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Penguins should bet on a Kris Letang rebound

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The relationship between Kris Letang and Pittsburgh Penguins fans. Sometimes it’s complicated.

For more than a decade Letang has been a No. 1 defenseman for the Penguins, and for many of those years he has been a top-10, and at times maybe even a top-five, player in the league at his position. But there’s always been a sense (at least from this perspective) that he has never really been fully appreciated for just how good he has been, and the criticisms are always the same.

Turns the puck over too much.

Not good in his own end and takes too many chances.

Makes too much money.

Gets hurt too much.

There is an element of truth to some of that, but it doesn’t mean what his harshest critics think it means. Yes, he is guilty of turnovers at times. But so is every high-level player that plays a lot of minutes and always has the puck on their stick. Take a look at the NHL’s leaders in giveaways at the end of any season. It is a list of All-Stars. He does take some chances and at times gambles, whether it be pinching in the offensive zone or trying to make a play out of his own zone. But that is also a part of what makes him the dynamic player that he is. He is capable of doing things and making plays due to his skating and skill that other players not only can not make, but probably can not even attempt.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

It basically comes down to this: He is going to make some mistakes, but as long as the positive plays outweigh the negative plays you have to to take the bad with the good.

Sometimes his freakish athletic ability makes it possible for him to wipe out his own mistake with a brilliant play of its own.

And while he has missed a significant portion of his career due to injury, he’s probably been a little underpaid given the market rate for top-pairing defenseman that play at his level.

But because the bad plays are usually the result of that aggressiveness they will stand out more. And because hockey is a game of mistakes, we tend to focus almost exclusively on that big mistake when it happens and allow it to drive the discussion around that player.

That brings us to Letang’s 2017-18 season (and postseason) for the Penguins. To be fair, it was not a great season, and it reached its low point in Game 5 of the team’s second-round series when a third period breakdown allowed Evgeny Kuznetsov to score a game-tying goal just one minute into the third period, completely changing the direction of the series. The series ended with Letang trying to chase Kuznetsov down from behind on a breakaway as he potted the series-clinching goal. Viewed in the context of the Penguins actually winning the Stanley Cup a year ago without having Letang for any of the playoff games, it made him a focal point for blame when the team did not win this season (nevermind that they probably do not win that Stanley Cup the previous year without him, this is the ultimate what have you done for me lately business).

What made this season even tougher for Letang is that it wasn’t just the mistakes of aggressiveness or the Game 5 blunder against Kuznetsov that made it an off year for him. He seemed to get beat in one-on-one situations more often than usual. He also saw a pretty sharp decline in his offensive production and by the end of the year and playoffs was replaced by Justin Schultz on the team’s top power play unit.

Physically, Letang has been through hell and back in recent years due to both injury and health issues.

The most recent example was the neck injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season and all of the playoffs.

On Wednesday’s locker clean out day in Pittsburgh, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he had an inclination that the injury, surgery, and recovery in such a short period of time was probably going to be a lot for Letang to overcome.

He also talked about the inconsistency.

“He had stages of the year where he was really good for us and stages where he wasn’t at his best,” said Sullivan. “By no means does it diminish what we think of Kris as a player. He’s a guy that we think is certainly one of the elite defensemen in the league.”

Letang himself admitted that he thought it would be easier to come back and that he might have lost a little bit of his conditioning.

The thing about Letang is that for all of the struggles he had at times this year there were still elements of his game that were in place.

Fifty-one points in 79 games was a down year for him. That still placed him 17th in the league among all defenders in the NHL.

When he was on the ice the Penguins attempted more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts during even-strength play. Among defenders that played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time that was the 12th best mark in the entire league, so the team was still controlling possession and the shot chart, which should be seen as an encouraging sign. Players that help drive possession that much usually see that pay off when it comes to goals for and against. But of the top-20 defenders in the league in shot attempt percentage, Letang was one of just five that had a negative on-ice goal differential on the season. The other four (Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifan, and Brett Pesce) all played for the Carolina Hurricanes, a team with infamous goaltending issues.

Part of Letang’s issue when it came to goals for and against was his own inconsistency.

Another part of it was the Penguins’ inconsistent goaltending, both from starter Matt Murray when he was healthy, as well his revolving door of backups that all struggled. Improved play from that position would go a long way toward correcting both his and the Penguins’ 5-on-5 issues as a team (because it wasn’t just Letang that struggled in those situations for the Penguins this season).

In the end, though, he is capable of more than he showed this season, and everybody involved knows it.

That is why no matter how much criticism he takes, how many times there is a call for the Penguins to trade him, they are not going to do it. They shouldn’t do it, anyway. Because when Letang is right and on top of his game there are only a small handful of players in the NHL that are better than him at his position, and you are never going to get that upside back in a trade.

Especially now when his value is probably at an all-time low given the injury recovery and the fact he is coming off of a down year. Part of what made the Penguins such a success the past few years was pouncing on trade partners that were dealing players at lower value (Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, and Schultz all come to mind). The good player usually rebounds. The good — and smart — teams usually make sure it happens for them and not somebody else.

