Jim Rutherford

Penguins playoff injury updates: Bad news for Bjugstad, good for Guentzel

While the Penguins gear up for a (pandemic-permitting) playoff run, they won’t be able to pencil Nick Bjugstad into their lineup. The Penguins announced that bad news for Bjugstad alongside other injury updates on Wednesday. On the bright side, things are more optimistic for Jake Guentzel.

Penguins playoff injury update presents mixed bag: Bjugstad, Guentzel, and more

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford explained that Bjugstad underwent surgery after a setback in his rehab.

This closes out a miserable 2019-20 season for Bjugstad. Things fell off the rails early when the 27-year-old forward suffered an injury to his core area in October. As Seth Rorabaugh of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review explains, Bjugstad tried to play through the issue, only to eventually opt for surgery.

The Penguins announced that this latest procedure involved spinal surgery, and Bjugstad will miss at least eight weeks.

Looking at Bjugstad’s stats almost seems unfair. He only mustered a goal and an assist in his 11 games played, but who knows how healthy he was? It remains to be seen if Bjugstad can rebound in 2020-21; after that, his $4.1 million cap hit will expire.

The Penguins shared other injury news, including an update that is fuzzier but potentially big:

  • When Jake Guentzel required surgery for his injured shoulder just before the new year, it sounded like he could miss serious playoff time. Then the COVID-19 pandemic truly struck North America. While Rutherford didn’t guarantee a Guentzel return, he did sound positive on Wednesday.

“We still have a ways to go before we start playing, so we are optimistic that [Guentzel] will be available to play,” Rutherford said.

Getting an All-Star forward back might soothe some of the Penguins’ irritation at needing to participate in the qualifying round. Some of the irritation.

It will also be interesting to see if defensemen Brian Dumoulin and John Marino are healthy as the resumption of play (tentatively) approaches.

More on the Penguins, and the NHL’s return to play

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 may face ‘tough decisions’ with goalies thanks to salary cap crunch

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With all of the salary cap uncertainty caused in part by COVID-19, the Penguins may face some tough choices when it comes to their goalies.

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford acknowledged as much to The Athletic’s Josh Yohe on Tuesday (sub required).

Specifically, Rutherford discussed two pending RFA goalies who played for the Penguins in 2019-20: Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. With almost $68.3M devoted to the cap even before signing one or both, Rutherford admitted that it will be tough to retain Murray and Jarry.

“Well,” Rutherford said to Yohe. “I’ll say this: If we are going to keep both of them, we’d have to move a few things around on our team. There is a way to do things and to make that work, yes. There are some very, very tough decisions ahead.”

Rutherford compared this situation to losing Marc-Andre Fleury to the expansion draft, as the Penguins simply couldn’t afford to keep both Murray and “MAF.” While the situations might be different, Rutherford faces challenges either way.

Pondering Penguins options with Murray, Jarry, and DeSmith

One name that didn’t really come up in the Yohe story is that of Casey DeSmith, but he’s quite relevant to this situation. Let’s run down the three most prominent Penguins goalie options, then.

Matt Murray

Murray, 25, is a pending RFA whose $3.75M cap hit expires after 2019-20.

The Penguins managed a pretty nice value in signing Murray right after he surprisingly helped the Penguins win the 2015-16 Stanley Cup. Murray almost certainly would have cost the Penguins quite a bit more if they signed him during the summer of 2017 (when his entry-level contract expired), rather than that proactive extension.

Yet, it’s true that it’s kind of difficult to gauge how much Murray should cost heading into 2020-21.

After putting up absolutely splendid numbers during the regular season and playoffs while the Penguins repeated as Stanley Cup champions in 2015-16 and 2016-17, it’s been up-and-down for Murray. Murray sandwiched a strong 2018-19 regular season between tough seasons in 2017-18 and 2019-20.

To complicate matters further, Murray hasn’t really been able to prove that he’s a true workhorse. Injuries, in particular, have limited Murray’s volume.

So, on one hand, Murray has two Stanley Cup rings. There have also been plenty of stretches of impressive play. Unfortunately, Murray struggled more often than not during most of his recent stretches, though. It’s interesting to note that Rutherford told Yohe that, while the would-be starter is a Mike Sullivan decision, Rutherford did guess that Murray was the likely playoff starter if the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs happened.

