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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.

Oilers risk flubbing another high-end draft pick

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Not that long ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets were ridiculed for selecting Pierre-Luc Dubois with the third pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, allowing Jesse Puljujarvi to fall to the Edmonton Oilers. You don’t have to dig too deep to realize that Jarmo Kekalainen made the right call, or at least appeared to make the right call so far.

While “PLD” settles in as Artemi Panarin‘s co-pilot (for now?) in Columbus, Puljujarvi was in street clothes on Thursday, as his Oilers run hit another low: he was a healthy scratch.

At 20, it’s too early to rubber-stamp the term “bust” for Puljujarvi. Even so, the bumpy, staccato rhythm of his development is frustrating to observe, and it sure seems like the Oilers are stumped.

“His development has to get going to where he has a positive influence on the game every night. And there is still some confusion in how that impact can come,” Todd McLellan said, via Sportsnet’s Mark Spector.

“It’s not always goals and assists — as we’ve seen, there haven’t been many of those. But there are other areas of the game that are important.”

Out of context, this is understandable enough. Objectively speaking, Puljujarvi play isn’t lighting up scoreboards, with just one goal in seven games so far this season, and just 29 points in 100 career games. So, some of this is on the player.

Still, the Oilers aren’t exactly known for making optimal decisions beyond “drafting and extending Connor McDavid,” and it’s becoming increasingly plausible that they’ve squandered another high-end draft resource.

As a reminder, the Oilers drafted Nail Yakupov with the first overall pick of the admittedly cloudy 2012 NHL Draft, only getting four seasons out of the winger before trading him for a meager return. Yakupov now finds himself in the KHL, yet you can’t help but wonder: how much of his struggles fall on poor development in Edmonton?

At minimum, the Oilers have had a tendency to burn through rookie contracts, often with reckless abandon.

Puljujarvi might be the poster child for that problem. He played 28 ineffectual games with the Oilers as a rookie in 2016-17, but also spent plenty of time in the AHL. Puljujarvi also spent a portion of last season in the AHL, although 2017-18 could be seen as his most promising stretch, with 20 points in 68 NHL games.

Again, he’s not alone in seemingly suffering from rushed development. It’s too the point where it’s honestly refreshing when the Oilers show some restraint, like they did with solid-enough defenseman Darnell Nurse.

While Puljujarvi has accrued quite a few games with the big club (it’s somewhat fitting that he was scratched after his 100th NHL game), his linemates have been erratic and it’s not as though he’s been giving many full-fledged opportunities to sink or swim. He averages just 12:43 TOI per game during his NHL career, and his 2018-19 averaged is actually a bit lower at 12:28 per contest.

You don’t really need to burrow through cryptic quotes to wonder if McLellan doesn’t trust Puljujarvi. Looking at the Finn’s lack of opportunities – rarely has he skated with Connor McDavid, and he hasn’t even gotten many chances with Leon Draisaitl – and you can see that the confidence isn’t there. At best, it isn’t there yet. It’s frightening, but reasonable, to wonder if it will ever come as long as McLellan’s behind the bench.

Perhaps that’s why people are discussing some drastic measures.

On TSN’s Insider Trading, Darren Dreger said he believes that things aren’t necessarily coming to a head yet, although he didn’t dismiss the discussion as outrageous altogether.

Citing Puljujarvi’s struggles and the less-than-ideal circumstances (low ice time, irregular linemates), The Athletic’s Allan “Lowetide” Mitchell wonders if the winger would be better served being a big fish in a small pond back down at the AHL level (sub required).

The organization has handled this player poorly. Puljujarvi has far too much skill to give up on, or trade for 10 cents on the dollar. His game has been broken. It might be time to repair and rebuild in Bakersfield. This time next year the Oilers won’t be able to send him to the AHL without waivers. For Oilers fans, the blame game (player, coach, general manager) is less important than unlocking Puljujarvi’s considerable talent while he is an Edmonton Oilers winger. What is best for his development should be the only consideration.

Edmonton holds a lot of sway in how this situation works out, one way or another.

