Evgeni Malkin

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Penguins GM on Maatta over Johnson, future for Malkin and Letang

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With trades already heating up during the trade-friendly time that is the week surrounding the 2019 NHL Draft, the most fun activity is grading the impact of trades … but imagining what else might happen is almost as fun.

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford didn’t really make it seem like he’s eager to trade Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang during an interview with 93.7 The Fan on Monday, but Rutherford also didn’t slam the door totally shut by guaranteeing that Malkin and Letang will be back, either.

Fair or not, some will allow their imaginations to go through the roof after Rutherford merely didn’t close the door and lock it.

Not pursuing those trades, but would listen?

During the interview, Rutherford comically referenced Wayne Gretzky being traded as Rutherford was essentially claiming “never say never,” as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Matt Vensel transcribed.

“There’s been great players traded in this league,” Rutherford said. “If somebody comes along with a package that makes sense for the Penguins, we have to look at it. These are not, the guys that you mentioned, are not guys that I’m pushing to trade.”

Rutherford also said that Malkin and Letang are the “kind of players you win championships with,” and stated that he believes they’re still great players.

For plenty of Penguins fans, this is mostly a relief, especially if Rutherford is really just giving such trades “Dumb & Dumber” odds.

The most important Malkin-related quote may have surfaced a week ago, as Rutherford explained that things seem to have smoothed over between the team and player, via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe (sub required):

“At the time you asked me those questions, it was hard to zero in on too many people because I was thinking about making a lot of changes,” Rutherford said while referencing spicier comments after the Penguins were swept by the Islanders. “But I’ll say this: I believe in Geno Malkin. He came off a year that wasn’t up to his standard last year. We all know that. But he’s a great, great player. I know how good he is, and I know very well what he can do for this team. I wasn’t going to 100 percent commit at that point in time. But in the back of my mind, I knew he was going to be part of this team going forward. And you know what? He was aware of that, too.”

(Anyone else think that “I believe in Geno Malkin” could be a hot-selling shirt in Pittsburgh?)

Rutherford reiterated another stance from a week ago: that he doesn’t expect to trade Phil Kessel. His comments in that regard may calm down those worried about a reckless Letang/Malkin trade, too, as a lot of Rutherford’s language is “I’m not looking to trade X, but I have to at least listen …”

With all of that in mind, it’s maybe most pressing to hear Rutherford speak about more plausible trade targets on his team.

Jack of no trades?

Interestingly, Rutherford didn’t exactly fan the flames about Jack Johnson being traded.

During Monday’s spot with 93.7 The Fan, Rutherford seemed to indicate that, with Olli Maatta traded for cap space, the Penguins may not try to get rid of Johnson’s contract. Surprisingly, Rutherford also claimed that Johnson was not involved in the trade that Phil Kessel reportedly nixed, which would have sent Kessel and Johnson to the Minnesota Wild for Jason Zucker and Victor Rask.

Moving Maatta did get the Penguins out of the most immediate “trouble” that might surface from the salary cap possibly being closer to $82 million than the expected $83 million for 2019-20 … but not at least projecting much interest in trading Johnson should be disappointing for Penguins fans.

It would have been startling enough last summer when the Penguins handed Johnson – a deeply flawed, and not especially young, defenseman – a contract that included a $3.25M cap hit. But it was downright bewildering that the now-32-year-old also received beefy term, as that problem deal runs through 2022-23.

Yes, the Penguins’ defense needs help, but there’s an uncomfortable argument that getting rid of Johnson would count as “addition by subtraction” even before you factor in getting rid of that $3.25M cap hit.

While Maatta’s market value was almost certainly far better than JJ’s value (the Penguins landed a solid package for the defenseman) it’s cringe-worthy to consider an either/or possibility coming down to Maatta vs. Johnson. Especially since, frankly, Maatta isn’t that much more expensive than Johnson, what with Maatta coming in at $4.083M per season.

Penguins fans might want to look away at this Sean Tierney visualization of the team’s defensemen in 2018-19, which uses Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) data:

(You can slice it up in many other ways, and it usually doesn’t come out looking much better.)

Again, it’s possible that the Penguins simply didn’t have any real offers to get rid of Johnson. Maybe Rutherford simply didn’t want to admit it, or maybe there was a part of him that hopes that projecting some positivity might keep the door open to get rid of a big mistake.

