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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Testing the Depth by @BrianK_PI

In what's seemingly becoming an annual tradition, the Pittsburgh Penguins are yet again facing injuries that are testing their depth. Pascal Dupuis is out, likely for the season, after suffering from blood clots. The Dupuis injury is just the latest in a remarkable string of bad luck to hit the Penguins in just over a year. Both Dupuis and Tomas Vokoun have suffered from blood clots, Kris Letang suffered a stroke, and Olli Maatta had a cancerous tumor removed. In what is also turning into an annual tradition, Beau Bennett is yet again out with injury after missing the start of the season due to injury. Chris Kunitz has a broken foot. A top six that was already full of questions to start the season now has serious problems. Letang has been placed on injured reserve with a groin injury. While the Penguins are better suited to deal with losing a defenseman, it's still a big loss, and groin injuries have been known to linger.

The problem with going into the season with a tenuous situation in the top six is that a single injury was going to cause an issue. Two was going to be hard to overcome. While Blake Comeau has been having a great season, he's better served in a third line role. Nick Spaling and Jayson Megna are nothing more than stop-gap options. Patric Hornqvist is the only legitimate top six winger left on the active roster, but given the questions before the season and the gaping holes now it's more problematic that Rutherford downgraded the top six for someone providing less offense. Both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were already performing below their five on five offensive output from the previous three seasons. The recent losses are only likely to further exacerbate the issue. The weakened top six leads to a weakened bottom six, as players who should be playing on the bottom two lines are playing up in the lineup, and lesser players are filling their places.

Crosby and Malkin's five on five scoring rates - this season vs 2011-14

While the forward group is unquestionably going to face tough times, it's important to note that the team has been performing better in their own zone. The team so far this season has an even strength save percentage of 0.937% - that number was only 0.918% over the previous three seasons. While I disagree with Marc-Andre Fleury's extension, he's had an incredible stretch of hockey to start the season, and Thomas Greiss has been a more than capable backup. The team as a whole as been allowed 2.25 goals/game so far this season, down considerably from the 2.55 goals/game given up over the previous three seasons. It remains to be seen if the Penguins can maintain this defensive play, but the strong play in their own zone lessens the burden on the injury-depleted forwards.

However, they don't need to rely solely on the defense to get them through the injuries; the team can also choose to be proactive in trading for offensive help. The Pens were rumored to be interested in trading for a top six winger before the Dupuis injury; they certainly will be in the market now. However, they do have a fine line they need to walk in the trade market. Even with Dupuis on LTIR, the Pens only have a little less than $1.3 million in cap space. Without shedding salary, they'll need to wait further into the year to be able to absorb a bigger AAV. The team is currently on pace to finish the year with 123 points. They can afford a stretch of 0.500 hockey without worrying about dropping too far in the standings. If they're going to be proactive, they need to do so within the context of the bigger picture, and ideally that includes making a hockey trade that helps benefit them beyond just this season.

The Penguins, once again, are suffering through a rash of injuries that will test their depth. While they've been able to handle being short handed over the past few seasons, this will be the first time they experience this many important players out of the lineup under Mike Johnston. While Dan Bylsma had his problems and ultimately lost control of the team, it's arguable that one of his biggest critiques also helped him in situations such as these. Johnston has given his players more offensive freedom, but it's entirely possible that Bylsma's more structured system, giving players specific roles in specific spots on the ice, not only helped the new players into the lineup assimilate more quickly but also shortened the learning curve for their linemates, who had fewer instances where they needed to read the unknown player and could know what their next move was going to be. There will be more uncertainty in the coming weeks than there were in past years during similar levels of injury, but there's yet to be reason to believe the current injuries will sink the ship.


  1. You'd HAVE to imagine a significant move is coming soon for a forward via trade. The defensive resources we have are boarder-line absurd and one of those will fetch a capable 20g forward. I always thought that was Shero's ultimate plan was to dish high level defensive prospects for forwards, The long term injury to Dupuis loses us about 25 goals and 35-40 points a season and trading an unproven asset would get us that back easily.

  2. Yeah, I think that's all but a foregone conclusion, especially since Rutherford's said he's going to do that and he's been a very straight shooter so far, but the salary cap is going to make things difficult. If the cap doesn't go up next season they're looking at a pretty tight situation, and that's without taking into account either a Martin of Ehrhoff contract extension. If they trade an AHL guy they still have to fit the returning contract into both this season and upcoming years, and they still have guys like Kapanen and Sudnqvist looking like they could be legitimate top 9 help as soon as next season. Last thing I want to see them do though is see them trade one of those assets for a rental player on his last legs.

  3. I always find it interesting that for how bad the Penguins' depth can be (and make no mistake, the 3rd and 4th lines from last year were terribad), there are always a healthy dozen teams in the NHL that have a much more dire personnel situation.


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