Sam Lafferty

Pittsburgh Penguins
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What is the Penguins’ long-term outlook?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Penguins’ core is mostly the same as it has been for the past 15 years, and it is the trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.

They are all into their 30s at this point, and there will come a time in the not-too-distant future that they really start to slow down, but for now they remain the foundation of a Stanley Cup contending team.

Along with them there is a pretty strong supporting cast in place, and one that is probably a lot younger than you might realize. Even though they have made a habit of trading draft picks and prospects to strengthen their championship chases (as they should have) they have done a nice job replenishing the cupboard around their superstars. Especially over the past year.

Jake Guentzel (signed for five more years at $6 million per season) has become a star and one of their best home-grown players in years, while John Marino, Marcus Pettersson, and Jared McCann have been strong additions from the outside.

Bryan Rust has shown what he is capable of in an expanded role and carries a very affordable salary cap hit for the next two years, while Jason Zucker seems like an outstanding fit in their top-six while also being signed for three more full seasons after this one.

Brian Dumoulin remains a perfect complement for Letang on the top defense pair (while also being signed for three more seasons) while they have two very good young goalies in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry that are still under team control for the next few years.

Long-Term Needs

They have some long-term salary cap restrictions, but that has been a constant theme for them for the better part of the Crosby-Malkin era. It just comes with the territory of being a contending team with superstar players. They do have a couple of contracts that will probably get dumped one way or another before they expire (Jack Johnson, Nick Bjugstad, maybe even Brandon Tanev a couple of years down the line).

The salary cap crunch could also create a little headache this offseason as they work to re-sign some key restricted free agents like McCann, Murray, and Jarry.

The latter two also create an interesting situation because both have the potential and ability to be outstanding goalies in the NHL. They also have both showed it (Murray more than Jarry). But juggling that contract situation is going to be interesting, especially as they figure out what sort of financial commitment to make with Murray.

He is a two-time Stanley Cup winner. But he has had some ups and downs over the past two seasons. How much can they commit to him, and for how long?

While they have done a great job of having a steady pipeline of talent come through their system to complement the stars, there is going to come a point where they will need to develop another truly high-end player when Crosby and/or Malkin are no longer able to carry the team. That time is not yet here, but it will eventually arrive.

Long-Term Strengths

The bottom line is the Penguins still have a couple of Hall of Famers and All-Star level players on their roster. They are still players that can take over and dominate games. As long as they have that, they have the most important ingredient for contending.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Jake Guentzel are the type of players you win championships with. The Penguins have won multiple championships with them and been one of the league’s most successful teams by every objective measure. There will come a time when the window really does close on this core and a rebuild is needed, but that time is not here just yet. It may not be here for a couple of more years.

For as much money as they have committed to their core, and for as tight as their salary cap situation may be, they do have some pretty significant long-term contracts that are team-and cap-friendly. The trio of Guentzel, Rust, and Dumoulin is an outstanding secondary group of stars, and together they account for less than $14 million against the cap for the next couple of years. Even Crosby and Malkin are making far less than they could be. Every little bit of savings counts and helps make the rest of the team that much stronger.

They also have Mike Sullivan behind the bench who has done some of his best work this season.

MORE Penguins:
 Looking at the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins
Penguins biggest surprises and disappointments so far

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.

New-look Penguins play first game since trade deadline on NBCSN

Hockey fans get their first post-trade deadline glance at the new-look Penguins on Wednesday. Then again, it’s also true that later versions of the Penguins will look different from the group that faces the Kings on NBCSN at 10:30 p.m. ET (stream here).

Penguins roll out new trade deadline additions in these lineups — for now

Like many other NHL coaches, Mike Sullivan likes to tinker with his combinations. Injuries forced Sullivan to do so anyway this season, and the Penguins’ trade deadline investments now give him a plethora of options. When/if certain players come back, the variety will only grow.

Let’s go forward line by forward line based on NHL.com’s projected combos for Wednesday, since that’s where Pittsburgh made acquisitions.

Jason ZuckerSidney CrosbyConor Sheary

As new-look as the Penguins feel, there seems to be warm-and-fuzzy feelings for the reunion of Crosby and Sheary. Personally, I never understood why Pittsburgh broke them up in the first place. (Especially if the answer is troublingly “to afford bad defenseman Jack Johnson.”)

In a lineup breakdown from The Athletic’s Josh Yohe (sub required), both Crosby and Sheary amusingly described each other as easy to play with. Sullivan’s comments provided a little more substance.

“He brings a speed element,” Sullivan said of Sheary. “He can finish. He’s good in traffic. A lot of attributes that Conor brings to the table are complementary to Sid.”

Sheary can think the game at a reasonable level with Crosby, and the early returns on Zucker indicate the same. (On paper, Zucker seems like a no-brainer fit for Crosby, but in reality not everyone clicks with 87.)