***

Ultimately, the Penguins’ window of contention could close rapidly, so it’s important to get this stuff right.

In the case of trading Malkin or Letang, the best move would almost certainly be to stay put. Meanwhile, if the Penguins aren’t exploring avenues to get rid of Johnson-type problems, then the Penguins are leaving opportunities on the table. Finally, with Kessel, the option just might not be there — whether it would be smart to trade Kessel or not.

Elliotte Friedman points to the Penguins being one of the most aggressive teams in the latest edition of “31 Thoughts,” so they’re certainly a team to watch over the next week or so.

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’ 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.

It was the Jordan Eberle show for Islanders

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PITTSBURGH — Jordan Eberle‘s only playoff appearance before this season was mostly forgettable.

He went 13 games without scoring a goal, was limited to just two assists, and became the postseason scapegoat for a dysfunctional organization (Edmonton) that was on the brink of falling apart for reasons that were (and still are) far bigger than him. The response that offseason, naturally, was to essentially give him away to the New York Islanders in a one-for-one deal for Ryan Strome

It has been a very different postseason experience for him this time around.

Eberle was one of the driving forces behind the Islanders’ stunning four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins that concluded with a 3-1 win on Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena.

After failing to score in all of his playoff games in 2016, Eberle has not only scored in every playoff game he has played so far in 2019, but he has scored some game-changing goals in the biggest possible moments.

Just look at the rundown of his goals so far:

  • In Game 1, he opened the scoring for the Islanders and set the tone for the series just 1:40 into the game.
  • In Game 2, it was the game-winning goal midway through the third period to help give the Islanders a commanding lead in the series.
  • In Game 3, it was a picture perfect snipe from a terrible angle that tied the game just one minute after the Penguins had taken an early lead.
  • In Game 4, it was exactly the same situation as his goal on an odd-man rush at the 2:09 mark of the first period came just a minute-and-a-half after the Penguins scored on the game’s first shift, erasing any momentum they may have been able to build.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In the four games the Islanders spent less than five minutes playing from behind due to their quick responses, and in two games it was goals from Eberle that erased those few deficits.

He has found a home on the Islanders’ top line alongside Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee, and in a series that featured the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on the other side of the ice, it was the Islanders’ trio that dominated on the scoreboard.

“[Barzal] is finding me in areas where I am able to finish plays off,” said Eberle after Tuesday’s win, when asked what is going through his mind when the puck is on his stick right now.

“Since they put me, [Barzal], and [Lee] together the puck has been going in a lot more. I don’t know what we finished the season with, but it seemed like we scored every game. That is obviously huge and we want to continue playing that way. These games get tougher and tougher as you move forward, we have to be ready and realize that.”

They may not have scored in every game, but they definitely showed they could be a dangerous trio that could spark the team’s offense. Over the final 10 games of the regular season that trio outscored opponents by a 6-2 margin in more than 122 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, while also dominating the scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance numbers.

That domination has carried over to the playoffs.

In the four-game series against Pittsburgh the Eberle, Barzal, Lee line combined for four goals, was not on the ice for a single goal against, and controlled more than 60 percent of the scoring chance and high-danger chances when they were on the ice.

Other than perhaps the play of the two goalies (and especially Robin Lehner in the Islanders’ net), that line was probably the difference in the series.

“You start to get a lot of confidence before the playoffs begin, and you want to continue to play well,” said Eberle. “The biggest thing about my game, and [Barzal], and [Lee] is you want to have the coach trust you, and I think Barry does now with the way we have played defensively and able to break the puck out and go down and score. We are known for our defense and I think first and foremost that is where we want to be.”

The Islanders have a lot of questions to face this summer when it comes to pending unrestricted free agents, with Eberle and Lee being two of the biggest. If nothing else, they are putting together a pretty convincing argument that they are worth keeping around and paying because of the way they have played alongside the team’s new franchise player (Barzal).

They also don’t have to worry about that decision for (at least) a couple more weeks, thanks in large parts to Eberle’s goal-scoring binge.

He had a rather simple explanation for how all of it is happening for him

“Sometimes when you shoot the puck, it goes in.”

