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.

Report: Blue Jackets’ Jack Johnson requests trade

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Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson has requested a trade, according to Aaron Portzline of The Athletic.

The 31-year-old Johnson, who was traded from the Los Angeles Kings to Columbus six years ago next month, had been one of the team’s more relied-upon defenders, but this year things changed. He was leap-frogged on the depth chart and saw his minutes drop from the nearly 25 per night to 19:25. During Thursday’s loss to the Buffalo Sabres, he played just 13:43, his lowest of the the 2017-18 NHL season.

All parties involved — Johnson, his agent, Pat Brisson, and Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen — declined comment.

So why now? Johnson, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, isn’t unhappy, per Portzline, and would not have asked out if he was signed beyond this season.

From The Athletic:

But Johnson, who turns 31 on Saturday, is feeling enormous pressure to sign a multiyear contract when he hits unrestricted free agency July 1.

His well-publicized bankruptcy four years ago has cut sharply into his life savings, such that Johnson will need his next contract — and perhaps another one after that — to set up him and his family for the years after his career.

“He doesn’t have the nest egg that most 12-year NHL veterans would have, obviously,” the source said.

Per the bankruptcy settler, Johnson was granted $246,000 for “living expenses” this season and last. Over the next three years, he’ll keep $277,050.50 until the creditors are satisfied. But here’s where his next contract comes into play. Four of his creditors will take 10 percent of his future earnings if the next contract he signs is more than $4.5 million over a three-year span, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

A better situation coupled with better play would help Johnson build that “nest egg” through free agency this summer.

Who could Johnson help? Well, some team looking to help their depth might be interested, and while the blue liners is famous for his poor career possession stats, he can chip in offensively. In 45 games this season, he has two goals and seven points. He scored 11 goals over the last two seasons.

There are a number of other defenseman out there who could better serve teams this season as rentals — Mike Green, Cody Franson, to name two — but considering Johnson’s situation and play, he might be able to be had on the cheap.

UPDATE: Here’s what Kekalainen had to say about the report, via the Columbus Dispatch:

“It’s the same with him as anyone else on our team: We’ll make a trade if and when we have something that makes sense for the Blue Jackets.”

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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.

Blue Jackets ’15-16 Outlook

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Columbus’ goal for this year should be simple:

Stay healthy.

Last year, the Blue Jackets led the NHL in man games lost, with 502. That figure derailed what was supposed to be a building block campaign; the year prior, Columbus posted a franchise-high 93 points en route to the first two playoff wins in club history.

While the team isn’t using health issues as an excuse for last year, it does recognize it can’t allow injuries to be so disruptive.

“We need to find better ways to maintain and not have major dips,” head coach Todd Richards said earlier this summer, per NHL.com. “We might have injuries this year, and you’ve got to find ways to stay afloat instead of sinking.”

If they do stay healthy, the Blue Jackets should be a legit playoff contender.

Brandon Saad, acquired in a summer blockbuster from Chicago, will give the team a dynamic, goalscoring power forward up front, presumably to play alongside franchise center Ryan Johansen. Behind those two are a host of capable scorers: Nick Foligno, Scott Hartnell, Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky, to name a few.

On defense, the picture is murkier.

The club is holding out hope that Ryan Murray, the No. 2 overall pick in 2012, is finally over the health issues that derailed his first two NHL campaigns. The 20-year-old, who has the potential to be a top-pairing d-man, only appeared in 12 games last year, after missing 18 in his rookie campaign.

Outside of Murray, the familiar cast of characters remains: Jack Johnson, David Savard, Fedor Tyutin and Dalton Prout, most notably. The Jackets are counting on that crew to improve internally and possibly get a push from prospects like Dillon Heatherington and Michael Paliotta, the latter acquired from Chicago in the Saad deal.

In goal, there are no questions.

Sergei Bobrovsky enters as the clear-cut No.1, coming off a campaign in which he missed significant time to injury and posted below average numbers (.918 save percentage, 2.68 GAA).

The hope is that Bobrovsky will return to the form that saw him win the Vezina two years ago, and that the skaters in front of him will stay healthy. If both those things happen, Columbus will be knocking on the door of playoff contention, and not a team opponents will want to face should it get in.

Get to know a draft pick — Zach Werenski

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Like we’ve done in the past, we’re profiling top prospects who may hear their names called Friday in the first round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. But this year, something new — we’re featuring special guest analysis from former Minnesota Wild scout Mark Seidel, who currently serves as the president of North American Central Scouting.

Zach Werenski (D)

Height: 6’2 Weight: 206 Shoots: Left

Team: University of Michigan (NCAA)

Country: USA

NHL Central Scouting ranking: No. 9 among North American Skaters

What kind of player is he?

Along with Boston University’s Jack Eichel and Boston College’s Noah Hanifin, Werenski is part of the “big three” NCAA prospects expected to go high at this year’s draft. But what sets Werenski apart from Eichel and Hanifin is his age — at 17, he was the youngest college hockey player in the country last season (after accelerating his high school course work to graduate a year early.)

Werenski’s freshman campaign was a good one. He led all Wolverines d-men in scoring, with 25 points in 35 games, and was named to both the Big Ten’s first and all-freshman teams.

“He’s had to learn the college game and the quickness, the defensive-zone stuff, our systems and structure, but he was able to continue to play his game and play the right way,” Michigan head coach Red Berenson said, per NHL.com. “I’d put him right up there with former Michigan defensemen Jacob Trouba, Mike Komisarek, Jack Johnson and Jeff Jillson.

“They were all first-round picks in the NHL and they all had big-time hockey written all over them just like Zach does.”

Seidel says:

“Werenski decided to play for Berenson at U of M last year and quickly showed scouts why he’s considered a potential franchise defenseman. He has a complete game, accentuated by good size and quick feet — both of which make him a formidable force in the defensive end. As the youngest player to ever play for Berenson, he showed incredible maturity for his age and his ceiling is extremely high.”

NHL comparable: Ryan McDonagh

For more 2015 NHL Draft profiles, click here.

Jackets keep another d-man, extend Falk

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Just one day after re-upping with one of their young defensemen, the Blue Jackets have retained another.

Justin Falk, acquired at the deadline in exchange for Jordan Leopold, has been signed to a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced on Friday.

“Justin is a good, young defenseman who was a solid addition to our hockey club late last season,” Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen said in a statement. “We are pleased that he will continue to be a part of our group on the blue line next season.”

Falk, 26, scored two points in 18 games last year while averaging 15:13 TOI per night. News of his signing comes just one day after Columbus also re-upped with another d-man — 25-year-old Cody Goloubef — on a two-year, $1.5 million extension.

The Falk deal pretty much locks in the Blue Jackets’ defense for next year, barring a trade of some sort. The club now has eight NHL defensemen under contract: Falk, Goloubef, Jack Johnson, Ryan Murray, Fedor Tyutin, David Savard, Dalton Prout and Kevin Connauton.