Brandon Tanev

Pittsburgh Penguins
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What is the Penguins’ long-term outlook?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Penguins’ core is mostly the same as it has been for the past 15 years, and it is the trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.

They are all into their 30s at this point, and there will come a time in the not-too-distant future that they really start to slow down, but for now they remain the foundation of a Stanley Cup contending team.

Along with them there is a pretty strong supporting cast in place, and one that is probably a lot younger than you might realize. Even though they have made a habit of trading draft picks and prospects to strengthen their championship chases (as they should have) they have done a nice job replenishing the cupboard around their superstars. Especially over the past year.

Jake Guentzel (signed for five more years at $6 million per season) has become a star and one of their best home-grown players in years, while John Marino, Marcus Pettersson, and Jared McCann have been strong additions from the outside.

Bryan Rust has shown what he is capable of in an expanded role and carries a very affordable salary cap hit for the next two years, while Jason Zucker seems like an outstanding fit in their top-six while also being signed for three more full seasons after this one.

Brian Dumoulin remains a perfect complement for Letang on the top defense pair (while also being signed for three more seasons) while they have two very good young goalies in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry that are still under team control for the next few years.

Long-Term Needs

They have some long-term salary cap restrictions, but that has been a constant theme for them for the better part of the Crosby-Malkin era. It just comes with the territory of being a contending team with superstar players. They do have a couple of contracts that will probably get dumped one way or another before they expire (Jack Johnson, Nick Bjugstad, maybe even Brandon Tanev a couple of years down the line).

The salary cap crunch could also create a little headache this offseason as they work to re-sign some key restricted free agents like McCann, Murray, and Jarry.

The latter two also create an interesting situation because both have the potential and ability to be outstanding goalies in the NHL. They also have both showed it (Murray more than Jarry). But juggling that contract situation is going to be interesting, especially as they figure out what sort of financial commitment to make with Murray.

He is a two-time Stanley Cup winner. But he has had some ups and downs over the past two seasons. How much can they commit to him, and for how long?

While they have done a great job of having a steady pipeline of talent come through their system to complement the stars, there is going to come a point where they will need to develop another truly high-end player when Crosby and/or Malkin are no longer able to carry the team. That time is not yet here, but it will eventually arrive.

Long-Term Strengths

The bottom line is the Penguins still have a couple of Hall of Famers and All-Star level players on their roster. They are still players that can take over and dominate games. As long as they have that, they have the most important ingredient for contending.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Jake Guentzel are the type of players you win championships with. The Penguins have won multiple championships with them and been one of the league’s most successful teams by every objective measure. There will come a time when the window really does close on this core and a rebuild is needed, but that time is not here just yet. It may not be here for a couple of more years.

For as much money as they have committed to their core, and for as tight as their salary cap situation may be, they do have some pretty significant long-term contracts that are team-and cap-friendly. The trio of Guentzel, Rust, and Dumoulin is an outstanding secondary group of stars, and together they account for less than $14 million against the cap for the next couple of years. Even Crosby and Malkin are making far less than they could be. Every little bit of savings counts and helps make the rest of the team that much stronger.

They also have Mike Sullivan behind the bench who has done some of his best work this season.

MORE Penguins:
 Looking at the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins
Penguins biggest surprises and disappointments so far

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.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

The emergence of John Marino

General manager Jim Rutherford faced some intense — and at times very justified — criticism for some of his roster moves before and during the 2018-19 season. He rebounded in a big way this past offseason. The signing of Brandon Tanev turned out better than expected, while they seemed to have parted ways with Phil Kessel at the exact right time. The most important move, though, was the acquisition of defenseman John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers this past summer for the bargain basement price of a conditional sixth-round draft pick.

The Penguins immediately liked Marino’s potential thanks to an outstanding training camp performance, but no one could have possibly anticipated the impact he has made.

Marino has helped completely transform the Penguins’ defense, adding mobility, puck skills, and shutdown defense to the team’s top-four. He has quickly become a significant part of their blue line and given his entry-level contract situation is going to be a steal against the salary cap in the short-term.

He should be considered part of their long-term core.

Justin Schultz‘s tough year

This was always going to be an important year for Schultz and the Penguins.

From a team perspective, they needed him to have a big year to help solidify their defense after he was limited to just 29 games a year ago.

When Schultz has been at his best in Pittsburgh he has been a productive player offensively and a major asset on the power play. He needed to be put into a specific role, but he has at times excelled at it.

He was also entering a contract year with something to prove. A big year for him would have made him a hot commodity on the free agent market this summer. But it did not really work out that way.

