In which the people throwing themselves from the Penguins bandwagon are probably out 8 weeks with lower body injuries…
By now you all know the deal.
Jordan Staal's done for 4-6 weeks with an MCL sprain. James Neal is likely out at least that long and maybe more after breaking his foot blocking a shot against New Jersey. And during a Sunday practice called to kick the team in its collective ass, Craig Adams is now out for an undetermined time after injured his knee in a collision.
Game over, man.
Okay, not quite. Not technically, at least.
But let's not kid ourselves here. The Pens are now missing two of their top three centers (Crosby & Staal), their best all-around defenseman (Letang), their most skilled winger & biggest powerplay threat (Neal), and two of their three best penalty-killing forwards (Staal and Adams). And this is hoping no one else gets hurt.
The Pens took the practice ice today with lines centered by Evgeni Malkin, Pascal Dupuis, Joe Vitale and Richard Park. If you're scoring at home, that's an elite center, a converted energy winger, a first-year NHLer and a 35-year old who was playing in Switzerland last season, respectively.
In other words, for the second straight season, welcome back to 2001-02. The sad thing is that analogy may be even more appropriate this year than it was last season.
The 2001-02 Pens were fresh off a run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Jagr was traded prior to the season, but the Pens still had Lemieux primed for his full season following his comeback in 2000-01. They also still had Alexei Kovalev, Robert Lang and Marty Straka – three players who at the time formed one of the best three lines in the league. Throw in Jan Hrdina and Aleksey Morozov and there was plenty of scoring up front to balance out two decent lines.
Lemieux hurt his hip in the preseason and nagging injuries limited him to 24 games. A series of unfortunate injuries limited Straka to just 13 games. Kovalev and Lang battled injuries that cost them each 20-25 games.
The team remained competitive through the first half of the season. But injuries to key players stacked on top of each other and too many support players were being asked to play too many games in roles they really weren't suited for or capable of handling. Hrdina and Morozov were decent complimentary players, but if they have to carry your offense, you're in trouble. Guys like Randy Robitaille, Kris Beech and Toby Petersen were pressed into roles they weren't suited to handle.
After months of staying afloat, the team collapsed in late January and won just six games after February 1. Hello, lottery pick.
Yes, the Pens made the playoffs last year in the face of ridiculous injuries. But last year, the injuries didn't REALLY hit until February. By that point, the Pens had built enough of a cushion that they were able to essentially play .500 hockey over the second half and still make the postseason. As Mike Colligan points out in his post at The Hockey Writers, the Pens also reaped the benefits of an unusual amount of overtime games down that stretch that helped kick in some extra standings points.
(Quick tangent: Mike's notes on potential trade strategies there are pretty much dead-on. Jarome Iginla isn't walking through that door, at least not yet. And even if it gets closer to the deadline, the $7 million cap hit on his contract in 2012-13 probably says no. Bobby Ryan? I'd love to be wrong, but I'm not getting my hopes up.)
This year, the injuries began to mount much earlier in the season. Much like they did in 2001-02, the 2011-12 Pens have had to rely heavily on support players whose roles have been elevated for extended periods of time. That only looks to get worse given what befell the Pens on Sunday, as evidenced by the team's lines in practice on Monday:
That top line of Sullivan, Malkin and Kunitz should be able to produce some offense on a regular basis, but beyond that?
Dupuis is still on pace for a career-high 22 goals, but he has cooled considerably after his hot start. He has just three points in his last ten games.
Kennedy has been having the worst year of his career. With 42 games left, he's on pace to finish with 13 goals. Perhaps that improves as he'll be getting more ice time, but needs to start finishing at a clip closer to what he did last year. His 5.1% shooting percentage is just over half of what it was in 2010-11.
Cooke? Cooke's solid like normal, but with 7 goals in 40 games, he's on pace for his usual 14-15 goals a year.
Tangradi? He's still kind of an unknown, and it may be now or never for him. He has to earn his ice time, but it'd be nice if the coaches put him in some situations where he COULD succeed.
We all love these guys and this isn't trying to knock any of them. It's just that they are what they are. They're classic support players – guys normally asked to 1) play their regular roles at highly efficient levels (which many of them do) and 2) provide secondary scoring. No matter what Steigy would have you believe when he gets the Hyperbole Machine cranked up during broadcasts these days, these aren't players who would all be regular top-line forwards for the Bruins or the Rangers or the Canucks. They're not some kind of unknown or untapped elite talents that Shero has quietly stowed away, waiting to spring them on an unsuspecting NHL. And history isn't always on the side of teams that have to rely so heavily on support players for extended stretches of the season.
No one here is giving up on the season. No one is saying to stop watching the team or anything like that, although if that floats your boat, hey, cool. We'll see you again when Crosby, Staal and Letang come back and the team probably strings together a six-game winning streak.
And that IS the part of this whole mess that's been lost as the initial shock of the news from Sunday morning is still being felt. Neal and Staal WILL be back at some point this year. Jeffrey is close to returning, perhaps as early as tonight. And while no one knows what to expect with Crosby right now, recent reports suggest that Kris Letang is making some sort of progress in recovering from his concussion and it seems like he may be back at some point this year.
And no one is saying that until all this happens, the team can't win games; they certainly can. It's just that over the next couple of months, it could be and probably will be ugly at times. The wins probably won't be pretty; some of the losses will look even worse. Nothing is guaranteed and there's a chance that the Pens don't hold on to this playoff spot.
There's also a chance that they do. It's been about three years since we've been here as a fan base, watching the Pens have to fight to stay in a playoff race. Let's see what the players can do. Let's see how Bylsma adjusts and how Shero approaches the trade deadline.
Let this play out.
And let's go Pens.