Sidney Crosby

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Crosby, McDavid, Kucherov are 2019 Hart Trophy finalists

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Award announcement season is almost at a close as the NHL has revealed the finalists for the 2018-19 Hart Trophy, which is given to “to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers are your three finalists, as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association at the end of the 2018-19 NHL regular season.

The Hart Memorial Trophy was presented by the NHL in 1960 after the original Hart Trophy was retired to the Hockey Hall of Fame. The original Hart Trophy was donated to the NHL in 1924 by Dr. David A. Hart, father of Cecil Hart, former manager-coach of the Montreal Canadiens.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Case For Sidney Crosby: The Penguins captain finished tied for fifth in the NHL in scoring this season with 100 points (35 goals) in 79 games. It was the sixth time in his career he reached the 100-point mark, and he trails only Wayne Gretzky (15), Mario Lemieux (10), Marcel Dionne (8), Mike Bossy (7) and Peter Stastny (7) as players with the most consecutive 100-point seasons. He was also tied for fifth in points per game (1.27) and tied for eighth with 3.62 points per 60 minutes. He was also the team leader with 69 points at 5-on-5. Already a two-time MVP, Crosby is a seven-time finalist and would be the ninth player in league history if he wins a third one.

The Case For Nikita Kucherov: The 2018-19 Art Ross Trophy winner, Kucherov recorded 128 points, the most by any NHL player since 1995-96, and his 87 assists were the most by a player since 2006-07. He recorded at least one point in 62 of 82 games this season and had 38 multi-point games, including two nights where he finished with five points. He averaged 1.56 points per game, the highest since Jaromir Jagr’s 1.57 in 1998-99. Only McDavid (81) had more even strength points than Kucherov’s 80. The Lightning forward would be the second player in franchise history to win the award, joining Martin St. Louis, who was voted winner in 2003-04.

The Case For Connor McDavid: The Oilers’ captain recorded his third straight 100-point season, finishing behind Kucherov in the Art Ross Trophy race with 116 points. He had a hand in 50.7 percent of Edmonton’s 229 goals (41) this season, the best in the NHL. He became the eighth player in NHL history to fail to go consecutive games without a point and led all forwards with 22:50 of ice time a night. He also recorded a league-best 81 even strength points. A Hart winner in 2016-17, McDavid is seeking to join Wayne Gretzky as the second player in league history to win multiple MVPs before turning 23 years old.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS
• Selke Trophy
Lady Bing Trophy
Masteron Trophy
Norris Trophy
Ted Lindsay Award
Calder Trophy
Jack Adams Award

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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.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: No surgery needed for McDavid; Pens need top line production

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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.

Connor McDavid should be ready for the start of the regular season. (TSN)

• Although the series isn’t over yet, the Tampa Bay Lightning have totally fallen apart since the second period of Game 1. (Scotty Wazz)

• Even though the Islanders are one game away from advancing to the second round, they’re not looking past the Penguins. (New York Post)

• The Pittsburgh Penguins are on the brink of elimination, and the fact that they haven’t received a point from their top line is a big reason why. (Pittsburgh Tribune)

Nazem Kadri‘s hearing with the department of player safety is set for today. How many games will he get? (Leafs Nation)

• Yes, Kadri’s antics have been the focus of the series, but another under-the-radar storyline is that the Bruins defense is starting to get banged up. (Sportsnet.ca)

• The Ice Garden breaks down the controversial call in the Women’s World Hockey Championship final. (The Ice Garden)

• Golden Knights players trust that their organization will make the best decisions for them. That’s why Nikita Gusev’s signing was made possible. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• Let’s take a deeper look at the line matchups in Game 2 of the series between the Flames and Avalanche. It’s strange to see the matchup get away from the Flames because they were the home team. (Flames Nation)

Rocco Grimaldi has become an important part of the Predators lineup heading into Game 3. (On the Forecheck)

• The Mats Zuccarello acquisition has already worked out well for the Dallas Stars. (Dallas Morning News)

• Years after delivering a crushing hit against Erik Cole, Brooks Orpik is taking on the Carolina Hurricanes again. (News and Observer)

• The Edmonton Oilers should look into bringing Ralph Krueger back into the organization. (Edmonton Journal)

• The AHL released the first-round schedule for the Calder Cup Playoffs. (Calder Cup)

• There’s a scandal surrounding a $2 million scholarship fund that was set up after the Humboldt Bus Crash. (CBC)

• Don Cherry doesn’t think that Elias Pettersson should win the Calder Trophy. (Daily Hive)

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.

Patience, poise of Islanders’ Barzal leaves opponents guessing

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EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — Anders Lee shook his head in disbelief after being asked whether he had the patience of Mathew Barzal with the puck at age 21. Barry Trotz described himself as an “idiot” at that age. “God, to think what I was doing at 21,” said the New York Islanders head coach on Thursday.

To watch Barzal control the puck in high-pressure situations, you would think he was an experienced veteran with years under his belt. Instead, he’s a 21-year-old forward in his second full NHL season in the league who just experienced his first ever Stanley Cup Playoff game.

And boy did he leave a mark.

It was Barzal’s play in front of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ net in Game 1 Wednesday night that led to Josh Bailey’s overtime winner.

