Pittsburgh Penguins: 5 Rational Thoughts for an Utterly Irrational Season

James ConleyContributor IIIJanuary 9, 2012

Pittsburgh Penguins: 5 Rational Thoughts for an Utterly Irrational Season

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    The Hockey Gods hate the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    With James Neal and Jordan Staal shelved long-term and Craig Adams having suffered a "bad-looking knee injury," the Penguins might spend the next month with a more complete lineup out of the lineup than the one they'll actually put on the ice.

    To summarize:

    - The Penguins have lost 210 man-games to injury in just 40 contests, or have had 5.25 players on the bench for each game this season—sometimes fewer, often more. They lead the league in that category and are on pace to lose 430.5 man-games this season.

    - Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal have appeared in only 10 games together since the beginning of the 2010-11 season, 129 games ago.

    - 2011 will mark the second consecutive season in which Crosby and Staal (likely) will have missed more than 20 games.

    - Team leaders Crosby (PPG), Kris Letang (TOI), Neal (G, PPG, SOG) and Staal (PK TOI amongst forwards) won't play again until February, at best.

    - Letang, Neal and Staal were on pace to set career-highs in points and goals. Those pursuits are likely over.

    - Nine Penguins players have missed at least 10 games this season. Neal, Staal and Adams are likely to join them soon. Several more have or will have missed 20 or more games. Crosby has missed 32 games. Only six Penguins skaters, one of them Craig Adams, have played in every game this season.

    Keep these guys out of the casinos.

    The mental toll on those players left standing has to be absolutely staggering. It's been a calendar year since they last knew that their Captain would be there to lead them, and it seems no game goes by without at least one more man getting hurt.

    Dan Bylsma pulled all the right strings last season and his players willed their way to an unlikely 106 points.

    Doing so once is a tall order. Twice must be disheartening, to say the very, very least.

    The Pens are in a hole. Still, let the bridge-jumpers and bandwagoneers save their hyperbolic breath for another disaster. The season's not over yet.

    Five rational thoughts amidst a storm of irrational circumstances:

The Penguins Aren't Yet out of the Playoffs

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    Placing this team outside the playoff bubble less than halfway through the season is a bit presumptive.

    Keep in mind, the Penguins managed to eke 106 points out of last season's lineup, and that was with Tyler Kennedy as the team's leading scorer over the second half.

    Currently, Pittsburgh sits eighth in the Eastern Conference (they were first just a few weeks ago). For one thing, that speaks to how much better the conference has become as a whole. However, there are a few teams ahead of or near to the Penguins who may not be by the end of the season.

    Florida, Ottawa and Toronto each sit ahead of the Penguins in the East. Of these clubs, only Ottawa has any postseason appearances since the lockout.

    While each of these clubs has been surprisingly impressive through the first half, first-half surges often give way to tighter-checking, more defensive play down the stretch.

    That kind of hockey favors Pittsburgh.

    Ottawa is 28th in team defense and 24th on the penalty kill. Toronto ranks 24th in team defense and dead last in penalty killing and the Panthers, while 12th in goals against, rank 23rd on the penalty kill.

    The Penguins rank in the top ten of those defensive categories and still sport a plus-17 goal differential. Only Toronto (plus-2) has a positive differential amongst those clubs.

    Poor defensive play is exposed later in the season and exemplary defense is often rewarded. It was stifling defensive play that got the Penguins through the injury-plagued second-half of the 2010-11 campaign, and teams with superior defenses often make their pushes in the late winter and early spring.

    The Capitals are lurking just behind the Penguins and are a good bet to crack the top-eight by March. Ottawa, Florida and Toronto lack the experience and defense to suggest they'll be better than the Penguins by season's end.

Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury Still Healthy

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    For all the injuries to key players, all is not lost as far as star power is concerned.

    Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin are still in the lineup. Though they'll be without much help for a while, each can steal wins for this team and at least keep them in the hunt.

    Malkin is on pace to contend for the Art Ross Trophy, though that hunt will almost surely be limited by the loss of linemate and leading scorer James Neal. Malkin leads the club with 28 assists, 44 points and is now the leading active goal-scorer with 16 goals.

    Malkin is also the team's best man-advantage weapon, leading the club with 16 power-play points.

    Fleury has hit a rough stretch of late, but has shown the ability to steal wins and put the team on his back.

    No. 29 ranks fourth in the league with 19 wins and was named the team MVP last season after doing his part to carry the Pens to 106 points amidst injuries to the Penguins' forward group.

    His .912 save percentage and 2.31 GAA are off his career-best pace of earlier this season, but he can regain that form with a healthy defensive corps to insulate him.

    There's every reason to believe each of these players will see their numbers drop as their teammates drop before them. Malkin has fallen off his stellar December pace and has fallen into a rut of taking undisciplined penalties.

    Fleury, too, is struggling. He's allowed three or more goals in all but one of his 13 losses this season and his numbers have fallen well off his early-season pace. Still, he and Malkin have the pure talent to pull the rest of the club through the string of injuries hammering this team.

    If they, too, can stay healthy, that is.

Talking Trades? Get Your Head Right

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    A lot of folks have brought up the trade route now that Pittsburgh is without three of its top four scorers, two of its top three penalty killers and a handful of its better grinders.

