Injuries have run rampant on the Pittsburgh Penguins, but defensively they're finally at 100%. Kris Letang, with six points in his last two games, appears to have fully recovered from his concussion and Brooks Orpik, Zbnyek Michalek and Paul Martin have all shaked off in-season maladies to regain full health. Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy round out the NHL roster, with now Simon Despres, Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo back in the minors.
A new problem has arisen though- and that's the play of the top four. Listen to any radio show or scan any fan forum and you'll see a lot of fan ire pointed towards Michalek and particularly Martin's play so far this season. And, to be sure, neither has had a season to remember.
Michalek, after signing for $4 million in the summer of 2010, generally had an acceptable first season as a Pen. He skated well, blocked shots with fervor (149 in 73 games) and even added a surprisingly nice dimenson of offense with five goals.
Martin, for his part, registered 3 goals, 21 assists and a +9 +/- ranking while moving the puck well and generally fitting in.
That was 2010-11, this season has been different. While both highly paid blueliners fit in well enough last season, this year they've been lost. Martin's seemingly forgotten how to clear a puck from his defensive zone. Michalek's lost coverage in front of the net, both have had chances to tie up opponent's sticks or put them on their wallets and have been unable or unwilling to do so. Fan grumbling has grown into a full on mutiny, especially for Martin.
The Pens coaching staff has been patient. After all, these are two skilled and seasoned professionals. Play them through it and they'll bounce back sooner or later, right? And, to a measure, each has played better lately though both are still fighting through patches of inconsistency. Lately Dan Bylsma has seen enough and split the "shutdown pairing" of Martin and Michalek up, bumping Matt Niskanen to play with Z and Deryk Engelland to play with Martin.
Niskanen's perhaps been the wildcard. The former first round pick has played well in his year of being a Pittsburgh Penguin and has the skill set to fit well into the system. He can skate well, moves the puck decently enough and though Niskanen is a right handed shot, he's very comfortable playing on the left side of the ice (thus why he can fit in with similarly right-handed Michalek). If Michalek and Martin have been the season's biggest disappointments, it's not much of a stretch to say that Niskanen has been perhaps the team's most pleasant surprise.
It's expected to be a quiet trade deadline with not many sellers, so an outside answer may not be coming soon. Old Friend Hal Gill has been a rumored possible target, but at this point it's not likely he's going to play a top four role, and the Pens PK doesn't really need the boost another team might be willing to give up to Montreal for Gill's services.
Defensively everything tightens in the playoffs, so it'll be important for the Pens to straighten their issues out. Playing Martin and Michalek through their issues (and hoping for a turnaround) might not be the most satisfying answer, but it might be the only available option until the summer.