Mike Sullivan and the Pittsburgh Penguins deserve a ton of credit for navigating a brutal injury situation at the start of the season.
Half of the forward lineup is out, they continue to carry the bare minimum number of forwards in favor of nine defenders which has twice now forced Jusso Rikkola to play forward, and through it all they have managed to win six of their first nine games and give a rested Vegas team everything it could handle on Saturday night. It has been impressive, at times unexpected (this lineup handing Colorado its only loss of the season), and very surprising given the way they started the season and the current makeup of the roster.
Just take a look at the current list of injured forwards that includes Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust, Jared McCann, and Nick Bjugstad. That is the makings of a pretty decent top-six and the Penguins have barely had any of them this season. As I wrote a week ago in this spot it is only a matter of time until someone, somewhere, looks at the early success and the way the team is playing and starts jumping to the conclusion that, hey, maybe the Penguins are better off with this roster and they should trade Evgeni Malkin.
I was half-kidding, but then on Sunday night the Final World (one of those half hour shows where sports people yell over each other) Tweeted out a potential topic idea that basically amounted to: “With the Penguins playing the right way should they look to move Evgeni Malkin?”
After getting grilled into dust they deleted their Tweet and decided to change their topic idea for their Penguins segment, and instead focus on Jim Rutherford’s comment on how the players that are currently out of the lineup need to fit into the current style of play when they return and what exactly that means.
The very fact it was even something that was going to be semi-seriously discussed is one of the things that makes me think we need to pump the brakes just a little bit right now.
These two statements can both be legitimate statements and fair talking points right now...
A) The Penguins are playing very well right now given the circumstances and deserve a ton of credit for navigating a tough roster situation. If they can keep playing this way, they will win a lot of games.
B) It is fair to question how long this roster can keep playing this way, especially with this roster as it currently looks.
Even if you ignore the absurdity of the “should they look to trade Malkin” angle and focus in on the “the returning players need to fit in” narrative I still think we’re jumping to too many conclusions here based on a relatively small sampling of games. It also suggests that the players that are out of the lineup (and this all seems like it is directed entirely at Malkin, including Rutherford’s initial comment) won’t be willing or capable of fitting into the style of play.
We are three weeks into the season and the Penguins have yet to have the roster they built for this season at their disposal. We have seen Evgeni Malkin play four periods of hockey. Alex Galchenyuk has played 50 minutes of hockey. Players that were supposed to be key depth players (Bjugstad, McCann, Rust) have barely played. We still have no idea what this roster — the one the Penguins intend to use this season — is capable of or how it will play when it’s together.
It is possible their play now with the replacements can set a foundation to build on throughout the rest of the season and help set some kind of an identity. At the very least they have banked a lot of points that will come in handy later in the year when playoff seeding and perhaps a division title are on the line. That matters and it is important.
The danger, though, is thinking that a lineup with Joseph Blandisi, Adam Johnson, and the rest of the call-ups is something that a fully healthy Penguins roster should model itself after.
The way they’ve played so far has made “playing the right way” a big talking point, but it’s still only been six games against a collection of teams that, for the most part, are not among the league’s elite (Colorado and Vegas being the notable exceptions in that group). Like I said last week, it’s possible for undermanned teams to get by for a stretch of games through system, scheme, or just by having their backs against the wall and fighting through it shift by shift. But it’s still a talent driven and talent dominated business. At some point you need that talent back in the lineup to win, and you need to allow it to do what it does best.
This isn’t trying to take away from the successful start.
These players and the coaching staff deserve all of the credit they are getting because they have found ways to win with a roster that, quite frankly, probably wouldn’t be given much of a chance to win on most nights just by looking at it on paper. But I still don’t know that it’s reasonable to jump to conclusions on how this team should be expected to play when the best players start to trickle back into the lineup.
They are playing the way they are playing now because they need to to play this way, and they are doing what they need to do by beating up on some struggling teams (Dallas, Winnipeg, Minnesota).
What I’m getting at here is it’s a long season that we are only nine games into. A lot can change, the schedule will get tougher, and we haven’t even seen the Penguins as they were meant to look. Maybe just wait until we do see them and how they play before we start jumping to conclusions on who should go, who should stay, and how they should play.