Justin Schultz

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Penguins questions include defense, trade bait, and Malkin’s bounce-back

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Three pressing questions for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Is the defense good enough?

In the opinion of general manager Jim Rutherford, yes. He has repeatedly defended the construction of his defense and at one point even went as far as to call it the best defense he has had during his time in Pittsburgh. High praise considering he has been in Pittsburgh for two Stanley Cup winning teams.

This team, though, is not coming off of a Stanley Cup win and there is little objective evidence to suggest this defense is anything better than ordinary. They were 12th in the NHL in goals against this past season and even that ranking was driven significantly by the performance of Matt Murray in net thanks to some of the best play of his career from mid-December on.

As a team, the Penguins were one of the worst teams in the league at preventing shots, average in preventing scoring chances, and a little below average on the PK. They have one great defense pairing in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin (one of the best pairings in all of hockey) and then a bunch of flawed players and question marks after that. Other than shipping out Olli Maatta over the summer, the Penguins have done nothing else to change the look of their defense. Rutherford obviously believes in this group, and he is taking a pretty big bet that he is right.

2. Who is the next salary cap casualty or trade chip?

This is probably more of a preseason question than a question for the season, but somebody has to go.

Trading Phil Kessel was supposed to alleviate some of the salary cap crunch, but taking Alex Galchenyuk as part of the return and signing Brandon Tanev in free agency quickly erased that savings. Add that to the returning contracts for Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson and the Penguins have a significant chunk of money going to depth players that probably are not moving them closer to another championship. It has put them in a position where they have to move out someone else.

As it stands, they are slightly over the salary cap and still have to re-sign RFA Marcus Pettersson. After this season, Galchenyuk, Justin Schultz, Jared McCann, Dominik Simon and starting goalie Matt Murray will be in line for new contracts. So who goes?

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

Johnson or Gudbranson could be an option to go off the blue line and would probably the ideal trade bait, while Bryan Rust or Nick Bjugstad seem like logical candidates at forward.

3. Will Evgeni Malkin bounce back?

It is a good bet that he will.

The final offensive numbers from this past season look good (better than a point-per-game average) and he had a great start to the season, but his production really slumped over the final three quarters of the season and especially at even-strength. His defensive game was also lacking and he will be the first to say the 2018-19 season was not his best. He can be better, and the Penguins need him to be better. Malkin is a proud player and will no doubt be motivated to show this past season was a fluke and that he is still one of the league’s best and most dominant players. A driven Malkin playing at his best is a season-changing player, and if he gets back to that level it will be more valuable to the Penguins than any other potential offseason addition could have been.

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.

Same old questions remain for Oilers

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers.

1. Who will help Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl?

Our Joey Alfieri already touched on this when he looked at the Oilers’ depth scorers being under pressure to produce more, but this really is the single biggest question facing the Oilers this season. Just as it was last year. And the year before. And the year before that.

Unless James Neal finds a time machine and goes back to his age 26 or 27 seasons, or the team figures out a way to salvage the development of Jesse Puljujarvi before it sends him away for some magic beans it’s hard to see where this improvement comes from.

How top-heavy has the Oilers’ lineup been over the past two years? Some numbers for you.

  • With McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Oilers have outscored teams by an 88-67 (plus-21) margin and controlled more than 52 percent of the shot attemepts.
  • With only ONE of them on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 136-115 (minus-21) and controlled only 49 percent of the shot attempts.
  • With NEITHER of them on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 151-106 (minus-45) and controlled just 48 percent of the shot attempts.

When their top two players are not on the ice the Oilers are playing at the level of an early 1990s expansion team.

It is appalling to have what might be the best offensive duo in the league and still be so far away from the playoffs.

Does acquiring James Neal in a swap of bad salaries (in what should be an upgrade) and signing some cheap, reclamation project free agents do enough to help move the needle closer to the playoffs?

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

2. How will they stop teams?

Here is a set of numbers for you to ponder: 25, 25, 8, 28, 30, 30, 19, 23, 28, 30, 22, 26, 16

What are those numbers representing? They are where the Oilers have ranked in goals against (starting with this past season on the left and moving backwards) dating back to the start of the 2006-07 season. Average finish: 24th. The one outlier (the eighth place year) was when Cam Talbot pretty much stood on his head in net and was eventually run into the ground due to a ridiculous workload.

The Oilers are bringing back mostly the same cast of characters on defense that haven’t been good enough, and barring an unexpected miracle they don’t really have a goalie that should be a serious threat to steal games. Mikko Koskinen‘s contract looks to be a mess, while Mike Smith is coming off the worst season of his career and is entering his age 37 season.

This all seems like a tough recipe to make work.

Dave Tippett has a reputation for being a defensive coach (a reputation he doesn’t really seem to like) and is very respected around the league, but how much of an impact can a coach make with a thin defense and two massive question marks in goal? Even if McDavid and Draisaitl repeat their magic and they find some respectable second-line scoring can they actually stop enough teams for any of it to matter?

