Maybe you have noticed but the Pittsburgh Penguins have some pretty significant injury issues at the moment.
With Evgeni Malkin, Jason Zucker, and Teddy Blueger all sidelined longer-term, and Brandon Tanev out of the lineup on a day-to-day basis, the Penguins’ already thin forward depth has been decimated even more. There were always plenty of concerns about the bottom-six, but with those four sidelined the Penguins forward lineup is the Sidney Crosby line (with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust), two-thirds of a second, and two AHL quality lines.
The Crosby line has been doing some serious work over the past few games and trying to drag this lineup to points in the standings. They are great, but even so they can not be relied on to carry all of the offense. They have to get something from somebody else. I am not optimistic about the current third-and fourth-lines contributing much to the scoreboard, and the best hope for them at this point is to just tread water and keep the game 0-0 when they are on the ice. Which, quite honestly, is exactly what they have done lately. It is not ideal. It is not what you want long-term in an effort to win a Stanley Cup. But for a few weeks in the middle of the season it is probably the best you can hope for given the circumstances.
That turns the attention now to the makeshift second line of Jared McCann, Kasperi Kapanen, and Evan Rodrigues. Ignoring the reality that Rodrigues is miscast in a top-six role, McCann and Kapanen are the two players in the lineup right now outside of the Crosby line that have actual finishing ability. If anybody is going to make an impact and a positive contribution, it is going to have to be them.
If it seems like McCann has been a “X-factor” for the Penguins since the day he arrived, it is because he has been. When the Penguins traded for him he was still only 22 years old and showing flashes of being a significant contributor at the NHL level. He has the type of shot that could produce a 30-goal season with just a little bit of puck luck, and he has gone through phases in Pittsburgh where he has scored goals in bunches.
The question has always been where he fits in the lineup (top-six wing? Third-line center?) and exactly what his ceiling is. At this point, though, we should probably have a pretty good idea as to what he is. At 24 he is no longer a prospect or a “young” player — he is an established NHLer, and what you see at this point is probably going to be what you are going to get. A talented middle-six player with a great shot that will tease you with goal streaks and then cool off for an equally long period of time. If the Penguins are going to keep banking points and holding their spot in the standings through this stretch of injuries they could really use one of those goal scoring stretches at the moment.
A few other quick random thoughts on the forward situation at the moment.
- Mentioned above how the current bottom-six basically just needs to play to a 0-0 tie at the moment. Over the past five games they are allowing only 1.54 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Unfortunately they are only scoring 0.53 goals. The expected goals per 60 minutes are 2.32 for and 2.37 against.
- The fun option would really be to consider Mike Matheson at forward. Not a joke. The Panthers used him at forward under similar circumstances a year ago (along with Mark Pysyk) and he played well. He has the talent.
- You really fully appreciate Evgeni Malkin when he is not in the lineup. For the first part of the season the common thought was that he had lost a step, was not playing well, and wondering what his future with the Penguins would even look like. Even if the first two things are true to a certain degree, he is still Evgeni Malkin and even when he is playing at 80-85 percent of his normal level he is going to have a profound impact on the game. Now that he is out of the lineup you are hoping the Penguins can scratch out some 2-1 wins against the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils.