Home > NFL, NHL, Penguins > What Happens When the Pens are Healthy? (Also, NFL PICKS!)

What Happens When the Pens are Healthy? (Also, NFL PICKS!)

This is a problem the Penguins are fortunate to have, but it is a problem nonetheless. The Pens are 6-2-2 through ten games played largely without Brooks Orpik, Dustin Jeffrey, and Evgeni Malkin, and entirely without Sidney Crosby. Last night, Dan Bylsma went with the following line combinations:

Chris Kunitz – Jordan Staal – Pascal Dupuis
Steve Sullivan – Richard Park – James Neal
Matt Cooke – Joe Vitale – Arron Asham
Steve MacIntyre – Dustin Jeffery – Craig Adams

Kris Letang – Brooks Orpik
Paul Martin – Zbynek Michalek
Matt Niskanen – Deryk Engelland

The odd-men-out were Mark Letestu and Ben Lovejoy

The defense has been somewhat of a revolving door situation. Brooks Orpik didn’t start the season due to injury (with Lovejoy starting in his place), then returned to the lineup Thursday night while Kris Letang was serving game two of a two-game suspension. In the game prior to Thursday, in Minnesota, the Pens were without both Orpik AND Letang and had to recall Brian Strait from the AHL for a spot start. Strait suffered a hyperextended elbow in that contest and will likely miss 4-6 weeks.

Strait wasn’t meant to be a staple of this lineup, so while his injury is unfortunate it is far from critical.

Last night was the first night Dan Bylsma had a choice of 6 of 7  possible players. He chose to scratch Ben Lovejoy. Entering the season Dan Bylsma said that only Letang, Orpik, Michalek, and Martin had guaranteed spots on the defense, and the other two spots were up for grabs. With as well as Niskanen has played through the first handful of games it seems as though he has locked up the fifth defenseman spot, leaving it between Lovejoy and Engelland to duke it out for number six.

Heading into Thursday’s game against Montreal, it seemed like Lovejoy and Engelland were just about neck-and-neck. I felt that Engelland had a slight advantage because, while he hadn’t been spectacular at any point, he had simply made fewer mistakes than Engelland.  After Engelland’s two-assist performance  in the Montreal game, Ben Lovejoy found himself as the odd-man-out last night.

Late in last night’s game Zbynek Michalek suffered an injury of undisclosed severity to his hand. If he is forced to miss time it is safe to expect Ben Lovejoy’s return to the lineup. If Big Z is okay to continue playing I would think Lovejoy continues to sit unless an injury forces him back into the lineup.

So going forward, it seems to me the ideal defensive setup is what we saw last night.

It gets even trickier on offense.

I am not currently putting much stock into the lines we see each night. They change with injuries, guys returning from injuries, and the whims of Bylsma and his coaching staff as they shuffle players around to see who clicks with whom.

The current absence of Tyler Kennedy, Evgeni Malkin, and Sidney Crosby from nightly action has meant that no hard lineup decisions have had to be made. But when those three are healthy enough to return they will absolutely be re-inserted into the nightly lineup. So with the Penguins absolutely clicking right now – having played their two best games of the season without those three in the lineup – who stays and who goes?

There is one clear decision, and that is to sit MacIntyre/Letestu. Steve MacIntyre got the nod last night over Mark Letestu (a decision I’m not sure I understand) but at this point Letestu is playing poor hockey and MacIntyre exhibits zero ability to skate or handle the puck. Easy enough. They’re out. Let’s assume Geno is the first guy back, so he slots in there.

Tyler Kennedy has been ruled out “indefinitely” with his concussion, and with the way the Penguins handled Crosby’s concussion I think it’s safe to assume that TK won’t be rushed back to action. So let’s assume Sid is the next player to return. Who sits for Sid?

It seems to me the options are Vitale, Jeffrey, Park, Asham, and Adams. None of these players has done anything to warrant losing ice time. In fact, they’ve all played well above expectations.

Forced to pick one right now, I’d say Richard Park goes. Park is smaller than the others, he’s 35, and he doesn’t fill any one role as well as the others. Adams is the team’s best PK man. Asham can hit, fight, and, on occasion, score. Vitale and Jeffrey are 26 and 23, respectively, and more important to the team’s future than Park. Park is a great fill-in guy and has played very well to this point (five points in ten games) but at his advanced age it seems to me that he would benefit from playing a slightly scaled-down schedule while allowing some of the younger talent to get a shot at NHL ice time.

So we have Letestu/MacIntyre out for Geno, and Park out for Sid. Who goes for Kennedy?

I hate to say it, but I think it has to be Joe Vitale. Vitale was the 195th pick in the 2005 entry draft. He was never supposed to be this good. He’s 26, and before this season he had only appeared in nine NHL games. Through ten games he has been spectacular. He is the ultimate energy guy. Absolutely flies up and down the ice, plays much bigger than he is, and wins faceoffs at a nearly 56% clip. Throw in his three points through the first ten games and he projects as an ideal third/fourth line center. The problem for Vitale, of course, is that the Pens have roughly 268 centers. He fills a similar role to Dustin Jeffrey who is a few years younger, comparable in the faceoff dot, a couple inches bigger, and a better goal scorer.

The only other player I can think of sitting would be Asham. Although his style of play matches Dan Bylsma’s system well, he’s 33 and beginning the downside of his career. Vitale is the kind of player who will mature into a better goal scorer than Asham, but Asham brings more toughness. Perhaps these two could wind up splitting time?

Hopefully we’ll get to find out soon.

****

And now, for the record, are my week 7 NFL picks!

Last Week: 6-5-2

Overall: 43-42-5 (over .500 woooo!)

Home team in CAPS

****

BUCCANEERS (+1.5) over Bears (In London)

PANTHERS (-3) over Redskins

JETS (PK) over Chargers

BROWNS (-3) over Seahawks

Texans (+3) over TITANS

DOLPHINS (+2) over Broncos

LIONS (-5) over Falcons

RAIDERS (-4) over Chiefs

Rams (+14) over COWBOYS

Packers (-10.5) over VIKINGS

SAINTS (-14) over Colts

Ravens (-9) over JAGUARS

CARDINALS (+4.5) over Steelers

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