Schultz not only missed more time due to injury, but he struggled at times when he was in the lineup at both ends of the ice. He has never been a shutdown player defensively, but his ability to produce offensively was always a positive. But this season even that aspect of his game disappeared for him. It has ended up being his most disappointing season in Pittsburgh and it could not have come at a worse time for him given his contract situation.

Tristan Jarry pushes Matt Murray

The Penguins have always had high hopes for Tristan Jarry and given his draft position (first goalie taken in his draft class) he has always come with a lot of pedigree. The potential has always been there. Still, he was facing an uphill battle when it came to making the opening roster this season with Matt Murray (a two-time Stanley Cup winner) and Casey DeSmith (who had just signed a long-term contract extension) in place.

Because Jarry counted less against the salary cap, he ended up starting the season as the backup to Murray and used that opportunity to start playing his way into the starting position.

Or at least challenging for it.

Jarry has been the Penguins’ most productive goalie this season (.921 save percentage to Murray’s .899), started to get the bulk of the starts in the middle of the season, and played his way into the 2020 NHL All-Star Game.

Both goalies are restricted free agents after this season and it is going to be fascinating to watch how this situation plays out.

The non-stop injuries

It is not just that the Penguins have had to deal with a ton of injuries this season that has been a disappointment for them. It is the fact that it has been their top players.

Just a quick run down on which players have missed games this season.

That is a lot. Through it all, the Penguins have remained in contention for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, or at the very least, home-ice advantage in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs all season.

Bryan Rust has a breakout season offensively

Since becoming a regular in the lineup during the 2015-16 season Rust has been an outstanding “glue” guy in the Penguins’ lineup. He can play all over the lineup and contribute in any role. He is not out of place on the first line, he can handle himself defensively, he is an outstanding penalty killer, and he just does everything well.

This season his game has gone to an even higher level thanks to a breakout performance offensively, recording 56 points (27 goals, 29 assists) in 55 games. He has set career highs in every meaningful offensive category.

The biggest part of that emergence has just been the simple fact he has been able to take on a bigger role with more ice-time, and especially on the power play, allowing his offense to shine.

MORE PENGUINS:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins
Examining the Penguins long-term outlook

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 Power Rankings: Best 2019-20 free agent signings

NHL Power Rankings
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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we shift our focus back to the summer of 2019 and the free agent signings that have ended up working out the best so far.

Free agency is always a risky proposition for teams because it forces them into a bidding war for players that have most likely played their best hockey for somebody else. Most long-term contracts signed during the free agency signing period have a tendency to end in trades or buyouts. Not even one full season in and there are already a handful of contracts that are off to slow starts (Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida, Matt Duchene in Nashville, Joe Pavelski in Dallas).

Some of them, however, have worked out as planned. Those are the contracts we are focussing on here today.

When it comes to identifying the “best” contracts at this point we are trying to take into account overall performance and the value of the contract. Sometimes it is a long-term deal that looks good, other times it is a short-term “prove it” deal where everyone ended up getting exactly what they wanted.

Which free agents make the cut?

To the rankings!

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. While most long-term free agent contracts end up failing to meet expectations, this is one that looks like it is going to work. Panarin is having one of the best individual seasons in the history of the Rangers’ franchise and is playing at an MVP level. Maybe he will not play at a superstar level for the entire seven-year term of the contract, but there is little reason to believe he will not be an impact player in New York for several years. One of the league’s best offensive players.

2. Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning. This was one of those “prove it” contracts. After having his previous deal with the Rangers bought out, Shattenkirk found himself back on the open market this past summer and landed in Tampa Bay on a one-year, $1.75 million contract. It has worked out tremendously for the Lightning. Shattenkirk has bounced back across the board with an improved offensive performance and dominant possession numbers. He may not be a No. 1 defender, but as a No. 2 or 3 on a contender he can still make an impact.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks (traded to Vegas). After being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago, the Islanders allowed Lehner to walk and become an unrestricted free agent. He ended up getting a one-year, $5 million contract with the Blackhawks and was one of the biggest reasons they were able to at least somewhat stay in playoff contention instead of dropping down toward the bottom of the league. They ended up trading him to Vegas at the trade deadline, and even though that return was underwhelming it was still a strong signing.

4. Joonas Donskoi, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche entered the offseason armed with one of the league’s best young cores and the most salary cap space to play with. While they did not get the big ticket free agents, they did make some really smart moves. Donskoi’s four-year deal is right at the top of that list. He has been an outstanding depth addition and provided some much-needed secondary scoring.