With all of that in mind, what kind of contract would be right for Murray? Frankly, I have no clue.

Tristan Jarry

Many would argue that Jarry ranks as the better starting option if the playoffs happen, and with good reason. The 25-year-old performed far better than Murray by just about every measure. While Murray struggled with weak backup-level numbers (.899 save percentage, -11.6 GSAA), Jarry put up stats that hovered around elite (.921 save percentage, 11.07 GSAA).

On the other hand, while Murray boasts two rings and 199 games of regular-season experience, Jarry’s only played 62 at the NHL level. Jarry didn’t enjoy a whole lot of success before his dominant run of 33 games in 2019-20, either.

The Penguins may ponder an interesting risk. Do you go with Murray, who has struggled mightily and likely will cost quite a bit, yet is also experienced? Or do you lean toward Jarry, another pending RFA who’s headed for a raise from $675K, but should be cheaper than Murray?

Could it even come down to which goalie fetches the best return in a hypothetical trade for their rights?

Tough calls all around.

Casey DeSmith

DeSmith, 28, just endured some surprises.

  • I was a little surprised DeSmith was unable to secure at least a backup job. Obviously, the Penguins were right in choosing Jarry, but it was still jarring. After all, DeSmith managed a sturdy .917 save percentage over 50 games played for the Penguins between 2017-18 and 2018-19. Frankly, his contract extension ($1.25M AAV through 2021-22) looked like a steal at the time.
  • Instead, the Penguins demoted DeSmith, which carried another surprise: no other NHL team snatched him up. Yes, it’s difficult to find room during the waiver period right before a season starts, but DeSmith’s cheap contract and track record made him intriguing.

The 2019-20 season ended up being pretty rocky for DeSmith. He only managed a mediocre 18-18-2 record and equally mediocre .905 save percentage in the AHL.

Such stretches make it tougher to sell the idea of the Penguins getting much for DeSmith in a potential trade. During 2019-20, burying his cap hit in the minors cost the Penguins $175K. It seems unlikely that will happen again going forward, but who knows?

Tough calls for Penguins with goalies

My guess is that the Penguins will go with DeSmith as a backup to either Murray or Jarry. It’s tough to gauge the wisest course. Jarry could be cheaper, and may very well continue to provide superior play. Then again, the stakes are high for the Penguins, so if they’re wrong, it could wreck one of the precious remaining seasons they have as contenders. Would it be better to hope Murray can stay consistent and healthy, even at a higher rate, then?

There’s also an outside-the-box solution, such as dipping into the pool of free agent goalies.

It’s easy to see why Rutherford describes tough decisions. That said, there are multiple goalies who could work out for the Penguins, which is not an argument every NHL contender can make.

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: Devante Smith-Pelly sees how COVID-19 disrupts KHL

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.

• Devante Smith-Pelly experienced quite the coronavirus-related disruption. As a member of Beijing-based KHL team Kunlun, he’s had quite the couple of months. William Douglas continued his great “Color of Hockey” feature for NHL.com by looking at Smith-Pelly’s journey, including “the road trip became a 35-day odyssey that contributed to Kunlun spending 58 of the last 67 days of the season outside of Beijing.” Wow.

Looking forward, DSP hopes to return to the NHL in the future. (NHL.com)

• Penguins GM Jim Rutherford discussed the team’s contingency plans for various scenarios, and how the organization is communicating during the pause. Stories like these can also be fun when you find out a little bit more about the person involved. In Rutherford’s case, he said that he also really misses baseball. While watching decades-old Pirates games brings Rutherford some joy, it’s not the same as new games live. (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

• If play resumes, there are a lot of potential hiccups, including the loathed rust. But Avalanche GM Joe Sakic sees the benefits of rest, too: namely, players getting healthier. (Mile High-Sticking)

• What if the NHL allows teams compliance or “amnesty” buyouts, what with the cap ceiling possibly staying flat or even shrinking? Blue Seat Blogs takes an interesting look at hypothetical buyouts for the Rangers. The choices range from obvious (Marc Staal, Brendan Smith) to tricky but logical (Henrik Lundqvist) to a bold mulligan in Jacob Trouba. Fascinating. (Blue Seat)

