5 Lineup Changes the Pittsburgh Penguins Should Consider for the New Year
So far in 2014-15, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been winning despite ever-increasing odds.
As has often happened in the past, injuries and illnesses have become a central part of the Penguins story this season. Also rather typically, the team continues to call up players from the minors—then use them to win games.
It's pretty tough to muse on Pittsburgh's ideal line combinations when coach Mike Johnston has often had no idea which players will be skating for his team on any given night.
He can be thankful that Evgeni Malkin has anchored the team up front, and Marc-Andre Fleury is having a career-best season in goal. Everything else is pretty much up in the air.
Here are five lineup ideas that could keep the Penguins rolling through the second half of the season and on into the playoffs.
Get Back to Good Health
First and foremost, this team needs to get healthy. At the very least—healthier.
The Penguins deserve huge credit for hanging onto the top spot in the Eastern Conference at Christmas despite all the team's health issues.
Thirteen players spent the Christmas break on the injured list, according to TSN.ca. The only Penguins to have appeared in all 34 games this season have been forwards Evgeni Malkin and Nick Spaling and defenseman Rob Scuderi.
Even the short Christmas week has brought three more casualties.
Breakout forward Blake Comeau is expected to be out for several weeks after sustaining what's believed to be a wrist injury, according to NHL.com. Meanwhile, though Brandon Sutter tested negative for mumps and will rejoin the team after missing two games, forward Steve Downie and backup goaltender Thomas Greiss have become the latest players to test positive, according to the Penguins website.
CapGeek.com lists five Penguins on long-term injured reserve: forwards Pascal Dupuis, Beau Bennett, Scott Wilson and Zach Sill and defenseman Olli Maatta. If the new cases of the mumps start to abate and some of the team's other players get back in action, Mike Johnston might get his first real opportunity of the year to try to set some consistent line combinations up front.
Keep the Young Defensemen Around
One silver lining from all the injury trouble is that Johnston has received an unexpected opportunity to see his top prospects from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in NHL game action.
Pittsburgh's defensive call-ups have been particularly impressive. In recent games, Scott Harrington played with Kris Letang on the first pairing in the absence of Paul Martin. Derrick Pouliot and Brian Dumoulin have been filling in capably for the absent Christian Ehrhoff and Rob Bortuzzo.
If the team finally starts to get healthier in the new year, Johnston will need to make some decisions about which youngsters to keep with the big club and how best to use them.
Trade Paul Martin When He's Healthy
General manager Jim Rutherford could make roster space for a young defenseman by trading impending free agent Paul Martin.
Former general manager Ray Shero hung onto Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen at the trade deadline last season and then saw both blueliners sign with the Washington Capitals, leaving Pittsburgh with no return from its assets.
Martin will be equally coveted this year on July 1, and he'll be expensive to re-sign. There has been no word on what's wrong with Martin, according to Rotowire. He played his last game on December 18, and it's unclear how long he'll be out of action.
What is clear is that good defensemen are hard to come by on the trade market this season, and the Penguins have been well-covered by Scott Harrington. Rutherford could command a nice return for Martin if he's dealt before the March trade deadline—even if he's only a rental player.
Trade for a Top-Six Forward
Whether or not Martin is moved, a top-six forward remains at the top of Rutherford's wish list.
At the beginning of the year, Mike Johnston's top two lines looked like this:
|Chris Kunitz||Sidney Crosby||Patric Hornqvist|
|Evgeni Malkin||Brandon Sutter||Pascal Dupuis|
Though Malkin and Sutter are both centers, a lack of top-end talent from the rest of the forward ranks made it look like these six would need to take care of business offensively until Rutherford could find them some help in the form of a trade.
Blake Comeau exceeded all expectations when he stepped in when Pascal Dupuis was knocked out of action: Comeau put up 11 goals before being injured on December 22. Nick Spaling and Steve Downie have also contributed offensively, but all three players have been fighting well above their weight classes while Pittsburgh has been shorthanded.
Rutherford made one minor trade earlier in December, acquiring Rob Klinkhammer from the Arizona Coyotes, but the Penguins could still use another skill player up front.
If the GM can target one of the many teams looking for defensive help, he might be able to bring in the asset that the Penguins need to keep their scoring alive.
Manage Marc-Andre Fleury's Ice Time
Whatever Marc-Ande Fleury's doing this year, it's working for him.
The Pittsburgh defense may be better this year, but Flower's having the best season of his NHL career. His save percentage of .929 and goals-against average of 2.09 are both well above his career marks of .911 and 2.59, respectively. Also, Fleury's league-leading six shutouts in 27 games are already the most he has ever recorded in one season.
Of course, most of the criticism that Fleury receives has resulted from his playoff meltdowns, especially in 2012 and 2013.
With a reasonably spaced-out schedule through the first three months, Fleury has been a workhorse so far this season—on pace to play a career-high 75 games.
Fleury has stolen some wins while his team fights with its injury issues, but the coaching staff will need to resist the temptation to ride him too hard in the second half.
Pittsburgh has nine back-to-back games on its schedule between now and the end of the season. When he has recovered from his case of the mumps, backup Thomas Greiss will need to carry a meaninful share of the weight to help make sure that Fleury is both physically and mentally sharp when the playoffs begin in April.