At the start of this shortened NHL season, most pundits considered the Pittsburgh Penguins among the favorites to bring home the Stanley Cup. Along with the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins, they were supposed to be the class of the East. And, why not? Despite last season’s early flame-out at the hands of archrival Philadelphia, they still employ Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. For those of you scoring at home, that’s three Art Ross Trophies, two Harts, one Conn Smythe, a potential Norris winner and (despite his untimely struggles in net last postseason) a Stanley Cup winning goaltender. Throw in 40-goal scorer James Neal and you have a pretty formidable core group of players.
Not surprisingly, roughly halfway through the season for most squads, the Penguins sit atop the Atlantic Division. They lead the league in goals for per game and sit behind only the Bruins, Ducks and other-worldly Blackhawks in goal differential. That being said, they don’t really have the look of a team prepared to make a long playoff run.
Recently, the Penguins have given up goals in bunches, have played undisciplined and, perhaps most importantly, suddenly lack goaltending depth. Without the latter, they run the risk of being forced to overwork Fleury again. And we all saw the result the last time that happened.
If GM Ray Shero wants his team to be a serious contender this spring, he will likely need to swing some sort of deal. Cue the annual “They need a winger to play with Crosby” talk. After all, with the exception of the Marian Hossa rental that helped catapult the Pens to the ’08 Finals, Sid has never had anyone to play with, right?
Take a look at the NHL scoring leaders. You’ll notice that James Neal (15) and Chris Kunitz (14) sit third and fourth respectively in goal scoring. Further examination will show you that Kunitz is third in overall scoring and tied for the league lead in plus/minus at a +17. Additionally, Neal’s eight power play tallies pace the league. So why do people insist their biggest priority is a top-six forward? Don’t they have enough scoring prowess? After all, they put more pucks in the net than anyone else in the league with their current roster.
Unfortunately for those hoping to see Corey Perry or Jarome Iginla skating alongside Crosby, adding another high-profile winger has short and long-term repercussions. In the short-term, Pittsburgh has enough problems finding enough power play time for its stars. Hell, when Crosby came back from injury late last year, he was on the second unit.
With the likes of Malkin, Neal, Kunitz and the aforementioned Crosby, the Penguins don’t have room for another sharpshooter. What they do need is a power play quarterback; and Iginla or any other top-six forward is not likely to fill that role. Long-term, bringing in anyone at all is a bit trickier. Assuming they intend on retaining their home-grown stars, the Penguins likely won’t have the salary cap room to bring in another high profile player (unless it’s as a rental, which, admittedly, Iginla could be as a pending UFA) with both Malkin and Letang’s contracts set to expire at the end of next season.
If you look at the numbers, the reality the Penguins face is that another winger to play with Crosby or compliment Neal and Malkin is probably the last thing they need. Chris Kunitz is on absolute fire and among the league leaders in goals, points and plus/minus. Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis complement Crosby and provide all the elements of a complete scoring line: they put the puck in the net (having combined for 33 of the team’s 86 goals, or 38% of the offense), they can control the play, they have speed, they’re tenacious, they hit, they play defense. Simply put, they do it all.
With the departure of Steve Sullivan, it is true the Pens have had difficulty rounding out their top-six. But is that really their most pressing need? Malkin, despite his concussion scare, has still put up 23 points in 20 games while Neal has 23 points in 24 games and leads the league in power play goals. Clearly, scoring isn’t an issue for these two. What they really need is someone with speed who is responsible defensively; someone who is physical and tough to play against. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be the high-profile winger that so many people clamor for.
More alarming than their supposed lack of depth on the wing is the Pens ability (or lack thereof) to keep the puck out of their own net. They rank 23rd in goals against and 20th in penalty killing, things that, a few years ago, were both team strengths. It is a troublesome trend that has seen them give up 23 goals in their last five games. That’s not going to cut it for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
So what can the Penguins do? How can they stop the bleeding?
What the Penguins need more than anything is help on the blue line. Yes, they have Kris Letang. Yes, they have Brooks Orpik, veteran Paul Martin (whose performance, by the way, has been like night and day compared to last year’s nightmare of a season) and an embarrassment of riches in the pipeline.
What they don’t have enough of, though, are the Hal Gills or Rob Scuderis of the world who were instrumental when Pittsburgh was making its Cup runs. Simply put, the Penguins blue line is one-dimensional. It’s full of smooth skating, quick, puck moving defensemen. And that’s great; those guys are incredibly difficult to come by and are invaluable assets.
The problem, though, is that none of them are overly physical. Sure, Orpik throws his weight around and Letang can be nasty to play against but Pittsburgh needs someone with size who is going to stay at home, be a staple on the penalty kill and absolutely wreak havoc on anyone trying to create a net front presence. That’s what this team is missing right now and that’s what they need to get back to making themselves a legitimate threat to make a deep run in the playoffs.
So as the trade deadline approaches, Ray Shero faces a difficult decision. Does he attempt to pull a deal for that “elusive winger” the Penguins have been searching for to play alongside Sid in an attempt to add to what is already the league’s most potent offense or does he try to reshape his blue line that has struggled mightly as of late? Whatever he decides will go a long way toward determining whether or not this is a team capable of bringing home another championship or simply becomes that much more entertaining to watch.
No pressure, Ray.
Sean Griffin is a lead writer for the Pittsburgh Penguins at The Hockey Writers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.