3. What changes will Ken Holland make?

Holland has two cornerstone players that are already among the best in the league and haven’t even hit their peak years in the NHL yet. It is a great starting point. That is the good news. The bad news is that even though he has McDavid and Draisaitl to start building around he still has what might be the most daunting rebuilding job of any general manager in the NHL. Not only because he has a ton of holes to plug, but because he has to deal with the pressure that is not wasting anymore of McDavid’s best years in the league.

In the past, the Oilers have tried to shake things up by dealing players that were once considered part of the core (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz). They not only failed to capitalize on those trades, but they have quickly run out of such players to deal.

Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins be next? Oscar Klefbom? It seems to only be a matter of time until Puljujarvi gets moved.

No matter who it is, he is going to have to make significant changes to get this team out of its current situation.

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.

Penguins trade Maatta to Blackhawks for Kahun, draft pick

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made it clear that changes were coming to his team this offseason.

On Saturday evening he made his first one.

The Penguins announced that they have traded defender Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for forward Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round draft pick that originally belonged to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It is a trade that accomplishes quite a bit for both teams.

First, from the Pittsburgh side, it clears up a log-jam the team had on its blue line with as many as eight NHL defenders either under contract or under team control (Marcus Pettersson is a restricted free agent) for this season. That alone made it seem likely that someone was going to be on the move, and especially after the team’s defensive play regressed again this past season and had a particularly brutal playoff run against the New York Islanders. By trading Maatta, it not only clears a roster spot but also sheds more than $3 million in salary cap space given that Kahun is still on an entry-level contract and counts only $925,000 against the cap for the 2019-20 season.

It also gives them some much-needed youth at forward.

Even after Maatta’s departure the Penguins still have a lot of questions to deal with on defense, where Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson are still taking up more than $7 million in salary cap space over the next few seasons (not ideal!), while Justin Schultz is an unrestricted free agent after this season. Will more players be on the move to address that position? Or does this just make it more likely the returning players take on bigger roles and are more set in the lineup? Based on what we have seen the past few seasons more changes are going to be needed.

The 23-year-old Kahun scored 13 goals and added 24 assists for the Blackhawks in 82 games this past season, his first full year in the NHL.

The addition of the draft pick also gives the Penguins six picks in this year’s draft: A first, a fourth, two fifths, and two sevenths.

As for Chicago, Maatta joins a defense that has needed an overhaul for a few years now and provides a fresher, younger face in the lineup. Even though Maatta has six years of NHL experience under his belt he will still only be 25 years old when the 2019-20 season begins. His career has gone through some extreme ups and downs. When he made his debut during the 2013-14 season he looked like a player that had legitimate top-pairing potential in the NHL could be on his way to becoming a cornerstone player in Pittsburgh. But in the years that followed he had to overcome cancer and an extensive list of injuries that sidetracked his career and led to some pretty significant regressions across the board. Injuries have still been an issue before him in recent seasons, but he seems to have understood his limitations and adjusted to the sort of game he has to play to make a positive impact.

He is not going to bring much speed to the Blackhawks’ blue line, and he tends to play a more conservative game when it comes to defending entries at the blue line, but he is a sound player in his own end and while he lacks top-end speed, is still very good with the puck on his stick. When he is at his best, he plays a clean, quiet game that will not get noticed (and there is nothing wrong with that; not everyone is going to be Erik Karlsson).

The problem is he is still prone to getting beat by faster forwards and when it happens it can at times look bad, which then leads to criticism.

He appeared in 60 games for the Penguins in 2018-19, scoring one goal and 14 total points. He averages around five goals and 25 total points over 82 games.

He has three years remaining on a contract that carries a salary cap hit of just over $4 million per season. He alone is not going to fix all of the Blackhawks’ shortcomings on defense, but he is not a bad addition, either.

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.

Penguins GM doesn’t expect to trade Kessel

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Maybe the Pittsburgh Penguins won’t trade Phil Kessel during this offseason, after all.

A few weeks ago, reports surfaced that Kessel decided not to waive his no-trade clause to complete a deal to the Minnesota Wild. The added obstacle of such a clause inspired an uncomfortable question: could the Penguins really “win” a trade involving Kessel?

It sounds like Penguins GM Jim Rutherford’s answer might be “No, at least not right now.”

Rutherford touched base with The Athletic’s Josh Yohe on several interesting topics (sub required), including the fact that he doesn’t expect to trade Kessel during the summer. Whether that’s totally Rutherford’s preference, or if it’s merely a reality he must accept, is up to interpretation. This quote makes it clear that the no-trade clause is certainly a factor:

“You have to understand that he has a no-trade clause and a lot of leverage,” Rutherford said. “In situations like this, it usually doesn’t work out so well for the team. That’s just the way it is. So, at this point, it looks to me that he will return at this season. That’s how I’m proceeding moving forward.”

Rutherford makes a point that should be emphasized: the Penguins don’t have to trade Kessel. This isn’t an emergency situation, and considering the context of a no-trade clause backing Pittsburgh into a corner, it’s possible that they’d only make things worse if they actually found at trade Kessel would OK.

