Mike Sullivan

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 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.

It’s Pittsburgh Penguins Day at PHT

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.

2018-19
44-26-12, 100 points (3rd in the Metropolitan Division, sixth in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in four games to the New York Islanders in the first round.

IN:
Alex Galchenyuk
Dominik Kahun
Brandon Tanev
Pierre Olivier-Joseph

OUT:
Phil Kessel
Olli Maatta
Matt Cullen

RE-SIGNED:
Chad Ruhwedel
Zach Aston-Reese
Teddy Blueger

2018-19 Summary

Anytime you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on your roster, expectations are going to be high for your hockey club. Unfortunately for the 2018-19 Penguins, they didn’t live up to the hype.

The Pens won two of the first five games of the regular season, but they seemingly got back on track by sweeping f four-game road trip that took them through Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. They followed that up by dropping their last game of October and the first four games of November. That’s pretty much how the season went for the Penguins. They appeared to be stuck in the mud during long stretches.

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

Pittsburgh made the playoffs, but they were quickly swept by their division rivals, the New York Islanders, in the opening round. With that kind of ending to their season, we knew that changes would be coming. They never seemed to get the chemistry down. From new players to veterans, they never looked like the dominant Penguins we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.

One of the players that didn’t look like himself was Malkin. Yes, he finished with 72 points, which most players would be thrilled with, but he wasn’t his usual dominant self. There were whispers about him potentially being moved, but that never materialized this summer.

“We just felt that as a group, we didn’t come together the way we should have or could have in order to maximize the potential of our group,” head coach Sullivan said, per NHL.com. “It’s not any one person or two people’s fault. It’s the responsibility of everybody involved to make sure that they’re making a positive contribution in that regard.

So they decided to make some significant moves this offseason. General manager Jim Rutherford traded Kessel to Arizona for Alex Galchenyuk and he also spent significant money and term to land free-agent Brandon Tanev, who adds size and strength to the group. Olli Maata was also traded away to Chicago for Dominik Kahun.

Getting Galchenyuk, Kahun and Tanev comfortable will be a priority, but those three players need to come in and be difference makers for a veteran team that needed some new blood.

Can the Penguins become the team to beat in the Metropolitan Division, again? On paper, it sure look like they can, but they have a lot to prove this season.

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

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 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.