Brandon Tanev

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Brodin, Tuch among this week’s top adds

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Sami Vatanen, Devils – D: Vatanen traditionally was a solid contributor offensively for a defenseman, but the 2018-19 campaign was rough for him. He had four goals and 17 points in 50 games, which was a steep drop from his 32-point showing in 2017-18 and ended his run of five straight campaigns with over 20 points. He’s bouncing back nicely in 2019-20 with four goals and 13 points in 25 contests. He’s also doing fairly well right now with four assists in his last four contests, so he’s a pretty good short-term pickup, but he’s also a solid enough contributor that he wouldn’t look out of place as a long-term depth defenseman on most standard fantasy league teams.

Alex Tuch, Golden Knights – LW/RW: Tuch took a big leap forward in his second full NHL campaign with 20 goals and 52 points in 74 contests. An upper-body injury kept him out until Oct. 31st though and he struggled to get going after that with a goal and an assist in his first 10 games. He seems to have shaken off the rust though with four goals and seven points in his last five contests. He’s a gamble to be sure, but he has the potential to be a fairly good contributor for the rest of the season.

Brandon Tanev, Penguins – LW/RW: The Penguins decision to sign Tanev to a six-year, $21 million contract over the summer drew some immediate critics, but so far it’s worked out well. He’s chipped in regularly offensively with six goals and 16 points in 30 games, which puts him on pace to comfortably surpass his previous career-high of 29 points in 80 contests. With eligibility for both wings, he’s a solid option for most teams in general and worthy of partial consideration right now because he’ll be going into Tuesday’s contest on a three-game point streak.

Phillip Danault, Canadiens – C: Danault set a career-high in 2018-19 with 53 points and he’s on pace to top it with seven goals and 23 points in 30 contests. He’s still only owned in 21% of Yahoo leagues though, which can be partially attributed to his center-only eligibility. Even with that limitation, he’s a pretty good pickup right now given how effective he’s been for the last little while. He has two goals and 13 points in his last 13 games and is on a three-game point streak.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Jonas Brodin, Wild – D: Brodin is a pretty okay defenseman offensively, but not good enough that he’s typically worth owning in standard leagues. Right now is a potential exception though given how effective he’s been lately. He has six assists in his last five contests. If you do grab him in the hopes of riding what’s left of his hot streak, don’t hesitate to drop him if he goes quiet for a couple games.

Ryan Graves, Avalanche – D: Cale Makar has obviously captured the spotlight in Colorado as far as young defensemen go, but Graves is slowly becoming a meaningful part of the Avalanche’s blueline too. After a quiet start to the campaign, he’s scored three goals and eight points in his last 14 games. It’s helped that he’s averaged 17:18 minutes over that span, up from 15:28 minutes per contest over his first 14 games. It’s worth adding that Makar unfortunately suffered an injury during Saturday’s game. At the time of writing, the extent of his injury isn’t known, but if he does miss time, then Graves’ responsibilities might increase further while he’s out.

Alex Killorn, Lightning – LW/RW: Although he’s owned in just 20% of Yahoo leagues, Killorn is having a great campaign with eight goals and 22 points in 25 games. It helps that he’s averaging 17:29 minutes, up from just 14:52 minutes in 2018-19 when he finished with 2018-19. He’s never recorded more than 47 points in a single season, so you might be worried about sustainability and that’s fair, but even as a short-term pickup, he’s worthy of consideration. He’s on a three-game goal scoring streak and is coming off a four-point game on Saturday. That’s all part of a longer-term run of six goals and 16 points in his last 12 contests.

Kevin Fiala, Wild – LW/RW: Fiala got off to a quiet start this season with just an assist in his first eight games, but since then he’s been great. He’s scored six goals and 14 points in his last 17 contests, putting him in a three-way tie for the Wild’s scoring lead from the start of November onward. He’s never recorded more than 48 points in a single season, but at the age of 23, it’s not unreasonable to believe that he’s capable of further growth. If nothing else, he’s a decent gamble while he’s hot. 

Matt Niskanen, Flyers – D: Niskanen saw his offensive contributions decline to 25 points in 80 games last season with the Washington Capitals, but the trade to Philadelphia seems to have done him some good. One big difference is that he was averaging just 0:35 power-play minutes in 2018-19 and that’s jumped to an average of 2:15 power-play minutes now that he’s in Philadelphia. He has 13 points in 30 games this season, with six of those points being scored with the man advantage in contrast to 2018-19 when he recorded all of two power-play points over the entire campaign. All this has made Niskanen a decent option in standard fantasy leagues this season and a good stopgap measure if you have any injured blueliners.

