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Where they stand: Atlantic Division

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As summer rolls on, PHT will examine the four NHL divisions and see how each individual team stands. 

With August approaching, NHL GMs are mostly transitioning from “time at the cottage” to “tropical drinks on the beach.”

There’s more work to do, but much of it may happen closer to training camp time, aside from some deals to settle RFA situations and avoid salary arbitration. This seems like a great time to ponder which teams look likely to rise or fall in each division, so let’s go in alphabetical order.

Boston Bruins

Summer summary: “Meh” seems like the right word to summarize Boston’s off-season.

They lost the Ri-Nashes (Rick Nash and Riley Nash), swapped backups, said goodbye to some depth players, and signed John Moore to a somewhat bewildering contract. So, yeah, meh.

More to do?: The B’s covered their free agent bases already, so their near $3 million in space (via Cap Friendly) could come in handy, with a “rental” probably making most sense.

The most interesting questions revolve around making some near-future calls regarding defense.

Brilliant young defenseman Charlie McAvoy‘s rookie contract expires after next season, while Zdeno Chara has to slow down at some point, right? The Bruins are lucky that Chara is OK with one-year commitments, but a raise is coming for McAvoy. Maybe they’d be better off settling on an extension now, rather than after another high-level season?

Where they stand: On somewhat shaky ground.

Consider this: the Maple Leafs pushed them to a Game 7 without John Tavares. The Lightning didn’t make any big splashes, yet they creamed the B’s with their current crew. Florida finished last season on a strong note, and could be really dangerous if the Mike Hoffman gamble works out.

So, the Bruins face challenges even if they maintain last season’s often-impressive progress. What if some key players hit the aging curve hard, too? Patrice Bergeron is somehow 33, and they feature some old Davids (Backes and Krejci) along their brilliant young one (Pastrnak). Chara is 41, and even Brad Marchand is 30.

On the other hand, the Bruins entered 2017-18 with some worries, and instead looked really promising while seeing some young players emerge. It wouldn’t be shocking to see some young talent rise to the occasion once again.

Buffalo Sabres

Summer summary: The Sabres traded Ryan O'Reilly, and probably lost that trade, yet they may have improved overall this summer.

For one thing, the package they landed for ROR should at least help them get deeper. More obviously, Rasmus Dahlin is now in the organization, and he could very well pay significant dividends as a rookie. Speaking of rookies, Casey Mittelstadt may also be a difference-maker.

Landing Conor Sheary is pretty neat, especially if he finds almost as much chemistry with someone like Jack Eichel as he did with Sidney Crosby.

Between those additions and going with Carter Hutton instead of Robin Lehner in net, the Sabres should be very interesting this season. Now, will interesting translate to better?

More to do?: Sam Reinhart stands as a significant player still in need of a contract, as he’s currently a 22-year-old RFA.

With no arbitration date set, that situation might drag on for a while. Sure, Reinhart hasn’t been spectacular considering that he was the second pick in 2014, but he’s hit 20+ goals twice and scored 50 points in 2017-18. You can see where there might be some room for haggling there.

Without a Reinhart contract settled, the Sabres have about $12.2M in cap space. Buffalo’s likely better off waiting and seeing if real progress is possible before spending much more of that surplus.

Where they stand: Possibly in that same awkward “baby steps” stage that they seem perpetually stuck in?

There’s a lot to like with what Buffalo’s done – although, even if ROR needed to be traded, it’s not an upgrade – but it still feels like a work in progress.

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Detroit Red Wings

Summer summary: Detroit still seems a bit stuck in purgatory, adding veterans (Thomas Vanek and Jonathan Bernier) you’d expect more of a contender to seek. There’s still a vibe of “one foot in, one foot out” when it comes to a should-be rebuild.

At least they seemed to get the 2018 NHL Draft very, very right, though. Filip Zadina fell to them at the sixth pick, and Joe Veleno going 30th seemed to be a potential steal, too. You never know how college-age players will actually turn out, but these prospects seem quite promising. Getting those picks right matters a lot more than minor free agent signings.

