Through the Sidney Crosby era, the Pittsburgh Penguins have dealt with their fair share of injuries and 2015-16 has been no different.
Fortunately, top line forwards Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessl, Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz have avoided significant injuries. The important role players on the Penguins roster, however, haven’t been so lucky.
Pittsburgh will lose another bottom-six center and important penalty killer after Eric Fehr suffered a lower-body injury during the second period of Tuesday’s game against the Ottawa Senators. The team’s Twitter page confirmed Fehr will miss about a month.
This good is news that Fehr will return this season. He will likely be back at some point in early March, which will be the most important month of the season. In March, Pittsburgh will face Metropolitan division opponents 12 times in the span of 14 games.
After suffering what looked like a nasty hit from Senators defenseman Mark Borowiecki on Tuesday, which resulted in Fehr barely being able to skate back to the bench, the Penguins should feel fortunate he will even have a chance to help the team during that pivotal stretch. However, Pittsburgh will deeply miss their versatile forward while he is sidelined.
Fehr hasn’t provided the scoring the Penguins were hoping he would on the fourth line. He has five goals and seven points in 39 games. Last season, he scored 19 goals and 33 points in 75 contests.
But he has contributed in lots of other ways — Fehr has played well defensively and is a very important part of the penalty kill. He averages 2:34 minutes of shorthanded ice time per game, which is second only to Matt Cullen on the Penguins roster. Furthermore, over 66 percent of Fehr’s zone starts have been in the defensive zone. The only other forwards with more than 60 percent of their zone starts on defense are Kevin Porter and Nick Bonino.
Fehr’s role on the penalty kill grew even larger after Bonino broke his hand on January 12. Without both Fehr and Bonino, the Penguins are dangerously thin on the penalty kill.
Fans shouldn’t forget that Pascal Dupuis, who retired in early December due to health concerns, was also supposed to be a penalty killer for the Penguins this season. Including Dupuis, Pittsburgh is without three of its most important defensive forwards, including two centers.
The Penguins penalty kill has remained one of its strengths throughout the season, but it has definitely taken a hit with Bonino out. Since his injury, Pittsburgh has killed just 78.3 percent of its penalties.
But since allowing three power play goals to the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 21, the Penguins penalty killing unit has seemed to stabilize, and Fehr was a main cog. Pittsburgh has killed all six of its penalties in the last three games.
Without Fehr for the next month and Bonino still not close to returning, the Penguins will likely turn to a collection of penalty killers. Rookie left winger Tom Kuhnhackl is looked at as the front-runner to replace Fehr on the penalty kill, but coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he might split the minutes between Kuhnhackl, Scott Wilson and Bryan Rust.
All three players received penalty kill experience under Sullivan in the AHL. They will join the penalty kill unit which already includes Cullen, Kevin Porter and Carl Hagelin. Even with the struggles since Bonino’s injury, the Penguins have the sixth-best penalty kill in the NHL at 83.9 percent.
Unfortunately, the injuries don’t stop there for Pittsburgh. The team’s Twitter page also announced Thursday that Malkin also has a lower-body injury and will not make the trip to Florida this weekend for games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers.
To lose a player of Malkin’s skill is never a good thing, but to lose him at a time when Pittsburgh might need more offense to win games because of a shaky penalty kill is a whole other problem.