• Plenty of teams should consider adding a big, talented, right-handed defenseman like Dustin Byfuglien if he isn’t simply going to retire. Here’s a look at how such a setup might work with the Coyotes. By Five for Howling’s parameters, I’m not sure if that would be the right fit for Big Buffy. (Five for Howling)

• The Senators hired Anthony LeBlanc as their new president of business operations. You may remember LeBlanc from his lengthy run as co-owner of the Coyotes. LeBlanc seems to be a busy fellow, as he’s also trying to bring a CFL team to the Halifax area. (Ottawa Sun)

• As someone who misses the brief-but-brilliant days where the Dallas Stars were aggressive and fun with Tyler Seguin on the roster, it’s nice to see other observers asking for the team to change their style from the current, very defensive-minded leaning. Could such a plan require an outside-the-box (and outside of North America) coaching hire? (Defending Big D)

• The Devils face tough decisions, including on two “interims” (GM Tom Fitzgerald and head coach Alain Nasreddine). They also must figure out what to do with Cory Schneider. Would a buyout or trade make sense, or should they just see what he can accomplish in 2020-21? (NJ.com)

• Meghan Chayka helped organize Zoom sessions cheekily titled “Hockey (Analytics) Night in Canada.” Read more about it at Sportsnet. (Sportsnet)

• Rotoworld held a mock draft for the 2020-21 season. Check out the results, along with interesting insight from Ryan Dadoun, who has frequently contributed to PHT. (Rotoworld)

• Travis Yost takes “All-Decade Teams” a step further. Rather than merely picking a handful of players from around the league, Yost targets selections for each NHL squad. While that’s a more expansive effort, it will provide people with an opportunity to argue about picks. That’s what is really important, right? (TSN) Sznajder

• Corey Sznajder provided a very detailed breakdown of a memorable 1996 Game 7 between the Blues and Red Wings. This stuff goes much deeper than that iconic Steve Yzerman goal, as you’ll quickly realize. (The Energy Line)

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.

What is the Penguins’ long-term outlook?

Pittsburgh Penguins
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Penguins’ core is mostly the same as it has been for the past 15 years, and it is the trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.

They are all into their 30s at this point, and there will come a time in the not-too-distant future that they really start to slow down, but for now they remain the foundation of a Stanley Cup contending team.

Along with them there is a pretty strong supporting cast in place, and one that is probably a lot younger than you might realize. Even though they have made a habit of trading draft picks and prospects to strengthen their championship chases (as they should have) they have done a nice job replenishing the cupboard around their superstars. Especially over the past year.

Jake Guentzel (signed for five more years at $6 million per season) has become a star and one of their best home-grown players in years, while John Marino, Marcus Pettersson, and Jared McCann have been strong additions from the outside.

Bryan Rust has shown what he is capable of in an expanded role and carries a very affordable salary cap hit for the next two years, while Jason Zucker seems like an outstanding fit in their top-six while also being signed for three more full seasons after this one.

Brian Dumoulin remains a perfect complement for Letang on the top defense pair (while also being signed for three more seasons) while they have two very good young goalies in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry that are still under team control for the next few years.

Long-Term Needs

They have some long-term salary cap restrictions, but that has been a constant theme for them for the better part of the Crosby-Malkin era. It just comes with the territory of being a contending team with superstar players. They do have a couple of contracts that will probably get dumped one way or another before they expire (Jack Johnson, Nick Bjugstad, maybe even Brandon Tanev a couple of years down the line).

The salary cap crunch could also create a little headache this offseason as they work to re-sign some key restricted free agents like McCann, Murray, and Jarry.

The latter two also create an interesting situation because both have the potential and ability to be outstanding goalies in the NHL. They also have both showed it (Murray more than Jarry). But juggling that contract situation is going to be interesting, especially as they figure out what sort of financial commitment to make with Murray.

He is a two-time Stanley Cup winner. But he has had some ups and downs over the past two seasons. How much can they commit to him, and for how long?

While they have done a great job of having a steady pipeline of talent come through their system to complement the stars, there is going to come a point where they will need to develop another truly high-end player when Crosby and/or Malkin are no longer able to carry the team. That time is not yet here, but it will eventually arrive.