Given his track record there is every reason to believe he can — and probably will — get back to that level.

The Penguins should be more than willing to take that bet that he gets there next season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Pastrnak nets four; Blackhawks hand Oilers first loss

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Three Stars

1. David Pastrnak, Bruins: Pasta scored four goals and recorded his fifth career hat trick as Boston doubled up the Ducks 4-2. His linemate, Patrice Bergeron, was the last Bruins player to tally four in a game when he achieved the feat on Jan. 6, 2018 against the Hurricanes. According to the NHL, Pastrnak is now the third player in Bruins franchise history, along with Barry Pederson and Cam Neely, to net five regular-season hat tricks before turning 24.

2. Victor Olofsson, Sabres: While Carter Hutton denied the Stars all afternoon during a 25-save shutout in a 4-0 win, it was the rookie winger making history. The 24-year-old Olofsson recorded his fifth power play goal of the season and set an NHL record by becoming the first player to score his first seven career goals with the extra man. Via the AP, the Sabres’ 5-0-1 start has earned them a point in their first six games for the first time since a 6-0-2 start in 2008-09. Their 4-0-0 record at KeyBank Center is their best start at home since 2006-07.

3. Alex Stalock, Wild: Stalock’s 26 saves helped the Wild to their first win of the season with a 2-0 blanking of the Senators. The shutout was Stalock’s sixth of his career and first since Dec. 14, 2017. Minnesota’s shorthanded units get a shoutout here after killing off five Ottawa power plays. (The Senators’ power play, by the way, is now 0-for-17 on the season.)

Other notable performances
• Behind two goals from Brett Connolly, the Panthers erased a 4-1 deficit to top the Devils 6-4. New Jersey is now 0-4-2, their worst start to a season since they started the 2013-14 campaign 0-4-3.

Matt Barzal‘s goal with 27 seconds left forced overtime and Devon Toews completed the Islanders’ comeback with the winner as the Blues surrendered a 2-0 lead with less than six minutes to play.

Nazem Kadri and Mikko Rantanen each had a goal and two assists as the Avalanche downed the Capitals 6-3 to improve to 5-0-0.

James Neal scored his NHL-best eighth goal of the season in a loss to the Blackhawks that ended Edmonton’s undefeated season after five games.

Highlights of the Night

Jonathan Huberdeau needed only 16 seconds to open the scoring vs. the Devils:

• Agile Brad Marchand:

• Former Capitals Andre Burakovsky made his first visit back to D.C. as a member of the Avalanche:

• Nice sequence here by the Avs, which was finished off by Nikita Zadorov:

Factoids of the Night
• The Stars’ 1-5-1 start is the team’s worst since the franchise opened with an identical record in 1990-91 when they were the Minnesota North Stars.

• The line of Pastrnak, Bergeron, and Marchand have combined for 24 points through five games.

• Via AP, the worst start in Devils franchise history was 0-8-1 in 1974-75 when they were the Kansas City Scouts.

Scores
Bruins 4, Ducks 2
Wild 2, Senators 0
Panthers 6, Devils 4
Islanders 3, Blues 2 (OT)
Sabres 4, Stars 0
Avalanche 6, Capitals 3
Blackhawks 3, Oilers 1

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Sabres’ Olofsson sets NHL record with another power play goal

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The Buffalo Sabres continued their early season surge on Monday with a convincing and thorough 4-0 dismantling of the highly disappointing Dallas Stars.

During the Sabres rookie forward Victor Olofsson (also known as Victor Goal-ofsson) scored yet another goal to open the scoring early in the second period.

It was Olofsson’s fifth goal of the season and the seventh of his young career dating back to his debut during the 2018-19 season. Why is this goal noteworthy? Because all seven of Olofsson’s goals in the NHL have been scored on the power play. That makes him the first player in NHL history to open their career with seven consecutive power play goals (since power play goals became an official stat during the 1933-34 seaosn).

The Sabres’ power play has been dominant through the first six games of the season and is one of the biggest reasons they are off to such a strong start at 5-0-1. Obviously they can not rely on their power play unit to keep scoring at a 42 percent rate (as they are through Monday’s game), but it is not like that is the only source of offense. They also have 14 goals during 5-on-5 play through the first six games. No matter the situation, they are finding ways to score goals.

This start is no doubt creating a lot of excitement in Buffalo, but there is probably an equal amount of skepticism after the way the 2018-19 season unfolded. Even so, the Sabres and their fans have to be thrilled with the current record and place in the standings. Now they just need to do something they have not done in almost a decade and find a way to keep building on it.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Pastrnak scores 4 goals for Bruins; Marchand ducks retaliation

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The thing that makes the Boston Bruins so scary for the rest of the Eastern Conference is that even when they are not at their best they are still capable of making teams look powerless against them because of their goaltending and the strength of their top players.

That was on display on Monday afternoon when they defeated the Anaheim Ducks, 4-2, to improve to 5-1-0 on the season.