Clayton Keller, Coyotes– LW/RW: Keller had an amazing rookie campaign with 23 goals and 65 points in 82 games. He went through something of a sophomore slump, scoring 14 goals and 47 points in 82 contests last season, but he seems to be rebounding a bit in his third full season. He has five goals and 20 points in 32 contests, which doesn’t put him on pace to challenge his rookie showing, but it is still a step in the right direction. He’s also on a hot streak right now with a goal and five points in his last five games.

Players You May Want To Drop

Carter Hutton, Sabres – G: Hutton has basically had two different seasons in 2019-20. He couldn’t have asked for a better start to the campaign with a 6-0-0 record, 1.65 GAA, and .943 save percentage in six starts through Oct. 22nd. He hasn’t even won a single game since Oct. 22nd though. Instead he’s gone 0-5-4 with a 3.99 GAA and .875 save percentage in nine starts. Obviously, neither stretch is a full representation of what he is as a goaltender, but if you also take his 2018-19 campaign into consideration, then he hasn’t proven yet that he’s up for the task of being a starting goaltender. Keep in mind that he’ll turn 34 on Dec. 19th, so while he’s still relatively new to being a serious competitor for a starting gig, he’s in no way a young goaltender with upside. If you’ve been holding onto him since that hot start, you should look elsewhere.

Jared McCann, Penguins – C/LW: McCann had a terrific run from Nov. 4-27 with five goals and 12 points in 11 contests, but that hot streak is now firmly in the rear view mirror. He’s been limited to just an assist over his last five contests. McCann is still worth keeping an eye on, but given his relatively limited role in Pittsburgh – he’s averaging 14:34 minutes – the merit of keeping him on your team in a standard fantasy league when he’s not hot is still very much open to debate.

Derick Brassard, Islanders – C/LW/RW: There have been times in Brassard’s career where he’s been a solid contributor, but he hasn’t been reliable since being traded from Ottawa in the 2017-18 campaign. He went on an incredible run of six goals and 15 points in 12 games from Oct. 24-Nov. 21, but he did almost nothing offensively before that run and he’s been similarly cold since his hot streak ended. He’s not nearly consistent enough to warrant holding onto at all times.

Roope Hintz, Stars – C/LW: Hintz has 11 goals in 24 games, but that’s thanks to a 23.4 shooting percentage that he probably won’t be able to come close to sustaining. He’s already slowing down with just one goal in his last seven contests. Given that he doesn’t bring much to the table from a fantasy perspective beyond goals, there’s not much reason to keep him on your team at this time.

Tyson Barrie, Maple Leafs – D: I’m a little hesitant to suggest you should drop Barrie, but it’s certainly worth considering your other options. The Maple Leafs acquired Barrie over the summer and he was a huge disappointment early on with just five assists in his first 21 games. Then Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as the bench boss and it looked like the coaching change might have a positive impact on Barrie in particular. He went on a run of three goals and five points in Keefe’s first three games behind the bench. Since then though, Barrie has no points and a minus-four rating in five games. That’s not a huge slump, but given the overall scope of the season, it is discouraging to see him go cold again so soon after the coaching change. So far, Toronto just hasn’t been an ideal fit for him.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey. 

How the Penguins have become one of NHL’s best defensive teams

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It is starting to look like Jim Rutherford was right.

Not long after his Pittsburgh Penguins were swept out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he defiantly proclaimed that the defense he had assembled was probably the best one his team had since he arrived in Pittsburgh. It seemed to be a rather dubious claim not only because of how the Penguins performed for much of the season (including the playoffs), but because he had also been the general manager for a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh.

But nearly two months into the 2019-20 season the Penguins have been one of the league’s stingiest teams defensively and that play is one of the biggest reasons they have been able to overcome a seemingly unending list of injuries to keep piling up points.

Just look at the defensive performance so far this season compared to the same date a year ago, as well as their final numbers from the 2018-19 season.

All numbers via Natural Stat Trick. The numbers in parenthesis are their league-wide rank.

They also boast one of the league’s best penalty killing units, not only in terms of success rate, but also in their ability to also limit shots and chances against.

The Penguins always had one elite defense pair in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin but everything after that was always a question.

So what all has changed?

