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Penguins ready to welcome back Murray, but Letang’s status is in doubt

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to welcome back the one player that could significantly alter their 2018-19 season, and are also facing the possibility of being without the one player they may not be able to replace.

Matt Murray, the team’s regular starting goalie over the past two years, is expected to be back in the lineup on Saturday night for the first time since Nov. 17 when the team plays host to the Los Angeles Kings.

His return could potentially coincide with the loss of their top defenseman, Kris Letang.

Letang had to leave the Penguins’ 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins on Friday night with just under eight minutes to play in the third period after he found himself tangled up with Bruins forward Joakim Nordstrom and awkwardly fell to the ice. He struggled to make it back to the bench with an apparent leg injury, and then needed help getting down the tunnel from the team’s bench to the locker room.

When asked after the game if he had any update on Letang’s status, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan simply responded with “no” and gave no other details.

It is still not yet known what his status for Saturday’s game is, or if he will be sidelined for any length of time.

If he is, that would be brutal news for a Penguins team that is trying to play its way back into a solid playoff spot after an inconsistent start to the season. Letang has probably been their best, most irreplaceable player this season and has bounced back from a down 2017-18 season in massive way. He is playing more than 26 minutes per night at a Norris Trophy level. He already has 25 points in 30 games and fairly dominant numbers across the board, from his ability to generate shots, to his possession numbers, to the way he has played alongside his defense partner, Brian Dumoulin.

When asked about potentially losing Letang, Dumoulin said “Obviously it’s tough, we need that guy in the lineup.”

He is not wrong.

The Letang-Dumoulin duo has been one of the NHL’s best this season. During 5-on-5 play the Penguins are outscoring teams by a 28-14 margin when Letang and Dumoulin are on the ice, and controlling more than 57 percent of the total shot attempts and more than 58 percent of the scoring chances.

It is a night and day difference between them and their bottom-two pairings that are currently made up of Olli Maatta and Jamie Oleksiak on the second period, and Jack Johnson and Marcus Pettersson on the third. When Letang and Dumoulin are not on the ice together the Penguins’ goal differential drops to minus-1 while their shot attempt and scoring chance percentage all plunge to under 48 percent.

The common refrain from the Penguins on Friday night is that they have succeeded in Letang’s absence before, specifically during the 2016-17 season when they won the Stanley Cup with him missing the second half of the regular season and the entire postseason.

“We’ve done it before,” said Dumoulin. “We know we can do it. We’ve been carrying eight defensemen so far this year, everyone can play, everyone needs time and action and we want to just keep it simple as a defense corp if he is missing.”

“Because we think we have NHL defenseman,” said Sullivan when asked why he thinks the team would be able to succeed again if Letang has to miss time. “Juuso [Riikola] has played extremely well. Chad [Ruhwedel] is an NHL defenseman. He’s played for our team for a few years, he’s played in the playoffs, he’s won the Stanley Cup with us. These guys are NHL defensemen, and regardless of who is in our lineup we believe we have enough to win.”

Honestly, there is no other approach for the coaches and players to take. But looking at things objectively from an outside perspective it’s easy to see how that team was very fortunate to win without such an important player, and also how different this team is.

With Justin Schultz already sidelined (and he is still expected to miss a couple more months), the only defenders still left over from the 2017 Stanley Cup winning team are Maatta, Dumoulin, and Ruhwedel, the latter of which only appeared in six playoff games that year and has only been a role player this season.

This team also isn’t getting the same level of goaltending that 2017 received, and that was probably the biggest driving force behind that championship run.

Which brings us to the news of Murray’s likely return on Saturday.

Injuries and ineffectiveness have limited him to just 11 games this season and an .877 save percentage that is among the worst in the league. He was activated from injured reserve late in the week and backed up Casey DeSmith in the Penguins past two games, including for DeSmith’s 48-save performance on Friday night.

Overall DeSmith has done a fine job filling in, mixing in some spectacular saves and games with some rough patches as well. But if they are going to get back to the top of the NHL and compete for a championship again it is awfully hard to see them doing that without Murray playing some kind of a significant role in that.

Goaltending was one of the biggest factors in the Penguins’ early postseason exit a year ago (and some of their regular season struggles), and it’s played a role in their early struggles this season. Even if Murray and DeSmith end up splitting time they’re going to need strong performances from both no matter who is in the lineup on defense.

The position is going to take on even more importance if their top defender has to miss any extended time as they attempt to play their way out of their mediocre start.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Game 7 OT thrillers on NBCSN: Martinez sends Kings to 2014 Cup Final

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Hockey Week in America continues Sunday with Game 7 overtime thrillers.

In a back-and-forth affair, the Kings tied the Game 7 at four goals apiece in the third period to send the matchup into overtime. With a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line, Alec Martinez played hero for the Kings with the game-winner early in overtime, a role he would reprise in Game 5 of the Cup Final against the Rangers to clinch the title for the Kings.

Kenny Albert, Joe Micheletti, and Brian Engblom called the matchup from United Center in Chicago, Ill.

You can catch a replay Sunday on NBCSN at 12 a.m. ET.

SUNDAY NIGHT SCHEDULE
• Kings vs. Blackhawks (Game 7, Western Conference Final, 2014 playoffs) – 12 a.m. ET on NBCSN

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Week in America can be found here.