Kessel’s 31, which isn’t the absolutely ideal age, but it’s not exactly ancient, either. His $6.8 million cap hit has been quite friendly to the Penguins over the years, and while it is more imposing as he gets older, it’s still a pretty fair price. While the aging curve could make it more of a detriment, it also isn’t the most dire situation, as it expires after 2021-22. Maybe the Penguins would prefer to spend their money on a younger player, but it’s not exactly an albatross.

(And, again, if it starts to really go sideways, at least the term isn’t too brutal. This isn’t a Milan Lucic situation.)

Kessel had exactly a point per game while playing the full 2018-19 regular season (82 in 82), with 27 of those points being goals. He was even more explosive in 2017-18, scoring 34 goals and 92 points in another full season, and Kessel’s been electric during the playoffs.

There aren’t a lot of Kessels out there: reasonably priced players who suit up for virtually every game, while delivering precious goals and impressive playoff production. You’re even less likely to find that sort of player at a reasonable $6.8M cap hit.

Now, it’s also true that Kessel is starting to show signs of age-related decline, and the once-excessive criticisms of his defensive work are now more valid. There’s more of a debate regarding whether Kessel brings more to the table than he takes away than ever before, or at least that debate’s become credible, rather than an obnoxious way to scapegoat a person who marches to the beat of their own drum.

There’s also the stuff that doesn’t show up on charts. If Kessel isn’t getting along with head coach Mike Sullivan or his teammates, that’s not ideal.

Yet, it’s also true that sports teams often succeed even when everyone isn’t best buddies.

If a Kessel trade can’t happen, it’s not ideal, but it’s also not the end of the world for the Penguins. For all we know, that clause might just protect the Penguins from themselves. After all, they haven’t exactly been making the best decisions lately.

Plenty of other decisions

Again, the Penguins didn’t get swept by the Islanders because of Kessel.

This team has other problems, and other choices to make, so it was interesting to read Rutherford’s other comments to Yohe.

  • Rutherford shot down talk of trading Evgeni Malkin, which is probably the most important point of all. You’re … probably not going to win a trade involving Malkin if you’re the Penguins.
  • Rutherford was noncommittal when it came to possibly extending Matt Murray and Justin Schultz, while giving a similar answer regarding Mike Sullivan. All three are set to enter contract years.

Murray is an especially interesting consideration. The Penguins were able to extend Murray in 2016 after he won the first of two Stanley Cups as a rookie. Pittsburgh did a nice job walking a tightrope, inking Murray for an economical $3.75M per year cap hit, even though he just won that Cup, in part because Marc-Andre Fleury was still on the roster. Then, MAF was gone to Vegas in the expansion draft after the Penguins’ repeat, and Pittsburgh still had a starter at a friendly price.

Injuries have lowered Murray’s value, and his perceived standing in the league, but maybe that context would allow Pittsburgh to extend him once more on a team-friendly contract?

Rutherford indicated that he has bigger fish to fry, what with trying to clear up some cap space and sign some RFAs, and that’s fair. Still, if I were Rutherford, I’d certainly try to line something up before 2019-20. As Rutherford mentioned, Murray went on a hot streak toward the end of last season, and could easily make his value skyrocket if he’s a) healthy and b) productive next season.

The 25-year-old is still set for RFA status after his current deal expires, which is another point in favor of the Penguins doing a great job with that deal. It’s plausible that the Penguins might get a relative bargain if they’re proactive here, and when you consider their cap challenges, getting a high-quality, prime-age goalie at a below-market rate is pretty crucial.

  • Again, Rutherford rightly said he wants to clear up cap space.

The dream would be to shed Jack Johnson‘s contract, which was baffling the day it was signed, and only looks more ill-advised today.

The Penguins should consider other painful choices, and one that sticks out is Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist is a very nice player, when he can stay on the ice. Unfortunately, his hard-nosed style makes that challenging, and it’s only likely to become more of a challenge as time goes on. At 32, Hornqvist’s $5.3M through 2022-23 is pretty scary, particularly since he has to go to dirty areas to score, whereas players like Kessel are better able to produce while also limiting their vulnerability to injuries.

So, overall, the Penguins are reasonable in not trying to force a Kessel trade, at least not while he’s not on board. Trading other players, however, would likely be wise — and probably necessary.

MORE ON KESSEL, PENGUINS

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’ Schultz leaves game after falling awkwardly on leg

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This one’s not for the faint of heart.

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz needed to be helped off the ice after getting hit by Montreal Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec.

It wasn’t the hit, per se, that caused the issue, but rather Schultz falling backward awkwardly with his ankle twisted underneath him.

The result wasn’t pretty.

Schultz had four assists in three games coming into Saturday’s action and is a fixture in the Pens’ top four on the blue line, logging 17:34 per game so far this year.

It goes without saying, but the loss of Schultz for any length of time would be a major blow to the Penguins.

UPDATE:


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