Defenseman Kris Letang needs surgery to repair a herniated disc. He won’t play in the playoffs.
How do the Penguins make up for Letang’s loss?
The Penguins have enough to beat fading Columbus in the first round. But after that, Washington’s physicality and possession down low will prove too much. Letang’s one-man breakout will be sorely missed. The Penguins need the Capitals to be upset in the first round. Fat chance.
But there’s a way for the Penguins to maximize what’s left on defense. (This assumes all of their other defensemen are available.)
Pair Ian Cole and Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey. All of these tandems have established some comfort level, whether recently or further back.
Don’t use any of those duos like a top pair. (That should be easy. None is.) Keep every defenseman as close to 20 minutes of regulation ice as possible. These defensemen generally play worse when used excessively.
To facilitate such limitation, dress a seventh defenseman: Mark Streit. Using Streit wisely can balance out the other defensemen’s minutes, and he’d come in handy on the second power play.
My formula could be damaging: If a forward gets hurt, you’d be down to 10 forwards during that game.
But Coach Mike Sullivan could easily manage that for one night. Unlike Sullivan’s available defensemen, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can handle an additional workload, even in a playoff situation.
Schultz is having a career year, but those who envision him stepping up more with Letang absent are dreaming.
Schultz is deft with the puck, and better than Letang on the power play. But mostly, he’s a discount Letang. Not as fast. Not nearly as much muscle.
Even if Schultz did somehow step up to Letang’s level, who would step up to Schultz’s level? Significant injuries have significant trickledown.
The Penguins should not change how they play. Not one bit. They should not become more defensive. Don’t trap. Don’t go against your own grain.
If anything, the Penguins should emphasize their speed and skill even more. The Penguins need more and better puck possession. All the injuries have made them simplify too much. Simple isn't their game. The Penguins have been dumping and chipping too often.
Disclaimer: I don’t see Sullivan embracing the use of seven defensemen. He would likely see rolling four lines as more valuable. But the result of overloading some of his defensemen with minutes might change his mind.
Some would debate Chad Ruhwedel into the playoff receipe, including ex-Penguins Phil Bourque and Mike Rupp. Ruhwedel is right-handed, always a plus. But he plays soft. That goes double in front of his net, where the Penguins as a group aren’t particularly bruising.
Some would devalue Letang in the wake of Wednesday's news, saying he makes too much ($7.25 million per) for a player hurt so often. That’s total horse manure. The Penguins don’t win the Stanley Cup last season without Letang. His presence was immeasurable, especially in the final. He could have been playoff MVP.
I’d rather have a supreme talent playing half the games than some ham-and-egger who dresses for all 82. It’s easy to plug in mediocrity.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).