Jake Guentzel

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What Penguins need to become championship team again

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

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

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

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

But that alone will not be enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHT Morning Skate: Kessel ready for leadership role; Guentzel aiming for offense

Philly Mag / Jonathan Pushnik
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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.

• Gritty celebrates Philadelphia by dressing up as some of the city’s iconic figures. [Philadelphia Magazine]

• Ranking the 10 worst contracts in the NHL. (The Score)

• Kessel ready to take on a leadership role, despite not being the ‘rah-rah’ type. (Sportsnet)

• Taking stock of the NHL goaltending picture. (TSN.ca)

• Brian Boyle is expecting a contract to come one cap picture settles itself. (NHL.com)

• A look at how Dion Phaneuf changed the NHL timeline. (Puck Prose)

Jake Guentzel is looking at taking a bigger offensive role on the new-look Penguins. (NHL.com)

• Ron Francis, the type of leader you want to build your franchise around. (Sportsnet)

• The NHL’s top 10 regression candidates for 2019-20. (The Athletic)

• Leafs’ cap stickhandling a cruel reminder of Canucks moves gone by. (Canoe)

• Panarin’s Putin criticism is rare for Russian athletes. (RadioFreeEurope)

• Exactly How Good Is Kasperi Kapanen? (Editor in Leaf)

• O’Ree humbled by consideration for Congressional Gold Medal. (NHL.com)

• The Penguins need to make a trade to solve their salary cap crunch. (Pensburgh)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blues’ Tarasenko is sniping at Ovechkin-like level during playoffs

The St. Louis Blues are breaking through in the playoffs like never before, but as hot as Vladimir Tarasenko is right now, he’s been clutch for some time now.

After scoring a goal in the Blues’ Game 2 win to extend his personal playoff point streak to eight games, Tarasenko now has a playoff career-high of 10 goals during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. His 15 points during this run matches a career-high from 2015-16, when he scored nine goals and 15 points in 20 games. Even if Tarasenko hits a Zdeno Chara-sized brick wall and slows down during the rest of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, there’s a strong chance that he’ll set a new career-high for points.

Impressive stuff, and Tarasenko isn’t just scoring pretty goals. His Game 2 tally was as gritty as it was pretty:

Tarasenko’s been a reliable 30+ goal scorer during the regular season, as his 33 in 2018-19 gives him five consecutive seasons with at least 30, with 40 from 2015-16 serving as his peak.

Overall, it’s not that shocking that Tarasenko has been a go-to guy for the Blues when they’ve needed playoff goals for years, yet it seems like he raises his game when the stakes get higher. If that’s off the mark, then Tarasenko seemingly doesn’t slow down in the playoffs in the same ways where others find their production stunted by an opponent throwing top defensemen and tough matchups at them every night.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The 27-year-old winger has 32 goals in 65 career playoff games, just a hair under one every other game (.49 per contest).

To give some context, Sportsnet noted after Game 2 that Tarasenko’s .49 goal-per-playoff-game average is the second highest among active NHL players, with only Alex Ovechkin (.51) ranking higher. Perusing other stats really drives the point home that Tarasenko’s been quite the sniping machine in postseason contests.

If you zoom into the Tarasenko’s years, he rises even a bit more. Since 2013-14, Tarasenko’s 32 playoff goals only trails Ovechkin’s 34, and Tarasenko’s goals-per-game during that stretch is marginally higher (.50) than Ovechkin’s (.49). The only players who ranked higher during that time were Jake Guentzel and Mark Scheifele, who scored .59 playoff goals-per-game, via Hockey Reference. You can ding Tarasenko a bit for going without a goal in his lone 2012-13 playoff appearance, but even then, few matched his sniping rate.

An interesting spin-off for this discussion might be power play work.

Heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Tarasenko only scored six of his 22 postseason goals on the power play. So far during this run, he’s exactly even: five goals at even-strength, and five on the power play.

