Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Smarch of the Penguins

Someone, somewhere in Western Pennsylvania is wishing it was 2009 all over again. Meanwhile, someone, somewhere in Eastern Pennsylvania is wearing a wide grin.

In early January, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ primary franchise centre, Sidney Crosby, went down with a concussion after receiving two hits in consecutive games from David Steckel and Victor Hedman, and despite some progress, there is no time table for Crosby’s return.

Then, in early February, the Penguins’ other franchise centre, Evgeni Malkin, was ridden hard into the boards by Buffalo Sabres defenceman Tyler Myers, causing Malkin’s knees to twist into the boards. Today, it was confirmed that Malkin would be sidelined for the season, with both of his knee ligaments completely torn requiring surgery.

Suddenly, Pittsburgh’s entire offensive load- Malkin and Crosby have contributed, either by setting up or scoring themselves, almost 64% of Pittsburgh’s entire offensive load- is gone, offence that won’t be easy to replace. The Pens, with 71 points in 55 games, are almost assured to be in the playoffs but that’s small solace to Penguin fans who are afraid their team will be limp come playoff time.

The question then becomes- what do the Penguins do now?

What do the Penguins have?

Even before Crosby and Malkin went down, the Penguins had significant problems with their depth. The team is built primarily as a strong forechecking team that gets most of its goals through hard work and braun and not skill, with lots of offence from the backend. It makes them one of the hardest teams to play against in the league but it does put a premium on Crosby and Malkin- their only “skill” players- to produce, meaning this team is prone to slumps.

The real strength of this team- as it always had been- is on the blueline, and this season is no exception, with five blueliners already contributing at least 10 points with Kris Letang leading the way with 41 points. They don’t have much in the goals department- after Letang and Alex Goligoski, the next highest is Paul Martin’s 3 goals- but it does give the Penguins a trading chip when looking for a forward, though nothing that would really blow a team away.

That leaves us with their prospects, and, as Hockey’s Future’s Ian Altenbaugh writes, “the Penguins are in a transition period with their prospects”. Looking closely, a lot of Pittsburgh’s prospects are “projects” who could hit their targets but in some cases won’t. The strategy makes sense in the long run because most of Pittsburgh’s core is already young- in addition to Crosby (23) and Malkin (24), there’s also Letang (23), Goligoski (24), forwards Jordan Staal (20) and Tyler Kennedy (24), defencemen Zbynek Michalek (28), Paul Martin (29) and Brooks Orpik (30) and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (26) who are all 30 or less and have plenty more in the tank to provide. However, in the short term, it leaves the Pens with little to work with in terms of upgrading their roster, meaning they may have to part with some of their few blue chip prospects (such as Eric Tangradi and Simon Despres) in order to fill the massive hole down the middle.

Who is available?

Malkin’s injury means that the Pens can acquire anyone they wish, since it frees up $8.7 million in cap space (Pittsburgh was previously right up against the cap). However, is there a player out there that the Pens can aquire that can step right in and fill the void?

The short answer is no. Considering Pittsburgh is likely going to want a rental (since Malkin will return next season), there’s very little in the pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) market that really jumps out at one as a true impact player. Up front, the best bets are Dallas Stars centre Brad Richards (who is a previous Conn Smythe winner), New Jersey Devils centre Jason Arnott (24 points in 54 games), Buffalo Sabres centre Tim Connolly (22/38), Florida Panthers left winger Cory Stillman (21/38), Ottawa Senators right winger Alexei Kovalev (23/44) and Nashville Predators right winger Steve Sullivan (20/36).

Of that group, only Richards would be the type that could step in immediately and “replace” Malkin or Crosby, but the price for him would be steep and there’s no guarantee the playoff bound Stars would want to trade their best player at the deadline. Sullivan may or may not be shipped, considering the Predators are in a playoff position, though Nashville’s frugality may just mean Sullivan could be on the market anyway.

The most attractive option for the Penguins would be Connolly. He’s the best fit out of all the players available to make an immediate impact in Pittsburgh, since he’s one of the league’s best playmakers and will benefit from all the room the Penguins’ forecheck will create for him. He would also not have that high a trade value, as questions about his health and his heart (after his pitiful performance in the playoffs last season) mean teams will be leery about giving the Sabres full value. A mid-level prospect or two- which the Penguins could afford to give up- just may be all that’s needed to pry the creative Connolly away.

What Should The Penguins do?

The knee jerk reaction when Malkin went down was to go for a trade, but the Pens’ best bet may just be to stand pat. Yes, the picture looks bleak without their two star players, but as I pointed out before, much of the Penguins’ core is young, including the two most important pieces of Crosby and Malkin. This wouldn’t be the same thing as if the 2003 Colorado Avalanche lost both Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, because that team would have been in a “win now” mode whereas Pittsburgh can afford to wait.

Besides, this gives the rest of the Penguins’ roster a chance to prove that they are more than just “caddies” for the Pittsburgh Big Two; and it’s not like they can’t make a run. As Rob Rossi wrote in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, lesser rosters have made runs in the Stanley Cup playoffs, such as the Montreal Canadiens last year or the 2006 Edmonton Oilers. Rossi, however, assumes that Crosby will actually return this season, which is no guarantee.

However, I will go one further than Rossi and boldly state that this Penguin team- without the Big Two- can make a Stanley Cup push. Fleury and the defence are playing their best hockey the Penguins have ever seen them play, plus head coach Dan Bylsma has a knack for bringing out the most with less- he did that in 2009 to great success. Furthermore, all that’s needed in the playoffs is superior chemistry, and the Penguins have shown they’re more than capable in that regard. Besides, without the Big Two the Penguins can play without expectations- if they win the Cup, it’ll be great but if they lose, it’s not like anyone thought they’d win it anyway; and if they don’t, at least they can know that next year they’ll have the roster back, in full strength, the way they had envisioned it.

So cheer up Western Pennsylvania. Turn that frown upside down. Because the Pens are better than you think.


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