Matt Murray

Binnington’s next contract is a challenge for Blues

6 Comments

As the champagne is still drying for the St. Louis Blues, let’s consider a good problem to have: how much will they pay Jordan Binnington, the 25-year-old goalie who emerged from relative obscurity to save their season, and then help them win their first-ever Stanley Cup? And for how long will they pay Binnington?

It’s a challenging situation, even if the NHL’s other 30 teams won’t spare the Blues a Kleenex.

Let’s break the situation down, including what’s going on around Binnington.

RFA, not UFA

One of the biggest factors to consider is Binnington’s RFA status.

As Puck Pedia notes, Binnington needs two more seasons of play to become an unrestricted free agent.

That’s a fascinating cutoff point, as Jake Allen – the former Blues starter Binnington dislodged – will see his $4.35 million cap hit expire after the 2020-21 season. Later on in this post, we’ll get to Allen and other contextual factors, as the Blues’ overall cap situation certainly impacts the situation.

One other key note is that Binnington is arbitration-eligible. That mitigates some of the advantage the Blues have with Binnington becoming an RFA, as Binnington checks some pretty big boxes that would likely stand out to an arbitrator:

Binnington’s numbers, and background

Despite already being 25, Binnington’s NHL sample size is small. Yet, what Binnington lacks in quantity, he makes up with brilliant quality.

In 32 regular season games (and 30 starts), Binnington managed absolutely splendid numbers: a 24-5-1 record and .927 save percentage. While his playoff save percentage was more modest (.914 in 26 games), Binnington was tremendous in Game 7 against Boston, and ended up finishing second in the Conn Smythe voting.

So, Binnington only had an abbreviated regular season, yet became a Calder Trophy finalist, then almost won the playoff MVP as he earned all 16 playoff victories during the Blues’ championship run. Yeah, that’s the sort of stuff you can lead with in contract negotiations, unless Binnington’s reps just want to show a Game 7 highlight reel, then lean back in a rolling chair.

(Contract negotiations should always include rolling chairs, right?)

No doubt about it, that’s still a small sample size, but Binnington isn’t directly comparable to a flash in the pan like Andrew Hammond. While Hammond’s stats at other levels weren’t very promising before his Hamburglar run, Binnington’s largely put up strong numbers at the AHL and other levels; he simply hasn’t always received opportunities to prove himself.

Also, Binnington has some decent pedigree as a third-rounder (88th overall in 2011), especially when you consider that goalies rarely go in the first round any longer.

Not a ton of comparable situations

A comparison to Matt Murray is probably the most natural. It’s not totally 1:1, mind you. Murray was younger, and the Penguins signed him to an extension heading into the season where his rookie deal was expiring. Also, while the Blues have an expensive veteran (Allen, $4.35M per year for two more seasons) and the Penguins had one (Marc-Andre Fleury), the situation is much clearer in St. Louis than it was in Pittsburgh. Binnington is The Man, and if Allen remains with the team through his current contract, it could be due to a lack of willing trade partners, not a belief that Allen is actually the real No. 1.

(If Allen ended up being that top guy after all — don’t forget, goalies are wildly unpredictable – he’d become the Craig Anderson to Binnington’s Hammond.)

Bridge or something longer?

There are reasons point to, but also away from, a shorter “bridge” contract.

To an extent, something in the two or three-year range would make sense for both sides. The Blues could mitigate the risks that come with investing in a goalie who has a limited sample size at the NHL level, while Binnington could salvage most, if not all, of his UFA years with a shorter deal. A brief contract might make it easier for Binnington to digest a smaller AAV; theoretically, he could really make the big bucks if he proves himself for a couple extra years.

Yet, there are reasons to chisel out a longer pact, too.

For Binnington, he’d gain the financial security that comes from getting hefty term, which is something that must really resonate with a player who’s had to fight to prove himself as a professional hockey goalie. Binnington might be OK with potentially leaving some money on the table for added peace of mind.

Let’s face it, too. The Blues have been looking for a go-to goalie for ages, particularly since Jake Allen hasn’t panned out as the guy, as they had hoped.

It will likely boil down to the details that maybe are only discussed behind closed doors, or perhaps occasionally leaked to the media. Will the Blues be tough negotiators, prompting Binnington to lean toward a shorter deal, as to get the added power of UFA status? How much more or less money would Binnington receive if the term went longer?

That all boils down to the priorities for both sides.

