The Pittsburgh Penguins’ travelling road show made a rare pass through Western Canada this past week, providing glimpses of two of the NHL’s most absorbing stars and one of the NHL’s most intriguing clubs. The Penguins were just okay – their own assessment, not just the outside view – partly because they’ve lost a little bit of the defensive identity that had made them so good as they dealt with injury after injury through December and the early part of January, managing to win a lot of games despite sometimes having a starting defence corps that came to you directly from Wilkes Barre, Penn., home of their AHL minor-league affiliate.
It often goes this way – your regulars return and your play all of a sudden momentarily dips. Rob Scuderi, Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik all missed large chunks of the season and the rust is still evident at times in their respective games. The Penguins projected that Letang and Scuderi would ultimately be their No. 1 pair this season, but of their first 45 games, Scuderi got into just 16, Letang 26. So as a tandem, they are a work in progress. Luckily, the Penguins as a team are so comfortably ahead of everybody else in the Metropolitan Division that general manager Ray Shero can think big-picture thoughts from here until the end of the season and ensure that they have the right pieces to make another run at the Stanley Cup.
Since winning it all in 2009 amid predictions that they were a dynasty in the offing, the Penguins were eliminated in the second round once, the first round twice and then made it all the way to the conference final last year, only to get smoked by the Boston Bruins.
Shero made a big push for reinforcements at last year’s trading deadline, in the hopes of getting the Penguins over the top, but in an extensive conversation with him the other day in Edmonton, it didn’t sound as if he wanted to go down that path again, if at all possible. Shero essentially said that you can’t continue to deplete your organization of young assets or the chance to replace young assets through the draft every single year at the deadline.
And while he didn’t get up a single top prospect in moves that landed him Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow and others, you get the sense that if the Penguins have all remaining hands on deck through Mar.5, they may not be all that active this year at the deadline, even though there is currently a big gap on Crosby’s right side, thanks to the season-ending injury to Pascal Dupuis. For the moment, minor-league call-up Brian Gibbons is getting a crack at playing with Crosby and Chris Kunitz. Physically, Gibbons is cut from the Brian Gionta mold – tiny, but quick and skilled. Gibbons was leading the baby Penguins in scoring when he got the call and though his ice time has varied, and had a modest six points in his first 13 games, playing just over 11 minutes per night.
Unlike last season, where there was a limited supply of rental players available at the trading deadline, this year, the shopping list for any GM looking for reinforcements will be deeper – the likes of Ales Hemsky (Edmonton), Michael Cammalleri (Calgary) or Matt Moulson (Buffalo) all likely will be offered into the market. On paper, Hemsky looks as if he could be a fit on either of the Penguins’ top lines, a skilled and competitive player with a deep desire to win. Cammalleri had a sensational series for the Montreal Canadiens when they knocked off the Penguins in the second round of the 2010 playoffs and they have a good scouting report on Moulson, having faced him for years now when they played the New York Islanders.
Before committing to any rentals, the Penguins first want to see how rookie Beau Bennett plays coming back off injury. Projected as the winger on Malkin’s line coming out of training camp, Bennett had missed all but a handful of games this season, and so, the returns on his readiness to play a top-six role are naturally inconclusive.