The arrival of John Marino and development of Marcus Pettersson. One thing that should be pointed out about Rutherford’s “best defense” comment is that there have been some personnel changes on the blue line since then that helped the team get back closer to the winning identity it had lost. Erik Gudbranson and Olli Maatta were traded, while the team also made the under-the-radar acquisition of John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a sixth-round pick.

From the moment they acquired Marino, the Penguins seemed enamored with his potential. After watching him play for the past month-and-a-half it is not hard to see why. He has been a game-changer on the blue line and in his first pro season has already become a 20-minute per night player and has yet to look out of place. He brings some much-needed youth, mobility, and playmaking to a defense that badly needed all three.

Combine his presence with a full season of Marcus Pettersson (acquired in December of last year for Daniel Sprong) and suddenly the Penguins have two young, mobile defenders that can help drive play for what is currently a dirt cheap price against the salary cap. And both have the potential to continue getting better.

The forwards are helping more. One of the common themes throughout the Penguins’ offseason was that they needed to play “the right way,” and that the defensive deficiencies last season weren’t just about the defensemen themselves. They also needed more help from their forwards. They are getting that this season, and it’s not just because the returning players are playing smarter. The offseason additions of Brandon Tanev and Dominik Kahun, as well as getting a full season out of trade deadline acquisition Jared McCann, have brought three more fast, defensively responsible forwards to the lineup, and all are making significant contributions in every phase of the game.

Tanev’s signing drew harsh criticism (including from me) due to the term on the contract but so far he has proven to be everything the Penguins said he would be — a menace due to his speed and an always frustrating player for opponents to go up against. Combined with the arrival of young players Teddy Blueger and Sam Lafferty the Penguins injected a ton of speed, youth, and fresh blood into a lineup that the rest of the league had not only caught up to, but seemingly passed by the previous two years. With Phil Kessel and Arizona and Sidney Crosby currently sidelined the Penguins may not be as explosive offensively, but they are making up for that with their ability to shut teams down.

Better usage and a better identity. Mike Sullivan is turning in a Jack Adams level coaching performance this season and has pushed all of the right buttons so far. He has the team buying into how they need to play, they are back to play fast, and the personnel usage is far better (trusting Marino and Pettersson in big spots; playing Jack Johnson in the third-pairing/PK role he is best suited for).

Rutherford received his fair share of criticism the past couple of years (including from, again, me) and much of it was deserved. The team became too obsessed with “push-back” and getting more physical instead of getting faster and better. There was a constant revolving door of player transactions that made it seem like they didn’t really have a plan. Tom Wilson took up residence in their front office and seemed to drive every decision.

One of the most positive things anyone around Pittsburgh could always say about Rutherford is he is quick to admit his mistakes and move on. He definitely did that by making the team faster and getting it back to what it does best. It may not have been the most direct route, but for the first time in two years the Penguins have the look of the team that was winning Stanley Cups instead of the one that was getting swept in the first round. Better late than never.

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 Fantasy Hockey: Getzlaf, Tanev lead this week’s top adds

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks – C: The Ducks captain is one of the best known players out there, but he’s owned in a relatively modest 35% of Yahoo leagues. That’s understandable after he was limited to 14 goals and 48 points in 67 games last season, but he’s worth taking a look at now, at least in the short-term. He’s found the back of the net in back-to-back games and has four goals and five points in his last seven contests. Getzlaf has traditionally been more of a playmaker than a scorer, but he’s focused more on shooting the puck himself this season. Through 13 games, he’s averaging 2.38 shots per game, which is his highest rate since 2014-15 when he finished with 25 goals. His long-term value is still questionable, especially given his center-only eligibility, but at the least he’s worth taking a chance on while he’s hot.

Sean Walker, Kings D: Walker might end up being one of the bright spots in a difficult campaign for the Kings. He already has three goals and six points in 12 games. He finished 2018-19 with 10 points in 39 contests, but he was only averaging 15:26 minutes. This time around, he’s up to 18:36 minutes and it wouldn’t be surprising to see his role trend upwards as the season continues. One long-term thing to keep in mind is that Ben Hutton can become a UFA this summer while Alec Martinez is 32-years-old with a contract that runs through 2020-21. Both Hutton and Martinez are averaging over 20 minutes and it’s entirely possible that one or both of them will be dealt before the trade deadline, which might give Walker a late season boost.

