Reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin returned to the lineup for the Pittsburgh Penguins Monday after missing just four games. Disaster is averted and now the Penguins can focus on the more pressing issue—their defense.
The makeup of Pittsburgh’s top six has been a central focus. James Neal and Malkin still have yet to find a permanent linemate, and some believe Sidney Crosby needs someone other than Pascal Dupuis alongside him.
If you’re the Penguins, why shop around for another top six forward when your offense is among the NHL’s best? Dan Bylsma’s boys have the highest goals per game average and the fourth-best power-play conversion rate.
The issues reside at the blue line.
The team’s defense has allowed almost three goals-against per game, which is worse than about two-thirds of the league.
On top of that, their defensemen haven’t impressed on the penalty kill. The Penguins have killed just under 81 percent of their penalties—putting them right in the middle of the pack at 17th best.
Kris Letang continues to be a star defenseman, but the amount of time he spends shutting down the opposition’s scorers with his team-leading ice time leaves something to be desired.
Paul Martin has been impressive thus far. After an underwhelming performance last season, especially during the playoffs, Martin seems to have found magic skating beside Letang. He’s playing the shutdown role the Penguins wrote the $5 million paycheck for and has chipped in with four goals and 11 assists in 21 games.
Martin's been sidelined with a lower body injury since Feb. 28, though. His injury is a big hit to his team's already-lacking defensive depth.
Defensive depth thins out after that. Brooks Orpik is reliable and Matt Niskanen is a good two-way utility defenseman.
Simon Despres has shown the speed and puck-moving skills that made him a top-end prospect, in addition to stepping up his physical play. However, the rookie has made some mistakes along the way that ended up adding to the Penguins’ abysmal goals-against per game.
General manager Ray Shero has an incredibly deep pool of defensive prospects. With Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin, Robert Bortuzzo and Joe Morrow, the franchise is set for the future.
That doesn’t help them today, though.
The Penguins have a few options. The most obvious would be to trade for a defenseman. They could acquire an upcoming unrestricted free agent like Ron Hainsey from the Winnipeg Jets or Mark Streit from the New York Islanders.
Going after UFAs would allow them to minimize what they have to give up. With more than $8 million of projected cap space, they shouldn’t have a problem bringing in a defenseman until the end of the season.
Another possibility is claiming recently waived veteran blueliner Roman Hamrlik. The Washington Capitals have hardly used Hamrlik’s services this season, but the 38-year-old defenseman could be of great use to the Penguins.
In addition to bringing a stay-at-home presence to the Penguins' defensive corps, Hamrlik could be a great mentor for the younger players on the team.
If Malkin’s performance against the Tampa Bay Lightning is any indicator, he’s already put his concussion behind him.
Now that the Penguins brass' can stop panicking and looking for someone to fill in the scoring void Malkin would have left, they can get back to addressing their subpar defense.