Saturday, February 5, 2011

Not All Lost for Pittsburgh Penguins

It was a year that started out so promising for the Pittsburgh Penguins.  A stellar off season of big signings on the defensive end looked to correct their biggest weakness.  Unfortunately all that glitters is not Vegas Gold.  Injuries to Jordan Staal dragged out, free agent signee Mike Comrie hurt his hip and was out early... and then there was the continuing injuries to their biggest stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.

Sidney's concussion issues are well debated.  What seemed to linger for the other half of the combination was a left knee injury that occurred early on in the 2010-2011 campaign.  In and out of the line up with a bum left knee and missing the previous five games, Malkin finally made his return to the line up last night in a 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.

Despite the solid team win, a greater loss was felt.  After a second period collision along the boards with the Sabres defender Tyler Myers, Malkin went down in a head and had trouble rising.  The worst was feared following the awkward landing on his right knee and those fears were confirmed today by Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, "Evgeni Malkin had an MRI this morning. The results show that he has a torn MCL and a torn ACL. At this point in time we are discussing options with the doctors on what to do next."

With the likely season ending injury to Evgeni Malkin and no time table for a return on Sidney Crosby from his concussion things seem bleak for fans of the flightless fowl but not all is lost.  A silver lining in the slew of injuries that has beset the Penguins is the performance of the youth of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Dustin Jeffrey
In the past the Penguins thrived on their "three center model" of strength down the middle in Crosby, Malkin, and Staal.  While the loss of Malkin certainly harms this, it does not rid them of the option.  The strength of call ups like Mark Letestu (though sidelined for a torn meniscus) and Dustin Jeffrey, who has seemed to convert his scoring touch from the AHL into a way with the puck in the NHL (4 goals, 2 assists in 10 games) can fill in the 3rd line center role without much drop off from Jordan Staal.
Speaking of Jordan Staal, he's long been praised for being the best third line center in the NHL.  Many have speculated that he could easily be a second line center on the majority of NHL teams.  With the injury to Malkin keeping him out the remainder of the year, this is Staal's chance to step up and prove that he can carry a top line of his own.  
Eric Tangradi
The trade deadline is, as of right now, 11 games away.  The theory is that this will send GM Ray Shero into a bit of a rush mode.  With some center depth (with the eventual expected return of Sidney Crosby) the question is who is going to play wing.  Coach Bylsma could keep the "best third line in hockey" together by bumping Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy up with Jordan Staal on the second line or see what the likes of prospect Eric Tangradi, in his second tour of duty in the NHL this season, can do before searching the open market for the lines of an Alex Tanguay, Blake Comeau, or Brad Boyes, one year rentals who can fill a scoring role. 
 While it's now more than ever likely that Shero will acquire one of the above (or another unnamed winger scoring threat) perhaps the biggest X-Factor in this whole tale is the aforementioned Mike Comrie.  He underwent hip surgery in late December and was expected to miss four months.  This puts his return date right near the start of the Playoffs.  Could the former 30 goal scorer have the impact of Miroslav Satan in 2009, a player all but given up on who comes in to make a significant impact on a Cup run?
Mike Comrie
While the loss of Malkin seems devastating for the Penguin, it has ramifications far beyond this year.  How players like Tangradi, Letestu, Jeffrey and Staal perform in the absence of Malkin depends largely on what next year holds for the Penguins.  The blessing of the curse of the tearing of Evgeni Malkin's ACL and MCL is the chance for the youth to step up.
If everyone steps up the Penguins will be one of the more deep and balanced teams in the league.  The smart addition of some players at the deadline plus the already strong defense and All Star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury would still leave the Penguins as a team to be reckoned with come April.  
For Penguins fans there are likely a lot of "ifs" in this scenario that doesn't inspire.  How it will end, only time will tell.  Just step off of the Clemente Bridge, Pens fans.  Not all is lost.  No one will know how this story truly ends until sometime next year when Malkin returns.  In the mean time look towards the spring to see how this season ends and February 28th to see how the dominoes begin to fall.

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