Game 7 OT thrillers on NBCSN: Goodrow clinches Sharks’ comeback

My Favorite Goal Goodrow's Game 7 OT winner Sharks Hertl
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Hockey Week in America continues Sunday with Game 7 overtime thrillers.

Vegas led the game 3-0 midway through the third period, before a major penalty that gave San Jose a five-minute power play. The Sharks scored four times on that power play to take a 4-3 lead, but Vegas evened the score in the final minute to force OT. In the overtime period, Barclay Goodrow scored the series-winning goal, helping the Sharks become the second team in NHL history, along with the 2013 Bruins, to overcome a three-goal deficit in the third period of a Game 7.

Gord Miller and Ray Ferraro called the action from SAP Center in San Jose, Calif.

You can catch a replay Sunday on NBCSN at 10 p.m. ET or watch the stream here.

SUNDAY NIGHT SCHEDULE
• Golden Knights vs. Sharks (Game 7, Round 1, 2019 playoffs) – 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN
• Kings vs. Blackhawks (Game 7, Western Conference Final, 2014 playoffs) – 12 a.m. ET on NBCSN

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Week in America can be found here.

Game 7 OT thrillers on NBCSN: Bruins pull off comeback vs. Maple Leafs

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Hockey Week in America continues Sunday with Game 7 overtime thrillers.

The Maple Leafs held a commanding 4-1 lead in Game 7 in Boston midway through the third period, before the Bruins stormed back to force OT, punctuated by a pair of goals with their goalie pulled. Patrice Bergeron scored the overtime winner for a 5-4 victory, which marked the first time in NHL history a team overcame a three-goal deficit in the final period of Game 7 to go on to win the game and the series.

The late, great Dave Strader and Brian Engblom had the call at TD Garden in Boston, Mass.

You can catch a replay Sunday on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET or watch the stream here.

SUNDAY NIGHT SCHEDULE
• Maple Leafs vs. Bruins (Game 7, Round 1, 2013 playoffs) – 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN
• Golden Knights vs. Sharks (Game 7, Round 1, 2019 playoffs) – 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN
• Kings vs. Blackhawks (Game 7, Western Conference Final, 2014 playoffs) – 12 a.m. ET on NBCSN

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Week in America can be found here.

What is Taylor Hall’s future with Coyotes?

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Arizona Coyotes general manager John Chayka said this weekend that he has continued to have some discussions with Dan Ferris, the agent for pending free agent forward Taylor Hall, but that they have not yet exchanged numbers in potential contract talks.

Instead, it has simply been a matter of trying to get their heads wrapped around the current situation — everything being on hold due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — and how it impacts both the Coyotes and Hall.

“It’s unique. I don’t have an answer for you other than to say, no, we haven’t exchanged numbers or anything like that,” said Chayka in a wide-ranging interview with the Athletic’s Craig Morgan.

“Obviously, our intent was always to get through the season and not having any conflict with Taylor’s play. This leaves us in a bit of a limbo where it’s obviously not technically the end of the season, but it also wouldn’t conflict with his play to talk. All I would say right now is that both sides are gathering information and having some discussions. Where that goes I’m not entirely sure today. As we talk, we’ll see where things go.”

The Hall-Coyotes storyline is going to be an interesting to watch unfold over the coming months because he could be one of the top players to hit the open market — whenever free agency actually begins — if he does not re-sign with the Coyotes.

The Coyotes acquired Hall from the New Jersey Devils in a mid-December trade. It was a fairly significant move at the time because Hall was the top in-season trade target in the league. He also gave the Coyotes the type of impact forward that they desperately needed to help drive their offense in an effort to make the playoffs.

While Hall has mostly met expectations (27 points in 35 games) things have not exactly worked out as the Coyotes hoped from a team perspective. When the 2019-20 NHL season went on hiatus they Coyotes were four points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference with several teams ahead of them. A big part of their tumble down the standings was injuries, specifically to their top two goalies (Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper).

The next step

In an ideal world the the Coyotes would almost certainly prefer to keep Hall. When healthy, he is an elite offensive player and the type of talent the franchise really has not had in more than a decade. He is an MVP winner, one of the most productive wingers in the world, and while he turns 29 next November he still probably has several outstanding years ahead of him as a top-line winger. They are not likely to find an upgrade or a better player anywhere else on the open market or as a realistic trade target.

There are, however, some obstacles.

The first of which is simply a matter of what Hall wants to do with his opportunity as a potential UFA. This will be the first time he has a chance to test the open market and probably his last chance to get a significant contract. Add in the fact he has played on just one playoff team in his career, and there has to be a lot of incentive to explore what is out there.

But there is another pretty big hurdle that may not get a lot of attention in this situation — the salary cap.

While the Coyotes salary situation tend to be a punch-line for people that don’t pay close attention to them, they actually have one of the largest salary cap numbers in the entire league right now, have some significant long-term investments, and do not have a lot of wiggle room under the cap in the near future. Considering that Hall is almost certain to be able to command something in the neighborhood of $8-9 million per season, there is going to be some extra work needed to make it all work.

MORE:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Arizona Coyotes
• Coyotes’ biggest surprises, disappointments so far
What is the Coyotes’ long-term outlook?

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.