Ray Shero on the Clock

The Pittsburgh Penguins found a nasty surprise under the tree this Christmas when the club learned that Pascal Dupuis’ knee injury will likely sideline the winger for the remainder of the season.  And, while the Pens have already been forced to overcome a plethora of issues created by the injury bug this year, this obstacle presents some unique challenges.

Unlike when the organization’s depth along the blue line flexed its collective muscle when injuries ravaged the defensive unit or individuals picked up the scoring slack when Evgeni Malkin and James Neal sat on the shelf, this injury robs Pittsburgh of one of the squad’s most versatile players.  It weakens the depth of what was already a thin forward group.  As a result, G.M. Ray Shero needs to make a trade.  Eventually.

If you sift through any form of recent social media that pertains to the Penguins, though, you might notice the Dupuis injury led to widespread lamenting of the loss of hockey’s finest line or the call for Shero to make an immediate move that would serve to replace the fallen winger.

Ultimately, though, Shero need not rush into any such move.  Yes, the Pens will surely miss such an important component of their team but, here, we present three reasons the Penguins’ G.M. should take his time making a calculated decision on how to best approach the trade market:

The Standings

Playing in the weak Eastern Conference and even weaker Metropolitan Division provides Shero and the Pens with a luxury that, simply put, wouldn’t exist if the club played in the West.  Yes, it’s been remarkable how Dan Bylsma continues to get the most out of his depleted squad and, sure, the Pens have a sparkling 7-2 record against the Western Conference foes.  But one can’t deny the benefits Pittsburgh receives by playing the bulk of their contests against what has become the NHL’s most inept division within the lesser of the two conferences.

Behind solid goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury and Jeff Zatkoff, a blue line with enough organizational depth to make rival general managers salivate and consistent production from Sidney Crosby et al, Bylsma has his boys dominating the Eastern Conference.  In fact, despite Pittsburgh’s lengthy injury report, the Eastern Conference is shaping up to become a two-horse race between the Pens and Bruins.  And, while Dupuis’ injury will surely present some unique challenges, the Pens’ track record of overcoming adversity in the regular season buys Shero some time to find the perfect deal for his club’s stretch run.

But the biggest reason the standings factor in on how much time Shero has?  Pittsburgh’s position in the Metropolitan Division.  With a 13 point cushion over the second place Capitals, it’s not as if the Pens currently find themselves in a fight for playoff positioning.  So, until that gap starts to dwindle, Ray Shero’s biggest time constraint comes in the form of a looming trade deadline.

The Blue Line

Clearly, any deal Pittsburgh swings will involve Shero shipping out a defenseman from his impressive stable of blue liners.  After all, clubs always trade from a point of strength to address a weakness.  And the Penguins’ defensive core is certainly a strength.

So, who becomes expendable?  Returning to the suggestions found on social media, Kris Letang appears to be a popular option:

Sure, it’s a possibility.  But Shero may hesitate to deal one of the league’s most dynamic blue liners, a defenseman who could be complimented perfectly by Rob Scuderi if the two ever get the opportunity to skate together.

Matt Niskanen
Could the play of the Pens’ young blue liners make a veteran defenseman expendable? (Icon SMI)

More realistically, Shero may weigh whether or not he wants to move a veteran with an expiring contract (Brooks Orpik or Matt Niskanen), a youngster struggling to stick with the big club when everyone is healthy (Simon Despres) or one of the promising prospects chomping at the bit for a shot in “The Show”.

Given that the Penguins have played only four periods with a healthy top-four this year, it could behoove Shero to wait until everyone is back before he makes a decision.  Because, ultimately, the opportunity to analyze his blue line at full strength will enable the G.M. to determine which individuals will best position the Pens for postseason success, both this year and in future campaigns.  Maybe the youngsters filling in, for example, have proven enough to make a veteran expendable sooner than expected; maybe not.  Shero may not know for sure, though, until he finally witnesses the defensive unit on the ice that he envisioned when he brought Scuderi back last summer.

 The Crosby Unit, Evgeni Malkin and…Zach Sill?

The top line will, without question, miss Pascal Dupuis.  After all, a nearly unparalleled chemistry exists between he, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.  But, with Crosby creating chances and Kunitz finding the back of the net, the line will surely still produce regardless of who fills in for “Duper”.  Sure, the club’s depth (or lack thereof) will suffer but, in the short-term, it may not significantly impact a team accustomed to overcoming adversity.

The return of Evgeni Malkin helps delay the need for Ray Shero to swing a deal following the Dupuis injury. (Tom Turk/THW)
The imminent return of Evgeni Malkin helps delay the need for Ray Shero to swing a deal following the Dupuis injury. (Tom Turk/THW)

Furthermore, help is on the way.  With Evgeni Malkin on the cusp of returning from injury, the Pens will soon “acquire” that top-six forward that so many fans desire, one who sits ninth in league scoring despite missing 20% of his team’s contests this year.  And, when you combine a top-six that includes James Neal, Malkin, Crosby and Kunitz with the Pittsburgh’s stellar play in net, a stingy defensive unit and unprecedented special teams, you’re left with a club poised to compete, particularly in the atrocious Metropolitan.

Finally, aside from inside the room, the loss of Dupuis could hurt the most in short handed situations.  Given that he’s become one of the team’s most reliable penalty killers up front, it stands to reason that one of the league’s most successful units would suffer from the loss of Duper.

Enter Zach Sill.  Though he has only dressed for 13 games with the big club, Sill has quickly established himself as someone Bylsma can count on to kill penalties, as illustrated by his 1:53 of short handed ice time per game.  And while he, alone, surely cannot fill Dupuis’ void, he just might be able to team up with the recently activated Tanner Glass to help soften the blow.

Yes, overcoming the loss of such a versatile player will prove difficult.  And, yes, the injury amplifies the need for Shero to make a move (or two) that serves to solidify his club as a true Stanley Cup contender.  Dupuis going down, however, won’t torpedo the Penguins’ season, nor should it elicit a knee jerk reaction.

It simply requires Shero to analyze both his team and the trade market, to deliver on a deal that positions his club for postseason success.  After all, year in and year out, that’s where the Pittsburgh faithful ultimately judge this squad.