Sidney Crosby

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Penguins excited for fresh start after disappointing finish

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CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Penguins are excited for a fresh start.

Sidney Crosby and the Penguins became the first team in a generation to win consecutive championships a little more than two years ago. But the Penguins stumbled into an extended offseason last spring when the New York Islanders swept them from the first round of the playoffs.

That left general manager Jim Rutherford to wonder aloud after the season whether some of his players were too content because they’ve won a couple of Stanley Cups.

Crosby and the Penguins are out to prove that’s not the case.

”I think there’s a certain level of hunger and urgency and desperation you have to have if you’re getting through the playoffs,” Crosby said Friday as the Penguins opened training camp.

”Sometimes you think because you have experience that it automatically gives you an edge. It does if you use it, but if you don’t, it doesn’t do much for you.”

Coach Mike Sullivan believes his team can be a championship-caliber group again. But he stressed a daily focus and attention to detail, a brand of intelligent and responsible hockey Sullivan has tried to instill since he took over in December 2015.

”I think this team is capable of doing some real good things,” Sullivan said. ”But we have to earn it every day. It’s not inevitable. There’s a nice feeling around the team. I think everyone is excited about the opportunity and possibilities that we have.”

The Penguins traded winger Phil Kessel to Arizona for Alex Galchenyuk in the offseason.

The 31-year-old Kessel scored 27 goals and 82 points last season, his fourth with the Penguins. He was a vital part of Pittsburgh’s run to consecutive Stanley Cups, finishing second to Crosby for the 2016 Conn Smythe Trophy, while scoring 18 goals and 45 points, as the Penguins became the first team in nearly two decades to win back-to-back titles.

Rutherford spoke of a culture change in the dressing room following the season, and while Kessel is now in Arizona, the Penguins will still need to replace his production.

”Phil produced for us, it’s no secret,” Crosby said. ”Nobody has to come in here and put up the same stat lines he did. It’s pretty tough to fill those shoes. I think collectively we’re going to have to find ways to make up for that.”

Evgeni Malkin seeks a bounce-back season after the 2012 NHL MVP, and two-time scoring champion, ended a career-worst minus-25 with just 21 goals, his lowest full-season output in almost a decade. The 33-year-old spoke said Friday he wants to be a better leader this season.

”Last year, I’m not happy, for sure,” Malkin said. ”Now, it’s a new challenge this year. I want back, my highest level. I can still play at the top level. I want to show everyone I’m not done.”

Malkin skated alongside Galchenyuk and free agent pickup Brandon Tanev on Friday.

The 25-year-old Galchenyuk has put up five consecutive 40-point seasons, and can play both ends of the ice. The 27-year-old Tanev spent his first four seasons in Winnipeg, and also has a reputation as a strong penalty killer and a hard-working, two-way player. He set career highs with 18 goals and 29 points last year.

Pittsburgh also traded for forward Dominik Kahun in the offseason. The 24-year-old played in all 82 games for Chicago in his first NHL season and finished with 13 goals and 37 points. On Friday, Kahun played on a line with Crosby and 24-year-old Jake Guentzel, who scored 40 goals last season.

Crosby and the Penguins are eager to add the new faces into the mix.

”I think it’s exciting to build an identity and have a fresh start,” Crosby said. ”When we won, we didn’t sit here talking about June. Just like the fact that we got swept last year, it really doesn’t matter at this point. We’re all starting from the same spot.”

What should Penguins expect from Malkin?

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With the 2019-20 season approaching, we’re in that sweet time for NHL fans. Every team is undefeated, and our cups runneth over with “best shape of my life” articles.

To the credit of Rob Rossi’s piece on Evgeni Malkin at The Athletic (sub required), that piece goes far deeper than your typical offseason tropes. Rossi digs into Malkin’s seemingly frayed relationship with Phil Kessel, but also his struggles with isolation from his family, insecurities about language in America, and what was a tough 2018-19 season for “Geno.”

It’s a worthy read.

To some degree, the most “important” information comes at the conclusion of that lengthy article, as Malkin reveals that he wants to be with the Penguins over the long haul.

“It’s (a) huge next three years,” Malkin says. “I still want to play 100 percent — and sign (for) three more years with Pittsburgh.”

That’s an interesting comment, as few were really wondering all that much about Malkin’s status, being that his current $9.5 million cap hit runs through 2021-22. Still, with Malkin already 33 and Sidney Crosby now 32, questions about the Penguins’ future will only become more prominent.

That age related question figures in sharply with the most oft-asked non-Kessel-related questions revolving around Malkin’s offseason: can Malkin “bounce back,” and how much can he rebound?

Let’s dig into the details surrounding Malkin’s chances of answering those questions in a good way.

A body breaking down?

It’s tempting to give Malkin some leeway because he dealt with some injuries in 2018-19.

Unfortunately, it’s also tough to avoid the worry that, like with Letang, injuries might just be a consistent headache for Malkin. After all, hockey players with a ton of mileage on their frames don’t tend to get healthier at age 33 and beyond.

Malkin was limited to 68 games in 2018-19 after managing to appear in 78 in 2017-18. Unfortunately, 2017-18’s relatively healthy year feels like an outlier; Malkin averaged 62 games played from 2013-14 through 2016-17, and has been dogged by issues for a long time now.

To some extent, injuries might just be “the price of doing business” for Malkin, who thrives on occasionally trying to drive through multiple defenders, and who sometimes thrives on a sneaky nastiness. It brings a troubling thought to mind, then: even if Malkin stays on the ice, might his body betray him when he tries to dominate in the same ways as he did during his prime?

Rossi’s piece touches on that, discussing how Malkin sometimes strained to make plays last season:

He tried to compensate by cheating up ice. Except he could not get back fast enough to help defensively. He forced high-risk passes because he could not consistently burst through the neutral zone or dance around opposing skaters. He put himself in harm’s way with reckless dashes into the corners. Had he not, he never would have been able to win races to loose pucks.

A bar set too high?

Malkin might not be able to gain space like he used to, and it’s fair to wonder if he might go from a supernatural shooter to a merely … very, very good one.

From 2015-16 through 2017-18, Malkin’s shooting percentage never dipped below 16.7, and went as high as 17.6. To give you a sense of how rare that rate is, Malkin’s 17.2 shooting percentage was the fourth-highest of any player with at least 300 SOG during that frame, and Malkin easily led all with at least 500 (he scored 102 goals on 592 SOG).

In 2018-19, Malkin was still pretty efficient (scoring his 21 goals on 187 SOG, good for 11.2 percent), but no longer outrageous. Frankly, it was probably unfair to count on Malkin to keep this going …

Be careful what you wish for 

… Considering the likely players around him.

Yes, Kessel has become a drag defensively, but Alex Galchenyuk – a likely running mate for Malkin – is basically described as a lesser Kessel.

It sure feels like a lot is riding on the power of “chemistry,” as plenty of people believe that the Penguins took significant steps back this offseason. Malkin and other forwards figure to carry heavy puck-lugging burdens, at least when Kris Letang‘s pairing is off the ice.

***

Could Malkin have a much better year in 2019-20? Absolutely.

He might get a new lease on life with the Kessel drama behind him. Malkin may merely be healthier, or might get bounces where he didn’t the year before.

Still, it’s probably wise to keep expectations in check. Maybe Malkin hasn’t succumbed to Father Time totally just yet — hopefully he hasn’t, as a driving Malkin is still a frightfully wonderful sight — but he may lose those battles more and more at age 33 and beyond.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

PHT Morning Skate: Jets not sweating RFA deals; Orpik’s new role with Capitals

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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.

• Training camp is just days away and Winnipeg Jets forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor remain unsigned. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is not yet sweating it. (Winnipeg Sun)

• After winning a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals, Brooks Orpik has taken on a new player development role with the Capitals and will work with defenders. (Washington Capitals)

• Sabres coach Ralph Krueger expects defender Rasmus Ristolainen to be in camp when it begins this week. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Darren Dreger believes that unless something drastic changes with Mitch Marner‘s contract negotiations before the third week of this month he is expecting the RFA forward to travel to Switzerland to train with the Zurich Lions. (TSN)

• Exploring some bottom-six options for the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. (St. Louis Game Time)

• After having no captain for the 2018-19 season, will the Vancouver Canucks name one this season? (Pass It To Bulis)

• Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby reflects as he closes in on 1,000 games played. (Sportsnet)

• What is Dominik Kahun‘s long-term upside for the Penguins? (Pensburgh)

• NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan talks Twitch deal, interactivity, and making fun contagious. (The Hockey News)

• Tampa Bay Lightning defender Mikhail Sergachev used his time off to see the world. (Tampa Bay Times)

• How San Jose Barracuda players deal with the high cost of living in San Jose. (EP Rinkside)

• Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid said over the weekend his knee feels great but he is not sure about his availability for opening night. (Edmonton Sun)

• Dale Hawerchuk takes leave of absence from the Barrie Colts for health reasons. (CBC)

• San Jose Sharks defender Erik Karlsson says his injured groin is “back to normal” after surgery. (NBC Bay Area)

• Another Anaheim Ducks perspective on that potential Justin Faulk trade we wrote about on Monday. (Anaheim Calling)

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.

 

Ovechkin now has his own cereal: Ovi-O’s

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Honestly, there may never be enough strange pro athlete product endorsements, particularly when some of the proceeds go to charities.

That thought comes to mind upon the delightful unveiling of “Ovi-O’s,” Giant Food’s Alex Ovechkin-themed cereal. The flavor of the cereal is honey nut, which seems a little mundane for such a vibrant personality as Ovechkin, but we’ll let it slide because a portion of the proceeds from the limited-edition cereal will go to Maryland’s Children’s Cancer Foundation, Inc. The cereal goes on sale on Sept. 17, when Ovechkin will (somehow, already) turn 34.

The box will be hard to miss thanks to Ovechkin’s smile:

As you might expect, footage of Ovechkin eating the cereal (and occasionally failing to eat the cereal) is good fun, too:

To add some strangeness to the promotion, there’s apparently an augmented reality game to accompany the cereal. Let’s imagine it’s an “Ovechkin’s office simulator.” Via the press release:

In addition, the Capitals teamed up with Balti Virtual to bring the Ovi O’s box to life with an augmented reality game, Ovi O’s Slapshot presented by Giant, using Snapchat’s Lens Studio. Customers who have purchased Ovi O’s can scan the box in Snapchat to access this interactive hockey game which gives fans the ability to control Ovechkin as he shoots the cereal at moving targets. After time runs out, players can share their score on social media to compete with friends or scan the box again to keep playing.

Again, stranger product endorsements usually are sequestered to players appearing in low-budget local business commercials, but sometimes we get moments that transcend athletes awkwardly reading off of cue cards, as if they’re in real-life ads from “The Detroiters.”

To me, it’s tough to top Jaromir Jagr having his own peanut butter with secret healing powers. Every now and then, we also had other NHL players getting their own answer to “Flutie Flakes,” with Brett Hull’s Frosted Flakes ad being especially nifty:

(Glorious, even beyond the kid with the bowl cut.)

Since the world needs more esoteric cereals inspired by hockey players, we thought we’d throw out a few NHL-themed suggestions:

Connor’s Cereal of Sadness: Really, you can change the name, but crucially, it would have to parallel Connor McDavid‘s experiences with the Oilers. In other words, one great ingredient surrounded by a bunch of slop. Maybe it could be Raisin Bran, only it was a box full of the blandest bran flakes available with just one raisin?

(OK, OK, Leon Draisaitl could make it two raisins.)

Gen-o’s: The Pittsburgh Penguins couldn’t possibly stand pat while their rival Capitals have a cereal, right?

Since Sidney Crosby hasn’t signed off on being a cover star of an EA NHL video game, let’s assume that only Evgeni Malkin would be game for the cereal box treatment. Bonus points if the cereal is black and gold.

UFA Flakes: You don’t realize that they’ve already expired, so you can only chew on with regret as you ponder their cheaper, tastier days.

Voodoo Goalies: Keeping with the mascot theme of “Count Chocula,” Voodoo Goalies presents a mystery with every box. Some bowls are worthy of a Vezina; others just ruin your day.

Brent Burns Bran: All kinds of weird stuff in here. Is that beef jerky?

Mitch Marner Munch: Taking forever to hit shelves, and we get the sneaking suspicion that it’s holding up other cereals from returning to stores, too.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Looking at Nikita Kucherov’s offensive dominance

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Nikita Kucherov‘s MVP 2018-19 season was one of the single most dominant individual performances the NHL has seen in years.

His 128 points were 12 more than any other player in the league, and the most in the NHL since the 1995-96 season. It was also his second consecutive 100-point season (making him one of just eight active players to have two 100-point seasons in their career) and gave him one of the most productive two-year runs in the NHL in 25 years. It was such an incredible two-year run that the only players that have matched it (or come close to matching it) during that time are named Lemieux, Jagr, Thornton, Ovechkin, Crosby, and McDavid. All the greats of the modern era.

Here we take a quick look at the most productive two-year runs in the NHL dating back to the start of the 1994-95 season, and it is pretty clear that Kucherov has been on an elite level that only a handful of players can reach.

When it comes to the players ahead of him, keep in mind that Lemieux and Jagr were playing alongside each other for much of that 1995-96 to 1996-97 run and forming an unstoppable duo of legends, while Thornton’s two-year stretch came out of the 2004-05 lockout when penalties, power plays, and goals briefly skyrocketed to close to 1980s levels.

That two-year run for Kucherov also comes after he finished the 2016-17 season with 85 points in only 74 games, which translates to a 95-point pace over a full season. When it comes strictly to point production there are two clear leaders that stand out above the rest of the pack — Connor McDavid and Kucherov. Since the start of the 2016-17 McDavid tops the league with a 1.34 point per game average. Kucherov is right behind him at 1.33. After them, the next closest player is Boston’s Brad Marchand at 1.19. That is, on average, nearly a 15-point difference over 82 games.

The only thing his career is missing at this point is a championship. While he certainly shares some of the responsibility for this past year’s early exit (no goals, two assists, and a suspension in the four-game defeat) his career postseason performance stacks up with any other player in the league. By pretty much any objective measure he has been one of the most dominant offensive players in the league for three years now and is still right in the thick of his peak years in the league.

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.