Erik Gudbranson

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Pressure is on Rutherford, Sullivan after Kessel trade

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The Phil Kessel era in Pittsburgh reached its inevitable conclusion on Saturday evening when the Penguins shipped the star winger to the Arizona Coyotes for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph. It finally ended months of rumors, speculation, and even some drama that constantly swirled around an inconsistent regular season and disappointing postseason that seemed to give management and the coaching staff an unquenchable thirst for change.

Whenever that change was discussed, everything that was talked about always made Kessel the most likely candidate to be on the move.

General manager Jim Rutherford repeatedly talked about too many players on the team becoming too comfortable and complacent.

There was talk about commitment and “playing the right way.”

There were salary cap concerns as the Penguins were once again pressed firmly against the ceiling and having little flexibility to make the changes they wanted to make.

Then there was the seemingly tumultuous relationship between Kessel and head coach Mike Sullivan as the two did not always see eye-to-eye.

After trying to send Kessel to the Minnesota Wild earlier this summer, only to have Kessel utilize his no-trade clause and block the deal, Rutherford finally found a match with the Coyotes, reuniting Kessel and Rick Tocchet, his former assistant coach in Pittsburgh.

Kessel and Rutherford seemed to disagree over the nature of the departure, with Rutherford saying on Saturday that Kessel had requested a trade during the season, and Kessel simply saying that is not how it happened. Who is telling the truth is anyone’s guess, but now that the trade is completed the how and why is mostly irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what the Penguins’ roster now looks like and what they do in the coming weeks and months (and years) to make it better.

In the short-term it is almost impossible to argue that the roster is better from a talent standpoint.

[Related: Penguins send Kessel to Coyotes for Galchenyuk]

That puts a ton of pressure on Rutherford and Sullivan because they now have some big tests ahead of them, and they are going to need to be right every step of the way.

The popular sentiment coming out of Pittsburgh in the immediate aftermath is the Penguins probably did better than expected given how little leverage they had in trying to make a Kessel trade. It was obvious the Penguins were motivated to move him and he had significant control over where he went, reportedly loading his approved trade list with teams he knew the Penguins would not trade him to. If I were a betting man, I would wager that list included a lot of Metropolitan Division teams, as well as maybe Boston and Toronto, Kessel’s two previous stops in the NHL. That certainly put them in a corner.

Getting a good NHL player and promising prospect in that context probably is a pretty decent haul if you were hellbent on trading him.

But you don’t win championships or give yourself a chance to win championships by simply doing better than everyone expected you to do when trading an elite offensive player.

You win championships by having better players than everybody else. That is now the short-term problem for the Penguins.

At this point there are not any secrets when it comes to Galchenyuk and what he is as a player. He possesses a lot of the same flaws that Kessel does defensively and away from the puck, but does not provide the strength of being a world-class offensive player. You may not like Kessel’s defensive play, but there are only a very short list of players in the world that are better than him when it comes to producing offense. You at least have that going for you when you have him on your roster. If you are going to be a one-trick pony, that is a pretty damn good trick to have at your disposal.

I do not know that Kessel’s style of play, approach, or attitude changed all that much over the past few years. He is what he is as a player and he is who he is as a person. What changed is the Penguins stopped winning Stanley Cups. You tolerate the quirky, all-offense, no-defense winger when he is helping to hang banners and taking part in parades.

When all of that stuff stops, it is no longer something most hockey men want to put up with.

Now the Penguins have one less elite offensive player, and unless Galchenyuk somehow puts it all together and scores 30 goals for the first time in three years — a season that is now looking more and more like the outlier in his career — they downgraded their roster in the short-term.

Arguing against that as we sit today is arguing against facts and logic.

Because of that, the entire trade, as well as the direction of the Penguins after the trade, hinges almost completely on the development of Joseph, what the Penguins do with the new salary cap space they now have, and whether or not they were right about needing to change the culture of the team … and if that even matters.

