Alex Galchenyuk

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Galchenyuk needs to have big season in Pittsburgh

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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 Pittsburgh Penguins.

When the Montreal Canadiens selected Alex Galchenyuk third overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, they expected him to be their franchise center for the better part of a decade. Unfortunately for both sides, that didn’t work out as planned. Last summer, the Canadiens shipped Galchenyuk to Arizona in exchange for Max Domi. After one year with the Coyotes, GM John Chayka decided he was willing to move Galchenyuk to Pittsburgh for Phil Kessel.

So what gives? Why has a talented youngster like Galchenyuk been on the move so much? And what can the Penguins expect from their 25-year-old sniper?

The Penguins have made it pretty clear that Galchenyuk is going to be playing on the wing. One of the big issues with Galchenyuk and his development is that he moved from wing to centre back to wing quite a bit. In Montreal, there was an expectation that he’d play down the middle. But defensive-minded coaches like Michel Therrien and Claude Julien didn’t trust him enough without the puck.

Galchenyuk had a 20 and 30-goal season in Montreal, but they eventually decided that they needed a change in attitude and he was traded away.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Three Questions | X-Factor]

He battled injuries in Arizona and he never really got to make the impact everyone expected to make on a young Coyotes team. Chayka didn’t give Galchenyuk away, but the fact that he was willing to unload him so quickly speaks volumes.

There’s no denying that Galchenyuk has talent. His hands and release are unbelievable. He’s big and loaded with skill. He’s had some success at the NHL level, but it’s now time for him to make a real impact on a team that should be a contender.

If everything goes according to plan, Galchenyuk should get an opportunity to play with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. He won’t have to carry his line, but he’ll need to make sure he puts the puck in the net more than he ever has.

“You look at the roster of the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s no surprise that anywhere you play, it’s going to be really exciting,” Galchenyuk said in June, per NHL.com. “Playing wing from right or left, I don’t think that would be that big of a difference. … You look at the centers that this team has (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin), top centers in the league, no doubt.

“Whether it’s the right or the left side, I’m sure I’ll definitely adapt pretty well.”

Now that he’s on his third team in three seasons, the pressure is definitely on Galchenyuk. With his skill-set, he should be a consistent 30-plus goal scorer, but that hasn’t materialized yet. In fairness to him, it’s not like the teams he was on traded him away for nothing, but he can’t keep jumping from team to team if he wants to be known as one of the better finishers in the NHL.

“Playing with great players, it’s just an unbelievable opportunity for me. I put pressure on myself to perform my best.”

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

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.

Pressure is on Rutherford, Sullivan after Kessel trade

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The Phil Kessel era in Pittsburgh reached its inevitable conclusion on Saturday evening when the Penguins shipped the star winger to the Arizona Coyotes for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph. It finally ended months of rumors, speculation, and even some drama that constantly swirled around an inconsistent regular season and disappointing postseason that seemed to give management and the coaching staff an unquenchable thirst for change.

Whenever that change was discussed, everything that was talked about always made Kessel the most likely candidate to be on the move.

General manager Jim Rutherford repeatedly talked about too many players on the team becoming too comfortable and complacent.

There was talk about commitment and “playing the right way.”

There were salary cap concerns as the Penguins were once again pressed firmly against the ceiling and having little flexibility to make the changes they wanted to make.

Then there was the seemingly tumultuous relationship between Kessel and head coach Mike Sullivan as the two did not always see eye-to-eye.

After trying to send Kessel to the Minnesota Wild earlier this summer, only to have Kessel utilize his no-trade clause and block the deal, Rutherford finally found a match with the Coyotes, reuniting Kessel and Rick Tocchet, his former assistant coach in Pittsburgh.

Kessel and Rutherford seemed to disagree over the nature of the departure, with Rutherford saying on Saturday that Kessel had requested a trade during the season, and Kessel simply saying that is not how it happened. Who is telling the truth is anyone’s guess, but now that the trade is completed the how and why is mostly irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what the Penguins’ roster now looks like and what they do in the coming weeks and months (and years) to make it better.

