The Pittsburgh Penguins have been extremely hard-hit by a run of early season injuries, but there is good news on the horizon for a team that badly needs it. Soon, perhaps as soon as next game, reinforcements will be arriving.
Nearest to return are forwards Nick Bjugstad (out since the second game of the season with a lower body injury) and Bryan Rust (who has been out since breaking his hand in the last preseason game of the year).
What does it mean for the roster if they’re able to return?
Let’s reset and give a current view of the team, first of all. It can be tough to keep up with all the players on IR lately.
Forwards (12): Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Dominik Simon, Patric Hornqvist, Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, Jared McCann, Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Kahun, Sam Lafferty, Joseph Blandisi, Adam Johnson*
Defensemen (8): Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Erik Gudbranson, Jack Johnson, John Marino, Marcus Pettersson, Juuso Riikola, Chad Ruhwedel
Goalies (2): Matt Murray, Tristan Jarry
That’s a 22-man healthy roster at the moment, one below the maximum 23 that NHL teams are allowed to carry. Players on injured reserve don’t count against that 23 while on IR. Those players are:
Injured Reserve (5): Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Brian Dumoulin, Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad
With other needless complications, the Pens are salary cap compliant as long as Malkin (long term injured reserve, allowing Pittsburgh to exceed the upper limit) remains out. When his return approaches a different conversation will need to be had about how Pittsburgh can get cap compliant if they have no injured players. However, Malkin is not yet with the team and potentially still weeks away from returning, so let’s wait until he is healthy and no one else is hurt before having that conversation which is bound to be different by the time he will be ready.
The more pertinent topic for this moment is staying under 23 healthy players. The simple way for the immediate future is that by virtue of recently putting Dumoulin on IR, the Pens can activate one of Rust or Bjugstad for Saturday’s game and still be fine to not make any further moves. If that’s all they need to do at this time, no big deal at all.
But, should Pittsburgh be able to get medical clearance to play BOTH Rust and Bjugstad for Saturday, that easy math of 22+ 2 = 24 tells us that’s one too many, so at least one player must be removed from the roster at that point.
Adam Johnson missed last game with an injury, he could be a candidate to be moved to the IR. As a refresher, in NHL terms, IR only requires a minimum stint of seven days, retroactive to injury. So Dumoulin is technically eligible via rules to play next game too, though his (currently unknown) health status could prevent that.
If the Pens don’t want to put Johnson on IR and he is healthy he could be assigned to the AHL without needing waivers. The other candidate that makes sense to be removed from the NHL roster would be Blandisi, who would require waivers.
That sounds pretty good at this point to know a possible immediate “trade” (for the NHL roster at least) could be imminent to add Bjugstad and Rust and drop away two lower-end players.
For the short-term, by early next week the Pens could get the benefit of having Rust, Bjugstad and Dumoulin back while only removing A. Johnson and Blandisi from their roster. This will allow the team to take a longer look at Lafferty, who has stood out by generating chances with his speed.
The immediate path looks pretty steady in that sense, the bigger question would loom if Galchenyuk and Malkin are ready to join the team in the next two-ish weeks and no one else gets hurt. At that point does Pittsburgh look to finally solve their bloated nine-player defensive unit? It doesn’t seem like that’s a luxury they can keep for much longer if the team gets healthy, but then again they still actually do have to fully heal up first.