Marcus Pettersson

Penguins
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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Seattle leaves door open for Kraken; Flyers vs. Disney

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• John Hoven of Mayor’s Manor caused a stir during a Mayor’s Minutes Segment on NHL Network Radio, claiming that Seattle settled upon Kraken as the name. Russian Machine Never Breaks ranked among the outlets who amplified that report. (Mayor’s Manor.)

• NHL Seattle played coy (fish?) about the rumors, puffing up for this silly tweet:

• The Seattle Times’ Geoff Baker did a deep dive on the subject of the team possibly using the name of a sea monster. There’s some vivid stuff in there, including details about Seattle Sockeyes not working because of a series of romance novels. Oh, and then Jami Davenport (author of said Sockeyes series) claimed that she wasn’t the holdup. It’s a lot. (Seattle Times)

• Shifting gears to the Bruins, Joe Haggerty discusses Charlie McAvoy‘s struggles this season. (NBC Sports Boston)

• Red Wings forward Givani Smith details how he used his father’s lessons to combat racism on his road to the NHL. (Detroit Free-Press)

• Sam Carchidi provides a fascinating report on the Flyers meeting with the league’s schedule-makers to address concerns. After all, they lead the NHL with 17 back-to-back sets this season, and also appear to play a lot of “tired” games. The Flyers’ biggest hurdle: Disney on Ice? (Philadelphia Inquirer)

• An argument for the Senators waiting closer to the trade deadline to move Anthony Duclair. To me, it’s all about what they’re being offered, as his value will never be higher. Actually, attentive teams might already notice Duclair’s game cooling off; he only has an assist in his last eight games, and scored his most recent goal on Dec. 21. (Sportsnet)

• Read up about Martin Frk and that 109.2 mph slapshot. (Sports Illustrated)

• If you’re of a certain (my) age, you’ll feel that much older learning that Chris Drury is the GM of the 2020 U.S. Men’s National Team. (USA Hockey)

• Hard-hitting and soft-snuggling stuff about how the Canucks are going to hug their way to glory. (Vancouver is Awesome)

• Adam Gretz provides a long-term outlook for the Penguins’ promising, term-packed defense after the Marcus Pettersson extension. (Pensburgh)

• There’s a remarkable crossover between hockey and pro wrestling fans. With that in mind, that significant portion of hockey fans will enjoy this bit about New Day Star Xavier Woods’ NHL All-Star experience. It’s a fun story, yes it is. (ESPN)

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 give Marcus Pettersson a 5-year, $20.1 million contract extension

Penguins
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The Pittsburgh Penguins locked up a key piece of their defense on Tuesday by signing Marcus Pettersson to a five-year contract extension. The deal runs through the end of 2024-25 season and is worth a total of $20.1 million. That comes out to a salary cap hit of just a little more than $4 million per season.

This deal was a long-time coming for the Penguins after they wanted to sign him to a long-term deal this past summer when he was still a restricted free agent. But the team’s salary cap situation at the time prohibited that from happening, resulting in the one-year contract he is playing on this season.

As of Tuesday he has one goal and 15 total points in his first 50 games this season, while also posting strong possession numbers. It is a pretty fair deal for both sides and falls right in line with what a solid, second-pairing defenseman is worth. That is exactly what Pettersson has become for the Penguins.

The Penguins acquired him in the middle of the 2018-19 season in the trade that sent Daniel Sprong to the Anaheim Ducks.

Pettersson and standout rookie John Marino have helped bring mobility and puck-moving ability back to the Penguins’ blue line. That improvement has turned what was a pretty significant weakness a year ago into a real strength.

The Penguins now have a significant part of their defense signed to long-term deals, while Marino still has one more full season remaining on his entry-level contract. That would seem to make it increasingly unlikely that Justin Schultz, a pending unrestricted free agent this summer, will get re-signed.

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.

How the Penguins have become one of NHL’s best defensive teams

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It is starting to look like Jim Rutherford was right.

Not long after his Pittsburgh Penguins were swept out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he defiantly proclaimed that the defense he had assembled was probably the best one his team had since he arrived in Pittsburgh. It seemed to be a rather dubious claim not only because of how the Penguins performed for much of the season (including the playoffs), but because he had also been the general manager for a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh.

But nearly two months into the 2019-20 season the Penguins have been one of the league’s stingiest teams defensively and that play is one of the biggest reasons they have been able to overcome a seemingly unending list of injuries to keep piling up points.

Just look at the defensive performance so far this season compared to the same date a year ago, as well as their final numbers from the 2018-19 season.

All numbers via Natural Stat Trick. The numbers in parenthesis are their league-wide rank.

They also boast one of the league’s best penalty killing units, not only in terms of success rate, but also in their ability to also limit shots and chances against.

The Penguins always had one elite defense pair in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin but everything after that was always a question.

So what all has changed?