Lars Eller, Capitals – C: Eller isn’t a great long-term pickup, but he’s hot right now if you’re looking for a short-term boost. He has two goals and five points in his last four games, which has pushed him up to four goals and 10 points in 13 contests. That’s quite the start for the 30-year-old who has never recorded more than 38 points in a single season. It’s certainly nice to benefit from while it lasts, just don’t expect him to maintain this pace.

Radko Gudas, Capitals – D: This is a bit of a different one. He has just four assists in 13 games and he can’t be expected to be a significant offensive contributor this season. However, he can potentially help you in some other ways. Gudas is tied for seventh among defensemen with 32 hits and is tied for sixth overall with a plus-nine plus/minus rating. He’s only owned in 28% of Yahoo leagues, so if you need help those categories, then he might be the solution. If you’re in a custom league that uses blocked shots, then Gudas has some utility there too. So far he’s gotten in front of 24 shots.

Joel Armia, Canadiens – RW: Armia is red hot right now with three goals and four points in his last three games, along with six goals and eight points in his most recent seven contests. He’s never recorded more than 29 points in a single season, but the 26-year-old has seen his role grow rapidly in recent years. He’s averaging a career-high 17:03 minutes in 2019-20 and it’s been climbing with him logging an average of 18:33 minutes over his last four contests. He’s regularly played alongside Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi is sometimes the third member of that line. We could be seeing the start of a breakout season for Armia.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Alex Goligoski, Coyotes – D: Goligoski has traditionally been good for around 35-40 points, but he dipped to 27 points in 76 contests last season. Arizona had a bottom barrel offensive team in 2018-19 though, so that played a role. This time around, the Coyotes’ offense is pretty solid and Goligoski has been able to rebound with a goal and seven points through 11 contests. It helps that the Coyotes are a much better team overall too, which translates to Goligoski not being the plus/minus burden he used to be. Back in 2017-18 he had a career-low minus-31 rating and even last season he finished at minus-seven. By contrast he’s plus-five this season. His improved worth hasn’t been noticed by all fantasy owners though, as evident by the fact that he’s only owned in 17% of Yahoo leagues.

Brandon Tanev, Penguins – LW/RW: I’m a little hesitant about this one, but Pittsburgh seems to be agreeing with Tanev. He set career-highs with 14 goals and 29 points in 80 games with Winnipeg last season and it on his way to top that in 2019-20. So far he has three goals and six points in 12 contests. Like I said, I’m hesitant about Tanev. I’m just not fully convinced he’s going to be a particularly valuable secondary scorer in the long run this season and his role with the Penguins hasn’t changed much from what it was with Washington. However, he is a great source of hits (49 already), so if you need help in that category to begin with, it’d make some sense to take a chance on him in the hopes that he keeps up this offensive pace.

Ilya Mikheyev, Maple Leafs – LW: Mikheyev has just adjusted remarkably well from the KHL to NHL. He already has four goals and 10 points in 13 games this season. He’s averaging 15:55 minutes per game and his role has been ticking upwards with him getting an average of 16:48 minutes over his last five contests. He’s still only owned in 23% of Yahoo leagues despite his hot start, so for a lot of owners, the opportunity to scoop him up remains.

Linus Ullmark, Sabres – G: The Sabres have gotten off to a superb 9-2-2 start and part of the reason for that has been some solid goaltending. Carter Hutton has been the leader in that regard with a 6-1-1 record, 2.21 GAA, and .926 save percentage in eight starts, but he’s also owned in 81% of Yahoo leagues, so odds are if you don’t have him yet, you can’t get him now. Ullmark isn’t a bad consolation prize though. For a backup, he’s played a fair amount, and he’s done well with a 3-1-1 record, 2.56 GAA, and .932 save percentage. The Sabres also have back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday followed by sets on Nov. 8-9, Nov. 16-17, Nov. 24-25, and Nov. 29-30. So even if they weren’t already using their backup regularly, they would need to in order to accommodate their November schedule.

Colton Sissons, Predators – C/LW: Sissons has gotten off to a terrific start with four goals and eight points in 11 games this season. He’s averaged a relatively modest 15:19 minutes per game, but it is trending upwards. He’s averaged 16:13 minutes over his last three games and has logged over 17 minutes in three of those contests. He’s still only owned in 7% of Yahoo leagues and at this point, he seems worthy of the gamble.