As Bailey’s chip out of the Islanders’ zone landed along the boards, Barzal and Jordan Eberle entered the Penguins’ zone on a 2-on-1 against Brian Dumoulin, with Zach Aston-Reese rushing to get back. Barzal had a good angle to take a shot from the circle to Matt Murray’s right. Instead, he cut to the slot, which ended with a diving Dumoulin sliding backward in a failed poke-check attempt. Aston-Reese was trying to pick up Eberle and reached him at the side of the net.

Time almost stood still as Barzal stopped on a dime in the slot. He had what opposing teams try to avoid giving up when defending him: time and space.

NBC

A deke and a backhand later, Barzal’s shot rang off the post and fell right to a trailing Bailey, who (after a brief review) sent the Nassau Coliseum crowd home happy.

“I kind over overstayed my stay in front there,” Barzal said of the game-winning goal. “I was just waiting for the right play.”

Scour the scouting reports on Barzal during his draft year and the words “poise” and “patience” appear frequently. Those aren’t traits he’s developed in his two seasons in the NHL, they were with him before he even reached the Islanders.

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Thomas Hickey remembers Barzal’s first NHL training and the impression that was left. The off-the-charts skating ability wowed the Islanders veterans.

“You don’t have total respect for a guy coming out of junior yet, but I think we all learned pretty quick you don’t want to look silly,” he said.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Making opposing defensemen look silly has been a regular thing for Barzal, who has 40 goals and 107 assists in 166 NHL games. His patience and speed controlling the puck helps create scoring chances. So is there a strategic way to shut him down?

“With him, it’s more what you leave him than anything else because he’s got so many tools,” Hickey said. “Certainly a tough player to defend. You can see that with his cut backs, change of speed, agility. It’s special.”

Barzal’s edge work and ability to go east-to-west on the ice forces opponents to pay attention, and sometimes draws them in to create passing lanes and scoring opportunities for his Islanders teammates. As with all talented players, he thinks the game on a different level than his peers and his vision with the puck is one of his biggest assets.

Now battling against his childhood idol, Sidney Crosby, in a playoff series, it was during NHL All-Star Weekend in January that Barzal got to play with the Penguins captain during the 3-on-3 tournament while representing the Metropolitan Division. After the trio helped the division win the $1M prize, the Islanders forward received plenty of praise from one of the world’s best.

“The way he holds onto the puck, the way he skates, 3-on-3, I don’t know if there is anyone better when it comes to holding onto it,” Crosby said. “The way that he can just beat you 1-on-1, beat you with his speed, hold onto it. You watch him out there against the best, I don’t see anyone that really beats him in that category.

Outside of an All-Star Game environment, Eberle and Lee have meshed well on a line with Barzal, after the pair spent part of the season with Brock Nelson in the middle. Trotz reunited the line last month, and Eberle or Lee have become accustomed to playing with the dynamic Barzal.

“There’s definitely a difference between playing with him than there is playing with Brock [Nelson],” Eberle said. “But I played with Barzy all last season, we had a ton of success, and I know how to play with him. I think we play similar games and we think the game similar, that it makes it easy for us. A lot of times he’s doing things that I would be doing and thinking about doing and he’s feeling the same way about my game. It’s just easy to read off each other when you’re on the same wavelength.”

“Thankfully, I think our chemistry’s kind of hit pretty quickly,” Lee said. “Ever since we got put together, Ebs and I and Barzy have done pretty well. The adjustment wasn’t really much at all. He’s so dynamic in the way he creates space for not only himself, but for others, the way he carries the puck up the ice, and sees the ice. It’s really important to feed off each other and make quick plays because he can make those. … He knows when I’m down low, I know when he’s up top, using each other’s strengths has been good for us.”

The scary thing for the other 30 NHL teams and an encouraging sign for the Islanders is that Barzal is still improving. In his first season working day to day with him, Trotz has noticed how responsive his young forward is to being taught, and he possesses the desire to reach the elite level that Crosby achieved years ago.

“He’s maturing all the time, and you want players to mature as players, but as importantly you want them to mature as good pros,” Trotz said. “He’s surrounded by some great people, and he’s learning from great people. There’s some things you want to get out of his ‘junior game’ so he can be more effective at the NHL level.

“He listens and is very coachable. He’s just like all good players, there’s a stubbornness to their game because they’ve had success and sometimes it’s hard to get away from. He wants to be one of the top players in the National Hockey League and hopefully if he stays on the right path as he has he’ll continue to grow and you’ll see him be a player that [he’s capable of being].”

Two years into his professional career, nothing has surprised Barzal’s teammates about their young star. They know he’s going to create scoring chances. They know his speed will turn a mundane situation into a quick attack transition. They know when the moment is big, there will be no nerves getting in his way, as we saw Wednesday night. They know that irrational decisions with the puck is not part of his hockey makeup.

“It’s what made him good at every level he’s played at,” said Hickey. “If you lose that poise, that ability to really show no fear with it, then you take away his biggest asset. That’s what’s got him here. A lot of guys lose a bit of that their first couple of years pro. Thankfully he didn’t lose that because he wouldn’t be the same player.”

MORE: Isles’ Josh Bailey finds redemption in Game 1 vs. Penguins

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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.