Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Alex Ovechkin scores again, Capitals beat Oilers to end skid

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WASHINGTON — With less than 2 minutes left and the Washington Capitals hoping to avoid blowing another third-period lead, Alex Ovechkin skated toward the net and, instead of shooting, passed the puck between his legs to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who knew it was coming.

“For sure I knew he’s going to pass,” Kuznetsov said.

After scoring again, Ovechkin’s most important contribution Monday night was a timely assist on Kuznetsov’s goal that allowed Washington to hold on and beat the Edmonton Oilers 5-4, snapping a four-game losing streak. It turned out to be the game-winner after Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored 45 seconds later, but the Capitals will take a hard-earned victory without several key players.

“I’m hoping that we’re going to build after this game for sure because that’s a pretty good team and I felt like even when we give up goal we was never giving up,” said Kuznetsov, who had two goals and two assists for his eighth career four-point game. “We were always positive on the bench, we always support each other because we missing a lot of guys, a lot of D guys, and they stepped up today.”

Ovechkin scored for a third consecutive game, beating Stuart Skinner on the power play in the second period and making him the 163rd different NHL goaltender he has scored against. It’s also the third game in a row he has scored on a new goalie after Detroit’s Ville Husso and Arizona’s Karel Vejmelka became Nos. 161 and 162.

Goal No. 788 of Ovechkin’s career put him 13 back of Gordie Howe for second on the career list and 106 shy of Wayne Gretzky’s record that long seemed unapproachable. Ovechkin has heated up recently with five goals and two assists during a six-game point streak.

“Ovi, Kuzy and (Conor Sheary) were really good offensively,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “I thought everybody played well, but you need your best players to be your best players.”

Capitals newcomer Dylan Strome had two goals and an assist in his latest showdown with former junior hockey teammate Connor McDavid, who was playing his 500th regular-season NHL game. He stole the puck from Oilers forward Warren Foegele and scored late in the first period, added a second on the power play early in the second and, with Washington skating 5-on-3, delivered a perfect cross-crease pass to Kuznetsov for his first goal of the season.

Defenseman Erik Gustafsson also had three points – all on the power play, where Washington went 4 for 5.

“Four power-play goals,” Edmonton’s Zach Hyman said. “Can’t win with that. Can’t win taking penalties.”

McDavid added to his league-leading goal total with his 13th of the season and Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored in the third period, but the Oilers could not pull off the comeback and extended their losing streak to three. Nugent Hopkins also scored a goal batting the puck out of the air in the first, and Skinner allowed five goals on 31 shots.

“It’s getting old, battling back,” said Draisaitl, who now leads the league with 17 assists. “It’s exhausting. It’s tiring. We just give up too many goals.”

Charlie Lindgren made 12 of his 25 saves in the third period of his fourth start with the Capitals, who were playing extremely short-handed with players adding up to almost $40 million in salary cap hits out of the lineup because of injury. Dmitry Orlov became the latest absence, joining defenseman John Carlson and forwards T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Connor Brown, Carl Hagelin and Beck Malenstyn.

“There’s a lot of grit, a lot of compete in this group,” Lindgren said. “As a goalie, you love to see it. It makes you play even harder. It’s a fun group. We’re all competing, we’re all battling hard and to beat a good team like that feels really good.”

Forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel made his Washington debut after being claimed off waivers Sunday from Toronto. Defenseman Lucas Johansen played his second NHL game and first of the season in place of Orlov. Aube-Kubel, who famously dropped and dented the Stanley Cup on the ice during Colorado’s championship celebration in June, delivered a big hit on Evander Kane in the first period of his first game with the Capitals.

“Usually he’s a little tougher on his skates than that,” Aube-Kubel joked. “I don’t know, maybe I surprised him.”

UP NEXT

Oilers: Make the second stop on their four-game Eastern Conference road trip Tuesday night at the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Capitals: Host Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night.

