Zach Aston-Reese

Pittsburgh Penguins: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

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 surprises and disappointments for the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

The emergence of John Marino

General manager Jim Rutherford faced some intense — and at times very justified — criticism for some of his roster moves before and during the 2018-19 season. He rebounded in a big way this past offseason. The signing of Brandon Tanev turned out better than expected, while they seemed to have parted ways with Phil Kessel at the exact right time. The most important move, though, was the acquisition of defenseman John Marino from the Edmonton Oilers this past summer for the bargain basement price of a conditional sixth-round draft pick.

The Penguins immediately liked Marino’s potential thanks to an outstanding training camp performance, but no one could have possibly anticipated the impact he has made.

Marino has helped completely transform the Penguins’ defense, adding mobility, puck skills, and shutdown defense to the team’s top-four. He has quickly become a significant part of their blue line and given his entry-level contract situation is going to be a steal against the salary cap in the short-term.

He should be considered part of their long-term core.

Justin Schultz‘s tough year

This was always going to be an important year for Schultz and the Penguins.

From a team perspective, they needed him to have a big year to help solidify their defense after he was limited to just 29 games a year ago.

When Schultz has been at his best in Pittsburgh he has been a productive player offensively and a major asset on the power play. He needed to be put into a specific role, but he has at times excelled at it.

He was also entering a contract year with something to prove. A big year for him would have made him a hot commodity on the free agent market this summer. But it did not really work out that way.

Schultz not only missed more time due to injury, but he struggled at times when he was in the lineup at both ends of the ice. He has never been a shutdown player defensively, but his ability to produce offensively was always a positive. But this season even that aspect of his game disappeared for him. It has ended up being his most disappointing season in Pittsburgh and it could not have come at a worse time for him given his contract situation.

Tristan Jarry pushes Matt Murray

The Penguins have always had high hopes for Tristan Jarry and given his draft position (first goalie taken in his draft class) he has always come with a lot of pedigree. The potential has always been there. Still, he was facing an uphill battle when it came to making the opening roster this season with Matt Murray (a two-time Stanley Cup winner) and Casey DeSmith (who had just signed a long-term contract extension) in place.

Because Jarry counted less against the salary cap, he ended up starting the season as the backup to Murray and used that opportunity to start playing his way into the starting position.

Or at least challenging for it.

Jarry has been the Penguins’ most productive goalie this season (.921 save percentage to Murray’s .899), started to get the bulk of the starts in the middle of the season, and played his way into the 2020 NHL All-Star Game.

Both goalies are restricted free agents after this season and it is going to be fascinating to watch how this situation plays out.

The non-stop injuries

It is not just that the Penguins have had to deal with a ton of injuries this season that has been a disappointment for them. It is the fact that it has been their top players.

Just a quick run down on which players have missed games this season.

That is a lot. Through it all, the Penguins have remained in contention for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, or at the very least, home-ice advantage in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs all season.

Bryan Rust has a breakout season offensively

Since becoming a regular in the lineup during the 2015-16 season Rust has been an outstanding “glue” guy in the Penguins’ lineup. He can play all over the lineup and contribute in any role. He is not out of place on the first line, he can handle himself defensively, he is an outstanding penalty killer, and he just does everything well.

This season his game has gone to an even higher level thanks to a breakout performance offensively, recording 56 points (27 goals, 29 assists) in 55 games. He has set career highs in every meaningful offensive category.

The biggest part of that emergence has just been the simple fact he has been able to take on a bigger role with more ice-time, and especially on the power play, allowing his offense to shine.

MORE PENGUINS:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins
Examining the Penguins long-term outlook

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 rally vs. Canucks in wild 14-goal game

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins 8-6 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night was a result they absolutely deserved.

It was also a minor miracle that they were actually able to pull it off.

They were the better team for most of the game only to find themselves trailing by three goals with 15 minutes to play in the third period, mostly due to one of starting goalie Matt Murray‘s worst performances of the season (and a tough luck goal against backup Tristan Jarry after he came on in relief). It was at that point that they rallied for five consecutive goals as part of a six-goal third period to win their third game in a row and extend their current points streak to six games.

Let’s take a look at some of the madness.

1. At one point a win seemed nearly impossible for the Penguins. The Penguins opened the game by scoring two goals in the first 12 minutes and were holding a 12-0 edge on the shot chart. The crazy thing? The game itself was probably even more one-sided than those numbers indicated. It was total domination. But the Canucks found a way to turn the tide in their favor, took advantage of another off night from Murray, and scored six goals in just under 30 minutes of game-time to somehow hold a three-goal lead with 15 minutes to play in regulation.

They were also set to go on a power play at that point after Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was whistled for delay of game. That should have been game over.

According to the hockey analytics site Moneypuck, the Penguins had only a 1.5 percent chance of winning the game at that exact moment.

But after a J.T. Miller hooking penalty negated the power play, the Penguins started their rally with a Dominik Kahun goal at four-on-four which was then followed just 68 seconds later by an Evgeni Malkin power play goal to bring the Penguins to within one.

Just three minutes after that, Zach-Aston Reese scored his fourth goal of the season to tie the game, which was followed by a Kris Letang goal with under four minutes to play to regain the lead for the Penguins. Vancouver made a desperation offside challenge hoping to have the goal overturned, but the call was upheld. Coach Travis Green admitted after the game they weren’t very optimistic about the challenge but felt they had to take the chance.

Malkin added an empty-net goal with less than a second to play, capping off another dominant night for him and his line.

“As I said to the players after the game we love the resilience this group shows,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “It’s just a never say die attitude regardless of what the score is or the challenge is in front of us. We just go out and play.”

The frustrating thing for the Canucks is they were not only in a position to win, but they received offensive contributions from players beyond their top duo (Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser) and were still unable to finish it.

“It’s unfortunate,” said coach Travis Green. “This could have been one of our best wins of the year.”

2. The Penguins need to get Matt Murray right. This is the one big concern for the Penguins right now. The biggest reason they even needed that late rally was because of the continued struggles of their starting goalie. Wednesday’s game was the sixth time in his past eight appearances that Murray finished with a save percentage under .900, and the seventh time in that stretch he was at .905 or lower.

His 10 save on 14 shot performance on Wednesday lowered his season save percentage to just .901 in 19 appearances. That is simply not good enough. With the way Jarry has performed in his limited work this season he has absolutely earned more starts in the short-term. They have the defense to win. Now they just need to get the goaltending.

3. Evgeni Malkin is back. The big wild card this season for the Penguins was always going to be Malkin’s ability to bounce-back from what was by his own admission a down year.

He is back, and he is dominating.

With Sidney Crosby sidelined due to injury, Malkin has taken the center spot on the top line between Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, a trio that has been taking over games for the past month. That trio combined for five of the Penguins’ eight goals against the Canucks and has been a complete nightmare for opposing defenses to try and slow down since they were put together.

He finished with five points (his first five-point game since 2012) and is now up to 19 points in 14 games. They have the depth, and now they have one of their best players playing close to his highest level.

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.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Perron, Slavin lead this week’s top adds

Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Jaccob Slavin, Hurricanes – D: For each of the previous three seasons, Slavin recorded 30-34 points, but at the age of 25 it’s not unreasonable to believe that we haven’t seen his peak. This campaign certainly has the potential to result in him setting new career-highs. He’s riding a five-game point streak, which has brought him up to two goals and five points in six games this season.

Zach Aston-Reese, Penguins – LW/RW: Aston-Reese was a standout in Northeastern University, but since turning pro in 2017, he’s needed time to gradually work up the Penguins’ ladder. He still has some climbing to do, but after playing in 14 games in 2017-18 and 43 contests in 2018-19 with Pittsburgh, he seems to have now secured an everyday role with the squad. Aston-Reese is still a borderline player in standard fantasy leagues, but at the least he’s worth keeping an eye on and in the short-term he’s worth gambling to ride his current hot streak of four points in his last two contests.

Justin Schultz, Penguins – D: Schultz had 51 points back in 2016-17, but he hasn’t come close to that level before or since. He’s off to a promising start in 2019-20 though with four assists in six games. What’s particularly noteworthy is that he’s averaging 3:41 minutes of power-play ice time, which is just barely behind Kris Letang. That power-play role has been huge for Schultz with three of those four assists coming with the man advantage. As long as he stays healthy, which was the big problem last season, he has a huge opportunity to be a big contributor.

David Perron, Blues – LW/RW: At the time of writing, Perron is owned in 60% of Yahoo leagues, which I see as on the low end given what he brings to the table offensively. He had 66 points in 70 games in 2017-18 and then 46 points in 57 contests in 2018-19, which translates to an average of 72 points per 82 games over that span. This season seems to be a continuation of that. He has three goals and five points in five games while averaging 18:25 minutes. While he’s an injury risk, he should be regarded as a high-end winger. 

