Pittsburgh Penguins' 5 Biggest Questions Ahead of the Olympic Break
The NHL will take several weeks off starting this weekend due to the Winter Games taking place in Sochi. While most of the best players in the world will be heading to Russia to participate in the Olympics, the freeze in action is an interesting wrinkle in the league's regular season.
Teams won't resume play until the end of February, giving players a miniature summer vacation. This could help some squads, as players will have time to heal and get healthy, while it could cause problems for some of the streakier teams in the NHL.
The time off will also create a bit of a lull for fans of particular teams, but there are still a few things worth pondering over the coming weeks while the likes of Sidney Crosby, Paul Martin and Evgeni Malkin do battle for a Gold Medal.
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com and are accurate up to games played on February 4.
Is There Enough Scoring Depth Right Now?
There's no question about what Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal bring to the ice every night. They're among the best players in the NHL, and they rarely hit the skids to the point where they're ineffective. They can't do it all by themselves though.
One of the bigger concerns for the Penguins moving forward is scoring depth. When they were taking back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup Final, they had arguably the best third line in hockey.
Jordan Staal's presence gave opposing coaches matchup nightmares and freed up some space for No. 87 and 71. That's a tough luxury to afford though, and Pittsburgh's ability to score with bottom-six players has seemingly dried up this season.
Is that a trend that the team can survive?
It's impossible to say for sure, but the Penguins need more from the likes of Brandon Sutter (nine goals), Chuck Kobasew (two goals) and Joe Vitale (one goal) to survive in the postseason.
If they can't collectively pick up their games, then general manager Ray Shero will have to make some changes before the deadline.
Will the Team Be Deadline Buyers?
If the trade deadline were WrestleMania, Ray Shero would be the Undertaker. The man lives for the event and is among the best when it comes to rounding out his team for a Stanley Cup run. No move or set of trades guarantees a Cup, but Shero always puts the Penguins in the best position possible.
What does he have up his sleeve this season then?
The number of names that are reportedly available as rental players seems to grow daily. From Matt Moulson and Thomas Vanek to Marian Gaborik, there are some real gems to be had leading up to the deadline.
Will Shero be able to land one of these big fish? Or would he prefer to flesh out the depth positions? He can seemingly do one or the other, but it isn't likely that he'll be able to fix both problems with external Band-Aids.
With Pascal Dupuis likely done for the season, he's in need of a top-line scoring threat. That is, of course, unless Beau Bennett can emerge as a top-six forward.
Can Beau Bennett Make an Impact?
The Penguins don't have a more highly touted forward prospect than Beau Bennett. This was supposed to be the season where he made the transition from "could be" to "is," but that hasn't worked out yet.
To this point, Bennett has only played in 12 games due to injury, but he should be ready to return from wrist surgery after the Winter Games are over. With Dupuis gone, head coach Dan Bylsma has been playing musical winger on Sidney Crosby's right side.
Will Bennett be able to plug that position?
That question could be the most important one for Pittsburgh prior to the deadline. If he can step into a top-six role and score some goals, then maybe Shero doesn't have to sell off prospects to acquire a guy like Matt Moulson.
If he can't, then the manager's hands could be tied. Pittsburgh needs a winger to lock down a top-line role, and Bennett is the only legitimate in-house option right now.
Can Marc-Andre Fleury Keep on Chugging?
Marc-Andre Fleury has been a workhorse for the Penguins this season. The plan to have him in a bit of a timeshare with Tomas Vokoun went off the rails early on, and the 29-year-old has played a lot of hockey since.
His 45 games played ranks fifth in the NHL, as does his 2,670 minutes of game time.
Those are gaudy numbers that will only get bigger once the regular season resumes in a few weeks. The break presents a unique chance for a No. 1 goalie like Fleury to rest up and get fresh, and it will be interesting to see if Dan Bylsma continues to roll his top guy out at this frequency.
Backup netminder Jeff Zatkoff has played in three games in each of the last two months. As the playoffs near, will Fleury get more of a breather? Or will this Olympic break be the only repose that he needs?
Will There Be a Letdown from Non-Medal Winners?
No one is heading to the Olympics to lose. The Penguins are sending players to several of the most competitive teams, and the United States, Canada, Finland and Russia all have legitimate shots at taking a Gold Medal.
International tourneys like this are incredibly emotional, with a playoff-like atmosphere that is infused with national pride. Players love having the opportunity to wear their nation's crest and have a strong desire to represent their home countries as well as possible.
In defeat, it's impossible to not feel disappointed and let down. Is that something that will impact Pittsburgh's Olympians upon returning to NHL play? Will the players have spent too much of their intensity just a few weeks before the playoffs?
These guys are all professionals, but it's certainly something worth keeping in mind once the season gets going again.
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