Mike Sullivan

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Penguins sign coach Mike Sullivan to four-year contract extension

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There were a lot of reasons to believe Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan might be on the hot seat entering the 2019-20 season.

On Friday, the Penguins pretty much erased that possibility.

At least for now.

The Penguins announced that Sullivan, who was set to enter the final year of his current contract, has signed a four-year extension that will run through the conclusion of the 2023-24 season.

“Mike has done a great job delivering four, 100-plus point seasons with our team,” general manager Jim Rutherford said in a team statement. “To win back-to-back Stanley Cups in this era speaks volumes of him as a coach. His instincts in managing the inter-workings of our team both on and off the ice has been impressive.”

Rutherford took over behind the Penguins’ bench in the middle of the 2015-16 season, replacing Mike Johnston, and was one of the major changes that helped turn that season around for the team. The Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup, and then became the first team in two decades to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in two decades.

In his three-and-a-half seasons as Penguins head coach Sullivan has put together a 174-92-34 record, while also winning nine playoff series.

Despite all of that success, his job security seemed to be in at least some jeopardy entering the 2019-20 season.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The Penguins are not only coming off a disappointing first-round playoff exit (a sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders) following an inconsistent regular season, but the longer Sullivan went without a new contract the more it seemed possible he could be on the hot seat entering the season.

That speculation only increased when the Penguins hired reigning Calder Trophy winning coach Mike Velluci (who has a history with Rutherford from their days in the Hurricanes’ organization).

All of that goes out the window for at least another year or two.

With Sullivan’s contract situation now taken care of the next key member of the Penguins’ organization due a contract extension is starting goalie Matt Murray as he enters the final year of his current deal. He will be a restricted free agent following this season.

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 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.

Daniel Sprong making most of opportunity with Anaheim Ducks

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A breakup between Daniel Sprong and the Pittsburgh Penguins seemed inevitable. He clearly had the ability, but could not find a regular spot in Mike Sullivan’s lineup, hence the Dec. 3 trade to the Anaheim Ducks.

Since moving west, the 21-year-old Sprong has enjoyed his time on the left coast. In five games with the Ducks he’s scored three times — with all three goals being pretty meaningful ones. Compare that to the nine points he compiled in 42 career games with the Penguins over parts of three seasons.

His first goal came on his first shot in his first game with Anaheim on a tough angle against Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks.

On Saturday night, he scored both goals, including the overtime winner, during 2-1 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

During his time in the AHL, Sprong showed he could score, but it never translated during his chances in Pittsburgh. He never played more than 18 games in a season during his three years there and averaged a total of only 9:40 of ice time a game. Now that he’s getting a bit of a bigger opportunity with the Ducks and playing an average of 14:50 a night, it’s clicking for him on a line with Adam Henrique and Nick Ritchie.

“The coaching staff and management gave me an opportunity to play the role I think I can play,” said Sprong after the OT win against Columbus. “Playing with Rico and Ritchie has really been helping me out. Right now I’m getting the looks and putting pucks on net. I’m excited to be here.”

He’s certainly firing the puck more now. Through five games he already has 15 shots on net. He had 61 shots in those 42 games with the Penguins.

“We’re going to try to put him in situations where he can use his shot,” said Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle. “Put him with a grouping of offensive players. I don’t think it would be fair to the player to put him into a fourth-line role when he’s provided offense in every other level.”

Sprong will get a chance to show the Penguins what they’re missing as the Ducks visit Pittsburgh Monday night. Anaheim has won 10 of their last 12 games and five straight games away from Honda Center. They’ve been a resilient bunch as shown in the fact that they’ve either been tied or trailing in the third period of each of their last nine victories.

It will certainly be a meaningful one for Sprong.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Weber’s return; Which coaches are on hot seat?

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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.

• Leafs forward Mitch Marner has formed a special bond with Hayden Foulon. This six-year-old girl has been battling leukemia for a while, and she’s become Marner’s hero. “She is my hero. What she has gone through and the way she has fought in her brief life is an inspiration for all of us. All I want to do is to try to bring some happiness to her life any way I can.” (NHL.com)

Shea Weber could be back in the Canadiens lineup as soon as next Tuesday when they host the Carolina Hurricanes. (Montreal Gazette)

• The Edmonton Oilers acquired Chris Wideman from the Ottawa Senators on Thursday. Someone had to pay the price for that Uber ride. (Edmonton Journal)

• Believe it or not, the Humboldt Broncos are currently sitting in first place in the SJHL standings. (TSN.ca)

• Eugene Melnyk might be blowing an opportunity to get the Ottawa Senators a new downtown arena. (Ottawa Citizen)

• Thanks to some strong goaltending, the Detroit Red Wings have won nine of their last 11 games. Can they keep this up? (The Hockey News)

• Sportsnet’s lists six NHL head coaches that could be on the hot seat. Is Mike Sullivan’s job really in jeopardy? (Sportsnet)

• End to End Sports looks at the top five players outside of the NHL right now. Red Wings prospect Filip Zadina could potentially help his team in a big way down the road. (End to End Sports)

• Thanksgiving can be an awkward time for non-North American NHL players. (Toronto Star)

• Former NHLer Gary Leeman believes there are pros and cons to the concussion settlement. (Hamilton Spectator)

• ESPN’s Emily Kaplan breaks down why there have been so many coaching changes in the NHL this season. (ESPN)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Penguins trying to stay the course during bumpy start

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By WILL GRAVES (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Sullivan’s regular film sessions with the Pittsburgh Penguins don’t lack for clues on why one of the NHL’s marquee franchises is in the midst of its bumpiest stretch in more than a decade.

The defense can morph into a disjointed mess under sustained pressure, particularly right in front of the net. The crisp breakouts that used to trigger odd-man rushes featuring some of the league’s most skilled players moving at warp speed have largely vanished and been replaced by something significantly sloppier.

Oh, and the NHL at large has caught up to the frenetic tempo Sullivan introduced when he took over nearly three years ago, a hiring that – combined with a roster makeover authored by general manager Jim Rutherford – helped power the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups. In that way, Pittsburgh’s current struggles are a byproduct of its not-so-distant glory.

”For the most part it’s a copycat league and teams tend to try to emulate the teams that have success,” Sullivan said Tuesday. ”When you look at our team over the last handful of seasons, we’ve had pretty good success with a certain style of play.”

A style Sullivan has no plans to abandon even with Pittsburgh mired in a 1-7-2 funk that has dropped his club into a tie for the fewest points in the wide-open Eastern Conference a quarter of the way through the season.

”You look at the core of our players, (Sidney) Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Phil) Kessel, (Kris) Letang, all those guys can skate,” Sullivan said. ”They can still skate.”

The thing now is, so can everyone else.

The proof came to life over the last 30 minutes against Buffalo on Monday night, when the Sabres reeled off the final four goals, including Jake Eichel’s game-winner 45 seconds into overtime at the end of a sequence that began with a Malkin giveaway in the offensive zone.

It was the kind of miscue Pittsburgh used to pounce on with ruthless efficiency. Now it’s the Penguins who are making the crucial mistakes, ones that are ending up in the back of their own net with alarming regularity.

”I think we’ve been doing some really good things the last handful of games but we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit with a few plays,” forward Bryan Rust said. ”We’ve got to be a little bit more mindful of that and just dig down a little bit deeper and the bounces will eventually go our way.”

There is a fair amount of ”puck luck” that’s abandoned Pittsburgh at the moment. The Penguins were up two goals late in the second period against Buffalo when Pittsburgh defenseman Jack Johnson locked up Sabres forward Conor Sheary in front of the net. No matter. Casey Nelson‘s shot from the point deflected off Johnson’s skate and by goaltender Casey DeSmith.

Watching from afar while sitting out a third straight game nursing an upper body injury, Crosby could only scratch his head.

”I think the thing for us that’s probably been a little more difficult is, it’s not necessarily the same thing,” said the two-time MVP, who hopes to play on Wednesday when Pittsburgh hosts Dallas. ”We’ve found different ways to lose games and you know, we’ve probably corrected one thing and something else has been a factor in another game we lost.”

One thread, however, has been a constant: defense. The Penguins – particularly early in the season during the Crosby era – have occasionally been slow to tighten things up because they are so talented offensively that the finer points of playing responsibly in their own end can be lost.

In past years, Pittsburgh has been able to outscore opponents even on nights it didn’t particularly play well. That’s not happening at the moment. The loss to Buffalo marked the eighth time in 19 games the Penguins have allowed at least five goals, something they did 13 times all of last season.

While Sullivan is quick to point to the number of quality chances Pittsburgh created against Buffalo, he’s well aware his team was far too generous in front of DeSmith. Pittsburgh dominated the first period but only had a 1-1 tie to show for it after forward Dominik Simon lost his footing while attempting to help clear a puck. Buffalo kept it in the zone and a cross-ice pass led to a one-timer that Tage Thompson buried to even the game.

”We’ve got to do a better job defending and making sure we stay on the right side of the puck and the right side of people in the critical areas of the rink,” Sullivan said. ”That’s an area we can all improve as a team.”

Pittsburgh hasn’t missed the playoffs since Crosby’s rookie year in 2005-06 and Crosby stressed it is far too early to panic.

”It’s tight but we just have to make sure we eliminate our mistakes and give ourselves the best chance and I thought for the most part (against Buffalo) we were pretty in control of that game,” Crosby said. ”I think if we keep trending that way, we’ll learn from that one and get a lot more wins.”

Three quarters of the season remains. Though the Penguins have been ”meh” at best, the rest Metropolitan Division hasn’t exactly been lights out. Only eight points separate the Penguins from first-place Columbus. One good consistent stretch of hockey and things can change very quickly.

”You can’t control the ones you’ve let slip away,” Crosby said. ”Ten games from now, you don’t know where you’re going to be.”

Full AP NHL coverage: http://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports