Saturday, November 7, 2009

Punchless Penguins


So, as promised, here's one man's explanation as to why Pittsburgh's offense has struggled since the Evgeni Malkin injury.

As I alluded to in the above link, the problem goes beyond having just Malkin out of the lineup.

I'm going to steal/borrow/credit Dave Molinari of the Post-Gazette with some of this. In the salary cap era, a team's general manager has to decide where to spend money. Ray Shero and the Penguins decided to spend it on centers, namely Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal.

With the attention spent on pivot-men, there isn't much wiggle room left to really spend on wingers for those centers. What money there is available will go to the top line. In Pittsburgh's case, that means Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz. The second-line wingers won't be as good.

Malkin's been skating with Ruslan Fedotenko on one side and a mix of others on the other. Sometimes it's been Pascal Dupuis. Other times it's been Chris Bourque. Staal's played with Malkin a shift here and there.

And, well, none of those guys is going to be confused with Mike Bossy.

Fedotenko is actually a bit overrated, if you ask me. He's played eight full seasons in the league and only once has he scored more than 19 goals in a year. That happened to be his outstanding 2003-04 season with Tampa Bay, when he netted 26 in the regular season and another 12 playoff goals, including the Stanley Cup-winning goal.

He earned a lot of praise and built his reputation on that playoff run. His 2009 postseason with the Penguins was also very good. He didn't score as many goals - seven - but formed a very effective line with Malkin and Max Talbot.

In Fedotenko's other 33 playoff games - removing 2004 and 2009 - he has tallied one goal.

But when you play with a world-class talent like Malkin, your deficiencies aren't as deficient, and the potential is there to rack up points simply by osmosis.

So what happens when you take Malkin out of the lineup? Right, those shortcomings are a little shorter and come out a little more. Fedotenko's been playing with Staal, but it's going to take time for these guys to build chemistry after almost never ever skating alongside the other.

Staal also isn't really ready yet to anchor his own offensive line. Now, he's only 21, and he's already got one more 20-goal season than Fedotenko does, but his offensive game is very much a work-in-progress. When you put him with Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke, however, you get one of the best third-lines in hockey.

Which brings me to my next point. Kennedy is also out with an injury, and at this point, he's turning into one of the team's best goal scorers. Kennedy returned for the Anaheim game after missing three contests and had an immediate impact both on Staal and the Pittsburgh attack in general. He had two assists and played crucial roles in setting up those two goals.

I wanted Kennedy to skate with Malkin and see if he'd be able to reach 20 goals or more. He had 10 goals in 55 games in his rookie season and 15 in 67 games last season. Kennedy added five playoff goals, including two in the Final. This season he already has five and was atop the NHL leaderboard for a while with three game-winners.

His absence might be overlooked given Malkin's injury. But with both of those players out of the lineup, the Penguins have nearly zero secondary scoring. Opponents can load up on stopping the Kunitz-Crosby-Guerin line because the current lineup is jumbled up, shuffled around, and all out of whack. There aren't many other threats.

With at least one of those players healthy, the Penguins are a more dangerous team. The Kennedy-Staal-Cooke line is capable of being a second line and can contribute offense. At the least, they'll work and grind and wear down the opponent's defense.

More evidence of this came after the Anaheim game. Kennedy re-aggravated his groin injury against the Ducks and didn't play against the Kings. What followed was the Penguins launching a season-low 23 shots on goal.

Are the Kings better than the Ducks? Sure, and that was certainly part of it. But so was Kennedy missing.

None of this explains the Penguins' putrid performance on the power play. But that's another "War and Peace"-length post.

With no Malkin and no Kennedy, the Penguins are relying upon lesser players to produce in scoring roles when either they're not good enough without an elite center (Fedotenko, Dupuis), they're too raw (Staal) or there's no chemistry between new linemates.

Groin injuries are tricky, so there's no telling how Kennedy's recovery will proceed. Malkin is skating again but remains at least a week or so away from returning. Injuries are part of the game, so, Pittsburgh will just have to cope the best it can.

No comments: