Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pittsburgh's problem


The Penguins have a little bit of a problem. Max Talbot's shoulder surgery, keeping the rugged winger out for at least one month of the regular season, further clears up a spot alongside Evgeni Malkin and Ruslan Fedotenko on the second line. Talbot probably wasn't a true top-six winger anyway, despite his success in the playoffs, so that winger position might have been open to begin with. Now it definitely is.

The thing is, who's going to play there? GM Ray Shero said he'll look for Talbot's replacement from in-house, so the hope is someone in training camp will force management's hand and earn an NHL spot. Eric Tangradi, a top-notch prospect acquired with Chris Kunitz for Ryan Whitney, won't be the answer, as he's having some problems from a recent hand surgery and probably wasn't going to be ready for the NHL anyway.

Luca Caputi, who earned a cup of coffee in the NHL last season, is the most NHL-ready prospect but is still likely a year away, but he might surprise and get the first crack at the job. Nick Johnson has impressed this week at Pittsburgh's prospects camp, as did Keven Veilleux. Casey Pierro-Zabotel and Minnesota's own Ben Hanowski are also in the mix. Might any of them make it? It's possible. The alternatives if they don't?

Well, that's a good question. Pittsburgh might again attempt to move Jordan Staal to the wing. Tried it last year and it really didn't work out well. That might be a good thing considering how the season ended. But, if Staal ends up on the second line, that would clear up the third line center position for Craig Adams, Mike Rupp, or another prospect such as Dustin Jeffrey. Or Talbot could return to the third line once he returns. Staal's a center though; I can't see him being moved again.

Another option is Tyler Kennedy, who incidentally was the only forward who dressed for the Penguins in the 2008 playoffs who did not score a goal. (Even Georges Laraque scored.) He fixed that this year. In addition to scoring 15 goals during the regular season in 67 games, an improvement over his rookie year of 10 goals in 55 games, Kennedy netted five in the playoffs, including two in the Final, one of which was the winner in Game 6.

There might be some reluctance in bumping Kennedy up a line, as he formed one heck of a trio with Staal and Matt Cooke. But he might be the best option. The Penguins have plenty of guys who can fill Kennedy's spot, if not the chemistry, including the aforementioned Adams or Rupp, or Pascal Dupuis.

A dark horse candidate for Malkin's line could be Dupuis I suppose. Sidney Crosby was saddled with Dupuis for a while, so maybe it's Geno's turn. Dupuis is a competent contributor but is not a top-six player. I would expect Staal, Kennedy or a prospect to fill that job before Dupuis.

But really, those are the only options as things stand now. Maybe Shero pulls off some kind of trade. Just because he said he'd like to find an in-house solution doesn't mean he'll bank on that. Pittsburgh has plenty of third/fourth-line guys, but not nearly as many top-sixes apart from Malkin, Crosby, Kunitz and Bill Guerin. Fedotenko is kind of a tweener. He has been on two Cup-winning teams, performing excellently in one of those years and very good in the other, but only once has he scored more than 20 goals in a season. He might've done that last season if he hadn't broken his hand on Colby Armstrong's nose. But he did, so he didn't get 20.

When Talbot returns to the lineup, things will get a little more chaotic. I still don't understand why Shero signed Rupp to begin with, but I trust he knows what he's doing. Maybe he thinks Talbot belongs on the second line. He only played there in the playoffs because Petr Sykora was mired in a tremendous slump and coach Dan Bylsma put Miroslav Satan on the fourth line instead of in Sykora's spot.

Really, Talbot is a third-liner, but that line is currently set, barring movement of Staal or Kennedy. There are plenty of fourth line players in the mix - Rupp, Adams, Eric Godard, Tim Wallace, Jeffrey or another young player - and several of those can play the third line.

The door is basically shut on returns by Sykora or Satan, so neither of those "snipers" will fill the spot. A guy like Malkin can make his linemates better, so the Penguins don't necessarily need to go out and find a 25-30 goal player. It'd be nice to have one of those but it's not going to happen. The crop of forwards waiting in the wings (pardon the pun) could have that potential, but it will be an interesting competition for the position.


WRT - Wild Road Tripper said...

Kevin: For all the angst about Talbot, at least you're not the Chicago Blackhawks, having just signed Marian Hossa to a 12-year contract and then finding out not only does he need surgery that will keep him out until nearly Thanksgiving, but that apparently no one bothered to give Hossa a physical prior to signing him.

KiPA - Kevin in PA said...

What angst? We love Talbot. ;)

But you've a point. How do you commit that much money and not even examine the guy first? The Hawks have really muddied things up.