclusively on that big mistake when it happens and allow it to drive the discussion around that player.

That brings us to Letang’s 2017-18 season (and postseason) for the Penguins. To be fair, it was not a great season, and it reached its low point in Game 5 of the team’s second-round series when a third period breakdown allowed Evgeny Kuznetsov to score a game-tying goal just one minute into the third period, completely changing the direction of the series. The series ended with Letang trying to chase Kuznetsov down from behind on a breakaway as he potted the series-clinching goal. Viewed in the context of the Penguins actually winning the Stanley Cup a year ago without having Letang for any of the playoff games, it made him a focal point for blame when the team did not win this season (nevermind that they probably do not win that Stanley Cup the previous year without him, this is the ultimate what have you done for me lately business).

What made this season even tougher for Letang is that it wasn’t just the mistakes of aggressiveness or the Game 5 blunder against Kuznetsov that made it an off year for him. He seemed to get beat in one-on-one situations more often than usual. He also saw a pretty sharp decline in his offensive production and by the end of the year and playoffs was replaced by Justin Schultz on the team’s top power play unit.

Physically, Letang has been through hell and back in recent years due to both injury and health issues.

The most recent example was the neck injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season and all of the playoffs.

On Wednesday’s locker clean out day in Pittsburgh, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he had an inclination that the injury, surgery, and recovery in such a short period of time was probably going to be a lot for Letang to overcome.

He also talked about the inconsistency.

“He had stages of the year where he was really good for us and stages where he wasn’t at his best,” said Sullivan. “By no means does it diminish what we think of Kris as a player. He’s a guy that we think is certainly one of the elite defensemen in the league.”

Letang himself admitted that he thought it would be easier to come back and that he might have lost a little bit of his conditioning.

The thing about Letang is that for all of the struggles he had at times this year there were still elements of his game that were in place.

Fifty-one points in 79 games was a down year for him. That still placed him 17th in the league among all defenders in the NHL.

When he was on the ice the Penguins attempted more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts during even-strength play. Among defenders that played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time that was the 12th best mark in the entire league, so the team was still controlling possession and the shot chart, which should be seen as an encouraging sign. Players that help drive possession that much usually see that pay off when it comes to goals for and against. But of the top-20 defenders in the league in shot attempt percentage, Letang was one of just five that had a negative on-ice goal differential on the season. The other four (Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifan, and Brett Pesce) all played for the Carolina Hurricanes, a team with infamous goaltending issues.

Part of Letang’s issue when it came to goals for and against was his own inconsistency.

Another part of it was the Penguins’ inconsistent goaltending, both from starter Matt Murray when he was healthy, as well his revolving door of backups that all struggled. Improved play from that position would go a long way toward correcting both his and the Penguins’ 5-on-5 issues as a team (because it wasn’t just Letang that struggled in those situations for the Penguins this season).

In the end, though, he is capable of more than he showed this season, and everybody involved knows it.

That is why no matter how much criticism he takes, how many times there is a call for the Penguins to trade him, they are not going to do it. They shouldn’t do it, anyway. Because when Letang is right and on top of his game there are only a small handful of players in the NHL that are better than him at his position, and you are never going to get that upside back in a trade.

Especially now when his value is probably at an all-time low given the injury recovery and the fact he is coming off of a down year. Part of what made the Penguins such a success the past few years was pouncing on trade partners that were dealing players at lower value (Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, and Schultz all come to mind). The good player usually rebounds. The good — and smart — teams usually make sure it happens for them and not somebody else.

Given his track record there is every reason to believe he can — and probably will — get back to that level.

The Penguins should be more than willing to take that bet that he gets there next season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.