Jack Johnson

Undermanned Penguins shut down Blues: 3 takeaways

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins were facing quite the challenge on Wednesday night.

They had just lost two games in a row, were playing without seven regulars in their lineup (Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bjugstad, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Jack Johnson), and had the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues roll into town riding a four-game winning streak where they had been dominating everyone they faced.

All the Penguins did was put together one of their best and most complete efforts of the season in a convincing 3-0 win.

Three big things that stood out from this one.

1. There might be a goalie controversy in Pittsburgh, at least for now. With No. 1 goalie Matt Murray mired in a month-long slump, backup Tristan Jarry has been getting more starts over the past couple of weeks and got the call again on Wednesday in a huge home game.

He took advantage of the opportunity and stopped all 28 shots he faced to record his first shutout of the season (and the third of his career).

With that performance he is now up to a .936 save percentage for the season and has earned the win in five of his past six appearances, allowing only 10 goals in those games.

“He was terrific,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan regarding Jarry’s play on Wednesday. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now and is seeing the puck well.”

He also added that Jarry was the team’s best penalty killer on a night where the unit was a perfect 4-for-4

Murray is still probably going to end up being “the guy” in Pittsburgh this season, but with the team trying to fight through an absurd injury stretch they are going to need goaltending to help carry them until they start getting some players back, especially on the blue line.

Right now Jarry is the goalie giving them the best chance.

2. Next man up. After losing wingers Rust and Hornqvist in two different practices over the past week (while already being without Crosby and Bjugstad) the Penguins were quite literally running out of forwards and had to sign veteran Stefan Noesen to a two-way contract. He had been playing for the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on a minor league deal, and was thrown into second-line duty on Wednesday.

He ended up making an immediate impact by scoring a goal late in the second period to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead.

The most impressive thing about the Penguins’ performance on Wednesday is that it was not the big-name players making the impact. The trio of Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, and Kris Letang combined for zero points in the win, while only one of them (Malkin) was even on the ice for any of their three goals (he was on for one). It was the depth players that stepped up and made the impact with Noesen, Teddy Blueger, and Alex Galchenyuk (only his second goal of the season in 20 games) scoring the goals.

As great as the Malkin, Guentzel, and Letang trio is they are not going to score every night, meaning someone else is going to have to chip in some offense for the team to have a chance with so many players out.

They received those contributions on Wednesday.

3. Binnington was a bright spot for the Blues. Jordan Binnington may have given up three goals, but he also made a handful of huge saves that kept this game close and at least gave his team a shot. It is also kind of tough to really fault him too much for the ones that went in. Blueger’s goal to open the scoring in the opening minute came off a deflection right in front, and he was kind of left on an island on the final two.

One of the biggest questions for the Blues this season in their repeat attempt was always going to be whether or not his success from a year ago was something he could sustain over a full season. There has been nothing in his play so far this season to suggest he can not.

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.

Trade: Penguins save money, send Gudbranson to Ducks

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The Pittsburgh Penguins marched to what felt like an anti-analytics drum by bringing in Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson during recent years. It only makes sense, then, that they got rid of Gudbranson by sending him to the Anaheim Ducks, a team that also has a reputation for placing analytics at such a low priority.

Ducks receive: Gudbranson

Penguins get: Forward Andreas Martinsen, 2021 seventh-round pick

The most important thing the Penguins will receive is financial flexibility. Gudbranson, 27, carries a $4 million cap hit for 2019-20 and 2020-21. This provides much-needed savings for a Penguins team that might have needed to move money around once their assortment of IR (Alex Galchenyuk, Brian Dumoulin, Nick Bjugstad) and LTIR (Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust) players start coming back.

There’s a decent argument that Gudbranson takes more away from the table than he brings to it, as you can see from metrics such as Evolving Wild’s multi-season RAPM chart:

Interestingly, Gudbranson actually was strong from a possession standpoint in the 19 games he played with Pittsburgh following a trade with the Vancouver Canucks that sent Tanner Pearson out of Pittsburgh. Much of that hope dissipated to start 2019-20, as Gudbranson’s underlying numbers were as ugly as ever, while he also failed to score a point while averaging 15:09 TOI in seven games.

The Ducks could think of that brief surge in competence, and there’s a minor argument to be made that the truth is at least somewhere in between his lowest moments and the brief flashes of brilliance.

For one thing, Gudbranson spent most of his even-strength minutes this season with Jack Johnson, one of the only big-minutes, first-rounder defensemen who is more notorious than Gudbranson for being underwater.

One would guess that the Ducks look at other, “looks good in jeans”-type factors. Gudbranson’s a big defenseman, has the pedigree that comes with being the third pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, and maybe most importantly … they just lost Luca Sbisa to waivers after signing him, so it’s obvious that the Ducks are hurting for defensemen.

Credit the Penguins for taking advantage of that vulnerability, as now Pittsburgh has flexibility this season — maybe during the trade deadline? — and also maybe a little more room to work with next offseason.

Now if they can somehow trick a team to take Johnson’s horrifying contract off of their hands …

(Note: as you can see here, Andreas Martinsen is somewhere between an AHL/NHL tweener and a flat-out AHL player, so the pick and player are nowhere near as important to Pittsburgh as the cap relief.)

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’ 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.

PHT Morning Skate: Value of the two-way forward; Blues’ mission

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

• Great read on the value of the two-way forward in today’s NHL. [Sports Illustrated]

• The St. Louis Blues’ mission this season is to prove last year was no fluke. [Post-Dispatch]

Jason Spezza was disappointed after being a healthy scratch for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ home opener. He’s expected to get into the lineup Friday. [Toronto Star]

• The top line of the Calgary Flames can give even more this season. [Calgary Herald]

• How the Dallas Stars will handle being Stanley Cup contenders this season. [Dallas Morning News]

• Pheonix Copley hits the waiver wire as Ilya Samsonov wins the backup goalie job for the Washington Capitals. [RMNB]

• Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson on his name being in trade rumors: “What’s the saying? Don’t believe everything you hear and half of what you read.” [Pittsburgh Hockey Now]

• The door is open for Barrett Hayton to shine with the Arizona Coyotes. [Five for Howling]

• Why the New York Rangers signed Micheal Haley to a contract. [Blue Seat Blogs]

• One more terrible year would be good for the Ottawa Senators. [TSN]

Ryan Miller talks about why he came back for another season with the Anaheim Ducks. [OC Register]

• Five reasons for optimism with the Chicago Blackhawks. [NBC Chicago]

• David L. Steward, minority owner of Blues, has vowed to promote diversity in hockey, saying he wants to ‘replicate’ what he’s done in NASCAR. [NHL.com]

• From bobble legs figures to Kachina fanny packs to a “Predators Gravy Boat,” here’s look at some of the top game-night giveaways this season. [Puck Junk]

• On Victor Olofsson and his road to a spot in the Buffalo Sabres’ lineup. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• There will be lots of heavy lifting for the Los Angeles Kings’ core four to turn things around. [LA Times]

• Finally, the Evander KaneRyan Reaves feud continues:

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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.