If you haven’t yet heard the latest Penguins news, you might want to sit down: Both Malkin and Bjugstad are expected to be out long-term with lower-body injuries. Malkin is expected to miss more time than Bjugstad. This was announced today by head coach Mike Sullivan after this morning’s practice. Sullivan did say Malkin’s injury is not considered season-threatening. Malkin was spotted a few minutes before practice started, in street/workout clothes, standing on the bench and stickhandling on the ice through an open bench door. No walking boot or crutches were noticed.
The Penguins now are in a situation where Rust, Malkin, and Bjugstad are all out for a longer period of time (think 4-6 weeks, minimum). Losing your 2nd and 3rd line centers for a long period of time is going to be difficult to recover from. There are a couple of different ways the Penguins can look to address these injuries.
Utilize in-house options at center
The easiest, short-term solution to the problem is going to be using what the Penguins already have in the organization. The Penguins are fortunate that they have multiple players on the team that can play both center and wing. McCann, Kahun, Simon, Aston-Reese have all played center at some point. They also have a large number of center options in the minors, although few if any of those players have any NHL experience.
Short term, I would expect Jared McCann to slide into the #2 center spot. He played alongside Galchenyuk and Tanev Saturday night after Malkin left the game, and McCann and Galchenyuk seemed to have good chemistry.
For the 3rd line, I would like start by trying Teddy Blueger there. Blueger has been playing well for the Penguins going back to last year, and, he could be the future 3C for this team. His audition will now likely come sooner than later. If he fails to play at the needed level, the Penguins could try one of the Dominiks (Kahun or Simon) at the 3C spot.
For the 4th line, I’d call up Sam Lafferty from WBS. Lafferty had a strong camp, and if there were open roster spots, he likely would have made the NHL team. He boasts great speed, and shouldn’t be much of a downgrade in terms a a 4C.
The concern with going this route it, the team will be putting a lot of pressure on two very young players. Both McCann and Blueger have likely not reached their full potential and have more upside, but will the stress of the elevated roles be too much for them. The team also traded away Kessel this offseason (Duh!). Without Malkin, the Penguins are short on game-breaking forwards, with just Crosby and Guentzel solidly in that category, and maybe Galchenyuk.
Can the team survive for 4-8 weeks with a weakened center core, and not fall too far behind the competition?
This topic will be rather quick….there just isn’t much out there. Patrick Marleau and Brian Boyle are the only names that really stand out as possibilities, and, without much cap space, signing either one of these free agents will become cap problematic when Malkin and Bjugstad do return.
This just doesn’t seem like a viable option for the team.
This is something Rutherford is likely going to explore. My guess is, he’ll start exploring this immediately, but will want to see how the team plays over the next 3-5 games before deciding if he needs to push this angle.
It’s really too early in the season to get much of a handle on who may be available at center. Whomever it may be, you can guess that it will be rather costly to obtain. I don’t see two acquisitions as possible. I believe GMJR would have to look at a player that has better than average 3C production. I don’t know who that player would be right now. Maybe this spells an early end for Bjugstad if a team like Ottawa or another rebuilding team was interested in acquiring an injured Bjugstad that could help them down the road.
This is about one of the worse case scenarios that could happen to the Penguins. They’ve lost Malkin and the next player up who could possibly replace him at an adequate level. McCann has a shot to do this as well, but the Penguins are thin at the position and thin on game-breakers up front. For a team that many saw as maybe a 50/50 shot of making the playoffs, those odds just got a lot worse. The team has no more room for error in terms of not playing hard and not showing up to play.