Kris Letang

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Penguins GM on Maatta over Johnson, future for Malkin and Letang

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With trades already heating up during the trade-friendly time that is the week surrounding the 2019 NHL Draft, the most fun activity is grading the impact of trades … but imagining what else might happen is almost as fun.

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford didn’t really make it seem like he’s eager to trade Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang during an interview with 93.7 The Fan on Monday, but Rutherford also didn’t slam the door totally shut by guaranteeing that Malkin and Letang will be back, either.

Fair or not, some will allow their imaginations to go through the roof after Rutherford merely didn’t close the door and lock it.

Not pursuing those trades, but would listen?

During the interview, Rutherford comically referenced Wayne Gretzky being traded as Rutherford was essentially claiming “never say never,” as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Matt Vensel transcribed.

“There’s been great players traded in this league,” Rutherford said. “If somebody comes along with a package that makes sense for the Penguins, we have to look at it. These are not, the guys that you mentioned, are not guys that I’m pushing to trade.”

Rutherford also said that Malkin and Letang are the “kind of players you win championships with,” and stated that he believes they’re still great players.

For plenty of Penguins fans, this is mostly a relief, especially if Rutherford is really just giving such trades “Dumb & Dumber” odds.

The most important Malkin-related quote may have surfaced a week ago, as Rutherford explained that things seem to have smoothed over between the team and player, via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe (sub required):

“At the time you asked me those questions, it was hard to zero in on too many people because I was thinking about making a lot of changes,” Rutherford said while referencing spicier comments after the Penguins were swept by the Islanders. “But I’ll say this: I believe in Geno Malkin. He came off a year that wasn’t up to his standard last year. We all know that. But he’s a great, great player. I know how good he is, and I know very well what he can do for this team. I wasn’t going to 100 percent commit at that point in time. But in the back of my mind, I knew he was going to be part of this team going forward. And you know what? He was aware of that, too.”

(Anyone else think that “I believe in Geno Malkin” could be a hot-selling shirt in Pittsburgh?)

Rutherford reiterated another stance from a week ago: that he doesn’t expect to trade Phil Kessel. His comments in that regard may calm down those worried about a reckless Letang/Malkin trade, too, as a lot of Rutherford’s language is “I’m not looking to trade X, but I have to at least listen …”

With all of that in mind, it’s maybe most pressing to hear Rutherford speak about more plausible trade targets on his team.

Jack of no trades?

Interestingly, Rutherford didn’t exactly fan the flames about Jack Johnson being traded.

During Monday’s spot with 93.7 The Fan, Rutherford seemed to indicate that, with Olli Maatta traded for cap space, the Penguins may not try to get rid of Johnson’s contract. Surprisingly, Rutherford also claimed that Johnson was not involved in the trade that Phil Kessel reportedly nixed, which would have sent Kessel and Johnson to the Minnesota Wild for Jason Zucker and Victor Rask.

Moving Maatta did get the Penguins out of the most immediate “trouble” that might surface from the salary cap possibly being closer to $82 million than the expected $83 million for 2019-20 … but not at least projecting much interest in trading Johnson should be disappointing for Penguins fans.

It would have been startling enough last summer when the Penguins handed Johnson – a deeply flawed, and not especially young, defenseman – a contract that included a $3.25M cap hit. But it was downright bewildering that the now-32-year-old also received beefy term, as that problem deal runs through 2022-23.

Yes, the Penguins’ defense needs help, but there’s an uncomfortable argument that getting rid of Johnson would count as “addition by subtraction” even before you factor in getting rid of that $3.25M cap hit.

While Maatta’s market value was almost certainly far better than JJ’s value (the Penguins landed a solid package for the defenseman) it’s cringe-worthy to consider an either/or possibility coming down to Maatta vs. Johnson. Especially since, frankly, Maatta isn’t that much more expensive than Johnson, what with Maatta coming in at $4.083M per season.

Penguins fans might want to look away at this Sean Tierney visualization of the team’s defensemen in 2018-19, which uses Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) data:

(You can slice it up in many other ways, and it usually doesn’t come out looking much better.)

Again, it’s possible that the Penguins simply didn’t have any real offers to get rid of Johnson. Maybe Rutherford simply didn’t want to admit it, or maybe there was a part of him that hopes that projecting some positivity might keep the door open to get rid of a big mistake.

***

Ultimately, the Penguins’ window of contention could close rapidly, so it’s important to get this stuff right.

