Erik Gudbranson

Penguins’ injury problems keep piling up

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Well, at least the Pittsburgh Penguins won one of their first three games.

That’s the most positive thing you could probably muster for a team that’s fighting it right now.

It’s somewhat amusing that, while it was surprising that the Winnipeg Jets beat the Penguins 4-1 with a decimated defense on Tuesday, the Penguins are keeping their medical staff pretty busy lately, too.

In Pittsburgh’s case, the injuries are piling up mostly on the forward side.

We already found out that Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad are expected to be out long-term, and while updates softened that term to be more about weeks than months, it still puts the Penguins in a bind. Injuries keep stacking up from both a quantity and quality standpoint; the team announced that Alex Galchenyuk has been placed (at least briefly) on IR, forcing a call-up of Adam Johnson. While Galchenyuk carried an issue into the regular season and likely re-aggravated it, Patric Hornqvist was shaken up while getting hit by a puck working in the “dirty areas” where he both thrives and often gets hurt.

About the only good news is that Galchenyuk and Hornqvist might be dealing with issues that are more minor.

Oh yeah, the Penguins are also dealing with an injury to occasionally hyper-clutch forward Bryan Rust so … yeah, this is all a lot.

If you look at the Penguins’ current line combinations at Left Wing Lock, it becomes obvious how much things will fall upon Sidney Crosby‘s shoulders, and also to Matt Murray. While Jake Guentzel and Dominik Simon make for a respectable set of wings around Crosby, there’s not a lot of scoring punch beyond that top line.

That defense also looks rough, even more or less at full-strength.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie brought up an interesting report in a recent edition of Insider Trading: the Penguins have been shopping oft-criticized defensemen Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson, both before the season and amid these injury headaches.

Really, if there’s any time the Penguins could get Johnson and/or Gudbranson off the books, that would likely be wise. It’s possible that, particularly with Johnson, it could be a case of “addition by subtraction.” Beyond that, they clog up quite a bit of the Penguins’ cap, which is relevant as Pittsburgh is one of the many contenders who are always wiggling to try to stay under the ceiling. Johnson, 32, would be a drag at his $3.25M AAV for just 2019-20; his contract is pretty terrifying when you realize it runs through 2022-23. Gudbranson is more palatable being that there have been flashes of competence during his short time with the Penguins, and also that he’s younger (27) and not under contract for as much term ($4M AAV through 2020-21), but chances are strong that the Penguins would be better off flipping him if they can add more viable talent — or even just clear some room to target that help closer to, say, the trade deadline.

Either way, it’s a messy situation, mixing the Penguins’ self-inflicted wounds of making some bad moves in recent years, and bad injury luck that strikes teams both wise and foolish.

There’s a chance that both Galchenyuk and Hornqvist could be back soon, possibly against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday, but this remains a Penguins team that’s limping through the early goings of the 2019-20 season.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Malkin hopes Penguins get ‘wake-up call’ after awful opener

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It was almost fitting that former Penguins forward Conor Sheary did some of the greatest damage as the Buffalo Sabres beat Pittsburgh 3-1 on Thursday night.

The Penguins have been bleeding talent in a disturbing way over the last few years, thanks in part to GM Jim Rutherford’s pursuit of grit, even when it comes at the cost of skill. Sheary’s two goals were just the latest reminder of a purge that continues to chip away at the support structure around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Jake Guentzel, and precious few other players who can move the needle in the right direction.

As The Athletic’s Josh Yohe reports (sub required), Malkin was fuming after Thursday’s ugly loss.

“They (the Sabres) were hungry,” Malkin said. “They played so much faster. I think we only played for 30 minutes. We take a couple bad penalties, and they changed (the) game. Again, (it’s) a young league right now — we need to play hungry, we need to play faster, every puck, we need to win. It’s not good for us how we played. We need to change.”

Malkin said that he hopes that defeat serves as a “wake-up call,” and notes that the Penguins need to take every opponent seriously, whether that opponent is Buffalo or Washington.

While it’s just one game, it’s fair to wonder: the Penguins want to change, but how much can they? How much of their struggles come down to management’s shaky bets on players who are possession black holes, or role players being paid like mid-lineup fixtures?

The numbers from Thursday’s games were downright disturbing.

You can even just look at it with a naked eye, noting that the Sabres — not exactly a possession juggernaut for, oh, the last decade — generated a lopsided 41-29 shots on goal advantage, even though the Penguins received five power-play opportunities (going 1-for-5) while the Sabres only had two (1-for-2).

The deeper you dig, the more troubling the numbers get.

Via Natural Stat Trick, there are some even-strength stats that are a cause for some concern:

  • The Sabres generated a ridiculous 11-1 advantage in high-danger chances.
  • Buffalo also doubled Pittsburgh’s scoring chances at 30-15.
  • Only one Penguins player finished the game above .500 in Corsi For Percentage (Kris Letang at 52.78). This is especially surprising because Sidney Crosby was such a two-way beast last season, rightfully earning some Selke buzz.
  • The pairing of Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz was especially brutal.

Last season was rough for Schultz, but it was fair to chalk at least some of those struggles up to injury issues. If that’s a sign of more to come for Pittsburgh, then that’s disturbing, especially since the Penguins lost another defensive option by trading away Olli Maatta. Either way, Johnson continues to be a disaster for Pittsburgh, and the team needs to do soul-searching about whether or not he should even draw a regular spot in the lineup, even as a bottom-pairing option.

Erik Gudbranson seemingly had a new lease on life when he landed with the Penguins, and that will be an interesting situation to watch. (Gudbranson had a rough Thursday, although he was decent relative to certain teammates.)

***

Again, this was just one game. Malkin preemptively chided a viewpoint that the Penguins could have “20 games to wake up,” but it’s also true that Pittsburgh’s been in tough spots during plenty of seasons of the Malkin – Crosby era, only to find ways to finish strong and at least make the playoffs.

Of course, when you have players like Crosby and Malkin, merely making the playoffs isn’t good enough.

That said, it looks like making the playoffs also might not be easy, either. Again.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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 re-sign Marcus Pettersson to bargain one-year deal

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All offseason the Pittsburgh Penguins’ goal was to get defender Marcus Pettersson re-signed to a long-term contract. But due to the team’s always cramped position just under the NHL’s salary cap, and without another trade to create more space, they had to settle for a shorter deal.

On Thursday the Penguins announced that they have re-signed Pettersson to a one-year contract that will pay him $874,125.

It is a short-term steal for the Penguins, but if Pettersson is able to duplicate what he did a year ago after joining the team in a mid-season trade he is going to be in line for a significant raise next summer.

“Marcus is a smart, reliable defenseman who improved our defensive corps after coming over from Anaheim last year,” general manager Jim Rutherford said in a statement released by the team. “We are fortunate to have a good, young defenseman of his caliber in our top-six.”

The Penguins acquired Pettersson in a trade that sent Daniel Sprong to the Anaheim Ducks.

He finished the season with two goals and 23 assists in 84 games (yes, 84) split between the two teams. It is not yet known where exactly he will fit on the team’s blue line this season, but he played at his best when he was paired alongside Erik Gudbranson. Whether or not they want to go with that pairing from the start remains to be seen, but it might be their best option when it comes to assembling their best and most balanced defensive lineup given the players they have.

Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin figure to once again be the team’s top pairing.

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.

What Penguins need to become championship team again

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

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

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

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

But that alone will not be enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Three pressing questions for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Is the defense good enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Will Evgeni Malkin bounce back?

It is a good bet that he will.

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

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

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.