Nick Bjugstad

Penguins’ injury problems keep piling up

2 Comments

Well, at least the Pittsburgh Penguins won one of their first three games.

That’s the most positive thing you could probably muster for a team that’s fighting it right now.

It’s somewhat amusing that, while it was surprising that the Winnipeg Jets beat the Penguins 4-1 with a decimated defense on Tuesday, the Penguins are keeping their medical staff pretty busy lately, too.

In Pittsburgh’s case, the injuries are piling up mostly on the forward side.

We already found out that Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad are expected to be out long-term, and while updates softened that term to be more about weeks than months, it still puts the Penguins in a bind. Injuries keep stacking up from both a quantity and quality standpoint; the team announced that Alex Galchenyuk has been placed (at least briefly) on IR, forcing a call-up of Adam Johnson. While Galchenyuk carried an issue into the regular season and likely re-aggravated it, Patric Hornqvist was shaken up while getting hit by a puck working in the “dirty areas” where he both thrives and often gets hurt.

About the only good news is that Galchenyuk and Hornqvist might be dealing with issues that are more minor.

Oh yeah, the Penguins are also dealing with an injury to occasionally hyper-clutch forward Bryan Rust so … yeah, this is all a lot.

If you look at the Penguins’ current line combinations at Left Wing Lock, it becomes obvious how much things will fall upon Sidney Crosby‘s shoulders, and also to Matt Murray. While Jake Guentzel and Dominik Simon make for a respectable set of wings around Crosby, there’s not a lot of scoring punch beyond that top line.

That defense also looks rough, even more or less at full-strength.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie brought up an interesting report in a recent edition of Insider Trading: the Penguins have been shopping oft-criticized defensemen Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson, both before the season and amid these injury headaches.

Really, if there’s any time the Penguins could get Johnson and/or Gudbranson off the books, that would likely be wise. It’s possible that, particularly with Johnson, it could be a case of “addition by subtraction.” Beyond that, they clog up quite a bit of the Penguins’ cap, which is relevant as Pittsburgh is one of the many contenders who are always wiggling to try to stay under the ceiling. Johnson, 32, would be a drag at his $3.25M AAV for just 2019-20; his contract is pretty terrifying when you realize it runs through 2022-23. Gudbranson is more palatable being that there have been flashes of competence during his short time with the Penguins, and also that he’s younger (27) and not under contract for as much term ($4M AAV through 2020-21), but chances are strong that the Penguins would be better off flipping him if they can add more viable talent — or even just clear some room to target that help closer to, say, the trade deadline.

Either way, it’s a messy situation, mixing the Penguins’ self-inflicted wounds of making some bad moves in recent years, and bad injury luck that strikes teams both wise and foolish.

There’s a chance that both Galchenyuk and Hornqvist could be back soon, possibly against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday, but this remains a Penguins team that’s limping through the early goings of the 2019-20 season.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Jets’ defense takes yet another blow ahead of game vs. Penguins

1 Comment

When the Winnipeg Jets had their 2018-19 season end this past April, their defense was made up of the following players: Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot, and Dmitry Kulikov. Not a great group by any means, but a formidable one that was good enough to help make the Jets a playoff team.

How many of those players will be in the lineup for them on Tuesday night when they visit the Pittsburgh Penguins?

Zero.

None of them.

Due to a series of roster moves and unfortunate circumstances the entire defense the team used a year ago is not available as the team prepares to open its current four-game road trip.

Trouba, Myers, and Chiarot all left the team over the summer (Trouba was traded to the Rangers; Myers and Chiarot departed in free agency), while Byfuglien stepped away just before the start of training camp to reportedly consider his future in the NHL.

All of that alone was enough to decimate their blue line.

The departures continued on Tuesday when the Jets announced that Kulikov has been given a personal leave from the team.

Morrissey, meanwhile, suffered an injury during warmups before the team’s most recent game against the New York Islanders and was held out of Sunday’s game. After practicing on Monday, coach Paul Maurice announced on Tuesday that the team is going to hold Morrissey out for at least another game (Tuesday in Pittsburgh) as a precaution.

This all means the Jets’ defense on Tuesday is going to include Sami Niku, Carl Dahlstrom, Neal Pionk, Ville Heinola, Anthony Bitetto and Tucker Poolman.

Combined NHL games for those six players: 350.

Heinola, 18, was the team’s first-round draft pick this past season and has played just three games so far, while Dahlstrom was claimed on waivers a week ago from the Chicago Blackhawks. Pionk is the “experienced” member of that group and was acquired over the summer from the Rangers in the Trouba trade. Calling that group a “makeshift defense” would be a monumental understatement.

Even though they are facing a Penguins team that is without two of its top three centers (Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad) it is still a dangerous team offensively with the Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel occupying the top line.

The Jets’ defense was always going to be a massive question mark this season, and it just seems to keep finding ways to get even more shorthanded. Starting goalie Connor Hellebuyck is going to need to play the best hockey of his career to keep this thing together.

MORE:
• 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 lose Malkin, Bjugstad to ‘long-term’ injuries

Getty
3 Comments

Just two games into the season and the injury bug has already taken a significant bite out of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Coach Mike Sullivan announced on Monday that centers Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad will both be sidelined with lower-body injuries that are expected to keep them out of the lineup “long-term.”

Sullivan said that Malkin’s injury will likely sideline him longer than Bjugstad’s.

TSN’s Darren Dreger reported on Monday that Malkin’s injury is a “soft tissue” injury and that he is expected to be sidelined for around a month.

Both players exited the Penguins’ 7-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night.

Malkin was injured when he lost his balance through the neutral zone and fell awkwardly into the boards. He immediately went to the locker room and did not return. Here is a look at the play.

Big things were expected for Malkin this season as he was looking to rebound from a down 2018-19 season. He came into camp motivated and with a chip on his shoulder and was looking to show he is still one of the league’s top players. He had been playing on a newly formed second line alongside offseason additions Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Tanev that had made a strong first impression.

Both injuries are pretty big losses in the short-term for a Penguins team that is already short on depth and was going to need its star players — and especially Malkin — to play big roles this season. They still have Sidney Crosby to drive the top line, and as long as Matt Murray can keep playing the way he has in net there is still every reason to believe they can compete. It just makes things a lot tougher for them until their center depth returns.

With Malkin and Bjugstad sidelined Jared McCann will likely take over as the team’s second line center, with Teddy Blueger presumably moving to third line duty.

The team announced on Monday it has recalled Sam Lafferty and Andrew Agozzino from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

MORE:
• 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

Getty Images

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

3 Comments

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.