Tuesday Slew: Injuries Mounting, It's Time to Lean on the Youngsters

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

A salary crunch and relentless run of injuries might finally force the Penguins to trust their young players.

Picture this Penguins season as the next zombie blockbuster, the players stepping into their role as the ragtag cast of hopeless survivors, battling impossible odds.

Now take a look at the injured reserve list.

The zombies are winning.

James Neal hasn't played since the first game of the season and is still listed as "week-to-week." Beau Bennett has missed two weeks of action. Kris Letang missed his first nine games. Matt D'Agostini was injured in training camp, delaying his Penguins debut until late October. Chuck Kobasew will now miss up to a month due to injury. Brandon Sutter is banged up. Rob Scuderi will be shelved for months following surgery on a broken ankle. Tomas Vokoun's career might be over.

Not exactly a recipe for surviving a season in which the salary cap has left the Pens with little room to breathe.

Recall that Pittsburgh entered the season with less than no room under the salary cap. They had to return Simon Despres to AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (this, after Dan Bylsma tabbed him a "top-four defenseman" over the summer) and leaned on Vokoun's long-term injured reserve status to get legal by the season's first game.

Since the team's core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company achieved "veteran" status at some vague point since the 2009 Cup run, the Penguins haven't exactly leaned on young players to fill important roles.

Any role, seemingly.

As proof, they've made a habit of fielding one of the oldest rosters in the league by average player age over the last few years (ranking sixth-oldest this season). It's a difficult trick for cap-strapped teams to turn, as non-fourth line veterans will almost always cost more than their rookie counterparts.

Pittsburgh has made it work in year's past. This season's reduced salary cap--down nearly $6 million from a year ago--means the Pens can't sign their way out of the current injury mess.

Thus opens the door for the youngsters.

Bennett was tabbed an NHL regular before the season's outset, a rarity for the Pens. Pittsburgh develops plenty of its own defensemen. Amongst the team's top-eight defenders, only Deryk Engelland, Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen arrived in Pittsburgh via trade or free agency, and countless others have been traded away to help augment the team's forward group with (go figure) veteran talent.

Bennett, however, is the first rookie forward to be drafted, developed and made an NHL regular by the Penguins this decade.

The drought goes further than 2010. Name the last forward drafted by the Pens to get more than a cup of coffee or his name embossed on his favorite press box healthy scratch chair.

Tyler Kennedy?

Jordan Staal?

It's an unusual spot the Penguins find themselves in, but it might be high time to inject the veteran club with a wave of fresh talent.

To be sure, it took the salary crunch and injury bug to get Jayson Megna, signed in spring 2012, into the roster. He's green, with one season of injury-limited AHL experience under his belt. But he's fast. A goal and assist in Tuesday's date with the Carolina Hurricanes were the hard-earned rewards of a game in which he showcased his speed and revealed a surprising two-way game.

If Megna can keep it up, he could play himself into Olli Maatta's too-good-to-demote territory.

Maatta started the season as a highly-regarded, highly-talented defensive prospect, but he was only one in a system filled with top-four future talent. His play through the preseason and first nine games of the regular season was enough to jump over players ahead of him in both draft number and professional experience.

It was out of character for the Penguins to keep him in Pittsburgh. Following Scuderi's injury, it's become more of a necessity. Likewise for Megna, who stepped in while as many as three of four of the team's regular forwards take a seat due to injury.

The new talent can absolutely be a good thing. The Chicago Blackhawks worked rookie Brandon Saad into the fold last year ahead of schedule, and he helped them to their second Stanley Cup in four seasons. The Boston Bruins fielded a trio of young defensemen who played admirably in last season's playoffs. The LA Kings won it all in 2012 with a few high-energy rookies amongst their bottom-six forwards. It can be done.

One way or another, whether the team likes it or not, Pittsburgh's young players are finding their way into the NHL.

The Penguins might find that it shouldn't take a lack of funds or round of injuries to work promising rookies into the lineup in the future.

Tuesday Slew is a regular feature that will run Wednesdays throughout the season, apparently. Berate James on the twitster, @Slew_James.

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