In the case of trading Malkin or Letang, the best move would almost certainly be to stay put. Meanwhile, if the Penguins aren’t exploring avenues to get rid of Johnson-type problems, then the Penguins are leaving opportunities on the table. Finally, with Kessel, the option just might not be there — whether it would be smart to trade Kessel or not.

Elliotte Friedman points to the Penguins being one of the most aggressive teams in the latest edition of “31 Thoughts,” so they’re certainly a team to watch over the next week or so.

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.

Teams looking for defense should seek trades, not free agents

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The bad news is that the free agent market for defensemen looks downright pitiful, especially after Erik Karlsson signed that big extension with the Sharks. The good news is that, if NHL GMs are bold and creative, they could make waves by adding defensemen via trades, instead.

***

Update: It didn’t take long for a big domino to drop.

The Jets sent Jacob Trouba‘s rights to the New York Rangers for Neal Pionk and the 20th pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, which was originally Winnipeg’s pick. This post goes deep on what that trade means for both teams.

***

Sharks GM Doug Wilson himself stirred the pot about there at least being a bunch of trade discussions, and we’ve already seen interesting moves like the Matt NiskanenRadko Gudas swap between the Capitals and Flyers.

While there could be a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” element to Wilson’s comments … c’mon, it’s still fun to hear this, and ponder the possibilities:

 

Craig Custance laid out some of the potential trade scenarios at The Athletic (sub required), and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman has also gone into plenty of detail regarding possible swaps, among others. It’s not a guarantee that any big trades will happen, but if they do, there’s a solid chance some will happen around draft weekend.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting names that have circulated. With all apologies to Jake Gardiner, you’ll notice that this list is infinitely more appealing than the potential crop of free agents.

P.K. Subban The Predators are coming off of a disappointing season, and it was a pretty rough one by Subban’s lofty standards.

There’s a mixture of sound and queasy logic to Nashville trading Subban. After all, P.K. is 30, and his $9 million cap hit is expensive. Moving that money out could allow the Predators to sign Matt Duchene, and Nashville is also eyeing Roman Josi‘s future, as the Swiss defenseman only has one year left at his current $6M clip. The queasy part is also that some don’t enjoy Subban’s personality, maybe because he cut a promo on them.

There are a lot of warning signs that the Predators could outsmart themselves here, particularly if Roman Josi is overrated – as some have intimated – but that’s a post for another day. Besides, those are worries for the Predators, not the potential team trying to swindle them out of Subban.

For a team with cap space, trading for P.K. could be a glorious investment.

Frankly, would it be that surprising if Subban rebounded in a big way next season? For all we know, his relative struggles in 2018-19 could just boil down to bad injury luck, rather than P.K. being hit by the aging curve.

The Devils stand out as an especially interesting trade party, as I’d argue that they should accelerate their growth process both to entice Taylor Hall to re-sign and to take advantage of the savings they’ll get with Jack Hughes’ (or Kaapo Kakko’s) entry-level contract.

But, really, any team with a glut of cap space and an urge to get better should pounce while Subban’s value is low.

Jacob Trouba – Speaking of taking advantage of a should-be Central Division powerhouse’s desperation, there are plenty of rumors about the Winnipeg Jets shopping Trouba’s RFA rights because of their cap crunch.

Those rumors start to blow my mind when you combine them with at least some talk of the Jets trying to retain Tyler Myers while losing Trouba, but much like the Predators possibly making a bad call, that’s not particularly relevant to teams who might try to land Trouba’s rights.

The New York Post’s Larry Brooks notes that area teams like the Islanders, Rangers, and Devils rank among the teams trying to trade for the right to sign the 25-year-old defenseman, and understandably so. Trouba-level players just do not become available that often.

My suspicion is that Trouba might not have truly reached his ceiling, as he’s sometimes had to battle for opportunities with other Winnipeg RHD like Myers and especially Dustin Byfuglien. If I were the Jets, I’d try to bribe a rebuilding team to take on Dmitry Kulikov, or something of that nature, to find a way with Trouba.

That simply might not be in the cards, and other NHL teams should go the extra mile if Trouba’s rights are available.

Kris Letang – It’s tough to imagine a contender with an unclear window sending away a guy who’s easily their best defenseman, but Letang is one of the many prominent Penguins whose name has at least come up in rumblings, so he absolutely deserves a mention.

Yes, his injury history is a little scary and he’s already 32, but Letang brings so much value to the table, and at an affordable $7.25M cap hit through 2021-22, the potential rewards outweigh the risks. It would be surprising if the Penguins made this blunder, especially after they already thinned out the ranks with the (largely beneficial) Olli Maatta trade. Teams should check in with Jim Rutherford just in case, though.