More to do?: The Red Wings signed reasonable bridge deals with Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, but Dylan Larkin is still an RFA. PHT’s advice is for the Red Wings to sign Larkin for as long as possible.

That’s about it, unless the Red Wings can convince other teams to take some of their bad contracts.

Where they stand: They seem slated to be mediocre, but will they be bad enough? Because they’re better off being really bad and landing another premium prospect. Oh yeah, and they should also try to get rid of bad contracts.

Florida Panthers

Summer summary: After enduring jokes about Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith during much of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Panthers … didn’t commit any major unforced errors. Progress.

Then again, if Mike Hoffman ends up being a disruptive force, maybe they did make a mistake? Eh, at least it’s a much smarter summer on paper.

More to do?: The Panthers don’t have any significant RFAs to deal with, and not much cap space, particularly for a franchise that frequently gets described as a “budget team.” Landing Hoffman gives this team a pretty robust top-nine of forwards, so that will probably have to do.

Where they stand: The Panthers finished 2017-18 on a tear, and it seems like they’ve gotten better heading into 2018-19. Aleksander Barkov centers one of the best top lines in the NHL, Vincent Trocheck‘s second trio really got things going later in the year, and Hoffman could give them more punch (whether it means adding to existing strengths or giving the third line a boost).

From here, it sure seems like Florida has playoff potential. Then again, we’ve seen this movie before.

Montreal Canadiens

Summer summary: Another year, another questionable trade featuring another player who seemed to absorb inexplicably harsh criticisms.

Much like P.K. Subban, Alex Galchenyuk‘s seemingly inevitable trade happened, netting Montreal Max Domi. The Canadiens also managed to get Joel Armia, while throwing fans a bone by bringing Tomas Plekanec back (his turtleneck never looked right in Maple Leaf blue anyway).

It will be fascinating to see if Jesperi Kotkaniemi was a worthy choice at third overall or if the Habs reached. It also remains to be seen if he can make the team, and if doing so would even be beneficial for either the player or the Habs.

More to do?: Ideally? Or maybe not?

The Max Pacioretty situation remains unsettled, as they haven’t been able to trade the winger and allegedly don’t seem particularly interested in signing “Patches” to an extension.

It’s a nerve-wracking situation. On one hand, Pacioretty seems less valuable as the season goes along, at least if a side deal for an extension would be a no-go. On the other hand, Habs GM Marc Bergevin doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence in his ability to land proper value in trades. Maybe no move would somehow be better than another bad move?

Where they stand: It’s been frustrating to watch Montreal bleed talent year after year, a painful Bergevin tradition. You can’t totally dismiss the Canadiens’ chances while they have Carey Price in the mix. Yes, his contract is terrifying, particularly long-term, but it’s feasible that he could still generate elite work. If so, the Canadiens could very well compete for a playoff spot.

Is it really best for them to scratch and claw to get in the playoff bubble instead of landing another high-end pick, though? Probably not.

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Ottawa Senators

Summer summary: Woof.

Oh, you wanted more? The Senators have been a full-fledged disaster, both on and off the ice, during the past few months. And they haven’t even traded Erik Karlsson yet. Again, woof.

More to do?: Again, that Karlsson trade is brewing, and allowing it to drag into the regular season would rank as yet another ugly distraction for a team that’s setting a new standard for being substandard.

Beyond the enormously important Karlsson situation, the Senators have two lingering RFA situations (both slated for salary arbitration): Mark Stone and Cody Ceci. Stone, in particular, stands as a crucial consideration. Already sour fans could become outright outraged if the Senators nickle-and-dime Stone out of town.

Where they stand: Normally, they’d have every reason to tumble down the rankings and try to land Jack Hughes.

The Matt Duchene trade, and Ottawa’s decision to make the fourth pick in 2018, means that Colorado gets their 2019 NHL Draft pick. So Senators fans can’t even enjoy the cognitive dissonance of half-enjoying their team’s failures thanks to tanking, as the team doesn’t even have that luxury. (Did we mention “woof?”)

