Nick and Connor rant about retired numbers, anniversary patches, showing emotion in hockey, the Toronto Maple Leafs and William Nylander, coaches that might get fired, “the code” and Mike Matheson’s antics.
John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron both had hat tricks in the last week, so Nick and Connor discuss hat trick ethics and more, since celebrations are hot topics these days. Also, everything else that happened in the first week of regular season action.
The 2018-19 regular season has started, so let’s overreact and hand out the regular season awards already! It’s our 3rd Annual Participation Trophies After One Game presented by Nick and Connor.
I never thought I’d be doing this again, yet here we are. It’s time to begin the continuation of a now annual tradition around here at DTFR. It’s time to rank the NHL mascots.
For the first time since January 2017, here’s the latest look at things. Be sure to check out the last couple of days ranking’s (31st-21st and 20th-11th).
10) Youppi! (Montreal Canadiens) Last year’s ranking 6th
Youppi! is slipping as the Expos become even more of a distant memory with the passing of time. Adopted by the Canadiens after Montreal’s MLB team went to Washington, D.C. and rebranded as the Washington Nationals, Youppi! is still receiving pity votes because he doesn’t belong at an ice rink. He belongs in a field of dreams. Plus his distant cousin (we’re pretty sure), Gritty is way hotter. Step your game up, Youppi!
Homme, femme, ou mascotte, tous sont les bienvenus aujourd’hui au défilé de la #fiertéMTL, Demandez à Youppi!
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) August 19, 2018
9) Chance (Vegas Golden Knights) Last year’s ranking 31st (despite not having a mascot at the time)
It took a little time for everyone to give chance a Chance, but he’s here to stay like the Golden Knights– and they mean business. Chance is just lovable enough to see himself bolt into the top-10 in this year’s power rankings, but a continued effort in the community could see him in the top-5 next year. Or maybe just more mean tweet videos. That was pretty good last season, you have to admit.
— Chance (@ChanceNHL) August 6, 2018
8) Blades the Bruin (Boston Bruins) Last year’s ranking 5th
Boston is bringing back a little more brown to their color palette this season with their 2019 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic sweater, which will undoubtedly really bring out Blades’ fur and eyes. Until then, he’s only slipping a little because the Bruins don’t have an alternate sweater this season and the competition got tougher.
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) September 14, 2018
7) Fin (Vancouver Canucks) Last year’s ranking 10th
Fin is slowly working his way up towards the top of this list– fittingly at a time when it appears he’ll soon have a neighboring rival in Seattle. We’ll see if he can take a bite out of the competition like how killer whales eat penguins. Wait!?! That should actually deduct some points. At least Vancouver has this whole “turn your logo into a three-dimensional costumed character” down-pat.
— FIN (@CanucksFIN) September 15, 2018
6) Sabretooth (Buffalo Sabres) Last year’s ranking 8th
Did you see how Buffalo’s 2018 Winter Classic sweater looked on this tiger? No? Well, you need to get out more, because Sabretooth certainly did. He strut his stuff all over the community looking fashionable in royal blue and it’s a shame the Sabres don’t resort to that color full-time.
Sporting the 🔥🔥 Winter Classic threads tonight 😻 pic.twitter.com/J1W8wuN0Mq
— Sabretooth (@Sabretooth_NHL) April 4, 2018
5) Slapshot (Washington Capitals) Last year’s ranking 4th
Slapshot won the Cup last season with the Capitals, but didn’t surface on the Internet anywhere in any fountains around D.C. What a shame. Washington did bring back their original sweater as an alternate once again and we all know Slapshot looks better in that than he does in their current red, white and blue threads.
— Slapshot (@Caps_Slapshot) September 28, 2018
4) Gritty (Philadelphia Flyers) Last year’s ranking 29th (even though Philly didn’t have a mascot since 1976)
What do you mean you didn’t know about Gritty? Have you even been on the Internet, seen TV or anything this week? Gritty is all the rage. Gritty is here and now. Gritty is here to stay. Like him or not– he’s got (gr)it. And googly eyes (bonus points!).
Goodnight, internet. pic.twitter.com/gx2Pbxfcds
— Gritty (@GrittyNHL) September 25, 2018
3) Bailey (Los Angeles Kings) Last year’s ranking 1st
Last year’s winner of our mascot power rankings is this year’s second-runner up. It’s through no fault of his own, really, just time to pass the Kings (get it?) crown on to someone else. Fear not though, Bailey can crawl into the arms of Ilya Kovalchuk this season and be just fine.
— Bailey LA Kings (@BaileyLAKings) September 19, 2018
2) S.J. Sharkie (San Jose Sharks) Last year’s ranking 2nd
What’s not to love about a lovable loser? Not that I’m implying S.J. Sharkie is a loser, but he does live near the Charles M. Schultz Museum, so he’s got a little Charlie Brown in him. It just happens. But hey, Erik Karlsson’s on the Sharks now, so maybe this is their year!*
*He says, every year.
— #SJSharkie (@sjsharkie) September 18, 2018
1) Iceburgh (Pittsburgh Penguins) Last year’s ranking 7th
What makes Iceburgh No. 1 this year? Just look at him. He’s always well-dressed, though that might have something to do with the built-in formal look of penguins, Iceburgh is one hot mascot. He ages like a fine wine. Unlike Sidney Crosby’s playoff beard, which has somehow gotten worse the older “Sid the Kid” gets (I’m joking, it’s actually improved too).
It’s 92° and our friend Iceburgh is very toasty.
Headed downtown? Be sure to check out the “Public Art with a Purpose” exhibit which features a Penguins-themed globe to help raise awareness for climate change. 🌎 pic.twitter.com/9AXlJszHTD
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) June 18, 2018
In all seriousness though, all of the league’s mascots do an amazing job cheering up kids in visits around their community, entertaining their fans and rooting for their respective teams, so hats off to the people living inside of the sweaty costumes (actually, some are air-conditioned, so let’s maybe not give them that much credit for having a cooler job than the rest of us. Get it?).
49-26-7, 105 points, 1st in the Metropolitan Division
2018 Stanley Cup Champions, defeated VGK 4-1
Subtractions: F Jay Beagle (signed with VAN), G Adam Carlsson (signed with Rapid City Rush, ECHL), F Alex Chiasson (signed to a PTO with EDM), F Tyler Graovac (signed with CGY), G Philipp Grubauer (traded to COL), D Jakub Jerabek (signed with EDM), F Tim McGauley (signed with Colorado Eagles, AHL), F Anthony Peluso (signed with CGY), F Zach Sill (signed, ELH), F Wayne Simpson (signed with Rochester Americans, AHL)
Still Unsigned: F Adam Chapie
Offseason Analysis: For the first time since the 2002 Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, the defending champion of the National Hockey League has a new coach behind the bench. Scotty Bowman retired from coaching after going out in style with the Cup in hand in Detroit.
The 2002 Red Wings lost their first two postseason games on home ice that year. Coincidentally, the 2018 Washington Capitals also lost their first two playoff games– on home ice too– en route to winning the Cup.
Unlike 2002, Barry Trotz did not retire. He took a higher paying job as head coach the New York Islanders, leaving Todd Reirden to assume the duties as the head coach of the Capitals after spending the last four seasons as an assistant coach.
Trotz left Washington after he would have received an automatic two-year extension and $300,000 raise. Given what top-NHL head coaches can make on the free agent market these days, let alone what some might get in a large market, Trotz resigned as the Caps head coach and more than doubled his salary with the Islanders in one offseason.
Reirden, 47, will be making his debut as an NHL head coach this season and will do so with a Stanley Cup winning roster still largely intact.
Gone are Philipp Grubauer (traded to Colorado), Jay Beagle (signed with Vancouver), Alex Chiasson and Jakub Jerabek. In their place are Pheonix Copley, Nic Dowd and other depth players from within the organization.
General Manager Brian MacLellan made
two three big moves this offseason. First, MacLellan traded Grubauer and Brooks Orpik to the Colorado Avalanche for a 2018 2nd round pick at this year’s NHL Draft in June. The Avalanche signed Grubauer to a three-year extension and bought-out Orpik’s final year of his contract– keep that in mind in a few minutes.
MacLellan’s next big move this offseason was taking care of RFA Tom Wilson. Wilson signed a six-year extension worth $5.167 million per season that’ll keep him in a Caps sweater through the 2023-24 season, despite producing 35 points in 78 games played on a line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin.
