Penguins: With Kris Letang Out, Schultz, Pouliot Need To Seize Opportunity

It appears that the Pittsburgh Penguins will be without their star defenseman once again. The team released today that Kris Letang will miss ‘a couple of weeks’ with a lower-body injury. It is not clear when or how the 29-year old right-handed defenseman was injured, but he wasn’t at practice Thursday.

Steve Oleksy took his place during the practice, but Head Coach Mike Sullivan was noncommittal on who would formally replace his best blue liner.

This will be the second stretch that the Penguins will be without Letang, going 4-1 in a five-game span back in October. Throughout his career, Letang has dealt with a number of injuries that has forced him to miss time, including suffering a stroke a few years back.

While losing a player of Letang’s caliber is never something that is easy to endure, if there was a time to have him miss some time, now would be the most ideal.

Not only are the Penguins barely halfway through the season, but this particular stretch has seen another defenseman step up produce.

After playing around with cap numbers, the Penguins were able to re-sign both Matt Cullen and Justin Schultz this offseason. It wasn’t easy, and it restrains the Pens from making any significant moves during the season, but they were able to bring back two key cogs to their Stanley Cup team.

Schultz, in particular, has been playing lights out of late. Always a great at generating offense since coming to Pittsburgh, his basic numbers have been eye-popping over the last eight games.

Since November 30, Schultz has registered 12 points (5 G, 8 A) in the eight games that have passed in that span. In the previous 22 games of the season, he had just five assists.

He has also posted a plus-12 rating and is averaging over 17 minutes of ice time, up 12 seconds from earlier in the year.

The former Edmonton Oiler has always gotten generous zone starts (has the most ZS in the offensive zone on the team, among defensemen), which helps his generous offensive production, but the fact remains that he leads the team in most of those categories.

When he was traded to the Penguins last year, he was already left for dead by the Oilers. Once the ‘big name’ college free agents, who turned down a contract with the Anaheim Ducks to head to Canada, Schultz busted out in his time with the woeful Oilers.

Put on a winning team, in a situation that fits him, the former second round pick and Wisconsin Badger has thrived in his short time in Pittsburgh.

This time with Letang out, and with Schultz riding his current hot streak, it could be golden opportunity to show he can handle a larger role.

Whether or not he can, getting to see this more often – hopefully on the top power play unit as well – can’t be a bad thing.

Derrick Pouliot in True ‘Make or Break’ Situation

It is unclear how the Penguins will align their defense for Friday’s contest against the Los Angeles Kings, but it would be a shame if Pouliot doesn’t get a chance to get into a game while he is up.

The former first round pick was recalled from Wilkes-Barre in response to Letang’s injury, and despite his status as a high draft pick, and only being 22 years old, time is running out on Pouliot.

He has looked far from anything that resembles an NHL defenseman, and if he flames out this time around, or shows no progress, he could get lost in the shuffle down at WBS. In somewhat of his defense, he did play in a lot of defensive situations, partnered with Ben Lovejoy a lot last season.

With Letang out, and Schultz sliding up the depth chart, Pouliot could take the latter’s place in being put in ‘protective’ offensive situations. Pouliot has offensive upside, there is no doubting it, but his play in his own end is so bad it is too much a liability to keep him in the lineup.

Giving up on Pouliot without giving him an extended look (even if he hasn’t done much to earn it), would seem like a great deal a waste. If not against Los Angeles, maybe Toronto on Saturday or sometime next week. Again, Letang’s injury did say a ‘couple of weeks’. Which is vague even for hockey terms.

This could be Pouliot’s best (and last) opportunity, yet.

 

Main Photo

justin-schultz
Photo Credit – Wikipedia Commons
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