The fun “will he or won’t he play” saga of P-O Joseph is but a momentary sideshow for the already crippled Pittsburgh Penguins lineup. For much of last season, the Penguins were battered and bruised. They lead the league in significant man-games lost until late in the regular-season when the Columbus Blue Jackets somehow found even worse luck waiting on their doorstep.
Now, the Penguins are in a bad spot. Their defensemen are hurt, the replacements are untested, and they have no choice.
This season, the Penguins don’t have the sheer volume of injuries but instead are dealing with injuries concentrated on the left side of their blue line. Marcus Pettersson received a borderline cheap shot from Washington Capitals winger T.J. Oshie in the second period on Tuesday. Oshie blindsided Pettersson after the puck had gone. Oshie’s trajectory glanced off Pettersson’s shoulder before Oshie’s shoulder made direct contact with Pettersson’s head.
Head coach Mike Sullivan said Pettersson is out week to week but did not cite a concussion when he announced the absence Thursday after practice.
Pettersson is second on the Penguins LHD depth chart behind only Brian Dumoulin.
The Penguins were already dealing with LHD Mike Matheson’s “longer-term” injury after Nicolas Aube-Kubel delivered a dangerous hit last Friday, which sent Matheson sprawling into the boards.
Both Aube-Kubel and Oshie were assessed minor penalties for interference. The Penguins are left to deal with the fallout.
To compound matters, Juuso Riikola is out “a bit longer” than Pettersson, according to Sullivan. The Penguins will have to call upon their fifth or sixth LHD on Friday night against the Rangers, P-O Joseph, or Kevin Czurczman.
The Penguins already benched offseason free-agent signee Cody Ceci, who will now be pressed into duty, perhaps in the top-four.
“Anytime our team has faced injuries, it’s always an opportunity for someone else to step up and fill the void,” Sullivan said. “We believe we’ve got NHL caliber players here, and we believe in the depth that we have, and the onus is going to be on everyone to make sure it’s an opportunity to help the Penguins win…”
Pittsburgh Penguins Going Forward
Last season, it was impressive as the Penguins won at a greater rate without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin than they did with the pair in the lineup together. Injuries piled up, and the Penguins converted the adversity to Ws.
Without Petterson, Mathson, and Riikoa, what comes next? Fellow depth LHD Kevin Czuczman hasn’t been in an NHL lineup since he skated 13 games for the New York Islanders in 2013.
There is a growing sentiment that Joseph is ready for his NHL debut, too.
“P-O deserves a lot of credit for how hard he’s worked to improve certain aspects of his game,” Sullivan said. “We know that he’s a big part of the group of defensemen that will potentially play for us this year.”
To the end, Sullivan declined to say which defenseman will get the nod on Friday, though he also admitted they’ve already made their decision.
But it seems the Penguins will be in this spot for weeks; they’ll be pressing their ninth or 10th defenseman into the lineup for likely a couple of weeks or more.
The Penguins will need to scratch and claw not only for points but to protect their third pairing. Perhaps the Pittsburgh Penguins will use this as a rallying cry, just as they did last season when Sidney Cross went under the knife.
But the Penguins are in a bad spot. It’s one thing to replace a forward. It’s entirely another to plug depth defensemen into the lineup for a long stretch. The Penguins will be tested, and there will likely be some issues.
One shouldn’t bet against their wily GM Jim Rutherford adding some help, either, pending just how long the Penguins think they will be shorthanded.