The little Dutch boy only had so many fingers to plug holes. It is about two weeks until the NHL’s Feb. 24 trade deadline, and the Pittsburgh Penguins are moving in the wrong direction. They are getting further away from their optimum roster, not closer. Injuries continue to make a Penguins trade a problematic proposition.
The loss of 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel has loomed large over the lineup, and the Penguins haven’t been consistent since he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury on Dec. 30.
Adding to the Penguins troubles, defenseman Brian Dumoulin isn’t yet skating after he suffered severed tendons on Nov. 30. Center Nick Bjugstad, who is both a lineup contributor and trade bait, has recently stopped skating despite beginning an on-ice rehab on Jan. 8.
Dominik Kahun will help when he returns from a concussion, but he doesn’t solve the Pittsburgh Penguins need for a top-six winger.
Now, rookie defenseman John Marino who has been the second most productive Penguins defenseman behind Kris Letang, is presumably out for a good chunk of time after he suffered a broken cheekbone on Thursday night.
The harsh truth is the Penguins depth has been stretched beyond its limit. The team is rolling without a legitimate fourth line or third defense pairing.
Justin Schultz was playing on that pairing with fellow righty Chad Ruhwedel. The two righties weren’t very good together. On Saturday, Ruhwedel resumed his right-side third pairing role with Juuso Riikola on the left, but that pairing wasn’t very good in the weeks before Schultz’s return. It was terrible on Saturday.
The Penguins fourth line has been especially exposed in the last few games. Tampa Bay steamrolled past them, and the line received only five minutes of ice time. The match of AHL players and Alex Galchenyuk hasn’t worked well in some time. Saturday night, Sullivan benched Galchenyuk after the first period. He played only three minutes.
Oh, by the way, the Penguins top line with Jared McCann and Dominik Simon beside Sidney Crosby isn’t working either. In the past five games, McCann has two even-strength assists and is a minus-5. Simon has one goal and is a minus-seven. Crosby has managed five points (1g, 4a) in the same five games but is also a minus-5.
“He can score. He’s got good offensive instincts,” head coach Mike Sullivan said of McCann on Friday. “His ability to finish, I think is intriguing.”
Saturday night, Sullivan flipped McCann to the Malkin line after the Penguins top unit didn’t have a shot on goal in the first 20-plus minutes.
It’s not clicking, and there is no guarantee McCann, who was a fourth-line center in Florida just one year ago, will be the answer. Like many of you and the Penguins coaches, I too expected more from McCann on the top line.
If we view the NHL trade market as a store, the Penguins shopping list may be too long to get too aggressive. The Penguins need defensive depth, bottom line NHL players, and, most importantly, a top-six winger.
GM Jim Rutherford may also need at least one top-four defenseman.
One Penguins trade for a primary need, like a top-six winger and a secondary want like forward depth, is affordable. But to go after everything for one more Cup run would wipe clean the Penguins organization. A scoring winger, a top-four defenseman, forward help, and defensive depth will snap the Penguins budget like the injuries have broken their considerable depth.
In some semblance of healthy, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a special team and can hang with any team in the NHL in a seven-game series. As battered and bruised as the Penguins are, they can win single games, but a playoff march seems less likely.
Philadelphia, Washington, Tampa Bay, and Florida were able to get to the Penguins defensemen, create turnovers and mistakes. In praising what the Penguins have done well to win games, the inverse is also something on which the Penguins have also recently stumbled.
“It’s not any one thing, it’s a number of things that add up to (playing well). It’s everything from managing the puck the right way in different areas of the rink,” Sullivan said. “it’s working to reload in the offensive zone and stay above people so that if our defensemen pinches, he’s got support.”
The Penguins forwards have struggled with those aspects of staying on the right side of the puck and above their opponents. The recent number of odd-man rushes
Sunday morning, the Penguins find themselves in a much worse position than just a week ago. Without Jake Guentzel, the Penguins haven’t been the same team, but hope was lurking via trade for a top-six winger. But Dumoulin is not yet skating, and Bjugstad has apparently stopped skating as Sullivan’s recent updates have specifically omitted on-ice work.
There are only so many heroes available, and the Penguins are asking a lot of players to play above their paygrade.
A scoring winger might cure a lot of ills, but the Penguins will also need some luck on the trainer’s table if this season is to be special. Before Rutherford goes all-in at the trade deadline, he must be sure the Penguins have a reasonable chance to be their best version. Otherwise, discretion may be the better part of valor.
Of course, at least one of Rutherford’s presumed primary targets, Jason Zucker, has three years remaining on his contract.