Dominik Kahun

Penguins
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NHL On NBCSN: What’s behind Bryan Rust’s breakout season

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After a two-year detour the Pittsburgh Penguins have rediscovered their championship identity. They are playing fast, they revamped their defense to add mobility, and they have a balanced lineup (when healthy) with four lines that can contribute. They enter Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) as one of the league’s best teams and it is the usual suspects at the top leading the way for them.

Sidney Crosby has played like the best player in the world. Evgeni Malkin is rebounding from a down year in 2018-19 and is playing some of the best hockey of his career. Kris Letang has been great at the top of a dramatically improved defense, and Jake Guentzel was on track for a second straight 40-goal season before his injury. They also have had an infusion of young talent into the lineup (John Marino, Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun, and Teddy Blueger) to make an impact.

The surprising star of this team so far, however, has been the breakout performance of veteran forward Bryan Rust.

He enters Tuesday’s game with 21 goals and 43 total points, both of which are already new career highs. He has done that in only 35 games. That is an 82-game pace for 49 goals and 100 points!

Let’s dig into this.

Continuation of his 2018-19 finish

Rust has always been a valuable part of the Penguins’ lineup since becoming a regular in the middle of the 2015-16 season. He is an excellent defensive forward, he brings a ton of speed to the lineup, and he has always been able to chip in offense. He also has the versatility to fit into any role the team needs, whether it be as a first-line winger, a penalty killer, or a third-line winger. That solid all-around play earned him a four-year, $14 million contract extension that began a year ago.

But 30 games into that contract he scored just one goal, and it was easy to conclude that he was one of the players general manager Jim Rutherford was talking about when he criticized the team’s performance early on and that maybe some players had become content with their Stanley Cup rings and big pay days. But starting with a game on Dec. 12, 2018, Rust has been one of the most productive forwards in the entire league. He finished the 2018-19 season with 17 goals in his final 42 games (a 33-goal pace over 82 games), and in his past 77 games dating back to last season has 38 goals and 71 total points.

The Malkin effect?

Rust has spent a significant portion of his ice-time this season playing on a line next to Malkin, and there is no doubt that has helped give his production a boost. Those two have been magic together this season, and were even better when paired next to Guentzel before his injury. While it is fair to point that out, it should also be noted that a significant portion of Rust’s 5-on-5 ice-time over the previous three seasons has come on a line next to either Malkin or Crosby. So it’s not like this is the first time he’s ever played with a superstar center.

The biggest factor at play…

He is getting a more significant role in the offense

With Phil Kessel traded and all of the injuries (including Rust himself) they dealt with in the first half, the Penguins needed to someone to step in a top-line role. While Rust had seen a lot of top-line minutes in previous years, he has received consistent top-line minutes this season. That has been his role from the minute he returned to the lineup, and it has not only resulted in more time with Malkin, it has also simply resulted in more ice-time overall.

Entering play on Tuesday his ice-time average is a career-high 19:54 per game. That is a four minute per game jump from any of his previous seasons in the NHL. More ice-time means more opportunities. More opportunities more shots. All of that together means more goals.

While he has seen a slight boost to his shooting percentage (19.2 percent this season versus 12.4 percent the previous three seasons) the increased shot volume (3.1 shots per game versus 1.88 the previous three years) is probably the biggest driving factor here, and more ice-time has played a significant role in that.

The power play opportunity

Before this season Rust had played just 92 minutes on the power play in his entire career (22 seconds per game, mostly on the second unit) and had just five total power play points. This season? In 35 games he has already played 80 minutes on the power play and as of Tuesday has five goals and 12 total points on the power play.

Big picture, what you are seeing here this season is a talented player have the perfect confluence of events come together for a career year: A slight bump in shooting percentage, more ice-time, more ice-time with a great player, and an opportunity to play a meaningful role on the power play.

You should not expect him to maintain a 50-goal, 100-point pace forever, but if he keeps getting this sort of ice-time and opportunity there is every reason to believe he can continue to exceed his previous performances.

Gord Miller, Mike Milbury and AJ Mleczko will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET, hosted by Kathryn Tappen and analysts Keith Jones and Ben Lovejoy.

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 injury roundup: Jets’ Lowry out 4 weeks; Schultz, Krejci near returns

NHL Injury
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Checking in on some injury situations around the NHL…

Jets lose Adam Lowry for a minimum of four weeks

The Winnipeg Jets have won just six of their past 18 games and have been dominated in their most recent two, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks by a 12-3 margin. Not great. Also not great is the fact coach Paul Maurice announced on Monday that forward Adam Lowry is going to be sidelined for a minimum of four weeks due to an upper-body injury.

