Mark Madden: Amid injuries, Penguins need to adopt more rigid, defensive structure |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Amid injuries, Penguins need to adopt more rigid, defensive structure

Mark Madden
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Jared McCann celebrates the first of his two goals during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019.

In 2015-16 and 2016-17, the Penguins could have survived losing Evgeni Malkin for a month or so at season’s start.

But now, they probably can’t.

The news of Malkin’s long-term injury hits the Penguins like a sucker punch. A solid playoff bet prior, that status is now extremely tenuous. The way coach Mike Sullivan adjusts their approach will tell a tale. Let’s hope it’s not cautionary.

Now, the Penguins just can’t rely on speed and skill to the degree they prefer. There was some doubt as to whether they could even before Malkin got hurt.

The Penguins aren’t as fast as they used to be, or think they are. They’re not as skilled as they used to be, or think they are.

Malkin’s absence will obviously exacerbate the latter. It leaves Alex Galchenyuk in no man’s land, a scorer with no provider. (Though he now has a spot on the power play.)

Nick Bjugstad also is out long term, so the Penguins have exactly three centers. That includes fourth-liner Teddy Blueger and moving Jared McCann to center from wing. Dominik Kahun played center before coming to the NHL last season, and the Penguins have experimented with Dominik Simon at center.

McCann is off to a good start, scoring twice in Saturday’s 7-2 home win over Columbus. McCann is a very useful player who has impressed since being acquired from Florida on Feb. 1.

But is McCann a second-line center? He’s not Malkin, that’s certain.

Sidney Crosby will do all he can to pick up the slack. He was brilliant in Saturday’s win. He still is in the discussion when it comes to hockey’s best player.

But he’s 32. He averaged 21 minutes per game last season, ranking third on the Penguins and first among forwards. Can Crosby handle it if his already considerable burden is increased? At what point do returns diminish? The Penguins don’t want to wear out Crosby before the playoffs. But making the postseason won’t be easy.

Much depends on the Penguins’ approach.

To play the same fast, offensive style planned with Malkin, Bjugstad and the depth of attack the Penguins had prior to their injuries would be ill-advised, even borderline delusional.

If there were ever a situation that called for the Penguins to adopt more rigid structure, it’s now. Every line but Crosby’s should cheat on the defensive side on the puck, then counterattack off turnovers. Even Crosby’s line should do that, especially when the schedule gets thick with games and if the captain’s workload increases.

The Penguins are capable of playing solid defense and managing the puck.

After a comedy of errors Thursday vs. Buffalo led to 17 turnovers, a plethora of odd-man breaks against, a 3-1 loss and a torrent of boos from the opening-night home crowd, the Penguins buckled down Saturday and stifled an admittedly terrible Columbus team.

The turnovers shrunk to two Saturday, which shows the players and stat-keepers were severely admonished after Thursday’s debacle.

Goalie Matt Murray showed up ready to play this season. He did well in both games to date. Backed by more structure, Murray could carry the Penguins in Malkin’s absence. If Murray is left out to dry like Thursday, he would have to work miracles.

The ball is in Sullivan’s court. But here’s betting the Penguins try to play exactly the same without Malkin and Bjugstad as they wanted to with Malkin and Bjugstad.

That’s understandable. The Penguins have been high-octane dating to Mario Lemieux’s arrival in 1984. The franchise takes a lot of pride in that. So do fans.

This seems a case of what might work as opposed to what the Penguins want. What they want probably won’t work.

Will Malkin’s injury mean the Penguins miss the playoffs for the first time since 2006? That’s a distinct possibility.

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