Players You May Want To Drop

Kaapo Kakko, Rangers – RW: Taken with the second overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, there was understandably a lot of optimism surrounding Kakko going into the season. He had an amazing season in the Finnish league and we’ve seen previous first and second overall picks enter the league with a bang. That hasn’t been the case for Kakko though, who has just a goal and an assist through nine games. He’s been quick to put the blame on himself too, saying recently that he’s been “playing bad hockey,” per the New York Post. If you’re in a keeper league, then you definitely want to hold onto him because in the long run Kakko will be an excellent player, but if you’re in a single season league then you may want to drop him while he continues to adjust to North American hockey in general and the NHL in particular.

Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks – C: The Blackhawks captain had 35 goals and 81 points in 82 games last season, but that’s something of an anomaly given his history. Prior to that, he had three straight campaigns in the 52-58 point range. It seems he’s dipping back into that kind of offensive play this season. He’s scored just a goal and two points in 10 games so far and has gone five straight games without a point. If he had eligibility beyond center then there’d be more reason to be patient with him, but as it is, there are a lot of alternatives out there up the middle.

Devan Dubnyk, Wild – G: Dubnyk is ready to return from an upper-body injury, but it remains to be seen if he can turn his season around. He’s off to a terrible start with a 3.92 GAA and .880 save percentage in seven contests. With the exception of Oct. 22nd, when he left the game early in the second period due to the injury, he has surrendered at least three goals in each of his starts. Meanwhile, the Wild have found some success with Alex Stalock this season and you have to wonder if that will lead to the Wild leaning more on him going forward. Part of the selling point for Dubnyk was that he was likely to start in 60-plus games, but if Stalock keeps this up, then that won’t happen.

Joe Pavelski, Stars – C/RW: Let’s close out with a pair of big name Stars players that you maybe should hang onto for now, but at least need to be under the microscope at this point. Pavelski had 38 goals last season and obviously has a long history of success, but his stint so far in Dallas has to give everyone pause. He has just two goals and three points in 13 contests. What’s even more concerning is that he’s only even managed 18 shots on goal this season. To put that in perspective, he averaged 2.51 shots per game in 2018-19 and now he’s down to just 1.38. If something doesn’t change, this will be by far his lowest shots per game rate of his career. I have to wonder if the 35-year-old is simply in for a bad season, but if you’re determined to stay patient with him, then there are some silver linings. Dallas as a whole has struggled, so maybe he’ll start to turn things around once the rest of the team does. Additionally, his IPP is extremely low, which might be an indication of some pretty bad puck luck on his part. So it’s not quite all doom-and-gloom even if it’s certainly looked that way so far. 

Alexander Radulov, Stars – RW: I mentioned the Stars’ early season struggles and Radulov has been another factor in that. After his back-to-back 72-point campaigns, he has just a goal and four points in 13 games this season. Like Pavelski, he might rebound along with the rest of the Stars, but one thing I’m particularly worried about with Radulov is his declining role. He averaged 20:08 minutes in 2017-18 and 19:47 minutes in 2018-19. So far this season he’s dipped to an average of 17:25 minutes, which is still good, but not nearly as impressive. As his struggles have mounted, he’s also seen his role decline further. He’s logged less than 17 minutes in each of his last four games and on Oct. 24th he got just 12:23 minutes. As is the case with Pavelski, all hope isn’t lost, but there are some concerning signs here beyond just a slow start.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

What Penguins need to become championship team again

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There is going to come a point in the next few years where the Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer a playoff team.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are all over the age of 32 and probably only have a handful of high-level years ahead of them. When they start to decline or retire there is going to be no replacing them and no matter what moves the Penguins make today there is not going to be anything that stops them from needing an extensive rebuild in the not-too-distant future. That future is not quite here yet.

After barely making the playoffs and getting swept in Round 1 with a roster that seemed to lose its way, it is not unfair to say that the team has slipped a bit in its standing as a Stanley Cup contender. What do they need to get back closer to the top?

We know the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel duo is going to excel on the first line and the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing is going to be great. After that it is a bunch of questions. The obvious keys focus on Alex Galchenyuk fitting in, Evgeni Malkin being better (especially at even-strength), and Matt Murray playing at his best (all things we already looked at today).

But that alone will not be enough.

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

1. Rediscover their identity. I touched on this immediately after their Round 1 loss but the single biggest flaw the Penguins have is their sudden fascination with having players that provide “push back.” For a team that won two Stanley Cups under the mantra of “just play” it was a needless overreaction to some perceived injustices from a select few opposing players. The result was a shift away from what made team so tough to play against (balanced offense, mobile defense, speed, four scoring lines) and a rapidly growing collection of long-term, pricey contracts for depth players (Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, Brandon Tanev). The big thing that would help address this: Another mobile, puck-moving defender that can play on the second pair. The big intangible thing: Go back to “just play” instead of worrying about pushing back.