Crosby starts 18th season with a bang, Penguins top Coyotes 6-2

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PITTSBURGH — This is why Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang stayed in Pittsburgh. And why the Penguins wanted them back, Sidney Crosby most of all.

Yes, they’re well into their 30s. Yes, they have far fewer games in front of them than behind them. Yet when they’re healthy and they’re right, they remain potent playmakers on a team that believes its Stanley Cup window remains wide open.

The proof arrived during a dazzling if familiar sequence late in the second period of Pittsburgh’s 6-2 season-opening victory over Arizona on Thursday night.

Malkin won a faceoff in the Coyotes’ zone and dropped the puck to Letang at the point. Letang then fed Malkin along the goal line. Malkin passed to Crosby, whose shot on net was turned away.

No matter, the puck made its way to Malkin’s stick and he jammed it home, the exclamation point on a night that was both cathartic and a reminder of how much life the Penguins’ longtime core insists they have in their 30-something-year-old legs.

The longtime franchise cornerstones combined for two goals and four assists as they joined former New York Yankee stars Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada as the longest-tenured trio of teammates in major North American professional sports history.

Crosby began his 18th season by scoring his 518th career goal 1:22 into the first period, part of an early three-goal deluge in which the Penguins quickly seized control. Letang also had two assists while Malkin looked dominant at times now well over a year removed from knee surgery that limited his effectiveness at times last spring.

“Geno had Geno’s best game tonight, I thought,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said of Malkin. “He had the puck all night long.”

Jake Guentzel, Jason Zucker, Bryan Rust and Kasperi Kapanen also scored for Pittsburgh. Tristan Jarry, who was limited to just one appearance during the Penguins’ first-round playoff loss to the New York Rangers last spring, made 26 saves.

Nick Ritchie scored twice for the rebuilding Coyotes. Karel Vejmelka improved as the game wore on to stop 47 shots.

“The start we had, that’s what hurt us,” Arizona coach Andre Tourigny said. “We weren’t mentally engaged enough. We got better during the game, never quit, came back and worked hard. But (we) need to find a way to get out of the gate with more urgency mentally.”

Pittsburgh’s pregame ceremony was cathartic for the sellout crowd following a few tense days in early summer in which Letang and Malkin’s futures with the club were both unclear as free agency loomed. Letang ultimately opted to stick around on a six-year deal and Malkin followed suit shortly thereafter by agreeing to a four-year pact just hours before hitting the open market.

The signings sent a very clear message that new owners Fenway Sports Group – which purchased the club from Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle last fall – believes Pittsburgh remains a legitimate Stanley Cup threat.

It will take months if not years to know whether it was the right move, but the very early returns were promising.

Crosby needed all of 82 seconds to give the Penguins the lead, taking a pretty cross-ice backhand feed from Guentzel then ripping a shot over Vejmelka’s glove. It marked the first time in Crosby’s career he’s scored Pittsburgh’s first goal of the season.

“Took me a while (to do that),” Crosby said. “I don’t know. It’s nice to get a start like that and obviously get a win.”

Zucker, who dealt with various injuries last season, made it 2-0 less than 3 minutes later with by firing a one-timer from just above the right circle. Guentzel pushed the lead to three 5:12 into the first by flipping a shot into an empty net on the power play.

Tourigny believes his team is in a better place than it was a year ago, when the Coyotes finished with the NHL’s worst record. Maybe, but the Coyotes are likely facing another difficult year that includes playing 20 of their first 24 games on the road.

Arizona didn’t win a game during the preseason and looked overmatched for the first 25 minutes or so before Ritchie’s two power-play goals briefly gave the Penguins a scare.

“We fought pretty hard the last two periods,” Ritchie said. “It was definitely better. We obviously have some work to do.”

NOTES: Arizona rookie F Dylan Guenther, the club’s 2021 first-round pick, was a healthy scratch after making the team as a 19-year-old. … Pittsburgh went 2 for 6 on the power play. The Coyotes were 2 for 5 with the man advantage.

