Kris Letang, Mikhail Grabovski

Game of the Week preview: Should the Penguins be worried about Kris Letang’s struggles?

Thanks to some great work by head coach Dan Bylsma – and a roster full of hustling, hardworking players – the Pittsburgh Penguins remain competitive without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Yet if there’s one player who hit a wall without those two superstars, it is defenseman Kris Letang.

Whether you blame his struggles on the absence of those two forwards or the wear and tear that comes from playing big minutes in the post-Sergei Gonchar days, there’s little doubt that Letang is running out of steam. He began the season on a torrid pace, scoring 41 points in 50 games, but now he only has five points in his last 21. Things have been especially troubling lately, though, as he only has one assist and zero goals in his last 12 games.

His struggles aren’t limited to the offensive end, either. After producing positive plus minus ratings in every month through the All-Star Game, Letang sported an ugly -9 in February and holds a -1 with zero points in seven March games.

It would be hasty to wonder if Letang’s hot start was just a mirage, especially considering the drop in quality supporting cast members around him. Along with losing Crosby and Malkin – which surely hurts his power play numbers – Letang also has been without the safety net provided by defenseman Brooks Orpik and the one-two offensive punch provided by fellow scoring blueliner Alex Goligoski. Orpik has been injured while Goligoski is no longer on the team’s roster thanks to the James Neal trade.

A Penguins fan asked Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat reporter Dave Molinari about Letang’s issues, leading to this response.

While it’s painfully obvious that Letang’s play has slipped – he has one point, an assist, in his past 12 games and recently went 10 in a row without recording a positive plus-minus rating – his exceptional play during the early months of the season makes his slump seem even worse than it is. Whether it was realistic to expect a 23-year-old playing the toughest position in the game to remain at the rarefied level he so often reached during the first half of the season is open to debate, but his play into January certainly raised the bar of expectations.

Whether Letang really believed that it was his responsibility to fill the offensive void created by the loss of Crosby and Malkin isn’t known, but the reality is that there aren’t many defensemen shy of Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey in their primes who could even think of putting up enough points to do that. And if Letang did feel that way, he surely should have realized long ago that it wasn’t working the way he hoped.

That Letang has lost his swagger, as you put it, shouldn’t surprise anyone, because even the most accomplished player’s confidence suffers when he slips into a significant slump. It’s tough to be assertive when you’re doubting your abilities. The good news in that regard is, once Letang gets his game back in sync – and that will happen at some point, although there’s no guarantee it will be this season – his swagger will come back, too.

Overall, the Penguins shouldn’t be worried about Letang in the long term, but it’s tough to avoid speculation that he might struggle during the remainder of this season and the playoffs. Of course, that could all change if a well-rested Crosby finds his way back into the lineup.

Domi: ‘No reason’ the Coyotes can’t make the playoffs next season

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 12:  Max Domi #16 of the Arizona Coyotes waves to fans after being named the number one star of the game following the NHL game against the Edmonton Oilers at Gila River Arena on January 12, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Oilers 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Max Domi is thinking big for next season.

After an impressive rookie campaign, in which Domi scored 18 goals and 52 points, the now 21-year-old forward is eyeing a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the Arizona Coyotes.

Tall order, given they are in the Pacific Division and they were 20 points behind the San Jose Sharks for third in the division when the season ended.

But Domi is optimistic.

“There’s no reason we can’t,” Domi told TSN.

“We came out of the gates pretty hot this year and we beat some high-end teams but when the nitty gritty comes down to it, you gotta be able to win after the All-Star break — that’s when it really matters. Finding a way to find that consistency and manage that throughout an 82-game season will be pretty clutch for us and there’s no reason we can’t do it.”

The Coyotes have had a busy offseason since the middle of April. Here are a few examples:

— They fired GM Don Maloney, citing a need to move in a new direction. (Click here)

— They promoted 26-year-old John Chayka, who, as a result, became the youngest GM in NHL history, definitely representing a change in direction. (Click here)

— They acquired the rights to defenseman Alex Goligoski and signed him to a five-year deal. The idea was to add a defenseman capable of efficiently moving the puck to Arizona’s skilled group of forwards. (Click here)

— After a breakout season, goalie Louis Domingue was signed to a multi-year deal that could represent a changing of the guard in the Coyotes crease, which previously belonged to Mike Smith. (Click here)

— They added grit by signing Jamie McGinn to a three-year, $10 million deal. (Click here)

— After a lengthier negotiation process than maybe expected, the Coyotes re-signed Shane Doan for one year at $5 million. Doan, who turns 40 years old in October, led Arizona last season with 28 goals. (Click here)

— They made further moves on the blue line, adding Luke Schenn and re-signing restricted free agents Connor Murphy and Michael Stone. (Click here)

The Coyotes, already with Domi and Anthony Duclair, could have another young, skilled forward in Dylan Strome, the third overall pick in 2015, fight for a spot on the roster next season.

