Penguins’ playoff exit was two years in the making

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The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from it.

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.

Malkin nearing return for Penguins, Letang still ‘day-to-day’

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After failing to clinch a playoff spot on Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings, the Pittsburgh Penguins will get another chance at it on Thursday when they return home.

They might be getting a little additional help for that game as well.

Superstar center Evgeni Malkin, who has been sidelined since March 16 with an upper-body injury he sustained when he was cross-checked by St. Louis Blues defender Robert Bortuzzo, was a full participant in practice on Wednesday and is officially a game-time decision for Thursday’s game.

Malkin said on Wednesday that his plan all along was to try and play in the final two games of the regular season.

“We’ll see tomorrow,” said Malkin when assessing his availability. “If I feel fine, I’ll have a chance to play. I’ll be ready.”

It will be a welcome sight for the Penguins whenever he returns. While they have managed to keep collecting points in the standings (they are 4-2-2 without him) the offense has dried up considerably, scoring just 18 goals in the past eight games. They managed just one on Tuesday night in Detroit. The top line, led by Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, has gone cold, and without Malkin to center the second line a lot of the pressure has fallen on the bottom-six to get some timely goals. And while they have been able to do that in recent games the Penguins still need their two big lines to be rolling if they are going to have a chance. Getting Malkin back will certainly help that.

Malkin has 71 points in 66 games this season for the Penguins.

The Penguins need just one more win to clinch a playoff spot.

After playing Detroit on Thursday, their regular season finale is against the New York Rangers on Saturday.

Making things even more complicated for the Penguins in recent weeks is that Malkin is not the only key injury they are dealing with.

Kris Letang, the team’s top defensemen, has also been sidelined and remains out of the lineup after briefly returning for three games in mid-March. He confirmed on Wednesday that the injury he is dealing with is related to the one that sidelined him in February and that he did not feel right when he initially returned. At this point he is still listed as “day-to-day.”

Brian Dumoulin, Letang’s regular partner on the top defense pairing, is also currently sidelined. He, too, is listed as being “day-to-day.”

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.

Parise, Letang key injuries in Monday’s playoff race

The Minnesota Wild have another massive game on Monday night as they try to get themselves back into the Western Conference playoff picture, and for the second game in a row they will have to play without one of their best forwards in Zach Parise.

Parise remains sidelined with a lower-body injury that also kept him out of Saturday’s blowout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said on Monday, via The Athletic’s Michael Russo, that they are hoping he is back sooner rather than later, but that right now “it is just hope.”

After trading Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund before the trade deadline, Parise is one of the few top-line scoring threats left on the team.

His 26 goals and 59 total points are both tops on the roster.

“As it goes we’re not a high-scoring team,” said Boudreau on Monday. “And you take out one guy with 26 goals it makes it a little more difficult. It makes it so you have to win the low-scoring games. Simple as that, you can’t play a run-and-game against a high offensive team.”

The Wild enter Monday’s game just two points out of a playoff spot but have only won three of their past 11 games. Two of those losses during that stretch were shootout losses to the Nashville Predators team they play on Monday.

[Related: Wild host Predators on NBCSN]

Minnesota’s remaining schedule is as brutal as it gets among playoff hopefuls in the Western Conference as every single one of their opponents is either in a playoff spot, or in direct competition with them for one. After hosting Nashville on Monday their remaining five games are against the Vegas Golden Knights, Arizona Coyotes, Boston Bruins, Winnipeg Jets, and Dallas Stars. Three of those teams (the Golden Knights, Jets and Bruins) are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, while the Stars are one of the toughest teams in the league to score against.

Parise is not the only significant injury on Monday’s slate of games.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will also be without their top defender, Kris Letang, when they visit the New York Rangers.

Letang had just returned from an injury that sidelined him for a couple of weeks and had been outstanding in his three games back in the lineup. According to Penguins coach Mike Sullivan Letang is “day-to-day” with an upper-body injury, and it is unknown if that injury is in anyway related to the one that had just sidelined him for 11 games. The Penguins were still able to go 7-2-2 during that stretch thanks in large part to the play of starting goaltender Matt Murray.

Letang was averaging more than 25 minutes of ice-time over the past three games, had a point in each one, and was a 55 percent possession player while the Penguins outscored teams by a 4-0 margin with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play. When he has been healthy this season he has returned to being one of the top defenders in the league after a down year during the 2017-18 season.

Along with Letang, the Penguins are still playing without center Evgeni Malkin and defender Olli Maatta.

Even though they have not yet officially clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, they have really solidified their spot with what is now a seven-point lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets and still have a chance to get home-ice advantage in the first round (they enter Monday just two points back of the New York Islanders) and an outside shot at perhaps even winning Metropolitan Division (three points back of the Washington Capitals).

