Kris Letang

Penguins
Getty

Help appears to be on the way for Penguins

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.

NHL On NBCSN: What’s behind Bryan Rust’s breakout season

Penguins
Getty

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After a two-year detour the Pittsburgh Penguins have rediscovered their championship identity. They are playing fast, they revamped their defense to add mobility, and they have a balanced lineup (when healthy) with four lines that can contribute. They enter Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) as one of the league’s best teams and it is the usual suspects at the top leading the way for them.

Sidney Crosby has played like the best player in the world. Evgeni Malkin is rebounding from a down year in 2018-19 and is playing some of the best hockey of his career. Kris Letang has been great at the top of a dramatically improved defense, and Jake Guentzel was on track for a second straight 40-goal season before his injury. They also have had an infusion of young talent into the lineup (John Marino, Jared McCann, Dominik Kahun, and Teddy Blueger) to make an impact.

The surprising star of this team so far, however, has been the breakout performance of veteran forward Bryan Rust.

He enters Tuesday’s game with 21 goals and 43 total points, both of which are already new career highs. He has done that in only 35 games. That is an 82-game pace for 49 goals and 100 points!

Let’s dig into this.

Continuation of his 2018-19 finish

Rust has always been a valuable part of the Penguins’ lineup since becoming a regular in the middle of the 2015-16 season. He is an excellent defensive forward, he brings a ton of speed to the lineup, and he has always been able to chip in offense. He also has the versatility to fit into any role the team needs, whether it be as a first-line winger, a penalty killer, or a third-line winger. That solid all-around play earned him a four-year, $14 million contract extension that began a year ago.

But 30 games into that contract he scored just one goal, and it was easy to conclude that he was one of the players general manager Jim Rutherford was talking about when he criticized the team’s performance early on and that maybe some players had become content with their Stanley Cup rings and big pay days. But starting with a game on Dec. 12, 2018, Rust has been one of the most productive forwards in the entire league. He finished the 2018-19 season with 17 goals in his final 42 games (a 33-goal pace over 82 games), and in his past 77 games dating back to last season has 38 goals and 71 total points.

The Malkin effect?

Rust has spent a significant portion of his ice-time this season playing on a line next to Malkin, and there is no doubt that has helped give his production a boost. Those two have been magic together this season, and were even better when paired next to Guentzel before his injury. While it is fair to point that out, it should also be noted that a significant portion of Rust’s 5-on-5 ice-time over the previous three seasons has come on a line next to either Malkin or Crosby. So it’s not like this is the first time he’s ever played with a superstar center.

The biggest factor at play…

He is getting a more significant role in the offense

With Phil Kessel traded and all of the injuries (including Rust himself) they dealt with in the first half, the Penguins needed to someone to step in a top-line role. While Rust had seen a lot of top-line minutes in previous years, he has received consistent top-line minutes this season. That has been his role from the minute he returned to the lineup, and it has not only resulted in more time with Malkin, it has also simply resulted in more ice-time overall.

Entering play on Tuesday his ice-time average is a career-high 19:54 per game. That is a four minute per game jump from any of his previous seasons in the NHL. More ice-time means more opportunities. More opportunities more shots. All of that together means more goals.

While he has seen a slight boost to his shooting percentage (19.2 percent this season versus 12.4 percent the previous three seasons) the increased shot volume (3.1 shots per game versus 1.88 the previous three years) is probably the biggest driving factor here, and more ice-time has played a significant role in that.

The power play opportunity

Before this season Rust had played just 92 minutes on the power play in his entire career (22 seconds per game, mostly on the second unit) and had just five total power play points. This season? In 35 games he has already played 80 minutes on the power play and as of Tuesday has five goals and 12 total points on the power play.

Big picture, what you are seeing here this season is a talented player have the perfect confluence of events come together for a career year: A slight bump in shooting percentage, more ice-time, more ice-time with a great player, and an opportunity to play a meaningful role on the power play.

You should not expect him to maintain a 50-goal, 100-point pace forever, but if he keeps getting this sort of ice-time and opportunity there is every reason to believe he can continue to exceed his previous performances.

Gord Miller, Mike Milbury and AJ Mleczko will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET, hosted by Kathryn Tappen and analysts Keith Jones and Ben Lovejoy.

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.

The Buzzer: Crosby’s return, Matthews’ hat trick, Kubalik’s hot streak

1 Comment

Three Stars

1. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins. He made his return to the lineup on Tuesday night and dominated the Minnesota Wild with four points (one goal, three assists) in a 7-3 win. Along with his sixth goal of the season, he also made one of the plays of the night (see it below) to set up Dominik Simon for a highlight reel goal. Read more about his return to the lineup here.

2. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs. This seems like the type of game the Maple Leafs are going to be winning a lot of, especially given the current state of their defense. They score seven goals, had one of their stars (Matthews) record a hat trick, they gave up a hat trick (to Blake Coleman) and held on for a 7-4 win. Matthews’ three goal performance on Tuesday gives him 34 goals for the season and puts him on pace for 59 goals over 82 games. He is just six goals away from matching his career high (40). He is also just two goals behind David Pastrnak (36 goals) for the league lead.

3. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks appeared to be on their way to an ugly loss to the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night after giving up two early goals. The trio of Kubalik, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane was not going to let that happen. Kubalik extended his current goal-scoring streak to five consecutive games by netting a pair of goals to send the game to overtime, setting the stage for Toews’ game-winning goal early in the extra period. Kubalik is having an outstanding rookie season for the Blackhawks and has now scored 18 goals on the season. That is second best on the team, trailing only Kane. The Blackhawks still sit six points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference but they really needed this win given how difficult their upcoming schedule is.

Other notable performances from Tuesday

  • Elvis Merzlikins recorded his second straight shutout for the Columbus Blue Jackets as they beat the Boston Bruins 3-0 to move back into a tie for the second Wild Card spot with the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference. Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask was injured in this game after being hit in the head. Read more about that here.
  • Brock Nelson scored two goals and was one of seven Islanders to record at least two points in an 8-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings.
  • Connor Hellebuyck stopped all 41 shots he faced on Tuesday night (and tried to score a goal!) to help lead the Winnipeg Jets to a 4-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks.
  • The Tampa Bay Lightning overcame a 2-0 deficit to rally for a 4-3 shootout win over the Los Angeles Kings.
  • Big night for the Coyotes as Phil Kessel, Taylor Hall, Conor Garland, and Derek Stepan all had three points in a 6-3 win over the San Jose Sharks to move them into sole possession of first place in the Pacific Division.
  • Leon Draisaitl scored a pair of goals to help lead the Edmonton Oilers to a big 4-2 win to help them keep pace with the rest of the teams in the Pacific Division race.
  • Esa Lindell‘s overtime goal completed the Dallas Stars’ against the Colorado Avalanche, giving them a 3-2 win.

Highlights of the Night

Filip Forsberg scores with the Lacrosse-style goal for the Nashville Predators. Read all about it here.

Sidney Crosby passes to himself off the back of the net then sets up Dominik Simon for the goal.

Jack Eichel scored the game-winning goal for the Buffalo Sabres in a 4-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights with this incredible display of speed and skill.

Blooper of the Night

No video to share, but it has to be Wild coach Bruce Boudreau making a pre-game mistake on his lineup card and forcing his team to play with a shorthanded defense for the entire game. Read all about it here.

Honorable mention goes to this crazy sequence at the start of the Jets-Canucks game where the Jets put the puck in the net three times within only 37 seconds, only to have just one of the goals actually count on the score board.

Factoids

  • Hellebuyk’s shutout is the 18th of his career and puts him in first place in Jets franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Kris Letang became the first Penguins defenseman to record 400 career assists with the team. [Penguins PR]
  • Eichel reached the 60-point mark in the Sabres’ 46th game of the season. He is the first Sabres player to record 60 points in 46 games or fewer since Alexander Mogilny and Pat Lafontaine. They both did it during the 1992-93 season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 4, Vegas Golden Knights 2
Toronto Maple Leafs 7, New Jersey Devils 4
Tampa Bay Lightning 4, Los Angeles Kings 3 (SO)
New York Islanders 8, Detroit Red Wings 2
Pittsburgh Penguins 7, Minnesota Wild 3
Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Boston Bruins 0
Chicago Blackhawks 3, Ottawa Senators 2 (OT)
Winnipeg Jets 4, Vancouver Canucks 0
Arizona Coyotes 6, San Jose Sharks 3
Edmonton Oilers 4, Nashville Predators 2
Dallas Stars 3, Colorado Avalanche 2 (OT)

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.

NHL All-Star Game: Vasilevskiy replaces Rask; Letang named Metro captain

NHL All-Star Game
Getty Images

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is having himself a pretty good Monday.

Along with being named the NHL’s first star of the week, he is also being added to the Atlantic Division All-Star team where he will replace Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.

This will be the third consecutive season that Vasilevskiy will appear in the NHL All-Star Game.

In 33 appearances this season he has a 22-9-2 record to go with a .915 save percentage.

While his overall numbers are down a bit for the season, he has started to get on a roll in recent weeks and has been nearly unbeatable since the start of December. He has been one of the players driving Tampa Bay’s climb back up the standings — including their recent 10-game winning streak — as they once again start to look like a Stanley Cup contender and one of the league’s elite teams.

By removing himself from the game, Rask will have to sit out one Bruins game immediately before or after the All-Star break.

Kris Letang named captain of Metropolitan Division team

The other piece of All-Star Game news on Monday is that Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang has been named captain of the Metropolitan Division team.

Alex Ovechkin had previously been captain of team, but decided to withdraw from the weekend festivities to rest and prepare himself for the second half of the regular season.

Letang was added to the game as a replacement for Pittsburgh teammate Jake Guentzel who is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury. This is Letang’s sixth All-Star game appearance. In 37 games so far this season he has 10 goals and 28 total points.

The NHL All-Star weekend will take place on January 24-25 in St. Louis.

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.