Solutions to Pittsburgh Penguins' Biggest Problems Early in 2013-2014
Sitting in first place in the Metropolitan Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins, despite a string of injuries, are off to a great start.
While it might seem overly critical to find problems with a team in first place, the reality is that the Pens, as the only team in the Metropolitan Division with a winning record, have the good fortune of playing in the weakest division in the NHL.
When compared with the rest of the Eastern Conference, the Pens stand just two points ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens in second place and two points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs who beat the Pens in Toronto.
As a team more concerned about success in the postseason rather than just in the regular season, let's take a look at the biggest problems the Pens have faced and possible solutions.
Lack of Secondary Scoring
While Evgeni Malkin's 10 points in 13 games would indicate that the Penguins' second line is carrying its weight, the fact that he is a minus-2 thus far, and the fact that half of his points have come on the power play, prove otherwise.
While linemate Jussi Jokinen has continued his torrid scoring pace (13 goals in 23 games with the Pens dating back to last season), the absence of James Neal has made the Pens a top-heavy team.
As a result, opponents have been able to load up against Sidney Crosby's line, which makes his league-leading 21 points (8 goals and 13 assists) even more impressive.
With grinders like Tanner Glass and Craig Adams leading the third and fourth lines in scoring, and with Beau Bennett and Brandon Sutter with only one goal between the two of them, it's obvious that the Pens need more offensive production from the rest of their lineup.
Fortunately, the recent return of Kris Letang, and the impending return of James Neal, should provide a shot in the arm to an offense that ranks just tenth in the league and is averaging 3.08 goals-per-game this season after leading the league in that category each of the previous two seasons (3.33 in 2011-12 and 3.38 in 2012-13).
Missing "the Piece"
Having searched without success for a reliable stay-at-home defenseman who could provide the steady defensive presence the Penguins have been lacking in recent years, GM Ray Shero was able to finally fill that void when he signed Rob Scuderi and brought him back to Pittsburgh.
Dubbed "the Piece," both for an ill-fated interview in 2009 as well as his unique ability to always be in the right place at the right time during the Pens' 2009 Stanley Cup run, Scuderi was to be counted on to make the Pens a better "five-on-five" team, and, through the first 11 games, he had done just that and was fourth on the team in plus/minus with a plus-5.
Unfortunately, "the Piece" will be missing for a while as he suffered a broken ankle against the Toronto Maple Leafs and will be sidelined for four to six weeks.
In his absence, the Pens will have to look to younger defensemen such as Robert Bortuzzo to provide a physical presence and to Olli Maatta to provide the offensive spark if they are to stay on top of the Metropolitan Division until Scuderi's return.
In recent years, Penguins fans have grown accustomed to seeing the Penguins use their dominant power play to carry them when they struggled at even strength.
This year, however, the Pens' success has obscured their sluggish power play, which has struggled at times, and stands at 19th in the NHL having converted on only 18.6 percent of their opportunities.
While some of these struggles can be blamed on the team's lack of a net-front presence, the biggest single reason is the vacancy left by James Neal who, having led the Pens in power play goals each of the last two seasons, has been out with an injury since opening night.
Normally playing the right side, Neal has become adept on finding open ice in the slot, and his deadly wrist shot often forces opposing penalty killers to stay low in the zone which creates time and space for Kris Letang and Paul Martin at the blue line.
Until Neal returns, the Pens' power play will continue to look average, so Pens fans should keep their frustration in check until we get a chance to see the power play operate with a healthy James Neal in his usual spot.
Marc-Andre Fleury's Excessive Workload
After he suffered through yet another postseason of struggles, a lot of Penguins fans were scared by the thought of seeing Marc-Andre Fleury in net for the Pens.
With Fleury posting a record of 9-2, a goals-against average of 1.81 and a .927 save percentage thus far, and with the struggles of backup Jeff Zatkoff, those fans should be scared by the thought of seeing anyone but Fleury in net for the Pens.
Due to the indefinite loss of Tomas Vokoun, Fleury has had to bear more of the workload and is on pace to play 68 regular season games, which would be a career high.
History has shown that Fleury's postseason performance declines the more he plays in the regular season, which is why the Pens should be careful not to overuse him at the start of a long season, which includes a two-week break for the Sochi Winter Olympics.
After playing in 62 regular season games in 2008-09, Fleury led the Pens to the Stanley Cup, but struggled in the postseason after logging 67 games in the 2009-2010 and 2011-12 regular seasons.
If Jeff Zatkoff proves to be incapable of filling the backup goaltender role, the Pens may need to bring in a veteran like Ilya Bryzgalov or Johan Hedberg, both of who remain unsigned.
Unfortunately, that would require cap space which Pens GM Ray Shero doesn't have right now.