5. Gustav Nyquist, Columbus Blue Jackets. He is not a superstar by any means, but Nyquist has given the Blue Jackets exactly what they thought he would: 15-20 goals, a 50-point pace, and all around solid top-six play. He has also been one of the few Blue Jackets players that has not missed significant time to injury this season. His $5.5 million salary cap hit over the next three seasons (after this one) is a more than fair price tag for what he provides.

6. Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders. All things being equal he is probably a downgrade from what they lost in Lehner, but he has stayed healthy and been very good for the Islanders. The four-year contract seemed like a risk (and still is) but he has been productive so far.

7. Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche. Nichushkin’s 2018-19 season was the dullest individual season in NHL history. I do not mean that as a knock. It legitimately was given that he played 57 games and did not score a single goal or record a single penalty minute (the first time any player ever did that). That resulted in him signing a one-year, $850,000 contract with Colorado. In 65 games he already has 13 goals, 27 total points, and has been another outstanding depth addition.

8. Tyler Ennis, Ottawa Senators (traded to Edmonton). Another one-year bargain. Ennis was one of the few bright spots in Ottawa this season before he was flipped to the Oilers at the trade deadline. Before this season his production had fallen off a cliff as he bounced from Buffalo, to Minnesota, to Toronto, and then to Ottawa. This was a nice bounce-back year for him.

9. Noel Acciari, Florida Panthers. Before this season Acciari scored 18 goals in 180 career games. In his first 66 games with the Panthers he has already scored 20 goals. He makes just a little more than $1 million per season. Is this goal scoring output a short-term fluke? Maybe. Does that make me overrate him right now? Probably. But finding a 20-goal scorer for just over a million against the cap is a steal no matter how you look at it.

10. Tyler Myers, Vancouver Canucks. I hated this contract at the time and thought it signaled more bumbling from a directionless Vancouver front office that was just trying to sneak into the playoffs to save face. Maybe that’s what it still is. But once I get beyond my initial criticism I have to admit that Myers has been a pretty solid addition to the Canucks’ defense. Maybe it won’t look that way in two or three years, but for now he has helped.

Honorable mentions

  • Brandon Tanev, Pittsburgh Penguins. Like Myers, I hated the length of this deal at the time, but he has been a great addition to their bottom-six and helped defensively.
  • Brett Connolly, Florida Panthers. The Bobrovsky contract might not work, but the additions of Acciari and Connolly were solid moves to add offense.
  • Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. My biggest complaint here is Zuccarello added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has a lot of them making big money. Overall, though, he has been good.
  • Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs. By no means is he a top player anymore, but as a veteran third-or fourth-line center he is great for that salary cap hit.

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.

New-look Penguins play first game since trade deadline on NBCSN

Hockey fans get their first post-trade deadline glance at the new-look Penguins on Wednesday. Then again, it’s also true that later versions of the Penguins will look different from the group that faces the Kings on NBCSN at 10:30 p.m. ET (stream here).

Penguins roll out new trade deadline additions in these lineups — for now

Like many other NHL coaches, Mike Sullivan likes to tinker with his combinations. Injuries forced Sullivan to do so anyway this season, and the Penguins’ trade deadline investments now give him a plethora of options. When/if certain players come back, the variety will only grow.

Let’s go forward line by forward line based on NHL.com’s projected combos for Wednesday, since that’s where Pittsburgh made acquisitions.

Jason ZuckerSidney CrosbyConor Sheary

As new-look as the Penguins feel, there seems to be warm-and-fuzzy feelings for the reunion of Crosby and Sheary. Personally, I never understood why Pittsburgh broke them up in the first place. (Especially if the answer is troublingly “to afford bad defenseman Jack Johnson.”)

In a lineup breakdown from The Athletic’s Josh Yohe (sub required), both Crosby and Sheary amusingly described each other as easy to play with. Sullivan’s comments provided a little more substance.

“He brings a speed element,” Sullivan said of Sheary. “He can finish. He’s good in traffic. A lot of attributes that Conor brings to the table are complementary to Sid.”

Sheary can think the game at a reasonable level with Crosby, and the early returns on Zucker indicate the same. (On paper, Zucker seems like a no-brainer fit for Crosby, but in reality not everyone clicks with 87.)

Still, there are a number of different factors that could break these fellows up. What if Jake Guentzel beats the timeline for recovery from his shoulder surgery, at least for the playoffs? Will Penguins eventually want a right-handed shot with Crosby instead of two other lefties?

This seems like a good mix overall, at least to start, though.

Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Business as usual there, basically. Rust and Hornqvist can work with Crosby if needed, so that’s nice.

Patrick MarleauEvan RodriguesDominik Simon

Trade deadline additions make two-thirds of this third line, and the potential is interesting. Simon ranks as the most feasible candidate to move up, possibly with Crosby again. While Marleau ranks as a bigger name, Rodrigues stands out as a fascinating wild card.

People have been noting Rodrigues’ potential as a hidden gem for some time.

(His underlying numbers still look good at Hockey Viz, although things slipped a bit in 2019-20 compared to more robust work in 2017-18 and 2018-19.)

The sheer variety of useful players in the Penguins’ top nine is really something, especially when you realize that Jared McCann could end up being a more regular fit as third-line center. Nick Bjugstad already feels like old news, considering the revolving door of Penguins forwards, yet he’s another interesting player if health eventually permits.

Sam LaffertyTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Then you have what seems to be a pretty strong fourth line from a defensive standpoint. Quite a group.

(Oh yeah, and there’s also Zach Aston-Reese. Healthy scratches could eventually become straight-up awkward if most/everyone actually gets healthy.)

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Defense and other considerations for Penguins

NHL.com projects Pittsburgh’s Wednesday defensive pairings as such:

Jack Johnson — Kris Letang

Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz

Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Naturally, injuries have been a factor for the Penguins’ defense (and also goalies including Matt Murray). Moving past players who have worked past injuries like Letang and Schultz, Pittsburgh has some significant blueliners on the shelf. It’s possible Brian Dumoulin may return with time to shake off rust before the playoffs, while rookie revelation John Marino is recovery from surgery after a wayward puck broke bones in his cheek.

In other words … the Penguins’ defense could continue to look quite different as things go along, much like their forward groups.

Despite all that turbulence, the Penguins figure to be a formidable opponent, particularly after stocking up with Zucker, Sheary, Marleau, and Rodrigues in recent times. Catch your first look at that new-look group against the Kings on Wednesday on NBCSN.

More: Kings aim to upset Penguins

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.

Penguins, Murray hold on to beat Capitals: 4 takeaways

If the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to catch the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division race they are going to have to take advantage of the four head-to-head meetings they have over the next two months. Sunday in Washington they played the first of those games, and it was the Penguins getting a hard fought 4-3 win.

The Penguins are now four points back of the Capitals in the standings while also having one game in hand.

Here is what stood out from Sunday’s game.

1. Matt Murray came up big for the Penguins in the third period

Yes he allowed three goals and had some help from his goal post on one or two occasions, but he was a game-changer for the Penguins in the third period where the Capitals owned a 14-5 shots advantage and carried the play as they tried to complete the comeback. After a slow start to the regular season Murray is starting to get his game going in the right direction. With Sunday’s win he has now won six decisions in a row and is 7-1-0 in his past eight starts. He has a .922 save percentage during his individual winning streak. Murray and Tristan Jarry are both going to get their share of playing in the second half, and right now both are playing well.

2. The Penguins’ depth players came through again

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both had an assist and played well, but it was their depth players coming through with the actual goals. This has been a continuing trend all season, and one of the biggest reasons the Penguins have been as good as they have been. Your superstars are not going to score every night, and there has to be other options in your lineup to provide some offense.

On Sunday, it was Sam Lafferty, Dominik Simon, Patric Hornqvist, and Brandon Tanev finding the back of the net.

Lafferty’s goal came just one minute after the Capitals scored the game’s first goal and was a perfectly placed shot off the rush, beating rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov.

Tanev’s goal came with just under three minutes to play in regulation and ended up going in the books as the game-winner.

3. Lars Eller was incredible for the Capitals

Speaking of important depth players, Eller was a beast for the Capitals on Sunday. He scored two goals, hit the post on a wide open look late in the second period, and seemed to be at the center of everything positive that was happening for them. Eller is never going to be one of the first players you think of on the Capitals, but you absolutely need players like him if you are going to be a contender, and he is having an outstanding season. He has a chance to set new career highs offensively (20 goals and 45 points are within reach) and is one of their best defensive forwards and possession drivers. Everything you want in a complementary piece.

4. Of course this would be another great playoff series

It has been so long since these two teams actually played each other (Sunday’s game was their first meeting of the season) that it was easy to forget just how intense and amazing these games can be. The skill on display, the dislike they have for each other, and the way every game seems to come down to a late push at the buzzer. They have met four times in the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin era, and with the way they are playing this season a fifth matchup could be a couple of months away.

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.