Beyond Headlines: Penguins are serious contenders despite injuries

Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston bring you up to speed on the latest news around the NHL, touching on the upcoming NHL All-Star festivities, future outdoor games in Canada, and trade talks.

The story of this remarkable Pittsburgh Penguins season is not just told through the number of man games lost to injury.

It’s probably best expressed in the staggering amount of cap space they’ve had sitting on injured reserve for virtually the entire year — a number hovering at nearly $30 million right now.

Since losing Sidney Crosby to sports hernia surgery in November, the Penguins had gone 17-6-4 entering Sunday’s game against the Coyotes in Arizona.

Only three other NHL teams picked up more points during that stretch. And Boston, Tampa and Dallas didn’t have to overcome the extended absence of a 90-plus point player (plus several others) while doing so.

Now the Penguins are blessed with a second superstar and Evgeni Malkin has helped pick up the slack with Crosby on the shelf. But so have unsung contributors like Bryan Rust and Dominik Kahun, not to mention goaltender Tristan Jarry, who is on the way to the all-star game in his first full NHL season.

With Crosby expected to return at some point in the next week, Pittsburgh is poised for an even stronger second half. The Penguins must still cope with the loss of Jake Guentzel after shoulder surgery — potentially for the year — but general manager Jim Rutherford is armed with extra cap space as a result and is already dangling Alex Galchenyuk on the trade market.

Rutherford has room to maneuver and a team producing a strong expected-goals rate in a season where it’s arguably been challenged more than any other.

What for so long looked like a cursed year in Pittsburgh may actually turn out to be a blessed one: The Penguins are serious contenders.

CAP WATCH

An interesting nugget from trusted colleague Elliotte Friedman that the Anaheim Ducks are letting it be known that they’re willing to take on added cap space and money in exchange for sweeteners.

That could be useful in a league where 10 teams are currently exceeding the salary cap using the long-term injured provision.

Only a small handful of others appear to be in position to even consider a similar approach — led by Chicago, which has all kinds of extra room for the rest of the season with Brent Seabrook and Calvin de Haan both out for the year because of injury.

No team has more financial flexibility than Colorado.

The Avalanche are projected to have $31-million in available deadline space, according to CapFriendly, which means that there’s basically no potential trade they can’t consider in a season where they hope to take the next step.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

OUTDOORS IN EDMONTON

There are only so many venues capable of staging an outdoor game in Canada — although the trip to Mosaic Stadium in Regina earlier this season uncovered at least one more.

So it’s notable that the NHL is looking at a return to its roots for the next Heritage Classic by bringing it back to Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. It was there — on Nov. 22, 2003 — where the league’s first regular-season outdoor game of any sort was staged on a bone-chillingly cold night.

Since then, the Canadian loop has included stops at McMahon Stadium in Calgary (2011), BC Place in Vancouver (2014), Investors Group Field in Winnipeg (2016), BMO Field in Toronto (2017), TD Place Stadium in Ottawa (2017) and the visit to Regina in October.

The only notable omission is Montreal, which doesn’t have a suitable venue because the NHL has no interest in playing an “outdoor” game under the roof at Olympic Stadium.

There was originally a push to return to Edmonton early next season, according to those in the know, but logistical hurdles have left the next Heritage Classic tentatively scheduled for 2021-22.

You can bet it’ll be played before Nov. 22 on the calendar to account for weather.

Lessons learned and all that.

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YZERMAN’S WINGS

What Steve Yzerman needs more than anything else right now is time.

Time to stockpile future assets for the Detroit Red Wings. Time to watch that next crop of young players grow, develop and thrive.

Yzerman has only just started dipping his toes into remaking the organization during his first season on the job — bringing in young forwards Robby Fabbri and Brendan Perlini in trades — and was pretty candid in this interview with Ken Kal about where his mind is at.

Of particular note was Yzerman’s thoughts on the upcoming Feb. 24 trade deadline: “Our goal is to, if we can, acquire more draft choices. How do you do that? You know, it really depends on what other teams want to do. So I can’t give you a definitive answer. My plan isn’t to be passive, certainly, I’m looking for ways to build for the future.”

The Red Wings currently have three veteran defencemen on expiring deals: Mike Green, Trevor Daley and Jonathan Ericsson (who already passed through waivers unclaimed this season).

Goaltender Jimmy Howard is a pending UFA, too.

Yzerman understands that he’s not dealing from a position of strength.

It would be foolish to bet against the shrewd Red Wings GM over time. The present? Well, it’s not so pleasant.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

BIEBER vs. BINNINGTON

A Justin Bieber vs. Jordan Binnington 10-round shootout is going to happen.

It’s just not going to happen as part of the NHL’s all-star festivities in St. Louis later this month, despite attempts to bring it together.

The Blues goaltender recently issued a challenge to the pop star on Instagram saying, “10 breakaways me vs. you. You score on me I’ll dye my hair platinum blonde.” That was met by a counter challenge from Bieber, which Binnington accepted.

Details are still pending.

OF NOTE

• Top draft prospect Alexis Lafreniere went 34 days between games for the Rimouski Oceanic because of the world junior tournament and still returned to the lineup Saturday holding the QMJHL’s scoring lead: 70-67. He then had a goal and two assists in a 3-0 win over Rouyn-Noranda.

• Welcome to the NHL all-star game, Quinn Hughes: The Vancouver Canucks defenceman will receive a $212,500 “Schedule A” bonus after being voted as the Pacific Division’s last man in by fans. Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders is the only other all-star currently playing on an entry-level contract.

• The Carolina Hurricanes left room to add roughly $5.5 million in salary commitments at the trade deadline after signing veteran forward Justin Williams to a bonus-laden contract this week — although they’ll need to be mindful of a potential bonus overage if they wind up using it.

Ilya Kovalchuk is averaging 19:57 since joining the Montreal Canadiens and has three assists to go with the overtime winner he scored Saturday in Ottawa. He could become a cheap deadline rental that nets the Habs a draft pick after signing a two-way, league-minimum $700,000 contract on Jan. 3.

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