The Pittsburgh Penguins, by and large, are getting healthy. For the first time all season, they’re having consecutive games with all six of their top six defensemen in the lineup. Offensively, the team’s top five scoring forwards all are back in form.
Beyond that, and especially in the wake of the Pascal Dupuis season ending knee injury, there is a lot of depth questions. Not the least-
- Who can the Pens use to replace Dupuis as 1st line right winger?
- Which two wingers will join Brandon Sutter on the 3rd line down the stretch, and can they be successful?
- Will any 4th line or depth players carve a niche on the 4th line and beat out established grinders Tanner Glass, Craig Adams and Joe Vitale for getting a jersey down the stretch and into the playoffs?
The first question, is obviously the most important. Dupuis’ injury looms large on the Pens roster- which already wasn’t the deepest collection of forwards among competitive teams. Injured Brian Gibbons and Beau Bennett could be factors to replace Dupuis, but can either produce enough when they’re on a line with Sidney Crosby and facing the other team’s top checkers? Can either fill-in stay healthy? Those are huge questions with unknown answers.
The injury situations to Gibbons and Bennett are very unfortunate and work against them as well. If the Pens management had all of January to audition those two in Dupuis' spot and see the results, that would provide more information than they currently have. As it stands now, both have to be considered question marks, at best, and unreliable, at worst. Not the best option to play on the most important line for a team with aspirations of a long playoff run.
Even though the Penguins had a glut of injuries, Pascal Dupuis getting hurt was among the worst of them, especially since his ACL will require surgery and keep him out for the rest of the season. At least all the other injuries that the team has had to work through haven't been as permanent.
Finally establishing a 3rd line
A third line has also been unable to establish an identity or regular linemates for Sutter due to injuries all season long. Glass hasn’t looked out of place at times with Sutter, but ideally he’s a 4th liner that would be playing minimal even-strength minutes and getting a dose of PK time on a Cup contending team. Other fill-ins like Chuck Kobasew, Taylor Pyatt, Jayson Megna and Chris Conner have had varying degrees of success and fluctuating confidence levels from the coaches, resulting in differing amounts of ice-time from night to night. Ideally, perhaps Bennett would have been slotted on the 3rd line, but with his injuries (and now Dupuis getting knocked out) that may not be a possibility either.
Sorting out the rest
The optimal 4th line is probably Glass, Vitale and Adams. Vitale’s faceoff percentage and increased playmaking ability (12 assists in 44 games played) make that line a balanced, PK and defensively focused unit. Extras like Kobasew, Pyatt, Megna and Conner have long odds to displace any of the established players for those roles. Zach Sill has been a good fit in a checking/grinding role, but his low puck skills (0 points in 20 games) and team worst Corsi For % (33.8%) and low faceoff percentage (37.8%) show that he’s a lesser player than the injured incumbents who he’s been filling in for.
The wizard in the corner, of course, would be Ray Shero and any external trades he might be able to make to give the team a boost. In the wake of the Dupuis injury, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a team that needs to add a useful forward in order to truly be considered a Stanley Cup contender. That will be easier said than done. With the salary cap in 2014 falling for the first time ever, not a lot of teams (the Penguins clearly among them) have a lot of salary cap space, which makes trades more difficult to pull off. Further, many teams are in the playoff race, or think that they could be, so the amount of teams probably looking to deal an NHL player for a "futures" return of picks and prospects are also low.
Still, even if the trade is more minor like a Bill Guerin for a conditional pick rather than a more blockbuster (and costly) Marian Hossa or Jarome Iginla acquisition, the Penguins will need something. They’re moving in the right direction health wise, luckily, but the time to improve the roster will be coming up after the Olympic break and will be one badly needed to provide a skill and depth upgrade for a team that, frankly, could use it.