Nick Bjugstad

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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.

NHL on NBCSN: Bjugstad, McCann filling much-needed roles for Penguins

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has had to make a lot of trades over the past two years (probably more than he has wanted to make), and not all of them have worked out as planned. Two of the biggest moves involved Derick Brassard in an effort to address some of the depth the team lost following its Stanley Cup win in 2017. The first of those trades came just before the 2018 trade deadline when the Penguins, Ottawa Senators, and Vegas Golden Knights completed a massive and convoluted three-team trade to send Brassard to Pittsburgh, seemingly giving them the third-line center they needed to make another run at the Stanley Cup.

From the very beginning it never really worked.

Brassard struggled almost immediately upon arriving in Pittsburgh, never really fit in his new role, and there seemed to be frustration from both sides that it wasn’t working out. Less than a year after that deal, Brassard, Riley Sheahan, and a handful of draft picks were all sent to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad.

The early returns on that trade have been overwhelmingly positive for the Penguins, and are just one of the reasons they head into Tuesday’s game against the Washington Capitals (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN) on a 5-1-1 run over their past seven games and working to secure a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

McCann has made probably the most positive and significant contribution to the Penguins since the trade, already scoring eight goals in his first 19 games with the team, including a pair of two-goal efforts during this most recent seven-game stretch.

Bjugstad has added five goals in his first 19 games with the team.

Keep in mind that in Brassard’s 66 games with the Penguins, including playoffs, he scored only 13 goals. With the way McCann is going might match that total on his own before the playoffs begin this season.

Both he and Bjugstad have provided the complementary scoring that the Penguins have lacked, and struggled to replace, over most of the past two seasons.

Following the Penguins’ 4-2 win over the Bruins on Sunday night, a game where McCann scored two more goals, including a beautiful shorthanded goal, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was asked specifically why McCann and Bjugstad have excelled for the Penguins and why it never worked for Brassard. His answer was simple.

“They’re two real good players,” said Sullivan. “They’ve embraced the roles that we’ve put them in. When guys bring a certain level of enthusiasm and they embrace the challenge, that for me  is where it starts, with that attitude of wanting to make a difference and wanting to help this team win games. I think both of these guys are really excited to be Penguins. They’re excited about the roles that we’ve put them in.”

It is probably not a coincidence that Brassard has admitted on more than one occasion since the trade that it was difficult in Pittsburgh because they couldn’t find the right fit, and that he maybe lost some of the passion and emotion he had in his previous stops because of it.

Sometimes players need a fresh start to get that back and get into a role where everything feels comfortable and works.

Just like teams sometimes need a fresh start with different players.

While the Penguins obviously liked Bjugstad enough to trade for him and take on his $4 million salary cap hit through the end of the 2020-21 season, McCann always seemed to be the key addition because of his age (still only 22), contract (still one more year on an entry-level deal after this one), and his upside. So far they have both been significant additions for a team that needed a spark. They have also helped provide some essential secondary scoring, something they were not getting from the duo of Brassard and Sheahan.

MORE: PHT Power Rankings: Capitals playing like champs again

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Pittsburgh. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Keith Jones and Anson Carter.

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.

Crazy intro over, Pens newcomers McCann, Bjugstad settle in

By Will Graves (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — It wasn’t the hastily arranged private plane ride from Miami to Pittsburgh. Or the police escort from the airport to PPG Paints Arena. It wasn’t the sight of a black-and-gold jersey with his name on the back hanging in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ locker room. It wasn’t even racing to the bench and jumping over the wall and onto the ice with his new teammates without exchanging so much as an introductory handshake.

No, Jared McCann‘s ”whoa” moment from the most exhilarating and surreal weekend of his professional life came Sunday, when the newly acquired forward arrived at Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby‘s house to watch the Super Bowl with the rest of the gang.

”There’s like an area to the side there, and it’s Hart Trophy, Hart Trophy, Hart Trophy,” McCann said, referring to Crosby’s three NHL MVP awards.

Welcome to Pittsburgh, where the climate isn’t the only thing that’s a shock to the system.

On Friday morning, McCann and Nick Bjugstad thought they were part of the long-term plans for the Florida Panthers. By Sunday night, they were hanging out in the home of one of the game’s biggest stars while playing for a team where anything less than a Stanley Cup parade through downtown in mid-June is considered a disappointment.

No pressure or anything.

”As soon as I walked in the rink here, they have the (championships) banners hanging everywhere,” McCann said. ”It’s like: ‘You know what? We win here.’ You get that feeling. You just have confidence. You know you have guys that are going to show up every night and play well, and I want to be a positive influence for this team.”

The Penguins are counting on that from both the 22-year-old McCann and the 26-year-old Bjugstad, brought over in a trade with Florida for veteran forwards Riley Sheahan, Derick Brassard and three 2019 draft picks.

The early returns have been promising. Both players hardly looked overwhelmed while playing a back-to-back against Ottawa and Toronto in their first 27 hours with their new club. Bjugstad joined the second line and picked up an assist in a victory over the Senators while McCann played solidly centering the third line between forwards Tanner Pearson and Patric Hornqvist.

”I thought they handled it great coming into a new dressing room 10 minutes before the game, getting thrown in there right into a game, playing some pretty good minutes, too,” Crosby said. ”There’s a lot to be said about that. Sometimes that’s the best way, get thrown into it like that.”

McCann credited Hornqvist for helping put him in the right spots on the ice over the weekend while the 6-foot-6 Bjugstad tried not to overdo it while centering the second line in place of injured Evgeni Malkin.

”It’s almost better not having time to think,” Bjugstad said.

That came on Monday when they went through their first practice in Pittsburgh. If Bjugstad wasn’t getting pulled away for a private moment with assistant coach Mark Recchi, then McCann was peppering anyone who would listen with questions.

While they want to catch up quickly for a team that heads into Tuesday’s game against Carolina tied with Washington for second in the Metropolitan Division with 30 games to go, they also have the benefit of time. Neither player is a rental. Bjugstad is signed through 2021 while McCann’s contract runs through the end of the 2019-20 season.

Coach Mike Sullivan still hasn’t settled on who will play where once Malkin – who is day to day with an upper-body injury – returns. Bjugstad could be effective as a third-line center, a spot the Penguins have been struggling to fill since Nick Bonino left following the team’s second straight Stanley Cup in 2017.

Bjugstad also has size (6-foot-6) and a skillset that includes a 20-goal season, making him a candidate to find a spot in the top six. McCann, meanwhile, is an effective penalty killer who believes he is prepared for whatever the Penguins might throw his way. He already is taking pointers from 42-year-old Matt Cullen, who had made a career out of finding ways to do all the little things coaches love. It’s not a bad blueprint to follow.

”I feel like this is a great opportunity for me to become the player I know I can be,” McCann said.

First things first, however. McCann acknowledged he might have to stop at a shopping mall to pick up some pants. Seems he was in such a rush to get to Pittsburgh he mostly packed shorts for the trip north, not exactly ideal in a city where the sun is more rumor than fact between November and May. If that’s his lone misstep after the craziness surrounding his arrival, he’ll take it.

”I had a great time in Florida,” McCann said. ”But I feel like this is the next stepping stone in my career.”

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

After chaotic arrival, Penguins’ newcomers could provide key depth

AP
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PITTSBURGH — When the Pittsburgh Penguins took the ice for warmups on Friday night before their game against the Ottawa Senators they were not anywhere close to having a full NHL roster.

They were already shorthanded because superstar center Evgeni Malkin was out of the lineup due to an undisclosed upper-body injury, perhaps the result of his fight with Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos on Wednesday night.

Then there was the issue of Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann.

Both players were acquired earlier in the day in a four-player, three-draft pick blockbuster with the Florida Panthers that saw Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan go the other way. With Brassard and Sheahan on their way to Florida, Bjugstad and McCann were desperately trying to get to Pittsburgh in time for puck drop.

If they didn’t make it on time the Penguins were only going to have 10 forwards at the start of the game.

They quite literally could not have cut it any closer.

At 6:56 p.m. ET, less than 10 minutes before game time, the scoreboard at PPG Paints Arena showed both players frantically running down the tunnel toward the Penguins’ locker room.

It was around that time the official game rosters and lineups were published with both players in the lineup. It did not matter what time they were dressed or when they got there, they were playing. Period.

It was not until the national anthems were wrapping up that both players finally emerged from the tunnel and joined their new team on the bench.

Then with no warmups, no pre-game meeting, and really no chance to even introduce themselves to their teammates they were thrown right into a game with their new team.

Bjugstad ended up playing 16 minutes and recorded two shots on goal and an assist in the Penguins’ 5-3 win, while McCann played 10 minutes.

“Usually I have my coffee and do some stretches, but I didn’t have any of that today,” laughed Bjugstad. “We got here around I think 6:50, ran out there, basically made it for the anthem. I have dreams every once in a while where I’m late to a game and that’s kind of what it felt like. Luckily, it worked out pretty good.”

McCann said their day began like any other. They took part in the morning skate in Florida in preparation for the Panthers’ game against the Nashville Predators and then returned home at lunch time. It was then that they got the phone call and were informed by the Panthers that they had been traded to the Penguins.

After briefly speaking to Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford they were on a jet headed to Pittsburgh.

Both players said they had little to no interaction with the coaching staff prior to the game.

“It was basically just say hi to the coaches and get on the ice,” said McCann when asked about their last-minute arrival to the building, while admitting he had no idea what time he actually entered the building, only recalling their sprint from the car to the locker room.

“They didn’t have time to say anything to us,” added Bjugstad. “There was the anthem, there were a few things said on the bench and that was it. I got a call earlier in the day from Jim [Rutherford] and Mike [Sullivan] and they said we’re going to try to play you tonight and it was kind of a whirlwind from there. Definitely excited to get that first one out of the way. This is going to be fun to be with these guys.

