The Pittsburgh Penguins' depth, defense and a wickedly weak Metropolitan Division have helped them to pick up 22 points in their first 15 games, good enough to lead their division and the Eastern Conference to this point of the season.
It's a bit of a miracle the Pens have gotten along this well with so many regular players shelved. James Neal has been unavailable for all but one period this season. Beau Bennett has missed ten straight due to injury. Forwards Chuck Kobasew and Matt D'Agostini have missed a number of games, top defender Kris Letang was unavailable for the first nine games of the year and backup goalie Tomas Vokoun will be gone at least until early 2014 as he recovers following procedures to remove life-threatening blood clots.
Pittsburgh's taxi squad hasn't had a chance to rest all season, as seven regulars have missed five or more games with injury already. In fact, only five other clubs have lost more man-games to injury than the Penguins' 63, a number that figures to continue to climb as three players currently sit on long-term injured reserve and three other absences have touched five or more games.
A snakebitten Evgeni Malkin may disagree, but none of those lost to injury may be more significant than defenseman Rob Scuderi.
Scuderi has been out since breaking his ankle in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs two weekends ago. Following surgery last week, his official status is indefinite, leaving him on long-term injured reserve.
Pittsburgh has so far gotten along decently without him. The Pens have won each of the four games Scuderi has missed so far (albeit against a few lesser opponents in the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets), and a struggling penalty kill unit has somehow managed to not just survive but thrive in his absence, going 11-for-12 in four straight wins (all without Scuderi) after posting bottom-tier numbers with the best PK specialist they've had in a decade back in the fold.
That success in his absence is due mostly to the team's depth along the blue line, renewed commitment to defensive play by all five skaters and some crisp goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury. It's a luxury that they were able to replace Scuderi with another talented defender in rookie Olli Maatta.
Scuderi, however, was not reacquired by the team in a perceived luxury move.
Scuderi was the Penguins' only significant signing on the first day of free agency last summer. Having locked up so many of their own players to contract extensions despite the shrinking salary cap, Scuderi's four-year, $16 million deal ate up much of what money they had left.
Now, his contract is being banked at a prorated pace against the salary cap, perhaps the lone benefit of his current and indefinite stay on long-term injured reserve.
Long-term injured reserve designations allow teams to recapture space above the salary cap for the time a player misses, an absolutely essential benefit for a team like the Penguins, who often find themselves squeezed tight against the salary cap ceiling amid waves of significant injuries.
As of Tuesday, November 5, CapGeek lists the Penguins as saving a projected $3.579 million in cap space by season's end. That number can decrease depending on when its injured players return or, heaven forbid, increase even more, if further players are lost for significant periods of time.
In almost any case, a team would rather have their player than his LTIR savings. Such is true of Scuderi.
The Penguins made a point of shoring up their defense over the offseason. Even though it was their offense that failed them against the Bruins last spring, that scoring drought was an aberration. Pittsburgh routinely finishes among the top-scoring teams in hockey, while poor defense was the team's undoing in playoff series' against the Canadiens in 2010, the Lightning in 2011 and most egregiously in the first-round Philadelphia series two years ago.
It nearly cost them against the New York Islanders in last year's Quarterfinals, too. New York, playing in its first postseason in years, was able to stretch the Penguins' defensive scheme to a breaking point.
Extending Kris Letang and bringing in longtime NHL coach and noted defensive mind Jacques Martin were moves aimed at improving the defense, but Scuderi's return was to augment the success of both.
Pittsburgh has shown it has the depth to overcome most injuries. While they haven't faced significant resistance on their schedule so far, the dumpster fire that is the rest of their division means they might rarely have to.
It's a good thing, too. The way this season has gone so far, Scuderi might have more press box company before he knows it.
James Conley covers the Penguins for the Yahoo Contributor Network and is an Editor at SB Nation's Pensburgh. Berate him on the twitters @Slew_James.
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