Saturday, February 8, 2014

Kris Letang Had a Stroke: What Do The Pens Do Now?

By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)

Though many on Twitter were issuing explicit instructions to the contrary, most people are capable of processing two things at once -- the seriousness of Kris Letang's injury and its impact on the Penguins.  Thinking about the latter does not mean you can't appreciate the former and, even if it did, we don't feel like waiting for the "now's not the time to think about hockey" crowd to let us know when it is time.  The news of his stroke is a serious blow to Letang, to his family, and, yes, to the Pens.  We've qualified ourselves to talk about one of those things, and so talk about it we shall.

Even though the timeline of "at least six weeks" would allow Letang to play 13 games before the playoffs in a best-case scenario, you'd have to think that the Pens are probably going proceed as if they can't count on Letang to be available that soon, if at all this season.  And that means that our reasonable discussion on our podcast with Adam Gretz of SB Nation about moving Scuderi, or Orpik, or Martin can probably be thrown out the window (hold that thought) ... one of either Bortuzzo or Engelland is enough for the playoffs, thank you very much.  And it also means that Matt Niskanen will become Matty Niskanen (Pierre McGuire calls Pens' games in the playoffs), even though Niskanen remains the one asset the Pens could move to get at least one of the multiple forwards needed to smooth out the imbalance up front.

It's an open question whether Matty can continue Matt's solid play into the postseason.
More after the jump...

On paper, the injuries to Dupuis and Letang have crippled the depth of both the forwards and defensemen, probably more than is typical when a team loses one guy from a 12-man unit and one guy from a 6-man unit.  In Dupuis' case, it's well beyond being crippling "on paper" -- anyone who shows anything on the bottom 6 is the immediate favorite to get bumped up to Sid's wing, leaving the bottom 6 staples to do what they do best, which is to kill penalties extremely well and offer next to nothing at 5-on-5.  The type of player(s) the Pens need to replace Dupuis is ... Dupuis.  Read every description of what the Pens are looking for -- a speedy puck hound who can play any position on any line. The Pens need to find a way to get Budget Dupuis even though they can't afford to give up a roster player,and don't have anything tangible at forward in the minors that can fetch much of value.

ACE Cash Express is offering $500 at 18% for title to Tom Kunhackl.
That leaves the defense and draft picks -- Shero supposedly has a lot of the former, but not much of the latter.  The most obvious piece to move is Simon Despres because the coaches don't like him and don't trust him, and have even worked tirelessly over the past two seasons to kill his trade value.  What is another team going to give up for a guy who quickly went from can't-miss to an afterthought?  Brian Dumoulin may have some value, and the Pens might be wise to shop him before they allow themselves to kill his trade value, too.  Same for Philip Samuelsson.  But even if these guys might be attractive pieces to some teams, it's not like the Pens are the only organization in the league with 22 year-olds who may or may not be good.  Shero will have to do some back-room persuasion to convince another GM that these guys are who they are billed to be, even though Shero's actions have suggested otherwise.

If there are no answers in the above, that's kind of the point.  Shero is in a tough spot: injuries have made trades more necessary but also much harder to pull off, and the justifiable win-now strategy of the past 6 years has left the future cupboard pretty bare.  The question he needs to answer is a two-parter: how do I make this team better now without sacrificing too much of the future, and even if I do make it better, can I make it good enough to win the Cup?  The second question can quickly be dismissed -- Crosby and Malkin are both healthy (knock on wood), so your team is good enough to compete for the Cup, even if they're not the favorites.  That means it's ok to (again) sacrifice some of the future for the present.

The first question points to a somewhat uncomfortable answer, because there is one guy who is not making the team much better now, shouldn't be a big part of the future, and could be an asset to another team.

The Pens got Scuderi to counter-balance Letang, but with Letang's status up in the air and Scuderi's level of play at its lowest point since he was a -18 in 57 games in '05-'06, is he really necessary?  Would Bobby B., whose play has admittedly been unimpressive, be that much of a downgrade?   Shero waited 4 years to correct his mistake of letting Scuderi sign with L.A.  Do we really want him to wait another 4 years to correct his mistake of re-signing Scuderi?  I actually expect Scuderi to get a lot better as we get closer to the playoffs (partly because he can't get worse), but maybe that's a selling point for another team.

But let's not kid ourselves.  Scuderi is playing like crap, but he wasn't brought here to help the Pens chase a President's Trophy.  The Pens have been composure's worst nightmare in the playoffs the last few seasons, and Scuderi is here because he isn't going to crosscheck a referee when he gets frustrated.  Sadly, there's some value to that for this team.

It also can't be ruled out that the loss of Letang -- the most frustrating Penguin to watch on a nightly basis -- is not going to be quite as devastating as it seems at first glance.  Since he's been the Pens' #1 defenseman, the Pens haven't achieved anything in the playoffs.  It doesn't mean the Pens are better off without him -- they're not -- but if he doesn't come back this year, it's not like the Pens should fold up the tent and go home.  His status just adds another element of uncertainty to a team that is certainly good, but also certainly flawed.

To sum it all up, the Pens have a clear need (depth up front), but no clear path to getting it.  And Letang's situation opens a hole on the back end that, previously, could have been used to shore up the front end.  Ray Shero is at the helm of the best team in the East, but also one whose flaws are exposed for everyone to see.  It's a great team without a lot of great options.

The Pens are going to get to the dance.  They just might have to dance with who brought them.  

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