In the short-term it is almost impossible to argue that the roster is better from a talent standpoint.

[Related: Penguins send Kessel to Coyotes for Galchenyuk]

That puts a ton of pressure on Rutherford and Sullivan because they now have some big tests ahead of them, and they are going to need to be right every step of the way.

The popular sentiment coming out of Pittsburgh in the immediate aftermath is the Penguins probably did better than expected given how little leverage they had in trying to make a Kessel trade. It was obvious the Penguins were motivated to move him and he had significant control over where he went, reportedly loading his approved trade list with teams he knew the Penguins would not trade him to. If I were a betting man, I would wager that list included a lot of Metropolitan Division teams, as well as maybe Boston and Toronto, Kessel’s two previous stops in the NHL. That certainly put them in a corner.

Getting a good NHL player and promising prospect in that context probably is a pretty decent haul if you were hellbent on trading him.

But you don’t win championships or give yourself a chance to win championships by simply doing better than everyone expected you to do when trading an elite offensive player.

You win championships by having better players than everybody else. That is now the short-term problem for the Penguins.

At this point there are not any secrets when it comes to Galchenyuk and what he is as a player. He possesses a lot of the same flaws that Kessel does defensively and away from the puck, but does not provide the strength of being a world-class offensive player. You may not like Kessel’s defensive play, but there are only a very short list of players in the world that are better than him when it comes to producing offense. You at least have that going for you when you have him on your roster. If you are going to be a one-trick pony, that is a pretty damn good trick to have at your disposal.

I do not know that Kessel’s style of play, approach, or attitude changed all that much over the past few years. He is what he is as a player and he is who he is as a person. What changed is the Penguins stopped winning Stanley Cups. You tolerate the quirky, all-offense, no-defense winger when he is helping to hang banners and taking part in parades.

When all of that stuff stops, it is no longer something most hockey men want to put up with.

Now the Penguins have one less elite offensive player, and unless Galchenyuk somehow puts it all together and scores 30 goals for the first time in three years — a season that is now looking more and more like the outlier in his career — they downgraded their roster in the short-term.

Arguing against that as we sit today is arguing against facts and logic.

Because of that, the entire trade, as well as the direction of the Penguins after the trade, hinges almost completely on the development of Joseph, what the Penguins do with the new salary cap space they now have, and whether or not they were right about needing to change the culture of the team … and if that even matters.

This is where the challenge for Rutherford and Sullivan comes in.

Joseph is an intriguing add because despite the claims of Rutherford earlier this offseason when he said this is the best defense he has ever had in Pittsburgh, his defense is actually quite a mess once you get beyond Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. They also didn’t have anyone in the prospect pool that looked to be even worthy of a mention as a top prospect.

Joseph, almost by default, immediately becomes the team’s best defense prospect and actually plays a style that would seem to suit the Penguins when they are at their best. That is good. The key is going to be developing him into something useful at the NHL level. The problem is the Penguins really haven’t done a good job of developing young players over the past few years. They have to get it right with Joseph, not only to justify this move, but because they NEED someone like him to be good. But that is probably a year or two away from becoming a factor, not only because of where Joseph in his development (he has never played above the QMJHL) but because of the logjam the Penguins still have on their blue line.

The more immediate issue is the newfound salary cap space.

When it comes to this offseason, the Kessel-for-Galchenyuk swap doesn’t really do anything to remedy the team’s short-term cap issues as it only saves them about $1.9 million. That gives them, via CapFriendly, around $5 million in salary cap space.

Given their own RFA’s they have to re-sign, probably wanting to keep a little wiggle room under the cap at the start of the season, and the cost of any new UFA signing it doesn’t really give the Penguins much added flexibility under the cap without making another move to ship out more salary. Rutherford hinted he may now be able to add someone on Monday at the start of free agency, but unless someone takes a huge discount to go to Pittsburgh, or he makes another trade, he will only be adding a fringe player around the edge.

They do not see any real salary cap savings until next summer (and the summer after that), and that is assuming they do NOT re-sign Galchenyuk. If they do, he probably costs at least $5-6 million and pretty much erases that newfound cap space they got by trading Kessel. At that point they would be betting that Galchenyuk would be a better use of that cap space than Kessel would. Even taking into account a decline from Kessel, that seems like a tough bet to make.

The bigger issue, though, is that if Rutherford is going to make a move in free agency he has to do a better job than he has the past few years where he has not only slowly shifted the Penguins away from what made them a success, but has also made some objectively bad moves.

The Penguins are not in a salary cap crunch because they are paying their stars. It is because they have made some bad investments with their second-and third-tier players. How much better would their salary cap situation look this summer if they did not commit more than $7 million to the duo of Jack Johnson or Erik Gudbranson? Or the more than $5 million per year (for another five years) they have going to an aging and apparently rapidly declining Patric Hornqvist?

Just look at what the Penguins have done in free agency the past two offseasons.

  • In July 2017 they signed Antti Niemi to be their new backup goalie behind Matt Murray. Niemi didn’t last two months with the team before being waived.
  • That same summer they signed Matt Hunwick to a three-year, $6.75 million contract. It was a fit that was so bad from the start the Penguins had to trade Conor Sheary along with Hunwick just to dump salary one year ago to create cap space.
  • They used that new cap space to sign Jack Johnson to a five-year, $17 million contract exactly one year ago, a contract that has already become an albatross on their cap.

That is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the revolving door of other roster moves that have led to a decline in success.

Salary cap space is only as good as what you do with it. The Penguins have not maximized what little space they have had in recent years. That trend can not continue.

Then we get to Sullivan and the pressure that is now on him.

Whether it is the reality of the situation or not, the optics from the outside are that he won out over Kessel in what can probably only be loosely described as a power struggle. The player that didn’t conform to the way he wanted to play is gone. The culture changes and maybe the team begins to play the “right way” (in their view) as a result.

But all of it better work out for his sake because there can be no denying his seat is white hot after the way the team fizzled out in the playoffs. Sullivan is entering a season where he is a lame-duck coach, and the general manager does not seem to have much urgency when it comes to signing him to a contract extension.

Adding to the fire is that the Penguins just hired Mike Vellucci, the reigning Calder Cup winning coach in the American Hockey League, to be the new head coach of their top farm team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That came after Vellucci mutually agreed to part ways with the Carolina Hurricanes organization. Why would he resign from an organization he has been a part of for so long, where he has had recent success, to take a lateral job in another organization?

In his words, it was because he was “presented with an exciting opportunity that makes sense for my future.”

Allow me to translate that: He thinks he has a faster path to an NHL head coaching job in Pittsburgh than he did in Carolina, and that would not be an incorrect assumption. He and Rutherford have a connection from their Carolina days, and he would seem to be the obvious in-house replacement if the team with the lame-duck coach stumbles out of the gate.

If you want to argue that the Penguins had to trade Kessel, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they did. Maybe change was necessary. Maybe he was the significant core player on the roster that made sense to move. Maybe he wanted to move.

They still have a lot of work to do to get better as a result of it, no matter the reason, and they are not anywhere near getting there.

Unless something changes drastically in how they evaluate players, what they value in players, and how they utilize their salary cap space none of what took place over the past 24 hours will matter as they run the risk of their remaining championship window in the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang era closing even sooner than it needs to.

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.

Trade: Penguins deal Kessel to Coyotes for Galchenyuk

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The Phil Kessel drama in Pittsburgh has finally come to an end.

Kessel is moving on to the Arizona Coyotes as part of a deal that was consummated Saturday between the two teams. The 31-year-old forward is reunited with former Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre-Olivier Joseph. The Coyotes also receive a 2021 fourth-round pick and defenseman Dane Birks.

“First of all, I’ll say that he was a terrific player for us and played a huge part in those two Cups. And I can’t say enough good things about him. And I like him personally,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. “I just think it was time to make a change with him.”

