Getty

Three questions facing Pittsburgh Penguins

4 Comments

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?

————

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.

Alexis Lafrenière tops list of NHL draft-eligible prospects

Leave a comment

Alexis Lafrenière, as expected, maintained the top spot in the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s final ranking of draft-eligible prospects released Wednesday.

What remains uncertain for the 18-year-old Rimouski Oceanic forward and hundreds of fellow prospects is learning when and by whom they will be selected.

Forward Quinton Byfield and defenseman Jamie Drysdale, both from the Toronto area, were ranked second and third among North American prospects. Forward Tim Stuetzle, the German professional league’s rookie of the year, was ranked as the top European prospect.

At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds,

the NHL scouting bureau’s list of draft-eligible prospects.

When play ended, he was leading the Quebec Major Junior League with 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games. He was the league’s rookie of the year in 2017-18, when he scored 42 goals – the most by a rookie since Sidney Crosby scored 54 in 2003-04.

Lafrenière would have the opportunity to become first Quebec-born player selected with the first pick since goalie Marc-Andre Fleury by Pittsburgh in 2003.

The NHL draft, scheduled to take place in Montreal in late June, has been postponed. So has the draft lottery to determine the top seedings and weeklong pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York. The draft can’t feasibly be held until the playoffs are completed or the entire season canceled.

That places the likelihood of the NHL holding the draft in September or as late as October.

And there is uncertainty over whether draft will go on as normal, with teams and fans gathering in an arena or instead closing the event to the public. That happened in the summer of 2005 when teams held the draft in a ballroom after the previous season was wiped out because of a lockout.

The postponements hit home for Lafrenière, who is from suburban Montreal and was looking forward to hearing his name announced at the Canadiens’ Bell Centre in June.

He took the news in stride last month,by saying: “For sure if the draft is online, it’s going to be different for us. But we’re still going to enjoy our time and still be happy there.”

Overall, Lafrenière has 114 goals and 183 assists for 297 points in 173 games. In January, he captained Canada’s gold-medal-winning team and earned MVP honors at the world junior championships.

In the past, the draft order among the 15 non-playoff teams was determined by lottery balls, with the team with the worst record receiving the best odds to win the top pick.

Though the season is incomplete, the Detroit Red Wings had already assured themselves of finishing 31st with a 17-49-5 record and 39 points, 23 behind Ottawa. Only six points separate Ottawa and Buffalo, which sits 25th.

Minnesota Wild: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

Leave a comment

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Minnesota Wild.

The timing of their general manager and coaching changes was strange

The Wild made changes at two of the most important positions in their organization by firing general manger Paul Fenton and replacing him with Bill Guerin, and then later firing head coach Bruce Boudreau to replace him with Dean Evason on an interim basis.

On their own a team making a coaching or general manager change is not that big of a shock. The shock in Minnesota was the timing behind each move.

Fenton was fired just before the start of the season, after just one year on the job, and after he had already been in charge of their draft and free agency period (including the signing of forward Mats Zuccarello). Everything about that timeline was strange, and capped off a bonkers one year on the job that saw some significant changes and roster moves that may not have always left the team in a better position. Still, the change was totally unexpected.

Anytime there is a general manager change there is an always assumption that a coaching change could also be on the horizon as the new GM looks to bring in their own person. Especially when it is a coach in the position Boudreau was in — with the team for several years but with the situation starting to trend in the wrong direction. The Wild had missed the playoffs a year ago and for most of the season were on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference. A change seemed inevitable, especially after a game earlier this season when the team was slumping and a lineup card mistake forced the Wild to play with a shorthanded roster.

The change eventually came, but it came during a stretch where the Wild were on an 8-3-1 run and starting to climb their way back into playoff contention.

The goaltending situation did not play out as expected

If the Wild were going to return to the playoffs this season it seemed as if that path was going to require a huge year from starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

Since arriving in Minnesota he has been one of the league’s most productive goalies and has been a big part of their success (and they have been successful) during his tenure. A big year from him could have masked a lot of flaws and been a game-changer.

They did eventually end up getting a game-changing performance from one of their goalies, but it was not Dubnyk.

It was Alex Stalock.

A backup for most of his career, the 32-year-old Stalock put together the best season of his NHL career and had a .910 save percentage at the time of the NHL’s season pause. He had been especially good through January, February, and March with an 11-5-2 record and a .918 save percentage.