[Ready for the season? Get the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Ilya Mikheyev, Maple Leafs – LW: Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko are two of the biggest names in this season’s rookie pool, but neither has done much offensively yet. Instead, Mikheyev has been one of the league’s top rookies with two goals and five points in six contests. It helps that he’s been getting a good chunk of ice time for a rookie.  He’s averaging 15:55 minutes, which is the third highest for a rookie forward. Mikheyev is still owned in just 6% of Yahoo leagues, so there is still a chance to grab him.

Tomas Tatar, Canadiens– LW/RW: Tatar had 25 goals and a career-high 58 points in his first season with the Canadiens and his second campaign with Montreal has the potential to be similarly successful. He already has two goals and five points in five contests while averaging 16:58 minutes. It helps that he’s been playing alongside Brendan Gallagher, who surpassed the 30-goal milestone in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Ryan Dzingel, Hurricanes – LW/RW: Dzingel is one I’m more on the fence about in the long run, but I’m certainly interested in gambling on him at this moment. He’s gotten off to a hot start with two goals and five points in six contests. He’s only averaging 14:17 minutes, which makes it hard to see him sustaining anywhere near his current level of production. Still, he’s a fairly talented forward and he’s doing well enough to be worth taking a chance on at this time.

Sam Lafferty, Penguins – C/LW:  Lafferty is another lower profile rookie who has stepped up early. In his case though, it’s been all thanks to a surge in his last two games. He scored a goal and three points on Saturday and added another two goals on Sunday. Will he keep this up? I strong doubt it. Lafferty is someone to pick up for now while he’s hot, but drop as soon as he slows down.

Mike Smith, Oilers – G:  Smith left something to be desired in 2018-19 with Calgary, but his stint with Edmonton has gotten off to an encouraging start. He’s 3-0-0 with a 2.67 GAA and .907 save percentage in three starts. Edmonton has been one of the most pleasant surprises this season and if that keeps up, Smith will be a primary benefactor. Mikko Koskinen is worth considering for the same reason. Personally, I see Smith as the safer bet given his wealth of experience, but for what it’s worth, Koskinen has gotten off to the better start with a 2-0-0 record, 2.41 GAA, and .914 save percentage in two starts. They’re also likely to split the Oilers’ responsibilities fairly evenly.

Jonathan Drouin, Canadiens – C/LW: Drouin has been one of those players with a ton of offensive upside that seems to keep ending up short of that potential. He matched his career-high in 2018-19 with 53 points, which is solid to be sure, but there’s still that underlining belief that there might be more there from the 2013 third overall pick. Maybe this is the season we’ll get him to take that last step. He’s opened the campaign on a five-game point streak with two goals and six points over that span. 

Players You May Want To Drop

Dustin Byfuglien, Jets – D: This one might seem the most obvious, but it’s also the one I’m most on the fence about. Yes, Byfuglien isn’t playing and he’s been reportedly considering retirement, so he might not play at all this season. But to drop him now means potentially missing out on a 40-50 point defenseman if he decides tomorrow to return to the Jets. However, we’re two weeks into the season now and there’s been no indication that he’s even close to making a decision. Even if he did surprise me by saying today that he’s returning, he’ll need time to get up to speed and after missing training camp and the start of the season, that might be difficult. With every passing day, the odds of him living up to expectations even if he does play diminish and at a certain point you need to start thinking about cutting your losses.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Jakub Voracek, Flyers – RW: Voracek has no points in three games, but what I find particularly concerning is that he’s averaging just 15:33 minutes. That’s down from 18:40 minutes in 2018-19 and 19:27 minutes in 2017-18. So far this season, the most Voracek has played in a game has been 16:06 minutes, which would have been in the bottom-10 for minutes back last season. With his role potentially changing, his offensive output might decline meaningfully.

Chris Kreider, Rangers – LW: Kreider does have two assists in three games, so he’s gotten off to a good start. However, he’s averaging 14:55 minutes per game, which is way down from 17:24 minutes in 2018-19 when he had 52 points in 79 contests. Given how borderline he was to begin with in standard fantasy leagues, that decline is concerning. On top of that, he recently sustained a lower-body injury.  It’s not believed to be long-term, but again he’s borderline to begin with so there’s not a lot of motivation to wait even minor injuries out.

