Three top-six forwards.
Four top-six defenseman.
No, that’s not the list of Pittsburgh Penguins making a push to play in the Sochi Olympics. Rather, the number of regular starters whose services the Penguins gave been without for one reason or another the past few weeks.
James Neal is suspended. Evgeni Malkin is still dealing with a lingering muscle strain in his leg. Beau Bennett has a broken wrist, Paul Martin a broken tibia. Shut-down defenseman Rob Scuderi has missed 25 games with a broken ankle, and former Norris-trophy candidate Kris Letang has been scratched three games due to an undisclosed upper-body injury. Brooks Orpik is still experiencing concussion-like symptoms after being attacked by Shawn Thornton.
Not to mention the losses to key depth players like Tanner Glass and Jayson Megna.
With captain Sidney Crosby’s top line the only one left unscathed by the wave of injuries washing over the Pens recently (knock on wood), it has been hard for Pittsburgh to establish any real rhythm or chemistry lately due to the revolving door of line combinations and defensive pairings that coach Dan Bylsma has had to deal with. It’s enough to make any team throw in the towel and hope for a good pick in the draft lottery come June.
And yet the Penguins keep winning.
Pittsburgh has won four straight, as well as nine of the last ten, and it’s due largely in part to the veteran play of some extremely green prospects, particularly on the blue line.
At only 19, Olli Maata has already established himself as the next torch-bearer on the list of elite puck-moving defenseman. While he’s still young, the fresh-faced Finn is making plays well beyond his years, something that a lot of established veterans, teammates and opponents alike, are already starting to notice.
Simon Despres has finally matured and gotten his game back to where many thought he should have been last year. Concentrating on a more simple style of play, Despres is making less errors with the puck and distributing it effectively.
Robert Bortuzzo has been a force. Big hits, fights, snarl, agitation, and sandpaper: all skill sets that Bortuzzo brings
to the table, not to mention his +3 rating and assist on Crosby’s game winning goal against Toronto on Monday. All these blue-liners, plus trade acquisition Brian Dumoulin and draftee Phillip Samuelsson have all made positive impacts on Pittsburgh’s blue-line in their time on the big squad.
The Penguin’s youngsters haven’t just been effective at stopping the puck, either. Their current depth chart features several forwards that went un-drafted and started the year in AHL Wilkes-Barre, and while I’m not saying they’re the 1977 Montreal Canadiens, they’re augmentation into the lineup has lead to some much needed scoring depth and energy that’s helped lift the Penguins past the opposition the last few games.
Chris Conner has three goals, including the goal that opened the scoring against the Leafs three days ago, while Chris Conner has filled in nicely on Brandon Sutter’s wing and fourth liner Zach Sill has brought energy and physicality filling in for Tanner Glass.
It’s a group that has been chomping at the bit to get a chance to stick on the big roster all season, so even though I doubt any of them will ever be All-Stars, it’s not surprising that they’ve been the Penguin’s biggest assets these past few weeks. They’ve had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and so far they’re living up to expectations.
Bylsma has been here before. In 2011, Disco Dan was able to help lead his squad to the playoffs and almost defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games, all without the services of Crosby, Malkin, and Jordan Staal. A feat which leaned him the Jack Adams trophy for Coach of the Year.
And while I’m not suggesting that another Adams is in the bag for Bylsma again this year, you have to admire his ability to string together wins with so many of his regulars watching from the press box.
Once everyone returns from injured reserve, the biggest problem he will face will be what to do with all the prospects who have filled in in their absence. A pretty good problem to have.