Kris Letang

Old cogs, new tricks? Penguins eye reboot after flameout

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CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Penguins began the franchise’s longest offseason in more than a decade with general manager Jim Rutherford talking about the need for its stars to get past the complacency he feared had crept in during consecutive Stanley Cup title runs in 2016 and 2017. Head coach Mike Sullivan stressed the need for “100% buy-in” on a style of play that demands responsibility at both ends of the ice.

Yet after hinting at massive changes, Rutherford opted to take a scalpel to the roster instead of a chain saw.

Phil Kessel is now in Arizona. Olli Maatta is in Chicago. Otherwise, the group that takes the ice Thursday night against Buffalo in the season opener will look a lot like the one that was swept by the New York Islanders in the first round last spring. Whether the Penguins take a step forward following months of self-reflection will depend largely on whether a core group that includes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist and Kris Letang – all on the other side of 30 – can make the adjustments Sullivan is asking for.

“I think everybody has the ability to adapt to the role that they’re asked to play,” defenseman Jack Johnson said. “It’s just whether or not you want to do it. But everyone in here and the physical capabilities of doing it.”

Capability and willingness are two very different things. The Penguins have plenty of the former. It’s the latter that was lacking at crucial times last season, most notably during that four-game sweep at the hands of the Islanders. The logistics of training camp make progress tough to judge. A better gauge will likely come in a month. Yet Sullivan is upbeat about his team’s receptiveness to the message the staff has repeated incessantly since watching the Islanders celebrate at PPG Paints Arena last April.

“I sense a different attitude, a different mindset right now surrounding this team that for me is encouraging,” Sullivan said Wednesday. “I think when you go through some of the experiences that we went through, when don’t live up to your own expectations, it forces everyone involved to do a little bit of soul searching and figure out how can we get back on the right track.”

The path relies on the Penguins becoming more disciplined and persistent. No inattentive backchecking. No unnecessary risks without having the proper support behind you. No silly penalties that can blunt momentum. All three of them were issues for Malkin during perhaps the most difficult season of his career, and he knows it. The 33-year-old spent a significant portion of the summer back home in Russia focusing on his conditioning and rekindling a passion that ebbed and flowed last winter.

Malkin knows he was part of the problem during a year in which he scored just 21 goals and had a career-worst minus-25 plus/minus ratio. He’s just as eager to be part of the solution.

“We always talk about D-zone you know, turnovers, bad penalties,” Malkin said. “Couple things we need change, like my penalties. Turnovers in neutral zone. Sometimes we need to play simple. And also, first period when we lead (by a) couple goals, we need to play simple, play for team. … Small details, like (if we) fix it, we’ll be fine.”

Sullivan stressed he’s not asking his team’s high-end talent to completely overhaul the approach that’s made them champions. He would just like a renewed focus on the benchmarks of a team that can play into May and beyond.

“I think sometimes there’s a misperception that when I suggest that we need to be hard to play against, it just means physical play,” Sullivan said. “But it’s a whole lot more than that. It starts with our own decisions we make with and without the puck. So there’s a lot that goes into it. We try to define that for our guys specifically and we talk about it daily.”

How well his players translate the talk into action will determine whether Pittsburgh finds a way to keep pace in the hyper-competitive Metropolitan Division. For the first time in years, the Penguins are not among the favorites. Crosby remains at the top of his game in his early 30s. Yet there are questions on the bottom six and whether Alex Galchenyuk – acquired in the trade that sent Kessel to the Coyotes – can mesh with Malkin.

The margin for error Pittsburgh had several years ago has been erased by time and a league that has caught up to the speed advantage the Penguins enjoyed early in Sullivan’s tenure. They can still be among the league’s elite, but their wiggle room is gone. Still, Sullivan made it a point on Wednesday to gather his group and reinforce the belief that the window to be a contender during the Malkin/Crosby era is far from closed.

“I think we have the ability to be a really competitive hockey team,” he said. “But as I said to them, nothing is inevitable. We’ve got to go and earn it. We’ve got to earn it every day. It’s for real now.”

What should Penguins expect from Malkin?

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With the 2019-20 season approaching, we’re in that sweet time for NHL fans. Every team is undefeated, and our cups runneth over with “best shape of my life” articles.

To the credit of Rob Rossi’s piece on Evgeni Malkin at The Athletic (sub required), that piece goes far deeper than your typical offseason tropes. Rossi digs into Malkin’s seemingly frayed relationship with Phil Kessel, but also his struggles with isolation from his family, insecurities about language in America, and what was a tough 2018-19 season for “Geno.”

It’s a worthy read.

To some degree, the most “important” information comes at the conclusion of that lengthy article, as Malkin reveals that he wants to be with the Penguins over the long haul.

“It’s (a) huge next three years,” Malkin says. “I still want to play 100 percent — and sign (for) three more years with Pittsburgh.”

That’s an interesting comment, as few were really wondering all that much about Malkin’s status, being that his current $9.5 million cap hit runs through 2021-22. Still, with Malkin already 33 and Sidney Crosby now 32, questions about the Penguins’ future will only become more prominent.

