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What will Penguins do with all their centers?

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This past week the Pittsburgh Penguins added free agent Derek Grant on a one-year contract. Not a major signing, but one that still seems to be a little curious given the current construction of the roster.

The 28-year-old Grant, you see, is a center. After bouncing around the NHL and recording just seven points (all assists) in 86 career games, mostly as a fourth-line/depth player, he finally received an increased role with the Anaheim Ducks this past season due to to their rash of center injuries and made the most of it. He scored 12 goals (and added 12 more assists) in 66 games and earned himself a one-way contract with the Penguins.

What makes the signing so curious from a Penguins perspective is it comes just a few weeks after they brought back soon-to-be 42-year-old center Matt Cullen.

That came after they re-signed restricted free agent center Riley Sheahan to a one-year, $2.1 million contract.

Which came just a couple of months after they give up a bounty of assets to acquire Derick Brassard from the Ottawa Senators prior to the NHL trade deadline to give them another big-time third-line center to play behind their two superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

That is … a lot of centers. Six, to be exact, all with NHL contracts, all expected to be on the NHL roster.

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said he wanted to make his team deeper after its second-round exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the additions of Cullen and Grant definitely help accomplish that. It also comes after the Penguins entered last season without much depth at the position following the free agent departures of Nick Bonino and Cullen. They opened the 2017-18 season with the likes of Carter Rowney and Greg McKegg playing NHL roles, a situation that was less than ideal.

It is the exact opposite now.

So what can they possibly do with all of these guys?

Option 1: Somebody moves to the wing. Aside from the fact that Cullen or Grant will probably be healthy scratches from time to time, this is probably the most logical outcome as one of those two could also probably flip to the wing on the fourth line.

The other candidate to move is Brassard who could move to the left side to play in a top-six role.

This, of course, runs counter to the reason the Penguins acquired Brassard in the first place which was to help give them a trio of centers that no other team could match up with. Brassard not only has his best value at center, it also forces one of Sheahan or Cullen up into a third-line spot, both of whom would be a downgrade from what Brassard would likely do.

Brassard’s initial debut with the Penguins following the trade had its ups and downs and probably didn’t work exactly as planned, but it was also only a 26-game sampling. Sometimes it takes time for a player to adjust to a new team, system, etc.

The other issue with moving one of their centers to the wing? They already have a lot of wingers. Phil Kessel, Jake Guentzel, and Patric Hornqvist are the top ones. Then there is Bryan Rust, Carl Hagelin, free agent addition Jimmy Hayes (potential AHL player), and a crop of youngsters that includes Daniel Sprong, Dominik Simon, and Zach Aston-Reese. Moving one — or two — of the centers to the wings is going to take one of the latter group out of the equation, either relegating them to the press box or back to the American Hockey League.

Sprong, the team’s top prospect, is expected to be on the roster but he hasn’t fully seemed to gain the trust of the coaching staff to this point in his career and, quite honestly, his situation has reached the “believe it when you see it” point when it comes to his playing time and spot on the roster.

Option 2: Somebody gets traded. Crosby and Malkin are obviously on the untouchable list, while Cullen and Grant were just signed so they are not going anywhere, either — at least not yet.

That leaves Brassard or Sheahan, with Brassard probably being the most likely player to be used as trade bait because of the value he might still bring back and the fact he has the largest contract and the Penguins are firmly pressed against the league’s salary cap.

The optics of that would certainly be bad because it would look like they are admitting that acquiring him in the first place was a bad idea (it wasn’t), and they probably wouldn’t get back the value they gave up to get him. His value to them as a third-line center is more than it is as a second-line winger or as trade bait.

Option 3: Don’t worry about it, somebody is going to get hurt and depth is good. That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Evgeni Malkin has played more than 70 games in a season just two times in the past nine years. Cullen is going to be 42 years old. Grant is a bit of a mystery because he really hasn’t produced at an NHL level outside of this past season when his shooting percentage was 18 percent. The glut of centers will probably take care of itself.