This was not the Bruins’ most complete game of the season, but it was good enough.

David Pastrnak is a goal scoring machine 

The Bruins’ big three at forward are as good as you will find anywhere in the NHL.

Everyone already knows about Patrice Bergeron and his two-way play that allows him to control the game in every situation.

Brad Marchand may not be Bergeron’s equal defensively, but he has blown by him offensively and has been a top-10 scoring forward for about four years now.

Then there is David Pastrnak, who might actually be the best pure goal-scorer out of the three and the one that gets talked about the least. That may soon start to change. He was my sleeper pick for the Rocket Richard award at the start of the year, and he dominated on Monday afternoon with his first career four-goal game, proving all of the offense for the Bruins in their win. It was just the second four-goal game by a Bruins forward over the past 20 years (Bergeron did it during the 2017-18 season, before that you have to go back to Dave Andreychuck in 1999).

He has three consecutive 34-goal seasons, including 38 a year ago in only 66 games. After his performance on Monday the only players with more goals than him since the start of the 2016-17 season are Alex Ovechkin, Nikita Kucherov, and Auston Matthews.

This is already the third four-goal game in the NHL this season, joining Edmonton Oilers forward James Neal and Detroit Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha.

There were only four four-goal games in the NHL during the entire 2018-19 season.

Marchand’s troll game is already in midseason form

This is Brad Marchand at his agitating best.

He manages to get an extra shot in at Anaheim’s Max Comtois along the boards, and when Comtois tries to respond and get a shot in of his own Marchand still finds a way to get the best of him.

Marchand does a lot of things that are dangerous and make people justifiably mad, but this right here is kind of funny.

Goaltending masks a lot of flaws

Sometimes even the best teams will need to rely on their goalie to get them two points, and fortunately for the Bruins they have two goalies in Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak that are capable of doing that on any given day.

The duo entered Monday with matching .957 save percentages on the season as they continue to split the early season workload. On Monday it was Halak doing the work in net turning aside 30 of the 32 shots he faced.

This is a great setup for the Bruins because it gives them a No. 1 option in goal every single night, and by splitting the playing time it it allows Rask — still their best and most important goalie — to not get worn down over the course of a long season and be fresh when they need him most (during the Stanley Cup Playoffs).

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Devils crumble again, blow another 3-goal lead to remain winless

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When Pavel Zacha scored his first goal of the season just one minute into the second period it gave the New Jersey Devils a three-goal lead over the Florida Panthers and seemed to send them on a path that might finally give them their first win of the season.

They not only failed to win their first game of the season, they ended up allowing five consecutive goals on their way to a 6-4 loss, dropping their record to 0-4-2 and sending them off the ice to a chorus of boos from their home fans.

Free agent acquisition Brett Connolly scored two goals for the Panthers to start the rally (including one with eight seconds to play in the second period), while MacKenzie Weegar, Noel Acciari, and Evgeni Dadonov added third period goals to complete the rally and give the Panthers a much-needed win.

Three quick takeaways on the latest Devils’ meltdown to open the season.

1. This is the second time they have lost a three-goal lead

This is almost hard to believe, but Monday’s loss was already the second time this season the Devils have lost a game in which they have at one point held a three-goal lead. They have only played six games! Doing that twice in a full season is bad enough, but to have it happen within the first six games is just an awful look for everyone involved.

Along with Monday’s meltdown, the Devils also lost a 4-0 lead in their season-opening shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets.

2. Jack Hughes can’t buy a break … or a point

For one split second on Monday it looked as if the No. 1 overall pick in the draft was going to finally collect his first point. He had the puck on his stick, Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was down and out, only for Hughes to ring his shot off the post and stay out of the net. He slammed his stick in frustration and remained pointless through the first six games of his career.

This is the longest a No. 1 overall pick has gone without recording their first point since Steven Stamkos went seven games for the Tampa Bay Lightning at the start of the 2008-09 season.

The good news for Hughes is that Stamkos went on to have a solid rookie season with a strong second half and starting the next year was one of the league’s best players. So it is obviously not time to worry about him or his development. The bad news for Hughes is he doesn’t have the same excuse Stamkos had for his slow start — a coach that didn’t want to play him right away.

3. Is it make-or-break time for John Hynes?

Not to put too much on one game, but the next time the Devils take the ice will be  at home against the New York Rangers, their biggest rival and the other big spending NHL team this summer.

These two teams and their rebuilds were always going to be measured against one other given their rivalry and the parallels that existed with their offseasons (the top two picks in the draft, big-name acquisitions all over each roster), and if the Devils lose that game to fall to 0-5-2 — well, Hynes’ already hot seat will no doubt increase a few degrees.

This is all part of a six-game home stand and if the Devils can not find a way to scratch out a couple of wins it is not a stretch to think that some major changes could be on the horizon for what has been one of the league’s most disappointing and underwhelming teams.

They are not just losing, they are getting crushed in every possible area.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.