Dominik Kahun

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.

The Buzzer: Eichel scores 4; Milestones for Stamkos, Coach Q

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres. Entering play on Saturday the Sabres had lost seven of eight, were riding a six-game losing streak, and needed something to go their way to get things back on track. Their captain came to the rescue in a big way. Eichel scored four goals and provided all of the offense for the Sabres in a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. It was the 10th four-goal game in Sabres franchise history and the first since Thomas Vanek did it during the 2009-10 season. It is already the the fourth four-goal game in the NHL this season, joining David Pastrnak, Anthony Mantha, and James Neal.

2. Derek Grant, Anaheim Ducks. Sometimes you need an unlikely hero to step up and the Ducks got that on Saturday when Grant scored three goals for his first career hat trick in a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues. The win snapped what had been a nine-game point streak for the Blues, as well as a five-game losing streak for the Ducks. Entering Saturday Grant had scored just two goals on the season and only 18 in 228 career games.

3. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche. The absence of linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog has not slowed down MacKinnon one bit. He took over on Saturday night with two goals — including the overtime winner — and an assist in a 5-4 win for the Avalanche. His overtime goal was a highlight reel tally that helped the Avalanche secure the two points after allowing a two-goal lead to disappear in the final three minutes of regulation. He is now up to 29 points in his first 20 games this season and has three three-point games over the past five. Rookie defenseman Cale Makar also deserves some attention for his four-point game.

Two big milestones

Stamkos scores 400th goal. It came in a losing effort, but Steven Stamkos scored the 400th goal of his career on Saturday. It is a great accomplishment for one of the best goal-scorers of this era, and it also produces a pretty big “what if” question — how many goals would he have today had he not missed so many games in his peak seasons to significant injuries and a lockout? The only active player to hit the 400 goal mark in fewer games than Stamkos is Alex Ovechkin.

Quenneville wins 900th regular season game. Thanks to the Florida Panthers’ 4-3 win over the New York Rangers, Joel Quenneville became only the second coach in NHL history to record 900 regular season wins. Scotty Bowman is the only other coach to hit that number.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • The Pittsburgh Penguins extended the Toronto Maple Leafs’ losing streak to five games in a dominant win. Evgeni Malkin and Dominik Kahun were the offensive stars for the Penguins as they dominated a Maple Leafs team that continues to look completely lost. Read all about this game here.
  • The Dallas Stars received big contributions from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn as they overcame a two-goal third period deficit to beat the Edmonton Oilers in overtime. Read about how Seguin and Benn were difference-makers here.
  • Arizona Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper stopped all 38 shots he faced for his second shutout of the season. He also nearly sparked a goalie fight by slamming Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk to the ice. Read all about that game right here.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks no doubt remembered Pekka Rinne talking about what an “easy” game he had the first time he faced them this season. His night on Saturday was even easier because he only made it through half the game before being benched in a 7-2 rout. Alex Nylander scored two goals for the Blackhawks in the win.
  • Evgenii Dadonov scored two goals for the Panthers in their 4-3 win over the Rangers.
  • Andrei Svechnikov continued his strong sophomore season with an overtime winner for the Carolina Hurricanes. He is now up to nine goals this season.
  • Big win for the Winnipeg Jets against the Tampa Bay Lightning to improve to 8-3-1 in their past 12 games and remain surprisingly competitive in the NHL’s Central Division.
  • Here come the Sharks. Their 4-3 shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings improved their winning streak to six games.

Highlights of the Night

The New York Islanders’ point streak hit 14 games on Saturday (13-0-1) thanks to an incredible rally that saw them overcome a 3-0 deficit against the Philadelphia Flyers. Mathew Barzal scored the shootout winner and it was an absolute beauty of a goal.

The best shootout goal of the night, though, belonged to Washington Capitals forward Jakub Vrana for this Datsyuk-ian dangle to beat Jaroslav Halak in the fifth round of the shootout against the Boston Bruins. The Capitals won to improve to 14-3-4 on the season. That is the best record in the NHL.

We told you MacKinnon’s overtime winner was incredible, and here it is.

Blooper of the Night

It probably has to be that bizarre disallowed goal in Montreal where Phillip Danault, capping off a chaotic scramble around the goal line. Read all about it here.

