If there is a team in the league that simply doesn’t care for the whining that goes on about the Montreal Canadiens injury problems this season – it’s the Pittsburgh Penguins. Obviously missing Sidney Crosby (who remains 12th on team scoring despite only playing 8 games this season) hurts. But the Penguins have also missed considerable time from Kris Letang, Jordan Stall and Tyler Kennedy. Through thick and thin, the Penguins remain in 6th place in the Eastern Conference – and look ever like the team that seems to now perennially sit in good standing – ready to pounce once the playoffs show up.
This must be a welcome change for Penguins fans whose pre-Crosby memories are filled with basement finishes and an empty, decrepit, old building. And while missing Crosby comes with pain that Montreal fans can empathize with, as Andrei Markov continues to wait until he is fit enough to return to the Habs lineup, the Penguins have done a remarkable job of staying the course – of putting points on the board, regardless of who is or is not in the lineup.
One player who is impossible to miss in the lineup is Evgeni Malkin. Gino has 54 points in 39 games this year and continues to dismantle opposing defenses. His recent demolition of the Tampa Bay Lightning serves as a clear warning that whatever his past struggles with injury – he’s back in a major way.
The other player of particular note in the Penguins lineup is James Neal. I thought it was an absolute coupe when Pittsburgh acquired the 6’2 210 sniper from Whitby Ontario, along with Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski. Goligoski has been a pretty huge disappointment as an under-sized offensive defenseman in his two(ish) seasons in Dallas, although some of his troubles have been injury related. Still, Niskanen has 2 more points than Goligoski this season, while Neal is 20th in NHL scoring. Neal is EXACTLY the type of forward that all teams should be looking to acquire with talent on their roster that is over-rated. That trade serves as the perfect template for how to navigate injury troubles. Ray Shero decided that he didn’t have a need for Goligoski, and that in the absence of Malkin and Crosby, he desperately needed to add scoring. He went out and identified a player who had a pedigree for scoring – knowing full well that for under $3M, James Neal would provide top-flight help on the wing if and when Crosby and Malkin returned.
It remains to be seen how Shero will be able to deal with Neal after this season however. Neal is an RFA, who is due a fairly large raise. With most of that team’s core group locked up, he may (depending on Crosby obviously) need to make a move or two to either keep Neal (which he should try to do) or replace his talent in the lineup. (ARE YOU LISTENING PG???).
With less than $10M in capspace and about 8 players needing contracts – it will be interesting to see how Shero approaches the 12-13 season.
Hey – there’s a game tonight. Does Montreal have a chance? Check back later to find out!
Go Habs Go!!!