The Pittsburgh Penguins are off Sunday but that doesn’t mean Penguins GM Jim Rutherford should rest. The Penguins injury situation worsened Saturday as both forward Jared McCann and defenseman Brian Dumoulin were scratched due to injury.
The Penguins are currently missing five forwards. Center Evgeni Malkin may or may not have a soft tissue injury which can take six to eight weeks to heal. Alex Galchenyuk may or may not have a spider bite as TSN reporter Bob McKenzie reported. According to WebMD, those too can take six to eight weeks to heal. Bryan Rust clearly suffered a hand injury and we know hockey doesn’t treat those types of injuries well.
Nick Bjugstad might be the first to return in a couple of weeks. He was in workout gear after the game on Saturday night. Initial estimates place his return in a couple of weeks. If McCann reaggravated his injury which worried the Penguins enough to hold him out of an empty lineup Wednesday night, that doesn’t seem to be a good scenario either.
The bat signal is in the sky for Rutherford.
The Penguins won five in a row until a ridiculous performance by Marc-Andre Fleury on Saturday night. But the reasons for those wins were easy to spot. The Penguins scored some power-play goals but Sidney Crosby dominated the game. The team also got unexpected scoring contributions from Sam Lafferty and some intermittent depth scoring but also protected their goal with team defense.
The defensive effort can and should continue but asking players to play above their paygrade has its limits.
Is anyone comfortable with Lafferty as the second-line center? The Penguins shouldn’t be. Lafferty has earned a good, long look in the NHL but the second-line center is a big deal. The Penguins lineup shortcomings have been obvious. The injury situation not only means some players who otherwise may not be in the lineup get a sweater, but it also means players play above their station, such as Lafferty on the second line or Teddy Blueger as the third line center.
Deploying a defenseman with exactly two games experience at forward doesn’t seem to be a wise decision if McCann is out for some time.
The situation also seemed to strike a nerve with head coach Mike Sullivan, who forcefully offered a single word when asked for if he had a status update on McCann or Dumoulin, “No.” Though his answer was closer to, “NO.”
Rutherford doesn’t seem to have good luck when he gambles on unbalanced rosters. It seems to invite worst-case scenarios, such as 2015 when the Penguins were forced to play with five defensemen for the final weeks of the season.
It’s time for Rutherford to fix the Penguins’ current imbalance. He’s not without options, though none are ideal.
The Penguins could make a fourth emergency recall from the WBS Penguins. Andrew Agozzino or Stefan Noessen are the likely candidates. Noessen has 145 NHL games experience with 24 goals, a quality shot but a loose game to go with it. In six games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season he already has six goals.
Noessen is on an AHL contract after not sticking with Dallas in training camp, but the Penguins have used only 48 of their 50 allotted contracts. So, adding his contract would not cost the Penguins an asset.
The Penguins could also recall Nathan Legare for several games without burning the first year of his entry-level contract. Or give the tap to Sam Poulin, whose statistics in the QMJHL include more than a point per game and a plus-nine rating. The 2019 top picks acquitted themselves well in training camp, and the Penguins could be better off giving their top prospects a little taste of the NHL. If it doesn’t work, the player can be sent back.
Or it’s time for the other shoe to drop: the Penguins trade which hasn’t yet happened. Playing with 11 forwards is not a long-term recipe for success, so even a minor deal for a forward who is able to temporarily fill space in the NHL would help.
For gosh sakes, someone please give Josh Ho-Sang a fresh start. Remember when Evander Kane and P.K. Subban were thought to be trouble? Kane also had a problem attending meetings and reportedly issues finding a proper suit. Kane matured and San Jose has recouped the rewards of their gamble.
There are also a few free agents including 36-year-old Jason Pominville, who may not have much left but he could provide the Penguins a short burst of NHL ability on a friendly two-way contract. The right-handed shot had 16 goals with Buffalo last season and would be an immediate upgrade for the Penguins’ current configuration. Pominville is assumed to be waiting on Buffalo, but their 7-1-1 record with young players doesn’t scream opportunity.
The Penguins need help and whatever Rutherford chooses, the options aren’t great but they are probably better than the current situation. But most of the available options are also disposable as the Penguins’ situation improves.