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The Penguins have some major depth issues that need to be addressed

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Nearly one quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season and the Pittsburgh Penguins are probably not exactly where they want to be at this point.

Entering play on Tuesday, when they will host the Buffalo Sabres, they are 17th in the NHL in points percentage, they have the third-worst goal differential (minus-18, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes) after losing games by margins of 10-7, 7-1 and 7-1, and are only a middle of the pack team in terms of their shot attempt and possession numbers. Their goals against numbers overall are ugly (largely due to the three blowout losses), but they are also only 25th in the league in goals per game.

None of that is great.

There are a lot of factors here.

The early season schedule to this point has been brutal, having already played six sets of back-to-back games (often against rested teams — including some of the best teams in the league). For a team that has played 214 games the past two seasons that is a tough way to open the season. Their backup goaltending situation early in the season was a disaster with Antti Niemi giving up goals in bunches.

It is not wrong to think that a better backup goaltending situation to start the year could have maybe produced an extra win, or that once the schedule calms down a little they will start to get back on track a little.

There is another issue at work here too that is going to need to be addressed in a meaningful way: The bottom of the roster, which was decimated by free agency and the salary cap over the summer, is giving them almost no offense to speak of. Or anything, really.

This brings back a problem that plagued the Penguins between the 2010 and 2015 seasons when they were getting bounced early in the playoffs despite having a group of All-Stars at the top of the roster.

Over the past two years general manager Jim Rutherford did a ton of work to build that depth back up and it resulted in back-to-back Stanley Cups.

This past summer a lot of that depth walked out the door in free agency with Nick Bonino (Nashville Predators), Matt Cullen (Minnesota Wild), Chris Kunitz (Tampa Bay Lightning), and Trevor Daley (Detroit Red Wings) all moving on. That also does not include the exit of Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, a pretty significant departure given how bad Niemi turned out to be.

That is a lot of depth to replace in one offseason, and to this point the Penguins have struggled to do it.

Instead of Bonino and Cullen at the third and fourth center spots they opened the season with Greg McKegg and Carter Rowney (currently injured), then traded for Riley Sheahan, a player that has not scored a goal in 97 of his past 98 games.

Ryan Reaves, brought in to add toughness, is playing just seven minutes per night and has replaced Kunitz.

Looking at it from a numbers perspective it is not hard to see how much of a drop this is has been for the offense.

Let’s break their forwards and their production down into two groups of six: The top-six in terms of ice-time and the bottom-six in terms of ice-time.

During the 2016-17 season the Penguins forwards that were 7-12 in ice-time averaged .445 points per game as a group.

So far this year? The 7-12 group is at just .201. A player that averages .201 points per game over 82 games scores just 16 points in a season. A .445 player scores 36.

That is a pretty substantial drop. To be fair we are also comparing a 19-game sampling with a full season. A lot can happen over the next few months. The table below breaks down the past two full seasons, as well as this one, to show where the Penguins were after 19 games and where they ended up.

In each of the past two seasons both groups were slow starters relative to where they ended up at the end of the season. But it wasn’t just a matter of players getting better or seeing their production in crease. In both instances there were pretty significant changes made to the roster.

In 2015-16 pretty much everything about the team changed after the first quarter of the season, from the head coach (Mike Johnston to Mike Sullivan) to almost half of the roster (Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Justin Schultz all being called up or added to the roster during the season).

In 2016-17 it was the call-up of Jake Guentzel that ended up making a huge difference (as well as the return of a lot of injured player).

The point here is if the Penguins are going to have any chance of another repeat run they are going to need to make similar changes at some point before the trade deadline.

In their two years as the Penguins’ third-and fourth-line centers Bonino and Cullen each averaged 15 goals and between 30-40 points.

Right now McKegg and Sheahan are on a four-goal and 11-point pace … combined.

The Penguins didn’t go from postseason disappointments to Stanley Cup champions the past two years because players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin got better or became better leaders or became more clutch. They were the same as they have always been (great). They became Stanley Cup champions again because players like Crosby and Malkin were still great, and they had a great supporting cast of players around them.

