Justin Schultz

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.

Help appears to be on the way for Penguins

Penguins
Getty

The solution to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ recent struggles is a simple one, and it appears to be on the verge of happening.

That solution: the return of a healthy Brian Dumoulin and John Marino on defense.

After both players were full participants in practice on Monday, coach Mike Sullivan confirmed they will be game-time decisions for the Penguins’ game against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night as they try to snap their current six-game losing streak.

Dumoulin skated next to Kris Letang at practice on Monday, while Marino was next to Marcus Pettersson.

Their pending returns is one of the biggest reasons general manager Jim Rutherford did not address the team’s blue line ahead of the NHL trade deadline. Given the way the team played defensively this season when both were healthy it’s not hard to see why they were willing to be patient.

Getting them back in the lineup not only gives the Penguins two of their top-four defensemen, it also helps get everyone else on defense back to the roles they are best suited for.

The Dumoulin impact

With Dumoulin sidelined the Penguins have been playing Jack Johnson in his spot on the top-pairing next to Letang. It has not only not worked, it has been one of the least productive defense pairings in the league by pretty much every objective measure.

Johnson had been effective earlier this season in a third-pairing role but recently was being asked to play too many minutes in a role he is simply not suited for.

Letang and Dumoulin, on the other hand, has been one of the league’s best defense pairings for the past three years. Since the start of the 2017-18 season there have 160 different defense pairings across the NHL that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey together. The Letang-Dumoulin pairing ranks among the top-25 in that group in shot attempt share, scoring chance share, and is a plus-17 overall in terms of goals. Dumoulin may not be a superstar, but he is a smart, defensively sound player that possesses enough mobility and puck skills to perfectly complement Letang. They simply work together exceptionally well.

Over that same time period, the Letang-Johnson duo ranks among the bottom-20 in the same categories and has been outscored by nine goals.

Do not overlook Marino’s impact

Marino has been one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season and has helped completely overhaul the Penguins’ defense.

He has not only been one of the best rookies in the NHL this season, he has been one of the most impactful defensive players in the entire league regardless of position or experience. Of the 517 players to log at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season Marino currently ranks 73rd in total shot attempts against per 60 minutes, 17th in expected goals against, 64th in scoring chances against, and 39th in high-danger chances against. Pretty much the top 10 percent of the league across the board.

It is not a coincidence that the team’s overall defensive performance started to trend in the wrong direction when he was sidelined a few weeks ago. It was also around that same time that they lost forward Zach Aston-Reese, one of their best defensive forwards and a huge part of their shutdown line alongside Brandon Tanev and Teddy Blueger.

Marino’s return allows allows Justin Schultz to slide down to the third pairing alongside Johnson, where they can be sheltered a bit more and not have to be relied on to play more than 20 minutes a night against the other team’s best players.

It is going to make everyone better.

Even with their current losing streak the Penguins are still within striking distance of the top spot in the Metropolitan Division and were 23-6-2 in the games prior to that.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

New-look Penguins play first game since trade deadline on NBCSN

Hockey fans get their first post-trade deadline glance at the new-look Penguins on Wednesday. Then again, it’s also true that later versions of the Penguins will look different from the group that faces the Kings on NBCSN at 10:30 p.m. ET (stream here).

Penguins roll out new trade deadline additions in these lineups — for now

Like many other NHL coaches, Mike Sullivan likes to tinker with his combinations. Injuries forced Sullivan to do so anyway this season, and the Penguins’ trade deadline investments now give him a plethora of options. When/if certain players come back, the variety will only grow.

Let’s go forward line by forward line based on NHL.com’s projected combos for Wednesday, since that’s where Pittsburgh made acquisitions.

Jason ZuckerSidney CrosbyConor Sheary

As new-look as the Penguins feel, there seems to be warm-and-fuzzy feelings for the reunion of Crosby and Sheary. Personally, I never understood why Pittsburgh broke them up in the first place. (Especially if the answer is troublingly “to afford bad defenseman Jack Johnson.”)

In a lineup breakdown from The Athletic’s Josh Yohe (sub required), both Crosby and Sheary amusingly described each other as easy to play with. Sullivan’s comments provided a little more substance.

