CRANBERRY, Pa. -- The Penguins have gone through much of this season without some of the most prominent forwards on their payroll. Evgeni Malkin has missed the past five games. So has Nick Bjugstad. Alex Galchenyuk has sat out four in a row. Bryan Rust hasn't played since the preseason finale.
That's $22 million of salary cap space that's spending game nights in street clothes.
All four were counted on to make meaningful contributions -- some bigger than others, of course -- in 2019-20. None of them, however, has chipped in anything more than moral support during the Penguins' four-game winning streak.
Clearly, the Penguins haven't just survived the absences of those guys; they've thrived without them.
Not because the injured players aren't valuable members of the team, but because of the way the ones still in the lineup -- and those summoned from Wilkes-Barre -- have embraced the challenge of succeeding while they're out. All four lines are playing a conscientious 200-foot game. Shifts are being kept short. Decision-making is sound. Defensive lapses are rare. Players are focused on doing their jobs efficiently, and relying on their teammates to do the same.
Jim Rutherford said today that that's not just the way the Penguins will play while they're missing some prominent forwards; it's how those forwards will be expected to perform once they get back.
And it sounded as if that will be more than just a gentle suggestion.
"They're going to have to adjust their game, to play the way this team is playing," Rutherford said. "We now have a team that's in rhythm, playing a good north-south game, with a lot of puck pressure. So any of the guys who are out of the lineup now are going to have to be ready to play that game."
While no return date has been announced for any of those four, the Penguins might get one injured forward, Jared McCann, back when the Dallas Stars visit PPG Paints Arena Friday at 7:08 p.m. McCann sat out their 3-2 overtime victory against Colorado Wednesday because of an unspecified lower-body injury, but participated in practice Thursday with no apparent problem.
"(I feel) good," he said. "A lot better. It's just kind of nagging injury that's been bothering me for a bit."
Mike Sullivan said McCann "had a good practice" but continues to be listed as day-to-day and will be a "game-time decision" Friday.
When -- or is it, if? -- the Penguins have a full complement of healthy forwards, the emergence of guys like Sam Lafferty, Adam Johnson and Joseph Blandisi as capable contributors during the winning streak will force Rutherford to make some difficult choices to deal with a surplus of centers and wingers.
Most likely, some or all of those three will be returned to the Penguins' farm team in Wilkes-Barre -- technically, because all are on emergency recall, they must be sent back to the Baby Penguins as soon as the parent club has 12 other healthy forwards -- although such a move could be temporary, depending on the circumstances.
Trading one or more forwards would be an option, too, but Rutherford said it's likely that he'd assign those three to the American Hockey League before making a deal to pare a forward from the depth chart permanently.
"We'll see how the established forwards do when they get back (before executing a trade)," he said.
That doesn't mean that demoting players who have shown they can produce at this level would be easy.
"It's always tough to send a player back, whether they're playing well or they're not playing well," Rutherford said. "But the good thing -- for them, and for us -- is that they've performed well, so there's no hesitation about bringing them back."
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