This is not to suggest the Penguins would necessarily be in a better situation with Bonino and Cullen and Kunitz at this point. Cullen is 41 years old and has one goal so far in Minnesota. At some point he will slow down. Bonino has played in just five games for the Predators due to injury and the Penguins never could have matched that contract offer under the salary cap. (Keeping Kunitz instead of adding Reaves probably would have been smart).

Their production from the past two seasons still existed and was a big part of the Penguins success. That is production they are not getting and are unlikely to get from the current cast of players in those roles as replacements.

There are some areas where improvement can come from. Sidney Crosby is going to play better. Kris Letang can (and probably will) play better. Prospect Daniel Sprong is off to a great start in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and could be on the Guentzel path to the NHL at some point later in the season.

The third-and fourth-line center spots, however, have become offensive black holes and with Reaves only playing seven minutes a night (sometimes significantly less) they are pretty much playing with an 11-man forward group.

All of those areas need to be addressed if another postseason run is going to happen 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 appreciate now-Coyotes coach Tocchet’s role in Cup wins

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When Rick Tocchet returns to Pittsburgh, he will see another Stanley Cup banner in the rafters and be celebrated for his part in earning it.

Tocchet doesn’t plan on reminiscing too much about the Penguins’ back-to-back titles, except perhaps for one important moment.

”I’m looking forward to my ring, yeah,” he said.

Tocchet will get his third Penguins Cup ring, his second as an assistant coach after one as a player, when he visits as coach of the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday night. Whether it was fostering relationships with Phil Kessel and younger players or running the power play that scored on 21.9 percent of its chances during the 2016 and 2017 Cup runs, Tocchet was a valuable piece of the organization and is appreciated as such.

”The role he had, he did it extremely well,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said Monday. ”He had a good read on the players and was able to communicate on a one-on-one basis with whatever they were dealing with hockey-wise and personally or whatever. He did a terrific job for us and played a key role.”

Tocchet settled into a comfortable spot on Pittsburgh’s coaching staff, especially once Mike Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston in December 2015. Sullivan values Tocchet’s knowledge and said over the summer they grew to trust each other through some challenging times.

Tocchet doesn’t want to claim an oversized chunk of the credit for the Penguins’ back-to-back championships.

”You just do your part,” Tocchet said after the Coyotes’ morning skate in Washington. ”The players for me are the major contributors, Mike Sullivan obviously making the decisions. … Even a team that wins a Stanley Cup, your fourth-line player has to do something. To win a Cup, everybody has to kind of pull the rope, and that’s the way we did in Pittsburgh. Whether you’re a player, coach, a scout or whatever, I think everybody contributed.”

The Penguins are planning a video tribute to Tocchet to play during the Coyotes’ only visit of the season, and fans no doubt feel a special connection with him after he also played on the 1992 Cup team. But the 53-year-old pointed to his Stanley Cup party over the summer as closure on his Pittsburgh days and insisted his focus is on helping Arizona rebound from losing 13 of its first 15 games.

Of course, one text he got in the middle of the struggles shows how likable he was to Penguins players. It came from captain Sidney Crosby with a simple message: ”Hang in there.”

That kind of camaraderie is already building with the young Coyotes, who routinely ask Tocchet about Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and others to pick his brain about some of the best in the game.

”Obviously guys are interested in what (Crosby has) done because of how successful he was and his relationship with Coach Tocch,” Coyotes rookie forward Clayton Keller said. ”It’s good to have that relationship. Not many guys get to work with Sidney Crosby. He definitely has a lot of information.”

Tocchet feared early in his Arizona tenure that he was name-dropping Crosby and the Penguins a little too much. Only his new players keep asking, and he has enough in the memory bank from the past three years to keep it coming.

”It’s mostly the players engaging: ‘Hey, what does Crosby do in these situations? What does Malkin do in this situation? How does this guy do that?”’ Tocchet said. ”So that’s the engagement, and I love that because they want to learn. If you’re 20-year-old kids, they watch YouTube. They want to see how these guys do certain things, and I love that about it.”

