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Insider

Pittsburgh's season of survival

1/9/2012

As he's done all too often during media availability, Dan Bylsma rattled through the latest Pittsburgh Penguins injuries during his Sunday news conference. His captain, Sidney Crosby, already has been shelved indefinitely, and his young franchise defenseman Kris Letang is still out with concussion-like symptoms.

It gets worse. Bylsma explained that Jordan Staal's knee injury likely will keep him out of the lineup for four to six weeks. He revealed that James Neal took a shot off his foot, breaking it, and will be further evaluated early this week. But it's bad.

"It's weeks, not days at this point," Bylsma said.

The Penguins have been remarkably resilient during Crosby's prolonged absence, but this latest wave of injuries might be more than even this group can withstand. The Pens have lost four consecutive games and have a losing record since starting the season 10-3-3.

Pittsburgh is clinging to the final Eastern Conference playoff spot with the Winnipeg Jets knocking on the door and a much-improved Washington Capitals team charging fast. Still, there are signs that the Penguins can survive. Their goal differential is plus-17, better than that of every Eastern Conference team besides the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. They still have Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, a duo capable of winning games by itself.

Even in the losses, Bylsma can find positives. "The last few games, we've played some good hockey," Bylsma said. "We've done some good things, particularly in the first periods. How we react to certain circumstances -- making a mistake, them scoring a goal -- has been a problem for our team. Responding to that adversity, playing through it, continuing to play -- that's something that we have to get better at."

The injuries may force the hand of GM Ray Shero, who, according to Shelly Anderson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is out of town at scouting meetings, but the tone of those conversations certainly has changed. If his injured stars are all out through the February trade deadline, he'll have to make a trade to help keep the Penguins afloat and in the playoff race. Leaning on more scoring from Tyler Kennedy just won't cut it.

Bylsma was asked about the possibility of a trade during his Sunday chat with the media and said the injury news was too fresh to provide any updates on that front, but he also sounded realistic about what might need to happen for the Penguins to survive.

"We understand where we're at," he said. "We understand we're going to have to recall one, if not two, players here to step in, and they're going to have to play significant roles."

Indeed, Eric Tangradi was recalled Monday. But if he or other call-ups don't produce, there are some options for the Penguins, who have about $5 million in cap space to work with (all numbers per CapGeek.com):

Call Bob Murray: The Penguins don't need to blow things up and trade for one of the Anaheim Ducks' stars, but Anaheim might have a player or two who could provide stopgap minutes while Neal and Staal heal. It wouldn't take much to add Niklas Hagman, who had an assist Sunday night and was a plus-3 in the Ducks' win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Jason Blake is in the final year of his deal, earning $4 million this season, and has two points in three games since returning from his wrist injury. That's a contract the Ducks would be happy to part with, although it wouldn't be the best use of cap space for the Penguins. Shero might want to shop elsewhere.

Ales Hemsky, Edmonton Oilers: If Shero wants to up the ante, he could make a play for Hemsky, who is looking more and more like a player headed out of Edmonton before the deadline arrives. He's slated to be an unrestricted free agent July 1 and comes with a salary cap hit of $4.1 million. The Oilers are believed to be looking for young defense in return for Hemsky, who has 14 points in 28 games this season. He saw 20:36 of ice time in Saturday's game against the Dallas Stars, so he's apparently as healthy as he's been all season. The problem with Hemsky is that his healthy status can change in a heartbeat because of the way he plays.

Tuomo Ruutu, Carolina Hurricanes: This might be the best option for the Penguins. Ruutu brings the right mix of physical play and scoring ability that Bylsma loves in his forwards. He's earning $3.8 million this year, and that number will come off the books this summer when Ruutu becomes one of the more intriguing free agent forwards available on July 1. Represented by the same agency that landed big deals for James Wisniewski and Ville Leino, Ruutu will cash in soon. In the meantime, he's on pace for 27 goals and trails only Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner on the Hurricanes with 23 points.

Notes

• Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson finally did the inevitable in firing coach Scott Arniel and replacing him with Todd Richards for the rest of the season, but it's hard to imagine even a modest turnaround in Columbus. During a slow start, Howson wanted to wait and see how the team performed with both Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski in the lineup, and it wasn't much better. Now, Richards takes over a team missing both players because of injuries, making it nearly impossible to evaluate him as the coach. Writer Aaron Portzline points out that the Blue Jackets have just eight regulation wins in their past 63 games, an indication that Howson was a little too patient with Arniel. With the Ducks looking as though they may be headed in the right direction, the only positive left for Columbus is that it looks like a lock to land top prospect Nail Yakupov or Filip Forsberg at the top of June's draft.

• I spoke with coach Bruce Boudreau on Friday for a story I'm hoping to do this week assessing exactly where the Ducks are during their tumultuous season. The one thing that stood out to me was just how close Boudreau felt his club was to winning consistently. "Our record could easily be reversed," he said. "We could be 9-3-2 right now. The difference between a rut and a groove, both imply the same thing and have totally opposite meaning. We're not far away from being successful." His team backed up Boudreau's belief with an impressive weekend, beating the New York Islanders and Blue Jackets by a combined score of 11-6. It could be the mental breakthrough the Ducks needed under Boudreau.

• The Globe and Mail's James Mirtle highlights the dramatic growth of U.S.-born players playing in the NHL during the past few years. He points out this interesting stat about defensemen: There are more U.S-born defensemen playing in the NHL than all European countries combined. It's a credit to the work of USA Hockey and the U.S. National Team Development Program. Right now, nearly one-quarter of NHL players are American, as the impact of Gary Bettman's national footprint starts to take hold.

Brad Marchand will have his phone hearing Monday for his hit on Sami Salo during Saturday's intense showdown between the Bruins and Vancouver Canucks. The intensity carried over into Sunday, when Canucks coach Alain Vigneault spoke about the hit. He was told that Bruins coach Claude Julien suggested Marchand was trying to protect himself from being hit. "That's a stupid comment," Vigneault said, according to the Vancouver Province. "Marchand -- this is just my feeling on this -- someday he's going to get it. Somebody is going to say enough is enough, and they're going to hurt the kid because he plays to hurt players and in my mind if the league doesn't take care of it, somebody else will."