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Three questions facing Pittsburgh Penguins

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Three questions for you to ponder as we look ahead to the 2018-19 Pittsburgh Penguins…

1. Which Kris Letang will the Penguins get?

Perhaps one of the more disappointing developments for the Penguins in 2017-18 was the performance of top defenseman Kris Letang. His return to the lineup after missing most of the 2016-17 season (including all of the playoffs) was supposed to be a huge boost to a team that had won the previous two Stanley Cups.

When Letang is on top of his game he is one of the best, most versatile defenders in the entire league with his swift skating and ability to take over a game from the back end.

For whatever reason, he was not that player in 2017-18.

The Penguins — and Letang — knew there would be an adjustment period early in the season as he returned to the lineup from another significant injury, but he never really seemed to be comfortable at any point during the year as his performance was marred by inconsistency.

Overall, it was probably one of the worst single seasons of his NHL career.

[2017-18 review | Under Pressure: Johnson | Breakthrough: Oleksiak]

It should not happen again.

Despite his struggles there is reason to believe he will bounce back (great possession numbers, the fact he will be a full year removed from the injury that sidelined him, just getting a fresh start) and be closer to the player he’s been throughout most of his career. If he is able to do that it would be a massive swing for the Penguins’ defense because there are only a handful of defenders in the NHL capable of reaching the level that Letang does when he is at his best.

2. Will Matt Murray bounce back?

Almost no goalie in the NHL has had a start to their career like the one Matt Murray has had, winning two Stanley Cups while he was still technically considered a rookie.

After the Penguins traded Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights as part of the expansion draft process, Murray had his first chance to be the Penguins’ full-time starting goaltender from the start of the season.

It turned out to be a difficult season for him on and off the ice.

His .907 save percentage was one of the lowest marks in the NHL, while his year was interrupted by injury and the sudden passing of his father during the season.

His struggles carried over to the playoffs, where he had been money the previous two seasons as the Penguins were eliminated in the second round by the Washington Capitals.

Even though he’s been around for parts of three seasons now it’s important to remember that Murray is still only 24 years old and has played in fewer than 160 NHL games (including playoffs). In that limited time he has already compiled a pretty impressive resume that includes a pair of championships, and even with his down year in 2017-18, an overall save percentage of .918 in both regular season and playoffs combined. Among goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games during that stretch, that .918 save percentage is 10th in the league. Overall, the early performance is strong even if the sample size is still small.

Now he has to show that the 2017-18 season was the one that was the outlier.

3. Will Derick Brassard be worth the price the Penguins paid?

General manager Jim Rutherford made another blockbuster trade when he landed Derick Brassard from the Ottawa Senators in a massive three-team trade with the Ottawa Senators and Vegas Golden Knights. It resulted in the Penguins giving up a lot of assets, but Brassard was supposed to be the final piece in the Penguins’ quest for a three-peat.

It did not go exactly as planned.

While Brassard was, for the most part, fine for the Penguins, he did not really make the massive impact on the scoresheet that was expected when he was acquired. That resulted in him facing some heat for his performance and probably lowered expectations for him this season.

The crazy thing about all of it is that Brassard’s performance wasn’t as bad as it was perceived to be. Between the regular season and playoffs he recorded 12 points in 26 games (around a 40-point pace over 82 games) and helped create some great chances in the playoffs. He just did not finish or convert on most of them. While that can be frustrating for the team and fans it’s still better than not creating any chances, and it at least offers the hope that he can be even better this season.

There is always an adjustment period for a player joining a new team — especially mid-season — and you probably shouldn’t jump to too many conclusions if there is not an immediate impact.

Because of the conditions on the trade, the Penguins are only on the hook for a $3 million cap hit for Brassard this season, and with the the return of Riley Sheahan and the additions of Matt Cullen and Derek Grant in free agency the Penguins will enter the season with a ton of depth down the middle after their big-two of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That depth could result in Brassard getting some time on the wing on one of the top two lines, but his best value to the team is still probably going to be as the third center behind Crosby and Malkin with Sheahan in the fourth spot to help create the matchup problems that made the team so difficult to beat in the 2016 and 2017 playoffs.

Related: Will Sidney Crosby win another scoring title in his career?

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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.

‘Wild’ NHL playoffs move into next stage with final 16 teams

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Derek Stepan gave some words of advice to his Arizona Coyotes teammates not used to the bright lights of playoff hockey.

”It’s the best time of the year to be playing,” he said.

The time of year is different than usual, but the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs haven’t lost any of their luster or penchant for surprises.

After a qualifying round full of upsets, overtime heroics and comebacks, the traditional first round that starts Tuesday with 16 teams left is primed to feature even more entertainment and unpredictability.

”It’s wild,” said Barry Trotz, whose New York Islanders will next face the Washington Capitals he coached to the title in 2018.

”It’s made for TV, really. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew that there was going to be some strange things happen in this strange, unusual time and format. But it’s captivating.”

The Chicago Blackhawks that ranked 23rd out of 31 teams in the regular season are still playing, along with the Montreal Canadiens, who were 24th and not given much hope of moving on.

Chicago has a tough task against the Western Conference No. 1 seed Vegas, and Carey Price‘s Canadiens face the Philadelphia Flyers that earned top billing in the East by going 3-0 against Boston, Tampa Bay and Washington.

”It was a tall task to get that No. 1 seed and we did it,” Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. ”We came in here and have been strictly business. I think for us to go out there and get three big wins in a row and get that No. 1 seed is huge for us.”

In a very 2020 turn of events, the Bruins that won the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular-season team went winless since the restart and now must take on the Carolina Hurricanes that swept their way to this point. It’s a rematch of the 2019 East final but with Carolina looking more prepared for this showdown.

