Thursday, January 3, 2008

Roster Analysis and Thoughts on Toronto

Four weeks ago tonight the Penguins season was very, very uncertain. Barely above .500, the only goaltender thought to be of NHL starting caliber went down. How has the team responded? How about going on a 104 point pace (taking 14 out of 22 possible points) and vaulting to the top half of the Eastern Conference shuffle.

Last year the team didn’t have much adversity to deal with and almost coasted to a 105 point season. This year, important players (Marc-Andre Fleury, Max Talbot, Mark Eaton, Gary Roberts) are dropping like flies with long-term injuries and new players like Ty Conklin, Rob Scuderi and Tyler Kennedy are not only stepping into expanded roles, they’re flourishing.

Of the injuries, Talbot is starting to skate a little, but still on his own. His return is probably weeks away to get healthy and in game shape, but we here think his return is definitely on the horizon. After all, when Gary Roberts went down it left the Penguins with 12 healthy forwards, the minimum number. Michel Therrien doesn’t like to change a lineup during a winning streak, so it wouldn’t make much sense to callup a young forward like Ryan Stone or Jonathan Filewich to ride the bench instead of playing in the A. But they haven’t even called up a depth forward like Connor James, and obviously winning streaks don’t last forever. Plus, unfortunately, injuries do happen and another forward could go down or become ill. That the Penguins haven’t called up another forward, seems to indicate, to me, that Talbot may be getting back into the lineup sooner rather than later.

Defensively the Penguins only have 6 healthy blueliners on the roster. However I’m not that surprised about that. All are healthy and playing their respective roles relatively well. The most likely callup, Alain Nasreddine, would have to be exposed to re-entry waivers if they want to call him up. Nasreddine is a pretty decent 6/7 depth defenseman and it wouldn’t surprise me to see another NHL club claim him, especially since he’d only be owed about ¼ of a season’s salary (because the Penguins would be required to pay half of his remaining salary which, at this point in the season, is about half paid). Why expose Naz (a former captain and veteran leader of the Baby Pens) to waivers if you don’t need to? Why callup a guy like Ryan Lannon if he’s just going to sit the bench anyways? Neither scenario makes much sense; as there’s little to gain and much more to lose.

If/when the Penguins need to fill a roster spot that’s when you can try to sneak Nasreddine back up, or look to make a trade for a depth defenseman. Until then, with guys like Sydor and Orpik playing better and Letang playing well in general, it’s OK to me to stand pat.

Back to the game, as I mentioned the Penguins are currently sitting in the top half of the peloton, the highly bunched up pack of teams stuck from about 45 to 39 points. Tonight’s game against Toronto (currently at the bottom of the pack, 12th place with 40 points) is an important game for both teams. If the Penguins win, not only is that a good thing for the obvious reason of picking up the 2 points, but it also denies a playoff competitor from keeping pace with them. A Toronto loss, coupled with other teams in the pack winning tonight or tomorrow night means they would be in danger of losing touch with the pack.

I wonder how the Penguins will come into this game, physically and mentally. The players said physically after the outdoor game they felt worse and a little sorer than just your average NHL game. Emotionally after such a wild ride (and ending) you have to believe there’s some danger of not having much in the tank and perhaps having a slow start which could quickly compound into a flat performance.

Pittsburgh/Toronto games are almost always wide open, crazy games. I’d set the over/under of total goals tonight at 7.5 and probably still be tempted to take the over. We shall see. I'd like to see an offensive spark plug that hasn't contributed in a while (Sykora, Staal, Malone) create some offensive. A little secondary scoring could probably inspire/spark the big guns to dig even deeper.

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