That age related question figures in sharply with the most oft-asked non-Kessel-related questions revolving around Malkin’s offseason: can Malkin “bounce back,” and how much can he rebound?

Let’s dig into the details surrounding Malkin’s chances of answering those questions in a good way.

A body breaking down?

It’s tempting to give Malkin some leeway because he dealt with some injuries in 2018-19.

Unfortunately, it’s also tough to avoid the worry that, like with Letang, injuries might just be a consistent headache for Malkin. After all, hockey players with a ton of mileage on their frames don’t tend to get healthier at age 33 and beyond.

Malkin was limited to 68 games in 2018-19 after managing to appear in 78 in 2017-18. Unfortunately, 2017-18’s relatively healthy year feels like an outlier; Malkin averaged 62 games played from 2013-14 through 2016-17, and has been dogged by issues for a long time now.

To some extent, injuries might just be “the price of doing business” for Malkin, who thrives on occasionally trying to drive through multiple defenders, and who sometimes thrives on a sneaky nastiness. It brings a troubling thought to mind, then: even if Malkin stays on the ice, might his body betray him when he tries to dominate in the same ways as he did during his prime?

Rossi’s piece touches on that, discussing how Malkin sometimes strained to make plays last season:

He tried to compensate by cheating up ice. Except he could not get back fast enough to help defensively. He forced high-risk passes because he could not consistently burst through the neutral zone or dance around opposing skaters. He put himself in harm’s way with reckless dashes into the corners. Had he not, he never would have been able to win races to loose pucks.

A bar set too high?

Malkin might not be able to gain space like he used to, and it’s fair to wonder if he might go from a supernatural shooter to a merely … very, very good one.

From 2015-16 through 2017-18, Malkin’s shooting percentage never dipped below 16.7, and went as high as 17.6. To give you a sense of how rare that rate is, Malkin’s 17.2 shooting percentage was the fourth-highest of any player with at least 300 SOG during that frame, and Malkin easily led all with at least 500 (he scored 102 goals on 592 SOG).

In 2018-19, Malkin was still pretty efficient (scoring his 21 goals on 187 SOG, good for 11.2 percent), but no longer outrageous. Frankly, it was probably unfair to count on Malkin to keep this going …

Be careful what you wish for 

… Considering the likely players around him.

Yes, Kessel has become a drag defensively, but Alex Galchenyuk – a likely running mate for Malkin – is basically described as a lesser Kessel.

It sure feels like a lot is riding on the power of “chemistry,” as plenty of people believe that the Penguins took significant steps back this offseason. Malkin and other forwards figure to carry heavy puck-lugging burdens, at least when Kris Letang‘s pairing is off the ice.

***

Could Malkin have a much better year in 2019-20? Absolutely.

He might get a new lease on life with the Kessel drama behind him. Malkin may merely be healthier, or might get bounces where he didn’t the year before.

Still, it’s probably wise to keep expectations in check. Maybe Malkin hasn’t succumbed to Father Time totally just yet — hopefully he hasn’t, as a driving Malkin is still a frightfully wonderful sight — but he may lose those battles more and more at age 33 and beyond.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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 Penguins need to become championship team again

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There is going to come a point in the next few years where the Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer a playoff team.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are all over the age of 32 and probably only have a handful of high-level years ahead of them. When they start to decline or retire there is going to be no replacing them and no matter what moves the Penguins make today there is not going to be anything that stops them from needing an extensive rebuild in the not-too-distant future. That future is not quite here yet.

After barely making the playoffs and getting swept in Round 1 with a roster that seemed to lose its way, it is not unfair to say that the team has slipped a bit in its standing as a Stanley Cup contender. What do they need to get back closer to the top?

We know the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel duo is going to excel on the first line and the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing is going to be great. After that it is a bunch of questions. The obvious keys focus on Alex Galchenyuk fitting in, Evgeni Malkin being better (especially at even-strength), and Matt Murray playing at his best (all things we already looked at today).

But that alone will not be enough.

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

1. Rediscover their identity. I touched on this immediately after their Round 1 loss but the single biggest flaw the Penguins have is their sudden fascination with having players that provide “push back.” For a team that won two Stanley Cups under the mantra of “just play” it was a needless overreaction to some perceived injustices from a select few opposing players. The result was a shift away from what made team so tough to play against (balanced offense, mobile defense, speed, four scoring lines) and a rapidly growing collection of long-term, pricey contracts for depth players (Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, Brandon Tanev). The big thing that would help address this: Another mobile, puck-moving defender that can play on the second pair. The big intangible thing: Go back to “just play” instead of worrying about pushing back.

2. A resurgence from a (hopefully) healthy Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist’s status as a team leader and gritty forward with a non-stop motor masked the fact that his play rapidly deteriorated in the second half of the season, to the point where he was a complete non-factor offensively. It was a stunning slump after a strong first half. The thing that stands out about that is there is a pretty firm line that separated his season. That line was another head injury that kept him out of the lineup midway through the season. Was it a fluke slump? Was it a result of the injury? Was it a sign of things to come for him in the future now that he is 32 years old? A combination of all three? Whatever it was, the Penguins have Hornqvist signed for four more years at more than $5 million per season. The work ethic and effort are great, but at that price the Penguins need him to produce more than he did this past year or that contract will quickly turn into another drain on the salary cap.