UP NEXT

Coyotes: Continue a season-opening six-game trip in Boston on Saturday.

Penguins: Welcome Tampa Bay on Saturday night.

Report: Nathan MacKinnon signs 8-year deal, highest paid in NHL

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DENVER — The Colorado Avalanche are making Nathan MacKinnon the highest-paid player in the NHL’s salary cap era.

MacKinnon, who just turned 27 earlier this month, signed an eight-year contract worth $100.8 million, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms of the contract.

His new $12.6 million salary cap hit that goes into effect at the start of the 2023-24 season surpasses Connor McDavid‘s $12.5 million as the highest in the league. McDavid’s $100 million, eight-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers signed in 2017 was the previous record for the highest annual cap hit since the system went into place in 2005.

“Obviously it’s really cool, for sure,” MacKinnon said of being the highest-paid player in hockey. “Hoping there’s no more pandemics and the cap goes up even more, but, yeah, I think the term was the most important thing. I just wanted to be here for the rest of my career and hopefully I get another deal after this, too.”

The only richer deals than MacKinnon’s in NHL history are Alex Ovechkin‘s $124 million, 13-year contract with Washington, Shea Weber‘s $110 million, 14-year contract with Nashville and Sidney Crosby‘s $104.4 million, 12-year contract with Pittsburgh. The collective bargaining agreement has since limited contract lengths to eight years for a players re-signing with his own team and seven for free agents.

MacKinnon agreed to the deal with training camp about to start. It’s been a short offseason for MacKinnon and the Avalanche after they captured their first Stanley Cup title since 2001.

“We’re just thrilled that it’s done before the start of training camp, and Nate can focus on hockey,” general manager Chris MacFarland said. “What he does for us is really important, and to have him locked up for nine years is really crucial to the short- and long-term planning for us. It’s a big day.”

The hard-shooting, fast-skating center tied for the league lead with 13 postseason goals. It was second-highest in a single playoff run in franchise history, trailing only Hall of Famer Joe Sakic’s 18 goals in 1996 (when Colorado won its first Cup).

“It shows a lot of loyalty,” said Sakic, now Colorado’s president of hockey operations. “Nathan wanted to get this done, we wanted to get it done and he’s a franchise player and we’re really excited that he’ll remain here in Colorado for the rest of his career.”

MacKinnon, the top overall pick in the 2013 draft, has been a finalist for the Hart Trophy in three of the last five seasons (’17-18, `18-19, ’20-21). He has 242 career goals and 406 assists – the most of anyone from his draft class.

The native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the youngest player in franchise history to make his NHL debut (18 years, 31 days) and went on to win the Calder Trophy that season as the league’s top rookie. He also won the Lady Byng Award for sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct in 2020. In addition, he’s been named a captain for the Central Division in the last three All-Star Games.

MacKinnon’s last contract, which expires after the upcoming season, was worth $44.1 million over seven years at a cap hit of $6.3 million. Only four players topped the 495 points he put up in the regular season since that deal went into effect, and his 83 in the playoffs are second-most in the NHL since then.

That’s why for years, MacKinnon was known as the most underpaid player in hockey – a title he really didn’t care for.

These days, he has another one: Stanley Cup champion.

He’s part of a core Avalanche group that also includes defenseman Cale Makar, forward Mikko Rantanen and captain Gabriel Landeskog.

MacKinnon is now signed through 2031. Colorado also has versatile forward Valeri Nichushkin signed through 2030, Landeskog through 2029 and Makar, the playoff MVP, through 2027. MacFarland’s task next summer is an extension with Rantanen.

“Denver’s the only place I want to be, for sure,” MacKinnon recently said in Henderson, Nevada, during a preseason player media tour.

McDavid considers being surpassed as the highest-paid player, “good for hockey, I guess, to keep raising the bar.”

“But ultimately the salary cap system’s a weird system where the more money you make, the less money someone else can make,” McDavid added. “It’s kind of a weird system that way. There’s always going to be give and take.”

