"Sometimes you're flush and sometimes you're bust; and when you're up, it's never as good as it seems, and when you're down, you never think you'll be up again. But life goes on."
An appropriate quote (from the movie "Blow") for the current situation, huh?
About halfway into the season, and despite being mired in the current five game losing streak, the Pittsburgh Penguins are solidly in 4th place. The big pack of teams is from 5th place to 13th place, with those nine teams separated by just eight points (Boston currently leading them with 49, Philly and Florida at the bottom with 41). The Penguins have a little separation from that shuffle with 53 points.
The danger for Pittsburgh is they're about to lose touch with the top three teams. It's really only of importance that New Jersey is separating, obviously since with the standings system if you're not 1st in your division, you're 4th in the conference, Ricky Bobby. NJ is now six points up on Pittsburgh with three games in hand, so they Pens are in anywhere from a 6-12 point hole. It's too early to concede it, but it sure looks like the Devils will be division winners, once again leaving Pittsburgh in that 4-5 first round playoff matchup, assuming they hold off the pack of teams.
To get the Pens out of the rut and ready for the playoffs, let's look at some potential scenarios for changes behind the jump.
Fire someone. Mike Yeo figures to be the main candidate, since he runs a power-play with Top 10 talent, but #30 results. Dan Bylsma's safe (duh) and Tony Granato's seemed to fit in well too. (Chances of this actually happening: 35%)
Call-up a youngster. It's quite obvious the Penguins don't get a lot of skill performances out of Top 6 forwards other than Crosby, Malkin and Guerin. 21 year old Luca Caputi leads Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with 13 goals and has five games of NHL experience. Mark Letestu, though a natural center, has 31 points in 27 games down on the farm. Dustin Jeffrey is among AHL leaders in points and has 28 assists in 34 games. Jeffrey's also been playing LW lately. An infusion of skill and youthful "happy to be here" energy could jumpstart things.
Young players are also cheap, and though no one has access to the exact capology numbers, the Penguins should be able to afford adding a rookie to the books without having to waive/trade an existing member of the team. (Chances of this happening: 65%)
Make a trade. The most difficult option. We all know that the Bettman point keeps teams in the playoff hunt longer, so there are limited "sellers". Good and established players usually come with good-sized contracts, an issue for a team that needs to basically trade dollar for dollar to stay under the cap. Young, promising players with cheap contracts are too valuable for other teams to trade.
Looking at the possible candidates to be dealt (either to clear salary or be vital parts of the deal), one would have to think a lot of the roster that makes over $1 million could be in jeopardy. Obviously core players (Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fleury, Goligoski, Orpik, etc) aren't going anywhere and vets like Gonchar, McKee and Cooke that are impending UFA's are too valuable in their roles to trade. But a guy like Pascal Dupuis ($1.4 million hit) or Ruslan Fedotenko ($1.8 million)? Somebody's head is going to be on the chopping block. (Chances of this happening: 10%) (And by that I mean an immediate trade, not a deadline deal)
Ray Shero's seeing the same games we are and isn't content with losing either. But in the big scheme of things, a five game slide in the dog days of winter doesn't mean too much to a two-time defending conference champion. Playoff positioning and staying above the pack of tightly knit teams from 5-13th should be the goal for now. To do that, there may not be any outside changes needed at all, just a renewed work ethic and intensity brought to the games. But it's no fun to baselessly speculate about that.