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Have the Pens Found Optimal Lines and Pairings?

With Malkin and Maatta back in the lineup, how are things working out in terms of player combos?

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

As the Pens were putting finishing touches to the 5-0 shutout of the New York Rangers, I had three thoughts in my head, two of which I wanted to discuss here (I'll keep the third to myself, because it's a bit premature to worry about that.) They centered around forward lines and defensive pairings, and whether - barring any future injuries - players are currently deployed in the most optimal combinations. Let's take a look.


Last night we saw the Pens rolled the following forward lines:





Over the past few weeks, as we anticipated Malkin's return from injury, we had many debates about how to insert him back in the lineup. Do we break up Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel, do we not, and what are the pros and cons of each approach.

After a fairly unsuccessful stint on Crosby's line in game 2 and in his own admission not being too comfortable on the wing, Malkin found himself with Sheary and Fehr in game 3. That was better, but not yet gelling.

For game 4, coach Sullivan opted for a clever shift of Conor Sheary to Crosby's line, thus reuniting Malkin with Chris Kunitz, hoping that long-standing familiarity between the two might be helpful. It was only one game, and the Rangers did look like they'd rather be somewhere else, but the top 3 forward lines looked pretty good:


Even though Olli Maatta is still working his way into game shape after an injury layoff, he is still paired with Kris Letang up top. After all, this is what was always the intention, having Crosby, Letang and Maatta work together on a deadly top-5 even-strength unit. After a couple of games of Olli in slo-mo, last night the pairing went back to their solid puck possession ways:

With Maatta paired with Letang, Trevor Daley finds himself with Brian Dumoulin, shifting Ben Lovejoy down with Ian Cole. This is where things get problematic in my opinion, as neither of these two pairings looks that great. Daley and Dumoulin are both unquestionably worthy of their top-4 minutes on this roster, though I'm less confident about how well they are functioning together. Even more questionable are Cole and Lovejoy as a pairing,

If we take Maatta out of the equation for the moment, we could picture Letang and Daley doing good work together again, thus reuniting Dumoulin and Lovejoy.

The pairings were all shuffled with not just Maatta but also Lovejoy also missing some time. With Maatta coming back Sullivan had a challenge similar to Malkin's return, which is integrating your second-best player back into the segment lineup. Interestingly, he opted to solve it differently than the forward lines.

In the end, the defensive pairings are still a work in progress. While I'm in no way advocating for the return of Justin Schultz (unless we're talking about returning him to the Edmonton Oilers), the pea is still bothering the princess.