The Senators sometimes surprise the hockey world by winning when not expected, and it’s fair to expect that Craig Anderson will be better next season – he couldn’t get much worse – but the outlook is quite dismal.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Summer summary: Instead of landing a big name – so far? – the Lightning instead raised some eyebrows by handing hefty extensions to J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh.

The most important extension was handed to Nikita Kucherov. It might seem strange to call a $9.5M cap hit a bargain, but considering what Kucherov brings to the table, what he’s paid now, and what he’d get on the open market … yes, it’s a big bargain.

So, even though the Lightning haven’t made another splashy addition, Stevie Y hasn’t exactly been loafing.

More to do?: Can they still win the Karlsson sweepstakes? The Lightning rank among the teams who’d be most sensible if Karlsson is a mere rental, even though there’s talk that Tampa Bay is one of the few placed he’d be interesting in signing an early extension. If Karlsson talks reignite, then there’s quite a lot of work to do.

One way or another, it sure wouldn’t hurt to move Ryan Callahan‘s contract. One also can’t help but wonder about Anton Stralman. Are the Lightning content to let him play out his contract and then leave?

Where they stand: The Lightning head into 2018-19 as a genuine contender, with or without a splashy addition.

Honestly, the McDonagh trade’s greatest benefits might be seen this season, as players often struggle to make a full impact amid the rush of being moved around the deadline. McDonagh gets to settle in with a training camp and extension in hand, so maybe he’ll be more effective?

As good as the Lightning seem – and they appear poised to be a strong team – they could fall in the second round and not really underachieve. That’s because of the NHL’s playoff setup, which could set the stage for annual showdowns with the Leafs.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Summer summary: Oh, no big deal. Basically a leisurely stroll.

The Maple Leafs accomplished something incredibly rare in the NHL salary cap era, landing a true superstar free agent in John Tavares. Adding Tavares to Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri gives the Buds the sort of center depth just about any franchise would envy.

That would be a big enough change, but the Maple Leafs also saw big organizational changes, and in some cases departures.

The team is now in Kyle Dubas’ hands, as he became GM while Lou Lamoriello and others left town. Key subtractions also happened to the roster, as James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Roman Polak, and Matt Martin are all gone.

Expectations will be sky-high in Toronto.

More to do?: People will appraise the Dubas era for more than just signing Tavares, as he faces quite the juggling act in trying to navigate new contracts for William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner.

Nylander is most pressing, as he still needs a contract heading into 2018-19 as an RFA. Meanwhile, Matthews and Marner can be signed to extensions, but they’re both entering contract years. It’s tough to imagine the Maple Leafs saving a lot of money in letting any of those situations drag out, especially if Marner ends up on a line with Tavares.

(Pro tip: Tavares’ wingers get paid.)

Where they stand: Maple Leafs fans have, for the most part, been patient when it comes to Brendan Shanahan’s rebuilding plan. Fans and media have been holding out for a moment like this, though, so the stakes are skyrocketing.

Yes, the Maple Leafs have some flaws, as they lack a true shutdown defenseman. Still, there’s talent even in that area, and Toronto’s forward group and an underrated workhorse goalie in Frederik Andersen make for a formidable opponent.

It’s going to be a huge challenge for Mike Babcock to mold all of these pieces into a true contender, especially considering capable competition, particularly with Tampa Bay. There’s a strong chance that this roster will live up to the hype, but it won’t be a cakewalk.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Headache-plagued Stephen Johns finally back on ice for Stars

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FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Stephen Johns sometimes wondered if he would play hockey again while missing nearly 22 months with headaches that may or may not have been related to concussions.

The Dallas Stars defenseman just didn’t appreciate it when doctors suggested as much.

“That just kind of pissed me off because it wasn’t their decision to make,” Johns said after a week-plus break for Dallas that came after his first game since March 29, 2018.

“Obviously there were times when I thought I would never play again, but that was probably when it was the lowest of my lows. Obviously I climbed out of it. In the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t done yet and I still had a lot to prove.”

