Less Can Definitely Be More
The Penguins started the 2013/14 season with several questions surrounding their roster.
Chief among those concerns?
Depth at the forward position.
Throw in some injuries to Pascal Dupuis and Beau Bennett, and the Penguins cupboard in the bottom six was fairly bare.
Take Brandon Sutter, for instance. A young two-way center that paced at career highs in the truncated 48 game post-lockout season was suddenly searching for linemates.
Sixteen roster players have appeared on his wing this season, and none of them have been able to provide the substance that a top team in the Eastern conference is supposed to have for the third line.
If you’re walking around today upset that Ray Shero didn’t pull off a blockbuster trade a la Jarome Iginla, or to a lesser extent, the purported Ryan Kesler deal that was floated on the internet all week long, chew on the following for a second.
The Penguins are first place in their division by a margin of 14 points.
The Penguins are also first place in the conference, currently besting the Bruins by a margin of three.
This is a team that steamrolled it’s way through the first three quarters of the season.
This is not a team that needed Jarome Iginla.
Tweaks were necessary, not a complete overhaul. Ray Shero’s acquisition of Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak addresses the depth question the Penguins have been looking for an answer to via names like Taylor Pyatt and Chuck Kobasew, both of whom have failed to impress thus far this season.
Let’s start with the acquisition of Goc, who at 6’1 and 205 lbs. is a staunch two-way center that simply brings his A game every single night.
A renowned 200 foot player, Goc brings faceoff ability, penalty-killing ability, and the hustle and grit desired by a coach like Dan Bylsma.
While Goc might not make regular appearances in the goals column, his intangibles alone are an improvement to the bottom six of the Penguins. His career high in the goals category is 12, and he’s already one away from tying that number.
Goc comes to the Penguins having been sixth on the Panthers in on-ice Corsi with a 6.47 clip with 59 games played. Goc has also faced the sixth toughest competition on the Panthers roster.
The Florida Panthers faced the least amount of shots-against when Marcel Goc and Jesse Winchester were on the ice.
Now, depending on what Dan Bylsma decides to do with his new plethora of centers, we could see Goc step alongside Brandon Sutter, who’s defensive numbers have been out-of-this world so far this season.
A bottom six featuring Goc/Sutter as a combination makes the Penguins instantly harder to play against.
In addition to Goc, Shero also sent a third round pick this season to Calgary for veteran presence Lee Stempniak.
This is a move that, for me, immediately sends Brian Gibbons to the third line. There’s nothing wrong with the work Gibbons has done on the top line, but as I pointed out in Rob Rossi’s Chipped Ice Blog the combination of Crosby and Kunitz had not connected for an even-strength goal scored since January 27th in a 3-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres prior to Tuesday night’s game against Nashville.
I spoke with a scout in British Columbia after the Penguins dealt for Stempniak and asked him to summarize what the team can expect from him. His response was short, but sweet:
“Fans will love him in Pittsburgh. He is all class, a true blue collar worker. I’ve never heard him complain once.”
Stempniak’s reputation around the league is exactly that: a hard working player. While he might lack the talent of some of the names we’ve seen in the Penguins top six recently, he brings a veteran presence and, more importantly, the right attitude to the team.
One thing Pascal Dupuis brought to the Penguins was a presence in the tough areas, penalty-killing, and lots of shots on goal.
Stempniak can play the penalty-kill, he can get to the tough areas, and he lead the Calgary Flames with 111 shots on goal through this season.
Make no mistake about it, this is the best team Lee Stempniak has played on in his NHL career. His a perennial “close to 20 goals a year” type of player. His simplistic and straight-forward approach to the game makes him a prime candidate to get a shot alongside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.
When the injury bug finally leaves the Penguins alone, they should be left with Beau Bennett filling the right-wing spot alongside Sidney Crosby, which would conceivably bump Stempniak down to the third line along with Goc and Sutter.
It’s a trickle-down effect that gives Dan Bylsma and his staff plenty of solid options for the bottom six of this hockey team.
The Penguins were already good. And despite a brief bump in the road that appeared in the form of a three game pre and post-Olympic losing streak, this is not hockey team that needed an infusion of superstar talent.
They needed guys exactly like the ones they got. And they’re a better team for it.