Kessel has three years remaining on a contract that carried a salary cap hit of $6.8 million. Galchenyuk will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2019-20 NHL season. His deal brings a cap hit of $4.9 million.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Rutherford tried to trade Kessel, who had 27 goals and 82 points in 82 games this season, once this off-season, but a deal with the Minnesota Wild fell through after the forward refused to waive his no-move clause. Kessel’s clause allows the Penguins to deal him to eight pre-approved teams. If Kessel was going to be leaving Pittsburgh, he would be controlling the situation, which, according to an article in The Athletic this week, was becoming an issue for some inside the Penguins’ organization.

Despite the rumors that swirled around Kessel, he produced on the ice. He’s one of 18 players to record at least 300 points since the 2015-16 season and over that same period of time he scored 110 goals for the Penguins. He’s also a durable player having not missed a game since the 2009-10 season and owns the third-longest active consecutive games streak (774) and is eighth all-time.

“We felt the ability to add a scorer was the primary need for our group,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said during a Saturday night conference call. “Phil has been one of the best offensive producers in the league for a long time and we think he’s going to come in motivated and ready to go.”

“I’m just coming in to do what I do best and try to help the team win as many games as possible,” Kessel said. “I think they’re an up-and-coming team, they’ve got a lot of pieces in place and I want to help them along.”

The 25-year-old Galchenyuk played one season with the Coyotes following a trade from the Montreal Canadiens last summer. He scored 19 goals and recorded 41 points in 72 games. Those numbers could be in for a bit of a boost if head coach Mike Sullivan puts him on the wing next to either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

Rutherford said there was going to be change to the roster following their first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders. He now has a little over $5 million in cap space, per Cap Friendly, to continue tweaking the roster. There are no real major re-signings to be done other than decisions on UFAs Matt Cullen and Garrett Wilson, as well as restricted free agents Zach-Aston Reese, Marcus Pettersson and Teddy Blueger. It’s not the greatest of free agent classes to go shopping on the cheap, so more trades could be on the way for the Penguins.

Kessel and the Coyotes make their visit to Pittsburgh on Friday, Dec. 6.

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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.

How has Galchenyuk fit in with Coyotes?

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Earlier this season we took a look at the way Max Domi was producing for the Montreal Canadiens, so it’s only natural that we take a deeper look at the player he was traded for — Alex Galchenyuk.

If we’re evaluating the trade right now, it’s clear that the Canadiens were the big winner. After all, Domi is up to 33 points in 34 games, while Galchenyuk has 11 points in 23 games. Thankfully for the ‘Yotes, there’s still time for 24-year-old to get back on track this season and beyond.

Adapting to new surroundings isn’t always easy. It’s even more difficult when it’s the first time a player has been traded. That’s the exact situation Galchenyuk was in this summer. He had spent the previous six seasons in Montreal before being moved to Arizona in mid-June. Also, he’s going from hockey-mad Montreal, where you can never get a moment away from the spotlight, to Arizona, where you can fly under the radar with a little more ease. That’s gotta be a shock in itself.

Missing the first four games of the regular season didn’t help make the transition any easier. Instead of being able to develop chemistry with new teammates, Galchenyuk was forced to sit and wait, which put him behind the eight-ball right away.

Whether it was Michel Therrien or Claude Julien, the Canadiens never really trusted Galchenyuk to play center. His ability to produce offense was never a concern, but his ability to read and react on the defensive side of the puck always was. When the Coyotes were able to land him in the summer, GM John Chayka made it clear that they believed he could play down the middle.

Galchenyuk got a few weeks to prove himself at center, but in the end the ‘Yotes decided that he was better suited for the wing, again. Have they completely closed the door on him at that position? Probably not. But if two organizations and three coaches don’t believe he’s capable of doing the heavy-lifting down the middle, he’s probably never going to be able to do it at a high level. But that’s okay. He can still be an effective winger in the NHL.

So let’s take a look at some of the numbers he’s put up thus far.

When Galchenyuk recovered from his lower-body injury, he managed to put up eight points in his first nine games. That’s solid enough. Unfortunately, his production has tailed off now, as he’s put up three assists in 14 games. During that stretch, he also missed three more contests because of a lower-body ailment.