”They swept us last year, which definitely is going to be good opportunity for us to kind of give back what they gave us last year,” Hurricanes forward Nino Niederreiter said.

The Hurricanes, Islanders and Golden Knights look scary, the Lightning could be without top players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman for at least the start of their series, and the Bruins and Blues that met in last year’s Cup Final haven’t recaptured the dominance they showed until the season was halted in March and combined to go 0-6.

”It doesn’t matter what seed you’re in because you’ve got to beat every team anyways if you want to advance,” Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”It’s over now and start real hockey.”

Half of the remaining field has been playing real hockey for more than a week now. After knocking off the Nashville Predators, captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson said the Coyotes are ”up for the challenge” of taking on the Colorado Avalanche. The Canucks and Flames should also be feeling good after emotional series victories, though Vancouver must face an angry St. Louis bunch that blew leads in all three games.

”We’re not playing aggressive enough in my opinion,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”Getting the real thing going here will be important, for sure.”

It’s all best-of-seven until the Stanley Cup is handed out in late September or early October, though the prospect of playing in quarantined bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton could change the psychological dynamic of the playoffs.

”It’s one of those years it’s easier once you’re down to say, ‘Well, I do miss my kids, it’s not our year,”’ Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”You can sort of have that in the back of your mind and certainly some players are going to go through it, and that’s why I feel that maybe some series will be closed out quicker than previous years.”

Only one qualifying round series went to a deciding Game 5: Columbus-Toronto, which also featured two shutouts and each team erasing a 3-0 deficit and winning in overtime. Over nine days, 44 games showed why the league and NHL Players’ Association worked hard to resume the season, and that was just the start of summer hockey madness.

”I’m sure it’ll continue,” Flames coach Geoff Ward said. ”Everybody’s healthy and there’s been extreme parity, but all the teams are playing extremely, extremely hard and that makes for whoever you play a very tough out and a very tough opponent. And I think as these playoffs go on, you’re just going to see more of the same.”

NHL Draft Lottery: No. 1 pick to be awarded Monday night

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The No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft will be announced Monday night during Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream)

All eight teams that were eliminated in the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round are eligible and each have a 12.5% chance of winning the No. 1 pick. Rimouski forward Alexis Lafreniere is expected to be chosen with the first overall selection.

Phase 1 of the draft lottery was held in June and won by a team involved in the NHL’s Return to Play. That means that one of the Rangers, Predators, Panthers, Wild, Penguins, Jets, Oilers, or Maple Leafs will pick first when the draft is held Oct. 9-10, 2020.

According to the NHL, since the 1995 draft, no team has held the No. 1 pick finishing better than 26th in the standings.

Here’s a look at the order of the first 15 picks:

ROUND 1 ORDER
1. Placeholder team
2. Los Angeles Kings
3. Ottawa Senators (via San Jose)
4. Detroit Red Wings
5. Ottawa Senators
6. Anaheim Ducks
7. New Jersey Devils
8. Buffalo Sabres
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9. Placeholder team
10. Placeholder team
11. Placeholder team
12. Placeholder team
13. Placeholder team
14. Placeholder team
15. Placeholder team

The seven losing teams from the First Round who do not win the No. 1 pick will fill out spots 9-15 by reverse order of their regular season points percentages. The remaining 16 Round 1 draft picks will be determined by the results of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

WHAT: 2020 NHL Draft Lottery – Phase 2
WHEN: Monday, August 10, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the draft lottery stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

The prospects

Lafreniere will be the No. 1 pick. That’s been settled. After that? It could go a lot of different ways. Quinton Byfield (Sudbury – C- OHL), Tim Stutzle (Adler Mannheim – C/LW – DEL), Lucas Raymond (Frolunda – LW/C – SHL), Jamie Drysdale (Erie – D – OHL), Marco Rossi (Ottawa – C – OHL), Cole Perfetti (Saginaw – C – OHL), Jake Sanderson (D – USNTDP) are among the top prospects expected to be selected early.

Check out Ryan Wagman’s midseason mock draft to further educate yourself on these players.

MORE:
Top NHL Draft Lottery memories

Hockey Hall of Fame postpones 2020 induction

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The Hockey Hall of Fame has postponed its 2020 induction because of the pandemic. The ceremony was to have taken place Nov. 16 in Toronto.

The 2020 class was announced in June and featured forward Jarome Iginla, winger Marian Hossa, defensemen Kevin Lowe and Doug Wilson, Canadian women’s goaltender Kim St. Pierre and longtime general manager Ken Holland.

The Hall said Monday it will discuss rescheduling plans on Oct. 29. Chairman Lanny McDonald said the most likely scenario is to have the ceremony in November 2021, either by waiving the 2021 election or combining the 2020 and 2021 classes. He said a virtual induction ceremony was ruled out.

NHL reports second straight week of zero positive COVID-19 tests

nhl covid-19 tests
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For the second week in a row the NHL has announced that it had zero positive COVID-19 tests during the Phase 4 portion of its return to play.

The league resumed the 2019-20 season and playoffs in late July with 24 teams playing within two hub cities (Toronto and Edmonton).

Since the participating teams entered their respective bubbles on July 25 they have reported zero positive tests during that time.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The league announced on Monday that it conducted 7,245 tests between August 2 and August 8. Previously the league reported 43 positive tests during the Phase 2 portion of the return (small group workouts at team facilities) and two positive tests during the first week of Phase 3 (return to training camp). But since then the league has reported zero positive tests through the remainder of training camps and, to this point, during the return to play in the hub cities.

The NHL just completed the Qualifying Round and Round-Robin portion of its return to play and will begin the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday afternoon in Toronto and Edmonton.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.