Long-Term Strengths

The bottom line is the Penguins still have a couple of Hall of Famers and All-Star level players on their roster. They are still players that can take over and dominate games. As long as they have that, they have the most important ingredient for contending.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Jake Guentzel are the type of players you win championships with. The Penguins have won multiple championships with them and been one of the league’s most successful teams by every objective measure. There will come a time when the window really does close on this core and a rebuild is needed, but that time is not here just yet. It may not be here for a couple of more years.

For as much money as they have committed to their core, and for as tight as their salary cap situation may be, they do have some pretty significant long-term contracts that are team-and cap-friendly. The trio of Guentzel, Rust, and Dumoulin is an outstanding secondary group of stars, and together they account for less than $14 million against the cap for the next couple of years. Even Crosby and Malkin are making far less than they could be. Every little bit of savings counts and helps make the rest of the team that much stronger.

They also have Mike Sullivan behind the bench who has done some of his best work this season.

MORE Penguins:
 Looking at the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins
Penguins biggest surprises and disappointments so far

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.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

The emergence of John Marino

General manager Jim Rutherford faced some intense — and at times very justified — criticism for some of his roster moves before and during the 2018-19 season. He rebounded in a big way this past offseason. The signing of Brandon Tanev turned out better than expected, while they seemed to have parted ways with Phil Kessel at the exact right time. The most important move, though, was the acquisition of defenseman John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers this past summer for the bargain basement price of a conditional sixth-round draft pick.

The Penguins immediately liked Marino’s potential thanks to an outstanding training camp performance, but no one could have possibly anticipated the impact he has made.

Marino has helped completely transform the Penguins’ defense, adding mobility, puck skills, and shutdown defense to the team’s top-four. He has quickly become a significant part of their blue line and given his entry-level contract situation is going to be a steal against the salary cap in the short-term.

He should be considered part of their long-term core.

Justin Schultz‘s tough year

This was always going to be an important year for Schultz and the Penguins.

From a team perspective, they needed him to have a big year to help solidify their defense after he was limited to just 29 games a year ago.

When Schultz has been at his best in Pittsburgh he has been a productive player offensively and a major asset on the power play. He needed to be put into a specific role, but he has at times excelled at it.

He was also entering a contract year with something to prove. A big year for him would have made him a hot commodity on the free agent market this summer. But it did not really work out that way.

Schultz not only missed more time due to injury, but he struggled at times when he was in the lineup at both ends of the ice. He has never been a shutdown player defensively, but his ability to produce offensively was always a positive. But this season even that aspect of his game disappeared for him. It has ended up being his most disappointing season in Pittsburgh and it could not have come at a worse time for him given his contract situation.

Tristan Jarry pushes Matt Murray

The Penguins have always had high hopes for Tristan Jarry and given his draft position (first goalie taken in his draft class) he has always come with a lot of pedigree. The potential has always been there. Still, he was facing an uphill battle when it came to making the opening roster this season with Matt Murray (a two-time Stanley Cup winner) and Casey DeSmith (who had just signed a long-term contract extension) in place.

Because Jarry counted less against the salary cap, he ended up starting the season as the backup to Murray and used that opportunity to start playing his way into the starting position.

Or at least challenging for it.

Jarry has been the Penguins’ most productive goalie this season (.921 save percentage to Murray’s .899), started to get the bulk of the starts in the middle of the season, and played his way into the 2020 NHL All-Star Game.

Both goalies are restricted free agents after this season and it is going to be fascinating to watch how this situation plays out.

The non-stop injuries

It is not just that the Penguins have had to deal with a ton of injuries this season that has been a disappointment for them. It is the fact that it has been their top players.

Just a quick run down on which players have missed games this season.

That is a lot. Through it all, the Penguins have remained in contention for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, or at the very least, home-ice advantage in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs all season.

Bryan Rust has a breakout season offensively

Since becoming a regular in the lineup during the 2015-16 season Rust has been an outstanding “glue” guy in the Penguins’ lineup. He can play all over the lineup and contribute in any role. He is not out of place on the first line, he can handle himself defensively, he is an outstanding penalty killer, and he just does everything well.

This season his game has gone to an even higher level thanks to a breakout performance offensively, recording 56 points (27 goals, 29 assists) in 55 games. He has set career highs in every meaningful offensive category.

The biggest part of that emergence has just been the simple fact he has been able to take on a bigger role with more ice-time, and especially on the power play, allowing his offense to shine.

MORE PENGUINS:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins
Examining the Penguins long-term outlook

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.