So, yeah. Busy.

With all the moves this summer, especially on the blue line, the Coyotes could perhaps take the next step in their evolution. It will also depend on other teams in the West, and if they improve or regress.

Whether that translates an Arizona appearance in the 2017 playoffs won’t be known for several months. But you can count Domi as a believer.

‘It’s getting stronger every day’: Bishop says he’ll be ready for World Cup camp

2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Three
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With the World Cup of Hockey approaching, Ben Bishop seems optimistic he’ll be ready to participate in the Team USA training camp prior to the event.

Bishop, the Tampa Bay Lightning goalie, was injured on a seemingly innocent play and had to be stretchered off the ice in the first period of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final.

There had been talk that he could perhaps return to game action, but in the end, he didn’t play another game in the series, as the Bolts were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games.

“The leg is feeling better and it’s getting stronger every day,” Bishop told ESPN.

“I’m getting ready to start skating soon … and get back on the ice and doing that side of things. We have about a month until we go, so I’ll start off slow and pick it up in the next month and be ready for training camp for the World Cup.”

Good news for Team USA, which also called on Jonathan Quick and Cory Schneider for their goaltending duties. The tournament begins Sept. 17.

In keeping with the optimistic mood about his status for the World Cup, Bishop last week revealed his new Team USA mask.

Related: Lightning lock up Vasilevskiy — what now for Bishop? 

Benn aims to be ready for World Cup after offseason surgery

Fans celebrate along with Dallas Stars left wing Jamie Benn (14) after a score by Benn in the first period of Game 3 of a first-round NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff series game, Monday, April 21, 2014, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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Surgery earlier this month to repair a core muscle has put Jamie Benn‘s status for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey in question, however the Dallas Stars captain still aims to be ready to play for Team Canada.

It was announced on July 15 that the recovery timeline for this surgery was six weeks, which certainly makes it possible that Benn could be ready for the tournament, which begins Sept. 17.

“As of right now, yeah. I think this is a surgery that I’m able to come back a little quicker than double-hip surgery. That’s the main focus I’m training towards being able to make it for World Cup. We’ll just see what happens,” said Benn, as per Mark Stepneski of the Stars’ website on Saturday.

“Well, I think I’ll get on the ice later this week and just keep ramping it up a little more each time. I still think that’s a lot of time, enough time for me to be ready to jump into high-level hockey.”

Benn had 41 goals and 89 points last season with the Stars. He signed an eight-year, $76 million contract extension on the same day his recent surgery was announced.

Benn’s teammate Tyler Seguin “should be ready for the World Cup,” said Stars GM Jim Nill earlier this month.

Done deal: Coyotes sign 2016 first-round pick Chychrun to entry-level contract

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Jakob Chychrun poses for a portrait after being selected 16th overall by the Arizona Coyotes  in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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The Arizona Coyotes moved up the draft order to select defenseman Jakob Chychrun at 16th overall. And now, they have signed Chychrun to a three-year entry-level contract.

The Coyotes made the announcement on Saturday.

“We are very pleased to sign Jakob to an entry-level contract,” said Coyotes GM John Chayka in a statement. “Jakob is a highly-skilled player with an all-around game. He has a great work ethic and is very determined. We look forward to watching him continue to develop this season.”

When the 2015-16 season began, it was suggested Chychrun could potentially be a top-three pick in the draft in June. But he fell down the order, despite being the No. 4-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting.

He was the fifth defenseman taken in the draft.

Listed at six-foot-two-inches tall and 215 pounds, Chychrun brings size and strong skating ability to the blue line. He had 11 goals and 49 points last season with Sarnia in the Ontario Hockey League.

The Coyotes selected Chychrun after acquiring the remainder of Pavel Datsyuk’s contract from the Detroit Red Wings and moving up the order.

Chychrun’s fall — and what precipitated it in the first place — was discussed in great detail when the Coyotes held their development camp earlier this month.

“I think it was about being tense,” said Coyotes director of player development Steve Sullivan. “All the pressure of wanting to be second overall and maybe not having a great season; it snowballed the wrong way for him.

“Now he needs to understand he’s been drafted into the National Hockey League and we’re going to put him in a game plan to get him here as fast as we can. He can loosen up and play the way we think he can play. If that happens, there is no reason why he won’t be here sooner than later.”

Related:

Coyotes’ defensive makeover continues with Luke Schenn signing

Report: Stone and Coyotes agree to one-year, $4M deal

Coyotes sign Connor Murphy to six-year extension