Tuesdays With Stoosh: 1.11

So I was all set to go off about the media bashing Crosby for being honest (and accurate) about the hits that landed him with this giant effing headache, especially since the Pens were cruising along with this 2-0 lead against the Bruins.  Not a terribly exciting game, but a 2-0 lead and less than ten minutes left in the game even made Joe Beninati’s play-by-play bearable.  
Then Orpik goes off for boarding someone, and Chara scores on a slapshot.  Chara still looks like a giraffe on skates, but dude has a slapshot that would burn a hole through your hand if you tried to stop it, so whatever.  No big deal.  Pens will lock this down, ri…?
Goal, Bruins.
And just like that, the collapse was underway.  By the time Dwyer or Peel rang up Staal for that cheap-ass holding call, you could see the third Bruins goal coming.  All that was left was sending the Consol cleaning crews out to Centre Ave. to pick up all the little bits and pieces of black and Vegas gold.
Remember the 3-2 overtime shootout win at Washington the night before Christmas Eve?  Since that point, the Pens are 2-4-2, good for just 6 of the last 16 standings points.
Welcome to hockey season.  To some degree, this is what happens for pretty much every team.  You go six weeks looking like the 76-77 Canadiens, and then the next eight games, the team is so inconsistent you start wondering if #71 is really Konstantin Koltsov and it’s 2003-04 all over again.  It’s ebb and flow.  It’s part of a season that is much more marathon than sprint.  They’re playing through a rough patch after 20 solid games of things going their way, and they’ll find their way out of this.
That said, there are some issues that are starting to reveal themselves as problematic.  There are some things that a terrific November and first half of December, and Crosby playing at a runaway MVP level have hidden.  In fact, let’s start there.
Versus, of course, reminded us 100 times each period last night that Sidney Crosby was not in the lineup.  While it gets annoying to listen to after about, oh, one period, there is something to be said for what Crosby’s absence has revealed about the scoring depth at forward on this Pens team.
In short, there is none.  And three goals scored in the last three games played without Crosby  – all against teams well within the playoff hunt in their respective conferences – has some fans wondering just how long it’ll be before the Pens lack of scoring depth at forward becomes an issue.  Truth is, these scoring issues at forward go beyond just three games.  Look at the whole season.  
Here’s a scary fact.  
Of the top 100 scoring forwards in the league, the Pens have three – Sid, Geno and Kunitz.  By comparison, Toronto has five, and all five from Toronto are in the NHL’s top 60.  Only two from the Pens can make that claim – Crosby and Malkin.  
Now, you could look at that and argue that scoring means little, then, relative to both Pittsburgh’s and Toronto’s places in the standings.  Not necessarily.  It’s reflective of the way each team’s GM has chosen to distribute its cap space.  The Pens have invested heavily in three centers, four defensemen and a goalie.  Toronto has invested heavily two defensemen, a franchise-caliber winger and a few other forwards who are second-line talents at best.  It’s a much different distribution of talent and money.
But that’s beside the point.  Here are some facts, none of them pretty when it comes to scoring depth:
= Crosby’s 66 points are more than twice that of any other forward not named Malkin.  
= Kunitz is the only other forward who has eclipsed the 20-point plateau, which wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t past the midpoint of the season.
= Only Crosby, Malkin and Kunitz have double-digits in goals on the year, although it’s only fair to note that Letestu (9), Cooke (8) and Dupuis (8) are knocking on the door of the 10-goal plateau.
It’s not really for lack of trying.  The Pens are 11th in the league in shots per game, so they’re getting pucks to the net.  The problem is that three of their top four shooters at forward – Malkin, Kennedy and Dupuis – all have shooting percentages less below 10%.  Kennedy has shot the puck 117 times this year; problem is that about 95% of the time, he hits the goalie (6 goals).
It’s got to change at some point, and that has to start with Malkin.  
Taking just Malkin’s 2007-08 and 2008-09 regular seasons, he put up 219 points in 164 games.  Since winning the Conn Smythe in the 2009 Playoffs, Malkin has 123 points in 119 games, including last year’s playoffs.   To put that in perspective, he’s gone from producing at a pace that generates 110-point seasons to one that tops out at about 85 points.
What’s worse is that his goal scoring is down.  He’s gone from .57 goals per game in 2007-08 to .42 in 08-09 and 09-10.  He’s down to .38 goals per game this year.  He leads the team in shots; the puck just isn’t going in for him like it was a few years ago, and no one seems to know why.  But it’s been a season and a half now and if the Pens are going to hope to do anything in the postseason, they’re going to need Malkin to pick it up.
