Only six members of the Pittsburgh Penguins have played in all 47 possible games this season. While it's a positive that Sidney Crosby seems to have put his injury woes behind him and is one of those players, you couldn't blame head coach Dan Bylsma for tossing his hands up in the air and waiving a white flag while cursing the hockey gods for vexing his team this badly.
The Penguins lead the NHL in man-games lost to injury this season according to ManGamesLost.com. Pittsburgh has reported 279 man-games lost, which is substantially higher than that of the second-place Anaheim Ducks (228 MGL). In fact, only three teams in the league have breached the 200-games lost barrier as Pittsburgh barrels toward 300.
While it was the defensive core that was chewed up by the injury bug in the early stages of the season, it seems to have taken a liking to Pittsburgh's forwards as of late. Evgeni Malkin returned earlier this month after missing half of December due to injury, but overall the Penguins have seen their forward depth chipped away piece by piece.
Beau Bennett hasn't played since November 22, and is still "four weeks out" according to Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Jayson Megna and Andrew Ebbett could return to the lineup soon, as per Molinari's report.
That leaves Chuck Kobasew, Joe Vitale, Brian Gibbons and James Neal on the sidelines. That's not counting Pascal Dupuis either, who could very well be done for the season.
Down eight forwards, the Penguins have been forced to go searching for help at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton 24/7 Player Depot once again. At this point general manager Ray Shero probably has a stylized red phone in his office that is a direct line to his AHL affiliate—just pick it up and someone will be there to take your call-up order.
This string of injuries has left the Penguins looking awfully short handed heading into their Rivalry Night showdown with the Washington Capitals. Brandon Sutter was given top-line duty alongside Crosby and Chris Kunitz in practice leading up to the contest, while waiver-wire addition Taylor Pyatt was slated to play on the second line in Neal's place.
If seeing typical third-and-fourth liners as top-line guys doesn't make you believe that the Penguins need a bit more depth at forward, then maybe nothing will. When all the players are in their proper places and everyone is healthy, few teams in the NHL can roll four lines like Pittsburgh.
Consider this, though. Against the Capitals, Sutter will make his debut as a wing in the NHL. He's never played any position but center since he entered the league in 2008, and he'll be charged with keeping pace with Alex Ovechkin. Meanwhile, Pyatt—who hasn't averaged more than 15 minutes a night for three years now—is suddenly supposed to morph into a top-line forward.
None of this is to say that these players aren't capable of playing certain roles in the NHL. They are. It also isn't to suggest that the Penguins should make a knee-jerk deal for a top-six forward while mortgaging the future and selling off even more youth than they did prior to the deadline last year.
It's just that a top-six group consisting of guys like Pyatt probably won't be able to last very long. Neither can a bottom-six group that is made up of AHL grinders and minor league third-line mainstays. At this point, it seems that the baseline for filling in on one of the top two lines in Pittsburgh is a simple question of "have you played more than a year or two in the NHL?"
If the answer is yes, the job is yours. They've just been that banged up.
The easy response here is to say that "good forwards don't grow on trees."
While this is true, it doesn't mean that Shero shouldn't be making some phone calls about potentially available players that could fortify his group. Would it hurt to add a piece like Kris Versteeg, a guy that is more comfortable playing a third-line role but can step in and pretend to be a second-line guy for a few games?
There are a few teams rumored to be willing to move forwards for futures. Namely the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers and most recently the Winnipeg Jets. Even if Pittsburgh gets the likes of Megna and Ebbett back this week, those are still just depth guys.
If Neal remains out, the Penguins will still be two forwards short of a legitimate top two lines.
One way or the other, the loss of Dupuis will need to be addressed. Whether it be by moving an expiring contract or a draft pick, it's tough to imagine the Penguins doing a lot of heavy lifting when it's playoff time if they're still playing musical-wingers around Crosby and Malkin.