No way to sugarcoat loss of Letang

10 Comments

Even though Kris Letang isn’t the best player on the Pittsburgh Penguins, there is a strong argument to be made he is probably their most important player, the most difficult to replace, and the one they can not afford to lose if they are going to win another Stanley Cup.

That is why the Penguins’ announcement on Wednesday that Letang will be sidelined for 4-6 months due to a herniated disc in his neck is such a significant blow to their Stanley Cup chances, even if they get all of their other injured players back in the lineup in time for the start of the postseason. None of them are Kris Letang.

In all honesty, they would probably have a better chance to win it all if they had a healthy Letang, but were without one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, than they do with both Crosby and Malkin, but no Letang.

The thought process behind this is simple. Without one of Crosby or Malkin they still have another No. 1 center. They still have a forward that can drive the offense. But when you take Letang out of the lineup, there is nobody else that can play the 28 minutes per night that he does in the playoffs. There is nobody else that can dictate the pace of the game in every key situation the way Letang does. There is nobody else that can serve as a one-man breakout coming out of the defensive zone and skate the puck out of danger. Or join the rush as smoothly as he does. Or chase down just about any forward in the NHL.

Crosby might be the Penguins’ heart and soul, but Letang is the engine the makes the whole system run.

“He’s an elite player and a great teammate,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan on Wednesday. “He’s a tough guy to replace.”

Every Stanley Cup team needs that type of workhorse defenseman, and every one that wins has it. The Penguins have Letang. The Chicago Blackhawks have Duncan Keith. The Los Angeles Kings have Drew Doughty. The Boston Bruins had Zdeno Chara.

So how are the Penguins going to make this work?

The biggest key will be the play of Justin Schultz, because he is probably the one defender on the blue line that can at least somewhat replace some of what Letang does, at least when it comes to sparking the offense.

After starting to regain some of his confidence late last season and in the playoffs following the trade from Edmonton, Schultz’s career has taken a massive step forward in 2016-17.

With 49 points in 76 games he is starting to resemble the player the Edmonton Oilers thought he would be so many years ago.

But he has mostly been doing that in a complementary, support role. Now he has to be not only one of the go-to guys on defense, but perhaps the go-to guy.

Since Letang went out of the lineup on Feb. 28 no defenseman on the team has logged more minutes per game than Schultz’s 23:42, and while his play has remained strong, his production has fallen off a little from where it was before then. Prior to March he was averaging 0.66 points per game and was a 52 percent corsi player in 19 minutes per game. Since March 1 he is at 0.55 points per game and is a 49 percent corsi player. And again, there is also the fact that for as good as he has been, he still isn’t Kris Letang.

If the Penguins have one thing going for them it is the fact they were at least somewhat prepared for something like this and have some depth thanks to the trade deadline additions of Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit.

Think back two years ago to when Letang was also sidelined for the playoffs and the Penguins went into their first-round series against the New York Rangers having to rely on the likes of Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy to play 22 minutes per night, while also using Taylor Chorney on their bottom pairing. That was a bad situation.

Things are not quite that dire this time around. With Hainsey, Streit, Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin, and the possible returns of Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, they at least have enough bodies to piece together a very formidable NHL defense that can help them compete.

To their credit, they have been able to withstand Letang’s absence (on top of several other key players) for the better part of the past two months. They have the quantity on the blue line to maybe get through it.

They just don’t have the elite, No. 1 guy.

Where that becomes a problem is the playoffs are an entirely different animal than the regular season.

While the Penguins have been able to get by in recent weeks, it may not be as easy when they have to play a playoff caliber team every night for potentially seven games. That team might be able to better exploit that weakness. They will not get the occasional game against a last place team or non-playoff team that they can sneak past.

And for the Penguins, coming out of the Metropolitan Division bracket their postseason path is going to have to take them through Columbus and most likely Washington in the first two rounds if they are going to come out of the Eastern Conference again. That is two of the four best teams in the NHL right now.

Even with Letang that would have been a tall mountain to climb.

It is simply that much steeper without him.

Draisaitl on signing with Oilers: ‘We have something really special’

Getty
5 Comments

As a restricted free agent, Leon Draisaitl only had so much say regarding his future with the Edmonton Oilers, especially since teams rarely send offer sheets around in the NHL.

Even so, Draisaitl could have opted for a “bridge” deal; instead, he signed for the maximum of eight years for a whopping $68 million on Wednesday.