Lowry isn not a big driver of the team’s offense (only four goals and 10 total points in 47 games) but he is a good defensive forward and a big loss for a team that doesn’t have a lot of depth to begin with. As of Monday, the Jets are three points back of a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.

Justin Schultz game-time decision for Penguins; Dominik Kahun has concussion

The Penguins could be getting one of their top defenseman back on Tuesday when they play the Philadelphia Flyers. Justin Schultz, sidelined since Dec. 17, was a full participant in practice on Monday and is not ruling out playing on Tuesday. Schultz is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer and would no doubt love to have a big second half to boost his value. In 27 games this season he has just two goals and eight total points for the Penguins. If he is able to return it is likely that either Chad Ruhwedel or Jusso Rikkola would sit.

In other Penguins injury news, coach Mike Sullivan announced on Monday that forward Dominik Kahun is going to be sidelined with a concussion that he suffered in Sunday’s come-from-behind win against the Boston Bruins. Kahun has been a great addition to the Penguins lineup this season bringing some much-needed youth, speed, and two-way play to their forward group. He has 10 goals and 27 total points in 48 games this season. Dominik Simon was also injured on Sunday, but was at practice on Monday and is considered a game-time decision for Tuesday.

Krejci back at practice for Bruins

After missing the past two games an upper-body injury, veteran forward David Krejci was back at Bruins practice on Monday in a non-contact jersey. Coach Bruce Cassidy said Krejci will “give it a go” in the morning skate on Tuesday before their game against Vegas, but there is no guarantee he can play.

Following Tuesday’s game the Bruins will have nine days off before their next game.

Starting goalie Tuukka Rask was also back on the ice on Monday and skated on his own before practice. He has been sidelined with a concussion after being hit in the head by Columbus’ Emil Benstrom. He is also not expected to play on Tuesday against the Golden Knights.

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 rally from 3-goal deficit to stun Bruins: 3 takeaways

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins erased a three-goal first period deficit against the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon to pick up a 4-3 win. The Penguins have shown an ability to rally all season, but their first period performance on Sunday, combined with the dominance of the Bruins, made it seem like this one might be a little too much to overcome.

It was not.

Here is how they did it.

1. Matt Murray and Jack Johnson bounced back

Murray and Johnson were at the center of the Penguins’ early struggles on Sunday as Boston jumped out to a 2-0 lead just two minutes into the game.

The first goal came just 11 seconds into the game when Johnson got caught out of position and left Patrice Bergeron wide open for a shot that he buried behind Murray. Two minutes later, Anders Bjork took advantage of another defensive breakdown to score his eighth goal of the season.

Just after that Murray received a mock cheer from the sellout crowd when he stopped a rolling puck from the neutral zone.  Things only got worse when David Pastrnak scored his 37th goal of the season thanks to some help from Johnson who accidentally knocked Pastrnak’s centering attempt into his own net.

“I had a feeling [Pastrnak] was going to throw it across the goal line to the guy on the backside,” said Johnson. “You have to try and stop it and lay it in the pads. You can’t let it go through or deflect it into the slot. It’s a tough bounce.”

It would have been easy for Penguins coach Mike Sullivan to make a goaltending change at that point but he decided to stick with Murray. He was rewarded for it. Murray was not only perfect for the remainder of the game, he actually finished with a very strong .918 save percentage and made some huge saves in the second and third period to keep the Penguins in it.

He has been relegated to backup duty for most of the past two months behind All-Star Tristan Jarry. But the Penguins know they will need both goalies this season and have tried to get Murray more playing time recently to get him back on track. He has now won each of his past four starts with strong numbers.

While Murray was bouncing back in net, Johnson made up for his first period own goal by scoring the game-tying goal early in the third period with a booming shorthanded slap shot.

2. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin dominated

The Penguins’ superstar center duo did not finish with huge numbers (Crosby had two assists; Malkin had one assist) but there was no denying the impact they had on this game.

Crosby helped start the Penguins’ rally late in the first period when he set up Dominik Simon for the Penguins’ first goal.

Just 33 seconds into the second period he added another ridiculous pass to his highlight reel when he did this.

Crosby now has eight points in four games since returning to the lineup.

Malkin, meanwhile, was a constant threat all day and finally made an impact on the scoreboard when he set up Bryan Rust on this play late in the third period.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan praised Malkin’s effort and the message it sends to the rest of the team.

