Penguins sign goalie DeSmith to cheap, smart extension

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are guilty of their fair share of salary cap snafus (screams in horror at Jack Johnson‘s contract), but they’re among the NHL’s sharpest when it comes to handling their goalies.

Yes, Marc-Andre Fleury has been absolutely outstanding in Vegas, but there are many teams that saddle themselves with problem contracts.

Instead, the Penguins have found ways to carve out impressive flexibility at the position by being proactive.

While Matt Murray‘s struggled with injuries and the occasional bout of inconsistency, he’s only carrying a $3.75M cap hit through 2019-20, and Pittsburgh locked him up after his brilliant work in their 2015-16 championship run.

Now they’ve managed to land some cost certainty with Casey DeSmith, as the team announced a three-year extension that will carry a paltry $1.25M cap hit beginning next season.

“Since joining the Penguins’ organization, Casey has excelled for us at every level, first in Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and now here in Pittsburgh,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “We’re pleased to have him signed with our organization for the next three-and-a-half seasons.”

Rutherford isn’t wrong there.

Obviously, Smith’s NHL numbers jump out at you first. The 27-year-old is 12-7-4 with a splendid .924 save percentage this season, and he also has a .923 save percentage over 40 career NHL games. Sean Tierney’s visualization of Corsica’s Goals Saved Against Average numbers show that DeSmith’s been one of the more valuable netminders so far in 2018-19:

Now, sure, it’s likely that DeSmith will cool off from here, but the Penguins aren’t really making that large of an investment in him. This decision compares nicely to the Predators locking down Juuse Saros for three years at $1.5M a pop (Saros has the better pedigree; DeSmith’s having the better 2018-19).

And, as Rutherford mentioned, DeSmith’s had success at other levels.

Check his AHL and NCAA numbers and you’ll see that DeSmith’s enjoyed success in most other seasons. That might not sounds like much, but compare his work at other levels to, say, Scott Darling, who faced a bumpy road through the ECHL and other leagues before things took off for him starting in 2013-14.

It’s not that difficult to picture a scenario where DeSmith got a much richer deal if he waited, particularly if he was the guy who helped Pittsburgh make a big run.

Instead, the Penguins went low-risk, with some enticing potential rewards.

The best-case scenario is that DeSmith ends up being a legitimate difference-maker who can sport something close to a .920 save percentage at that bargain-basement price. The worst? Maybe DeSmith flops and the Penguins have to buy him out or bury his contract in the AHL, while possibly stunting the growth of Tristan Jarry and others.

Cutting in between, it’s quite possible that DeSmith could be a useful backup who might be able to provide relief if Murray struggles or gets hurt.

***

Looking at the Penguins’ salary structure at Cap Friendly, there are a lot of players above the age of 30 who are receiving a lot of money and sometimes-scary term. There are risks of the Penguins slipping into a Kings-like lull if too many players hit the wall.

Still, Murray and DeSmith will carry just a $5M cap hit next season, compared to $6M per year for 32-year-old Jonathan Quick.

Sure, it’s easier to herd cats than predict which goalies will excel in a given year, but all things considered, this is some masterful work by the Penguins.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Blackhawks on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins are one of the hottest teams in the league, with wins in eight straight games. They defeated the Winnipeg Jets 4-0 on Friday night in a 33-save shutout by Matt Murray. After struggling to start the year and missing time with an injury, Murray has now won seven in a row, matching the best stretch of his career.

Sidney Crosby is riding a six-game point streak (3G, 10A) and has 51 points (19G-32A) in 38 games this season, a 1.34 points per game clip. He hasn’t had a scoring rate that high in a full season since 2009-10 (1.35 ppg). He’ll skate in his 903rd career regular-season game as he closes in on Mario Lemieux’s franchise record (915 GP).

Kris Letang has also tallied a point in six straight games (3G, 6A) and is leading the team in time on ice per game during the winning streak (26:16).

Erik Gustafsson leads all Blackhawks defensemen with 23 points and eight goals, both of which are already career highs for the 26-year-old, who is in his third NHL season. Jeremy Colliton scratched Gustafsson on December 2, and since being benched, Gustafsson has responded with 12 points (4G, 8A) in 13 games.

Gustafsson has been on the top pair with Duncan Keith while Henri Jokiharju is at World Juniors. He has also been the primary point man on the power play unit.

“He’s got the world at his feet if he wants…we push him because we know he can do it,” said Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton. “At times, he does do it, as far as his gap and being aggressive to get pucks back, and being physical at times, and even better around his own net. He can do it. It’s not a question of ability. It’s a question of committing to it. So it’s an easy decision to try to hold him accountable, because he can give us so much.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Chicago Blackhawks at Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: PPG Paints Arena
When: Sunday, Jan. 6, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blackhawks-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsDominik Kahun
Artem AnisimovDylan StromePatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatDavid KampfBrendan Perlini
Chris KunitzMarcus KrugerDrake Caggiula

Duncan Keith – Erik Gustafsson
Gustav ForslingBrent Seabrook
Carl DahlstromConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Cam Ward

PENGUINS
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Bryan Rust
Dominik SimonEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist
Tanner PearsonDerick BrassardPhil Kessel
Riley SheahanMatt CullenZach Aston-Reese

Brian Dumoulin – Kris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJack Johnson
Olli MaattaJuuso Riikola

Starting goalie: Casey DeSmith

MORE: Kris Letang is playing the best hockey of his career

WATCH LIVE: Rangers host Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Both of these teams are headed in the right direction after rough stretches earlier this season. For Pittsburgh, a 1-7-2 mark from late October into November dropped its record to 7-8-4 and they sat last in the Metro. They’ve since turned things around and their current win streak has catapulted them into the top-3 in the division on the strength of both a strong offensive and defensive showing.