The arrival of John Marino and development of Marcus Pettersson. One thing that should be pointed out about Rutherford’s “best defense” comment is that there have been some personnel changes on the blue line since then that helped the team get back closer to the winning identity it had lost. Erik Gudbranson and Olli Maatta were traded, while the team also made the under-the-radar acquisition of John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a sixth-round pick.

From the moment they acquired Marino, the Penguins seemed enamored with his potential. After watching him play for the past month-and-a-half it is not hard to see why. He has been a game-changer on the blue line and in his first pro season has already become a 20-minute per night player and has yet to look out of place. He brings some much-needed youth, mobility, and playmaking to a defense that badly needed all three.

Combine his presence with a full season of Marcus Pettersson (acquired in December of last year for Daniel Sprong) and suddenly the Penguins have two young, mobile defenders that can help drive play for what is currently a dirt cheap price against the salary cap. And both have the potential to continue getting better.

The forwards are helping more. One of the common themes throughout the Penguins’ offseason was that they needed to play “the right way,” and that the defensive deficiencies last season weren’t just about the defensemen themselves. They also needed more help from their forwards. They are getting that this season, and it’s not just because the returning players are playing smarter. The offseason additions of Brandon Tanev and Dominik Kahun, as well as getting a full season out of trade deadline acquisition Jared McCann, have brought three more fast, defensively responsible forwards to the lineup, and all are making significant contributions in every phase of the game.

Tanev’s signing drew harsh criticism (including from me) due to the term on the contract but so far he has proven to be everything the Penguins said he would be — a menace due to his speed and an always frustrating player for opponents to go up against. Combined with the arrival of young players Teddy Blueger and Sam Lafferty the Penguins injected a ton of speed, youth, and fresh blood into a lineup that the rest of the league had not only caught up to, but seemingly passed by the previous two years. With Phil Kessel and Arizona and Sidney Crosby currently sidelined the Penguins may not be as explosive offensively, but they are making up for that with their ability to shut teams down.

Better usage and a better identity. Mike Sullivan is turning in a Jack Adams level coaching performance this season and has pushed all of the right buttons so far. He has the team buying into how they need to play, they are back to play fast, and the personnel usage is far better (trusting Marino and Pettersson in big spots; playing Jack Johnson in the third-pairing/PK role he is best suited for).

Rutherford received his fair share of criticism the past couple of years (including from, again, me) and much of it was deserved. The team became too obsessed with “push-back” and getting more physical instead of getting faster and better. There was a constant revolving door of player transactions that made it seem like they didn’t really have a plan. Tom Wilson took up residence in their front office and seemed to drive every decision.

One of the most positive things anyone around Pittsburgh could always say about Rutherford is he is quick to admit his mistakes and move on. He definitely did that by making the team faster and getting it back to what it does best. It may not have been the most direct route, but for the first time in two years the Penguins have the look of the team that was winning Stanley Cups instead of the one that was getting swept in the first round. Better late than never.

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 Fantasy Hockey: Henrique, Nelson highlight this week’s top adds

Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Neal Pionk, Jets – D: The shift from the New York Rangers in 2018-19 to the Jets this season has been to Pionk’s benefit so far. In terms of average ice time, he’s only jumped from 21:10 minutes to 22:58 minutes, but most of that increase has come from gaining additional power-play time. He’s gotten off to a strong start in 2019-20 with two goals and six points in 10 games and should continue to put up solid numbers this season.

Jakob Silfverberg, Ducks – RW: Silfverberg couldn’t have asked for a better start with five goals and eight points in nine games. At the least he’s a nice gamble in the short-term, but he might be worth hanging on throughout the season. Silfverberg has never gotten more than 49 points in a single season, but new Ducks coach Dallas Eakins seems comfortable with giving him a sizeable role. As a result he’s averaging 18:13 minutes, up from 17:06 minutes in 2018-19, which is more than any other Anaheim forward.

Brock Nelson, Islanders – C/LW: Nelson has been in kind of an odd pattern in the early portion of the campaign. He’s scored in exactly every other game and for the last six games he’s alternated between recording 0 and 2 points. The end result is that he has four goals and seven points through eight contests this season. He saw his ice time jump to 17:58 minutes in 2018-19 and set a new career-high with 53 points as a result. This season his playing time has inched up further to 18:20 minutes and he might be able to flirt with new career-highs. One key benefit to him is his left wing eligibility despite his primary role being up the middle.

Marcus Pettersson, Penguins – D: Pettersson is might just be more of a short-term pickup to gamble on while he’s hot. He has registered four assists over his last four games. That being said, he is averaging 18:34 minutes this season, including 1:33 minutes per game with the man advantage, so there is a chance that this will end up being a breakout campaign for him. Even if you decide not to grab him at this time, he’s worth checking back in on later to see how the 23-year-old has been developing with the Penguins.