Nazem Kadri, Avalanche – C: Kadri had just 16 goals and 44 points in 73 games last season with Toronto, but there was some hope that the move to Colorado might change things. After all, he’d be moving from a team that was using him primarily as a third-line center to one with a second-line spot for him. So far, that hasn’t worked out with Kadri being limited to a goal and no assists in four contests. Given that he only has center-eligibility, which is a very deep position, I’d be inclined to drop him for now in favor of someone who is offering more immediate help. He is still worth keeping an eye on though.

Jonathan Quick, Kings – G: So far Quick has been a disaster this season. He’s allowed at least five goals per game, which has given him a 0-3-0 record, 6.43 GAA, and .793 save percentage in three starts. That comes after his struggles in 2018-19 with a 16-23-7 record, 3.38 GAA, and .888 save percentage in 46 starts. Certainly the team in front of him isn’t doing Quick any favors, but the Kings are in a transitional phase, so they’re not likely to help him much for the remainder of the season either. This seems like a goaltending situation to avoid where at all possible.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

The Buzzer: San Jose welcomes back Marleau; Big stats Stastny

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Three Stars

1. Paul Stastny, Vegas Golden Knights

With all of the talent in Vegas, and the fact that the Golden Knights have been able to add big names like Mark Stone more recently, it’s easy to forget that Vegas also bolstered its lineup with the addition of two-way gem Stastny. Especially since he hasn’t always been healthy since signing in Sin City.

Nights like Sunday make it pretty tough to forget about him.

Stastny scored two goals and two assists as the Golden Knights beat the Kings in Los Angeles, even with Taylor Swift’s banner covered up.

After going four games without a point, Stastny is heating up, as he had a goal against the Flames in Vegas’ last game.

Other Golden Knights players who had strong games include Max Pacioretty (1G, 2A) and Shea Theodore (2A).

2. Zach Aston-Reese, Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh went on an unlikely scoring tear this weekend, scoring 14 goals in 48 hours.

“ZAR” was arguably the biggest star of Sunday’s 7-2 drubbing of the Jets, as he scored two goals and one assist for three points, with one of his tallies coming shorthanded. Aston-Reese also had an assist on Saturday, so it was a strong weekend for the 25-year-old.

Sidney Crosby collected two assists, and Sam Lafferty scored two goals, including the game-winner. It was quite a collective effort, as you might expect when you generate that much offense.

3. Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks

All too often since 2018-19, the Sharks have been winning despite Jones.

The Flames generated a 33-20 shots on goal advantage against San Jose on Sunday, but Jones only yielded one goal.

Jones, 29, hadn’t just been on a three-game losing streak coming into this one. He had also allowed four goals in each of those losses. San Jose has to hope that Jones gained some confidence from this win, even if it’s going to be tough to ask him to make 32 out of 33 stops with much frequency.

(Then again … goalies, folks.)

Welcome back Patty

The Sharks are 2-0-0 since bringing Patrick Marleau back. To little shock, Marleau received a standing ovation on his return to San Jose as a Shark. He generated an assist, giving him three points in two games back with his longtime team.

Highlights of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury stretched out his right leg for two tough saves against the Kings. Anze Kopitar may lose the most sleep over his attempt …

Factoids

Scores

PIT 7 – WPG 2
VGK 5 – LAK 2
SJS 3 – CGY 1

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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.

Penguins sign Zach Aston-Reese to two-year deal

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins and forward Zach Aston-Reese avoided arbitration on Monday, agreeing to a two-year deal that runs through the 2020-21 season.

The deal is worth $1 million annually. The two sides came together minutes before heading to arbitration.

”We were actually setting up for the meeting and kind of right before it started, right at nine o’clock, it got done,” Aston-Reese said. ”Right on time.”

Aston-Reese, 24, posted career highs in goals (eight) and assists (nine) despite being limited to 43 games because of a hand injury. Aston-Reese – who skated alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line but also put in work with the fourth line – gives the Penguins more options as they try to bounce back from a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Zach is a responsible player who plays a solid two-way game,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. ”He has a heavy style of play that is especially effective on the forecheck and penalty kill.”

Aston-Reese admitted he was relieved to get a new contract ironed out before going through arbitration.

”It’s a little bit awkward and I was just really happy to get the deal done before that meeting began,” he said. ”You hear stories of things like that and it’s no coincidence that only what, 5% actually go through with the meeting. I was happy to avoid that.”