Penguins on the cusp of another Stanley Cup — despite missing Kris Letang for the postseason

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The journey back to the Stanley Cup Final hasn’t been easy for the Penguins.

Injuries plague every team during the two-month tournament. But for the Penguins to make it back to this point is truly a wonder considering they’ve been without their No. 1 defenseman for the entire postseason.

Kris Letang hasn’t played a game since Feb. 21 versus Carolina. Neck surgery in April put him out for four to six months, and although there were rumblings of a very, very small chance he may return in the final, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan quickly quashed those.

Letang scored three goals and 15 points in last year’s playoffs, but also led the team by averaging close to 29 minutes of ice time per game. He was the power play quarterback. He played on the penalty kill. No one else on last year’s team even came close his ice time mark, with Trevor Daley second in that category at more than six minutes fewer than Letang.

That is a huge loss for the 2016-17 Penguins.

Missing a top defenseman for the entire playoffs would be a huge loss for any team. It ultimately might even mark the beginning of the end of a team’s chances.

Pittsburgh’s cast of forwards is, of course, impressive. They’re led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, but they’ve also seen a breakout performance from rookie Jake Guentzel. Having great goaltending — a distinction shared by Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray throughout these playoffs — has been a key factor, as well.

Yet, the Penguins have made it by Columbus in the opening round, before outlasting both the Capitals and Senators in grueling seven-game series with Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey — he’s playing in his first postseason at the age of 36 — now leading the way in ice time at 21:49 and 21:06, respectively, and a group that includes Daley, Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz, Ian Cole, Mark Streit and Chad Ruhwedel.

Those are the defensemen Sullivan has called upon throughout these playoffs. It hasn’t been an easy go. The Predators forecheck had given Pittsburgh’s defense plenty of problems moving the puck out of their own end. But they also managed their best game of this series — and, it can be argued, of the entire playoffs — in the blowout Game 5 victory that put the Penguins on the brink of back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.

A great deal of attention has been placed on the production Nashville has received from its vaunted blue line in these playoffs, and for good reason. On Thursday, it was the Penguins ‘D’ that contributed in a big way.

It started with a power play goal from Justin Schultz and ended with Hainsey finishing off a great rush up the ice on a pass from Malkin. In the end, the Penguins received five points total from their defensemen in the win.

“I’ve said on a number of occasions throughout the course of this playoffs that our defense group is, in a lot of ways, the unsung heroes of this team,” said Sullivan on Friday.

“I think they fly under the radar, for obvious reasons. You know, we have a lot of dynamic forwards that make a lot of great plays through the course of games, that a lot of times on a lot of nights become the story line. But this team doesn’t have success if that group of defensemen doesn’t play the way that they’ve played throughout the course of this playoffs.”

Now, they’re on the cusp of winning another title. No team in the salary cap era has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. To repeat as champion without a true No. 1 defenseman would be an even greater feat for the Penguins.

Stars give Lindell two-year extension

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More news out of Dallas, where the Stars have signed defenseman Esa Lindell to a two-year, $4.4-million contract extension.

From the release:

Lindell, 23, posted 18 points (6-12=18) in 73 games played for Dallas during the 2016-17 regular season, his first full season in the NHL. He finished second on the team by averaging 21:52 of time on ice per game and his +8 plus/minus rating finished third. Additionally, he finished second on the team with 119 blocked shots and tied for fifth with 93 hits.

The Stars still have a couple of restricted free agents on the back end. Both Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak are arbitration-eligible. Lindell was not.

Earlier today, it was reported that the Stars were buying out goalie Antti Niemi.

Dallas also signed forward Mark McNeill to a one-year, two-way contract extension. The 24-year-old was acquired from Chicago in the Johnny Oduya trade on Feb. 28.

Lightning extend Gourde — two years, $2 million

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Yanni Gourde has cashed in on an impressive 20-game cameo with Tampa Bay this season.

Gourde signed a two-year, $2 million extension on Monday, the Bolts announced. The deal came after the 25-year-old scored six goals and eight points in 20 games, while averaging 15:22 TOI per night.

Undrafted out of the Quebec League, Gourde has been a terrific AHL player since catching on with the Tampa Bay organization a few years ago.

He was instrumental in Syracuse’s run to the Calder Cup final this year — scoring 27 points in 22 games — and, given his new deal is of the one-way variety, seems primed to spend next year with the Lightning.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling to sign that kind of a deal knowing where I’ve come from,” Gourde said, per NHL.com. “It’s the organization that trusted me very early in my career, and I thank them for that.”

Carolina’s strategy of flipping picks for players ‘just didn’t pan out’

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In late May, the ‘Canes looked like a team primed to trade some draft picks.

GM Ron Francis kicked off proceedings by sending one of his 11 picks — a third-rounder — to Chicago for goalie Scott Darling. Shortly thereafter, Francis said his club had “the open for business sign out there,”suggesting he was ready to wheel and deal.

But said wheeling and dealing never occurred.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to take a few less picks,” Francis said after he selected nine players at the draft, per ‘Canes Country. “We’d had a lot of discussions about trying to move picks for players, but it just didn’t pan out the way we had hoped.”

Prior to landing in Chicago, it was obvious the goal for Francis and head coach Bill Peters was to add pieces that’d help get the ‘Canes back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The team has shown steady improvement over the last three years — going from 30 to 35 to 36 wins — and had a nice late push before ultimately falling short this season.

“I think we have specific needs, very specific needs,” Peters said at Carolina’s end-of-year media availability. “So as a coach I’m going to give very specific names.”

As many clubs experienced at the draft, trades weren’t easy to orchestrate. It was a stark contrast to the flurry of action that proceeded the event — Jonathan Drouin to Montreal, Jordan Eberle to the Islanders, huge shakeups in both Arizona and Chicago.

The perceived weakness of said draft could’ve played a role in the lack of movement. It’s also worth noting that Francis did use one of his picks, a fifth-rounder, for Vegas to select Connor Brickley at the expansion draft.

And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean Carolina still can’t add players. Free agency opens on Saturday. But draft weekend certainly feels like an opportunity missed, given this year’s UFA market doesn’t project to be very strong.

Report: Stars to buy out Antti Niemi

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The Antti Niemi era in Dallas is mercifully over.

Per Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News, the Stars will place Niemi on waivers for the purposes of buying out the final year of his contract. The buyout will result in a $1.5 million cap hit in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Niemi, 33, joined the Stars in 2015 with the hope he’d form an effective tandem with Kari Lehtonen.

But the experiment was a dismal failure. In 85 games over two seasons, Niemi registered a .900 save percentage, and the Stars responded last month by signing Ben Bishop to a six-year contract worth almost $30 million.

GM Jim Nill had hoped that one of Niemi or Lehtonen could be traded in the wake of the Bishop signing.

Lehtonen, 33, is still under contract for another year at a cap hit of $5.9 million. He had a .902 save percentage last season, higher than Niemi’s .892.