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.

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there Friday night.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design paid tribute to his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks.

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night.

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.