Chris Johnston: Inside the NHL: Last call for the Penguins, best crowds, puck tracking 2.0

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Inside the NHL is a weekly collection of news, analysis and other insights on the NHL from hockey insider Chris Johnston.

It might finally be last call in Pittsburgh.

The Penguins have thrown one heck of a party these last 15 years, manoeuvring the NHL’s salary-cap landscape better than any other organization with an unbroken string of playoff appearances and three Stanley Cup parades.

But as a new season dawns there is uncertainty.

Sidney Crosby is recovering from wrist surgery and will miss a handful of games to start the year. Evgeni Malkin isn’t expected to play before December after undergoing surgery on his right knee over the summer.

Even more notable than those injuries, however, are the seismic decisions that loom.

Malkin and Kris Letang are both due to become unrestricted free agents next summer, and how first-year general manager Ron Hextall approaches those situations will tell us a lot about the direction of the franchise.

They have been pillars of this program along with Crosby.

The opportunity to kick off a rebuild/retool is there for Hextall with Bryan Rust, Jeff Carter, Zach Aston-Reese and Casey DeSmith among several other players on expiring contracts. But it’s difficult to imagine them tearing the franchise down to the studs with Crosby still signed for three years beyond this one.

Management is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins have enjoyed a remarkable run of success. But all eras come to an end, and the writing’s on the wall in Pittsburgh. The time could be right to retool, if not rebuild.

The Penguins had a modest off-season because of salary-cap constraints, which means the quest for a 16th straight playoff appearance rests on the aging core that built it. The cupboard is bare. The organization has been so all-in on chasing Cups that it has made just two first-round draft picks in the last nine years.

Charting the next year won’t be easy.

There is a need to do right by Crosby, Malkin, Letang and the Penguins’ greatest generation. There are also business interests to protect, and Pittsburgh wasn’t done any favours by a schedule that includes an eight-game homestand in October and November where it could see a lengthy sellout streak come to an end.

All they’ve done in Pittsburgh is win for a generation, but there are reminders everywhere that it won’t last forever.

Stars sign off on pucks

When the NHL was forced to abruptly take pucks with chip-tracking technology out of circulation three weeks into last season, it did so under an avalanche of complaints from the game’s most talented players.

So after extensive work with the manufacturer to develop a better model, the league’s hockey operations department turned the version 2.0 high-tech puck over to the stars for feedback.

Separate summer skates run by Crosby, Brad Marchand and John Tavares were shipped the new pucks for testing. One of the most common complaints about the previous version was that they didn’t slide properly along the ice. These ones performed better in that regard, according to the testers.

Tavares had the pucks out for a day with some Leafs teammates in Muskoka and said they’re still a little different than what players are accustomed to. But he believes they’re a lot better than last season’s iteration.

With the blessing of the stars, the NHL is putting the version 2.0 tracking puck into circulation for this upcoming campaign.

C.J.’s Top Five

With NHL arenas set to come back to life this season, my ranking of the most memorable crowds I’ve experienced while on the hockey beat:

  • 1. Canada vs. U.S.A. at Canada Hockey Place, Vancouver Olympics, Feb. 28, 2010. No one will forget the storybook ending, but I’ll always remember the tension and euphoria that provided the soundtrack to the best game I’ve ever covered. Electric.
  • 2. Toronto vs. Detroit at Michigan Stadium, Winter Classic, Jan. 1, 2014. A big snowstorm, a healthy amount of New Year’s Day tailgating and more than 100,000 fans in the stands. Everything was amazing except the bathroom lineups.
  • 3. Montreal vs. Tampa Bay at Amalie Arena, Stanley Cup final, July 7, 2021. There may be some recency bias at play here, but seeing the Stanley Cup handed out in a full building after 16 months of pandemic-quieted arenas was an emotional experience.
  • 4. Philadelphia vs. Chicago at United Center, Stanley Cup final, May 29, 2010. The anthem in Chicago is always special, but the foundation shook even more than usual before the first Cup game of the Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane Era. Then there was a five-goal first period. Wild night.
  • 5. Canada vs. Latvia at Arena Riga, IIHF world hockey championship, May 11, 2006. This is a deep cut. The game had to be stopped twice because the agitated Latvian crowd littered the ice in protest of the 16 minor penalties called against their team. Among the items collected by the ice crew: a shoe, a cellphone and coins totalling more than $30.

Tidbits

The NHL is hoping to boost capacity at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field by about 10,000 using temporary seating for the Buffalo/Toronto Heritage Classic outdoor game next March … Another NHL team Amazon showed interest in giving the all-access “All or Nothing” treatment? Montreal … Seven players have turned a professional tryout into an NHL contract during training camp: Alex Galchenyuk (Arizona), James Neal (St. Louis), Tyler Ennis (Ottawa), Frederik Gauthier (New Jersey), Jack Johnson (Colorado), Jimmy Vesey (New Jersey) and J-F Bérubé (Columbus) … Four of them are former Leafs … Brian Boyle, another former Leaf, is likely going to land a contract with the Penguins after not playing an NHL game last season … The devil was in the details of Aleksander Barkov’s eight-year, $80-million (U.S.) extension with Florida: A whopping $72 million of that is due in fully guaranteed signing bonus payments, which means a contract running through Barkov’s age-34 season basically can’t be bought out … Every NHL team is required to get down to a cap-compliant 23-man roster by 5 p.m. ET on Monday. It’s getting real, folks.

Beyond the rink

A weekly thought or take from the sporting world at large: OK, I’ll admit that I was tweeting emotionally last weekend after watching the Blue Jays’ season end with Game 162. Now that the dust has settled and I’ve had more time to think about it … I still can’t believe management didn’t solidify the bullpen sooner. This is the biggest “what could have been?” season I’ve experienced in 30-plus years cheering for this team. Gah.

#AskCJ

What would happen if Jack Eichel said “screw it, I’m constantly in discomfort, I’m going ahead with disk replacement, let the chips fall where they may?”

— Garth Twitchell (@GarthTwitchell)

He’s got roughly 50 million reasons not to take this approach. The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement stipulates that the club has final say on a player’s medical treatment. In the event Eichel went ahead with the disk replacement surgery and wasn’t “able to perform” his duties afterwards, he would be in breach of his standard player contract. And that contract is worth $50 million over the next five years.

If you pick a dark horse cup contender, who would it be?

— Sam (@SamS_MTL)

Working under the assumption that anyone beyond the Colorado/Tampa/Vegas class of teams constitutes a “dark horse,” I like Carolina here. I think the Metropolitan Division is wide open and the Hurricanes have built up a solid core that already owns the scar tissue usually required before a breakthrough. An even longer shot that I think will turn some heads this season is Winnipeg.

Is Hyman a bigger loss for the #Leafs or a bigger add for the #oilers?

— @coopsie39

His loss got a tad more painful for the Leafs when Ilya Mikheyev went down with a long-term injury over the weekend. The depth at left wing is going to be tested. Still, I see Zach Hyman as a bigger addition for Edmonton because of the versatility he brings to a top-heavy forward group. Having another quality NHL player is going to make Dave Tippett’s job a little easier.

Why hasn’t she texted me back?

— Kai (@KayakInQC)

She might just be busy. Sometimes you have to let these things breathe.

Poll

Zach Hyman is getting reps with Edmonton’s lethal top power-play unit and should see five-on-five minutes with Connor McDavid. I’m setting the over/under on his goals this season at 24.5. What do you think?

Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based journalist with a new gaming company. His work will be seen on the website and app for the new gaming company, and also in the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris

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