Phil Kessel

PHT Morning Skate: Where will Kessel end up?; Hurricanes’ defense can do it all

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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.

Here’s the NBC Sports Stanley Cup playoff update for May 6

• The Sedin twins have found a new way to stay active. (Sportsnet)

Robin Lehner had a big first year with the Islanders, but it ended with a thud. (TSN)

• ESPN breaks down all the players who were nominated for major NHL awards. (ESPN)

• Even though they’re facing elimination, the Blue Jackets don’t regret making major moves at the trade deadline. (NHL)

• Speaking of the Jackets, here’s what they have to do to avoid being eliminated in Game 6 against Boston. (The Cannon)

• WEEI’s Matt Kalman believes the Bruins will be able to close out this series against Columbus. (WEEI)

• Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault is reportedly hiring Michel Therrien to join his staff. (Montreal Gazette)

Evgeny Kuznetsov had an inconsistent season in Washington, so what’s next for the Russian forward? (NBC Sports Washington)

• Pensburgh breaks down the potential landing spots for Phil Kessel if the Penguins decide to trade him. (Pensburgh)

• How will the Coyotes split the workload between Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper next season? (AZ Central)

• Don’t expect the Calgary Flames to hand out any offer sheets this summer. (Flames Nation)

• The Hurricanes have had playoff success because of their group of defesemen that can do it all. (The Hockey News)

• The Romanian National team has been promoted to Division 1 A. (IIHF)

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’ playoff exit was two years in the making

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The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from it.

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 was the Jordan Eberle show for Islanders

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PITTSBURGH — Jordan Eberle‘s only playoff appearance before this season was mostly forgettable.

He went 13 games without scoring a goal, was limited to just two assists, and became the postseason scapegoat for a dysfunctional organization (Edmonton) that was on the brink of falling apart for reasons that were (and still are) far bigger than him. The response that offseason, naturally, was to essentially give him away to the New York Islanders in a one-for-one deal for Ryan Strome

It has been a very different postseason experience for him this time around.

Eberle was one of the driving forces behind the Islanders’ stunning four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins that concluded with a 3-1 win on Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena.

After failing to score in all of his playoff games in 2016, Eberle has not only scored in every playoff game he has played so far in 2019, but he has scored some game-changing goals in the biggest possible moments.

Just look at the rundown of his goals so far:

  • In Game 1, he opened the scoring for the Islanders and set the tone for the series just 1:40 into the game.
  • In Game 2, it was the game-winning goal midway through the third period to help give the Islanders a commanding lead in the series.
  • In Game 3, it was a picture perfect snipe from a terrible angle that tied the game just one minute after the Penguins had taken an early lead.
  • In Game 4, it was exactly the same situation as his goal on an odd-man rush at the 2:09 mark of the first period came just a minute-and-a-half after the Penguins scored on the game’s first shift, erasing any momentum they may have been able to build.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In the four games the Islanders spent less than five minutes playing from behind due to their quick responses, and in two games it was goals from Eberle that erased those few deficits.

He has found a home on the Islanders’ top line alongside Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee, and in a series that featured the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on the other side of the ice, it was the Islanders’ trio that dominated on the scoreboard.

“[Barzal] is finding me in areas where I am able to finish plays off,” said Eberle after Tuesday’s win, when asked what is going through his mind when the puck is on his stick right now.

“Since they put me, [Barzal], and [Lee] together the puck has been going in a lot more. I don’t know what we finished the season with, but it seemed like we scored every game. That is obviously huge and we want to continue playing that way. These games get tougher and tougher as you move forward, we have to be ready and realize that.”

They may not have scored in every game, but they definitely showed they could be a dangerous trio that could spark the team’s offense. Over the final 10 games of the regular season that trio outscored opponents by a 6-2 margin in more than 122 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, while also dominating the scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance numbers.

That domination has carried over to the playoffs.

In the four-game series against Pittsburgh the Eberle, Barzal, Lee line combined for four goals, was not on the ice for a single goal against, and controlled more than 60 percent of the scoring chance and high-danger chances when they were on the ice.

Other than perhaps the play of the two goalies (and especially Robin Lehner in the Islanders’ net), that line was probably the difference in the series.