In 391 career NHL games since entering the league in 2013-14, he has 104 points (35 goals, 69 assists). That’s .266 points per game, for anyone keeping track at home.
Based on his playing style, Wilson draws comparisons to Boston Bruins winger, Brad Marchand. In Marchand’s first five years in the league (300 games played, 2009-14), he had 186 points (92 goals, 94 assists). That’s .620 points per game, for the record.
If you take into account that Marchand’s first season in the league was only 20 games in 2009-10 and add on the 2014-15 season (77 games played) to his numbers to truly reflect Wilson’s first five full-seasons, you get 228 points in 377 games from 2009-15 for Marchand. That’s only .605 points per game– a difference of .015 points per game in 77 additional games.
Regardless, up through this point in Wilson’s career, his “comparable” has had more points per game. Playoffs be damned.
Marchand had 39 points in his first four years of postseason play (2011-14, 66 games played). Wilson had five career postseason points in 41 career Stanley Cup Playoff games prior to 2018 (Wilson appeared in at least three playoff games in every postseason run except for 2014– zero playoff games played).
Including Washington’s Cup winning run, Wilson has 20 career playoff points in 62 games.
Once again, that’s a .591 points per game measure for Marchand in postseason play from 2011-14 and only .323 points per game for Wilson in his entire career’s worth of postseason action (2012-18).
Marchand broke into the league at 21-years-old. He’s now 30. Wilson entered the NHL as a 19-year-old and is now 24.
The only point to takeaway here is Wilson’s contract extension is a big bet on behalf of MacLellan. Luckily, if things work out, MacLellan will look like a genius for locking up Wilson through the first few years of potential unrestricted free agency.
But if things go south, not only will this contract be ridiculed, but it could prove difficult to move, despite not including a no-trade-clause. At $5.167 million per season, it’s not a terrible cap hit, but it’s certainly one in which Washington would likely have to retain some salary if they were ever to move Wilson.
Oh and about Orpik– he signed a one-year, $1.000 million contract with the Capitals shortly after free agency began and the defender wasn’t receiving many offers. The league reviewed MacLellan’s process of trading the veteran NHLer, Colorado’s buyout and Washington’s new deal and deemed it was not circumventing the collective bargaining agreement.
So Washington remains an unlikely Stanley Cup contender by default, having become titleholder to the term “defending champion” in addition to the retention of (without doing the actual math) 95% of the Cup-winning roster. The question remains, can they repeat?
Or more accurately, can they do what their biggest rival– the Pittsburgh Penguins– most recently did in 2016 and 2017– in 2019?
Offseason Grade: B+
It could’ve been an “A-“, but then the Caps just had to sign Tom Wilson at that length and term without having any proof of being an effective scorer in the regular season and playoffs.
For all intents and purposes, Wilson got lucky in the postseason like how Devante Smith-Pelly got lucky and went on a hot streak matching his goal scoring output (seven goals in 75 games) from the regular season in this year’s playoffs (seven goals in 24 playoff games).
Tampa Bay Lightning
54-23-5, 113 points, 1st in the Atlantic Division
Lost in the Eastern Conference Final to WSH, 4-3
Subtractions: F Carter Ashton (signed, KHL), D Mathew Bodie (signed, KHL), G Peter Budaj (traded to LA), F Erik Condra (signed with DAL), F Alex Gallant (signed with VGK), F Chris Kunitz (signed with CHI), F Matthew Peca (signed with MTL), D Andrej Sustr (signed with ANA)
Still Unsigned: D Jamie McBain
Offseason Analysis: The 2017-18 Tampa Bay Lightning had their best season in franchise history. Well, regular season, that is. Jon Cooper led his team from behind the bench to a 54-23-5 record (113 points) and the first seed in the Eastern Conference all the way to the 2018 Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals– their former division rival in what was once the Southeast Division.
It was their first postseason meeting since 2011 and the Bolts had home ice advantage in a Game 7. What could possibly go wrong? Washington was never supposed to get past the Second Round, let alone beat the Pittsburgh Penguins en route to landing in the Eastern Conference Final– plus Alex Ovechkin was always criticized for his Game 7 play in his career– and the Lightning had all of their offensive weapons, including Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.
But Stamkos had no points in Game 7 against Washington, similar to the last five Game 7s he’s played. In six career Game 7s, Stamkos is pointless. Both literally and figuratively, if you may.