Cap considerations

Cap Friendly estimates that the Blues have about $18.73M in cap space heading into the offseason, with 16 roster spots covered. Again, the Blues may prefer to get Allen’s $4.35M off the books, but that’s likely easier said than done.

While the Blues have some choices to make as far supporting cast members with Patrick Maroon among their UFAs while Joel Edmundson and Oskar Sundqvist stand out among several RFAs other than Binnington, the other biggest decisions linger after 2019-20.

Alex Pietrangelo ($6.5M) will command a hefty raise. Brayden Schenn won’t be as cheap as $5.125M after his contract year, either, and Jaden Schwartz‘s friendly $5.35M cap hit expires after 2020-21. There are also quality young players who will get more expensive in the near future, from Vince Dunn to Robert Thomas.

So, Blues GM Doug Armstrong must weigh all of those considerations while pondering what to pay Binnington, and for how long.

***

Again, this isn’t a bad problem to have. And, if you look at the salary cap era, other teams have faced far more agonizing cap crunches than the Blues face this summer.

Still, just because this isn’t the most challenging situation, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a puzzle for Armstrong to solve.

MORE BLUES STANLEY CUP COVERAGE:
• Jay Bouwmeester finally gets his Stanley Cup
• Blues fan Laila Anderson gets moment with Stanley Cup
• Ryan O’Reilly wins Conn Smythe Trophy
• Berube helped Blues find identity after early-season struggle
• Blues latest team erased from Stanley Cup drought list

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 GM doesn’t expect to trade Kessel

Getty Images
1 Comment

Maybe the Pittsburgh Penguins won’t trade Phil Kessel during this offseason, after all.

A few weeks ago, reports surfaced that Kessel decided not to waive his no-trade clause to complete a deal to the Minnesota Wild. The added obstacle of such a clause inspired an uncomfortable question: could the Penguins really “win” a trade involving Kessel?

It sounds like Penguins GM Jim Rutherford’s answer might be “No, at least not right now.”

Rutherford touched base with The Athletic’s Josh Yohe on several interesting topics (sub required), including the fact that he doesn’t expect to trade Kessel during the summer. Whether that’s totally Rutherford’s preference, or if it’s merely a reality he must accept, is up to interpretation. This quote makes it clear that the no-trade clause is certainly a factor:

“You have to understand that he has a no-trade clause and a lot of leverage,” Rutherford said. “In situations like this, it usually doesn’t work out so well for the team. That’s just the way it is. So, at this point, it looks to me that he will return at this season. That’s how I’m proceeding moving forward.”

Rutherford makes a point that should be emphasized: the Penguins don’t have to trade Kessel. This isn’t an emergency situation, and considering the context of a no-trade clause backing Pittsburgh into a corner, it’s possible that they’d only make things worse if they actually found at trade Kessel would OK.

Kessel’s 31, which isn’t the absolutely ideal age, but it’s not exactly ancient, either. His $6.8 million cap hit has been quite friendly to the Penguins over the years, and while it is more imposing as he gets older, it’s still a pretty fair price. While the aging curve could make it more of a detriment, it also isn’t the most dire situation, as it expires after 2021-22. Maybe the Penguins would prefer to spend their money on a younger player, but it’s not exactly an albatross.

(And, again, if it starts to really go sideways, at least the term isn’t too brutal. This isn’t a Milan Lucic situation.)

Kessel had exactly a point per game while playing the full 2018-19 regular season (82 in 82), with 27 of those points being goals. He was even more explosive in 2017-18, scoring 34 goals and 92 points in another full season, and Kessel’s been electric during the playoffs.

There aren’t a lot of Kessels out there: reasonably priced players who suit up for virtually every game, while delivering precious goals and impressive playoff production. You’re even less likely to find that sort of player at a reasonable $6.8M cap hit.

Now, it’s also true that Kessel is starting to show signs of age-related decline, and the once-excessive criticisms of his defensive work are now more valid. There’s more of a debate regarding whether Kessel brings more to the table than he takes away than ever before, or at least that debate’s become credible, rather than an obnoxious way to scapegoat a person who marches to the beat of their own drum.

There’s also the stuff that doesn’t show up on charts. If Kessel isn’t getting along with head coach Mike Sullivan or his teammates, that’s not ideal.

Yet, it’s also true that sports teams often succeed even when everyone isn’t best buddies.

If a Kessel trade can’t happen, it’s not ideal, but it’s also not the end of the world for the Penguins. For all we know, that clause might just protect the Penguins from themselves. After all, they haven’t exactly been making the best decisions lately.

Plenty of other decisions

Again, the Penguins didn’t get swept by the Islanders because of Kessel.