“He brings a speed element,” Sullivan said of Sheary. “He can finish. He’s good in traffic. A lot of attributes that Conor brings to the table are complementary to Sid.”

Sheary can think the game at a reasonable level with Crosby, and the early returns on Zucker indicate the same. (On paper, Zucker seems like a no-brainer fit for Crosby, but in reality not everyone clicks with 87.)

Still, there are a number of different factors that could break these fellows up. What if Jake Guentzel beats the timeline for recovery from his shoulder surgery, at least for the playoffs? Will Penguins eventually want a right-handed shot with Crosby instead of two other lefties?

This seems like a good mix overall, at least to start, though.

Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Business as usual there, basically. Rust and Hornqvist can work with Crosby if needed, so that’s nice.

Patrick MarleauEvan RodriguesDominik Simon

Trade deadline additions make two-thirds of this third line, and the potential is interesting. Simon ranks as the most feasible candidate to move up, possibly with Crosby again. While Marleau ranks as a bigger name, Rodrigues stands out as a fascinating wild card.

People have been noting Rodrigues’ potential as a hidden gem for some time.

(His underlying numbers still look good at Hockey Viz, although things slipped a bit in 2019-20 compared to more robust work in 2017-18 and 2018-19.)

The sheer variety of useful players in the Penguins’ top nine is really something, especially when you realize that Jared McCann could end up being a more regular fit as third-line center. Nick Bjugstad already feels like old news, considering the revolving door of Penguins forwards, yet he’s another interesting player if health eventually permits.

Sam LaffertyTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Then you have what seems to be a pretty strong fourth line from a defensive standpoint. Quite a group.

(Oh yeah, and there’s also Zach Aston-Reese. Healthy scratches could eventually become straight-up awkward if most/everyone actually gets healthy.)

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Defense and other considerations for Penguins

NHL.com projects Pittsburgh’s Wednesday defensive pairings as such:

Jack Johnson — Kris Letang

Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz

Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Naturally, injuries have been a factor for the Penguins’ defense (and also goalies including Matt Murray). Moving past players who have worked past injuries like Letang and Schultz, Pittsburgh has some significant blueliners on the shelf. It’s possible Brian Dumoulin may return with time to shake off rust before the playoffs, while rookie revelation John Marino is recovery from surgery after a wayward puck broke bones in his cheek.

In other words … the Penguins’ defense could continue to look quite different as things go along, much like their forward groups.

Despite all that turbulence, the Penguins figure to be a formidable opponent, particularly after stocking up with Zucker, Sheary, Marleau, and Rodrigues in recent times. Catch your first look at that new-look group against the Kings on Wednesday on NBCSN.

More: Kings aim to upset 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 vs. Capitals: Crosby vs. Ovechkin, but also much more

NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Hockey fans sometimes bristle over the hype surrounding Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. It’s easy to see why. Not only are there other bright stars around the NHL, there’s also other great players on both teams.

There are, indeed, plenty of fun storylines as the Penguins and Capitals finally meet for the first time in 2019-20. But let’s not kid ourselves; Crosby vs. Ovechkin remains a lot of fun. And, hey, it’s even more fun when you throw Evgeni Malkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and other names into the mix.

Renewing the rivalries of Crosby vs. Ovechkin, Penguins – Capitals

Capitals head coach Todd Reirden said that the rivalry doesn’t “go away,” and that’s a great thing for the NHL.

” … But it clearly triggers upon Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as the main stars,” Reirden said, via NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. “There’s lots of stories beneath that, but the rivalry is outstanding and it’s amazing for hockey and I think will forever be remembered just like you talk about [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson in the NBA] or different rivalries that have gone on in sports.”

Sunday’s game marks the 50th regular-season meeting between Crosby and Ovechkin, and the 75th if you add in playoff skirmishes.

As you’d expect from two iconic superstars, some of the head-to-head numbers are staggering. Through 49 regular-season games against each other, Crosby has the edge in overall points (70 to 51) while Ovechkin scored more goals (30 to 24). Crosby’s Penguins won three of four playoff series, but Ovechkin had been more prolific (33 points to 30).