Consider some of the other factors at hand:

  • This team desperately wants to make the playoffs, and the jobs of the coach/GM likely hinge on doing so. Such thoughts complicate the urge to test out a “project” in Puljujarvi.
  • Trading a high-end pick so soon after drafting one is often a recipe for disaster, but that would be especially uncomfortable in this case. Most importantly, Puljujarvi’s stock is at a dramatic low after being a healthy scratch. You also can’t ignore the likelihood that GM Peter Chiarelli fears losing any trade at this point. That’s especially true since he’s been comically bad at assessing future value (*cough* Tyler Seguin in particular *cough this is a really bad cough*).
  • The 20-year-old is in the middle of a contract year.

That’s actually where there could be some serious sunshine if the Oilers – against all odds – somehow get this right.

There’s a scenario where Edmonton signs Puljujarvi to a cheap extension to say “we still believe in you,” give him time to rehabilitate his game, and then he becomes a huge bargain for a franchise that sorely needs value. Imagine, for a second, the Oilers signing him to a Predators-style, forward-thinking contract, only to see him blossom as McDavid’s elusive right-winger?

(Stop laughing.)

***

Right now, this situation is both bad and befuddling. It would be shocking that things hit this low point, if it weren’t for this being a bumbling franchise like the Oilers.

A third NHL season is when people really start to get impatient with a prospect’s development, yet consider that the Oilers really haven’t given Puljujarvi two full seasons of opportunities. While many would grade him an “F” so far, a more appropriate mark is an “Incomplete.”

The Oilers are remedial when it comes to developing all but the most can’t-miss prospects, yet the good news is that they can still pass this test if they get it together. As frustrating as the process has been so far, it should be fascinating to see how this plays out.

For the rest of the NHL, it could also be an opportunity to scoop up a robust reclamation project, like the Penguins did with Justin Schultz.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Pens’ Justin Schultz out four months with fractured leg

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to be without Justin Schultz for a while.

Schultz underwent successful surgery on Sunday to repair a fracture in his lower left leg, according to the team. Schultz was injured on Saturday night in a game against the Montreal Canadiens after falling awkwardly on his leg.

He’s expected to miss four months, pegging his return in the middle of February at the earliest.

Fair warning: the video isn’t for the faint of heart.

Schultz had been producing at a point-per-game rate before getting injured, with four assists in Pittsburgh’s first four games. That was good for second on the team in terms of defensemen scoring behind Kris Letang while averaging over 17 minutes during his first three games.

It goes without saying, but it’s a big blow to the Penguins’ back end.

With Schultz out, the Penguins are going to be looking for players to step up, including his partner Jack Johnson, who signed a five-year deal with the club this summer. Johnson has yet to produce a point so far this season. Olli Maatta is also another candidate that needs to jumpstart his season in a hurry. Maatta has already been a healthy scratch this season, and like Johnson, has yet to put up a point.

The Penguins started the season with Maatta and Johnson together so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them give that a go again.

“We have capable NHL defensemen so I’m confident that we can put guys in that I know can help us win games,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s not an easy guy to replace. He’s a very good player and has been very good for us for a long time. So it’s a tough loss from our standpoint, but certainly we’ve got to be prepared with the guys that we have.”

The injury will also mean more time for rookie Juuso Riikola and Jamie Oleksiak, who could be paired together going forward. Both players have spent time in and out of the lineup early on. Riikola could stand to benefit most from Schultz’s absence, so there’s a big opportunity there for him to grab some extra minutes.

Schultz was the second man over the boards on the power play after Letang. Perhaps Riikola gets a look there as well.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Penguins’ Schultz leaves game after falling awkwardly on leg

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This one’s not for the faint of heart.

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz needed to be helped off the ice after getting hit by Montreal Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec.

It wasn’t the hit, per se, that caused the issue, but rather Schultz falling backward awkwardly with his ankle twisted underneath him.

The result wasn’t pretty.

Schultz had four assists in three games coming into Saturday’s action and is a fixture in the Pens’ top four on the blue line, logging 17:34 per game so far this year.

It goes without saying, but the loss of Schultz for any length of time would be a major blow to the Penguins.

UPDATE:


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Fantasy Hockey: 2018-19 bounce back candidates

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It happens every year. Fantasy hockey GMs draft a guy and expect a lot from him until he falls flat on his face. Oh the frustration. Well, the good news is that we’re here to tell you which of those players will bounce back in a big way in 2018-19.

Here’s the top bounce back candidates for the upcoming season:

Max Pacioretty – LW – Vegas Golden Knights

Pacioretty went into last season having scored at least 30 goals in each of his previous four seasons. Things went off the rails in a hurry in Montreal last season and it led to Pacioretty being traded to the Golden Knights. The incredible thing about Pacioretty’s production, is that it came without him ever having a top-end center. Paul Stastny isn’t necessarily a high-end center, but he’s better than anyone Pacioretty’s played with before. Don’t be surprised if the newest Golden Knight hits 35 this year.

Jonathan Drouin – C/LW – Montreal Canadiens

Drouin had an incredibly difficult first year with the Montreal Canadiens last season. Not only did he have to get used to a new team and new teammates, he also made the move from the wing to center. This preseason, the Canadiens moved him back to the wing and he looks a lot more comfortable. Don’t be surprised if the 23-year-old surpasses the 13 goals and 46 points he put up last year.

[More Fantasy: Pick up the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Ty Rattie – W – Edmonton Oilers

Rattie comes into this season having put up 19 points in 49 career games in the NHL, but he’s getting the opportunity to play with Connor McDavid this preseason. As you’d imagine, things have gone pretty well. He picked up seven points in his first two exhibition games, so if he sticks with McDavid, there could be some serious fantasy value appeal there.

Elias Lindholm – W – Calgary Flames

Lindholm has been pretty consistent over the last four years. He’s put up between 39 and 45 points with the Hurricanes since 2014-15. Now that he’s with the Flames, he’ll have more offensive talent around, which means there should be more opportunities to pick up points as the season progresses.

Brandon Saad – W – Chicago Blackhawks

Saad had an incredibly disappointing first year back in Chicago. The 25-year-old scored just 18 goals and 35 points after hitting at least 52 points during the previous three seasons. Saad could get an extended look with Patrick Kane to open the season, so the upside for him to hit the 30-goal mark, again, is definitely there.

[More Fantasy: Rotoworld’s DFS Toolkit]

Anthony Beauvillier – W – New York Islanders

Beauvillier ended up finishing last season with a respectable 21 goals and 36 points in 71 games, but he had his share of ups and downs. The Islanders even felt the need to send him back to the minors mid-season. With John Tavares no longer in New York, Mathew Barzal will need someone new to step up. Enter Beauvillier. The 21-year-old could be one of the big surprises of 2018-19.

Kyle Okposo – W – Buffalo Sabres

After reading everything he went through while dealing with a concussion, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Okposo and his family. Now that he’s healthy again, the 30-year-old could get back to surpassing the 20-goal and 50-point marks this season. The Sabres are young, but there’s no denying that they have talent.

Justin Schultz – D – Pittsburgh Penguins

Schultz posted a career-high 12 goals and 51 points two years ago, but those numbers dropped 27 points last season. Of course, he also missed 19 games due to injury. Expecting him to score 51 points again might be a little ambitious, but he should be able to improve last year’s numbers.

Carey Price – G – Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens probably won’t be a playoff team, but it’s hard to imagine that Price will be worse than he was last year. The 31-year-old had 16-26-7 record with a 3.11 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage. Yeah, it was a brutal year for him. His new eight-year extension that comes with a cap hit of $10.5 million kicks in this year, so the pressure will definitely be on. Price should be fine.

Matt Murray – G – Pittsburgh Penguins

Murray’s first year as the undisputed starting netminder in Pittsburgh didn’t go so well. He had a solid 27-16-3 record, but that had more to do with the fact that he was on a good team. He added a 2.92 goals-against-average and a .907 save percentage in 2017-18. Now that he’s gone through one year without Marc-Andre Fleury, he’ll be better equipped to handle a heavy workload.

MORE:
Sleepers, bargains for 2018-19
Goalies and other risky picks

 

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.