By Finesse (follow me on Twitter)
The Pens were humiliated by the Flyers this weekend, and while the end result -- two regulation losses -- is completely understandable given that the Pens were missing their 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th (if we're still counting Dupuis) best players, there are two especially troubling takeaways.
1. Unfortunately, the Flyers are petty good and they are schooling the Pens when it comes to forward depth.
The Flyers have 9 good forwards (Hartnell, Lecavailer, Giroux, Simmonds, Schenn, Couturier, Voracek, Read, Downie), which puts them ahead of the Pens on raw numbers of good NHL players. But more importantly, the Flyers' forwards actually slot into proper roles. Sean Couturier plays against other teams' best players, and he does it effectively and for barely any money ($1.75M cap hit through 2016). Brandon Sutter, on his finest day, floats harmlessly around the neutral zone and plays the other teams' worst players to a draw. It's commonplace to hear the announcers say "Couturier is really getting under Malkin's skin" or "the Flyers are getting Couturier out against the Crosby line as often as possible." Have you ever heard anyone say that about the Pens?
"Sutter is really getting David Krejci off his game here, Doc."
"Edzo, Steven Stamkos is having a hard time finding open ice out there with Sutter in his grill all game."
"What a smart play by Sutter to frustrate Claude Giroux and bait him into taking a bad penalty."
"Doc, Edzo, Marcel Goc is in Phil Kessel's head. HE IS IN PHIL KESSEL'S HEAD, DOC AND EDZO!!!"
Primary responsibility lies with Crosby and Malkin. They need to do a better job not being thrown off their game by guys like Couturier. But it'd be nice if the Pens could do that to other teams' best players.
Then you go to the fourth lines, where the Flyers have similarly horrible players compared to the Pens. The primary difference, however, is that the Flyers' scrubs (particularly Zac Rinaldo) can actually get under the skin of the opposition. The Pens' scrubs, particularly Tanner Glass and Taylor Pyatt, don't actually bother anyone on the opposition and are in the conversation for actual worst player in the entire NHL. A conversation with each other.
2. For a team supposedly so deep on defense, this team is not that deep on defense. Any team is going to struggle when its top two defensemen are out, but the marching orders given from Pens' management to the local media has been to spread the propaganda that the Pens are swimming in defensive depth. There are just so many NHL-ready defensemen, we can't even play them all!!!
Hogwash. (MILESTONE ALERT: GTOG's first successful use of the word "hogwash").
Orpik and Scuderi, grizzled NHL veterans who are supposedly so rock steady that it's unfathomable to consider replacing them with younger defensemen who might actually be on the upswing of their careers, have been mud all season. Bob Bortuzzo is our favorite player on the Pens to root for, but he isn't a very good defenseman. Deryk Engelland isn't a very good defenseman, and he's not even fun to root for. And at some point, we all need to collectively get together and agree that Simon Despres isn't ever going to be what we all thought he could be. I'll circulate a dial-in number.
That leaves us with Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta, both of whom are outperforming their contracts, but don't really have the pedigree or experience to simultaneously be the top defensive and offensive pairing
And we're supposed to buy the idea that a 6'4", 225lb, 22-year old Brian Dumoulin is a stud-in-waiting even though he can't crack the lineup over these guys? The guy is huge and was drafted 5 years ago. What are we waiting for? Same for Phillip Samuelsson.
The Pens are desperately in need of an infusion of new energy, especially young energy. Instead we get Bob Bortuzzo taking bad penalties, and a 64-year old Deryk Engelland on the 2nd power play unit. If Dumoulin and/or Samuelsson can't get a look over these guys, then either management is doing something wrong, or the notion that this organization is swimming in defensive depth needs to be put to bed. Because this past weekend, the defense was barely treading water.
Of course the Pens defense will be better (hopefully much better) if and when Martin and Letang return. It's just that if they don't return, or if someone else goes down, those holes may not be any easier to plug than the holes at forward.
If the Pens have to go into the playoffs with anything resembling the roster from yesterday, it's going to be a short spring. But there is reason for optimism -- Letang, Martin, Neal, and Kunitz are all skating. The Pens only hope is that for the first time in years, everyone gets fully healthy just as the playoffs are starting. Only if that happens, and only if everyone stays healthy, do the Pens have a decent shot of getting through the East. And maybe we should hope the Pens haven't yet hit rock bottom. Being underdogs might be just what this team needs.