When it became clear last season that Evgeni Malkin was done for the year and Sidney Crosby’s status would remain elusive at best, it seemed like the worst possible scenario—losing both of the team’s superstar centers—had come true.
The Penguins fought through it, however, and earned 106 points en route to a fourth-seeded playoff berth on the strength of great team defense, stellar goaltending and a team full of ‘replacement’ forwards.
They won’t be able to do it again.
The script isn’t quite the same. Malkin alone brings a level of talent and scoring that this team missed last season, and there’s still the chance that the team could have a whole, healthy lineup by early March or the beginning of the playoffs in mid-April.
But, the Penguins lost only their scoring punch last season. They still had a healthy defensive corps (exception for Brooks Orpik missing most of February with a broken finger), the league’s best penalty kill and the MVP-caliber goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury to lean on.
This time around, the Penguins have taken hits to all parts of their game. The collective effect might be too much to handle.
Injuries in Context
How bad have things gotten in Penguin land? Worse than ever. The Penguins are currently missing a mix of players who comprise four all-star caliber starters, three centers and a number-one defenseman.
As far as the numbers that now sit on the shelf? Crosby leads the Penguins in points per game. James Neal leads the club in goals, power play goals and shots on goal. Jordan Staal is the team’s best defensive forward and penalty killer, and was on pace to reach career highs in goals and points. Kris Letang, too, was on pace to set career marks in scoring and was the leading Norris Trophy candidate prior to absorbing Max Pacioretty’s flying elbow in late November.
Combined, those four players account for 41 goals, 47 assists, 88 points (or 26 percent of team’s total scoring), 31 power play points (36 percent of team’s man-advantage points), 229 shots on goal and $19.075 million in collective annual salary cap space.
All told, the Pens have lost 210 man-games to injury in 40 games played and only six skaters have appeared in every game (the injured Craig Adams is one of them). That number leads the NHL and the additions of Neal, Staal and perhaps Adams to the list means the Penguins aren’t likely to relinquish the title anytime soon.
Last season was bad, but 2012 is somehow already worse. The Pens have lost 5.25 man-games per contest this season. They’re on pace for 430.5 games lost, 100 more than they recorded in 2010-11 when Crosby, Malkin and Staal each missed around 40 games.
No Leg Left to Stand On
When things turned south last season, it was the forward group that was decimated by injury. Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Mark Letestu, Dustin Jeffrey, Chris Kunitz, Arron Asham, Mike Comrie, Eric Tangradi and Nick Johnson each missed more than 10 games for the club. Crosby, Asham, Tangradi and Johnson each missed time with a concussion.
Brooks Orpik was the only defenseman to miss more than a handful of games after the all-star break.
The injuries put a hurt on the team’s scoring punch (Crosby was the highest-scoring Penguins player by a 16-point margin despite playing in only 41 games), but they remained strong in other vital phases of the game. Jordan Staal’s return shored up the penalty kill and led the Penguins to their first season in which they finished with the league’s best penalty kill at better than 87 percent. A healthy defense led by Kris Letang gave the Penguins the 6th-best defense in terms of goals allowed. Marc-Andre Fleury earned 36 wins en route to Team MVP honors and mentions in Vezina and Hart Trophy discussions.
This season, every phase of the team has taken a major hit.
Defensively, the Penguins are only without Kris Letang. But Letang means everything to the defense, in a way no single forward impacts the Pens’ ability to score goals. Letang quarterbacks the top power play, is a vital asset to the penalty killing unit and is the team’s best blueliner both offensively and defensively. His closing speed allows him to roam both zones more freely and partner Brooks Orpik is a different player when Letang is on the ice. His stay on the IR means losing those qualities and the defense is slipping with his absence, ranking 10th in goals allowed.
The Penguins allowed four or more goals in just four of the 24 contests in which Letang has appeared this season. In 16 games without him, the Pens have allowed four or more goals four times, have only two contests in which they allowed one goal and have zero shutouts.
Jordan Staal’s absence will also affect the team’s defense. Staal is widely regarded as one of the best defensive forwards in the league, and is the Penguins’ best penalty killing forward. His absence (perhaps combined with Adams) will leave the penalty kill without two of its best forwards and its best defenseman (not to mention 15 goals).
It’s known that as a defense goes, so goes the goaltender. Fleury was stellar late last season, but his improved play coincided with improved defensive play. Fleury has allowed three or more goals in four straight losses as the defense has suffered from missing players and mismatched pairings. If the defense continues struggling minus Letang, Fleury will feel the loss as well.
Defense, goaltending and penalty killing pulled the Penguins through the worst of times last season. I’ve gone on record saying all is not yet lost with the season, but injuries across the board means 2012 will make for a very difficult repeat performance.