Tampa was shutout on home ice and their 2018 postseason run came to a crashing halt, one win shy of reaching their second Stanley Cup Final in three years.
For a team that’s made the Eastern Conference Final in three of the last four calendar years (2015, 2016 and 2018)– they’ve only gotten better, yet they haven’t had the results they’ve wanted (or expected) by now.
Steve Yzerman walked into the Lightning front office with Stamkos and Victor Hedman already on the roster, he left its day-to-day duties having drafted Kucherov (2011) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (2012), while signing an undrafted Tyler Johnson and acquiring Ryan Callahan, Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller over the years.
Yzerman’s seamless transition from Tampa’s face of the franchise star in Martin St. Louis to Stamkos, Kucherov and Co. was destined to win a Cup while the former face of the Detroit Red Wings superstar was at the helm of operations.
BriseBois’ transition to power will be peaceful, as Yzerman was sure to lock up core members of the roster in Kucherov and McDonagh to extensions beginning in the 2019-20 season this offseason.
It’d be unfair to grade BriseBois’ offseason maneuvers over the last 16 days at the same weight as the rest of the GMs in the league, but it’s worth noting– neither Yzerman nor BriseBois were able to snag Erik Karlsson in a trade with the Ottawa Senators.
Instead, the biggest prize on the trading block this offseason went to the San Jose Sharks– a team the Lightning can only face in the postseason in the Stanley Cup Final. If they make it that far.
Yzerman chose not to re-sign Chris Kunitz and Andrej Sustr, seeing the former as too old for Tampa’s core and the latter as an expendable asset that was a healthy scratch most nights. He did, however, re-sign glue guy forwards Adam Erne and Cedric Paquette, as well as defender Slater Koekkoek to one-year bridge deals.
Their successful roster is largely intact, despite trading backup goaltender Peter Budaj to the Los Angeles Kinds for forward Andy Andreoff early this summer, but as Cooper seeks to decrease Vasilevskiy’s workload, Budaj’s 3.77 goals against average and .876 save percentage in eight games last season weren’t going to cut it– even with his injuries.
Meanwhile, Louis Domingue looks to improve on his 2.89 GAA and .914 SV% in 12 appearances with the Lightning last season, after going winless in seven appearances with the Arizona Coyotes (4.33 GAA, .856 SV%) before being acquired by Tampa.
Budaj’s eight appearances and Domingue’s 12 games in a Bolts uniform left Vasilevskiy to suit up for a career-high 65 games last season. He had a 2.62 GAA and a career-high .920 SV% in what was a Vezina Trophy finalist year with a 44-17-3 record.
While Vasilevskiy is one of the top-starting netminders in the league, 65 games played in the regular season, plus a maximum 28 potential games in the postseason is nearly 100 games of hockey. Multiply that by 60 minutes and, well, you get the point (hopefully).
Cooper has to rely on Domingue and his defense to reduce the minutes Vasilevskiy has to stand on his feet (or head) in order to keep his number one goaltender from getting fatigued.
Goaltending is all about finding that sweet spot– both in the rhythm of the game while making saves and in the ebbs and flows of the season-long schedule (including the possibility of a deep postseason run).
Offseason Grade: C+
So that’s it really.
Tampa didn’t create a mega-defense, because they didn’t get Karlsson. San Jose did.
They didn’t cause a disturbance in the Force with two potential No. 91s that would’ve seen John Tavares assume a new identity on the roster, because the Toronto Maple Leafs signed the biggest free agent on the market.
And that’s okay.
For Tampa, an “average” offseason meant sticking with their guys– the ones that reached the Final in 2015, almost reached it in 2016 and were brought in for the Conference Final run in 2018. Other than nailing down a backup goalie, the Bolts are ready to defend their top of the table standing in the Atlantic Division.
45-26-11, 101 points, 3rd in the Central Division
Lost in First Round to WPG, 4-1
Subtractions: F Patrick Cannone (signed, DEL), F Matt Cullen (signed with PIT), F Kurtis Gabriel (signed with NJ), D Alex Grant (signed, KHL), D Dylan Labbe (signed with Wichita Thunder, ECHL), D Viktor Loov (signed, KHL), G Steve Michalek (signed, Austria), F Zack Mitchell (signed with LA), D Zac Palmquist (signed with Lehigh Valley Phantoms, AHL), G Niklas Svedberg (signed, SHL), F Daniel Winnik (signed to a PTO with BOS), G Adam Vay (signed, Kazakhstan)
Still Unsigned: F Adam Gilmour, D Kyle Quincey
Offseason Analysis: Despite a late-season decline, Devan Dubnyk managed to backstop the Minnesota Wild to a third place finish in the Central Division standings– locking up their sixth consecutive postseason appearance and guaranteeing a First Round matchup with the Winnipeg Jets.