On the opposite side of that, Dubnyk has struggled through one of the worst and most difficult seasons of his career, and certainly his most difficult one in Minnesota. Along with an overall down performance, Dubnyk was away from the team for a bit in November and December while his wife dealt with a medical issue.

He has been an outstanding core piece in Minnesota since the day he arrived, but the 2019-20 season ended up being a tough one for him in just about every possible way both on and off the ice.

Jason Zucker finally gets traded

The Wild had been close to trading him on multiple occasions over the past year (once to Calgary; once to Pittsburgh) only to have both trades fall apart at the last minute. But about a month before the trade deadline they finally moved him to the Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk, Cale Addison, and a first-round draft pick.

This is probably one that leaves Wild fans a little conflicted.

On one hand, Zucker was a really good player for the team and an incredible member of the Minnesota community. It is tough to see a player like that go, especially with the long drawn out process his involved (rumors, speculation, failed trades, etc.).

On the other hand, it is a pretty solid return for the Wild. Galchenyuk may not have much of a fit long-term, but Addison is an outstanding defense prospect and the first-round pick, even if it is a late one, gives them another chance at finding someone for the future.

Kevin Fiala‘s big year

This is the one trade that Fenton made a year ago that looks like it might actually work out in the Wild’s favor.

Just before the deadline a year ago he sent Mikael Granlund to the Nashville Predators for Fiala — a player he was obviously ver familiar with from his time in Nashville — and it has turned out to be a win for Minnesota. While Granlund has struggled to produce at the same level he did for the Wild, Fiala has been a great addition to the Minnesota lineup and was in the middle of a breakout year.

He already set a new career high in points (54) and matched his career high in goals (23) in only 64 games, while playing just 15 minutes per night.

Among the 531 players that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, Fiala’s 2.63 points per 60 minutes is 16th best in the NHL, putting him immediately between Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. In other words: He has been awesome.

MORE WILD:
Looking at the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild

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.

Florence Schelling becomes first woman GM of top-level men’s team

Leave a comment

SC Bern of Switzerland’s National League has named Florence Schelling as its new general manager. The appointment makes her the first woman in such a role in top-level men’s hockey.

“We were looking for a young, fresh, visionary and intelligent person,” SC Bern CEO Marc Luthi told Berner Zeitung. “We looked at what the Swiss market had to offer – and came to the conclusion that there was no proven sports director available who would suit us.”

“We came to the conclusion: Florence is the person we are looking for and want,” added Luthi. “Yes, Florence will be a pioneer, probably worldwide in her new role. But she’s young, fresh, she’ll bring a new perspective and break up existing structures.”

The 31-year-old Schelling, who previously coached Switzerland’s U18 women’s team, was one of the best goaltenders in the world during her career. After debuting internationally at 15 at the 2004 Women’s World Championship, she spent the next 14 years representing Switzerland. She helped the country earn bronze at the 2012 Women’s Worlds and the 2014 Olympics, where she was voted tournament MVP. Both tournaments also saw her named best goaltender.

Before excelling on the international stage, Schelling was a four-year starter at Northeastern University and a 2012 Patty Kazmaier Award finalist.

Bern were National League champions in 2019 but ended up ninth out of 12 teams this season. One of Schelling’s first duties after she begins next week is to find a new head coach.

“I was surprised like all of you when I received the call from Marc Luthi,” said Schelling, via IIHF.com. “We had a couple of discussions about working together and they were very positive. I knew immediately that I wanted to accept the challenge. My main goal is to do a good job and bring SC Bern back to the top.”

————

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: Bettman’s update on NHL’s potential return

Leave a comment

In this episode, Liam McHugh, Brian Boucher, and Patrick Sharp react to Gary Bettman’s interview with Mike Tirico from Tuesday afternoon. Bettman addressed the conference call he and other sports commissioners had over the weekend with President Trump, and also said “nothing has been ruled out” regarding a possible return to action. Plus, Boucher and Sharp remember playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time.

0:40-3:25 Boucher and Sharp give their first playoff memory
3:25-14:40 Mike Tirico interviews Gary Bettman
14:40-17:20 Most fair way to build 16-team playoff right now?
18:00-24:50 For or against playoff games at a neutral site?

[MORE: Unique NHL playoff format looking more likely]

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports