Every team deals with injuries throughout the regular season, and every coach is forced to work with imperfect lineups from Day 1 of the preseason. Players can be lost for a variety of reasons—from attending the birth of a child to kneeing an opponent in the head and getting suspended.
It's impossible to deny that the Pittsburgh Penguins have been decidedly unlucky in terms of their overall health during the 2013-14 season, though. According to ManGamesLost.com, the Penguins have lost 419 games to their ridiculous injury bug.
That's good for the top spot in the league, and they have a whopping 96-game lead over the second-place Detroit Red Wings. When you look at the NHL's leaders in games lost, only three of the top-10 are firmly entrenched in a playoff spot.
|NHL Leaders in Games Lost to Injury|
|1. Pittsburgh Penguins||419||45-19-4 (94 points)|
|2. Detroit Red Wings||323||31-24-13 (75 points)|
|3. Anaheim Ducks||289||45-17-7 (97 points)|
|4. Winnipeg Jets||271||32-30-9 (73 points)|
|5. Columbus Blue Jackets||261||35-27-6 (76 points)|
|6. Vancouver Canucks||264||32-30-10 (74 points)|
|7. Carolina Hurricanes||264||30-30-9 (69 points)|
|8. San Jose Sharks||263||45-18-7 (97 points)|
|9.Edmonton Oilers||243||25-36-9 (59 points)|
|10. Montreal Canadiens||232||38-25-7 (83 points)|
Even with the presence of the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, the 10 most injured teams in the league have averaged 35.8 wins this season. Or nine less than the Penguins. While more factors than just health go into winning (and losing) hockey games, two things should become clear while looking at this chart.
- Pittsburgh has suffered a disproportionate number of injuries compared to the rest of the NHL.
- Pittsburgh has outperformed most of their similarly injured counterparts by a wide margin.
The Penguins will only improve as they get players back. They've produced as many points as the Chicago Blackhawks and could still challenge the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, despite missing key cogs for much of the season.
|Notable Penguin Absences|
|Player||No. Of Games Missed|
That's not a list of scrubs or players that are easily replaced. Pittsburgh is clearly a better team with a top pairing of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik instead of Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen. Getting healthy in time for the playoffs will be a key storyline for the Penguins over the next few weeks, but no one should discount the valuable experience that the depth players have garnered as the season has gone on.
For instance, Maatta has been used as a top-pairing guy at times this year, but he would sink down to the third pair with a healthy top four of Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi, Orpik and Martin in place and healthy. Those four haven't been available at the same time for more than a few minutes of playing time throughout this campaign, but the new-found depth is evident.
Pittsburgh isn't as loaded as they were last year, but this squad has more depth that actually fits in and knows the systems. It's been popular to say that a healthy Penguins team could win the Eastern Conference, but this bruised and battered shadow of that squad is already competing to do just that.
A healthy Penguins team doesn't just have a legitimate shot of winning the Conference—they have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup as well. Whether or not they make it that far in the dance ultimately isn't the point.
Various young players and moving pieces have been asked to step up their level of play throughout this campaign and have shown that they're capable of rising to the challenge when it's there. With Dupuis and Bennett in the lineup, Pittsburgh probably wouldn't have gone out and traded for Lee Stempniak.
He's been an outstanding addition to the club, though, and he could maintain his spot as a top-six forward—even when Bennett returns. Maatta is another player that has stepped into various roles this season with an incredible amount of success.
And would head coach Dan Bylsma even have known what he had in Niskanen without this string of injuries? It seems unlikely. Now the defenseman is one of the more underrated blueliners in the NHL and could eventually make up an athletic and stable third pairing with Maatta.
Depth like that has a positive effect on the top liners as well. Across a seven-game series, there's a big difference between playing 20 minutes a night and 25. With an even remotely healthier lineup, Bylsma could still role out his depth players with confidence. After all, those bottom-six forwards and third-pairing defenders will likely push the Penguins over the 100-point mark again this season.