No Gonchar, no Whitney, no problem for the Penguins' defense?

Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero said yesterday that in light of Sergei Gonchar's shoulder surgery, which will shelve him for four to six months, the team will "look to our other defensemen to step up in his absence."

Our friend Seth Rorabaugh of Empty Netters wrote a piece earlier this month that explained just how valuable Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, also out at least three months, are for the Penguins. Since the lockout, only Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski of the Detroit Red Wings have more combined points (371) than the Pittsburgh duo (327); the loss of both is, on paper, as devastating a blow to a blue-line corps as we've seen in the NHL for quite a while.

The title of Seth's Sept. 22 post was "Deficit on defense." The title of today's post-Gonchar surgery post: "Depth on defense."

Like many other Penguins fans are, Empty Netters is now making the case that stripping away the two best defensemen from this lineup isn't a deathblow to the team's defense: "Without Gonchar and Whitney, the Penguins still seven solid reliable players they can dress on the blue line."

Isn't this just a little too optimistic?

Here's how Rorabaugh sees the Penguins' defense, potentially:

Kris Letang-Hal Gill - It worked well after Gill came from Toronto and became acclimated with the Penguins' system. Letang's skating ability helped negate Gill's relative lack of mobility.

Alex Goligoski-Mark Eaton - Stick the inexperience rookie with a steady, responsible veteran. The past two seasons the Penguins placed Gonchar with Eaton at times and that allowed Gonchar more freedom in the offensive end. You could apply the same thinking in regards to Goligoski's lack of experience.

Brooks Orpik-Rob Scuderi/Darryl Sydor - We'd stick Orpik with Goligoski, but Orpik can be a little irresponsible at times when he thinks a big hit is possible. In this case, you can stick a safer, more reliable player like Scuderi or Sydor with Orpik. We would alternate Scuderi and Sydor based on match ups. Scuderi offers a safe, defensive presence. Sydor can do more offensively with the puck.

If nothing else, these injuries will give us a great look at Letang. (That sounded vaguely dirty.)

He was on the ice for 21 power-play goals in 63 games last season. Solid skater, good natural instincts; and without Whitney and Gonchar he's going to be forced to shoot more, which has been a problem in the past.

But after him ... well, you can see why they've been trotting out Evgeni Malkin on the power play. Goligoski has played three more NHL games than Steve Stamkos at this point. Scuderi and Sydor are serviceable, but how many offensive transitions can they lead each game?

Purging Gonchar (wait, that sounded vaguely dirty) from the power play is an obvious blow. But how does losing your two best defensemen hurt you five-on-five?

Consider this: Gonchar and Whitney were two of the top five players on the Penguins last season when it came to goals scored at even strength when they were on the ice: The Pens scored 58 goals for every 60 minutes Gonchar played with Gonchar on the ice; the number was 55 for Whitney.

Like Seth said: "Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney will both be on the shelf for quite a while. Fine. Nothing can be done about that now." Too true. The Penguins know what they've lost, and have to figure out a way to still make the system work.

Final thought: Is it because the Gonchar thing happened so quickly that we haven't heard more about these injuries being part of some bridesmaid's curse for the Penguins?

Or maybe Max Talbot had it right in an interview with the Tribune-Review: After last season, is losing two defensemen that devastating?

"We were pretty unlucky last season. We lost the best player in the world and our first goalie. I don't think it can get worse than that, touch wood."

For Penguins fans' sake, let's hope Talbot touched wood. (Wait, that sounded vaguely dirty ... but also quite agreeable for the majority of female Pittsburgh puckheads.)

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