Pittsburgh Penguins' 5 Biggest Questions Ahead of the Olympic Break
Although they lost the last game prior to the Olympic break to the New York Rangers 4-3 in a shootout, the Pittsburgh Penguins have performed better than anyone could have expected, and to date, they have had the best regular season in franchise history.
Having reached the 40-win plateau in just 57 games, breaking the previous mark of 65 games set by the 1995-96 Pens, this year's team has surged to the front of the pack in the Metropolitan Division and seems primed to claim the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the postseason.
However, with injuries having sidelined some of their top players and with a string of disappointing postseason finishes in recent years hanging over them, there are reasons for concern for the Pens and their fans.
As the hockey world focuses its attention on the Olympic tournament in Sochi, let's look at the five biggest questions ahead of the Olympic Break.
Who Will Line Up Next to Sidney Crosby?
Since Sidney Crosby first arrived in Pittsburgh in 2005, Penguins fans have bemoaned the team's lack of skilled wingers to play alongside him.
While the promotion of Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis to the top line turned that question mark into an exclamation point, Dupuis' injury—and likely absence for the rest of the season—has Pens fans wondering who can pick up the slack.
Although recent call-ups like Brian Gibbons, Chris Conner and Jayson Megna have performed admirably, they are not the long-term solution to the problem.
As of now, the Pens have seemingly pinned their hopes on Beau Bennett being able to fill that role when he returns to the lineup after being out since late November with a wrist injury.
Unfortunately, given the nature of his injury and his limited action at the NHL level (44 regular and postseason games), there's no guarantee that he will able to step right into a first-line role.
Even if Bennett can return to the lineup after the Olympics, with just three games before the trade deadline March 5, Pens management won't have a lot of time to decide whether they need to bring someone in to fill a top-six role.
Can Kris Letang Make It Back?
In 35 games during the strike-shortened 2012-13 season, Kris Letang totaled five goals and 33 assists, was a plus-16 and a Norris Trophy candidate.
Through 34 games this season, he has amassed 10 goals, just eight assists, is a minus-six and has recently been the subject of trade rumors.
Despite the addition of Rob Scuderi which gave Letang the steady blue-line partner that he needed, he has regressed in many ways—most notably in the playmaking department.
To make matters infinitely worse, the Pens recently announced that Letang suffered a stroke last week and will be sidelined for at least six weeks while undergoing treatment.
Given his prognosis and the NHL's Olympic intermission, the hope for the Pens is that Letang can make it back in time for the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason, but there are no guarantees.
Can Marc-Andre Fleury Stay Sharp?
Given his strong play and his excessive workload, the Olympic break could be both a blessing and a curse for Marc-Andre Fleury.
Currently leading all goaltenders in wins with 31 while posting a career-best 2.23 goals-against average, Fleury has silenced his critics and has looked more like the Stanley Cup champion of 2009 as opposed to the postseason scapegoat of recent seasons.
Unfortunately, Fleury is also on pace to match his career high in games with 67 and history has shown that, when it comes to his workload, less is more. Head coach Dan Bylsma needs to be wary of burning him out especially with a double-digit division lead.
That's why a two-week break, although it may cause some rust when the schedule resumes, will allow Fleury to take a much-deserved and much-needed break.
Only time will tell whether the rust or the rest will have a bigger impact on his play when March rolls around.
Who's Really on the Trade Block?
As an organization that has become known for making big trades—especially since Ray Shero took over as general manager in 2006—the Penguins are typically one of the more active teams at the trade deadline and figure to be so again this season.
While they most likely won't be making as big of a splash as last season, when they acquired Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen in exchange for multiple prospects and high- and mid-round draft picks, the Pens do have some needs to address and may need to part with some assets to do so.
One player who has probably been rescued from the trading block is Matt Niskanen who is having a
career year, and with the uncertain status of Kris Letang, he will be counted on to man the right point on the power play and assume a heavier share of ice time.
On the contrary, one player likely to be on the trading block is Simon Despres, the Pens' 2009 first-round selection who has been unable to stay out of the minors, will be a restricted free agent this summer and would be waiver-eligible next season.
With teams like the Buffalo Sabres and the Florida Panthers already in rebuilding mode and looking to trade established players for prospects, the Pens might be able to get a sizable return for Despres who, although he may not even be one of the top-10 defenseman in the organization right now, still has potential.
Will the March of the Penguins Continue?
After the first four months of the regular season, the Penguins have seemingly taken an insurmountable lead in their division and are just four points behind the Anaheim Ducks for the lead in the race for the Presidents' Trophy. The Penguins couldn't be in a better position.
Unfortunately, as history has shown, success often leads to complacency, and complacency usually results in early postseason exits.
With few challenges likely to come from within their division, the task for Bylsma and the rest of the coaching staff will be to keep a sense of urgency alive as the NHL schedule resumes and the postseason approaches.
Otherwise, the Pens risk stumbling out of the gate as they did last postseason against the New York Islanders.