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Building off a breakthrough: Jamie Oleksiak

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

One of the biggest factors in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup runs was the emergence of several young players that provided a spark each season.

In 2016 it was Matt Murray, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary.

In 2017 it was Jake Guentzel.

All of them played significant roles in the second half of the season and the postseason and provided some huge moments.

They did not really get the same sort of breakthrough from their farm system during the 2017-18 season. Daniel Sprong never really got much of a chance (and when he did, did not provide much offense). Dominik Simon played more, but did not fully capitalized on his opportunities. Zach Aston-Reese flashed some potential, but only appeared in 16 regular games and then had his postseason ended in the second round on the hit that earned Capitals forward Tom Wilson a three-game suspension.

So who was the breakout player on this team that was mostly full of established NHL veterans?

It might have been defenseman Jamie Oleksiak.

[Penguins Day: 2017-18 review | Under Pressure: Jack Johnson | Three Questions]

Oleksiak become one of the Penguins’ latest reclamation projects on defense when they acquired him in December from the Dallas Stars for next to nothing.

If nothing else Oleksiak was a decent gamble because of his size, potential, and previous experience with Penguins defensive coach Sergei Gonchar (they actually played together briefly in Dallas, and Gonchar was intrigued by Oleksiak’s potential). There were enough tools there that it was worth the fourth-round draft pick to see if they could get something extra out of him that Dallas was not. If they couldn’t, it didn’t really cost them anything of significance.

It was the very definition of low-risk, potentially high-reward.

The move definitely seemed to pay off, at least in the short-term.

In his debut with the Penguins Oleksiak played the best hockey of his career and started to show at least some of the potential that made him a first-round pick in 2011. The Penguins gave him more freedom offensively, allowed him to join the rush and jump into the offensive zone, and just kind of turned him loose a little bit. The result was Oleksiak setting a new career high in points (17) and nearly matching his career total prior to the season, finishing as a positive in shot attempt metrics, and looking like he might be able to establish himself as a regular on their blue line.

It earned him a three-year, $6.1 million contract extension this summer.

The reputation of the Penguins’ — and Gonchar’s specifically — ability to work with and improve defensemen has kind of taken on a life of its own over the past year and is starting to become a little overstated. They’re not taking these players and turning them into Norris Trophy contenders or top-pairing defenders. And that is certainly the case with Oleksiak. Even now his best use is probably going to be as a solid third — and perhaps maybe a second — pairing defender. But that is still a big step forward from where he was in Dallas where he was not getting much playing time, was struggling to perform in those opportunities, and didn’t look like he had much of a future in the NHL.

MORE: Will Sidney Crosby win another scoring title in his career?

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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: Seguin’s future; Pacioretty on ‘horrible’ season

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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.

Jamie Benn and Snoop Dogg are now BFFs. 

• If Tyler Seguin doesn’t sign a long-term extension with the Dallas Stars and becomes available, would a reunion in Boston make sense? [NBC Boston]

• Brady Tkachuk officially signed his ELC on Monday. Where does he see his future? “I think it’s with Ottawa and in the NHL. I think I’m physically ready and mentally ready for the grind. I think I’m definitely ready and I’m going to get better as the year goes on.” [Ottawa Citizen]

• Despite all the trade rumors, Max Pacioretty is ready to return to the Montreal Canadiens after a ‘horrible’ season. [Sportsnet]

• The four options, per IIHF president Rene Fasel, for the 2022 Winter Olympics: The NHL and NHLPA agree to send players; use a similar setup as Pyeongchang 2018; use under-23 players; no hockey at all in Beijing. [Inside the Games]

• Bill Foley on the Vegas Golden Knights’ off-season and what he wants to do with the team’s pre-game intro next season. [Las Vegas Sun]

• Why bright futures are ahead for both Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic. [TSN]

• Is it time for an NHL playoff format change? [Pensburgh]

• Why January 1, 2019 is a very important date for Jacob Trouba, Mark Stone, William Karlsson, Kevin Hayes, and Brock Nelson. [The Hockey News]

• The fans have spoken an the Vancouver Canucks will be wearing the electric skate jerseys a handful of times during their 50th anniversary season in 2019-20. [Canucks]