This team has other problems, and other choices to make, so it was interesting to read Rutherford’s other comments to Yohe.

  • Rutherford shot down talk of trading Evgeni Malkin, which is probably the most important point of all. You’re … probably not going to win a trade involving Malkin if you’re the Penguins.
  • Rutherford was noncommittal when it came to possibly extending Matt Murray and Justin Schultz, while giving a similar answer regarding Mike Sullivan. All three are set to enter contract years.

Murray is an especially interesting consideration. The Penguins were able to extend Murray in 2016 after he won the first of two Stanley Cups as a rookie. Pittsburgh did a nice job walking a tightrope, inking Murray for an economical $3.75M per year cap hit, even though he just won that Cup, in part because Marc-Andre Fleury was still on the roster. Then, MAF was gone to Vegas in the expansion draft after the Penguins’ repeat, and Pittsburgh still had a starter at a friendly price.

Injuries have lowered Murray’s value, and his perceived standing in the league, but maybe that context would allow Pittsburgh to extend him once more on a team-friendly contract?

Rutherford indicated that he has bigger fish to fry, what with trying to clear up some cap space and sign some RFAs, and that’s fair. Still, if I were Rutherford, I’d certainly try to line something up before 2019-20. As Rutherford mentioned, Murray went on a hot streak toward the end of last season, and could easily make his value skyrocket if he’s a) healthy and b) productive next season.

The 25-year-old is still set for RFA status after his current deal expires, which is another point in favor of the Penguins doing a great job with that deal. It’s plausible that the Penguins might get a relative bargain if they’re proactive here, and when you consider their cap challenges, getting a high-quality, prime-age goalie at a below-market rate is pretty crucial.

  • Again, Rutherford rightly said he wants to clear up cap space.

The dream would be to shed Jack Johnson‘s contract, which was baffling the day it was signed, and only looks more ill-advised today.

The Penguins should consider other painful choices, and one that sticks out is Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist is a very nice player, when he can stay on the ice. Unfortunately, his hard-nosed style makes that challenging, and it’s only likely to become more of a challenge as time goes on. At 32, Hornqvist’s $5.3M through 2022-23 is pretty scary, particularly since he has to go to dirty areas to score, whereas players like Kessel are better able to produce while also limiting their vulnerability to injuries.

So, overall, the Penguins are reasonable in not trying to force a Kessel trade, at least not while he’s not on board. Trading other players, however, would likely be wise — and probably necessary.

MORE ON KESSEL, 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.

Canada beats U.S. 3-0 to close preliminary round of worlds

KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) — Pierre-Luc Dubois scored early to back the shutout goaltending of Matt Murray, sending Canada past the United States 3-0 on Tuesday at the world hockey championship. Both teams already were assured quarterfinal berths and were competing for seeding.

Canada won Group A and will next play Switzerland. The Americans, who had five won straight, will face the high-scoring and undefeated Russians on Thursday. Finland will face Sweden, while the Czech Republic plays Germany in the round of eight.

Kyle Turris also scored in the first period for Canada, beating Cory Schneider, and Turris assisted on Jared McCann‘s goal in the second period.

Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin scored for Russia, which closed out its dominant play in Group B with a 7-3 win over Sweden. Earlier Tuesday, Leon Draisaitl scored tiebreaking and go-ahead goals late in the third period to life Germany to a 4-2 win over Finland in Group A.

The Czech Republic closed the preliminary round with a 5-4 win over Switzerland in Bratislava in Group B, getting one goal and two assists each from Jakub Voracek and Dominik Simon.

In matchups of teams that won’t advance, Latvia beat Norway 4-1 in Group B, and the host Slovaks outlasted Denmark 2-1 in a shootout decided by penalty shots.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Penguins’ playoff exit was two years in the making

34 Comments

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.

Penguins’ Murray offers up two candidates for save of the year

Sportsnet
1 Comment

There’s nothing a goalie can do that is more spectacular than a desperation paddle save.

The odds of saving a shot with a few inches of composite material are very low, so when they happen, they’re something to marvel at.

It was Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray‘s paddle on Saturday night in a pivotal game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

And my, oh my, was it a save to behold in the first period.

Poor Boone Jenner. He did everything you’re supposed to do to score the goal.

And so did Markus Nutivaara. But he, too, was robbed by a filthy save in the second frame.

The game has been full of highlight-reel saves from Murray, who if not for him, the Penguins would be getting blown out.

Here’s another ridiculous save.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck