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Where they stand: Metropolitan Division

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As summer rolls on, PHT will examine the four NHL divisions and see how each individual team stands.

Previously: Atlantic Division

Carolina Hurricanes

Summer summary: If your main complaint about the Hurricanes was about the franchise getting too stagnant – considering that they’ve missed the playoffs since being swept from the 2009 Eastern Conference Final – then the team has you covered. Ron Francis is out as GM, making way for Don Waddell. Rod Brind’Amour replaced Bill Peters as head coach. And the team will look different on the ice, too.

It was quite the draft weekend for the Hurricanes. To start, they selected Andrei Svechnikov, a forward who might be the sort of true game-breaker they crave, with the second overall pick. While that was a no-brainer, they made waves the next day by sending Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm to Calgary for Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and prospect Adam Fox.

Cam Ward‘s finally gone, with Petr Mrazek coming in with the hopes of supporting Scott Darling after a disastrous first season as Carolina’s would-be No. 1 goalie. To avoid introducing too much change, Carolina maintained its status as analytics darlings by adding solid defenseman Calvin de Haan to an increasingly impressive group.

More to do?: The Hurricanes come into 2018-19 with a ton of cap space and an anxiousness to break the playoff drought, so you wonder if they might want to jump in, say, the Max Pacioretty sweepstakes.

Every indication – seriously, just about every indication – is that the Hurricanes will be on a tight budget, however, so there might not be many big moves brewing.

That said, perhaps Jeff Skinner gets traded? The talented skater is entering a contract year, and the Hurricanes might not want to cough up a new contract, so we’ll wait and see there.

Where they stand: In a familiar place, seemingly on the precipice of a breakthrough, yet also with serious questions about goaltending.

(The more things change, the more they stay the same, huh?)

The Hurricanes boast quite a bit of talent, but also a lot to prove, especially with a new coach and Hamilton stepping in as a prominent new defenseman. Will they fall short of the hype once again?

Columbus Blue Jackets

Summer summary: Generally speaking, the most prominent talk about changes in Columbus revolve around next summer.

Both Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin are entering contract years, and Panarin in particular seems to be a tough nut to crack. The Blue Jackets might feel the need to trade Panarin rather than seeing him walk for nothing (except cap space) in free agency. It’s a disquieting situation, as Panarin showed signs of being the difference-maker the Blue Jackets have lacked ever since they climbed into relevance.

Columbus did make some nice low-risk, medium-reward plays, though. Anthony Duclair is an interesting addition considering his bargain rate, and Riley Nash could be a savvy pickup, too.

More to do?: Again, sorting situations out with Panarin and “Bob” should keep the Blue Jackets very busy.

Not much has been made of this, but Cap Friendly pegs their space at about $5.63 million, and that’s with an overstuffed roster. If the Blue Jackets decide to just roll the dice in 2018-19 and then let the pieces fall how they may when it comes to Panarin, maybe they’d be wise to try to land an expiring contract? Skinner, Max Pacioretty, and Erik Karlsson all could conceivably push this team over the top.

The Blue Jackets could justify a vacation before things pick up, generally, as most of their concerns are more forward-thinking.

Where they stand: No doubt, it must be beyond frustrating for Columbus to see the Stanley Cup winner come out of their division for three seasons in a row, yet they still haven’t won a single playoff series as a franchise. Such frustrations clearly boiled over when Torts beefed about Jack Johnson‘s perceived slights while joining the hated Penguins.

New Jersey Devils

Summer summary: If you count Taylor Hall winning the 2018 Hart Trophy, this was a solid-enough summer for the Devils.

New Jersey deserves credit for restraint, more than anything else, this off-season. Sure, it would be great to continue adding key pieces, as they’ve done for multiple summers now. Still, plenty of franchises overreact to an unexpected postseason surge by making reckless, shortsighted investments.

Instead, the Devils allowed Michael Grabner, Patrick Maroon, and John Moore walk rather than possibly giving them problem contracts. GM Ray Shero clearly prefers maintaining flexibility for the moments when he might be able to land another asset in a winning trade. Can you blame him?

More to do?: Unless the Devils are lurking on another big deal, it’s mostly smaller stuff, like signing RFAs Miles Wood and Steve Santini. It might not hurt to start battering around potential extension offers with Will Butcher, though, as he’s on a deal that expires after 2018-19.

Where they stand: Hall provided a Herculean effort to get the Devils into a surprise spot in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. To make a repeat appearance, he’d almost certainly need to be as good or better this season.

New Jersey heads into this campaign as an underdog once again, yet there’s quite a bit to like about what the Devils are cooking. They still need some help behind Hall to really scare other teams, though.

New York Islanders

Summer summary: *Cough* oh dear, this is awkward.

So, the Islanders began the summer on a relatively strong note. They enjoyed one of the best weekends at the 2018 NHL Draft and brought in Lou Lamoriello as GM, who then hired a reigning Stanley Cup winning coach in Barry Trotz. Pretty, pretty good.

All of that crumbled, of course, when John Tavares decided to leave the Islanders for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Lamoriello responded to that rebuke by clogging up an already expensive bottom-of-the-order with a blah contract for Leo Komarov, a mediocre signing in Valtteri Filppula, and trading for Matt Martin. Yikes.

At least their moves in net might help stem the tide in that regard. Jaroslav Halak‘s turbulent era is over, as volatile (but occasionally brilliant) goalie Robin Lehner comes in to compete with Thomas Greiss and others.

More to do?: The Islanders need to think long and hard about trading some valuable players entering contract years rather than risking losing them altogether, or signing them to deals that could end up being a waste of money. (Sometimes it’s better just to commit to a rebuild instead of taking half-measures.)

Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson, and Anders Lee all see their current deals expire after 2018-19. Trading one or more of those useful forwards could give the Islanders’ rebuild another big boost.

Where they stand: Look, the dark times have outweighed the peaks for Islanders fans for decades now. Asking for patience won’t be the easiest sell.

That said, with a budding star in Mathew Barzal, the Islanders have a chance to – in a way – get the Tavares situation right this time. They merely need to look around their division to see teams that landed premium prospects in multiple drafts, made some smart moves on the periphery, and yes, enjoyed some good fortune to turn things around.

Finishing at or near the playoff bubble year after year did them very little good.

New York Rangers

Summer summary: Around trade deadline time, the Rangers embraced a rebuild much like the Islanders arguably should. They took another step in that direction by replacing polarizing head coach Alain Vigneault with David Quinn. The Rangers’ logic all seemed sound here.

Still, as an “it” destination for free agents, there might have been a temptation to, say, throw a bunch of money at Ilya Kovalchuk as the latest quick-fix.

(After all, the Rangers have been seduced by headline-grabbing moves essentially since Glen Sather started chewing cigars at MSG.)

Instead, they stood pat, and time will tell if they made the most of three first-rounders and six picks within the first three rounds.

More to do?: The Rangers still have plenty of work to do. Three RFAs still need contracts: promising defenseman Brady Skjei, plus forwards Ryan Spooner and Kevin Hayes. Even modest deals will eat into what’s currently a robust $19.18M in cap space.

More interesting questions loom around some other players. Would the Rangers consider shopping beloved winger Mats Zuccarello, who’s entering a contract year and might not want to stick around for a rebuild considering he’s already 30? Also, if Artemi Panarin favors a market like New York, would the Rangers be able to move closer to competing close to 2019-20? Management needs to answer questions like these.

Where they stand: This team seems fairly transparent about pivoting for at least one season. Credit management for seeing the writing on the wall, though 2018-19 could be painful to watch as a result.

It’s fascinating to wonder how Henrik Lundqvist truly feels about all of this, and how many times he’ll snare victory from the jaws of defeat (maybe to the Rangers’ short-term detriment).

Philadelphia Flyers

Summer summary: Spending $35M over five years is a bit pricey to be called a “mulligan,” but either way, the Flyers brought back James van Riemsdyk after getting hosed in the Luke Schenn trade. GM Ron Hextall’s M.O. mostly revolves around being patient and either trading away lousy deals or letting them evaporate with time, so it should be fascinating to see how an old-fashioned, big-money Flyers signing works out in a more … stable era.

The Flyers showed signs of breakthrough in pushing for the postseason, from Claude Giroux getting his game back on track, the rise of defensemen Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, Sean Couturier‘s ascent, and Nolan Patrick making some significant second-half strides.

More to do?: Somewhat like Columbus, the Flyers’ biggest concerns rest on what to do after 2018-19.

Wayne Simmonds is due a big raise, and it’s plausible that JVR is penciled in to be his replacement. Both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are entering contract years, so the Flyers’ perpetual goalie questions seem likely to continue. Ivan Provorov’s about to enter the final year of his rookie deal, too.

Clearing up those situations – eventually – will play a big role in Philly’s future.

Where they stand: The Flyers are already translating promise to tangible results. Hyped players like Provorov are producing as advertised.

So it seems like the Flyers have “good” more or less locked down. The next step ranks as one of the toughest mountains to climb in sports: going from good to great. There’s a solid chance that the Flyers can make that leap, but it won’t necessarily be easy.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Summer summary: After falling short of a three-peat, the Penguins made some interesting choices.

The key subtraction was Conor Sheary while it seemed like the team’s machinations went into landing Jack Johnson. By just about any metric (beyond “third pick of the 2005 NHL Draft” and “Sidney Crosby‘s friend”), Johnson isn’t particularly effective. The Penguins’ front office obviously believes otherwise, and their off-season basically comes down to exchanging Sheary, Matt Hunwick, and others for Johnson.

More to do?: Pittsburgh doesn’t have any free agents left to deal with, but there are some pressing issues after this coming season. The biggest wild card is that Jake Guentzel is scheduled to become an RFA after his rookie deal expires. What to pay a player with solid stats in the regular season, but most noticeably, generating an excellent 42 points in 37 playoff games? 

There are other smaller questions. There were also strange rumors about Phil Kessel being shopped (hot take: they probably shouldn’t do that). But, generally speaking, the big picture for Pittsburgh is the status quo.

Where they stand: The Penguins won the Stanley Cup twice in a row, then finished last season in the second round. Despite such an impressive run, Pittsburgh seems poised to contend once again, as they still have Crosby, Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Matt Murray.

There’s always concern about hitting a wall, though, particularly since the Penguins’ core players have so much mileage on them between deep postseason runs, international play, and in many cases a decade-plus of intense NHL play.

Crosby and Kessel are 30; Malkin and Letang are both 31. The Penguins’ window should still be open, probably for a while. Even so, fates can turn on a dime in sports. There’s always the chance that this talented group slips.

Washington Capitals

Summer summary: The summer … you mean, one long hangover for the Capitals? After years of frustration, Alex Ovechkin & Co. won it all after it seemed like the best opportunities went out the window. Repeating won’t be easy, but it’s probably the No. 1 problem the Caps always wanted to have.

The Capitals saw some losses, though smaller than you might expect from a team that just won the Stanley Cup. Jay Beagle was well-liked, but ranks as an expendable “energy guy,” while Brooks Orpik left and then returned. The toughest loss is Philipp Grubauer, an excellent backup receiving his chance to transition into a top guy with Colorado. If Braden Holtby stumbles in the regular season again, the Capitals’ grip on the Metro crown may finally loosen.

Overall, Washington did a nice job keeping players at a reasonable clip, including somewhat unexpectedly managing to retain John Carlson‘s services. Rather than falling into the trap of giving playoff heroes way too much money, the Caps generally leveraged the “we just won” factor to sign Michal Kempny and Devante Smith-Pelly to perfectly reasonable contracts.

Of course, the biggest change of all ranks as quite unusual. You don’t see coaches leave teams they won Stanley Cups with very often (Mike Keenan comes to mind; Jimmy Johnson in the NFL), yet that is exactly what happened with Barry Trotz. Todd Reirden faces the tough task of attempting to repeat as a rookie head coach.

More to do?: Tom Wilson remains an RFA without a salary arbitration date, which could make contract negotiations tricky. Aside from Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana, the Capitals don’t really have many tough contract situations to sort out in the near future, either.

Interestingly, Washington might actually be in a halfway-decent spot to try to land a premium rental. While Wilson will eat up a significant chunk of the available space, Cap Friendly puts Washington’s room at about $6.27M right now.

Where they stand: They’re the defending champions and they didn’t lose a major piece of their roster. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why the Capitals won: they have two fantastic centers, the world’s most lethal sniper, a reliably excellent goalie, and some other very nice supporting cast members to buoy their chances.

Like their BFFs in Pittsburgh, there’s concern about the aging curve, though both teams are more likely to worry about tougher days on the horizon rather than next season.

Still, it’s worth noting that Ovechkin is 32, Nicklas Backstrom is 30, and T.J. Oshie is somehow 31. They aren’t ancient by any stretch, but some players hit the wall sooner – and harder – than others.

Considering the victory parade that may stretch (unofficially) through the regular season, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Capitals see a slight dip through the dog days of 2018-19. It’s most likely that they’ll place themselves in a strong position to defend their title once the games start to matter quite a bit more.

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.

Penguins’ big defense spending continues with Oleksiak

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Perhaps it’s fitting that the Pittsburgh Penguins put a bow on big defense spending by re-signing Jamie Oleksiak, one of the largest humans you’ll see roaming a blueline.

The team announced that they signed the 25-year-old to a three-year contract that will carry a $2,137,500 cap hit. He’s generally listed at 6-foot-7, which is just a couple inches shorter than Zdeno Chara.

(It only seems fair that he was frequently called upon to drop the mitts once he arrived from Dallas then, right?)

In a vacuum, it’s an inoffensive contract, although some will grimace a bit at giving three years to a potential depth defenseman. Your overall opinion of the big blueliner will vary depending upon how you value what he brings to the table. His size is valued by many, and he didn’t take on too much water from a possession standpoint.

There’s little denying that he enjoyed something of a career rejuvenation in Pittsburgh, echoing Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz, even though his gritty style makes him quite different from those fleet-footed defensemen. After averaging just 15 minutes per game with the Stars, Oleksiak’s ice time shot up to an average of 17:24 in 41 contests with Pittsburgh.

That ice time plummeted during the postseason, as he only logged an average of 13:43 per contest.

We’ve seen teams get burned by handing an extension to a defenseman who thrived during a brief audition, such as Brendan Smith‘s disastrous turn with the Rangers, although the Penguins didn’t shell out as large of a cap hit here.

The larger concern might be that the Penguins could be guilty of a mistake a lot of contenders fall victim of: locking up a lot of depth players when it might be wiser to allow more room to scour the market for cheaper options in the bottom of the order. On the other hand, maybe Oleksiak will end up being another successful reclamation project in Pittsburgh?

Either way, the Penguins are locked in with quite a few defensemen, so substantial commitments abound.

It’s a pricey group, too. Via Cap Friendly’s estimates, the Penguins are spending almost $27M on seven defensemen: Oleksiak, Schultz, Kris Letang, Jack Johnson, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, and Chad Ruhwedel.

For some, that’s the price of doing business for a team not far removed from back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.

Others will blanche at the thought that, at times, the Penguins overcome this group, rather than being propped up by it. Those critics surely won’t be over the moon about some of their recent commitments, especially oft-criticized Jack Johnson carrying a $3.25M cap hit mere months after the Blue Jackets couldn’t give him away during the trade deadline.

There are some red flags going on with that unit, and maybe the Oleksiak signing will be looked upon as a mistake.

Ultimately, it’s not the sort of decision that will derail the Penguins’ hopes for contending now and in the future. The worry, though, is that the mistakes might start to really pile up for the Pens. After all, flexibility can be crucial in the modern NHL, and GM Jim Rutherford risks painting himself into a corner.

(Then again, the Blackhawks reminded us today that you can often foist your cap problems on other teams, so maybe none of this is all that big of a concern?)

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.

Tavares and beyond: five years of possible free agents

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While NHL fans get to brag about the unpredictability of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, NBA fans score a decided advantage when it comes to off-the-court/ice sizzle.

More often than not, hockey fans can only imagine seismic shifts like LeBron James’ latest “decision.”

(One bold exception is the profoundly dysfunctional Ottawa Senators, who provided us with hockey’s answer to the strange Bryan Colangelo burner account scandal by way of that drama between the significant others of Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman.)

So, like the Toronto Raptors watching Lebron mercilessly crush their playoff dreams, hockey fans grow accustomed to seeing fun spending sprees fizzle away. Could it happen again with John Tavares?

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Tavares and his representatives are “focused” on negotiating with the New York Islanders right now. Pierre LeBrun was also involved in that segment, and rained on our speculative parades even more:

Allow a simple response to the Tavares sweepstakes possibly ending before it truly begins: boo. Boo to that.

Now, sure, there’s the chance that business picks up in July. Maybe sooner. Still, reports like those above remain discouraging for those of us who want to grab the popcorn.

[Which teams would benefit the most from potential buyouts?]

It actually inspires a fun activity: let’s go over the next few years and ponder some of the big names who could auction off their services.

Naturally, because hockey, this list factors in the sad, cruel likelihood that the biggest names will bow out, so there are consolation prizes. Also, this list focuses mainly on would-be UFAs, as RFAs hold very little leverage (thanks, CBA).

