The good news for the Pittsburgh Penguins at the moment is they have been on a roll over the past month and built a nice little cushion in the East Division playoff race. They are also now entering the second half of their schedule that is mostly games against the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres. It is a solid position to be in right now. The concern is that the injury situation is mounting.
They entered Tuesday’s game against the Boston Bruins already playing without Jason Zucker, Jared McCann, and John Marino. Just before puck drop we found out that Teddy Blueger is also injured (after the game we found out it is going to be a longer-term injury) and then Evgeni Malkin exited the game after a hit from Jarred Tinordi. We do not yet know the extent of that injury.
That is four top-nine forwards (all very good and important forwards) including two of the top-three centers and a key member of the defense all sidelined. That is a lot. It could be the first real challenge and test for Ron Hextall as general manager of the Penguins.
The challenge and test: How exactly does he handle this? Really, there are two options. The first is to be patient, stick with what you have, and just patiently wait for people to return. If we can take anything from Hextall’s time as general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers it is that he can be a very patient general manager, and it is not really in his nature to make a kneejerk reaction move regardless of the situation,
The other option is to make a trade as soon as possible to address the openings, especially if some of these injuries turn out to be longer-term.
All of the absences on Tuesday, including an ejection for Brandon Tanev, resulted in the Penguins playing the third period with 10 forwards and trying to tie the game in the closing moments with Evan Rodrigues and Sam Lafferty on the ice. That is not ideal.
A few months ago when Jim Rutherford was still sitting in the chair you probably would have had a good idea as to what was going to happen next, especially with the trade deadline being less than a month away. There would be a trade. Maybe a significant trade. Maybe even two trades, who knows? But now there is a little more mystery.
The big concern in the short-term is pretty clearly the center position because if Malkin has to miss any amount of time, even a game or two, you are now looking at second-line center Mark Jankowski, and that is just not going to be good enough. Frankly, even before the injuries to Malkin and Blueger center was a spot they probably could have used an extra player at.
There are no shortage of potential options.
Can they massage the salary cap enough to make room for a player like Eric Staal? Mikael Granlund (who I would have liked as a free agent in the offseason) can bring some versatility to play center or wing when everyone is healthy. I was going to suggest Sam Bennett, but Brian Burke had some harsh words for his trade request when he was still working as analyst this season. Would that prevent him from wanting him?
Either way, the Penguins were probably going to need a trade before the trade deadline to add some additional forward depth. Even when the team is fully healthy there are too many spots on the fourth line that just do not probably work for a contending team. The injury situation might just speed up that process.
The timing of these injuries really stink though. Malkin has been starting to play like we expect Evgeni Malkin to play, while Teddy Blueger and his line alongside Brandon Tanev and Zach Aston-Reese has been its usual rock solid self. Add in the way McCann had been playing before his injury and that is three players that have been playing at a really high level for a team that is starting to play extremely well this season.
With limited draft picks, a very thin farm system, and almost no salary cap space to work with Hextall is going to have a challenge ahead here when it comes to adding to this roster. He may have no choice but to figure out a way to make it happen.