After listening to Mark Madden ramble about the future of the Pens a little this afternoon, I had a few opinions that I decided might be best designed to be posted on here.
First of all, I want to address the, “What do the Pens do when Marc-Andre Fleury comes back?” question. While what Ty Conklin has done so far this season has been absolutely superb, you have to remember that the guy is 31 years old already. If he was really capable of playing at a level anywhere near as high as that which he’s performed since his December call-up, he would have already earned himself a starting job with a nice, long-term contract elsewhere. Fleury is still young enough that he has a future ahead of him, while Conklin is just a career back-up in the middle of a good hot streak.
That said, here are some interesting lines from Penguins’ defensemen Brooks Orpik that do make it sound as though Conklin could be more than just a flash in the pan.
“The big thing is the way he handles the puck,” Orpik said. “It makes it so much easier on the defense. It is really like having an extra defenseman out there.
“His saves speak for themselves. But one thing we have talked about as defensemen is how much easier things have been with the way he handles the puck.”
Perhaps Conklin’s performance is more than just him being on a hot streak. Maybe his stand-up style and consistent positioning are meshing well with the style of defense the Penguins like to play. One cannot help but notice that Conklin does an excellent job of controlling rebounds and always seems to be in the right place to knock down a shot. Meanwhile, he has only made a small handful of spectacular, Fleury-like saves. Maybe Michel Terrien and his defensive scheme just clicks better with a knowledgable, consistent, but not necessarily flashy goaltender? Something to consider when Fleury makes his return in the coming weeks.
The other major area of concern for the Pens down the road will be the question of adding a strong offensive winger to put next to Sidney Crosby in the coming years. Madden claimed the Pens would be much better off splitting Crosby and Evgeni Malkin up, allowing them each to center their own line, rather than placing the two together on one super-line. He referenced how Mario Lemieux had Hall of Famer Ron Francis centering the second line behind him during the Penquins stronger periods in the ’90’s, and honestly I agree with Madden there. You have to balance your talent to win hockey games.
But if, three years from now, you have Crosby and Malkin centering lines 1 and 2 respectively, while Max Talbot, arguably the best, most mucking-ist (the only word I could use to describe Maxime) third line center in the NHL, takes face-offs on the checking line. Where exactly does that leave Jordan Staal and Angelo Esposito? Staal, despite some struggles this year, still has one of the brightest futures ahead of him of maybe any 19 year old on the planet. It isn’t at all crazy to think he’ll be a 30 goal scorer year in and year out by the time he’s 22, and his improvements in the face-off circle this year would make it very tough to split him out to a wing position.
Esposito, the Penguins 1st round draft pick this past summer, has a bright, bright future ahead of him, except for his natural position is at center. Granted, I think there is still plenty of time to turn Esposito into a wing before he makes his NHL debut, even if it means holding him in the minors for an extra few months to a year.
That said, neither Esposito or Staal is a 4th line center. Both need to be on the ice, and Staal in particular needs to be at center. In my mind that leaves the Pens with two options:
A. Keep Malkin and Crosby together on line one while you build depth on the rest of the team, namely picking up another solid scorer to put next to Staal on line 2 and developing a solid core of defensemen to put in front of Fleury or whoever ends up being the Pens goalie of the future.
B. Let Malkin center the 2nd and line and use Staal as a trading piece to acquire a front line scorer, possibly Marian Hossa, who is known to be on the block this season.
It’s going to come down to a judgement decision on the Pens part, but honestly the offensive pieces are already very much in place for this team to compete for a title. Throw a better set of defenders and some consistent goaltending behind those scorers, and this team could be a serious contender in a highly competitive Eastern Conference.