Penguins, coach Mike Sullivan agree to 3-year extension

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PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan doesn’t believe coaches have a “shelf life.”

Apparently, neither do his bosses.

The Pittsburgh Penguins signed their two-time Stanley Cup-winning head coach to a contract extension that runs through the 2026-27 season, a pact that doubled as a vote of confidence in the club’s iconic core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and the fiery Sullivan’s ability to lead them.

Sullivan still had two years remaining on his current contract. Yet Fenway Sports Group, which purchased the Penguins from Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle last fall, saw enough to lock down the winningest coach in franchise history for the long term.

The 54-year-old Sullivan joined Pittsburgh in December 2015. If he reaches the end of his new deal, it means he’ll have spent more than a decade with the Penguins, a nearly unheard of tenure in the NHL.

Then again, Sullivan believes he’s in a nearly unheard-of situation.

“I think I had the luxury of inheriting a standard of excellence, a certain culture that has been developed in Pittsburgh,” Sullivan said. “I feel the need to be the custodian of that.”

Sullivan’s 297 regular-season wins are a franchise record. His 44-38 playoff mark includes Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017. The Massachusetts native is the only American-born coach with multiple Cups and he’s one of only two coaches in NHL history to win the Cup in each of his first two seasons with a team.

“He has clearly demonstrated what an effective leader he is,” said Fenway Sports Group owner John Henry. “And it’s evident how well players respond to his philosophy and work ethic night after night, month after month.”

Even if, on the surface, it looks like an odd marriage. Of styles anyway.

The grinder who spent a decade in the NHL willfully doing the dirty work others wouldn’t or couldn’t in order to cling to a roster spot leads a group of such preternatural ability it often leaves Sullivan shaking his impeccably coiffed head.

“I wish I could play the game the way that this group of players can play,” Sullivan said.

He couldn’t. Yet the center who mustered all of 54 goals in 11 seasons has found a way to connect with the generational talents that dot Pittsburgh’s roster. Asked to explain what’s allowed him to thrive in a position that is long on burnout and short on sustained success and Sullivan points not to Xs and Os but something deeper.

“I just believe in being honest and candid with our players,” he said. “I think an important aspect of what we do is building relationships … When relationships grow and develop over the course of time they should get stronger.”

Particularly during times of adversity, something that’s become familiar in recent years in Pittsburgh. The Penguins haven’t reached the second round of the playoffs since 2018 and saw a promising season come to an end under somewhat bizarre circumstances last spring in a seven-game loss to the New York Rangers in the opening round.

In the aftermath, the players to a man stressed the club’s championship window remained open, even with Crosby, Letang and Malkin all in their mid-30s. Management apparently agreed, signing Letang and Malkin to lengthy extensions in July. Now, they’ve followed suit by doing the same to the coach whose “play the right way” ethos doesn’t seem to have grown stale.

“It’s about selling the message,” Sullivan said. “It’s about making sure that whatever you’re trying to sell, they’ve got to buy in. They have to believe to their very core that this is the game plan that is going to give us the best chance of success.”

And success remains the standard for a team that’s reached the playoffs 16 straight years, the longest active streak in North American professional sports. Yet Sullivan is well aware the standard isn’t simply reaching the postseason, but staying awhile.

While he’s well aware of the advancing age of his superstars, he’s bullish on the future.

“I believe these guys can still play,” he said of Crosby, Letang and Malkin. “They’ve shown no signs of decline. I have the opportunity to watch these guys every day. I know the sacrifices they make.”

The past seven-plus years have given Sullivan an opportunity to watch those sacrifices up close. There have been tense moments. Difficult conversations. Tough decisions. Success can be fickle. Longevity perhaps even more so. The new contract won’t be worth much if the Penguins don’t win and win at a high level.

Bring it on.

“I just love what I do. I love being a part of it. I love being in the heat of the battle,” he said. “It’s part of my DNA I guess.”