James Neal’s injury has prevented Evgeni Malkin from finding a rhythm this season.
Last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins had the most dynamic offense in the NHL. Their 162 goals-for led the league, and with star players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal, they have a multi-dimmensional offensive threat that is sure to make every team in the league nervous when going up against them.
So why then, has the team that led the NHL in offense last year and boasts some of the best star power in the NHL been struggling to find consistent scoring this season? A quick look at the records show that there are several factors in play that are keeping the Penguins from finding the back of the net.
First off, let me just start by saying that I realize that it is early in the season. After playing only 17 games so far, the Pens still have more than 3/4 of the season left to play. So many times teams get off to a rough start before righting the ship and settling into a groove for the rest of the season. However, scoring depth is a problem the Penguins have struggled with in the past, and to see it becoming a problem so early in the season should be a little alarming to Penguins fans. So what exactly is keeping the Penguins from scoring?
First and foremost, some of the Penguins top forwards have only played in a handful of games this year. Right winger James Neal made his return last weekend against St. Louis after having not played a game since early October due to a lingering lower-body injury he sustained in the preseason. Fellow line mate Beau Bennett also played for the first time in 11 games Saturday in St. Louis, and while their return was welcome, the rust was evident.
The list goes on from there. Many other Penguins forwards including Matt D’Agostini and two-way defenseman Kris Letang have also missed time due to injuries. While their obvious presence in the lineup has been missed, their absence has also prevented the rest of the team from establishing a rhythm together. Up until now, coach Dan Bylsma has had to play musical chairs with the lines every night, and the effect is evident. With guys being shuffled around on an almost nightly basis, it would be hard for anyone to find their touch.
Which brings me to my next point: secondary scoring. When Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin go into a bit of a scoring slump like they recently have, the rest of the team has a had trouble picking up the slack. In Malkin’s case, I think the return of Neal and Bennet to regular service on Malkin’s wings will (hopefully) return Geno to 50-goal form.
I think most people are less concerned with Crosby. After racing out of the gate to a eight point lead in the scoring race, Crosby has slowed significantly the last few games, recording only one assist and zero goals in the last three games. While concerning, the best player in the world will soon find his game again and retake the lead in points, just as he has done so many times before. It’s just what elite talents do.
So, given that key injuries are largely to blame for the recent lack of offense, Penguins fans can put the panic button away. However, there is something to be said for a stagnant offense when Crosby and Malkin aren’t producing. The Penguins bottom-six have been scoring more goals this year than in years past, however much of that offense is the product of playing with Sid and Geno. Getting the third and fourth lines to produce when Crosby and Malkin can’t is paramount if the Penguins are to have consistent success this season, especially in games against the Western Conference.