Still, there are a number of different factors that could break these fellows up. What if Jake Guentzel beats the timeline for recovery from his shoulder surgery, at least for the playoffs? Will Penguins eventually want a right-handed shot with Crosby instead of two other lefties?

This seems like a good mix overall, at least to start, though.

Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Business as usual there, basically. Rust and Hornqvist can work with Crosby if needed, so that’s nice.

Patrick MarleauEvan RodriguesDominik Simon

Trade deadline additions make two-thirds of this third line, and the potential is interesting. Simon ranks as the most feasible candidate to move up, possibly with Crosby again. While Marleau ranks as a bigger name, Rodrigues stands out as a fascinating wild card.

People have been noting Rodrigues’ potential as a hidden gem for some time.

(His underlying numbers still look good at Hockey Viz, although things slipped a bit in 2019-20 compared to more robust work in 2017-18 and 2018-19.)

The sheer variety of useful players in the Penguins’ top nine is really something, especially when you realize that Jared McCann could end up being a more regular fit as third-line center. Nick Bjugstad already feels like old news, considering the revolving door of Penguins forwards, yet he’s another interesting player if health eventually permits.

Sam LaffertyTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Then you have what seems to be a pretty strong fourth line from a defensive standpoint. Quite a group.

(Oh yeah, and there’s also Zach Aston-Reese. Healthy scratches could eventually become straight-up awkward if most/everyone actually gets healthy.)

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Defense and other considerations for Penguins

NHL.com projects Pittsburgh’s Wednesday defensive pairings as such:

Jack Johnson — Kris Letang

Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz

Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Naturally, injuries have been a factor for the Penguins’ defense (and also goalies including Matt Murray). Moving past players who have worked past injuries like Letang and Schultz, Pittsburgh has some significant blueliners on the shelf. It’s possible Brian Dumoulin may return with time to shake off rust before the playoffs, while rookie revelation John Marino is recovery from surgery after a wayward puck broke bones in his cheek.

In other words … the Penguins’ defense could continue to look quite different as things go along, much like their forward groups.

Despite all that turbulence, the Penguins figure to be a formidable opponent, particularly after stocking up with Zucker, Sheary, Marleau, and Rodrigues in recent times. Catch your first look at that new-look group against the Kings on Wednesday on NBCSN.

More: Kings aim to upset 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.

The Buzzer: Dubois shines as Blue Jackets keep rolling with another win

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Three Stars

1. Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus Blue Jackets. Their incredible season continued on Sunday with a 4-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens, and it was a huge performance from Dubois that was the difference. In 17 minutes of ice-time he scored two goals, recorded an assist, won six out of eight faceoffs, and was a plus-two in the win. His 17 goals and 42 total points for the season lead the team while he continues to be their best two-way forward. The Blue Jackets are now 17-2-5 in their past 24 games (the only two losses in regulation were against the San Jose Sharks) and are in third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division, moving ahead of the New York Islanders. The Islanders do, however, still have three games in hand.

2. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins. Do not let the three goals against on the stat sheet fool you. Murray was the difference for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday in their 4-3 win against the Washington Capitals thanks to his incredible third period performance. He has now won six starts in a row and seven of his past eight games. Read more about his recent play and the Penguins’ win on Sunday right here.

3. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes. He is quickly turning into a superstar for the Hurricanes, and he scored an absolute beauty of a goal on Sunday to give them a third period lead.

His line was dominant for the Hurricanes in a 4-3 shootout win on Sunday and his goal gives him his second straight 20-goal season to start his career. Keep in mind he is still only 19 years old. He is just the 16th player in NHL history to have two 20-goal seasons before their age 20 season. Read more about the Hurricanes’ win and their Super Bowl Sunday football-themed Storm Surge right here.

Highlights of the Day

It did not result in two points in the standings, but Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson scored two great goals on Sunday to continue his magnificent sophomore season. He scored his second goal from an absolutely ridiculous angle to tie the game in the third period to help get it to overtime and give them at least one point in the standings.

This shot by Penguins forward Sam Lafferty was a thing of beauty to tie the game in the first period not long after Lars Eller scored the first goal of the game.

Dubois earned his second goal of the game with his effort on this shift.

Factoids

  • Elvis Merzlikins won his sixth game in a row for the Blue Jackets, extending the franchise record for longest winning streak by a rookie goalie. [NHL PR]
  • Elias Pettersson’s two goals on Sunday give him 50 for his career, making him one of the fastest players in franchise history to reach that mark. [NHL PR]
  • The Carolina Hurricanes won their 30th game of the season and are back in a playoff spot. [NHL PR]

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 4, Washington Capitals 3
Columbus Blue Jackets 4, Montreal Canadiens 3
Carolina Hurricanes 4, Vancouver Canucks 3 (SO)

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, Murray hold on to beat Capitals: 4 takeaways

If the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to catch the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division race they are going to have to take advantage of the four head-to-head meetings they have over the next two months. Sunday in Washington they played the first of those games, and it was the Penguins getting a hard fought 4-3 win.