This is where the challenge for Rutherford and Sullivan comes in.

Joseph is an intriguing add because despite the claims of Rutherford earlier this offseason when he said this is the best defense he has ever had in Pittsburgh, his defense is actually quite a mess once you get beyond Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. They also didn’t have anyone in the prospect pool that looked to be even worthy of a mention as a top prospect.

Joseph, almost by default, immediately becomes the team’s best defense prospect and actually plays a style that would seem to suit the Penguins when they are at their best. That is good. The key is going to be developing him into something useful at the NHL level. The problem is the Penguins really haven’t done a good job of developing young players over the past few years. They have to get it right with Joseph, not only to justify this move, but because they NEED someone like him to be good. But that is probably a year or two away from becoming a factor, not only because of where Joseph in his development (he has never played above the QMJHL) but because of the logjam the Penguins still have on their blue line.

The more immediate issue is the newfound salary cap space.

When it comes to this offseason, the Kessel-for-Galchenyuk swap doesn’t really do anything to remedy the team’s short-term cap issues as it only saves them about $1.9 million. That gives them, via CapFriendly, around $5 million in salary cap space.

Given their own RFA’s they have to re-sign, probably wanting to keep a little wiggle room under the cap at the start of the season, and the cost of any new UFA signing it doesn’t really give the Penguins much added flexibility under the cap without making another move to ship out more salary. Rutherford hinted he may now be able to add someone on Monday at the start of free agency, but unless someone takes a huge discount to go to Pittsburgh, or he makes another trade, he will only be adding a fringe player around the edge.

They do not see any real salary cap savings until next summer (and the summer after that), and that is assuming they do NOT re-sign Galchenyuk. If they do, he probably costs at least $5-6 million and pretty much erases that newfound cap space they got by trading Kessel. At that point they would be betting that Galchenyuk would be a better use of that cap space than Kessel would. Even taking into account a decline from Kessel, that seems like a tough bet to make.

The bigger issue, though, is that if Rutherford is going to make a move in free agency he has to do a better job than he has the past few years where he has not only slowly shifted the Penguins away from what made them a success, but has also made some objectively bad moves.

The Penguins are not in a salary cap crunch because they are paying their stars. It is because they have made some bad investments with their second-and third-tier players. How much better would their salary cap situation look this summer if they did not commit more than $7 million to the duo of Jack Johnson or Erik Gudbranson? Or the more than $5 million per year (for another five years) they have going to an aging and apparently rapidly declining Patric Hornqvist?

Just look at what the Penguins have done in free agency the past two offseasons.

  • In July 2017 they signed Antti Niemi to be their new backup goalie behind Matt Murray. Niemi didn’t last two months with the team before being waived.
  • That same summer they signed Matt Hunwick to a three-year, $6.75 million contract. It was a fit that was so bad from the start the Penguins had to trade Conor Sheary along with Hunwick just to dump salary one year ago to create cap space.
  • They used that new cap space to sign Jack Johnson to a five-year, $17 million contract exactly one year ago, a contract that has already become an albatross on their cap.

That is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the revolving door of other roster moves that have led to a decline in success.

Salary cap space is only as good as what you do with it. The Penguins have not maximized what little space they have had in recent years. That trend can not continue.

Then we get to Sullivan and the pressure that is now on him.

Whether it is the reality of the situation or not, the optics from the outside are that he won out over Kessel in what can probably only be loosely described as a power struggle. The player that didn’t conform to the way he wanted to play is gone. The culture changes and maybe the team begins to play the “right way” (in their view) as a result.

But all of it better work out for his sake because there can be no denying his seat is white hot after the way the team fizzled out in the playoffs. Sullivan is entering a season where he is a lame-duck coach, and the general manager does not seem to have much urgency when it comes to signing him to a contract extension.

Adding to the fire is that the Penguins just hired Mike Vellucci, the reigning Calder Cup winning coach in the American Hockey League, to be the new head coach of their top farm team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That came after Vellucci mutually agreed to part ways with the Carolina Hurricanes organization. Why would he resign from an organization he has been a part of for so long, where he has had recent success, to take a lateral job in another organization?

In his words, it was because he was “presented with an exciting opportunity that makes sense for my future.”

Allow me to translate that: He thinks he has a faster path to an NHL head coaching job in Pittsburgh than he did in Carolina, and that would not be an incorrect assumption. He and Rutherford have a connection from their Carolina days, and he would seem to be the obvious in-house replacement if the team with the lame-duck coach stumbles out of the gate.

If you want to argue that the Penguins had to trade Kessel, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they did. Maybe change was necessary. Maybe he was the significant core player on the roster that made sense to move. Maybe he wanted to move.

They still have a lot of work to do to get better as a result of it, no matter the reason, and they are not anywhere near getting there.

Unless something changes drastically in how they evaluate players, what they value in players, and how they utilize their salary cap space none of what took place over the past 24 hours will matter as they run the risk of their remaining championship window in the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang era closing even sooner than it needs to.

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.

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.

Canucks sign Erik Gudbranson to three-year extension

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

The wondering can now stop as the Vancouver Canucks have extended defenseman Erik Gudbranson for three more years.

The extension is worth $12 million and Gudbranson’s deal will carry a $4 million cap hit through the end of the 2020-21 NHL season.

“Erik is an important part of our team and provides a physical element to our blueline,” said Canucks general manager Jim Benning in a statement. “His leadership qualities help us as we continue to integrate younger players in our lineup. He is a quality person, a great teammate, outstanding in the community and we are excited to have him as part of our team moving forward.”

It was two years ago that Benning, who inked an extension with the Canucks last week, traded Jared McCann and a pair of 2016 draft picks to the Florida Panthers for the defenseman. With the direction that the team is currently moving, and with the Boston Bruins coughing up a third-round pick for Nick Holden of the New York Rangers on Tuesday, couldn’t Benning have flipped Gudbranson for something similar before moving on to a Thomas Vanek trade before Monday’s trade deadline?

The Canucks are currently a weird mix of youth and veterans with big contracts, especially at forward — contracts that last beyond next season. They have all but one of their picks in the next three drafts at the moment, and should at least recoup one with a Vanek trade.

This extension is Benning digging his feet in and standing by a bad deal from two years ago. As Dimitri Filipovic of Sportsnet pointed out last week, flipping Gudbranson, whose minutes and possession numbers have dipped in Year 2 in Vancouver, would be the GM waiving the white towel and saying he lost the trade. Now he gets to stand by it and throw platitudes at the defenseman to convince himself that this was the correct way to go.

The one beneficial part of the Gudbranson deal for the Canucks? The lack of a no-trade clause, as per TSN’s Bob McKenzie. NHL GMs love themselves big defensemen and at 6-foot-6, 220 lbs., the 26-year-old checks that box. So there is a chance to pass this contract onto another team looking to add size to their blue line. But for now, that’s clearly not the plan for the Canucks.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Canucks’ Gudbranson suspended one game for boarding Vatrano

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Vancouver Canucks defenseman Erik Gudbranson will miss Friday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres after he was suspended one game for boarding Frank Vatrano of the Boston Bruins.

The hit occurred early in the first period during Thursday’s 6-3 Bruins victory. Gudbranson was given a majors for boarding and fighting, along with a game misconduct. The Bruins would take advantage with three power play goals. Vatrano would retun to the game later in the period.

Here’s the Department of Player Safety’s explanation:

Look at many of the suspensions the NHL’s DoPS has handed out for boarding and it’s the same thing over and over again. The suspended player has time to make a better decision on a hit, but fails to do so. Here, Gudbranson could have changed his angle, minimized contact with Vatrano or tie him up along the boards instead of plastering him into the glass.

Gudbranson will see $18,817.20 of his salary go to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.