34 minutes ago
I’ll reiterate a sentiment I expressed last month.
Someone please give me a giant sleeping pill so I can pass out until January 2020. It’s time to be done with 2019.
This weekend the tone surrounding Pittsburgh’s pro franchises went from bad to worse to “I think need a new hobby besides watching sports.”
Anyone wanna check out the symphony with me? Who is up for a nice nature hike to watch the leaves change colors?
The Steelers lost another heartbreaking game to a division rival. The Penguins lost two important players for a long stretch, and Houston Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole keeps reminding us what could’ve been for him in Pittsburgh. The guy is doing his best Bob Gibson impersonation in the playoffs.
Did I hear that right? Fifteen strikeouts in a playoff game? Really?
— Houston Astros (@astros) October 6, 2019
Let’s shelve our Pirates and Steelers angst for now, though, and focus on Monday’s unfortunate news from the Penguins.
Centers Nick Bjugstad and Evgeni Malkin are out “longer term,” both with lower-body injuries. Head coach Mike Sullivan says that he expects Malkin to be “out a little bit longer than” Bjugstad. TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Malkin will be out at least a month with a soft tissue leg injury.
The analysis is pretty simple.
Bjugstad’s injury hurts in terms of depth scoring and the Penguins’ seemingly never-ending quest to fill the third-line center role.
Malkin’s injury hurts because, well, he’s Evgeni Malkin. He’s the Penguins’ second-most important player and a future Hall of Famer. By all accounts, he was poised to have a bounce-back year after a dog season in 2018-19.
However, these injuries hurt well beyond those obvious individual concerns.
The Penguins barely made the playoffs last season and didn’t win a playoff game. They were forecast as a bubble playoff team this year, too. These injuries, plus the preexisting “long-term injured reserve” status of Bryan Rust (hand), puts those hopes in jeopardy before most people have even bought their Halloween costumes.
Accumulating as many points as possible in the first month or two should have been a crucial point of emphasis for these Penguins beyond what is normally expected.
Given their supreme talent, the Penguins have been able to absorb shaky starts — even into the winter holidays — and still maintain a 13-year playoff streak.
I’m not convinced they could do such a thing in autumn of 2019 and assure themselves of playing in the spring of 2020. I think these Penguins need to be steady quickly, and these three injuries are a major hurdle on that road.
Another complicating factor is what the absence of Malkin and Bjugstad will do to the big-picture goal of figuring out chemistry and line combinations. Given the losses of Phil Kessel and Matt Cullen, there already was head scratching about how the forwards would be reconfigured and how the power play would be deployed.
Just about any permutation of hypothetical line combinations I saw featured Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Bjugstad as the first three centers and Malkin on the top power play.
That changes now. Jared McCann was slotted to be a winger somewhere on the top three lines. Now he’s probably going to have to center the second line. Teddy Blueger was ticketed to center the fourth line or maybe even play wing. Now he gets a promotion ready or not — to be a third-line center.
Then there is Dominik Kahun. He was a center before his NHL days, but he has mainly played wing since coming up to the big leagues.
Much of the attraction when acquiring him from Chicago as part of the return in the Olli Maatta trade was that he was supposed to elevate his game when playing with other highly skilled forwards. Instead, he might have to go back to playing center on a fourth line.
None of this is to mention what will become of the plans for Alex Galchenyuk, Brandon Tanev and Patric Hornqvist.
The goal was for Galchenyuk to ride shotgun with Malkin all year. Tanev, in theory, could’ve been a gritty, hustling, defensive conscience on that line, too.
Now Galchenyuk has to create some fast chemistry with McCann while coach Mike Sullivan figures out where to slot Tanev and Hornqvist, assuming the fascination of playing Dominik Simon with Crosby and Jake Guentzel continues.
Which I am, of course, assuming.
The NHL has written the words “long term” in the “long-term injured reserve” designation for a reason. It allows teams salary-cap flexibility to get through tough times like this. If Malkin and Bjugstad get that tag, as Rust did, that’s a prorated portion of $17.1 million for general manager Jim Rutherford to play with.
But if he makes a significant trade, what does Sullivan do when Malkin and Bjugstad return? How “long/longer term” are we really talking about here, fellas?
Let’s hope it’s shorter than the suffering Pittsburgh sports fans have been enduring for the past 10 months.