Penguins’ playoff exit was two years in the making

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The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from it.

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.

Carl Hagelin is just what the Capitals needed

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Carl Hagelin was made for this time of year, and after spending the bulk of his career as a thorn in the side of the Washington Capitals at playoff time, they are now going to be the team benefitting from the unique brand of chaos he can create.

So far, he has been just what they needed in their quest to defend their title.

The Capitals acquired Hagelin from the Los Angeles Kings just before the NHL trade deadline in exchange for two mid-round draft picks in a trade that was probably easy to miss because, at the time, Hagelin had recorded just two goals and eight total points in 38 games that he split between the Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins. He was not lighting up the scoreboard, he had missed time due to injury, and it simply wasn’t the type of trade that was going to steal headlines, especially as bigger name players like Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, and Wayne Simmonds were moving around the league.

Sometimes, though, it can be the smaller trade that ends up making the big difference.

The thing that gets tricky about evaluating Hagelin is that he is not always going to make a huge difference in ways that you easily notice, especially when it comes to his offense. If anything, his play with the puck on his stick will do more to frustrate you than impress you because he is the master of the “create a great scoring chance but never capitalize on it” play.

His speed will cause havoc for opposing defenders, he will find himself on at least one or two breakaways per week, and he will score the occasional goal. But you will always find yourself wanting more and wondering what sort of player he would be if he actually converted on more of the chances he always seems to create.

If he did convert on more of them he would probably be out of the Capitals’ price range under the salary cap because he does everything else so well. That “everything else” is what makes him such a valuable asset to his team this time of year.

There is always more of an emphasis on defensive play this time of year, and shoring up their own defensive play had to be a big priority for the Capitals leading up to the trade deadline. They did address that with the addition of Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings, but defensive play isn’t just about the players that play on the blue line.

Forwards also play a big role in that, and there are few in the NHL that are better without the puck than Hagelin.

He has always been an outstanding possession player and has never had a single season in his career where he finished with a Corsi Percentage lower than 50 percent. Only twice has he finished with a mark lower than 53 percent. He has also been one of the best in the NHL when it comes to shot-suppression and scoring chance differentials.

Some numbers for you to consider.

First, here is where Hagelin ranks among the 510 forwards that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time since the start of the 2016-17 season. He is among the top-10 percent of the league in shot attempt differential (CF%), fewest shot attempts against per 60 minutes (CA/60), and scoring chance differential (SC%)…

This season alone he is among the top-50 in all three categories among 348 forwards.

Now let’s look at the penalty kill and his ranks among the 160 forwards that have logged at least 200 PK minutes since the start of the 2016-17 season when it comes to preventing shot attempts, shots on goal and scoring chances, which are all the biggest factors in killing penalties and the best predictor of future penalty killing success.

Again, he is among the most elite forwards in the league.

When you hear about shutdown forwards, this is what you should be envisioning.

His addition has also helped make the Capitals forward lineup far deeper than it was earlier in the season.

Since arriving he has spent a significant portion of his ice-time skating on the third line alongside Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, a trio that has been fairly dominant since they have been assembled. Hagelin alone has already matched (or exceeded) his own individual production from what he did in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, and the line as a whole has been great. In more than 90 minutes the Capitals are controlling more than 62 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, while also outscoring teams by an 8-3 margin.

Compare that to what Eller and Connolly were doing without Hagelin on their wing.

Yes, those are two very different sample sizes in terms of ice-time with and without, and the former is only 90 minutes, so it might be understandable to have some skepticism with these numbers. But Hagelin has had this sort of impact on just about every line he has been a part of over the past few years. You see the impact he has had here, keep in mind that in Pittsburgh Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have had the exact opposite situation play out since Hagelin was traded.

He may not ever finish plays for himself, but he gets to loose pucks, he wins battles, he is always the safe, responsible one that makes the right plays, he is excellent defensively, and his speed causes havoc and creates space for his linemates. All of this adds up.

With Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuzetsov driving the first line, and Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie dominating on the second line, the Capitals now have three lines that can hurt their opponents. That is a big part of why they have gone 9-2-1 since the trade deadline and played like one of the best teams in the league since his arrival.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season Hagelin has played in 14 more playoff games than any other player in the NHL, and has always played beyond at least the first round in those seasons, reaching the Stanley Cup Final three times with two different teams. A lot of that is due to having the good fortune of playing on a lot of really good teams that have Hall of Famers. Obviously, he is not the only reason for that success. But it is also not just a coincidence and good fortune, either. He is definitely a part of it. Nearly a quarter of those playoff games he has played during that stretch have come against the Capitals, and he has been a big part of why his team has won three of the four series he has played against them.