Factoids

  • Jonathan Huberdeau now has more assists than any player in Panthers history. [NHL PR]
  • Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the third set of teammates in the past 30 years to have at least 40 points through their team’s first 22 games of the season. [NHL PR]
  • Los Angeles Kings forward Jeff Carter skated in his 1,000th career game on Saturday, making him the 11th player from the 2003 draft class to reach that milestone. The only other draft class with that many was the 1979 draft class. The Kings were 4-3 winners over the Vegas Golden Knights on Carter’s big day. [NHL PR]

Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 4, Minnesota Wild 3 (OT)
Los Angeles Kings 4, Vegas Golden Knights 3
Dallas Star 5, Edmonton Oilers 4 (OT)
Arizona Coyotes 3, Calgary Flames 0
Winnipeg Jets 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 3
Washington Capitals 3, Boston Bruins 2 (SO)
Buffalo Sabres 4, Ottawa Senators 2
New Jersey Devils 4, Montreal Canadiens 3 (OT)
Florida Panthers 4, New York Rangers 3
New York Islanders, Philadelphia 3 (SO)
Pittsburgh Penguins 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 1
Anaheim Ducks 4, St. Louis Blues 1
Chicago Blackhawks 7, Nashville Predators 2
Colorado Avalanche 5, Vancouver Canucks 4 (OT)
San Jose Sharks 4, Detroit Red Wings 3 (SO)

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.

The Buzzer: van Riemsdyk helps Flyers rally; Drouin continues great start

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Three Stars

1. James van Riemsdyk, Philadelphia Flyers. With less than 10 minutes to play the Flyers trailed by a pair of goals and looked to be headed to a tough a loss against the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was at that point that they rallied with five goals in the remaining nine minutes to steal a 7-4 win and win their third game in a row. van Riemsdyk was one of the many stars for the Flyers, scoring a pair of goals and adding an assist in the win. His second goal of the game was the game-tying goal late in the third period.

2. Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens. Big win for the Canadiens on Saturday night as they handed their arch-rivals from Toronto a 5-2 loss. Drouin played the starring role with a pair of goals to continue what has been a great start to the season for him. He is now up to five goals and 10 total points in the Canadiens’ first 11 games and looks like he could be on his way to a much-needed breakout season in Montreal.

3. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators. Josi has been outstanding for Nashville so far this season and had one of his best games on Saturday with a goal and two assists in a come-from-behind 3-2 overtime win against the Tampa Bay Lightning. That performance gives him 13 points on the season and puts him in a tie for the team lead in scoring alongside Ryan Ellis. That puts the Predators in the rather uncommon position of having their top two-scorers both being defenders.

Other notable performances on Saturday

  • Andrei Svechnikov scored a pair of goals for the Carolina Hurricanes as they handed the disappointing Chicago Blackhawks another defeat. Read all about the Blackhawks’ struggles here.
  • David Pastrnak scored his league-leading 11th goal and Tuukka Rask recorded his second shutout of the season to help the Boston Bruins defeat the St. Louis Blues in a Stanley Cup Final rematch. Read more about it here.
  • The Pittsburgh Penguins were able to get a couple of forwards — Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad — back on Saturday night and they made an immediate impact. Rust scored one of their goals in a 3-0 win over the Dallas Stars. Matt Murray stopped all 25 shots he faced to record the shutout.
  • Alex Stalock stopped 30 shots and five different Minnesota Wild players scored goals in a 5-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings.
  • Adam Henrique scored his sixth goal of the season for the Anaheim Ducks as they picked up an impressive 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche.
  • Josh Morrissey and Bryan Little scored the goals for the Winnipeg Jets as they rallied late to defeat the Calgary Flames in the 2019 Heritage Classic in Regina, Saskatchewan. Read more about the game here.

Highlights of the Night

Kevin Hayes was one of the Flyers’ big offseason acquisitions, signing a massive contract after his free agent rights were acquired in a trade. He made a big impact on Saturday, scoring a shorthanded game-winning goal. It was an absolutely beautiful play, too.

Speaking of beautiful game-winning goals, here is Montreal’s Joel Armia scoring just seven seconds into the third period against Toronto.

Ellis scored the game-winning goal for Nashville on the power play, and he made it look easy.

Blooper of the Night

Dominik Kahun scored his first goal as a member of the Penguins on Saturday night and it officially goes in the books as the game-winning goal. It was a pretty bizarre play.

Factoids

  • The bright spot for the Avalanche on Saturday is Nathan MacKinnon extending his season-opening point streak to 11 games, the fifth-longest in franchise history and longest since the team relocated to Denver. [NHL PR]
  • Pastrnak is the eight player in the past 27 years to score at least 11 goals in his team’s first 10 games. [NHL PR]
  • Dougie Hamilton has 12 points for the Hurricanes in their first 11 games, the most for a Hurricanes/Whalers defender through the same number of games since the 1984-85 season. [NHL PR]
  • Saturday was the anniversary of Wayne Gretzky, then a member of the Los Angeles Kings, becoming the first and only player in NHL history to record his 2,000th career point. [NHL PR]
  • Flames goalie David Rittich stopped 43 out of 45 shots on Saturday night, the most saves ever made by a goalie in an NHL outdoor game. It is also one save shy of his career high. [NHL PR]

Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 4, Chicago Blackhawks 0
Boston Bruins 3, St. Louis Blues 0
Montreal Canadiens 5, Toronto Maple Leafs 2
Nashville Predators 3, Tampa Bay Lightning 2 (OT)
Philadelphia Flyers 7, Columbus Blue Jackets 4
Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Dallas Stars 0
Minnesota Wild 5, Los Angeles Kings 1
Anaheim Ducks 5, Colorado Avalanche 2
Winnipeg Jets 2, Calgary Flames 1 (OT)