One thing you have to say about Jim Rutherford is that he recognizes his mistakes and is not afraid to correct them, with Mike Johnston and the way he undid all of his offseason moves a year ago being the two most notable examples. After opening last season with only two NHL quality centers on the roster (something that definitely hurt the team) he made sure this summer that is not going to happen again.

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Morning Skate: How Reaves became a playoff hero; Which non-playoff teams can make 2019 postseason?

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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.

• The fact that the Vegas Golden Knights are in the Stanley Cup Final is good for all hockey fans and it’s a great story. (Vice Sports)

• No American team has sold for merchandise than the Golden Knights. Stores couldn’t keep the Western Conference Champion hats and t-shirts on the shelves. (Vegas Review-Journal)

• Penguins GM Jim Rutherford was furious that Caps forward Tom Wilson refused to fight Jamie Oleksiak after Wilson broke Zach Aston-Reese‘s jaw with a hit. “When Jamie challenged Wilson, he couldn’t run quick enough to get away from him.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Ryan Reaves has had to adjust his game to stick around in the NHL. Things haven’t always worked out for him, but he eventually became a hero for the Golden Knights in the third round. (ESPN)

• If the Golden Knights were to win the Stanley Cup, Vegas casinos would lose a ton of money. (MLive.com)

• Hockey Graphs looks at whether or not the NHL has become more competitive by analyzing advanced statistics between 2007-08 and 2017-18. (Hockey Graphs)

• The St. Louis Blues’ home rink will have a new name going into next season. For the next 15 years, the arena will be named “Enterprise Center”. (NHL.com/Blues)

• Down Goes Brown looks at which non-playoff teams could make it to the postseason next year and which ones could even get to the conference final. (Sportsnet)

• Preds defenseman Ryan Ellis has one year remaining on his current deal. What will his next contract look like? Based on some comparables, expect him to earn at least $5.5 million. (On the Forecheck)

• A young boy who suffered serious injuries in a school bus crash received an incredible gift from the New York Rangers that included a stick signed by Henrik Lundqvist. (NBC New York)

• The IIHF has voted to allow both the men’s and women’s Chinese hockey teams to take part in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. (China.org)

• Have you ever dreamed of being an NHL scout? Well, take a look at what scouts look for when assessing potential talent. (The Hockey News)

• Anaheim’s farm team, the San Diego Gulls, have signed head coach Dallas Eakins to a multi-year contract extension. (San Diego Gulls)

• Despite struggling at the end of the season, Devan Dubnyk had another solid year for the Minnesota Wild in 2017-18. (Hockey Wilderness)

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Capitals and Lightning.

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.

Capitals’ Tom Wilson handed stiff three-game suspension

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He may have gotten away with it during Tuesday’s game, but Tom Wilson didn’t escape the NHL’s Department of Player Safety on Wednesday.

The Washington Capitals forward was handed a three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese.

Wilson wasn’t penalized on the play. Aston-Reese suffered a broken jaw and a concussion stemming from the collision in the second period.

Wilson will be eligible to return to the Capitals lineup for Game 7 of the series, if it makes it there. The Capitals currently lead the Penguins 2-1 after a 4-3 win on Tuesday.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

DOPS head George Parros said Wilson elevated his left shoulder into the hit, causing Aston-Reese’s head to become the main point of contact.

Parros determined that the hit was avoidable and that Aston-Reese made no sudden move to result in the headshot. He also noted that Wilson could have made a full-body hit, but instead changes course, extends up onto the toes of his skate.

“The onus is on the player to ensure this upward motion does not pick the head in a way that makes it the main point of contact,” Parros said.

Wilson falls into the repeat offender category as stipulated in the CBA.

Wilson escaped unscathed in Game 2 after catching defenseman Brian Dumoulin in the head.

Wilson is the second player to be suspended for three games after Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri was given the same suspension for the same offense in the first round.

Wilson was last suspended for an illegal check on Blues forward Sammy Blais during the preseason. The incident cost the Capitals forward the first four games of the regular season. Earlier in the preseason, Wilson also sat for two games for interfering with Blues forward Robert Thomas.


