Monday, February 29, 2016

It's all speed and no size for revamped Penguins

By Mark Madden
February 29, 2016

Justin Schutlz
Justin Schultz plays against the Penguins last November (Gene Puskar/AP)

GM Jim Rutherford is putting all of the Penguins’ eggs in the speed and skill basket.
Will that make an omelet, or just a mess?
Rutherford’s desire to play to his team’s strengths was hammered home Saturday when the Penguins sent a third-round draft choice to Edmonton for rental Justin Schultz, a finesse-oriented, puck-moving defenseman just like all the rest.
Before criticizing that deal, it sure beats two second-round picks for Douglas Murray. That’s assuming Schultz doesn’t lose a leg between now and his arrival.
The Penguins have nothing but puck-movers on defense: Kris Letang, Trevor Daley, Derrick Pouliot and Schultz are specialists thereof. Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin aren’t bad in that regard, either.
The Penguins, however, don’t have a legit physical presence on the blue line. No shrinking violets, but no hitters.
The Penguins, in fact, don’t have a legit physical presence in their entire lineup, although winger Chris Kunitz gets a lot of pop out of his 6-foot, 194-pound frame.
The Penguins otherwise don’t play heavy. Not even a little bit.
No matter what else Rutherford does before Monday’s 3 p.m. NHL trade deadline, he can’t put a dent in the Penguins’ lack of physicality. The Penguins might exhaust foes, but won’t splatter them.
That’s not a problem, until it is. But speed is the signature element in today’s NHL. It’s often speed without talent, but that’s not a problem for the Penguins. Not for the top half of their lineup, anyway.
Will the NHL’s style change come playoff time? It usually does but lately, that shift hasn’t been dramatic. Play tightens up, sure, but you can use speed to do that.
The Schultz trade further commits the Penguins to what they do best. That doesn’t seem like something to criticize.
Daley has prospered since the Penguins got him Chicago this past Dec. 14. Daley has a bigger role with the Penguins, and he’s a good fit.
Despite being minus-22, Schultz wasn’t wanting for ice in Edmonton. But Schultz might also be a better fit in Pittsburgh, and he’ll distribute the puck to forwards who more often play up to their talent level than the Oilers’ gang of pedigreed underachievers.
Up front, the Penguins can solve their problems internally.
The top-six forwards have to be more consistent. Witness Sidney Crosby, who followed up an ungodly tear with six pointless games in his last eight. But the return of Evgeni Malkin from injury makes the Penguins a much tougher team to check, and should rejuvenate the power play (one-for-25 over its last 11 games).
The bottom six depends on Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr and Beau Bennett.
Bonino, who just returned from injury Saturday, is a big disappointment: Three goals in 41 games after 15 goals last season and 22 the year before that. The bottom six doesn’t have to score much, but frequent goose eggs are unacceptable. (Scott Wilson scoring four times in the last five games was a godsend.)
Fehr is a prototypical bottom-six forward. Fehr doesn’t play big but, at 6-4, 212, at least he is big.
Who knows when the oft-crocked Bennett will be back, or how long he’ll stay in the lineup once he does return? But Bennett has skill and makes the occasional play. The bottom six needs that. Right now, it’s all chip-and-chase ham-and-eggers save 5-8 mighty mite Conor Sheary, who left Saturday’s game injured.
Rutherford hasn’t made and won’t make a trade that turns the Penguins into a nailed-on Stanley Cup contender. That’s because that deal isn’t out there.
Schultz will wear No. 4 for the Penguins. Dumoulin should give Schultz No. 8. For irony’s sake, and nothing else.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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