It's tough to talk about the Pittsburgh Penguins right now without discussing their injury woes. Losing bodies on a nightly basis hasn't prevented the team from winning, though, which will make the lengthy IR list right now a positive thing in the long run.
The obvious conclusion here is that the Penguins are able to see what some of their young players can do in the NHL instead of watching them in the AHL and taking an educated guess. When you do a little digging, though, the timing for this run of injuries couldn't be much better.
The reasoning is simple: After this season, Pittsburgh will have at least 16 free agents to deal with, according to CapGeek.com.
|Jussi Jokinen (UFA)||Brooks Orpik (UFA)||Jayson Megna (RFA)|
|Tanner Glass (UFA)||Matt Niskanen (UFA)||Zach Sill (RFA)|
|Chuck Kobasew (UFA)||Tomas Vokoun (UFA)||Harry Zolnierczyk (RFA)|
|Joe Vitale (UFA)||Jeff Zatkoff (UFA)||Simon Despres (RFA)|
|Chris Conner (UFA)||Brandon Sutter (RFA)||Philip Samuelsson (RFA)|
|Deryk Engelland (UFA)|
Many of those expiring contracts are of the restricted variety, and the Penguins are getting nice, long looks at the likes of Jayson Megna and Simon Despres. If the team had stayed healthy throughout this season, it's likely that several of the players that are currently on the roster wouldn't have seen much (if any) time in the NHL.
This arms Pittsburgh with some powerful information about the makeup of the organization moving forward, though, and several players have performed well enough to have a fair shot at seeing their roles increase between this season and the next.
Role Increase on Defense
You'll hear coaches harp on the point again and again during times of crisis. That injuries in the lineup just create opportunities for other players. Pittsburgh has seen several guys step up their play, thus earning A. A new contract this summer and B. Increased roles in the near future.
Matt Niskanen is a prime example of a player that has stepped up his games and ran away with the chance to be a go-to guy for the Penguins.
At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, the former Dallas Star was seen as a bottom-pairing defenseman. He was going to battle the likes of Deryk Engelland and Olli Maatta for playing time and was going to visit the press box as a scratch from time to time.
Niskanen has not only made himself indispensable on Pittsburgh's blue line over the last two months, he's also earned himself a hefty raise. He has gone from depth player to anchor in a matter of weeks and has been impressive in the process.
Another defenseman that has excelled with the extra exposure has been Despres, who has settled in wonderfully since his recall at the end of November. He was drafted as a two-way defender but has shown that valuable ability to make clean outlet passes while under pressure.
He played his best game of the season against the Toronto Maple Leafs on December 16, and Despres showed the best of what he has to offer. At times he's looked like a less offensively capable Brian Rafalski.
Coupled with the emergence of Maatta as a minute-munching blueliner, Pittsburgh's defensive pairings could look something like this by the time free agency rolls this July.
|Possible Defensive Pairings|
|Kris Letang||Rob Scuderi|
|Olli Maatta||Paul Martin|
|Simon Despres||Matt Niskanen|
The one big name that is left out here is Brooks Orpik. Pittsburgh knew that re-signing Kris Letang last summer and re-acquiring Rob Scuderi could force the club to make some tough choices. Well, here's a tough choice. Niskanen could also be deemed expendable, but he's taken a bit step forward this season and will likely cost a bit less than Orpik.
It's certainly possible for the Penguins to come up with a way to keep Orpik in the mix, but the emergence of several young defensemen have made him look mildly nonessential. With Engelland also looking for a new deal, there is going to be an odd man out somewhere.
Role increase on Offense
There haven't been quite as many holes for Pittsburgh to fill up front. Their top-six has been mostly healthy, with Evgeni Malkin and Pascal Dupuis missing a game here and there. Despite that, Megna has done his part in proving that he can be a solid depth player for the Penguins.
He has more offensive upside than a player like Chuck Kobasew, and at 23, he clearly has room to grow. It'd be shocking to see Megna land a one-way contract, but he'll continue to be among the first call-ups for the next 18 months or so.
When the Penguins swung a deal for Brandon Sutter at the 2012 draft, they were looking for a true No. 3 center to roll out behind Crosby and Malkin. He's been every bit as sturdy as Pittsburgh had hoped, and there's no reason to believe that he won't be locked up and extended for the next few seasons.
An extension for Sutter creates a bit of a logjam at center, with both Joe Vitale and Andrew Ebbett vying for time as the fourth-line center. Vitale has had a lot of success in that role, especially when Tanner Glass is healthy.
His contract is expiring, though, as is the two-year pact for Glass. Just like on defense, it's just a numbers game up front. The top-six isn't going to change much. Once he's healthy, look for Beau Bennett to (finally) slot in alongside Malkin to complete a choice sniper trio with James Neal.
However, Pittsburgh's bottom-six could see some serious overturn over the next few months.
Jussi Jokinen will probably be shown the door. He was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes last season, and his former team retained close to $100,000 of his salary. Unless he's willing to take a pay cut, the Penguins would likely prefer to keep Orpik or Niskanen around instead.
Role Increase in Goal
With Tomas Vokoun unsure if he's ever going to be able to play again, the No. 2 role seems to belong to Jeff Zatkoff for now. He was shaky in his first outing or two, but he's rapidly improved. If Pittsburgh feels like he's a guy that can play in 25 games a year at the NHL level, look for him to get an extension.
If Vokoun returns, the crease could get pretty interesting, but it's unclear at this point whether or not the 37-year-old will be able to play again or not.