The Stars didn’t have much to celebrate on the ice in a 7-0 loss to Minnesota in Johns’ return Jan 18. They liked the ending of his first home game a lot more, a 3-2 overtime win over Tampa Bay on Monday night.

Either way, there’s still an aspect to Johns being back that has little to do with scores and stats. Even the 27-year-old feels it.

“Trust me, it’s not frustrating,” he said. “Now I know where my game is. It’s a breath of fresh air almost to have something to work towards again.”

After sitting the final four games of the 2017-18 season, Johns missed all of 2018-19, which ended with Dallas’ Game 7 loss to eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis in the second round of the playoffs.

When training camp opened, general manager Jim Nill declared Johns still wasn’t ready to return and wouldn’t discuss it further. For Nill, it was about protecting a player who had been dealing for more than a year with issues bigger than getting back on the ice.

Post-traumatic headaches — the official explanation — were part of the mystery, and Nill said doctors couldn’t know for sure whether Johns’ history of concussions played a role. Ultimately, Nill said, the cause paled compared to the recovery.

“In the end, we’re just happy he’s back playing and feeling good,” Nill said. “He can feel good about himself and he looks like himself again.”

Johns was a top prospect for Chicago when Nill got him in a trade, with Patrick Sharp the headliner when the Blackhawks were dumping salary in 2015.

Late in the first season after the swap, Johns made his NHL debut and ended up playing all 13 playoff games. Dallas lost a Game 7 in the second round to St. Louis that year as well. Johns had to watch when it happened again three years later.

“It’s hell. It’s very simple,” Johns said. “A couple of guys stood back and watched us lose 7-0 to Minnesota. I know exactly what they were thinking sitting on the couch watching. It sucks watching.”

Captain Jamie Benn tried to be mindful of Johns being stuck on the periphery of the team for the daily routine, “pretty much rub elbows with them on my way out and they’re on their way in,” as Johns put it.

For Benn, it was diversions such as playing golf, and other ways to try to keep the focus off his teammate’s injury.

“I’m sure the amount of times were endless that he got asked how he’s doing,” Benn said. “When I talked to him, I didn’t really ask him. We all knew he wasn’t doing very good. So the last thing he wants to hear is, ‘How you doing?’”

Much better now, after a two-game conditioning assignment with the AHL’s Texas Stars before joining Dallas. Johns is still looking for his first point after averaging about 16 minutes in two games.

Interim coach Rick Bowness said Johns was too eager to show his physical style against the Lightning, leaving himself and the team in some bad positions after delivering hits.

“We’ve got to give the kid a chance to play,” Bowness said. “We knew this going in that he’s going to be rusty and there’s going to be bad decisions and bad timing.”

Nill figures there’s plenty of time to work on the timing of a player who looked to be a key piece on the Dallas blue line before Miro Heiskanen emerged as a 19-year-old rising star as a rookie last season.

“I’m happy to see him around the dressing room, with his teammates, smile on his face, feeling good about himself,” Nill said. “We know he’s a good hockey player. He knows he brings a lot to this team. Now he can start working on that.”

Predators facing difficult road in playoff push

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Take a quick glance at the Nashville Predators’ spot in the Western Conference standings and it would be easy to conclude that they are in a lot of trouble when it comes to making the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday, they remain six points out of a playoff spot with four teams still ahead of them in the Wild Card race. Recent history suggests their chances of overcoming that deficit this late in the season would be very, very low (like under 20 percent low) because of how difficult it is to gain ground in the standings. Keep in mind that at this same point in the season last year the St. Louis Blues were only two points out of a playoff spot before going on their second half run to a championship. It’s just not something that’s easy to do.

The one thing the Predators have going for them is the fact they have more games remaining than any other team in the Western Conference, with multiple games in hand on every team they are chasing. That helps.

That is a point that forward Matt Duchene emphasized on Monday before their game against Toronto, while also talking about how he thinks the team as currently constructed can make up that gap without needing any outside help.

Via NHL.com:

“We love our group in here. I think everyone is happy with the talent we have, and it’s time to start playing the way we’re capable of. I don’t think we’re really missing anything in this room. We’re not looking at [the trade deadline] right now. We’re looking at the task at hand, and this is our group.”