I can’t help but look at what Malkin was doing in 2007-08 and 2008-09 and wonder if it has something to do with the guys on his wing.  In 2007-08, he mostly played alongside either Malone and Sykora or Crosby and Armstrong.  In 2008-09, he had Fedotenko and Sykora.  This year?  Most of his even-strength minutes have been played alongside Cooke and Talbot, or with Crosby and Kunitz.  Crosby speaks for himself, but let’s face it – Cooke & Talbot aren’t snipers or finishers of any pedigree whatsoever.  Sykora scored 28 and 25 goals respectively in 07-08 and 08-09.
So am I trotting out the old “Pens need to look into upgrading the wings” argument?
You’re goddamn right.
But we’re going to do this with a caveat.
You can’t have a discussion or bring up the notion of upgrading the wings without people automatically pointing at the team’s lack of cap space and saying, “Nope.  There’s no way the Pens can afford an elite winger.” And I agree, especially if we’d be talking about adding an elite winger.  But that’s probably not necessary.  Modest upgrades may be the way to go, not just out of financial necessity, but rather “the system”.
Bylsma’s system required wings to play more as forecheckers, puck retrievers and net crashers than they’re supposed to be finishers.  Offense in Disco’s system tends to come from puck possession in the corners and then out to the points, so scoring chances go more through the middle of the ice and right around the nets than they do from out on the wings.  This is why they don’t need to consider adding an elite and expensive talent like Hossa.  This is more about finding a solution out there who fits Bylsma’s system that has a better touch around the net and chip in some of these garbage chances.
Shero and Bylsma will more than likely look internally first, so let’s start there.
First off, let’s kill the Tyler Kennedy Experiment on the top lines.  He’s not the answer.  He’s not going to be the answer.  He’s fired 120 shots at the net this year and barely five have gone in.  Kennedy’s got great speed and he’s tenacious, but he’s got fourth-line caliber hands.  There are better options. 
Want a puck retriever off the current roster?  How about Arron Asham, who showed a little bit of chemistry with Malkin around the net earlier this year?
If not, maybe it’s time to give a guy like Dustin Jeffrey an extended look.  Maybe it’s time to bring up someone like Eric Tangradi.  Those are two guys who have proven at lower levels to be better finishers than Tyler Kennedy ever was.  Jeffrey scored 30 goals twice in the OHL and was a 24-goal scorer at Wilkes-Barre last year.  He’s got 15 goals with the AHL Pens this year.  Tangradi scored 38 goals in an OHL season and has scored at a goal-every-other-game pace in the AHL this year.
The trade deadline is February 28, so that leaves about six more full weeks for Shero to evaluate things.  If the next four weeks or so don’t bear something out, Shero will likely look outside the organization for a cheaper option that fits the system and, contrary to what some might say, there are options there.  
First call may be to our old buddy Garth Snow.
Matt Moulson
40 games – 14G – 8A – 22P
The Isles have been out of contention basically since Thanksgiving with a lineup that was decimated with injuries nearly from the start.  They’ve already started shipping players out.  Moulson has 14 goals on the year and scored 30 last year.  He’s got decent hands and plays a no-nonsense, drive-to-the-net game.  He’s got decent speed and won’t shy away from physical play.  He’d rival Pascal Dupuis for the team lead in eyebrows.  
Moulson is 27 years old and will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.  His cap hit to start the season was $2.45 million, so bringing him in might require some creativity by Shero.  If it works out, he can be re-signed next season.
Drew Stafford
26 games – 14G – 8A – 22P
It may only happen if Buffalo falls further back in the standings, but Stafford is another affordable option who might be worth a look.  No idea how he fits in Buffalo or what Regier’s future plans for him may be.  He’s more affordable than Moulson (Stafford’s cap hit at the start of the year was $1.9 million) and he’ll be a restricted free agent at season’s end.  He’s not really a sniper, but he’s got good hands around the net.
One more…
Devin Setoguchi
34 games – 7G -5A – 12P
The former 8th overall pick of the 2005 Entry Draft, Setoguchi has tailed off after two strong seasons in SJ (34 goals in 2008-09, 20 goals last year) and may be the classic case of someone in need of a change of scenery.  He’s extremely fast and has a solid goal-scoring touch dating back to his days in the Western Hockey League.  Think Tyler Kennedy, a bit bigger and with hands. 
I have no idea if the Sharks would really consider moving him, but his name was popping up in some rumors earlier in the season given his struggles.  He’s got a cap hit of $1.8 million and he’s a restricted free agent after this year.
So there are three names that might be starting points.  No idea if the Pens are interested in any of them.  Even if they aren’t, that could change if the scoring depth from the forwards doesn’t improve.  
The system is designed to generate most of the offense through the centers.  It’s worth noting, too, that Jordan Staal isn’t going to be shut out for the rest of the year either.  It’s been five games now for him and he has yet to notch a point, but that’s not going to continue.  At least we hope not.  But that’s all moot if Malkin doesn’t start finding his old game again.  It has to start there, and the course of the next six weeks will be determined largely by what Malkin does.