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

Wilson to have hearing for illegal check to head on Aston-Reese

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Another day, another appointment with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety for Capitals forward Tom Wilson.

This time, Wilson will have a hearing for an illegal check to the head he dished out on Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese in Game 3 on Tuesday night. You can check out the play by clicking the video at the top of the page.

After the game, Pens head coach Mike Sullivan announced that Aston-Reese suffered a concussion and a broken jaw that will require surgery.

“We lose a guy to a broken jaw that’s going to require surgery and a concussion because of another high hit to the head,” Sullivan said. “At some point we would hope that the league might do something.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Wilson made waves in Game 2, after he caught defenseman Brian Dumoulin in the head, but the NHL decided that the hit on the Pens blue liner wasn’t worthy of a suspension.

The 24-year-old always seems to walk a fine line when he hits the ice, but it’s not uncommon for him to go overboard. Wilson was last suspended for an illegal check on Blues forward Sammy Blais during the preseason. The incident cost the Capitals forward the first four games of the regular season. Earlier in the preseason, Wilson also sat for two games for interfering with Blues forward Robert Thomas.

As you’d expect, he’ll be considered a repeat offender.

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.

The Buzzer: Passing tests with flying colors

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Tuesday’s playoff games

Jets 7, Predators 4 (Jets lead series 2-1)

At first, it looked like Nashville was going to spoil Winnipeg’s street party, silencing the home crowd by taking a 3-0 lead through the first period. By digging themselves such a hole, the Jets justified the hype that comes with sporting a deadly arsenal of offensive weapons. They absolutely took over the second period, and while Filip Forsberg made it 4-4 in the third, Winnipeg would not be denied. For even more on that game, click here.

Capitals 4, Penguins 3 (Capitals lead series 2-1)

After a slow first period, the scoring and hostility skyrocketed. Tom Wilson‘s hit on Zach Aston-Reese stole headlines while Alex Ovechkin grabbed a series lead for Washington with a goal very late in the final frame. Both teams built and lost leads in this one, each goalie had moments of triumph and goals they’d like to forget, but the Capitals stood tall in the end.

Three Stars

1. Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets: OK, one of his goals was an empty-netter, so maybe you can quibble with Wheeler being the first star. Still, his other goal was the game-winner, and his assist was a primary one. It’s the peripheral stats that make the standout of Tuesday.

Wheeler had been threatening to score during much of Winnipeg’s rally, firing eight shots on goal in total during Game 3. He also delivered two hits and had a +1 rating. These are the types of performances that can make an underrated player like Wheeler become … properly rated?

2. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals: Alex Ovechkin gets the glory as the guy who scored the game-winning goal for the Caps, but Backstrom is the player who set up that decisive tally. Overall, the Selke-quality Swede generated three assists.

It’s been quite the run so far for Backstrom. He has nine assists in as many playoff games while also generating three goals, giving him 12 points.

3. Dustin Byfuglien, Jets: Winnipeg has plenty of potential three stars candidates. Byfuglien makes the cut because of his Byfuglien-sized efforts. He scored two goals and one assist, tormenting the Predators even beyond showing off his dance moves.

Byfuglien did a little of everything in Game 3. He fired four shots on goal, three hits, two blocked shots, and a +3 rating over 27:12 TOI. It’s not easy to stand out on a strong defense corps in Winnipeg, yet Byfuglien does just that.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Factoids

  • Tuesday was tough on goalies, with all four being well under a .900 save percentage. It’s not a great sign when Connor Hellebuyck‘s .867 mark leads the pack. That said, it wasn’t all on them. While each goalie probably wanted at least one goal back, all of them made some big stops as well. Honestly, when strong teams go toe to toe, sometimes netminders will see their numbers suffer.
  • Mark Scheifele might not sneak under casual fans’ radars much longer.

  • Your latest reminder that Alex Ovechkin is clutch.

Wednesday’s games

Tampa Bay Lightning at Boston Bruins, Game 3, 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN
Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks, Game 4, 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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.