As Tocchet passes on what Penguins stars did at practice or in key situations, he’s conscious that their success as a team helped him get his first job since parts of two seasons with Tampa Bay from 2008-2010.

”I was very fortunate to have a great staff, work for Mike Sullivan,” Tocchet said. ”I learned a lot from him. And I also learned a lot from the players. I was lucky enough to coach the Crosbys, Malkins, Kessels, Letangs – high-end guys that keep you on your toes.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .

For more NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Crosby, McDavid focusing on teams, not 1-on-1 matchup

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The fan in Connor McDavid comes out whenever he sees Sidney Crosby‘s familiar No. 87 on TV.

”When you’re watching, you’re hoping for him to do something cool,” the Edmonton Oilers star said.

Defending one of his childhood idols is another matter entirely. McDavid will get an up-close look when the Oilers visit Crosby and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday.

”If you want to model yourself after someone, I think he’s as good a guy as you can get,” said McDavid, who has three goals and five assists through seven games. ”He’s won just about anything there is to win in hockey: individual awards, team awards. You name it, he’s got it. If you’re a young guy like me, that’s what you want to do with your career.”

While Crosby totally gets why sharing the ice with McDavid is a thing, he’d rather not talk about it.

”I think there’s always matchups, storylines and things like that … but we’re just going to go out there and play,” said Crosby, who has five goals and five assists.

At the moment, Crosby and the Penguins have more pressing matters than the hype that accompanies the biannual meeting between two of the NHL’s brightest lights.

The Penguins placed goaltender Antti Niemi on waivers on Monday just three games into his tenure as Matt Murray‘s backup, called up rookie Casey DeSmith from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes Barre/Scranton and acquired forward Riley Sheahan from Detroit over the weekend to address their need for a third-line center. The Oilers, meanwhile, are off to a slow start following their first playoff appearance in more than a decade.

Pittsburgh swept Edmonton last season, a testament to the depth around Crosby. Crosby was held without a point while McDavid had a goal and three assists in the two games.

”They were two really, really entertaining games,” McDavid said. ”Obviously you hope for that and hope for a better result.”

The 30-year-old Crosby and the 20-year-old McDavid are separated by a decade but little else.

They finished one-two in Hart Trophy voting last year, with McDavid and his league-leading 100 points edging Crosby and his NHL-high 44 goals. For a while last spring it appeared they were on a collision course for the Stanley Cup Final until the Oilers blew a 3-1 lead against Anaheim in the second round.

It’s not unlike the path Crosby and the Penguins followed shortly after he made his NHL debut in 2005. Pittsburgh reached the postseason in Crosby’s second year. The Penguins reached the Cup final in his third year. In his fourth, he raised the Cup with the franchise’s third championship.

”I can only speak of my experience, going to the final and losing was a really good experience for us as a group,” Crosby said. ”Going through that it’s something you learn through.”

The Oilers are hoping last spring can serve as a launching pad for McDavid, whose vision and speed make him a nightmare matchup for anyone tasked with trying to keep up. The responsibility will fall largely on Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang, who should see plenty of McDavid’s No. 97 on Tuesday.

”I just think what’s tough for a defenseman is sometimes a guy can go fast in a straight line and he doesn’t have his head up, he’s just worried about beating you wide,” said Letang, one of the fastest skaters in the league. ”This guy is like looking straight into your eyes and he’s going full speed so you’re like ”Oh (no), what is he going to do?”’

Asked to compare McDavid’s quickness to another player outside his own dressing room, Letang responded: ”No one is near that guy.”

Oilers coach Todd McLellan will try to find a balance between figuring out a way to steer his team out of its early funk while also appreciating the special talent on the ice.

”It will come down to team play but you do appreciate as a coach, a fan, even a player, their skill set and what they brought to their teams and their communities,” McLellan said. ”Even off the rink, both of them are tremendous that way. It’s fun when they’re together.”

Backup options limited for Penguins after waiving Antti Niemi

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Saturday’s 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning was the last straw for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their need for Antti Niemi as a backup goaltender.