Some would probably grumble but understand if Draisaitl explained his rational by pointing at one of those big checks or at a calculator. Instead, the promising young forward explained that he believes that the Oilers have a bright future, and he wants to be a part of it.

In case you’re wondering, additional details have surfaced regarding the year-to-year breakdown of Draisaitl’s deal. TVA’s Renaud Lavoie also reports that Draisaitl has a no-movement clause, thus making it that much more likely that he’ll get his wish to stick with the Oilers:

Of course, with Draisaitl and Connor McDavid combining for a $21M cap hit beginning in 2018-19, the bigger question is not whether they will stay, but who the Oilers will manage to keep in the fold.

Still, that’s for GM Peter Chiarelli & Co. to decide. For Draisaitl, this is a great moment, and he might even be able to back up that big contract with big results on the ice.

Cullen explains why he chose Wild over Penguins

Getty
3 Comments

If you check out a bio on Matt Cullen, you’ll notice that he’s from Minnesota. It doesn’t take a leak, then, to explain why Cullen signed a one-year deal with the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday.

As Cullen explained to Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “this is a family decision.” As he goes deeper into his logic, even especially sore Pittsburgh Penguins fans should probably understand Cullen’s perspective.

“Minnesota is home and it’s a special place for me,” Cullen said. “It’s not easy to say goodbye and it’s not easy to walk away [from Pittsburgh]. I’m confident in the decision we’re making and it’s the right thing for our family. But at the same time, it’s not an easy one.

Now, to be fair, Cullen also told Russo that he believes the Wild are a “hungry” team that might have been the West’s best in 2016-17. It’s not like he’s roughing it, and surely the $1 million (and $700K in performance bonuses that Wild GM Chuck Fletcher hopes Cullen collects) didn’t hurt, either.

Still, such a decision makes extra sense for a 40-year-old who’s played for eight different NHL teams during his impressive career. Russo’s story about Cullen attending his kids games and seeing his brothers is worth a read just for those warm and fuzzy feelings we often forget about in crunching the numbers and pondering which teams might be big-time contenders in 2017-18.

This isn’t to say that getting a fourth Stanley Cup ring wouldn’t be appealing to Cullen, but perhaps he’ll get his family time and win big, too?

There’s also the familiarity that comes with playing three fairly recent seasons with the Wild, so Cullen’s choice seems like it checks a lot of the boxes.

In other positive Wild news, Russo reports that Eric Staal is feeling 100 percent after suffering a concussion during the playoffs.

Tuesday was Wild day at PHT, but perhaps this feels more like Wild week?

Bovada gives McDavid higher odds than Crosby to win Hart in 2017-18

Getty
6 Comments

In handing Connor McDavid an eight-year, $100 million extension, the Edmonton Oilers essentially are paying the 20-year-old star based on the assumption that he’ll provide MVP-quality play.

At least one Vegas oddsmaker agrees, as Bovada tabbed McDavid as the favorite to win the Hart Trophy, edging Sidney Crosby.

That’s interesting, yet it might be even more interesting to note where other players fall in the rankings. Auston Matthews coming in third is particularly intriguing.

Who are some of the more interesting choices? The 20/1 range seems appealing, as Carey Price is one of the few goalies with the notoriety to push for such honors while John Tavares has the skill and financial motivation to produce the best work of his career next season.

Anyway, entertain yourself with those odds, via Bovada: (Quick note: Bovada originally had Artemi Panarin listed as still playing with Chicago. PHT went ahead and fixed that in the bit below.)

2017 – 2018 – Who will win the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player?
Connor McDavid (EDM)                         3/2
Sidney Crosby (PIT)                              5/2
Auston Matthews (TOR)                         17/2
Alex Ovechkin (WAS)                            9/1
Patrick Kane (CHI)                                 14/1
Vladimir Tarasenko (STL)                       15/1
Evgeni Malkin (PIT)                                16/1
Carey Price (MON)                                 20/1
John Tavares (NYI)                                20/1
Jamie Benn (DAL)                                 25/1
Steven Stamkos (TB)                             25/1
Erik Karlsson (OTT)                               33/1
Nikita Kucherov (TB)                              33/1
Jack Eichel (BUF)                                  50/1
Ryan Getzlaf (ANA)                               50/1
Patrik Laine (WPG)                                50/1
Brad Marchand (BOS)                            50/1
Tyler Seguin (DAL)                                50/1
Nicklas Backstrom (WAS)                      60/1
Brent Burns (SJ)                                    60/1
Braden Holtby (WAS)                            60/1
Phil Kessel (PIT)                                    60/1
Artemi Panarin (CBJ)                              60/1
Joe Pavelski (SJ)                                  60/1

Oilers cap situation is scary, and not just because of Draisaitl, McDavid

Getty
6 Comments

The Edmonton Oilers pulled the trigger – and likely made teams with big RFA headaches like the Boston Bruins grimace – in signing Leon Draisaitl to a massive eight-year, $68 million contract on Wednesday.

You have to do a little stretching to call it a good deal, although credit Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshysnki with some reasonably stated optimism.

Either way, the per-year cap bill for Connor McDavid and Draisaitl is $21 million once McDavid’s extension kicks in starting in 2018-19; that’s the same combined cost that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane receive … and those two got those paydays after they won three Stanley Cups for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Now, if the Oilers struggle in the near future, plenty of people will heap blame on McDavid and/or Draisaitl. Really, though, the true scapegoats should be a management team with more strikeouts than homers.

(As usual, Cap Friendly was a key resource in studying Edmonton’s salary structure.)

Bloated supporting cast

There are some frightening contracts on the books in Edmonton, especially if a few situations work out unfavorably.

At 29, there’s severe risk of regression with Milan Lucic, even if he enjoys a more stable second season with Edmonton. He carries a $6M cap hit through 2022-23, so he’ll be on the books for all but two years of Draisaitl’s new deal.

Kris Russell costs $4.167M during a four-year stretch, and even now, he has plenty of critics. Those complaints may only get louder if, at 30, he also starts to slip from his already debatable spot.

Andrej Sekera‘s been a useful blueliner, yet there’s some concern that time won’t treat him kindly. He’s dealing with injuries heading into 2017-18, and at 31, there’s always the risk that his best days are behind him. Not great for a guy carrying a $5.5M cap hit through 2020-21.

One can’t help but wonder if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might be an odd man out once the shackles of the salary cap really tighten. Just consider how much Edmonton is spending on a limited number of players, and you wonder if the 24-year-old will be deemed too pricey at his $6M clip.

Yeah, not ideal.

It’s not all bad

Now, let’s be fair.

RNH could easily grow into being well worth that $6M. Draisaitl may also justify his hefty price tag. McDavid honestly cut the Oilers a relative deal by taking $12.5M instead of the maximum.

The Oilers also have two quality, 24-year-old defensemen locked up to team-friendly deals: Oscar Klefbom ($4.167M through 2022-23) and Adam Larsson ($4.167M through 2020-21). They need every bargain they can get, and those two figure to fit the bill.

Crucial future negotiations

GM Peter Chiarelli’s had a questionable history of getting good deals. He’ll need to get together soon, or the Oilers will really struggle to surround their core with helpful support.

Cam Talbot is a brilliant bargain at the strangely familiar cap hit of $4.167M, but that value only lasts through 2018-19. After that, he’s eligible to become a UFA, and could be massively expensive if he produces two more strong seasons.

The bright side is that the Oilers aren’t locked into an expensive goalie, so they can look for deals. That isn’t as sunny a situation if you don’t trust management to have much success in the bargain bin.

Talbot isn’t the only upcoming expiring contract. The Oilers have serious questions to answer with Darnell Nurse and Ryan Strome. Also, will they need to let Lucic-like winger Patrick Maroon go? Even with mild relief in Mark Fayne‘s money coming off the books, the Oilers might regret this buffet when the bills start piling up next summer.

***

Look, the truth is that management is likely to be propped up by the top-end in Edmonton, particularly in the case of McDavid’s otherworldly skills. As much as that Draisaitl deal looks like an overpay – possibly a massive one – there’s a chance that he lives up to that $8.5M, too.

It’s not just about those stars, though.

The Pittsburgh Penguins gained new life by complimenting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with the likes of Phil Kessel. The Blackhawks have struggled once they couldn’t afford as much help for Kane and Toews.

You have to mix your premium items with bargains, and one wonders if the Oilers will be able to spot sufficient value beyond the no-brainer top guys. Their recent history in that area certainly leaves a lot to be desired.