It’s almost too perfect that the winning team in all four Capitals – Penguins series of the Crosby – Ovechkin era went on to with that year’s Stanley Cup.

As John Carlson said, it’s great for the game.

And, again, you can’t deny some of the other stars involved.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

Take, for instance, the one-two punches of Crosby + Malkin and Ovechkin + Backstrom. Since 2005-06, when Crosby and Ovechkin got started, Crosby + Malkin boast the most combined points of any two teammates (2,299) while Ovechkin and Backstrom rank second (2,178).

(Imagine where Crosby + Malkin would be if they didn’t frequently deal with injuries that Ovechkin and Backstrom mostly found ways to avoid?)

With Ovechkin chasing 700 goals at 695, and both teams atop the Metropolitan Division, it’s just as easy to focus on the present as it is to marvel at the past.

[Look back at a big week, and really a big January, for Ovechkin.]

Plenty of other storylines

There are a lot of things to watch if you don’t want to adhere to Crosby – Ovechkin alone, or even if Backstrom and Malkin are too obvious for you.

“We’re fortunate to have a young up-and-coming goaltender that’s performed very well and a Stanley Cup, Vezina winner as well,” Reirden said, via NBC Sports Washington. “So we’re in a good situation.”

The Capitals have been there before, where an upstart goalie (first Philipp Grubauer, now Samsonov) outplays Holtby. If things shake out the same way again — with a Stanley Cup — they’d welcome this bit of turbulence.

Either way, there are a lot of storylines to watch on Sunday, so enjoy.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Brian Boucher will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington D.C. Sunday’s studio coverage on NBC will be hosted by Liam McHugh with analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury.

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.

NHL injury roundup: Jets’ Lowry out 4 weeks; Schultz, Krejci near returns

NHL Injury
Getty

Checking in on some injury situations around the NHL…

Jets lose Adam Lowry for a minimum of four weeks

The Winnipeg Jets have won just six of their past 18 games and have been dominated in their most recent two, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks by a 12-3 margin. Not great. Also not great is the fact coach Paul Maurice announced on Monday that forward Adam Lowry is going to be sidelined for a minimum of four weeks due to an upper-body injury.

Lowry isn not a big driver of the team’s offense (only four goals and 10 total points in 47 games) but he is a good defensive forward and a big loss for a team that doesn’t have a lot of depth to begin with. As of Monday, the Jets are three points back of a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.

Justin Schultz game-time decision for Penguins; Dominik Kahun has concussion

The Penguins could be getting one of their top defenseman back on Tuesday when they play the Philadelphia Flyers. Justin Schultz, sidelined since Dec. 17, was a full participant in practice on Monday and is not ruling out playing on Tuesday. Schultz is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer and would no doubt love to have a big second half to boost his value. In 27 games this season he has just two goals and eight total points for the Penguins. If he is able to return it is likely that either Chad Ruhwedel or Jusso Rikkola would sit.

In other Penguins injury news, coach Mike Sullivan announced on Monday that forward Dominik Kahun is going to be sidelined with a concussion that he suffered in Sunday’s come-from-behind win against the Boston Bruins. Kahun has been a great addition to the Penguins lineup this season bringing some much-needed youth, speed, and two-way play to their forward group. He has 10 goals and 27 total points in 48 games this season. Dominik Simon was also injured on Sunday, but was at practice on Monday and is considered a game-time decision for Tuesday.

Krejci back at practice for Bruins

After missing the past two games an upper-body injury, veteran forward David Krejci was back at Bruins practice on Monday in a non-contact jersey. Coach Bruce Cassidy said Krejci will “give it a go” in the morning skate on Tuesday before their game against Vegas, but there is no guarantee he can play.

Following Tuesday’s game the Bruins will have nine days off before their next game.

Starting goalie Tuukka Rask was also back on the ice on Monday and skated on his own before practice. He has been sidelined with a concussion after being hit in the head by Columbus’ Emil Benstrom. He is also not expected to play on Tuesday against the Golden Knights.

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.