Now he might be one of the reasons the Capitals have a chance to advance.

Maybe even against one of the teams he used to torment them with.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

Golden Knights, Capitals quietly on another crash course for Stanley Cup Final

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Everyone is talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning and their record-pace. The Boston Bruins are riding high with an 18-game point streak. The St. Louis Blues started from the bottom and are now in third in the Central. The Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames are all battling for their respective divisional supremacy.

Meanwhile, quietly in the nation’s capital, the Washington Capitals have won five consecutive games and are tied with the New York Islanders in points atop the Metropolitan Division. Even more quietly out in the desert, the Vegas Golden Knights have also won five straight. Does anybody remember that these were the last two teams standing last season? Because that’s what could very well happen again.

The Caps won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2015-16 and 2016-17, only to lose in the second round of the playoffs both years to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins. Last season, they won the Metropolitan again but finished third in the East before going on to win their first Cup in franchise history. They’re in a similar position this year, just two points behind Toronto for third in the conference. Perhaps being a bit under the radar is where they thrive.

Washington has also shown the ability to flip a switch and turn back into the defending champions at a moment’s notice. Take last week’s game against Ottawa for example. The Capitals found themselves down 2-0 before they could blink against the lowly Senators early in the first period. But by the time the period was over, the score was tied. By the final buzzer, Washington had won 7-2.

With a league-leading 46 goals, Alex Ovechkin is carrying the offensive load for Washington once again this season. But the Capitals’ recent 5-game winning streak has been a demonstration of the depth that carried them to the Cup last year, as 13 different players have scored a goal and 18 players have registered a point in that span. At the trade deadline, general manager Brian MacLellan did well to bolster that depth by adding defenseman Nick Jensen and forward Carl Hagelin, who have both already made contributions during their brief time in D.C.

Of course, the biggest difference between this Washington team and the one that hoisted the Cup is behind the bench. At the moment, former Capitals coach Barry Trotz and his Islanders seem to be the only thing standing between Todd Reirden and the franchise winning a fourth straight division title.

Out west, while Calgary and San Jose jockey for first place in the Pacific, Vegas has a stranglehold on third in the division. That means they’ll play whichever team finishes second between the Flames and the Sharks in the First Round, a tough match up for whichever team comes up short. Vegas has not lost since the trade deadline, Mark Stone seems to be gelling nicely with the now-healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny, and Marc-Andre Fleury is playing like the Fleury of last postseason, stopping 109 of the 111 shots he faced during his four straight wins.

Very few expected last year’s expansion Vegas team to make a run to the Cup Final, if not for their lack of star power, then certainly for their lack of postseason experience. Well, they now have that star power and after coming three wins away from the Cup last season, there is no lack of playoff wisdom on this Golden Knights roster. Even their new pieces like Stone (2017 with Ottawa), Pacioretty (2014 with Montreal) and Stastny (2016 with St. Louis & 2018 with Winnipeg) have all played in a Conference Final.

Given the Capitals’ previous failures in the playoffs and the Golden Knights’ infancy as a franchise, it was a bit of a shock to see them both facing off for the Stanley Cup last season. Don’t be so surprised if it happens again this year.

Hagelin’s playoff past makes him familiar with Capitals

By John Wawrow (AP Hockey Writer)

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Forward Carl Hagelin has faced Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals so often in the playoffs, the speedy, defensive specialist didn’t require an introduction upon practicing with his new teammates.

”It feels like I already know the guys on a personal level,” Hagelin said Friday after practicing for the first time with Washington after being acquired in a trade with Los Angeles a day earlier.

”I know what Washington is all about,” he added, referring to the six times he’s faced the Capitals in the playoffs during his seven NHL seasons. ”And I think, obviously, they should know what they’re getting.”

That went without saying, Capitals coach Todd Reirden said.

Reirden’s lost track how many times he’s prepped his power-play units in warning them how disruptive Hagelin can be killing penalties.

”You’ve got to be aware of this guy, so it’s nice to not have to worry about that any longer and finally have him on our team,” Reirden said.

Hagelin has played 64 career games against the Capitals, with 35 of them in the playoffs. That included 2016 and ’17, when the Penguins eliminated the Capitals on their way to winning back to back championships.

Hagelin received a stick-tap welcome from his teammates at center before practice, and then took a spot on the fourth line alongside Nic Dowd and Chandler Stephenson. Hagelin will make his Capitals’ debut Saturday, when Washington closes a six-game road trip at Buffalo.

The defending Stanley Cup champions placed a premium in shoring up their leaky penalty killing unit in the days leading up to the NHL trade deadline on Monday.

Aside from landing Hagelin, Washington acquired defenseman Nick Jensen on Friday in a trade with the Detroit Red Wings. The Capitals sent a 2020 second-round pick and defenseman Madison Bowey to Detroit for Jensen and a 2019 fifth-round pick.

The Capitals are so high on Jensen, who was in the final year of his contract, they signed him to a four-year, $10 million extension a few hours after completing the trade.

The 28-year-old Jensen is a late-blooming right-handed shooter who is averaging a career-high 20:48 of ice time, and playing a key penalty-killing role in his third NHL season. Jensen has two goals and 13 assists for 15 points through 60 games, tying his career best with a quarter of the season left.

”We wanted to solidify some areas that we’ve been deficient at,” Reirden said in referring to both trades. ”The penalty kill is something that’s improved for us from the break, but still not where we want to have it. We have two guys that can move in that situation and help us.”

The Capitals penalty killers have allowed just four goals on their opponents’ past 21 chances, but the unit ranks 22nd in the NHL.

Reirden wasn’t sure when Jensen would join the team.

Bowey, 23, was in and out of the defending Stanley Cup champions’ lineup this season and has a goal and five assists in 33 games. He is signed through next season at a salary-cap hit of $1 million.

Hagelin joins his third team this season. He began the year with Pittsburgh before being traded to the Kings for left wing Tanner Pearson in November. He had a goal and five points in 30 games with Los Angeles and two goals and eight goals in 46 games overall this season.

On the bright side, he returns to the Eastern Conference, where he’s spent a majority of his career, including his first four seasons with the New York Rangers. And Hagelin is back in the playoff race.

The Kings are last in the West standings, while the Capitals began the day two points behind the Metropolitan Division-leading New York Islanders.

”I’ve been fortunate to play on some good teams my entire career,” said the Swedish-born Hagelin, who was selected by the Rangers in the sixth round of the 2007 draft. ”Most important right now is just making the playoffs. And you can see they have good swagger, the guys on this team, and they know what it takes to win.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Zibanejad forces OT, notches game winner as Rangers top Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins had this one right where they wanted it.

A 2-0 lead heading into the third period against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, 20 minutes away from taking sole possession of first place in the volatile Metropolitan Division.

But the Rangers, who could only hope to play the role of spoiler on during Wednesday Night Rivalry on NBCSN, did exactly that after two third-period comebacks in a 4-3 overtime win.

For the Penguins, the point was enough to move them into a tie with the Washington Capitals for first place, with Alex Ovechkin and Co. holding a game in-hand over their Metro rivals. But the Penguins won’t be looking at the silver linings after giving up 2-0 and 3-2 leads respectively in the final frame.

Pittsburgh was even gifted a glorious opportunity to break a 3-3 with 10 seconds left.

The Rangers started Alexandar Georgiev in goal, and the veteran of five NHL games nudged the net off its moorings with Pittsburgh pressing and time running down in the third. Given that it was in the final two minutes of the game, the Penguins were awarded a penalty shot.

Step up Evgeni Malkin, who was looking for No. 40 for the third time in his career. Georgiev, with an opportunity to make amends for his transgression, stuck with Malkin as he dangled in close, ultimately turning aside the attempt to force overtime.

Bryan Rust, who missed the past two games with a concussion, returned in style to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead after a scoreless first period. Riley Sheahan doubled the lead under a minute later.

Casey DeSmith wasn’t tested much during the first two periods but turned aside all 17 shots he faced through 40 minutes.

The Rangers looked like a different team in the third period. Sustained pressure forced DeSmith to make some timely saves, but the walls eventually gave way.

Chris Kreider notched his 13th followed by Jesper Fast‘s 11th to tie the game with just over five minutes to go.

Former Ranger Carl Hagelin scored just over a minute later to restore the lead for the Penguins, but the Rangers got a late power play opportunity and cashed in, with Kreider making a slick cross-ice feed to Mika Zibanejad.

And it would be Zibanejad who would have the final say in the contest, scoring at the 2:53 mark in overtime to cap off quite the comeback for the Rangers.


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