The Penguins are now four points back of the Capitals in the standings while also having one game in hand.

Here is what stood out from Sunday’s game.

1. Matt Murray came up big for the Penguins in the third period

Yes he allowed three goals and had some help from his goal post on one or two occasions, but he was a game-changer for the Penguins in the third period where the Capitals owned a 14-5 shots advantage and carried the play as they tried to complete the comeback. After a slow start to the regular season Murray is starting to get his game going in the right direction. With Sunday’s win he has now won six decisions in a row and is 7-1-0 in his past eight starts. He has a .922 save percentage during his individual winning streak. Murray and Tristan Jarry are both going to get their share of playing in the second half, and right now both are playing well.

2. The Penguins’ depth players came through again

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both had an assist and played well, but it was their depth players coming through with the actual goals. This has been a continuing trend all season, and one of the biggest reasons the Penguins have been as good as they have been. Your superstars are not going to score every night, and there has to be other options in your lineup to provide some offense.

On Sunday, it was Sam Lafferty, Dominik Simon, Patric Hornqvist, and Brandon Tanev finding the back of the net.

Lafferty’s goal came just one minute after the Capitals scored the game’s first goal and was a perfectly placed shot off the rush, beating rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov.

Tanev’s goal came with just under three minutes to play in regulation and ended up going in the books as the game-winner.

3. Lars Eller was incredible for the Capitals

Speaking of important depth players, Eller was a beast for the Capitals on Sunday. He scored two goals, hit the post on a wide open look late in the second period, and seemed to be at the center of everything positive that was happening for them. Eller is never going to be one of the first players you think of on the Capitals, but you absolutely need players like him if you are going to be a contender, and he is having an outstanding season. He has a chance to set new career highs offensively (20 goals and 45 points are within reach) and is one of their best defensive forwards and possession drivers. Everything you want in a complementary piece.

4. Of course this would be another great playoff series

It has been so long since these two teams actually played each other (Sunday’s game was their first meeting of the season) that it was easy to forget just how intense and amazing these games can be. The skill on display, the dislike they have for each other, and the way every game seems to come down to a late push at the buzzer. They have met four times in the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin era, and with the way they are playing this season a fifth matchup could be a couple of months away.

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: Rantanen dominates in return; Driedger gets shutout in first start

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Three Stars

1. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. After being sidelined for more than a month Rantanen returned to the Avalanche lineup on Saturday and picked right up where he left off, recording four points in a complete destruction of the Chicago Blackhawks. He is now up to 16 points in 10 games this season, and with him back in the lineup the Avalanche dominant duo of Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon is going to start taking over games again. They are still without Gabriel Landeskog but have managed to keep piling up points thanks to the brilliance of MacKinnon and the improved depth throughout the roster. Given all of the salary cap space they still have they are going to have a chance to add a major piece before the trade deadline and be a force in the Western Conference playoffs. Joonas Donskoi also had four points for the Avalanche on Saturday, while MacKinnon added three. This game also featured one of the most random and unexpected fights of the season when Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat squared off against Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard.

2. Chris Driedger, Florida Panthers. With big-money free agent Sergei Bobrovsky off to a terrible start this season, the Panthers turned to the 25-year-old Driedger for his first career start on Saturday against the Nashville Predators. He made quite an impact turning aside all 27 shots he faced as the Panthers began a nine-game homestand. Before Saturday Driedger had only made three relief appearances (all with the Ottawa Senators) in his very brief NHL career.

3. Tanner Pearson, Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks have been waiting for some of their depth players to make an impact offensively this season, and it has finally started to happen over the past couple of games. Pearson had a huge game in their 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers, scoring two goals and adding two assists. Unlike Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh, they were able to hold on to this three-goal third period lead to snap what had been a brief two-game losing streak.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • Alex Ovechkin became just the fifth player in NHL history to record 15 consecutive 20-goal seasons to begin a career. He also moved into 10th place all-time with his 24th career hat trick. Read all about it here.
  • Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov teamed up for a shutout for the New York Islanders as they beat the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets were one of four teams to lose a defenseman to injury on Saturday.
  • The Toronto Maple Leafs won for the fourth time in five games under new coach Sheldon Keefe thanks to a John Tavares overtime winner against the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Alexandar Georgiev stopped all 33 shots he faced for the New York Rangers in a 4-0 win over their arch-rivals, the New Jersey Devils.
  • Big night for Calgary Flames forward Elias Lindholm as he scored two goals, giving him 14 on the season, in a 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.
  • Defenseman Justin Faulk scored his first goal as a member of the St. Louis Blues in a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Logan Couture scored two goals for the San Jose Sharks as they erased an early two-goal deficit to beat the Arizona Coyotes by a 4-2 margin.
  • Jack Campbell was outstanding for the Los Angeles Kings, stopping 32 out of 33 shots in a 2-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets.

Highlights of the Night

Ivan Provorov lifted the Philadelphia Flyers to a 4-3 overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday with this incredible goal in the extra period.