Unfortunately for the Wild, they had a First Round matchup with the Winnipeg Jets. Oh and Minnesota’s head coach is Bruce Boudreau, so everyone knows about the playoff curse surrounding him by now, right?
Kidding aside, Minnesota lasted five games against Winnipeg when they realistically should’ve been swept by the jumpin’ Jets.
After nine seasons of being in charge, Chuck Fletcher was fired and Paul Fenton was hired as Minnesota’s new General Manager.
Fenton, of course, served as the assistant GM for the Nashville Predators (2006-18) and had been familiar with Wild owner, Craig Leipold– given their two seasons of overlap as employee and employer in Nashville from 2006-08 before Leipold sold the Predators and bought Minnesota.
Additionally, Fenton was highly-touted as the best “available” prospective General Manager that was potentially on the market for going big time and moving up in the rankings. Under the guidance of David Poile for over a decade with the Preds, Fenton is more than ready for his new role with the Wild.
Unfortunately, he’s inheriting a mess. Yes, even though the Wild have made the playoffs six seasons in a row now, they haven’t gotten past the Second Round.
Plus Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are under contract for forever (slight exaggeration) and both have an injury history (Parise’s career was nearly over and Suter’s going to miss the start of this season). They’re also on the books at over $7.500 million per season each with no movement clauses.
Parise, 34, and Suter, 33, aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, unless someone’s willing to eat some cap hit.
Minnesota has about $1.770 million in cap space with seven pending free agents (including two RFAs) next offseason. Eric Staal is one of them and he’s already indicated he’s willing to be more than patient while the Wild figure themselves out.
Staal’s currently making $3.500 million per season and reached the 40-goal plateau last season in a rejuvenating 76-point year (42 goals, 34 assists). At 33, he’s not going to get any younger, but he’s still a vital component of the roster with at least a couple more decent seasons left in him. Perhaps he’ll be the next ageless wonder, even.
Eric Fehr was given a second chance after the San Jose Sharks acquired his services from the Toronto Maple Leafs last season and he impressed the Wild enough to sign him to a one-year deal. Either that or Minnesota found their perfect placeholder while a) youth develops and b) they figure out how to free up cap space next offseason.
While the performance on the ice is to be determined– what with an underrated goaltender in Dubnyk and a solid blue line now that Matt Dumba is locked up through the 2022-23 season– this season will be a season in transition, no doubt, for the front office.
Perhaps Boudreau’s next to go after Fletcher’s roster building couldn’t get the Wild over the Second Round hump, does Leipold start pointing fingers behind the bench? Is it only natural that a new General Manager bring in their own plan for the bench to go along with the personalities on their roster?
It’s a make or break season for Minnesota, whether anyone wants to accept it or not.
Offseason Grade: C-
Hiring the best “GM prospect” as your new General Manager was Minnesota’s biggest move this offseason. Well, that and re-signing Matt Dumba to a friendly long-term deal worth $6.000 million per season through 2022-23.
But Paul Fenton’s got plenty of headaches ahead, regardless of team performance on the ice and that’s where the navigation of this franchise gets tricky. Besides, none of the free agents added to the roster this offseason scream “steal of the century”, though signing Andrew Hammond as a third-string goalie doesn’t hurt– goaltending depth is all too often over-looked.
44-25-13, 101 points, 2nd in the Pacific Division
Swept in the First Round by San Jose, 4-0
Subtractions: D Francois Beauchemin (retired), G Reto Berra (signed, Switzerland), F Jared Boll (retired), F J.T. Brown (signed with MIN), F Derek Grant (signed with PIT), F Chris Kelly (retired), F Nicolas Kerdiles (traded to WPG), F Mike Liambas (signed with MIN), F Andre Petersson (signed, KHL), F Corey Tropp (signed with San Diego Gulls, AHL)
Offseason Analysis: Despite finishing one point ahead of the San Jose Sharks in the final standings at the end of the regular season, the Sharks took a bite out of the Anaheim Ducks in the First Round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. So much of a bite, in fact, it swept the Ducks off their feet.