2. A resurgence from a (hopefully) healthy Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist’s status as a team leader and gritty forward with a non-stop motor masked the fact that his play rapidly deteriorated in the second half of the season, to the point where he was a complete non-factor offensively. It was a stunning slump after a strong first half. The thing that stands out about that is there is a pretty firm line that separated his season. That line was another head injury that kept him out of the lineup midway through the season. Was it a fluke slump? Was it a result of the injury? Was it a sign of things to come for him in the future now that he is 32 years old? A combination of all three? Whatever it was, the Penguins have Hornqvist signed for four more years at more than $5 million per season. The work ethic and effort are great, but at that price the Penguins need him to produce more than he did this past year or that contract will quickly turn into another drain on the salary cap.

3. Some young players need to emerge. The big focus during their mid-season turnaround in 2015-16 was on the coaching change. But there was another element at play: A bunch of young players became impact players at the same time (Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl; Guentzel a year later). The Penguins need that again. While the farm system is thin, there are some candidates to take big steps forward at the NHL level. Dominik Simon is polarizing because he is a favorite of the coaching staff and struggles to score goals, but he is a good defensive player and playmaker. Jared McCann is a favorite of the front office because they love his potential and he had a strong showing after the trade from Florida. He needs to show it was not a fluke. Dominik Kahun is an intriguing add from Chicago and is coming off a solid rookie season. And even though this might be for a couple years down the line, Pierre-Oliver Joseph is the exact type of defender they need to emerge and become a regular.

The three superstars at the top are the most important ingredient. But they are only part of the recipe. These three keys are just as important.

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

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.

Penguins questions include defense, trade bait, and Malkin’s bounce-back

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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.

Three pressing questions for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Is the defense good enough?

In the opinion of general manager Jim Rutherford, yes. He has repeatedly defended the construction of his defense and at one point even went as far as to call it the best defense he has had during his time in Pittsburgh. High praise considering he has been in Pittsburgh for two Stanley Cup winning teams.

This team, though, is not coming off of a Stanley Cup win and there is little objective evidence to suggest this defense is anything better than ordinary. They were 12th in the NHL in goals against this past season and even that ranking was driven significantly by the performance of Matt Murray in net thanks to some of the best play of his career from mid-December on.

As a team, the Penguins were one of the worst teams in the league at preventing shots, average in preventing scoring chances, and a little below average on the PK. They have one great defense pairing in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin (one of the best pairings in all of hockey) and then a bunch of flawed players and question marks after that. Other than shipping out Olli Maatta over the summer, the Penguins have done nothing else to change the look of their defense. Rutherford obviously believes in this group, and he is taking a pretty big bet that he is right.

2. Who is the next salary cap casualty or trade chip?

This is probably more of a preseason question than a question for the season, but somebody has to go.

Trading Phil Kessel was supposed to alleviate some of the salary cap crunch, but taking Alex Galchenyuk as part of the return and signing Brandon Tanev in free agency quickly erased that savings. Add that to the returning contracts for Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson and the Penguins have a significant chunk of money going to depth players that probably are not moving them closer to another championship. It has put them in a position where they have to move out someone else.

As it stands, they are slightly over the salary cap and still have to re-sign RFA Marcus Pettersson. After this season, Galchenyuk, Justin Schultz, Jared McCann, Dominik Simon and starting goalie Matt Murray will be in line for new contracts. So who goes?

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Johnson or Gudbranson could be an option to go off the blue line and would probably the ideal trade bait, while Bryan Rust or Nick Bjugstad seem like logical candidates at forward.

3. Will Evgeni Malkin bounce back?

It is a good bet that he will.

The final offensive numbers from this past season look good (better than a point-per-game average) and he had a great start to the season, but his production really slumped over the final three quarters of the season and especially at even-strength. His defensive game was also lacking and he will be the first to say the 2018-19 season was not his best. He can be better, and the Penguins need him to be better. Malkin is a proud player and will no doubt be motivated to show this past season was a fluke and that he is still one of the league’s best and most dominant players. A driven Malkin playing at his best is a season-changing player, and if he gets back to that level it will be more valuable to the Penguins than any other potential offseason addition could have been.

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

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.