• Can the New York Rangers win if they don’t have elite talent sprinkled on their roster? [Blue Seat Blogs]

• How does the current Toronto Maple Leafs blue line compare to that of the defending Stanley Cup champions? [Leafs Nation]

• Why Ryan Johansen deserves your respect. [Predlines]

• How Todd Reirden’s staff in Washington will aid him as head coach of the Capitals. [Stars and Sticks]

• The Minnesota Wild and the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps are teaming up. [NWHL]

Zach Aston-Reese is healthy and confident heading into the season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. [NHL.com]

• Would it make sense for the New Jersey Devils to take on a bad contract if there’s a decent sweetner involved? [Pucks and Pitchforks]

• Could Shawn Matthias be heading to Switzerland? [Swiss Hockey News]

• Hey, Teuvo Teravainen… not bad, kid:

Tom Wilson cashes in with $31 million extension

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The Washington Capitals will have you believe the value that Tom Wilson brings to their team is more than what you see on the stat sheet.

The classic “you can not always put a number on it” kind of player.

He is not a goal-scorer. He is not a big point-producer. He is probably never really going to score like a true top-line player. What he does do is kill penalties, and play a physical, defensive game where he throws his weight around and gets under the skin of opponents.

While it may not always be measured on the stat sheet, you can certainly put a dollar amount on it. At least as far as the Capitals are concerned.

That dollar amount is apparently a little more than $31 million over six years.

That is the contract the Capitals signed Wilson, a restricted free agent, to on Friday night. That contract comes out to a salary cap hit of $5.17 million per season and reportedly carries a modified no-trade clause years three through six of the contract.

“Tom is an invaluable member of our team and we are pleased that he will play a great part in our foreseeable future,” General manager Brian MacLellan said in a statement released by the team. “Tom is a unique player in this League. At 24 years of age, he has an impressive amount of experience and we believe that he will only continue to grow and improve as a player. With his ability to play in virtually any game situation, teams need players like Tom in order to succeed in the NHL.”

By re-signing Wilson the Capitals are bringing back almost all of the roster that won the Stanley Cup this past season (minus center Jay Beagle and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer). It is also a significant number for Wilson as it pays him almost $2 million more per season than playoff hero Lars Eller, and just a few hundred thousand less than T.J. Oshie.

The 2017-18 season was Wilson’s most productive in the NHL as he finished with a career-high 14 goals and 35 total points, while getting a significant amount of time on the team’s top line alongside Alex Ovechkin. It was the first time in his career that he scored more than seven goals and only the second time he topped 20 points (his previous career high before this season was 23).

If you are the Capitals the argument in favor of the contract is, again, that Wilson does other things that do not always show up on the stat sheet, and that at age 24 he might still be developing as a player. The former argument probably carries some weight (whether those things are worth more than $5 million per season is certainly up for debate), but the latter would probably be a tough sell. Wilson is entering what should be his prime years in the NHL and, including playoffs, has over 400 games of experience. While he may not be an older player, he is not exactly young when it comes to his development. What you see at this point is probably what you are going to get.

Again: These should be his peak years, and his best year offensively to this point while spending a lot of time alongside a living NHL legend was 14 goals and 35 points. How much more development is there?

When you pay a player more than $31 million over six years you are paying that player like a top-liner. There should be an expectation for top-line production along with the other stuff (defensive play, penalty killing, whatever other intangibles you want to talk about).

He is also one of the game’s … let’s say … controversial players given his style of play. He is not only physical, he often times skates a fine line with the NHL’s department of player safety that can get him into trouble. He was involved in a number of controversial plays in the Stanley Cup playoffs, including hits on Columbus’ Alexander Wennberg, Pittsburgh’s Brian Dumoulin and Zach Aston-Reese, and Vegas’ Jonathan Marchessault. The hit on Aston-Reese earned him a three-game suspension, was his third suspension of the 2017-18 season.

Still, he is a good defensive player, and he is a good penalty killer, and he is obviously a player the Capitals highly value.

How much his game continues to evolve offensively in future seasons will go a long way toward determining whether or not they are correct in that valuation of what he provides.

Related: On Tom Wilson, player safety, and avoiding suspensions

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.

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.