Injuries have tormented and decimated the Pittsburgh Penguins. There is a limit to the amount of talent a team can lose and still be successful. Like a puzzle without corner pieces, the Pittsburgh Penguins roster and thus playoff outlook is difficult to put together. With only four games remaining in the regular season, and a long injury list, the Penguins are soon to learn if their puzzle is missing too many pieces.
Rumors have surrounded top defenseman Kris Letang’s availability for the start of the playoffs. A bruised Evgeni Malkin has continued to miss games, and now gritty winger Chris Kunitz is out for what coach Mike Sullivan deemed “an extended amount of time.”
As if defending the Stanley Cup is not tough enough.
According to ManGamesLost.com, as of March 25, the Penguins have rapidly climbed through the top 10 in total man games lost. When the impact of lost players is factored, the Penguins are second overall, behind only Buffalo. (https://www.mangameslost.com/nhl-man-games-lost-march-25-2017/)
Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford previously called Letang, “the straw which stirs the drink”. The compliment is a direct reference to Letang’s high leverage ice time, offensive spark, defensive coverage and energizing physical play.
Letang is a large, missing corner piece. There aren’t more than a handful of defensemen in the NHL who are as important to their team. He was previously seen working out during and after games. That has not been the case recently, based on observations from those who cover the team.
Letang’s absence has created a chain reaction and affected every facet of the Penguins game. Defensemen like Justin Schultz and Ian Cole, who were remarkably effective in third pairing minutes and responsibility, have been thrust into top roles, which has overextended their capabilities.
The Penguins have used a combination of Schultz and 39-year-old Mark Streit to fill the offensive void left by Letang. Though older defensemen like Streit and 36-year-old Ron Hainsey have been pressed into more minutes than a good team should need.
The additional minutes for all defensemen has worn down the players needed to replace Letang. Further, declining defensive performance allowed opponents to bombard Penguins goalies, which contributed to Matt Murray’s recent struggles and Marc-Andre Fleury’s 5-goal shelling, March 29th against the Blackhawks.
The forward crew is its own jigsaw puzzle without Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin and now Chris Kunitz.
The Penguins said Malkin’s shoulder injury, suffered when he blocked a shot against the Calgary Flames on the arduous western Canada road trip, is minor. However, Malkin has missed six games…and counting.
The loss of Kunitz may be overlooked by fans who scornfully point to Kunitz’s poor offensive production: Zero goals and two assists in his past 21 games, despite a heavy volume of chances. But its Kunitz’s volume of created chances, physical play in the corners and in front of the net, with speed which made Kunitz a big puzzle piece for nearly a decade.
In an era of puck possession metrics, Kunitz is a key contributor, even if his overall metrics underwhelm this season (down from 56% last season to 50.1% this season).
Josh Archibald was inserted into the line-up to replace Kunitz, Sunday. While Archibald plays a fast sandpaper game, he is likely only a 4th line NHL’er.
“I don’t think any one guy replaces what (Kunitz) brings,” said Sullivan. “We believe we can do it by committee. He plays with a lot of energy. He brings a physical element to our team…”
(You can watch Sullivan’s pre-game press conference on the Post-Gazette site, here: http://www.post-gazette.com/video/?v=5382510990001 )
With only four games remaining before the playoffs, timing, conditioning and chemistry will become issues for those injured players. A Game 1 seems a difficult situation for a player to see his first game action in weeks or months.
If the Penguins have all their puzzle pieces, it may not be enough to escape the Metropolitan Division which may be the best division ever of the salary cap era. The enormous strides of the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Washington Capitals improved defense will make the Penguins path more difficult than last season.
This season, the Penguins will not have a momentum filled running start at the playoffs, either. They will have a standing start…which itself seems like an injury risk.