“Malkin made a great play on the game-winner.” said Sullivan. “He gets in on the forecheck, it’s just a hard-working goal. When you have one of your best players and a leader like that step up, it speaks volumes for the leadership of the group.”

The bad news for the Penguins’ forwards on Sunday is that Simon and Dominik Kahun both exited the game with injuries.

3. The Bruins lost another three-goal lead

This is something that just does not happen to the Bruins.

Consider this stat from NHL.com’s Wes Crosby when the Bruins jumped out to their three-goal lead.

 

The concerning thing here is three of those now eight losses (one regulation and two overtime) have come since Nov. 1 of this season.

They lost in a shootout to the Florida Panthers on Nov. 12 after holding a 4-0 lead. This past week they had a 5-2 second period lead over the Philadelphia Flyers before allowing that to slip away, again losing in a shootout. Then on Sunday they turned a 3-0 first period lead into a 4-3 regulation defeat.

The Bruins are still in a good position in the Atlantic Division with a six-point lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but there are some issues here. For one, Tampa Bay is gaining ground fast. There is also the fact that Boston has cooled off considerably over the past couple of months and is just 8-7-7 in its past 22 games.

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: Hintz, Stepan highlight this week’s top adds

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

Samuel Girard, Avalanche – D: Girard has quickly risen in importance with the Avalanche, averaging 17:43 minutes in 2017-18 after being acquired from Nashville, 19:54 minutes in 2018-19, and now 21:42 minutes this season. He set a new personal best last season with 27 points, but the 21-year-old blueliner already has 22 points in 42 contests this season. That total is somewhat misleading though because an incredible eight of those points have come in his last three games. It’s worth noting that he did have four assists in eight games prior to this outburst, so he had been heating up for a bit even before this. At any rate, he’s at least worth a short-term pickup, but the rising defenseman might also have a strong enough second half to justify holding onto him for the rest of the season. If you do pick him up, I’d recommend exercising some patience with him rather than dropping him at the first sign that his hot streak has fizzled out.

Derek Stepan, Coyotes – C: Stepan had between 53-57 points in five straight campaigns from 2013-14 through 2017-18, but he dropped to 35 points last season and has just seven goals and 16 points in 44 contests in 2019-20. So to say that he has largely disappointed over the last year-and-a-half would be accurate, but he is doing a bit better lately with a goal and four points in his last three games. It’s too early to say if this will prove to be anything more than a hot streak, but one bit of good news for him is that after the Coyotes experimented with pairing Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall, the duo has been broken up with Kessel now playing alongside Stepan instead. Stepan is a gamble, but there’s enough upside here to at least make him worth keeping a close eye on right now.

Elvis Merzlikins, Blue Jackets – G: Earlier this season Merzlikins couldn’t seem to buy a win, then Joonas Korpisalo suffered a torn meniscus and suddenly the Blue Jackets needed Merzlikins to step up. Merzlikins has largely answered the call, stopping 36 of 37 shots on Dec. 31 and 25 of 26 shots on Jan. 2 to collect his first two career NHL victories. He fell short against the Sharks on Jan. 4, but he mostly held his own, saving 25 of 28 shots. With Korpisalo likely out for at least another three weeks, Merzlikins will have value for the next little while.

Filip Hronek, Red Wings – D: Hronek is having a really good season with just one glaring exception. He started the season alright with three points in eight games before really taking off with four goals and 10 points in 14 contests from Oct. 22-Nov. 21. That led into the aforementioned exception where he had no points and a horrendous minus-11 rating in six games, but he’s bounced right back with three goals and 10 points in his last 13 contests. Given that he’s been more hit-than-miss this season and consider his recent success, he’s a pretty solid defenseman to own. He’s only taken in 27% of Yahoo leagues so the chances of you being able to claim him are rather good.

Ondrej Palat, Lightning – LW: Palat is having a hot-and-cold season with his latest drought coming from Nov. 27-Dec. 17 when he was limited to a goal and no assists in 11 games. Since then he’s scored three goals and nine points in nine games. Feel free to pick him up while he’s producing, but given how 2019-20 has gone, it wouldn’t be surprising if those who grab him end up dropping him in a couple weeks.

Dominik Kahun, Penguins – LW: The loss of Jake Guentzel for the remainder of the season was a major blow to the Penguins, but they have no choice but to move on and attempt to fill the void. Kahun is one of the players who has an opportunity with Guentzel out. The Penguins have been experimenting with using Kahun on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust, which was Guentzel’s spot prior to the injury. Kahun’s new role hasn’t resulted in any points yet, but he has been a solid contributor this season with 21 points in 41 contests despite being limited to 13:14 minutes per game. With increased responsibilities, he could be a pretty solid fantasy option in the second half of the season.

