If the playoffs started today, the Penguins would be playing the Detroit Red Wings, with Columbus, Ottawa and Washington all one point behind the current 8th seed. Four points separate the 6th seeded Rangers and the 11th seeded Capitals – the Eastern wild-card is wide open; at this point it would be impossible to guess whom the Penguins may play in Round 1, so the only thing the Penguins can do in preparation for the playoffs is sure up their own loose ends and be the best Penguins team they can be come mid-April…Here are four ways in which the Penguins can immediately improve before the playoffs, and I'm not going to hide behind the trade deadline either.
4 – Play a Defensive system with the 4th line: Whether it is the 1-2-2 or 1-4 Delay
If Dan Bylsma can institute the 1-2-2 for Team USA against Canada, then there’s no reason he can’t do it with the Penguins 4th line (HAHA…too soon? I actually don't blame Bylsma for Team USA, but regardless) It’s no secret that the Penguins lack depth on their lower lines, even successfully converting defensemen Deryk Engelland to the wing on the 4th line. The Penguins don’t expect or need their fourth line to chip in offensively. Honestly, the fourth line needs to take up 5-7 minutes per night, keep the PK respectable and don't get scored on 5 on 5…end of story. Craig Adams is a -9 this season; Tanner Glass, one the most productive Penguins on the roster, still comes in at a -4; Taylor Pyatt is a -16. Joe Vitale is a +1. As for Connor, Gibbons, or Megna (or whoever else comes after those three)…Let's just say they wouldn’t be my first choices for playoff minutes.
3 - Rest the Olympians: Especially Olli Maatta & Brooks Orpik, and perhaps Evgeni Malkin
Not to mention, the regular season schedule for the entire NHL is very compact the rest of the way; The Penguins will play 16 games in March and 7 games in half of April; the Penguins will also play 7 back-to-back games during the stretch run: Nevermind the fact that the playoffs will be the most physical and intense hockey Maatta will have played in his career: If the Penguins advance deep into the playoffs, how do you not expect Maatta to run out of gas at some point? One of the benefits of having a 16-point lead in the division is being able to rest players. Whether it is practices or games, Maatta should be given an adequate number of maintenance days as the season carries on… I would rest Maatta for 6-games, including four of the seven back to back games…Spackle in some optional practices and the Penguins should have a rested Maatta for the playoffs.
I know sitting Maatta for nearly 1/3 of the teams remaining games sounds crazy, especially with Martin and Letang out semi long-term, but if any team can do it, the Penguins and their organizational depth would be fully capable. Isn’t this the same team that played Brian Dumoulin and Phillip Samuellson (the clubs 10th and 11th rated defensemen in the organization) for six games and five games respectively earlier this season? Don’t forget, Deryk Engelland can always switch back from wing and play a #7 role on defense… the Penguins have plenty of reasonable options on defense and don’t need to exhaust Maatta prior to the playoffs.
Secondly, the same case of calculated rest should be made for Brooks Orpik – After the Finland game, Orpik was quoted as saying, “I’m not even sure I can feel my legs right now.” Granted, I’ve felt that exact same way several times even after slow paced adult league games, but given that Orpik is aging faster than Mike Lange, a few maintenance days should be considered for him also (I’d rest him during the three back-to-back games in which I wasn’t sitting Matta).
And just lowering each player’s minutes per game is not good enough. Hypothetically speaking, say Maatta and Orpik average 12-15 minutes a game for the rest of the season, well below their average ice-time, but they would still have to go through the process of mental preparation, and that’s almost as big of grind as the physical aspect. Scheduled games and practices off should be mandatory for both players.
As for Crosby, Kunitz and Jokinen, I’m not as worried about their physical conditioning as none of them logged consistently big minutes in Sochi; however, like Maatta and Orpik, they did play an NHL type schedule until the end of the tournament without receiving any extended time off. For Crosby, Kunitz, and Jokinen, slightly lowering their average time on ice over the final 23 games, in addition to providing them some optional practices, should be sufficient to keep them fresh.