Because the puck keeps going in, the Islanders’ season will keep going on.

Related: Islanders shut down Penguins again to complete sweep

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.

Malkin nearing return for Penguins, Letang still ‘day-to-day’

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After failing to clinch a playoff spot on Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings, the Pittsburgh Penguins will get another chance at it on Thursday when they return home.

They might be getting a little additional help for that game as well.

Superstar center Evgeni Malkin, who has been sidelined since March 16 with an upper-body injury he sustained when he was cross-checked by St. Louis Blues defender Robert Bortuzzo, was a full participant in practice on Wednesday and is officially a game-time decision for Thursday’s game.

Malkin said on Wednesday that his plan all along was to try and play in the final two games of the regular season.

“We’ll see tomorrow,” said Malkin when assessing his availability. “If I feel fine, I’ll have a chance to play. I’ll be ready.”

It will be a welcome sight for the Penguins whenever he returns. While they have managed to keep collecting points in the standings (they are 4-2-2 without him) the offense has dried up considerably, scoring just 18 goals in the past eight games. They managed just one on Tuesday night in Detroit. The top line, led by Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, has gone cold, and without Malkin to center the second line a lot of the pressure has fallen on the bottom-six to get some timely goals. And while they have been able to do that in recent games the Penguins still need their two big lines to be rolling if they are going to have a chance. Getting Malkin back will certainly help that.

Malkin has 71 points in 66 games this season for the Penguins.

The Penguins need just one more win to clinch a playoff spot.

After playing Detroit on Thursday, their regular season finale is against the New York Rangers on Saturday.

Making things even more complicated for the Penguins in recent weeks is that Malkin is not the only key injury they are dealing with.

Kris Letang, the team’s top defensemen, has also been sidelined and remains out of the lineup after briefly returning for three games in mid-March. He confirmed on Wednesday that the injury he is dealing with is related to the one that sidelined him in February and that he did not feel right when he initially returned. At this point he is still listed as “day-to-day.”

Brian Dumoulin, Letang’s regular partner on the top defense pairing, is also currently sidelined. He, too, is listed as being “day-to-day.”

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.

Malkin at 1,000; a star hiding in plain sight

By Will Graves (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The cameras crowd around Sidney Crosby‘s stall, parting only to let the Pittsburgh Penguins captain slip through and tug on a baseball cap before the lights flip on, the microphones close in and the questions come.

Fifteen feet away, Evgeni Malkin goes about his business quietly as part of his game-day routine, consulting with a staff member about a piece of equipment before ducking out, a star hiding in plain sight.

In another era or in another NHL city, it wouldn’t be this way. Yet this is Malkin’s lot, one the 32-year-old Russian and most recent member of 1,000-point club readily accepts. Drafted one spot behind fellow countryman Alex Ovechkin and one year ahead of Crosby – whom he’s partnered to win three Stanley Cups with over the last decade – Malkin is forever being nudged ever so slightly into the shadow of the two players who have defined the league for a generation.

”I think he likes it that way, to be honest with you,” said former teammate Brooks Orpik, now a defenseman for the Washington Capitals. ”He lets Sid do a lot more of the media stuff. And he kind of does his own thing and flies under the radar. I think he’s good with that part of it.”

Even if Malkin’s affable public reticence plays in stark contrast to the way he goes about doing his job, where the 2012 Hart Trophy winner, four-time All-Star and two-time scoring champion is a study in contrasts. Hulking yet nimble. Intimidating yet imaginative. A 6-foot-3, 195-pound anomaly of speed, power and skill who joined Ovechkin and Crosby, San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Toronto’s Patrick Marleau as the only active players to hit four digits when he collected two assists in Pittsburgh’s 5-3 victory over Washington on Tuesday night.

Malkin picked up secondary assists on Crosby’s second-period goal and Phil Kessel‘s third-period marker and celebrated by getting mobbed in the corner as the sellout crowd that included his parents and his wife rose to its feet in appreciation. Not bad for a kid from Magnitogorsk, Russia who never imagined he’d called America home.

”I grow up in small city and never think I play in NHL and score like, 1,000 points,” Malkin said.

Yet what once must have seemed impossible became inevitable as the years passed, the goals piled up and his reputation as one of the NHL’s most dynamic and daunting players blossomed.

”He makes it look easy, that’s the thing,” Crosby said. ”It’s so effortless for him.”

Crosby offered a sequence during Pittsburgh’s 4-2 win over Boston on Sunday night as proof. Malkin collected a pass at the Penguins’ blue line, raced by Bruins forward Peter Cehlarik, slipped the puck underneath Boston defenseman Brandon Carlo‘s flailing stick – spinning Carlo around completely in the process – then re-gathered it before ripping a wrist shot that soared over the crossbar. The whole thing took five seconds. Even now, 13 years into a partnership as productive as any in modern NHL history, Crosby couldn’t help but shake his head.

”You know how hard those things are to do?” Crosby said. ”And to see him do it the way he does is pretty special.”

And also a well-kept secret of sorts.

When the NHL released its top 100 players of all-time in conjunction with the league’s 100th anniversary in 2017, Crosby and Ovechkin’s names were on the list. Malkin’s was not, a fact he tried to play off by joking that if he won a couple of more Stanley Cups he could be No. 101. His friends and teammates didn’t take it quite so well, with Orpik calling the omission ”pretty outrageous.”

Maybe, but it’s also symbolic of Malkin’s unusual place in the NHL stratosphere. Famous, but not that famous. Well-respected. Just not quite as much as the two players he’s most closely associated with.

”I think of outside of Pittsburgh, I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for the body of work that he’s put together in his decade-plus years as a Pittsburgh Penguin,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. ”When you look at what he’s accomplished, it’s remarkable.”

It’s just that he happens to share a dressing room with the league’s most recognizable name and the same homeland as the greatest Russian player ever. Malkin’s 1.178 career points per game is second-highest among active players. Crosby is first. Ovechkin is third.

Even on the night Malkin reached elite company, he couldn’t hold the spotlight for long. Less than three minutes after reaching 1,000 points, Malkin watched Ovechkin set up John Carlson for a goal that made Ovechkin the 48th player to reach 1,200 points. Maybe it’s fitting. Crosby’s combination of talent and relentlessness helped make him the face of the NHL, with Ovechkin long serving as Crosby’s emotional counterpoint, raw and primal. Malkin’s persona – much like his stats – falls somewhere in between.

”He’s Malkin,” Ovechkin said with shrug. ”Everybody’s different.”

And no less effective. Malkin plays with a natural ease, producing highlight-reel plays with the casualness of someone goofing around at the end of a morning skate. That casualness is a testament to both Malkin’s immense ability and one of the primary reasons his production can be taken for granted.

What Malkin does is incredibly difficult. The fact he doesn’t make it look that way is both a compliment and a curse.

”Sid’s the hardest-working guy I’ve ever played with and I think he has to do that to be at the level he’s at,” Orpik said. ”You can see Geno take a month off and come back and most guys are usually pretty rusty, he’s pretty much right at that level all the time.”

Well, maybe not all the time.

Malkin’s milestone moment came during an uncharacteristically uneven season. He didn’t score an even strength goal during November, his minus-23 rating heading into Tuesday ranked worst on the team and he’s shown a penchant for taking needless offensive zone penalties.

”It’s a tough year for me but every game, team play better and I think my game, it’s like back and I feel so much better every night,” Malkin said. ”My confidence back.”

Pittsburgh’s best chances at emerging from the crowded race for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference will rely heavily on Malkin being Malkin over the last three weeks of the regular season.

There have been signs of late, like his sizzling end-to-end rush against Boston or the way he quarterbacked a resurgent power play that scored twice against the Capitals. They are things that he’s done with astonishing regularity through the years, so much so that when he doesn’t do them the discussion centers on what he’s doing wrong rather than an appreciation for all the things he’s done right.

Those who get to witness his excellence on a day-to-day basis think it’s time for that perception to change. Malkin might not care. But they do.

”We all understand what he means to this team,” Sullivan said. ”He doesn’t get the credit he deserves outside of Pittsburgh in the hockey world. He’s been one of the elite players in this hockey league for more than a decade and he deserves more attention for that.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Wild and Stars are in the middle of a wide-open scramble for the final two playoff spots in the west. Their meeting in Minnesota on Thursday could start to provide some clarity.

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