Andre Burakovsky, Avalanche – LW/RW: Burakovsky is something of a roll of the dice at this stage. Burakovsky never recorded more than 38 points in a single season with Colorado, but he already has four goals and eight points in eight games with Colorado. Perhaps this is a case of the change of scenery agreeing with him, but he’s also just averaging 13:49 minutes. Unless his role with the Avalanche expands, it’s hard to see him being a significant offensive contributor in the long run. Still, given how well he’s already done and the potential that the 24-year-old is taking a step up this season, it’s worth taking a chance on him.

Adam Henrique, Ducks – C: This is mostly a case of riding the hot hand. Henrique has four goals and five points in his last four games, so he’s worthy of some short-term consideration. In the long run, he has fringe value in standard leagues. The limiting factor with him is his center-only eligibility given the glut of options up the middle.

Paul Stastny, Golden Knights – C: At this point, Max Pacioretty is owned in 84% of Yahoo leagues while Mark Stone is claimed in 97%, but Stastny is owned in just 38%. Stastny is skating on a line with that duo this season and has done his part. Stastny has four goals and seven points in nine games. If he continues to skate with Stone and Pacioretty, he should have a very good year.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Marcus Johansson, Sabres – C/LW: Johansson is coming off two rough campaigns, but 2019-20 is shaping up to be different. After signing a two-year, $9 million contract with the Buffalo Sabres over the summer, he’s scored four goals and seven points in nine games. Johansson has typically been put on the ice with Jeff Skinner, who had 40 goals in his first season with Buffalo and has added another five goals in nine contests in 2019-20. All three of Johansson’s assists so far have been on Skinner goals.

Ian Cole, Avalanche – D: Cole missed the start of the season with a hip injury, but he made his return on Oct. 14th and has made up for lost time with four assists in his last three games. He’s not a particularly exciting defenseman from an offensive perspective, but you could gamble on him while he’s hot. It’s worth adding that he’s also one of the better sources of blocked shots out there, so if your league cares about that category then that’s a great secondary reason to consider grabbing him while he’s hot.

Mikko Koskinen, Oilers – G: Koskinen’s first season with the Edmonton Oilers left plenty to be desired, but he’s been a big part of their early season success. He’s 4-0-0 with a 2.21 GAA and .934 save percentage in four starts. He was a top-tier goaltender in the KHL and now that he’s had a full season to adjust to North America, he might prove to be a solid goaltender in 2019-20.

Players You May Want To Drop

Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers – G: Lundqvist has been on the decline for several seasons now and that descent will likely continue at the age of 37. Through four starts, he’s 1-3-0 with a 3.57 GAA and .906 save percentage. It doesn’t help that while the Rangers did get some very encouraging additions over the summer, they are still not quite a full force contender.

Boone Jenner, Blue Jackets – C/LW: Jenner didn’t exactly wow people last season with his 16 goals and 38 points in 77 games, but the 2019-20 campaign might prove to be worse. Despite the Blue Jackets losing some key forwards over the summer, his ice time has tanked from an average of 17:04 minutes in 2018-19 to 14:27 minutes this season. That’s his lowest minutes per game since 2013-14 when he was a rookie. He has just a goal and no assists through eight games.

Sammy Blais, Blues – LW/RW: Blais enjoyed a strong start to the season with three goals and five points in five games, but he hasn’t recorded a point in three contests. If you picked him up during that hot streak, you should re-evaluate his role now. He’s averaging a modest 14:03 minutes per game, so it’s hard to see him being a major offensive force this season. On the plus side, he is an excellent source of hits, so if you need help in that category, then maybe it’s worth your while to keep him even if he’s not contributing much in other areas.

Nino Niederreiter, Hurricanes – LW/RW: After Carolina acquired Niederreiter from Minnesota during the 2018-19 campaign, he went on a terrific run of 14 goals and 30 points in 36 games. However, a big part of that run was due to his increased role with the Hurricanes. He had averaged 14:37 minutes with Minnesota prior to the trade and 18:17 minutes for the rest of the season. In his first full campaign with the Hurricanes, Niederreiter has fallen back to a level of responsibility he’s more accustomed to. He’s averaging 15:39 minutes and has recorded no goals and three assists in nine games. With his playing time down, he’s also taking fewer shots, from 2.86 shots per game in 2018-19 with Carolina to 2.22 this season. His complete lack of goals can still be partially attributed to bad luck, but unless his role increases, he’s not going to return to the levels of production we saw during his post-trade time with Carolina last season.

Cory Schneider, Devils – G: Schneider has had some highs and some extreme lows over the last few years, but on the whole he’s certainly left plenty to be desired. That trend has continued this season. He has a 0-3-0 record, 4.08 GAA, and .876 save percentage in four games. To make things worse, at least for Schneider owners, Mackenzie Blackwood has rebounded from his own rough start to the campaign. It’s entirely possible that Blackwood will end up getting more starts than Schneider this season. There’s just not a lot to like about Schneider’s outlook right now. 

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.