Lastly, Evgeni Malkin is a different story, he will have had over a week off from the time Team Russia was eliminated to the time the Penguins resume play, so I’m not as concerned about his long-term conditioning as I am about his mental state. If Malkin goes into a tailspin upon his return, a few “forced maintenance days” might not be the worst thing in the world. Now, I would never expect Coach Disco to make a player feel even moderately uncomfortable…but a few well-placed days off may snap Malkin out of any hypothetical slump he may be mired in upon his return – And if it works the other way, and Malkin skids out even further, then it’s better to know that going into the playoffs rather than figuring it out during them…But count me as someone that hopes Geno comes out of the break on fire.
No matter what, the Penguin Olympians will need rest as the season winds down.
2 - Play Better in front of Both Nets...
Getting to the Net:
The Penguins score roughly 3/4 of their goals in transition or on the Power Play: That leaves ¼ between goals off face-off plays and good old fashioned crashing the oppositions net. Chris Kunitz is the only consistent net-front threat the Penguins possess - and really, when is the last time the Penguins really beat someone up? Hit them for three periods? knocked the opposing goalie back into the net?
Clearing the Net:
The Penguins don’t have any defensemen to fill that Hal Gill role of removing some big moose from in front of the net: Not Letang, not Martin, not Orpik, not Scuderi, not Maatta (yet), and certainly not Niskanen: Robert Bortuzzo and Deryk Engelland are the closest defensemen the Penguins have to a Hal Gill or a Douglas Murray, and neither will crack top 6 minutes on this team. If the Penguins run into the Bruins, who moves Milan Lucic? Who stands up to Zdeno Chara? Who moves Detroit’s Johan Franzen? Columbus’ Nathan Horton? Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds?
- Thomas Holmstrom had a long series during the 2009 Finals
WHAAAAAAAAAAT? Yes, the Penguins are tied for 3rd in goals against average amongst Eastern Conference Teams. Yes, the Penguins give up the second fewest shots per game in the Eastern Conference at 27.9 SPG. So why change anything on a team so statistically sound on defense, especially in the MIDDLE OF THE SEASON? First of all, it’s not like there is a huge learning curve – it’s man to man – mano-E-mano – one on one… It’s not like they are reinventing the wheel: Find a guy, stick with him, switch when necessary.
Secondly, the opportunities the Penguins surrender are often times golden chances for the opposition – it doesn’t matter if the Penguins are playing the Bruins, or the lowly Sabres, Fleury is relied upon to make 5-6 point blank chances every game no matter the quality of the opponent…
Eleven times this season – ELEVEN TIMES, the Penguins have given up at least 4 goals against while allowing 30 shots or fewer, which guarantees the Penguins goaltending would have a save percentage lower than 90%, usually considered the very lowest baseline for competent goaltending in the NHL. And it’s not like only elite teams are just picking the Penguins net-minding apart…the teams that have had less than 30 shots but scored more than four goals include the Islanders, Devils, Senators and Florida (twice)… None of who would qualify for the playoffs if they started today (Tampa, Toronto (twice), Boston, NY Rangers (twice) are the playoff teams that have done it). I think everyone can agree that the Fleury/Zatkoff two-headed monster has been very good to excellent this season for the Penguins, so instead of talking about wildly inconsistent goaltending for the Penguins, which simply isn’t the case - I’m going to blame it on defensive zone coverage, or lack thereof, the same Achilles heel the Penguins have had for the past three seasons.
Don't get me wrong, I’m not just saying “screw it” let’s try something new because the Penguins aren’t going to finish lower than 2nd in the Eastern Conference, but scheming the fourth line into even-strength respectability, resting veteran and rookie defensemen prior to playoffs, and playing better in front of both nets are all obvious, if not reasonable suggestions. And maybe the Penguins make a trade...maybe they don't; but as Penguin fans learned last season, no amount of outside reinforcements are going to be able to hide internal flaws.