Without Pascal Dupuis, Pittsburgh Penguins Still Presidents' Trophy Contenders

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistNovember 21, 2014

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 14:  Pascal Dupuis #9 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores a second period goal on Jonathan Bernier #45 of the Toronto Maple Leafs during NHL game action November 14, 2014 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
Graig Abel/Getty Images

The health scares keep on coming for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The team's off to a great start with a 13-3-1 record, but its fine early-season performance was overshadowed on Wednesday by the news that right wing Pascal Dupuis has been diagnosed with a blood clot in his lung and will be out of action for at least six months.

It's a scary situation for the 35-year-old, who missed 43 regular-season games and all of the playoffs last year after undergoing knee surgery.

Dupuis has started the 2014-15 season well, recording six goals and five assists in 16 games and escaping serious injury on October 16 when he was stretchered off the ice after taking a puck to the back of his neck. Remarkably, he returned to practice the next day and didn't miss any games.

At the time, I asked if Dupuis was lucky (to have escaped serious injury) or unlucky (to have been in the puck's path in the first place). The question still applies—not just to Dupuis, but to the Penguins in general.

Dupuis' condition can be very serious if it's not detected early, so he can consider himself fortunate to now be receiving treatment. It also mirrors the condition that derailed backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun at the beginning of the 2013-14 season.

Though Vokoun told Stephen Whyno of the Canadian Press (via The Globe and Mail) that he was in good health last summer after missing an entire season due to blood clots of his own, he wasn't able to catch on with an NHL team as a free agent.

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Dupuis has two more years left on his contract with the Penguins after this season and you can bet that his teammates will be rooting for his return.

As Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports, Dupuis was supported at Wednesday's press conference by longtime teammates Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz—who all won a Stanley Cup together back in 2009.

"The Cup bond is tough to break," writes Rossi, who emphasizes the special contribution Dupuis makes to his team both on and off the ice:

During training camp in September, I sat next to Dupuis, and we chatted about his attempted comeback from a knee injury that sabotaged the Penguins last season. I suggested, in all seriousness, that had Dupuis been healthy, the Penguins probably would have beaten the Rangers, advanced to the Cup Final and saved the jobs of former general manager Ray Shero and Bylsma.

“You know, I've thought about that, too,” Dupuis said. “A lot. You think, ‘Did I do enough to get back?'”

The question now: Can the Penguins succeed in 2014-15 without Dupuis' contributions? Though Dupuis is an important part of Pittsburgh's top six, early signs say they can.

So far this season, Pittsburgh players are offering up All-Star performances throughout the lineup.

Sidney Crosby is second in the league in scoring, Marc-Andre Fleury leads the league in shutouts and young defenseman Olli Maatta has cruised through a serious health scare of his own, returning to game action just two weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his neck.

The only reason the Penguins aren't at the top of the NHL standings is because the team has had one of the lightest schedules through the early going.

The Penguins have three games in hand on Montreal and have the league's top points percentage. With a 13-3-1 record through 17 games, they've earned 27 out of a possible 34 points (79.4 percent). Montreal ranks second with 31 out of 42 possible points (73.8 percent). 

Dupuis started the season working on a second line with Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Sutter but returned to his usual spot on Sidney Crosby's right side in his last two games before the diagnosis.

Free-agent signing Blake Comeau skated in Dupuis' spot against Montreal on Tuesday and is likely to remain there, at least in the short term.

After posting 16 points in 61 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season, Comeau has been a pleasant surprise and proven to be great value for his $700,00 salary. With nine points in just 16 games, Comeau's on pace to match his career high of 46 points as a New York Islander back in 2010-11.

Beau Bennett's return from injury has also helped Pittsburgh's oft-maligned depth at forward. On a line with Sutter and Steve Downie, Bennett posted his first three points of the season in the Penguins' 5-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens on November 18.

For better or worse, the Penguins are no strangers to this sort of dramatic injury news.

A few weeks ago, the press conference was about Maatta. Last February, we learned that defenseman Kris Letang was recovering from a stroke.

The Penguins will receive salary-cap relief with Dupuis on the long-term injured reserve list, so they'll have the option of trading for a veteran offensive talent if needed as the season wears on.

For the moment, their balanced attack, strong special teams play and solid goaltending should be enough to keep them in contention for the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team.

The Penguins are also looking to keep Dupuis involved with the team while he goes through treatment. On Thursday, he joined general manager Jim Rutherford in the stands to watch practice. Sam Kasan of NHL.com reports that coach Mike Johnston hopes to work out a role where Dupuis can still contribute to the team:

As a coaching staff we’d like him to be very involved with the team over the next six months...involved in helping us as a team as we move forward in the next few months.

We can use him wisely. We’ll put together some type of job description over the next week or so and see how he responds to that.

Keeping Dupuis' positive personality in the Penguins' mix is a good first step toward keeping up the team's tremendous momentum from the early part of the 2014-15 season.

Contract information courtesy of CapGeek.com.