“We didn’t have much time. But we’ll always remember that, sitting on the plane wondering if we were going to make it on time. We need to thank our pilots for getting us here on time.”

Even after all of that chaos, they don’t really have any time to get settled in their new city before having to hit the road again. After their frantic day on Friday that included a trade, travel, and then playing in an NHL game they had to board another plane to Toronto for a 7 p.m. ET game against the Maple Leafs on Saturday night.

It is about as hectic of a 24-hour period an NHL player can have.

“I thought they had strong games tonight under difficult circumstances,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “We’re really excited about both guys. They’re really good guys and I think they’re excited to be Pittsburgh Penguins.”

[Related: Penguins land Bjugstad; Panthers get Brassard, picks]

Now that they both are Pittsburgh Penguins, their new duty is to provide some depth and stability to the bottom half of a roster that has been constantly overhauled over the past couple of years.

Friday’s trade continued what has been a now two-year trend by the Penguins of undoing every transaction within a year of completing it.

Last offseason they added Ryan ReavesMatt Hunwick, and Antti Niemi.

Within a year all three were traded.

During the season they acquired Jamie Oleksiak, Sheahan, and Brassard in three separate trades in an effort to bolster the depth that had been lost after their second consecutive Stanley Cup win in 2017. Within a year all three of those acquisitions are also now gone, and it is again worth pointing out that the trade that saw them move Oleksiak was a literal re-do of the trade where they originally acquired him.

On one hand, it shows that general manager Jim Rutherford will work quickly to correct his mistakes when he makes them and isn’t stubborn enough to keep hoping they will work.

It also shows an incredible sense of urgency in doing whatever it takes to try and win another championship with the current core of Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel. You only get players of that caliber for so long and you owe it to them, your franchise, and your fanbase to go all in on winning while you have them.

On the other hand, is this really a sustainable way to run a team with this much constant overhaul? Not only is it a sign that the moves you are making are not working, but it’s costing even more assets to correct them. Just think back to all of the assets they gave up to originally acquire Brassard before last year’s trade deadline. He was not cheap and not only cost them their 2018 first-round draft pick, but also one of their top prospects in goalie Filip Gustavsson as well as Reaves, who was originally acquired as part of a trade that saw them give up their 2017 first-round draft pick.

Then they had to give up three additional draft picks as part of the deal to get Bjugstad and McCann. That is a lot of roster movement to end up at this spot.

Time will tell if this latest trade works out as expected.

The Penguins obviously like that both players are younger than Brassard and Sheahan and have term remaining on their contracts beyond this season.

They also may be better fits in the roles the Penguins need them to play. Brassard just never seemed to work in Pittsburgh as a third-line center, a role that he had never played at any point in his career. No matter what they tried to do to get him going, it just never clicked.

Sheahan had his moments, but they just never came consistently enough.

Bjugstad’s career has been derailed by injuries at times over the past few seasons but he has shown the ability to be a 20-goal, 50-point forward, while McCann is reportedly a player the Penguins have had their eyes on for quite some time.

Their debut in Pittsburgh went about as well as could have been expected given the circumstances.

Now, they have a little under half a season to get up to speed with their new team and try to provide the essential depth they will need to help the Penguins make another run at the Stanley Cup.

More: Penguins lock in; Panthers prep for Panarin pursuit?

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.

Florida Panthers ’15-16 Outlook

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Jaromir Jagr is extremely important to the Florida Panthers, and not just because he found such great chemistry with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov.

One can imagine a scenario where the Panthers’ bounty of youngsters make a huge leap and help Florida burst onto the scene in its market.

Still, many would probably agree that the Panthers are more likely to make incremental improvements in 2015-16, which pivots back to Jagr: if this team wants any butts in seats, their veterans may be the ones to draw them. Even if it’s really about the young guns.

Discuss Florida’s attendance issues here.

Barring that meteoric rise, it will take time for crucial casual fans to really get acquainted with the likes of Nick Bjugstad, Huberdeau, Barkov and even Aaron Ekblad.

In the meantime, the Panthers can trumpet Jagr’s continued gallop through the record books to entice the less-hardcore among their potential base. Just look at how much he could climb if the 43-year-old continues to defy the aging process:

All-time goals list:

3. Brett Hull – 741 goals
4. Marcel Dionne – 731
5. Jagr – 722

All-time points:

2. Mark Messier: 1,887 points
3. Gordie Howe: 1,850
4. Jagr: 1,802

Remarkable stuff, right?

Roberto Luongo may be a subtle draw, too, although goalies probably don’t bring in audiences quite like a seemingly ageless, legendary forward might.

Again, the truth is that Jagr would ideally serve as a supporting cast member on the ice. The Panthers will probably just market him as if he’s still the marquee star – at least until the team is clearly in contention – and who would blame them?