“You look at us right now. You know it looks bad on paper, but with the games in hand we have, we have a great opportunity to put a little streak together here,” Duchene said.

He’s not wrong. The games in hand are a great opportunity for them, but it’s a little more complicated than just having some extra games remaining.

First, even if the Predators win all of those extra games they would still fall short of a playoff spot given their current pace. They would still need to make a couple of points somewhere else the rest of the way.

Here are the teams in the wild card race at the moment, as well as their current point paces.

They have two head-to-head games remaining against Arizona and Vegas. Winning those in regulation would be very important for the Predators’ chances.

Complicating matters even more is that the extra games in hand comes with a built-in drawback. They are playing more games in a shorter period of time, which means a condensed schedule, more back-to-backs, and less rest the rest of the way. As the folks at Predators blog On The Forecheck noted this week, the Predators have a league-high eight sets of back-to-backs remaining this season. In four of those back-to-backs, they will be playing a road game against a team that is rested, also tied for the most in the league. Those are not easy games to win.

Adding to all of that is the fact the Predators’ remaining opponents currently have a points percentage of .572, tied for the third-toughest remaining schedule in the league. They also play the majority of their games on the road.

It’s asking a lot to get through that and make up the necessary ground in the playoff race.

This remains a somewhat baffling team.

Their 5-on-5 performance has been mostly outstanding, and exactly what you would expect from a contending team with the roster that looks this good on paper. They control the pace of the game and have one of the league’s best 5-on-5 goal differentials. They take care of business when the game is even-strength.

It’s when the game turns into a special teams and goaltending matchup that they are unable to matchup with anyone.

The latter point — goaltending — has to be the big concern down the stretch. Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros both have sub-.900 save percentages on the team (both mostly hurt by their performance on the penalty kill) and given the tight schedule the rest of the way they are both going to have to play, and play a lot. Better performances from both — especially on the penalty kill — would solve a lot of the Predators’ perceived problems.

Trouble is, even if that happens the team has given itself such a big deficit to overcome, with an unforgiving schedule the rest of the way, that it is still going to take quite a run over the next few weeks to get back in this.

The door is still open, but it is closing fast.

More NHL coverage

NHL Power Rankings: Looking at top Stanley Cup Contenders
The 6 coaches and general managers that can impact NHL playoff race
The 10 players that can impact NHL playoff race

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.

Blues’ recipe for success hasn’t changed in quest for Cup repeat

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ST. LOUIS — There was one thing Craig Berube wanted to focus on during his first training camp leading the Blues. With his players going deep into June en route to winning the Stanley Cup, the head coach wanted to keep his practices short. After playing 108 games last season, he was aware of the effects of two extra months of hockey.

Instead of longer skates to shake out the summer rust, Berube and his staff kept them short, fast and intense.

Berube also did not place any special attention on hammering home one particular message: avoiding a Stanley Cup hangover. A short off-season that featured plenty of celebrating the franchise’s first championship wasn’t one of his major concerns.

“I don’t think we went into camp with that focus,” Berube told NBC Sports. “We went into camp with getting going again and getting the skating and working. I thought our guys came in great shape and I thought we had really good practices in training camp.”

Roster consistency — Patrick Maroon was the only face gone from the Cup-winning team when camp opened — was also a key that helped drive the Blues off to a strong start to the 2019-20 season. (Joel Edmundson exited week later in a trade that brought Justin Faulk to St. Louis.)

The players walked into that dressing room and saw the same faces that were on the ice that Gloria-ous night in Boston. The way the Blues put a forgettable first few months of last season behind them and started a run in January that ended with a title showed how the chemistry finally came together. Keeping the roster pretty much intact ensured little need to get across an understanding of what made them successful.

“That helps a lot. That really helps us get to our identity,” said forward Ryan O’Reilly. “We kind of know what our best game looks like. We know as individuals what guys can do. It’s easy to have the communication and talk to each other and make the adjustments when we need to and lean on each other in certain ways at those crucial times.”

The Blues entered the NHL All-Star Break with 30 wins in 49 games and the second-best record by points percentage (.643) in the league. Their biggest skid happened right off the bat with losses in five of their first eight game of the season — three of which came in overtime or the shootout. That was followed by a stretch of nine wins in 10 games, setting them on the right course to a first half of dominance in the Western Conference. Not to mention the success has come without the services of Vladimir Tarasenko, who played only 10 games and won’t return until April.

Stanley Cup champions can fall prey to a hangover as they begin their defense, but that didn’t hit the Blues for too long. The 29 points earned in their first 20 games is the third-best start for any defending champion since 2006-07. Only the 2008-09 Red Wings (32 points) and 2013-14 Blackhawks (29 points) had better starts.

Defending Stanley Cup champions in their first 20 games since 2006-07 NHL season.

“Over that whole process of last year, of starting with the low point and building our way back up, finding our identity, getting in the playoffs, keep building from there, we really found something in ourselves that we kind of knew how to turn on when we needed to,” said O’Reilly. “That carried over into this year where we know it’s not going to be the same thing. We’re going to have to do this thing a different way. It’s going to be tough because teams are gunning for us, but we just have to find a way to always keep reinventing ourselves — get to our identity, playing hard, build our game from there. We just really paid attention to the details when we needed to.”

The Blues have gone from being the hunter to the hunted now. Every team wants to beat the defending champs, especially their Central Division rivals who are looking to make up ground in the playoff race. Berube’s hammered home the fact that they have targets on their backs and complacency is not an option. They don’t want to waste such a good first half and they understand there’s still a lot of hockey left to play.

“We haven’t had any easy games. We really haven’t,” said Berube, who noted he’s not thinking beyond the regular season at all. “There’s been tough games, no matter who we play, it always a hard game. I think our guys have bought into that and they’re understanding that more and more as it goes along. We’ve got a long way to go yet, we’ve got a lot of hockey to play and we’re going to have to play good hockey. Everybody’s going to be fighting now. Everybody’s going to be dialed in, fighting for a playoff spot, positioning, all that. All these games coming down the stretch are going to be tough.”

The messages Berube delivers every day continue working. He took over a team in Nov. 2018 that was lacking confidence, something he pointed out in his opening press conference. Slowly the turn around began and the players bought in big time. It paid off, as we know, so it’s no surprise that the success has continued into this season. The plan was put in place long ago and no one has deviated it from it. That’s why the Blues are a serious threat to repeat.

“What worked for him last year works for him this year,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo. “That’s been pretty much the recipe for our entire group. We found something that works from the coaching staff all the way down and we’ve stuck with it.”

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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.

Penguins give Marcus Pettersson a 5-year, $20.1 million contract extension

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The Pittsburgh Penguins locked up a key piece of their defense on Tuesday by signing Marcus Pettersson to a five-year contract extension. The deal runs through the end of 2024-25 season and is worth a total of $20.1 million. That comes out to a salary cap hit of just a little more than $4 million per season.

This deal was a long-time coming for the Penguins after they wanted to sign him to a long-term deal this past summer when he was still a restricted free agent. But the team’s salary cap situation at the time prohibited that from happening, resulting in the one-year contract he is playing on this season.

As of Tuesday he has one goal and 15 total points in his first 50 games this season, while also posting strong possession numbers. It is a pretty fair deal for both sides and falls right in line with what a solid, second-pairing defenseman is worth. That is exactly what Pettersson has become for the Penguins.

The Penguins acquired him in the middle of the 2018-19 season in the trade that sent Daniel Sprong to the Anaheim Ducks.

Pettersson and standout rookie John Marino have helped bring mobility and puck-moving ability back to the Penguins’ blue line. That improvement has turned what was a pretty significant weakness a year ago into a real strength.

The Penguins now have a significant part of their defense signed to long-term deals, while Marino still has one more full season remaining on his entry-level contract. That would seem to make it increasingly unlikely that Justin Schultz, a pending unrestricted free agent this summer, will get re-signed.

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.