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Analysis: Lack of scoring depth Penguins' most pressing problem

| Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, 8:33 p.m.

DALLAS — Scoring depth is a problem for the Penguins, and Pascal Dupuis' projected season-ending surgery will not make correcting it easy on general manager Ray Shero.

The Penguins have their three-center formula ready, but they have only one proven right winger for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Brandon Sutter — and James Neal cannot be cloned.

The Penguins are 9-4-1 since Dupuis, their regular top-line right winger, was lost to a torn ACL on Dec. 23.

Crosby (seven goals, 18 points) and left winger Chris Kunitz (five goals, 14 points) have held up to their standards as top NHL scorers. However, since Neal resumed playing with Malkin, the Penguins' top-line right wingers have combined for one goal in nine games.

Neal is one of six players to fill in for Dupuis, who scored four goals in nine games prior to his injury. That run by Dupuis followed a stretch of one goal in 24 games. The Penguins went 15-8-1 for a .646 points percentage with Dupuis compared to their recent .679 percentage without him.

Basically, the Penguins are a 100-point pace team with Dupuis or his replacement not scoring goals.

The challenge Shero faces with the March 5 trade deadline approaching is how to prioritize replacing Dupuis if there is only one opportunity to improve the Penguins as a Stanley Cup contender.

There might be only one.

Trades have proven tougher to make this season because most teams are at or near the $64.3 million cap or ownership-imposed budgets, and all but a handful of clubs are in the hunt for a playoff spot. Also, fewer rental player are available because clubs continue to lock up their own players.

Penguins coaches are concerned with limited offensive production from third-line players. Sutter's empty netter Thursday against the Islanders represents the only goal from that group in the past 16 games.

Coach Dan Bylsma arrived at training camp talking of developing a third line with more scoring than in previous seasons, when the Jordan Staal-led units owned shutdown defensive responsibilities. Staal and wingers Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy averaged 49.5 goals from 2008-12.

The Penguins' third liners — Sutter has played with 13 wingers — have produced 13 goals in 52 games.

Strong third lines were part of the Penguins' blueprint for playoff success in 2008 and '09, and the lack of production from that unit contributed to the disappointing end to last postseason.

The Penguins scored only two goals while being swept by Boston in the East final, neither coming from franchise centers Crosby or Malkin. Still, third-liners — a group that included Brenden Morrow in spot duty for Kennedy — scored only six goals in 15 games.

Staal and Kennedy had four in the last four games of the 2009 Cup Final against Detroit.

Shero has acquired a winger at or in the month before the trade deadline in seven of eight seasons. He is trying again, and his target is one to play with Sutter.

The Penguins, per team policy, do not divulge their amount of cap space, but they have an additional $5.75 million (prorated) because of exemptions with Dupuis and goalie Tomas Vokoun on the long-term injury list.

Unlike the Cup Final clubs from 2008-09, the nucleus players for these Penguins are playing on more expensive second or third contracts. That has led directly to the deficiency regarding depth scoring.

Dupuis was a fourth liner in 2009. Now his injury leaves the Penguins with three centers and two big missing elements.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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