His on-ice advanced numbers are just as underwhelming as his offensive totals. He has a CF% of 46.14, a FF % of 44.42 and his team controls 43.55 percent of the shots on goal when he’s on the ice. His team scores 37.5 percent of the goals scored when he’s on the ice and his high-danger CF% is at 35.9. All of the numbers mentioned here at career-lows. (Stats via Natural Stat Trick). Those advanced metrics are all below the Coyotes’ averages.

The numbers aren’t great, but it’s still really tough to be doom-and-gloom about Galchenyuk’s potential in the desert. He’s missed two separate stints because of injury, which you simply can’t ignore. He might not be providing Arizona with the immediate results Domi has given Montreal, but that doesn’t mean he won’t get himself on track before the end of the season.

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.

Three questions facing Arizona Coyotes

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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 Arizona Coyotes.

Can Antti Raanta put together a complete season as a starting NHL goalie?

Raanta’s numbers from last season look quite good at a first glance. On a poor Coyotes team, he posted a 21-17-6 record with a very solid .930 save percentage and a 2.24 goals-against average.

Truth be told, however, he was horrible in the first half of the season but rebounded in a huge way in the second half of the season, posting 13 wins in his final 17 starts.

His impressive run earned him a three-year, $12.75 million deal in April, and a renewed commitment from the goaltender to spend the offseason working at becoming a bona fide starter.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building Off a Breakthrough]

Questions of Raanta’s fitness heading into last year’s training camp were a concern of head coach Rick Tocchet.

“It’s going to be good for me to know what it takes to play lots of games and it’s going to be good for me to kind of see what I need to do more in the summertime, what I want to improve, and come back stronger next year,” Raanta told the Associated Press after he signed his contract.

A .930 starting goaltender playing 60-plus games will very likely put the Coyotes in the playoffs and would just as likely have Raanta in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy.

Can Dylan Strome build off the end of the season and make an impact as a full-time player?

Strome struggled to find a spot in the Coyotes’ roster last season.

Here’s a quick timeline:

Oct. 5-7 – plays the first two games of the season and is held pointless.

Oct. 9 – Sent down to Tucson of the American Hockey League.

Oct. 9 – Nov. 25 – tears up the AHL with 26 points in 15 games.

Nov. 26 – Earns recall back to Arizona

Nov. 27 – Dec. 18 – Scores his first NHL goal but that’s all in nine more games with the Coyote.

Dec. 19 – Sent back to Tucson

Mar. 20 – Called back up to Arizona, this time for the rest of the season.

From that point on, Strome seemed to find his stride, amassing three goals and five assists in 10 games to close out the year.

For everyone involved with the former third-overall pick, it was a sigh of relief.

“We’ve made him earn things, and playing a top-six center position as a 20-year-old is a very hard thing to do,” GM John Chayka told the team’s website in May. I think in his latest segment where he came up and played, I thought he showed a lot of improvement. I thought he proved a lot to himself and his teammates that he can handle that type of role and be productive. He’s been productive his whole life. It’s always good to see progression, and I think we’ve seen that with Dylan.”

A center by trade, Strome could make the jump to the wing.

Do the additions of Vinnie Hinostroza, Michael Grabner and Alex Galchenyuk put them into the playoff discussion, or do they need more?

Those moves certainly point Arizona in that direction.

That’s 53 goals being injected to the Coyotes forward group based on last year’s numbers, and based on that, it would move the Coyotes from 30th place in the league to near the top-10 in goals-for.

That’s an excellent upgrade.

Couple that with Strome turning into the player they franchise wants him to be and Keller taking another step forward (and Raanta playing at his best), and the Coyotes could very much be in the playoff discussion providing they can reduce their goals against from last season. They gave up 251 — 11th most in the NHL.

That issue gets partially fixed if Raanta doesn’t get off to a poor start.

A healthy Jakob Chychrun (knee) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (core) would certainly help matters. Both missed significant time last year as a result of injuries.

The simple truth here is that the Coyotes look better on paper this year.

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