On Monday, the 34-year-old Niemi was waived as general manager Jim Rutherford continues his search to give starter Matt Murray some help in goal. In three starts this season, Niemi has allowed 16 goals on 63 shots and has posted an ugly .828 even strength save percentage. (The only goaltender with a lower ESSV%? His old crease mate Kari Lehtonen, who has an .815 in two appearances.)

While Niemi was dealt a bit of a tough hand in his three starts — all coming on the second night of a back-to-back — those numbers are just plain obscene and a clear sign that the Penguins needed to move on. It’s unsure what the plan is when he clears waivers on Tuesday. Will the team look to terminate the one-year, $700,000 deal he signed in the summer, or will they, as head coach Mike Sullivan mentioned, allow him to use the AHL as a place to find his game?

“That would be a great option, to give him an opportunity to get in some ideal circumstances and give him an opportunity to build his confidence in an environment that’s not as high stakes as the one we’re in here,” Sullivan said on Monday.

When Rutherford signed Niemi in the summer, he said the plan was to give him between 30 and 40 games this season, allowing Murray to not be overworked before the Stanley Cup Playoffs and give Tristan Jarry or Casey DeSmith continued development at their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.

The short-term option here is calling up one of the two kids, but if Niemi clears and they want to rehabilitate him, that’s time taken away from giving Jarry or DeSmith much-needed minutes. DeSmith has shined in three starts this year, winning all three games and only allowing three goals in 184:14 minutes played. It’s not ideal, but unless Rutherford can swing another deal to fill another void in the lineup — like he did on Saturday to get Riley Sheahan as the team’s new No. 3 center — the search could take a while.

The free agent market isn’t flowing with options and teams like Arizona, Boston and Vegas having goaltending issues, it won’t be easy to find someone.

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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.

Ian Cole adjusts to missing teeth, life with a cage

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NEW YORK — Ian Cole has played 342 games and blocked 578 shots in his NHL career. Two weeks ago, he finally got to experience losing teeth as a hockey player.

As he displayed on Twitter (don’t look, really) the following day, the Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen lost three choppers in gruesome fashion after taking a Roman Josi slap shot to the mouth on Oct. 7. When he returned to the lineup Tuesday night against the New York Rangers, he was a couple of pounds lighter and wearing a cage.

“It was definitely something it looks nasty, it certainly was nasty. The feeling of them clipping away at bone off my jaw was not a feeling that I would want to have again,” he said after Tuesday’s morning skate. “But it could have been much worse. It could have been a broken jaw, could have been a lot more teeth. I certainly was fortunate.”

Cole re-joined his teammates on the ice this week and after seeing his diet switch to that of rice cakes, smoothies and soups, he’s back to eating solid foods, and the weight that was lost is slowly returning. After the Penguins arrived in New York City on Monday, he went the sushi route for dinner, preferring not to take a chance with a steak.

While playing at Notre Dame, Cole sported a half-shield, half-visor look, so going the full cage route won’t be a major adjustment. Once the Penguins medical staff tell him he’s able to say goodbye to the cage, Cole will go back to wearing just a visor.

“There’s a little bit of visibility difference, but it’s not that big of a deal,” he said. “You shouldn’t be looking down at the puck too much anyway ideally. There might be a time or two when you might lose the puck for a second, but hopefully those times are few and far between.”

Cole’s dad, Doug, is a dentist, and has been especially interested in his son’s recovery, passing along questions he has to the medical staff about the treatment they are giving the defensman.

After going through this experience for the first time in his career Cole says he believes if the NHL ever mandated cages for players they would get accustomed to it over time.

“Guys always get used to it, whether it’s visors or slashing calls now or face-off rules, guys adapt well and they’ll be fine,” he said. “That decision’s way above my pay grade but guys can adapt to that.”

Cole will get used to peering through a cage on the ice. But will what he went through cause some hesitation next time the opportunity to block a shot arises? He led all players with five blocked shots at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.

“Now that I’ve got the full cage on, I’ve got nothing to worry about,” he joked. “I’m in full armor, I’m ready to go.”

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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.

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