Shayne Gostisbehere – P.K. Subban getting traded after a “down year” makes some sense because the aging curve is hovering as a threat, and Subban’s also very expensive. The Flyers selling low on “Ghost Bear” could be a borderline disaster … and thus, one other teams should go out of their way to facilitate.

Gostisbehere is still in the meat of his prime, and he’s not only a bargain at $4.5M per year, but he’s also cost controlled for some time, as his steal of a deal runs through 2022-23. It’s honestly almost a little bit offensive that Gostisbehere trade talk has circulated with credibility, rather than just being something you’d screengrab and mock from a message board.

Now, Custance notes that the Flyers aren’t that likely to trade Gostisbehere, but if there’s even a trace of smoke, other teams should try to fan those flames.

Justin Faulk / Dougie Hamilton – Now, the Hurricanes might just stick with their surplus of right-handed defensemen, as a Faulk extension has reportedly been discussed.

Yet, it still seems like a matter of time. Faulk’s getting a raise one way or another from his $4.833M after it expires next season, and Hamilton’s $5.75M cap hit only runs through 2020-21. It’s easy to see why Carolina might value swapping Faulk or Hamilton for a comparable forward (perhaps someone like Mike Hoffman?).

Personally, I prefer Hamilton, as he’s produced impressive numbers even though he inexplicably rarely finds himself as his team’s top power play QB. Like with Trouba, I wonder if another team or coach might get a little bit more out of Hamilton if they put them in the right situations.

Either way, both Faulk and Hamilton can improve a team’s blueline, and maybe at a comfortable price.

Colin Miller – While I can see situations where teams who trade for the players above would win the trades, possibly to a significant extent, I also acknowledge that you’d have to give up something substantial to land them.

Miller might be one of the most prominent candidates who could be landed in a pretty one-sided trade.

Miller, 26, found himself in Gerard Gallant’s doghouse at times in 2018-19, including being a healthy scratch at times during the postseason. After spending big money and assets to land Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty over the last year or so, the Golden Knights are now in a serious cap crunch, as they’ll need to find room to lock down William Karlsson and Nikita Gusev.

An opportunistic team could offer Vegas the chance to save Miller’s $3.875M (through 2021-22) and maybe get back some of the futures they coughed up in those deals — don’t forget all they gave up for Tomas Tatar. Such a scenario would be awfully appealing to Vegas, especially since it sure seems like Gallant won’t use Miller enough to justify that near-$4M price tag.

If you’re an NHL team aggressive to improve, but you don’t have the cap space for the bigger names (or want to spend less in a trade), then Miller could be a fantastic find.

Jared SpurgeonIn my opinion, the Wild would be wiser to go into a full rebuild.

That just doesn’t seem to be the case, as they’ve instead been making more “player-for-player” moves. Not all of those trades have been as bad as losing Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask, but either way, Minnesota’s strategy seems to be about half measures. They want to half-rebuild, and half … limp into the playoffs? It’s not ideal, is what I’m saying.

So Spurgeon (29, $5.188M) is a tricky expiring contract. The Wild want to be semi-competitive, so they might just want to re-sign him. If not, they also might want more than a poaching team would want to give up for Spurgeon, although a Hoffman-type expiring forward contract could make a swap somewhat reasonable.

A Spurgeon trade seems less like a “bang for the buck” deal, but he’s another interesting name, if truly available.

T.J. Brodie: Honestly, it’s tough to tell how good Brodie is, vs. how much he benefits from being glued to Mark Giordano at even-strength, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick’s teammate stats.

So, much like with Spurgeon, a lot of the trade appeal hinges on what the Flames are asking for Brodie (or, similarly, Travis Hamonic).

Brodie’s worth mentioning one way or another, because he’s a bit like Miller in being cheap, as Brodie’s at $4.65M for one more season. There are scenarios where trading for Brodie could make a lot of sense, if the Flames are more focused on freeing up cap space than they are getting maximum value for the defenseman.

Nikita Zaitsev: Tip to NHL GMs: don’t trade for Nikita Zaitsev.

***

Again, it’s possible that none of these defensemen get traded, or totally different, star-level ones move on instead.

For the sake of our collective entertainment, it would certainly be cool if there were some splashy trades to consider. So, get to it, NHL GMs.

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’ playoff exit was two years in the making

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The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from it.

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.

Malkin nearing return for Penguins, Letang still ‘day-to-day’

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After failing to clinch a playoff spot on Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings, the Pittsburgh Penguins will get another chance at it on Thursday when they return home.

They might be getting a little additional help for that game as well.

Superstar center Evgeni Malkin, who has been sidelined since March 16 with an upper-body injury he sustained when he was cross-checked by St. Louis Blues defender Robert Bortuzzo, was a full participant in practice on Wednesday and is officially a game-time decision for Thursday’s game.

Malkin said on Wednesday that his plan all along was to try and play in the final two games of the regular season.

“We’ll see tomorrow,” said Malkin when assessing his availability. “If I feel fine, I’ll have a chance to play. I’ll be ready.”

It will be a welcome sight for the Penguins whenever he returns. While they have managed to keep collecting points in the standings (they are 4-2-2 without him) the offense has dried up considerably, scoring just 18 goals in the past eight games. They managed just one on Tuesday night in Detroit. The top line, led by Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, has gone cold, and without Malkin to center the second line a lot of the pressure has fallen on the bottom-six to get some timely goals. And while they have been able to do that in recent games the Penguins still need their two big lines to be rolling if they are going to have a chance. Getting Malkin back will certainly help that.

Malkin has 71 points in 66 games this season for the Penguins.

The Penguins need just one more win to clinch a playoff spot.

After playing Detroit on Thursday, their regular season finale is against the New York Rangers on Saturday.

Making things even more complicated for the Penguins in recent weeks is that Malkin is not the only key injury they are dealing with.

Kris Letang, the team’s top defensemen, has also been sidelined and remains out of the lineup after briefly returning for three games in mid-March. He confirmed on Wednesday that the injury he is dealing with is related to the one that sidelined him in February and that he did not feel right when he initially returned. At this point he is still listed as “day-to-day.”

Brian Dumoulin, Letang’s regular partner on the top defense pairing, is also currently sidelined. He, too, is listed as being “day-to-day.”

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.

Parise, Letang key injuries in Monday’s playoff race

The Minnesota Wild have another massive game on Monday night as they try to get themselves back into the Western Conference playoff picture, and for the second game in a row they will have to play without one of their best forwards in Zach Parise.

Parise remains sidelined with a lower-body injury that also kept him out of Saturday’s blowout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said on Monday, via The Athletic’s Michael Russo, that they are hoping he is back sooner rather than later, but that right now “it is just hope.”

After trading Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund before the trade deadline, Parise is one of the few top-line scoring threats left on the team.

His 26 goals and 59 total points are both tops on the roster.

“As it goes we’re not a high-scoring team,” said Boudreau on Monday. “And you take out one guy with 26 goals it makes it a little more difficult. It makes it so you have to win the low-scoring games. Simple as that, you can’t play a run-and-game against a high offensive team.”

The Wild enter Monday’s game just two points out of a playoff spot but have only won three of their past 11 games. Two of those losses during that stretch were shootout losses to the Nashville Predators team they play on Monday.

[Related: Wild host Predators on NBCSN]

Minnesota’s remaining schedule is as brutal as it gets among playoff hopefuls in the Western Conference as every single one of their opponents is either in a playoff spot, or in direct competition with them for one. After hosting Nashville on Monday their remaining five games are against the Vegas Golden Knights, Arizona Coyotes, Boston Bruins, Winnipeg Jets, and Dallas Stars. Three of those teams (the Golden Knights, Jets and Bruins) are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, while the Stars are one of the toughest teams in the league to score against.

Parise is not the only significant injury on Monday’s slate of games.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will also be without their top defender, Kris Letang, when they visit the New York Rangers.

Letang had just returned from an injury that sidelined him for a couple of weeks and had been outstanding in his three games back in the lineup. According to Penguins coach Mike Sullivan Letang is “day-to-day” with an upper-body injury, and it is unknown if that injury is in anyway related to the one that had just sidelined him for 11 games. The Penguins were still able to go 7-2-2 during that stretch thanks in large part to the play of starting goaltender Matt Murray.

Letang was averaging more than 25 minutes of ice-time over the past three games, had a point in each one, and was a 55 percent possession player while the Penguins outscored teams by a 4-0 margin with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play. When he has been healthy this season he has returned to being one of the top defenders in the league after a down year during the 2017-18 season.

Along with Letang, the Penguins are still playing without center Evgeni Malkin and defender Olli Maatta.

Even though they have not yet officially clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, they have really solidified their spot with what is now a seven-point lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets and still have a chance to get home-ice advantage in the first round (they enter Monday just two points back of the New York Islanders) and an outside shot at perhaps even winning Metropolitan Division (three points back of the Washington Capitals).

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.