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Jets not sweating RFA deals; Orpik’s new role with Capitals

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Training camp is just days away and Winnipeg Jets forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor remain unsigned. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is not yet sweating it. (Winnipeg Sun)

• After winning a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals, Brooks Orpik has taken on a new player development role with the Capitals and will work with defenders. (Washington Capitals)

• Sabres coach Ralph Krueger expects defender Rasmus Ristolainen to be in camp when it begins this week. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Darren Dreger believes that unless something drastic changes with Mitch Marner‘s contract negotiations before the third week of this month he is expecting the RFA forward to travel to Switzerland to train with the Zurich Lions. (TSN)

• Exploring some bottom-six options for the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. (St. Louis Game Time)

• After having no captain for the 2018-19 season, will the Vancouver Canucks name one this season? (Pass It To Bulis)

• Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby reflects as he closes in on 1,000 games played. (Sportsnet)

• What is Dominik Kahun‘s long-term upside for the Penguins? (Pensburgh)

• NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan talks Twitch deal, interactivity, and making fun contagious. (The Hockey News)

• Tampa Bay Lightning defender Mikhail Sergachev used his time off to see the world. (Tampa Bay Times)

• How San Jose Barracuda players deal with the high cost of living in San Jose. (EP Rinkside)

• Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid said over the weekend his knee feels great but he is not sure about his availability for opening night. (Edmonton Sun)

• Dale Hawerchuk takes leave of absence from the Barrie Colts for health reasons. (CBC)

• San Jose Sharks defender Erik Karlsson says his injured groin is “back to normal” after surgery. (NBC Bay Area)

• Another Anaheim Ducks perspective on that potential Justin Faulk trade we wrote about on Monday. (Anaheim Calling)

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 trade Maatta to Blackhawks for Kahun, draft pick

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made it clear that changes were coming to his team this offseason.

On Saturday evening he made his first one.

The Penguins announced that they have traded defender Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for forward Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round draft pick that originally belonged to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It is a trade that accomplishes quite a bit for both teams.

First, from the Pittsburgh side, it clears up a log-jam the team had on its blue line with as many as eight NHL defenders either under contract or under team control (Marcus Pettersson is a restricted free agent) for this season. That alone made it seem likely that someone was going to be on the move, and especially after the team’s defensive play regressed again this past season and had a particularly brutal playoff run against the New York Islanders. By trading Maatta, it not only clears a roster spot but also sheds more than $3 million in salary cap space given that Kahun is still on an entry-level contract and counts only $925,000 against the cap for the 2019-20 season.

It also gives them some much-needed youth at forward.

Even after Maatta’s departure the Penguins still have a lot of questions to deal with on defense, where Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson are still taking up more than $7 million in salary cap space over the next few seasons (not ideal!), while Justin Schultz is an unrestricted free agent after this season. Will more players be on the move to address that position? Or does this just make it more likely the returning players take on bigger roles and are more set in the lineup? Based on what we have seen the past few seasons more changes are going to be needed.

The 23-year-old Kahun scored 13 goals and added 24 assists for the Blackhawks in 82 games this past season, his first full year in the NHL.

The addition of the draft pick also gives the Penguins six picks in this year’s draft: A first, a fourth, two fifths, and two sevenths.

As for Chicago, Maatta joins a defense that has needed an overhaul for a few years now and provides a fresher, younger face in the lineup. Even though Maatta has six years of NHL experience under his belt he will still only be 25 years old when the 2019-20 season begins. His career has gone through some extreme ups and downs. When he made his debut during the 2013-14 season he looked like a player that had legitimate top-pairing potential in the NHL could be on his way to becoming a cornerstone player in Pittsburgh. But in the years that followed he had to overcome cancer and an extensive list of injuries that sidetracked his career and led to some pretty significant regressions across the board. Injuries have still been an issue before him in recent seasons, but he seems to have understood his limitations and adjusted to the sort of game he has to play to make a positive impact.

He is not going to bring much speed to the Blackhawks’ blue line, and he tends to play a more conservative game when it comes to defending entries at the blue line, but he is a sound player in his own end and while he lacks top-end speed, is still very good with the puck on his stick. When he is at his best, he plays a clean, quiet game that will not get noticed (and there is nothing wrong with that; not everyone is going to be Erik Karlsson).

The problem is he is still prone to getting beat by faster forwards and when it happens it can at times look bad, which then leads to criticism.

He appeared in 60 games for the Penguins in 2018-19, scoring one goal and 14 total points. He averages around five goals and 25 total points over 82 games.

He has three years remaining on a contract that carries a salary cap hit of just over $4 million per season. He alone is not going to fix all of the Blackhawks’ shortcomings on defense, but he is not a bad addition, either.

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.