The Pittsburgh Penguins announced yesterday that center Evgeni Malkin has tears in both medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee. (http://tsn.ca/nhl/story/?id=352547) Malkin joins young defensemen Alex Grant, free agent acquisition Mike Comrie, team captain Sidney Crosby and rookie center Mark Letestu, who are all sidelined indefinitely.
The injuries to Crosby, Malkin and Letestu leave the Penguins incredibly thin at center, with checking centers Jordan Staal, himself recently returned from injury, and Maxim Talbot bearing most of the load. Twenty-two-year-old Dustin Jeffreys is making the most of his opportunity to play center. He played over 17 minutes against Buffalo on Friday night and has four goals and six points in the 10 games he's played for Pittsburgh this year.
Despite all that, Pittsburgh is on a five-game win streak and are 8-2 in their last 10 games. Quality defensive play and some great goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson has kept the Penguins in games. The offense over those last 10 games has been led by Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz with eight points each and the speedy Tyler Kennedy with six.
The current Penguin lineup features quality checking forwards like Jordan Staal, Maxim Talbot, Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis, who have some offensive capability. Throw in defenseman like Letang, Goligoski and even Paul Martin, who have an offensive component to their game, and the Penguins have managed to win a bundle of tight games.
The loss of Malkin, probably for the rest of the season, Letestu for another four to six weeks after knee surgery and Crosby for an indefinite period of time with his concussion leaves an always offensively thin Pittsburgh Penguin team with no legitimate first line forwards on its roster. This team will have trouble scoring for the rest of the year.
There have been instances in the past where either Crosby or Malkin has been out with injury and the other has filled in the gap. When both the stars are down and with the majority of the rest of the teams cap space spent on their starting goalie and defensemen, there just are quality offensive players left in the lineup.
The Penguins are in fourth place in the Eastern conference with 72 points. They are 14 points ahead of the ninth-place Atlanta Thrashers. They would have to collapse completely in order to miss the playoffs with only 29 games left in their season. The team has shown no indication they are about to collapse.
Still if Crosby can't make it back into the lineup in a hurry, look for the offense to dry up and the team to start losing games. They could miss the playoffs.
If and when Malkin is put on the long term injury list, his cap space for the rest of the season will come free. This will be an opportunity for the Penguins to seek a deal for a talented winger to play with Crosby.
Do the Penguins see that as a worthwhile use of resources? The Penguins without Crosby and Malkin can't compete in the playoffs. If there is someone useful out there at the trade deadline they'd likely have to give up prospects or draft picks to get him for a season that may just not hold a Stanley Cup opportunity in it for Pittsburgh. If they trade for someone with a big contract that extends into next season they'll run into more cap problems next year when everyone hopefully will be healthy.
This severe injury to Evgeni Malkin, combined with the uncertainty surrounding Sidney Crosby and the other numerous Penguin injuries might sound the death knell on this season for Pittsburgh.
The team is unlikely to miss the playoffs, even if the lineup stays as it is. If Crosby returns soon at a 100 percent and the Penguins manage to manufacture a deal for a top quality winger, then they could still threaten in the playoffs. That is a lot of maybes to hang your season on.
The Penguins may be further ahead to tough it out, do what they can with this group and hope for better luck next year.