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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.

Binnington’s next contract is a challenge for Blues

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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

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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