Evgeni Malkin was not on the ice this morning with the Penguins. Kasperi Kapanen talked after practice about how the Pens are “going to miss him”, more confirmation that Malkin will miss at least one game tonight against New Jersey, Pittsburgh also announced today they have recalled center Radim Zorhorna from Wilkes-Barre, though it appears he did not arrive in time to practice this morning. Here was how the Pens roughly looked:
With Evgeni Malkin and Teddy Blueger out, here are the lines to the best I can tell at morning skate:— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) March 18, 2021
Guetnzel – Crosby – Rust
Tanev - Rodrigues – Kapanen
ZAR- Jankowski – Lafferty
Sceviour – Gaudreau - Angello
(McCann mixing in)
Aside from the first line, there are problems everywhere else. Luckily the level of competition isn’t sky high in the Devils the next three games, but a patchwork lineup that includes weak links at center, third and fourth lines stocked with replacement level players (or worse!) is not very encouraging, to say the least.
Jared McCann was only rotating in some, which seems to indicate he will not yet be ready to return for tonight, though he should be getting closer by the day. McCann will be a welcome addition to be used on the second line, perhaps either at wing or center depending on how the team wishes to formulate their lines.
This is also the point where you have to realize that in addition to Malkin be missing, Pittsburgh is without a legit top-six winger in Jason Zucker as well. Zucker wasn’t off to the best of starts this season, but add him to Malkin and McCann and that’s three really solid and good forwards absent and the type of accumulating loss of manpower and strength that really begins to hurt.
An NHL team in the salary cap era can’t afford to have almost $18 million in three top forwards gone as Malkin, Zucker and McCann do, and still expect to look impressive on paper. Just not going to happen.
Add in the recent injury loss of Teddy Blueger and that leaves the Pens without 4/9 of their best nine forwards, and perhaps worse 2⁄3 of their top three centers.
Do the Pens have hope? Possibly more than it looks. That top line is still strong. Brandon Tanev was on a seven game point streak before he was bounced from the last game for his big hit. Kasperi Kapanen has been really productive (10 points [4G+6A] in the month of March in nine games), and even Evan Rodrigues has shown encouraging signs of life recently with four points (1G+3A) in the last six games.
The lineup does not look pretty, but it also does include eight of the top 10 forwards in 5v5 Goals/60 so far this season, so it also isn’t as completely hopeless or as punchless as might be feared. Is it a good strategy to hope a Zach Aston-Reese or Tanev or Rodrigues can be consistent offensive contributors? Probably not. But all will have elevated roles and opportunities, and have been decently productive via rates this season.
The Pens are certainly not as strong as they could be, and might have to find ways to win more 3-2 than enjoy big offensive nights, but the other positive is that the defense is healthy, the forwards have been backchecking well, and the goaltending performances has been very strong as of late. The team talent level is missing some key pieces, but the cohesiveness of the defensive game (as our pal Jesse Marshall laid out at The Athletic) is working as well as it has been all season.
Playing with patchwork lineups is never fun or preferable, but despite having some significant holes on paper right now, the Pens should still be able to hang tough and compete with the teams on the schedule for the near-future (New Jersey and Buffalo). And hey, there’s still Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby, so at least the Pens won’t do anything really embarrassing like lose 9-0.