Are the Penguins missing Malone?

Penguins Q&A with Dave Molinari

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Q: Mark Eaton is a disaster. He was terrible (Saturday night). He managed to get pushed out of position by Markus Naslund. He's so slow that he's a liability on the dump-in and transition game. When Hal Gill comes back, I'd much rather Darryl Sydor stay in the lineup. Why give this guy a two-year contract after such a bad injury? That deal just didn't make sense.

Ian DeArdo, New York City

MOLINARI: Eaton actually has the best plus-minus rating (plus-3) of any Penguins defenseman -- center Evgeni Malkin, at plus-4, is his only teammate with a better one -- but that's a pretty good indication of the perils of putting undue emphasis on that statistic. It's hard to imagine that anyone, including Eaton's agent or members of his immediate family, would suggest he's been the Penguins' best defenseman this season.

The Penguins' 3-2 shootout loss in New York Saturday was a true low point for him, as Eaton was directly involved in both of the Rangers' third-period goals. First, he failed to keep Naslund -- admittedly, a capable scorer with a knack for working free and getting himself into good position -- tied up in front of the crease during a power play. Then, with time winding down and the Penguins clinging to a 2-1 lead, he neglected to challenge New York winger Nikolai Zherdev, steadily backing up until Zherdev was able to get off the game-tying shot from high in the right circle with nine seconds to play. Guys with Zherdev's skills are going to make defensemen look bad now and then, but Eaton made a fundamental error by conceding so much ice to him.

In light of how Eaton -- who has been relegated to the No. 3 defense pairing, alongside Alex Goligoski -- played at Madison Square Garden, it wouldn't be a shock if he's a healthy scratch when the Penguins visit San Jose tonight, assuming Gill is pronounced ready to play.

Still, while giving Eaton $2 million per season for the next two years seemed a bit generous, especially since he was coming off reconstructive knee surgery, there always is a demand for capable defensemen in the NHL, and Eaton has a history of being sound in his own end, especially when it comes to blocking shots and killing penalties. The catch is, when Eaton is at his efficient best, he can be easy to overlook, because there isn't much eye-catching about his style.

Given that Eaton missed all but 36 games last season, it's definitely premature to write him off before the end of October. He's capable of more than he's shown during the first three-plus weeks of the season, and it's fair for the Penguins to expect it from him.

Q: It appears to me that the Penguins may be missing Ryan Malone and his ability to cause traffic in front of the net. He was able to park himself and cause havoc either by a deflection or by making the defensemen be responsible for him. Who will step up and be that person who gets down and dirty in front of the net. It appears that down the line, they will need someone to clog the middle like Ryan did, day-in and day-out.

Jim, Erie

MOLINARI: The Penguins don't have a winger who blends size and skill the way Malone does -- frankly, not many guys around the league do, which is why Tampa Bay gave him such a lavish contract during the offseason -- and, while Jordan Staal is a logical choice to fill the role Malone did on the power play, Staal didn't produce as expected when used in front of the net on the No. 1 power-play unit.

Indeed, nine games into the season, Staal still doesn't have a goal of any sort and has been bumped from the top power play. He is big and talented enough to do Malone's old job around the net effectively, but it isn't clear when he'll get another opportunity to prove it.

It's probably no consolation to the Penguins that Malone, coming off career-highs in goals (27) and points (51), hasn't exactly had the statisticians straining to keep up with his output since he got to Tampa. He has one goal and no assists in seven games, leaving him behind three defensemen and tied with three others in the team scoring race, as the Lightning prepares to play in Toronto tonight.


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