3. Some young players need to emerge. The big focus during their mid-season turnaround in 2015-16 was on the coaching change. But there was another element at play: A bunch of young players became impact players at the same time (Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl; Guentzel a year later). The Penguins need that again. While the farm system is thin, there are some candidates to take big steps forward at the NHL level. Dominik Simon is polarizing because he is a favorite of the coaching staff and struggles to score goals, but he is a good defensive player and playmaker. Jared McCann is a favorite of the front office because they love his potential and he had a strong showing after the trade from Florida. He needs to show it was not a fluke. Dominik Kahun is an intriguing add from Chicago and is coming off a solid rookie season. And even though this might be for a couple years down the line, Pierre-Oliver Joseph is the exact type of defender they need to emerge and become a regular.

The three superstars at the top are the most important ingredient. But they are only part of the recipe. These three keys are just as important.

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

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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 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.

PHT Power Rankings: NHL teams under pressure to win this season

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we turn our focus to 10 teams that should be facing a lot of pressure for success during the 2019-20 season.

“Success” can mean different things for different teams and fanbases, and largely depends on what your expectations are for them. For some teams that are more established success is measured by winning it all right now. For others, it’s simply about making progress and getting closer to contender status.

We picked out 10 teams that are facing both types of pressure. Which teams are they?

To the rankings!

Pressure to compete for (or win) a championship

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. On paper this is the best, most complete team in hockey. The roster is loaded with stars in the prime of their career that have done everything in the NHL except win the Stanley Cup. Until they get it there is always going to be the “yeah, but…” that follows them around, especially now as they come off one of the most stunning postseason exits in NHL history. “Championship or bust” is usually an unfair mentality because it only sets you up for the inevitable disappointment that 30 teams will end their season with, but if it ever fairly applied to a team this would be the one.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs. The most hyped team in the league managed to get even stronger this offseason with the addition of Tyson Barrie to its blue line. It is time, though, for all of that potential to finally turn into something because right now this current core has nothing but a bunch of third-place finishes and first-round exits to show for all of its talent.

3. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets entered the 2018-19 season as a Stanley Cup favorite but faded in the second half, went out quietly in Round 1, and still have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor to new contracts, a pair of deals that will quickly eat up their remaining salary cap space. They also lost a lot of minutes off of their blue line this summer and did not really do much to replace them.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. Coming off of a Round 1 sweep against the New York Islanders, the Penguins traded a popular, productive player for a lesser player, signed another depth player to a long-term contract, and didn’t really do anything to improve a team that has its share of flaws and has drifted away from the recipe it found success with. They only have a few more years of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and need to do everything they can to maximize them. Have they done that?

5. San Jose Sharks. Losing Joe Pavelski will be a big blow to the offense in the short-term, but this is still a Stanley Cup caliber team, and as long as Joe Thornton keeps returning (we are assuming he will again for at least one year) there is going to be pressure to finally get him a championship. They have everything they need to get there, except for maybe the goaltending, a position they still have not addressed.

Pressure to simply get better … right now

6. Chicago Blackhawks. I don’t know that expectations are necessarily high for the Blackhawks after back-to-back non-playoff seasons, but general manager Stan Bowman has put a lot of pressure on himself for the team to win. His offseason plan has focussed on the short-term and looks like a GM that think he still has a chance to win with his current core. If he is wrong, he is probably the next one to go.

7.  Edmonton Oilers. They changed the general manager and the head coach and both will have a little bit of a leash to turn this thing around. But they have already wasted three of Connor McDavid‘s first four seasons in the NHL by not even being close to competitive, and that is just something that can not continue. Getting a player like that is a gift and the Oilers are wasting it.

8. Buffalo Sabres. The Eastern Conference version of the Oilers, only worse. The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since the 2010-11 season while the scorched earth rebuild that was supposed to turn things around has produced … nothing. Sabres fans have been ridiculously loyal and deserve a better product than they have been handed over the past decade.

9. New York Rangers. They had an incredible offseason with the additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko. It has absolutely accelerated the rebuild, but has it increased expectations too quickly? This is still a team with several holes and probably isn’t ready to compete just yet. But the pressure will be there, especially as the team still tries to compete in the final years of Henrik Lundqvist‘s career.

10. New Jersey Devils. The additions of top pick Jack Hughes, forwards Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds, and defender P.K. Subban have quickly helped transform the Devils into a team worth watching, especially with the return of a healthy Taylor Hall. Even with all of those additions there is still a big question mark in net and they HAVE to show they can win and compete if they have any chance of re-signing Hall. He is a star that has spent his entire career playing on losing teams and is one year away from being able to pick his next spot. Winning would go a long way toward convincing him to stay.

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.