The State of the Pittsburgh Penguins' Dilapidated Blue Line

WoooooSenior Writer IOctober 30, 2008

This afternoon I received an e-mail from Rory Brown from Bleacher Report's assignment desk. Rory was inquiring about the Penguins' defensive situation since the injuries to their top two blue liners: Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney.

Needless to say, the 5-3-3 Penguins aren't exactly off to the red hot start that they had hoped for. In part, this can be attributed to their 27th ranking of 26.2 shots on goal per game.

The shots on goal per game statistic may not be a direct result of Whitney and Gonchar's absence, however, when your top two offensive defensemen are out the lineup, your shot totals will undoubtedly fall at least slightly.

To go along with their lackluster performance of getting less than 30, sometimes less than 20, pucks on the net on a nightly basis, the Penguins are also allowing the opposition an average of 33.7 shots per game.

The near eight shot differential in shots for as opposed to shots against could suffice as one reason why the Penguins are in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack after three full weeks of the 2008-09 season.

Goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Dany Sabourin have been stellar when being bombarded with frozen rubber on a nightly basis, however, the Penguins inability to put teams away in the third period has done little to ease the pressure on their net minders.

Let me put my ramblings on pause for a moment to get back to the issue of defensemen.

Rookie Alex Goligoski made the Penguins' roster this season, in hopes that he could provide a steady shot total in Whitney's place at the point on the Pens' power play.

Goligoski has responded to his increased role very well thus far. He has registered three points, including two goals, in nine games for the Pens. He is also tied for the team lead in shots on goal among defensemen with 11.

Gogo has improved his play on the man advantage with each game that passes, which is good to see from any rookie.

One troubled Penguin so far this season has been Kris Letang. Letang has imrpoved upon his defensive game from a season ago, however, he is still hesitant to shoot the puck, something that Penguins' coach Michel Therrien said "needed to happen" for Letang to continue to see time on the power play.

Letang has recorded 11 shots on goal, but has not scored a goal yet. His shaky effort on the power play earlier in the season has resulted in his demotion to the second power play unit, where he has not registered a point thus far.

Letang is a gifted skater and can handle the puck with the best of them. However, he has yet to show that his passing has improved from his rookie campaign a season ago.

The Penguins were counting on Letang to be their most productive offensive defenseman in the absence of Gonchar and Whitney, and thus far, he has not lived up to the expectations.

One reassuring statistic is the number of goals the Penguins' have received from their defensive defensemen. Both Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik broke their respective scoring droughts by finding the back of the net early this season.

Hal Gill has missed the previous three games for the Pens with an injury to his right hand, but should be back in the lineup tonight against Phoenix. Gill was not acquired for his offensive prowess, despite the fact that he was a consistent 20 point producer on Toronto's blue line. Gill has not recorded a point this season.

Darryl Sydor has been known as an offensive defenseman throughout his career, but he has seen limited playing time as the Penguins' seventh defensemen on the depth chart. Sydor has played in five games, registering just one goal.

Sydor, who has recently asked the Penguins' management for a trade, could be a guy that could provide some offense, if it were 1998 instead of 2008. Sydor's career as a scoring defenseman is largely over. Whether or not he wants to admit it, that's his choice, but the Penguins aren't expecting Sydor to start filling up the net anytime soon.

Ryan Whitney is slated to be back in action in mid-December at the earliest. At that time, Sydor and his $2.5 million contract will likely be moved.

Gonchar, on the other hand, could miss the duration of the regular season. The Penguins hope that Sarge will be back in time for the playoffs, but there is currently no time frame for his return.

Until Whitney and Gonchar return, the Penguins are in a tough spot when it comes to the blue liners producing points.

Letang needs to realize that he can't score without shooting, and with a shot like his, he needs to shoot the puck at least five times a game to be effective.

Goligoski will likely continue to see time at the point on the top power play unit, alongside Evgeni Malkin. If Goligoski can learn to put himself in a position to score, Malkin will get him the puck. That kind of positioning only comes with experience, so the expectations for Gogo are much less than those for Letang.

By-and-large, the Penguins' defense has left a lot to be desired after three weeks of the season. They need to start limiting the scoring opportunities of their opponents, alleviating the pressure on their goaltenders.

They also need to shoot the puck every chance they get.

Here's hoping that Whitney and Gonchar's roads to recovery go smoothly and that the other blue liners can hold the metaphorical fort until their return.