    Stop.

    Trades are not maneuvers to be made from a place of desperation. Any team executive dealing with Penguins GM Ray Shero would be foolish not to smell the desperation emanating from such a scenario.

    Trading is a bad option for several reasons. First (and least likely), acquiring forwards now would create a logjam at several positions when everyone is healthy again.

    Again, least likely.

    Furthermore, the Penguins aren't exactly deep in the farm system. Several straight years of playoff appearances and late-round draft picks, as well as stretch-run trades involving picks and prospects, have put a hurt on the farm-club cabinets.

    Pittsburgh has little in the way of movable assets, and Shero would be foolish to deal any of the team's elite defensive prospects for a short-term fix.

    Furthermore, there are 44 games left to play this season. Even if Staal misses the full six weeks he's projected to miss and Neal matches him, the team will have both players back for the last 20 or so games of the season.

    Crosby and Letang may not be back this season, or they may be back before either Staal or Neal. Who knows?

    In any event, the Penguins would have to drop disastrously low in the standings to be unable to manufacture a run with those guys back in the lineup. Fleury, Malkin and a mostly healthy defense should keep the Pens within striking distance.

    Looking even further ahead, the Penguins have a number of contracts to extend or let go of in the coming years. Staal, Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Letang and Fleury will all be due new deals within the next four years. Making desperation trades now could complicate contract negotiations down the road, or leave the Pens less able to cope with the loss of core players to free agency.

    The instinct to trade is a knee-jerk reaction, and the Pens would almost certainly be the losers in any deal they could cut right now. Shero and his staff approach everything with eyes on the long-term, and that's not about to change—nor should it.

Bylsma Is a Players' Coach, but He Must Adjust X's and O's

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    Dan Bylsma knows how to reach his players. It's how he helped to guide a group of grinders and defensemen to within a point of the division title last season.

    He'll have to get the most of his remaining healthy players again this year, but adjustments to the game plan wouldn't hurt.

    Byslma's philosophies don't need to change. Forechecking, quick transition and puck retrieval are proven assets in the Penguins system. Even their physicality, which some have come to blame for the team's injured list, is integral to their success.

    But it's all becoming predictable.

    How many teams have become accustomed to the stretch-pass chip and chase? It's old hat by now. A defensemen fires the puck long down the boards to a waiting forward. He grazes the puck to negate an icing call and the forecheckers enter the zone in search of the puck and starting a cycle.

    Opponents have developed remedies for the play, especially the Pens' familiar division opponents.

    The loss of skilled forwards means the Penguins are even more likely to play the chip and chase game, a technique that can be stifled by trapping teams and completely neutralized by good stickhandling goaltenders.

    It's not all that must change. The Penguins have squandered a string of games in which they scored the first goal, largely due to second-period defensive meltdowns and an inability to weather storms of sustained forechecking by opposing teams.

    Let's not mention how the Pens have allowed shorthanded goals in consecutive games. Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis, for all they are, are not power-play quarterbacks. This goes double without Kris Letang's singular closing speed available to stifle shorthanded breakaways.

    If any Penguins player not named Evgeni Malkin is going to contribute to the offense, their production has to start with revised game planning.

    The Penguins' way of "getting to their game" is getting to be awfully predictable.

Pens Have to Use Eric Tangradi—The Right Way, and Right Away

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    Eric Tangradi is a young power forward who has proven he can create havoc in front of the net and who will almost certainly be part of the lineup for the forseeable future. He hasn't developed as quickly as many expected and more than once that has led to trade speculation and the "bust" word.

    Those observations are based on what, exactly?

    Tangradi has never spent a meaningful length of time in Pittsburgh, and his rare visits have been stifled by the return of injured players, injuries of his own (Trevor Gillies' assault comes to mind) or the team's decision to bury him on the fourth line with players and minutes which do little to facilitate his development.

    Now that the Penguins are reaching for offensive help wherever it may lie, why not find out whether Tangradi really is top-six material by (gasp!) playing him in a top-six role?

    For whatever reason, the Penguins have never placed Tangradi in a position to produce at the NHL level. If it's his production that's being criticized, he at least deserves the chance to play alongside the team's playmakers.

    Linemates weren't always the concern. Tangradi lacked focus for a time, and it's still questionable whether he has the wheels to play into the Bylsma mold.

    However, his skill set can be used to produce offense, should the Penguins bend to help accommodate him.

    Among the pieces missing from this team is a true net-front presence. Chris Kunitz is as close as the team has come to having a disruptive force in front of the net, and he's been responsible for more disallowed goals than good ones.

    Tangradi is a force in front of the net. The Pens scored on only two of their final 30-plus power play chances in the last eight games of last season—Tangradi was planted directly in front of the goaltender for each of those goals.

    In the other six games, he was a healthy scratch.

    There are no excuses now. Plant Tangradi on Malkin's line, allow him to get to the front of the net and see if he has better luck avoiding goaltenders than Kunitz has. Put him on the top power-play unit and find out if he can create shooting lanes for Malkin and others.

    Tangradi leads Wilkes-Barre/Scranton with 14 goals and is second on that team with 25 points in 30 games.

    He didn't create those numbers by playing fourth-line minutes.