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Penguins One-Timers: How to Get Back to Playoffs, Who Signed Nylander?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Jeff Petry, Alex Nylander

No name was attached to the announcement Saturday that the Pittsburgh Penguins signed RFA winger Alex Nylander to a one-year NHL contract. It wasn’t a two-way deal or minor league contract, and it had to be presented, negotiated, and signed by someone.

But it provided a glimpse into the Penguins’ transition team with the director of hockey operations Alec Schall, WBS GM Erik Heasley, hockey operations analyst Andy Saucier, and coach Mike Sullivan.

Does anyone think the organization would have signed it if Sullivan were against it? No pressing deadline had to be met, nor was there an urgency to lock up the late-blooming winger for salary cap reasons.

Nylander had two points in nine NHL games, so it wasn’t like he filled the net and made this an absolute must.

While I cannot yet confirm, this has Sullivan’s fingerprints all over it. Alex Nylander earned an NHL shot with responsible two-way play, and perhaps with a little more confidence, the offensive skills he is known for will come to the fore at the top level, too.

It was a great signing that carries zero risk because if Nylander doesn’t take the next step in his progression, the Pittsburgh Penguins can bury his entire salary in the AHL with the WBS Penguins without a salary cap penalty.

Oh, but I thought Sullivan hated young players? That’s what I see all over Twitter and every comment section.

As a sidebar to the Nylander contract, it’s yet another piece of evidence to slay the drug-resistant strain “Sullivan won’t play young players” mantra that can’t be killed.

Young players that earn a chance get a chance.

Ryan Poehling and Drew O’Connor are also RFAs. Those players are 24 years old and were given significant NHL ice time. It will be interesting to see if the team also opens discussions with them.

Stanley Cup Playoffs

There are/were some glorious Round One series. Toronto vs. Tampa Bay was like a conference final. The speed and intensity of each game was astounding. While Toronto celebrates its first playoff series win since 2004, they should do so with the knowledge Tampa Bay owned that series. A few bounces and a soft goal. Sometimes, that’s what’s needed to win a series.

And that’s why it was important for the Penguins to make the playoffs. Sometimes, you get a little more than you deserve.

However, the Toronto series, the New Jersey vs. New York series, and even Carolina dispatching the Islanders in six shows how far the Penguins are from truly competing in the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs.

The speed and intensity of the top six teams in the East could not be consistently matched by the Penguins.

With their season on the line, they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Islanders gave Carolina a good challenge, but Carolina controlled the series from the opening puck drop. The very best version of the Penguins could have beaten Carolina, of that I’m reasonably confident. However, I’m also pretty confident that issues with the team that led to a season of malaise and mistakes could not be overcome for long.

A mental block of some sort existed with the Penguins. As Kris Letang noted following the final regular season game, “We were trying to find ways to lose.”

Speed Will Bring Intensity

Letang didn’t mean the team intentionally lost games, but the team wilted when the pressure to hold the lead increased. Mistakes or mental errors or lack of confidence. All of the above led to the Penguins watching the playoffs.

The team that created the speed NHL, the coach who led the revolution in 2016, is now woefully behind. Players like Mikael Granlund and Jeff Carter are obvious targets for lacking the necessary speed.

How long before Jake Guentzel or Bryan Rust are targets, as well? Rust’s gritty game does not trend well with aging. Jeff Petry played a surprisingly placid game, too.

The Buffalo Sabres might be able to compete next year. So, too, will the Ottawa Senators.

Only the Boston Bruins might fall.

The next Pittsburgh Penguins GM might be able to tinker and get the team into the playoffs because of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. However, to see the speed and skill gap between the top six teams in the East and the wild card is staggering.

What if the Penguins could get to those loose pucks or be a step better in the third period? Confidence would go a long way to erasing the meltdowns. 

I firmly believe Sullivan understands the game and where it is headed. Harken back to the quote he gave us on March 16. We didn’t print it until last week in a PHN+ story on Sullivan because it didn’t fit with game coverage, but it was informative. The NHL game is changing from a puck possession game to a puck pursuit game.

“When you look at the way the league and a lot of teams are playing, it’s not like teams are playing drastically differently. Speed is an element that’s common across the league,” Sullivan said. “Puck pursuit is common across the league as the evolution of the game. And I think today’s game is more of a pursuit game than a possession game. You see more high flips and space plays than there’s ever been in the game.”

Translated: dump and chase with speed, backchecks to create turnovers and counterattacks. Then hold the puck in the low zone. It’s tougher to play on the rush because players can get back into position to create traffic and defense.

Perhaps Sullivan is the answer to the Penguins’ future, but perhaps he’s also an impediment. The old players and Sullivan were far too comfortable with each other, which bred disaster; the power play is a prime example of the comfort level and lack of results.

Sullivan probably won’t need much convincing that the team needs to be much faster. He might need to be convinced that the veteran players need more accountability.

However, with an overhaul emphasizing speed and the evolving game with Crosby, Malkin, and Letang in the center of the storm, they could at least be competitive.

And that’s all any GM or coach can do.