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.

 

Isles’ Mathew Barzal impresses All-Star teammates

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SAN JOSE — Barry Trotz’s message to Mathew Barzal before he left for the 2019 NHL All-Star Game was simple.

“Take note of the top, top players, the absolute top players, how they interact with not only the fans, but other players and how prepared they are,” the New York Islanders head coach said earlier this week.

The 21-year-old Barzal was one of the youngest players to take part in All-Star Weekend and got to live out a dream playing with his idol, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. 

Set up with Crosby and Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, the trio helped guide the Metropolitan Division to the All-Star title, first topping the Atlantic Division 7-4 before winning the $1M prize after a 10-5 victory over the Central Division in the final. Barzal played his part scoring twice and assisting on two others. The three of them combined to score eight of their team’s 17 goals.

The extra space provided by the 3-on-3 format allowed Barzal to show off his puck-handling abilities and utilize the speed that helped him finish third in Friday’s Fastest Skater event. Those talents also impressed his All-Star teammates, who see a lot of him on the other side of the ice as division foes.

“The way he holds onto the puck, the way he skates, 3-on-3, I don’t know if there is anyone better when it comes to holding onto it,” said Crosby, who earned MVP honors. “The way that he can just beat you 1-on-1, beat you with his speed, hold onto it. You watch him out there against the best, I don’t see anyone that really beats him in that category.

“Five-on-5, he’s able to do that, so 3-on-3 with all that ice, seeing that firsthand, I’ve seen that a lot and today was another example of that.”

The extra space and having those two dynamic forwards on the ice helped create tough situations for the Atlantic and Central Division teams. Crosby and Letang have played together for 13 seasons in Pittsburgh, so there was already a chemistry built in between the Penguins teammates. Barzal’s skills only strengthened the trio.

“You already have a chemistry going and we added a tremendous player with Mathew, who was just skating everywhere carrying the puck,” said Letang. “I was just staying back making sure there was nothing happening behind us.”

“Sid just kind of said, ‘Just grab it and get us up the ice and we’ll find a spot,’ so, it was kind of cool,” Barzal said. “Those guys would pass me the puck and them working to get open and I was just trying to find them.”

Barzal, last season’s Calder Trophy winner, leads the Islanders in points through 49 games with 14 goals and 31 assists. In his second NHL season he’s helped guide the team to a surprising start — one that sees them atop their division. He’ll now get to remember this weekend and enjoy a few days off as the team begins its bye week before a big matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning at Nassau Coliseum on Friday.

“It’s obviously something I’m not going to forget,” Barzal said. “I’ve got my parents here this week, which is great. It’s just been really fun lately. Our Islander team’s been doing well and to come here and do well and get a chance to play with Sid and Letang and Claude [Giroux] and some new faces, it’s been a blast.”

MORE:
NHL All-Star Skills 2019: Winners, funny moments, Gritty
NHL All-Star Game 2019: Metro wins final, Crosby lands MVP
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Sharks soak in the love from fans during NHL All-Star Weekend

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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.

NHL All-Star Game: Draisaitl, Landeskog, Letang, Skinner voted ‘Last Men In’

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Jeff Skinner of the Buffalo Sabres, Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche, and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers have been added to the 2019 NHL All-Star rosters after fans elected them through the Last Men In vote.

Following the player announcement last week, the NHL left one spot open on each divisional roster for the new Last Men In competition. After a week of voting by fans, those four will be heading to All-Star Weekend in San Jose later this month.

According to the NHL, more than 11.5 million votes were cast over in the last week, including two million on Thursday, which was the final day of balloting.

Still to be announced is the new captain for the Metropolitan Division after Alex Ovechkin pulled out for more rest. And barring another injury replacement, the Montreal Canadiens will be the only team without a representative after Carey Price announced he would not be participating.

Here are the updated rosters:

Atlantic Division
F Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
F Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres (Last Men In vote)
F Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
F Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Captain)
F David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
F Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
F John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs
D Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators
D Keith Yandle, Florida Panthers
G Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings
G Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning*
(*Injury replacement for Carey Price)

Metropolitan Division
F Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes
F Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets
F Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
F Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
F Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
F Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils
D Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins (Last Men In vote)
D John Carlson, Washington Capitals
D Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
G Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
G Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
(*Captain Alex Oveckin pulled out.)

Central Division
F Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
F Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche (Last Men In vote)
F Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Captain)
F Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues
F Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
F Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
F Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets
D Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
D Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
G Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild
G Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

Pacific Division
F Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
F Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes
F Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Captain)
F Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (Last Men In vote)
F Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks
F Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
D Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
D Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
D Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks
G Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights
G John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE:
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NHL announces 2019 All-Star game coaches

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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.