As the dark of winter drapes over the Steel City, Pittsburgh Penguins fans are getting hyped up for the beginning of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Jussi Jokinen and Olli Maatta are getting set to represent their respected countries. Head coach Dan Bylsma is preparing also to lead Team USA for a shot at the gold.
When it is all said and done, the Penguins will resume play during their 2013-14 regular season on February 27 when they host the Montreal Canadiens; just six days before the March 5 trade deadline.
Look for more buyers and sellers this season as opposed to years past given the new divisions and playoff qualifications. With that said, what should the Penguins be looking for this season? It is too difficult to predict what GM Ray Shero will do, but everyone in the city of Pittsburgh seems to have plenty of faith in him.
First and foremost, rest assured Shero will be on the lookout for a top-six winger as they do every season. Big names have come through Pittsburgh under Shero’s tenure and some are still playing there; Jarome Iginla, Marian Hossa, James Neal, Pascal Dupuis, Jokinen, Kunitz and Bill Guerin are among the high-profile wingers brought in over the years by Shero.
With the endless list of injuries, the Penguins need to find another one of those talented forwards to place on the top line with Crosby and Kunitz. Dupuis is scheduled to have ACL surgery next month, ruling him out for the remainder of the season. Since he has been out of the lineup, Bylsma has been going with winger-by-committee on the top line although Brian Gibbons showed a bit of promise before he got injured.
Let’s face it, Crosby can play with anyone who skates with him. But if the Penguins are going to go through the playoffs with a good chance of meeting the Boston Bruins at some point, they will need to be sure they can match their physicality throughout a seven-game series. Crosby needs a talented winger who can score but also play with an edge much like Guerin in 2009.
Brandon Dubinsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets is all of that plus more. With his aggressive style of play, it would bring so much to the Penguins top line. Dubinsky is a proven 20-plus goal scorer in the league, but has never really played on a line with this much talent. Offensively, the sky would be the limit him.
He is constantly one of the leaders in hits for his team every year. In 2011-12, he finished with a career-high of 207 hits with the New York Rangers. Yes, he is by a center by trade but Jokinen was also a center turned winger when acquired by Pittsburgh last season. Imagine the possibilities with the addition of Dubinsky and what that would truly bring to this hockey team.
Secondly, Shero has to prepare for the worst with this next issue and assume that goaltender Tomas Vokoun will not be in his old form. The 37-year old has missed all season with a blood clot in his pelvis. Vokoun is going to be skating with the team this week, but who is to say what his condition is going to be? Honestly, his career may be over. Returning from a blood clot is not like returning from a shoulder or groin injury. He has been off blood thinners for a week but will be extremely fragile especially in today’s NHL when contact with the goaltender is common.
Everyone has seen how bad Marc-Andre Fleury has faltered in the playoffs recently. Many can say it is a mental thing while others call him a mediocre netminder. That is no where near the truth.
Fleury’s lack of success in the playoffs over the last couple years has been in the hands of Bylsma. He is too fatigued by the time April comes around and it is impossible to play 65-plus games before a two-month playoff where you start every single game. Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist have similar problems with their clubs. They are simply overworked.
So what can Shero do to fix this? Well, although he has been solid in his limited starts, Jeff Zatkoff is still not the answer if Fleury needs to be pulled in April. There may not be a whole lot of teams shopping their goaltenders next month so Pittsburgh may not have the greatest of options. Michael Neuvirth of the Washington Capitals may make for a solid backup to Fleury when the playoffs roll around.
He does not have the best looking numbers on paper, but Neuvirth has been asking for a trade since December. One thing he may have to take into consideration is this- he is probably not going to find a team where he can be named the No. 1 starter right away. But if he is open to the backup role in Pittsburgh, the numbers may improve like many athletes when getting a fresh new start in a new city.
Last and certainly not least on Shero’s to-do list involves defenseman Kris Letang. He needs to figure out what to do with this guy. After signing him to an eight-year $58 million contract during the offseason, Shero is in a tight spot. It was reported that Letang wanted a no-trade clause when negotiating, however, Shero was against this.
There is the crazy thought of turning Letang into a winger given he is not very good defensively. He is constantly out of position, turning pucks over and forcing passes when given the opportunity to shoot. He is without a doubt one of the most over-rated players in the NHL. But something needs to be done with him.
Letang sure would make for some great trade-bait would he not? How about trading Letang to the Rangers for Marc Staal and Matt Zuccarello. It is a radical thought, but Bylsma’s favorite saying is “why not?” Moving Letang would also give Robert Bortuzzo the chance to play everyday, which is a good thing being that he is playing like a 10-year veteran.
These are the top three issues that must be solved by the Pittsburgh Penguins by March 5 in order to make a run at the Stanley Cup Finals this spring. Again, believe in Shero because he is arguably the best GM in hockey.