This summer (2018)

Biggest fish who might not make it: Tavares

Would begging help?

/kneels

The fascinating Ilya Kovalchuk talk is a helpful reminder of how rare it is for an impact NHL player to explore free agency. At 27, Tavares figures to be exactly that. Despite all the turbulence surrounding the Islanders, Tavares generated 84 points in 82 games during 2017-18, the second-best output of his career.

He’s also put to rest any real worries about some of the freak injuries he suffered. Tavares played 82 games twice in the last four seasons, only missing nine games since 2014-15.

Tavares hitting the market wouldn’t just change the fate of a team. If he landed in the right direction, it could create a new contender. You simply don’t see a franchise center become available often; this would be as close as the NHL gets to a Lebron-type seismic shift.

Which means he’ll probably kill all the drama with an extension soon. *Grumble*

Big name with a better chance to actually hit the market: John Carlson

Before more grumbling commences, there’s this:

There’s evidence that Carlson struggles at time in his own end, particularly stretching back to before this past season. After a dazzling 68 points and a Stanley Cup victory, someone’s paying up, and it should be fun to witness that situation develop. You just do not see defensemen of his ilk hit it big very often, either.

Now that you mention it, hopefully a risky Carlson deal doesn’t scare off teams from next year’s incredible crop.

Some other notables: Joe Thornton, James Neal, James van Riemsdyk, David Perron, and Paul Stastny.

[Six players who should stay put this summer, six who should move]

Next summer (2019)

Biggest possible names: Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty

For some, Karlsson is the top draw (myself included). Old-school types might claim that Karlsson “can’t play defense,” even after he managed to drag a mediocre Senators team to within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (yes, that was only a year ago). For those types – who also probably believe that Alex Ovechkin “just figured things out this year” – then Doughty is the jewel.

The truth is that both are really, really good.

They also both carry some mileage into their next deals after being remarkable bargains, as they’re both 28 and log big minutes. There’s a strong chance that Doughty might just re-sign with Los Angeles, possibly as soon as this summer, and the same could be true regarding Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the Coyotes. (Preemptive boo.)

Now, Ryan Ellis and the Predators? That could be fascinating.

These guys won’t become UFAs … right?: Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Tyler Seguin.

Buckle up, Blue Jackets fans.

Other interesting possibilities

  • Marc-Andre Fleury: He could finish his career with Vegas, but this past season could really drive up his asking price, and his age (already 33) could scare the Golden Knights off.
  • Pekka Rinne: By this time, you’d think Juuse Saros would be ready to carry the torch in Nashville.
  • Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski: Two Sharks centers with intriguing futures. Pavelski, in particular, could age out (turns 34 on July 11).
  • Matt Duchene: With the mess Ottawa’s in, who knows? Duchene leaving would really make a bumpy trade look even worse. Yikes.
  • Blake Wheeler: Winnipeg’s going to need to pay Patrik Laine, Connor Hellebuyck, and Kyle Connor. Could an under-the-radar star get squeezed out in the process?

Summer of 2020

Biggest fish to land: Avoiding a lockout or limiting the damage.

*sigh*

Interesting possibilities

  • Roman Josi: David Poile is responsible for some salary cap wizardry, yet at some point, the Predators are going to need to make some choices.
  • Nicklas Backstrom: Already at 30, and with Braden Holtby also slated for possible free agency during the summer of 2020 (let’s assume Holtby re-signs), it remains to be seen if Washington can/will retain the Swedish center. He deserves an upgrade from that $6.7 million cap hit, one way or another.
  • Corey Crawford: Currently at 33 and the Blackhawks remain in a perpetual cap crunch. Hmm.
  • Holtby: Just in case the Capitals try to save money in net.
  • Tyson Barrie and Torey Krug: Two explosive scoring defensemen who are a bit underrated. Krug, in particular, might be tough for the Bruins to retain. Justin Faulk deserves a mention, too, although his situation could be very different in mere weeks for all we know.
  • Alex Galchenyuk: Will his inevitable split from Montreal happen before free agency 2020?

Even more aimless speculation in later years …

Summer 2021

Aging stars: Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, Dustin Byfuglien.

Intriguing prime-age names: Dougie Hamilton, Jaden Schwartz, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Devan Dubnyk.

Summer 2022

Last chances at big deals? Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, P.K. Subban, Claude Giroux, Kris Letang, Patrice Bergeron.

Intriguing prime-age names: Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Aleksander Barkov, Seth Jones.

