By MARK MADDEN
OK, Geno’s out. (Geno’s knee’s a mess.) Who’s gonna take his place?
The answer isn’t Jesus. He won’t fit under the cap.
Evgeni Malkin’s very unfortunate knee injury minimizes the Penguins’ Stanley Cup chances and guarantees that they won’t be able to trade him until after the 2011-12 season at the earliest. Malkin is damaged goods, and teams will want to see how far he comes back before dickering.
But winning the Cup without Malkin isn’t impossible. The Penguins just have to become a different kind of team.
Sidney Crosby has to come back, too. I’ve heard it will be at least two more weeks until he’s cleared for strenuous physical activity. I’ve also heard it might be two more months until he can play. I’ve also heard the concussion is more spinal than cerebral, which means a longer recovery but less potential for complications in the long run.
This is what I’ve heard. The Penguins organization is not very forthcoming, so conjecture rules.
I’ve also heard the Penguins do not now feel compelled to make a significant acquisition. This team is assembled for the long haul, and GM Ray Shero will not deter from his planned course by way of knee-jerk reaction. Sometimes you just have a lost season, one when everything goes wrong.
For example, a season that sees your three star centers in the lineup at the same time for exactly two games.
So, the Penguins will largely play with the cards they’ve been dealt. The offensive juggernaut has been appreciably diminished. But…
Right now, Marc-Andre Fleury is the best goaltender in hockey. And…
You could make a strong, logical argument that, 1 through 5, the Penguins have the deepest, most versatile defense corps in hockey. So…
DEE-FENSE! DEE-FENSE! DEE-FENSE!
Trap. Do so aggressively, with dynamic counterattacking augmented by defensemen getting involved. But trap. Take the components you’ve got left and improve that power play. The Penguins already have the league’s top PK. The power play is 15th, with a conversion rate of 17.7 percent.
Get that PP up over 20 percent. Get that PP in the top 10. Win with goaltending, defense and special teams.
This is how the other half lives. This is what teams that don’t have talent like Crosby and Malkin do. So do it.
This is where we find out how good Dan Bylsma really is. This is where we find out how good Jordan Staal really is. I have the utmost faith in both. But a challenge has clearly been laid down for Bylsma and Staal.
Malkin’s injury opens up cap space. A lot of rent-a-centers are available, but they’re mostly crap. Slightly intriguing is New Jersey’s Jason Arnott, 37. Arnott (6-5, 220) has 13 goals and 10 assists.
The big question now: When will Sid return? If it’s not soon, the Penguins might ultimately have to fight just to make the playoffs. The Penguins are 16 points ahead of ninth-place Carolina, and have certainly performed admirably in the dual absences of Crosby and Malkin. But at some point, you hit a wall, and then excrement tends to roll downhill fast.
Without Geno, the Pens can’t be considered favorites to win the Eastern Conference. But a healthy Sid added to what they’ve currently got would give them a good chance to beat anybody come springtime.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
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