Amusingly enough, I’ve repeatedly wondered if the Blues power play would be more effective if Tarasenko was deployed closer to the net, rather than his more frequent spot on the point, and maybe that’s still true. Even so, it’s interesting to see that his power play production has been more potent during this postseason versus previous years. Tarasenko’s already clearly been a menace at five-on-five, yet if he can supplement some of his scoring with work on the man advantage, he’ll be an even more miserable matchup for the Bruins and other opponents.

With greater Blues’ team success, the hockey world has become more aware of the many quality talents in St. Louis. Tarasenko was already a prominent star, yet this run could push him closer to becoming a hockey “household name,” and that’s wonderful, because his clutch play is far from a fluke.

More from the 2019 Stanley Cup Final

Blues-Bruins Game 3 is Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET from Enterprise Center on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

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 lock up Jake Guentzel with five-year, $30M extension

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford scratched off one more thing from his to-do list on Thursday as the team announced they’ve signed Jake Guentzel to a five-year, $30M extension.

“Jake established himself as an impact player for our team from the beginning, especially during 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs,” Rutherford said in a press release. “He has become a core player on the team and we are thrilled to get Jake signed long-term with the Penguins.”

Guenztel, who was selected No. 77 overall in the 2013 draft, made an immediate impact after joining the Penguins during the 2016-17 NHL season. After scoring 16 goals and recording 33 points during the regular season, he led all players in goals scored during that postseason with 13 and helped them to the first of two straight championships. He followed that up with a 22-goal season in 2017-18 and 10 goals and 21 points in 12 playoff games last spring. This season he has 15 goals and 33 points in 36 games.

The 24-year-old Nebraska-Omaha product has found a consistent home on Sidney Crosby‘s wing and proven he has staying power there by his finishing and playmaking abilities. SInce entering the league he’s averaged 0.72 points per game, which puts him in company with the likes of Ryan Johansen, Matt Duchene, William Nylander, David Perron, and Jeff Carter. He’s also tied for sixth in playoff points per game (1.12) among players with at least 10 games played since the 2017 postseason.

This is a fantastic deal for the Penguins considering Guentzel’s production so far and the fact that he doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon. He would have been a restricted free agent on July 1 and held arbitration rights and this deal buys two of what would been his unrestricted free agent years. He’s also now one of only 13 NHL players 25 or younger who have a cap hit of at least $6M.

When you look at how much salaries are increasing as the cap ceiling rises, we might look back on this extension as a huge steal for the Penguins in a few years’ time.

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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.

The Buzzer: Hellebuyck’s shutout; Staal, Granlund combine for eight points; Penguins cruise

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Players of the Night:

Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets: Hellebuyck’s sixth shutout of the season — a 34-save effort in a 4-0 win against the St. Louis Blues — set a new franchise record. He’s now just two wins away from tying the team’s franchise record for wins by a goalie at 32.

Eric Staal and Mikael Granlund, Minnesota Wild: Staal and Granlund basically had their way with the New York Rangers in a 4-1 win. They each scored twice and also assisted twice on each other’s goals. Feasting on the Rangers is pretty easy these days, but it was an impressive night for the duo nonetheless.

William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights: Goals No. 32 and No. 33 tonight, including quite the rip on his second one. Added an assist as well in a 6-3 win for the Golden Knights over the Vancouver Canucks. What a player he’s turned into.

Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins: Kessel has two goals and an assist and Malkin and Guentzel each had a goal and two assists. The Penguins are already scary on offense, and they just added Derick Brassard on Friday. Three-peat, anyone?

Highlights of the Night:

Saucy little number:

Patrik Laine makes it look so easy:

Slick feed game:

Ugly suit night for the Winnipeg Jets:

https://twitter.com/NHLGIFs/status/967262571605778433

Trade of the Day:

The three-team deal that happened, then it didn’t and then happened again

Penguins land Derick Brassard on second try in wild three-team deal.

Own goal of the night:

Troy Stecher got a little unlucky on this one:

Factoids of the Night:

Scores:

Wild 4, Rangers 1

Penguins 6, Hurricanes 1

Jets 4, Blues 0

Blackhawks 3, Sharks 1

Golden Knights 6, Canucks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck