Are the Pittsburgh Penguins a Contender?

Pittsburgh Penguins Contender

For a while, it looked as if the Pittsburgh Penguins had turned a corner. Contending for a sixth Stanley Cup seemed once again more than a pipe dream. Evgeni Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen appeared to be a match made in heaven. The top line was nothing short of dominant night in and night out. Tristan Jarry was back to playing at his All-Star level, and Kris Letang was showing he still has a lot to give. But now with just under three weeks to go until the NHL trade deadline, the jury is still out on one case. The case of the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

Can the Pittsburgh Penguins Be A Contender for the Stanley Cup?

Depth Decimated

Injured Reserve is a popular destination in Pittsburgh right now. Several huge question marks remain in a Penguins lineup that has, per the usual yearly tradition, been decimated by injuries. Malkin is week-to-week, Jared McCann keeps bouncing in and out of the lineup, and don’t even start thinking about Teddy Blueger any time soon. 

Even the indestructible wrecking ball with a turbo-boosted engine always at full throttle Brandon Tanev found a way to be scratched. Mark Friedman couldn’t even get a week’s worth of games in before getting concussed. Now only two players, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel have played in all the team’s games. Knock on wood. 

The Penguins have a top line and a bottom-9. Just let that sink in. Mark Jankowski and Colton Sceviour are borderline fourth-liners on most healthy teams. Props to Sam Lafferty, his effort will never be questioned but he’s had his chance between this year and last and he’s still just a nice AHL forward. You want him preferably no higher than 15th or 16th on your organizational forward depth chart. Should I even mention Anthony Angello or Frederick Gaudreau? Evan Rodrigues and Zach Aston-Reese have been pretty solid, but they are not top-6 forwards and we cannot expect them to perform as such.

Moves to Make

Getting healthy would help the Penguins more than any trade acquisition at this point, but the trade deadline is quickly approaching and General Manager Ron Hextall (wow that still feels weird to say) and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke are exploring avenues to improve their new team. Their wish list should include a 3rd line center. Circle it. Star it. Write it in red sharpie. 

Just get someone who can play a solid, two-way game and win a face-off every once in a while. Maybe two of them if these injuries keep up. Eric Haula from Nashville seems like a nice fit. Eric Staal from Buffalo would have been a nice option but he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens. Maybe Sam Bennett but a certain Calgary centre has left a bad taste in my mouth. Ryan Dzingel if the cap works? Ryan Getzlaf? Seriously? Let’s just not go there… I hope “Burkie” isn’t too sentimental. 

Another hardworking bottom-6 piece would help strengthen the Penguins’ ability to withstand injuries. Think of the moves Tampa Bay made on their way to their Stanley Cup victory last season. They didn’t make the big rental winger purchase, but instead paid a premium of two first-round picks and some good prospects to acquire gritty bottom-6 pieces that could play playoff hockey. Think Luke Glendening or Brandon Sutter, but who knows what’s happening inside the offices of PPG Paints Arena right now. 

Cup Chasing

The Defense

For the Pittsburgh Penguins to have serious shot at making the playoffs this year, and be a contender, not only will they have to get healthy and add to this roster, but also they will have to improve from within. It’s shocking to say the Cody Ceci has been the only Penguins defenseman that has consistently played at a high level all season. The pairing of the present and future John Marino and Marcus Pettersson still have a lot of kinks to iron out. Mike Matheson is constantly up and down all over the ice, both literally and figuratively. It’s been a breath of fresh air to get Brian Dumoulin back playing with Kris Letang lately. Letang has just not meshed well with any other partner during Dumoulin’s injury absences.

Here’s how the D stacks up right now.

Dumoulin-Letang

Pettersson-Marino

Matheson-Ceci

Riikola/Ruhwedel/Friedman

The Forwards

The top-6 will have to carry the bulk of the load offensively, that much is clear no matter what aid Hextall acquires for the bottom-6. Zucker has to find a place in the top-6 or having him is in vain. Try him on Crosby’s right-wing or he’ll be stuck on the 3rd line. As always, this team will go as far as Malkin and Crosby can carry them. The buzzsaw can hopefully continue to be a shutdown force while providing more offence. The third line of misfits is a puzzle only management can solve right now. 

With a couple of moves, the Penguins could look like this heading into the playoffs:

Guentzel-Crosby-Rust

McCann-Malkin-Kapanen

Zucker-Haula-Glendening

ZAR-Blueger-Tanev

Rodrigues/Jankowski/Sceviour/Lafferty/Angello

The Goalies

Tristan Jarry has continued his stellar play, but Casey DeSmith has been no slouch either. Their tandem has what it takes to win if both goalies are playing as they are now. They have to be consistent in controlling rebounds and not letting in leaky goals. Stealing a four-point game every once in a while against a divisional rival you are competing with for a playoff spot would help too.

The Penguins are tied with the Islanders and Capitals with 50 points but sit in third place in a tough East Division. Pittsburgh had a strong March going 12-4 after a shaky start to the season. They have carried it already into April defeating the Bruins. But they will need to do more especially if management believes the Pittsburgh Penguins are a serious contender for the Stanley Cup.

Main Photo:
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