Friday, January 17, 2014

Despite the results, depth isn’t up front

The Penguins don’t have a third line right now. They have two fourth lines. Maybe one fourth line and an American Hockey League line.
Here’s some perspective: Two weeks ago, the Rangers cut Taylor Pyatt. Wednesday night, he was on Evgeni Malkin’s line. Pyatt scored.
Malkin might consider that too much perspective. Does he sign an eight-year extension this past June if he knows Pyatt on his wing is part of the bargain?
But the Penguins keep winning.
Center Nick Drazenovic – veteran of 11 NHL games – made his Penguins debut in Wednesday’s 4-3 victory over Washington. Even those who follow the Penguins closely couldn’t pick Drazenovic out of a police lineup.
But there he was, on Consol Energy Center ice for 10:18, including 43 seconds of power-play time. Drazenovic even tripped Alex Ovechkin. Two minutes, but…
“I’m not about to let him walk in,” Drazenovic joked after.
Drazenovic helped the Penguins win and got an NHL payday. Not bad. He knows what’s required: “Put in some solid minutes. Don’t be a liability.”
It would be fanciful to say that the Penguins’ resilience is a tribute to their system’s depth. Fanciful but inaccurate, especially up front. The Penguins have nearly two teams worth of legit NHL defensemen. But many of the forwards filling in for the Penguins are, at best, borderline NHLers. They play because somebody has to. You’re supposed to dress 20.
It’s beyond bizarre: 36 players have suited up for the Penguins this season.
Imagine being a member of the Penguins’ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton AHL affiliate that hasn’t been summoned to Pittsburgh for even a single game. Get ready to rent an apartment in Wheeling next season.
Center Zach Sill has been perhaps the best of the fill-in forwards. Zero points in 19 games, but Sill adds versatility, grit and, in the absence of Pascal Dupuis, much-needed penalty-killing. Sill, 25, never played an NHL game before this season.
At training camp, Sill’s game plan was to “try to be the No. 1 guy to get called up if there was an injury in Pittsburgh. That’s what I was aiming for. But I didn’t see myself having 19 (NHL) games under my belt by January.”
Now, Sill’s goal is “to play well enough that they can’t afford to send me down. Try to bring something to the team that they can’t do without.”
The Penguins’ success while injury-riddled is a credit to coach Dan Bylsma, who has a knack for getting the most out of lesser players and depleted rosters. Bylsma was NHL coach of the year in 2010-11, a season that saw the Penguins amass 106 points despite losing Sidney Crosby for the season in early January and Evgeni Malkin for the season in early February.
Now this: An 18-point lead atop the Metropolitan Division and a 10-point lead atop the Eastern Conference.
To be fair, Crosby hasn’t missed a game. That helps.
When the injuries heal, there might be a traffic jam heading east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. But will the Penguins ever be close to 100 percent healthy? Has there ever been a season so fraught by man-games lost?
The Penguins aren’t bothered. No excuses, only results.
Meantime, smell the roses.
“One shift, I got out there with Crosby…that’s incredible,” Drazenovic said, laughing.
Yesterday, Drazenovic got sent back to the minors. Life in the E-ZPass lane. Surely make you lose your mind.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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