Get it? Because they got swept in the postseason.
Despite winning the Cup with Randy Carlyle behind the bench in 2007, Anaheim needs to recognize just how much has changed in the last 11 years. The Ducks got back with their ex and fell into their old habits in a new-age game.
Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler aren’t the players they used to be. It’s not that Perry can’t score, it’s just that he’s not as effective. As for the Ryans (Getzlaf and Kesler), one’s still existent (Getzlaf) though he’d be much better on the second or third line– or at least flanked by youth on his wings– and the other (Kesler) has become irrelevant.
Brian Gibbons and Carter Rowney are fourth liners, so depth down the bottom-six is covered, at least. Meanwhile Luke Schenn and Andrej Sustr provide excellent coverage as sixth defensemen fighting for the last spot on Anaheim’s blue line, which is one of two bright spots for the Ducks heading into 2018-19.
Anaheim’s defensive core is strong with Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson, Cam Fowler and Brandon Montour as their top-four defenders. As one of the most under-the-radar defensive core, they’ve kept John Gibson‘s workload to a manageable– wait, actually, Gibson faced 435 shots more in eight additional games last season than he did in 2016-17.
For the record, Gibson faced 1,437 shots against in 52 games (25-16-9 record) in 2016-17, while he faced 1,872 shots against in 60 games (31-18-7) last season. Though the workload increased, Gibson’s save percentage improved from a .924 to a .926. He also won over half the games he played in last season.
So Anaheim’s main strong point is the best American goaltender in the game, while having one of the better than average defenses in the game. Meanwhile, Nick Ritchie remains an unsigned RFA that Murray has to manage carefully.
Quintessential to the transition from the 2000s/2010s style Ducks to the 2020s era Ducks, the 22-year-old left winger is Anaheim’s biggest blue chip roster player outside of the crease. Ritchie is just waiting to emerge with a breakout year as Troy Terry joins the fold on offense.
The fact of the matter remains– play the kids more.
It can only help manage the workload of the physically worn out Ducks that have been around for the last decade. Perry might still produce, but it’s time to break him free from Getzlaf on the first line.
Ondrej Kase could move up a line, but Jakob Silfverberg isn’t actually the problem on the second line.
Anaheim’s in the middle of something– middle of the road, middle of a transition or middle of mediocrity. Whatever it is, they didn’t do much this offseason to fix it this season, but there’s still time to turn things around in the next few years– wait, Perry, Getzlaf and Kesler all have NMCs in their contracts that have three, three and four-years remaining respectively?
Offseason Grade: D+
No you can’t get an “A” by default after having Francois Beauchemin, Jared Boll and Chris Kelly retire in one offseason from your roster.
John Gibson might be the closest thing to Dominik Hasek that we’ve seen since Dominik Hasek led the nonchalant 1999 Buffalo Sabres (seriously, look up the scoring leaders for that team, it trails off after Miroslav Satan— shouts Puck Soup) in the dead puck/trap era to the Stanley Cup Final– that’s if Gibson single handedly leads the Ducks to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, mind you, and the mountain looks too steep.
47-29-6, 100 points, second in the Metropolitan Division
Lost in Second Round to Washington, 4-2
Subtractions: D Lukas Bengtsson (signed with Linköpings, SHL), C Vincent Dunn (signed with Orlando, ECHL), D Matt Hunwick (traded to BUF), C Josh Jooris (signed with TOR), W Tom Kuhnhackl (signed with NYI), D Andrey Pedan (signed with Ak Bars Kazan, KHL), F Carter Rowney (signed with ANA), LW Tom Sestito (retired), W Conor Sheary (traded to BUF), D Jarred Tinordi (signed with NSH)
However, this campaign is a little bit different than any before it.
Pittsburgh entered last season as the reigning back-to-back champion. The Pens had their ups and downs during the regular season, but after a six-game victory over intrastate rival Philadelphia in the First Round set up yet another conference semifinals meeting with Washington, fate seemed to be in the black-and-gold’s corner once again.
After all, the Penguins almost always beat the Capitals in the playoffs.