New York, meanwhile, and first-year head coach David Quinn, began the season 0-3-0 and lost 11 of 14 (3-6-5) since Thanksgiving before going on the road and winning its last two games at Nashville and St. Louis. The Rangers return home now, but only briefly as they are in the midst of a period that takes them on the road (see schedule below) after they ended 2018 with a majority of home games.

Pittsburgh’s “Big 3” is leading the way once again as Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin are the top three on the team in points. Crosby has 48 points (18G-30A) in 36 games this season, a 1.33 points per game clip. He hasn’t had a scoring rate that high in a full season since 2009-10 (1.35 ppg).

Perhaps the best story on the Rangers this season has been the play of Chris Kreider, who leads the team with 20 goals (2nd-best is Mika Zibanejad w/ 11). You’ll remember he missed 24 games last season with a blood clot. Kreider has an active 5-game point streak (5G-3A)

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: Wednesday, Jan. 2, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Penguins-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Bryan Rust
Dominik Simon – Evgeni Malkin – Patric Hornqvist
Tanner PearsonDerick Brassard – Phil Kessel
Zach Aston-ReeseMatt CullenRiley Sheahan

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJack Johnson
Olli MaattaJuuso Riikola

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

RANGERS
Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – Jesper Fast
Vladislav NamestnikovKevin HayesMats Zuccarello
Boo NievesBrett HowdenPavel Buchnevich
Cody McLeodRyan StromeFilip Chytil

Marc StaalNeal Pionk
Brady SkjeiAdam McQuaid
Fredrik ClaessonKevin Shattenkirk

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Penguins-Rangers from Madison Square Garden.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals, Penguins meet on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues as the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Washington Capitals on Wednesday Night Hockey with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This will mark the 48th regular-season matchup between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, with Crosby (21G, 45A – 66 points) outscoring Ovechkin (30G, 20A – 50 points) to lead Pittsburgh to a 28-17-2 record in the previous 47 contests (WSH: 19-21-7). They also have met 25 times in the playoffs, with Crosby (13G, 17A – 30 pts) and Ovechkin (15G, 18A – 33 pts) each averaging more than a point per game and Pittsburgh holding an advantage in their head-to-head games (13-12) and series (3-1).

The Penguins fell 4-2 to the Anaheim Ducks on Monday for their fifth loss in their last 10 games. Head coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t have a lot of patience left for their lackluster play.

“There needs to be a level of accountability and ultimately that falls on me,” he said. “Sometimes the biggest hammer a coach has is ice time, and there have been situations over the last little while where the coaching staff has utilized that. That’s not something this coaching staff likes to do. We want our guys to take ownership for their own expected games, and we want them to take ownership for the way this team is going to play.”

One example of this accountability was playing Guentzel just 3:40 in the second period on Monday. Given 8:36 on ice in the third period, Guentzel responded with several strong shifts and three shots.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Washington enters tonight as one of the hottest teams in the league, winners of five straight games and 12 of their last 14. They’ve also been lighting the lamp at a furious pace, scoring three or more goals in every game during that 12-2-0 stretch (4.29 goals per game).

Alex Ovechkin is riding a career-best 14-game point streak (17G, 6A), the longest active streak in the league. Ovechkin is on pace to score a career-high 74 goals this season. His current career best was 65 goals in 2007-08. The last person to score 74+ goals was fellow Russian Alexander Mogilny, who tallied 76 goals in 1992-93.

While Ovechkin has deservedly dominated headlines, Evgeny Kuznetsov is currently on an eight-game point streak (1G, 9A) and has also tallied at least one assist in all eight of those games.

[Related: Alex Ovechkin’s stunning numbers]

What: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Wednesday, Dec. 19, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Penguins-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Bryan Rust
Zach Aston-ReeseEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Tanner PearsonDerick BrassardPatric Hornqvist
Riley SheahanMatt Cullen – Garrett Wilson

Olli MaattaJamie Oleksiak
Marcus PetterssonJack Johnson
Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub Vrana – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Tom Wilson
Brett ConnollyLars EllerDevante Smith-Pelly
Dmitrij JaskinNic DowdTravis Boyd

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Jonas SiegenthalerMadison Bowey

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk, and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Pierre McGuire will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Kathryn Tappen hosts NHL Live ahead of Penguins-Capitals on Wednesday, alongside analysts Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and insider Darren Dreger.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.