Sami Vatanen, Devils– D: Vatanen has been a silver lining in what has been a largely disappointing campaign for the Devils. With five goals and 22 points in 37 games, he’s bounced back nicely from his 17-point 2018-19 campaign. He’s hot right now with a goal and nine points in nine games, but he was doing alright even before that. I’ve said before that I see him more short-term pickup and I’d still lean more towards classifying him as that, but I don’t he’d be a bad defenseman to hold onto if you are hurting in that position.

Roope Hintz, Stars – C/LW: The Stars are on a four-game winning streak and Hintz has done his part with two goals and five points in that span. His ice time has been all over the place this season and what’s interesting that he’s averaged just 12:55 minutes over his last four games, but he’s still be used with the man advantage. That power-play ice time has been critical to his recent success. He has three power-play points and one shorthanded assist over his last four games, leaving him with just one even-strength point. The Stars next two games are against Los Angeles and Anaheim, which rank 28th and 21st respectively when it comes to killing penalties, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see Hintz find more success on the power play in the near future.

Patric Hornqvist, Penguins – RW: Hornqvist is a known entity at this point. He’s a not spectacular, but reliable scorer. This season injuries have gotten in the way, but he’s been solid when healthy with nine goals and 15 points in 25 contests. Now that he’s healthy, he’s worth grabbing if you have a hole in RW that needs plugging because while he’s not exciting, he’s fairly safe.

Dominik Kubalik, Blackhawks – LW/RW: Kubalik had six goals and 10 points in 27 contests to start the season, which is solid for a rookie, but nothing particularly special by fantasy standards. Lately he’s stepped up though with six goals and 12 points in his last 14 contests. His increase in production also corresponds with his growing role. He’s averaged 14:28 minutes over his most recent 14 games, up from 12:29 minutes prior to that. Kubalik has routinely played alongside Jonathan Toews lately, which helps matters. Although it’s rarer, occasionally the third player on that line is Patrick Kane. In other words, Kubalik has been handed a pretty good opportunity lately and he’s taken advantage of it.

Players You May Want To Drop

Alex Galchenyuk, Penguins – LW:  I mentioned above that Kahun is filling in for Guentzel on the Malkin line, but Galchenyuk was also tried on that line. That didn’t last long though. Galchenyuk logged just 9:22 minutes on Jan. 4 and 10:29 minutes on Jan. 5 and unsurprisingly had no points over that span. He’s been a big disappointment this season and if you grabbed him after Guentzel’s injury in the hopes that Galchenyuk would play a bigger role, you can drop him again.

James van Riemsdyk, Flyers – LW: van Riemsdyk has been hot-and-cold this season with his latest hot streak being particularly good. He had eight goals and 14 points in 13 contests from Nov. 27-Dec. 23. That the problem that he hasn’t recorded a single point in the five games that have followed. He’s worth keeping an eye on so you can scoop him up when he starts scoring again, but for now you may as well drop him.

Christian Dvorak, Coyotes – C/LW: Dvorak scored three goals and 14 points in 17 contests from Nov. 18-Dec. 22, but he’s otherwise been pretty underwhelming this season. Lately, he’s recorded just a goal and an assist in six games. He’s a pretty borderline player in standard leagues under normal circumstances, having never recorded more than 37 points in a single season. If you picked him up while he was hot, you may want to re-evaluate your options.

Calle Jarnkrok, Predators – LW/RW: Jarnkrok was a great option from Nov. 21-Dec. 17 with six goals and 13 points in 13 contests. He hasn’t done much since then though. Over his last eight games he’s registered just two assists. Given that he’s usually not a great offensive force, it’s reasonable to drop him now that he’s cooled down.

Justin Faulk, Blues – D: Faulk was typically good for at least 30 points per season when he was with the Carolina Hurricanes, but he has just three goals and 12 points in 43 contests in his first season with St. Louis. It doesn’t help that Faulk has averaged a modest 1:21 power-play minutes this season. By contrast, he averaged 2:56 power-play minutes in 2018-19 with Carolina. As a result, Faulk has just two power-play points this season, which is part of the reason for his underwhelming production this season. He did record two goals and five points in seven games from Dec. 12-27, which likely led to an uptick in people picking him up during that span, but he’s cooled down again and probably won’t be a major contributor going forward.

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.