That modifier proved to be important, as the Caps defeated the battle-worn Penguins 2-1 in overtime in Game 6 to eliminate them for only the second time in 11 postseason meetings.
With Washington going on to win its first championship in franchise history, it put the onus on Head Coach Mike Sullivan‘s squad to win this year – not only to reclaim one of the most coveted trophies in the world from a division rival, but also to stake claim to the title of the NHL’s 10th dynasty and first since the 1983-1990 Oilers.
The league officially declares a club a dynasty if it claims at least three championships in the span of four years. With two titles in the past three seasons, this is a make-or-break season for Pittsburgh if Crosby and co. want to add that impressive listing to their resumes.
Offensively, Pittsburgh’s biggest addition for the 2018-2019 season actually occurred at the 2018 trade deadline when it completed a three-way trade for C Derick Brassard. It didn’t help that Brassard suffered a lower-body injury so close the regular season, but Pittsburgh is hoping it will see an improvement from the 4-8-12 totals the former Senator posted in 26 regular season and playoff games after he had a full summer to rest, recuperate and learn Sullivan’s system.
Brassard is just about as close to a lock for the third line’s center position as possible.
After a year of service to the Wild, soon-to-be 42-year-old Cullen was also added back into the mix and will surely assume fourth-line center duties, forcing F Riley Sheahan to the wing. With his immense experience at center, Sheahan will be a valuable commodity capable of playing on either the third or fourth line to serve as the backup face-off man should Brassard or Cullen get kicked out of the dot.
Any other changes to the Pens’ attack will come from within the organization. The clamor around the Steel City for RW Daniel Sprong is deafening (he posted 32-33-65 totals in 65 games played last year in the AHL), but his 2-1-3 effort in eight NHL games last season was not enough to convince Sullivan that he should stay with the senior team full time. He still has one more year left on his contract after this season, but the limited minutes awarded a former second-rounder gives many – including myself – the indication that Penguins coaches and management are running out of patience with the youngster’s growth.
In the same turn, F Dominik Simon and F Zach Aston-Reese earned their first Stanley Cup Playoff minutes last season, but only registered respective three and one assists in their eight or nine postseason outings (Simon managed 4-8-12 totals in 33 NHL regular season games last season, while Aston-Reese posted 4-2-6 marks in his 16 regular season showings).
None are locks for the roster, especially with the signings of Grant (12-12-24 totals in 66 games played with Buffalo last season) – another center that could transition to the wing – and Hayes (3-6-9 in 33 appearances with the Devils). General Manager Jim Rutherford is going to have to be very decisive with who makes the squad and who doesn’t, as he will not want to risk losing any of his talented youths to the waiver wire if he’s forced to make a move during the regular season.
The Penguins were even more quiet on the defensive front this summer, but there is two signings along the blue line worth talking about. While a defensive corps that includes Brian Dumoulin, new hire Johnson, Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Jamie Oleksiak and Justin Schultz looks like it’d be more than solid enough to keep life easy for G Matt Murray, Pittsburgh could be in line for an upgrade if Riikola continues to impress even more than he already has.
The 24-year-old (he’ll turn 25 on November 9) from Joensuu, Finland has played a majority of the last six seasons playing in SM-Liiga (Finland’s top professional league) with KalPa – including playing exclusively with the senior team since 2015-2016 – and he’s been reported to be adjusting to the North American game very quickly and is garnering a lot of attention early in the Pens’ training camp.
Now, that’s not to say Riikola (yes, pronounced like the cough drop company) will avoid Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and automatically make the team. With Pittsburgh’s top six defensemen locked into contracts through next season (seventh-man Chad Ruhwedel will be a UFA next summer), it’s hard to find him a spot on the roster as things stand currently.
However, should the organization decide he’s the real deal (for what it’s worth, he’s been practicing with both Dumoulin, a left-handed shot, and Letang, a right-handed shot), I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rutherford begin fielding trade offers for one of his defensemen in efforts to create a spot for Riikola and improve his bottom-six offensive depth.
Offseason Grade: B
It’s hard to say the Penguins had an A-class offseason considering their overall inactivity, but I’d also argue that there was less to fix than a second round elimination at the hands of the eventual champs would indicate. The real work for this roster will be done when deciding to go with youth or experience, as the core of this group is still certainly capable of winning the Stanley Cup once again.