The Pittsburgh Penguins have been one of the most amazing stories in the NHL this season and continue to dominate the Metropolitan Division despite being riddled with injuries. On Sunday, two of the biggest missing pieces in Pittsburgh came back when Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang returned to the lineup. The return was a good one as the pair combined for four points in a 6-5 win against the Winnipeg Jets, but where some people see a strong team that only gets stronger, I see the potential for a drop-off.
A lot of times when a star player gets hurt and then returns, all of a sudden the guys that were so important to your success decide they aren't important anymore. Subconsciously they think that when reinforcements arrive they can ease up and take down their intensity. Very often you see a drop-off when key players return from injury and this is a reason why.
On the other side of the coin, how much better can Pittsburgh really play? The Penguins' record without all of those players was unbelievable and players like Brandon Sutter, Jussi Jokinen, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland made a huge impact. What happens when a team playing so well together gets its chemistry disrupted? What happens when a defense that was completely beaten up gets three or four injured top-four defenseman back suddenly, as the Penguins have with Letang, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi? You may have already seen the answer on Sunday. Even though the Penguins won, they gave up five goals.
On offense, Malkin brings some questions for coach Dan Bylsma. James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby have had an unbelievable line going, but with Malkin back Bylsma has to decide if he wants to move Neal back to that line. Pascal Dupuis is still out, so that means the team needs another winger to play with Crosby. On the power play, having Crosby and Malkin on the same unit could also create the problem of being too many options and not enough touches to go around.
These are the issues the Penguins will face as they start to get healthier. Of course, the perfect scenario is that those two guys come back and the team keeps playing as well as it has. If that happens, if the chemistry isn't disrupted, then you've got something special.
CATCHING UP TO CANADA
The IIHF World Junior Championship just ended, and for the second straight year Canada finished the tournament without a medal. For the fourth straight year Canada lost to Russia in the medal rounds. Many in Canada see this as a concern, as evidence that something is wrong with Hockey Canada. Really, though, I think it's just a case of the rest of the world catching up. This tournament has had five different champions in the past six years, and what Canadians need to realize is this isn't a sign of Canada's mediocrity. It's a sign there are other nations that have developed programs that are just as good. These other countries aren't just rolling over and playing dead.
The improvement in programs from countries like the United States or Sweden isn't the only reason Canada came home without a medal this year, though. The big ice surface hurts the Canadian kids. Canadian hockey is much more of a physical game and you lose a lot of that on the big ice surface. The rules of international hockey basically take hitting out of the game, which also hurts Canadian players. The 2015 tournament will be held in Toronto and Montreal on NHL ice. That will improve the chances for the Canadians 12 months from now.
Really, though, the rest of the world is good. Let's make it very clear. Canada is still good, but the rest of the world is good too.
Being a Canadian, I have no problem with Canada losing for a few years. A wake-up call can make Canada re-evaluate its system, its teaching and its style of play. This isn't a bad thing. It's not a bad thing for an NHL team and it's not a bad thing for a national program. I think you'll see Hockey Canada evaluate and re-evaluate things because of the last two tournaments. If you stay status quo, other countries will be more innovative and pass you. You don't change unless you're forced to change. Now that Canada has had a few tough years, I think it will be a good thing for the whole program and the whole system.
THE BOBBY RYAN OMISSION
USA Hockey announced the roster for the United States' team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics at the Winter Classic last week. I can understand most of their reasoning and most of their debating, but the thing that has made headlines is that Ottawa Senators forward Bobby Ryan didn't make the team. I think this is something USA Hockey is going to regret.
Ryan is a natural goal scorer. Goals are going to be very tough to get in the Olympics, and when I say "a natural goal scorer" I mean Ryan doesn't need a lot of touches to score. He may look like he's doing nothing all game long, and then suddenly the puck is on his stick and it's in the net. Those guys come at a premium and they're hard to find. Every team in the NHL is looking for a natural goal scorer.
More than being a natural goal scorer, Ryan is having a tremendous year and having been on the roster in 2010 in Vancouver, he's a guy who has Olympic experience. The argument I've seen is that he's not a great skater and he'll struggle on the big ice surface. But to me, a guy who is going to score 40 goals this season has to be a good enough skater to stay with the world's best, particularly if he's played on the Olympic stage before.
If we're sitting here after the Olympics and the Americans couldn't score, I think we'll all look back and say Bobby Ryan should have been on the team.
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