***

Interesting stuff, right?

Of course, many of those players are likely to sign extensions, in most cases with their current teams. The same could be said for players who get traded to new teams. Some of the older guys might just retire. Restricted free agents may also add some spice to summers.

There’s even a chance that a new CBA could open the door for more movement in the future.

Looking at the lists above, it’s easy to envision fun scenarios, even if recent hockey history suggests blander solutions. Then again, re-signing players like these could force other important players to get traded, so team-building nerds should have something to chew on even if free agency isn’t as fun in reality as it can be in our heads.

Cap Friendly was an excellent resource for this post. Their tools can help you go on your own dorky hockey adventures, possibly unearthing more interesting names. (You’d need to wait until the summer of 2023 to get excited about Nathan MacKinnon, though.)

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.

Penguins should bet on a Kris Letang rebound

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The relationship between Kris Letang and Pittsburgh Penguins fans. Sometimes it’s complicated.

For more than a decade Letang has been a No. 1 defenseman for the Penguins, and for many of those years he has been a top-10, and at times maybe even a top-five, player in the league at his position. But there’s always been a sense (at least from this perspective) that he has never really been fully appreciated for just how good he has been, and the criticisms are always the same.

Turns the puck over too much.

Not good in his own end and takes too many chances.

Makes too much money.

Gets hurt too much.

There is an element of truth to some of that, but it doesn’t mean what his harshest critics think it means. Yes, he is guilty of turnovers at times. But so is every high-level player that plays a lot of minutes and always has the puck on their stick. Take a look at the NHL’s leaders in giveaways at the end of any season. It is a list of All-Stars. He does take some chances and at times gambles, whether it be pinching in the offensive zone or trying to make a play out of his own zone. But that is also a part of what makes him the dynamic player that he is. He is capable of doing things and making plays due to his skating and skill that other players not only can not make, but probably can not even attempt.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

It basically comes down to this: He is going to make some mistakes, but as long as the positive plays outweigh the negative plays you have to to take the bad with the good.

Sometimes his freakish athletic ability makes it possible for him to wipe out his own mistake with a brilliant play of its own.

And while he has missed a significant portion of his career due to injury, he’s probably been a little underpaid given the market rate for top-pairing defenseman that play at his level.

But because the bad plays are usually the result of that aggressiveness they will stand out more. And because hockey is a game of mistakes, we tend to focus almost exclusively on that big mistake when it happens and allow it to drive the discussion around that player.

That brings us to Letang’s 2017-18 season (and postseason) for the Penguins. To be fair, it was not a great season, and it reached its low point in Game 5 of the team’s second-round series when a third period breakdown allowed Evgeny Kuznetsov to score a game-tying goal just one minute into the third period, completely changing the direction of the series. The series ended with Letang trying to chase Kuznetsov down from behind on a breakaway as he potted the series-clinching goal. Viewed in the context of the Penguins actually winning the Stanley Cup a year ago without having Letang for any of the playoff games, it made him a focal point for blame when the team did not win this season (nevermind that they probably do not win that Stanley Cup the previous year without him, this is the ultimate what have you done for me lately business).

What made this season even tougher for Letang is that it wasn’t just the mistakes of aggressiveness or the Game 5 blunder against Kuznetsov that made it an off year for him. He seemed to get beat in one-on-one situations more often than usual. He also saw a pretty sharp decline in his offensive production and by the end of the year and playoffs was replaced by Justin Schultz on the team’s top power play unit.

Physically, Letang has been through hell and back in recent years due to both injury and health issues.

The most recent example was the neck injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season and all of the playoffs.

On Wednesday’s locker clean out day in Pittsburgh, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he had an inclination that the injury, surgery, and recovery in such a short period of time was probably going to be a lot for Letang to overcome.

He also talked about the inconsistency.

“He had stages of the year where he was really good for us and stages where he wasn’t at his best,” said Sullivan. “By no means does it diminish what we think of Kris as a player. He’s a guy that we think is certainly one of the elite defensemen in the league.”

Letang himself admitted that he thought it would be easier to come back and that he might have lost a little bit of his conditioning.

The thing about Letang is that for all of the struggles he had at times this year there were still elements of his game that were in place.

Fifty-one points in 79 games was a down year for him. That still placed him 17th in the league among all defenders in the NHL.

When he was on the ice the Penguins attempted more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts during even-strength play. Among defenders that played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time that was the 12th best mark in the entire league, so the team was still controlling possession and the shot chart, which should be seen as an encouraging sign. Players that help drive possession that much usually see that pay off when it comes to goals for and against. But of the top-20 defenders in the league in shot attempt percentage, Letang was one of just five that had a negative on-ice goal differential on the season. The other four (Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifan, and Brett Pesce) all played for the Carolina Hurricanes, a team with infamous goaltending issues.

Part of Letang’s issue when it came to goals for and against was his own inconsistency.

Another part of it was the Penguins’ inconsistent goaltending, both from starter Matt Murray when he was healthy, as well his revolving door of backups that all struggled. Improved play from that position would go a long way toward correcting both his and the Penguins’ 5-on-5 issues as a team (because it wasn’t just Letang that struggled in those situations for the Penguins this season).

In the end, though, he is capable of more than he showed this season, and everybody involved knows it.

That is why no matter how much criticism he takes, how many times there is a call for the Penguins to trade him, they are not going to do it. They shouldn’t do it, anyway. Because when Letang is right and on top of his game there are only a small handful of players in the NHL that are better than him at his position, and you are never going to get that upside back in a trade.

Especially now when his value is probably at an all-time low given the injury recovery and the fact he is coming off of a down year. Part of what made the Penguins such a success the past few years was pouncing on trade partners that were dealing players at lower value (Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, and Schultz all come to mind). The good player usually rebounds. The good — and smart — teams usually make sure it happens for them and not somebody else.

Given his track record there is every reason to believe he can — and probably will — get back to that level.

The Penguins should be more than willing to take that bet that he gets there next season.

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.

Capitals eliminate Penguins, Ovechkin gets first taste of East final

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The Washington Capitals did it. They finally slayed the black and gold dragon known as the Pittsburgh Penguins.

To really sell how tough a mountain this was to climb, of course the Penguins forced the Capitals to end it via sudden death.

Evgeny Kuznetsov experienced plenty of frustrating moments on Monday, but the talented center ended Game 6 in overtime with a semi-breakaway 2-1 goal. It only makes sense that Alex Ovechkin was the one to send Kuznetsov on that breakaway, and for Sidney Crosby to be on the ice for that season-ending goal.

With that, the Penguins’ bid at a “threepeat” is over after the Capitals took this second-round series 4-2.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Game 6 feels like a decent microcosm of the series as a whole. There were plenty of sloppy moments, surprisingly tepid stretches, and Washington ended up scoring the majority of the big goals (aside from that bizarre Penguins win in Game 1).

For much of this series, the first period has been barren when it comes to goals, and this one followed suit with a 0-0 start. Alex Chiasson gave the Capitals a 1-0 goal on one that Matt Murray would like back, and there was a surprising amount of doom and gloom surfacing for some Pittsburgh fans. To be fair, the Penguins looked remarkably flat at times with their season on the line.

That doesn’t mean that they just rolled over and gave Game 6 up, mind you.

Kris Letang‘s 1-1 goal included a fortunate bounce, yet the Penguins’ play improved. Granted, the Capitals still seemed like the better team during much of the third period and overtime, yet Matt Murray helped the Penguins hang in there.

The Capitals ended up eliminating the Penguins with Nicklas Backstrom missing Game 6 with an injury and Tom Wilson wrapping up his controversial suspension. Washington likely would have taken a victory over the Penguins under any array of circumstances, but advancing this way has to be a true confidence-booster.

And, of course, an igloo-sized relief.

Ovechkin & Co. won’t exactly get eased into their maiden voyage in the third round, as the Tampa Bay Lightning stand as a fresh, formidable opponent. Chances are, the Lightning will be far less leaky than the Penguins appeared at times during this series, including tonight.

Despite some incredible play from Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel during this series, the Penguins couldn’t best their rivals this time around. After consecutive titles, they must lick their wounds following their first failure with Matt Murray in net and Mike Sullivan behind the bench.

(Yes, that’s quite the accomplishment, and one that might soothe some wounds in Pittsburgh.)

It’s up to management to make sure that this wasn’t the last gasp of a great era. That sounds tough to fathom, yet championship windows can slam shut with cold suddenness in sports. These Penguins aren’t spring chickens, after all, and Game 6 gave the impression that some key guys were fatigued, hurt, or both.

Wait, about the Penguins being a dragon or spring chickens… maybe they were more like Washington’s Bowser?

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.