“You start to get a lot of confidence before the playoffs begin, and you want to continue to play well,” said Eberle. “The biggest thing about my game, and [Barzal], and [Lee] is you want to have the coach trust you, and I think Barry does now with the way we have played defensively and able to break the puck out and go down and score. We are known for our defense and I think first and foremost that is where we want to be.”

The Islanders have a lot of questions to face this summer when it comes to pending unrestricted free agents, with Eberle and Lee being two of the biggest. If nothing else, they are putting together a pretty convincing argument that they are worth keeping around and paying because of the way they have played alongside the team’s new franchise player (Barzal).

They also don’t have to worry about that decision for (at least) a couple more weeks, thanks in large parts to Eberle’s goal-scoring binge.

He had a rather simple explanation for how all of it is happening for him

“Sometimes when you shoot the puck, it goes in.”

Because the puck keeps going in, the Islanders’ season will keep going on.

Related: Islanders shut down Penguins again to complete sweep

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.

The Buzzer: Hellebuyck’s shutout; Staal, Granlund combine for eight points; Penguins cruise

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Players of the Night:

Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets: Hellebuyck’s sixth shutout of the season — a 34-save effort in a 4-0 win against the St. Louis Blues — set a new franchise record. He’s now just two wins away from tying the team’s franchise record for wins by a goalie at 32.

Eric Staal and Mikael Granlund, Minnesota Wild: Staal and Granlund basically had their way with the New York Rangers in a 4-1 win. They each scored twice and also assisted twice on each other’s goals. Feasting on the Rangers is pretty easy these days, but it was an impressive night for the duo nonetheless.

William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights: Goals No. 32 and No. 33 tonight, including quite the rip on his second one. Added an assist as well in a 6-3 win for the Golden Knights over the Vancouver Canucks. What a player he’s turned into.

Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins: Kessel has two goals and an assist and Malkin and Guentzel each had a goal and two assists. The Penguins are already scary on offense, and they just added Derick Brassard on Friday. Three-peat, anyone?

Highlights of the Night:

Saucy little number:

Patrik Laine makes it look so easy:

Slick feed game:

Ugly suit night for the Winnipeg Jets:

https://twitter.com/NHLGIFs/status/967262571605778433

Trade of the Day:

The three-team deal that happened, then it didn’t and then happened again

Penguins land Derick Brassard on second try in wild three-team deal.

Own goal of the night:

Troy Stecher got a little unlucky on this one:

Factoids of the Night:

Scores:

Wild 4, Rangers 1

Penguins 6, Hurricanes 1

Jets 4, Blues 0

Blackhawks 3, Sharks 1

Golden Knights 6, Canucks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Phil Kessel doesn’t really care about scoring title: ‘I have two Cups’

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

A couple of weeks ago we looked at the possibility of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel potentially winning the NHL scoring title this season.

Since then Nikita Kucherov has kind of distanced himself a little bit in the race and has re-opened an eight-point lead over the rest of the pack, as well as a 10-point lead over Kessel.

On Friday, Kessel was asked about winning the scoring title and if he’s following the race between his teammates Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kucherov, Johnny Gaudreau, Steven Stamkos, Connor McDavid, and Claude Giroux.

He gave a pretty honest — and awesome — answer.

“I got two Cups,” said Kessel, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Doesn’t really matter.”

That pretty much settles that, doesn’t it?

[Related: Phil Kessel Joins Exclusive Hot Dog Hockey Card Club, Thanks To Upper Deck]

As of Friday Kessel is tied with Crosby, Malkin, McDavid and Giroux, all of whom have 66 points.

Stamkos is third in the league with 67 points, one point back of Gaudreau with 68 points.

All of them are chasing Kucherov’s 76 points.

The scoring title wasn’t the only thing that prompted Kessel to reference the Penguins’ past two Stanley Cup wins. With the team that traded him to Pittsburgh — the Toronto Maple Leafs — in town for a game on Saturday night Kessel was asked if he still gets fired up to face his former team, to which he responded (via @PensInsideScoop): “I don’t really care anymore. It’s my third year and we’ve won twice. It’s in the past.”

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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.