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Friday 5 Thoughts: Wingers, Malkin + Phil, back-to-backs and more

A list of things on our mind on a Friday afternoon.

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NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

#1 Notice who the wingers were to start the game with Sidney Crosby? It was Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist, who a night earlier in DC were centered by Greg McKegg. Sheary and Hornqvist were probably the two best forwards in Wednesday night’s win over the Washington Capitals (though they got all their production on the power play). Anyways the message seems clear, play well and coach Mike Sullivan is sure to reward with plum Crosby minutes.

If anything, so far, Sullivan has latched onto duos with his forward combinations. Guentzel-Rust are together most the time. Ditto Sheary-Hornqvist. Either of these could be Crosby lines at a moment’s notice, and Sid has rotated even in the same period between each set of wingers

#2 Which makes one wonder how patient Sullivan will continue to be with Carl Hagelin on the second line with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. Hagelin has never produced points like a top-6 player, but don’t underestimate how much his value is perceived for his speed, and the threat of his speed. He isn’t a Chris Kunitz-type who will open up space with physicality, but Hags can push the defense back or keep them mindful of his speed.

Still, production is a huge factor to be a top-6 winger and the line as current isn’t helping anyone score right now. Both Malkin and Kessel only have 2 even strength points in five games, and both only have a single goal total on the season. It’s a good sign the team can score with 2 key players sputtering early, but getting Malkin and Kessel on track looms as a big challenge for Sullivan at this point for the early season.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Pittsburgh Penguins at Nashville Predators Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

#3 One thing we’re tracking is the Penguins faceoffs, sans Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen, who combined for 2,072 draws last regular season.

With the natural “it’s early” caveat, so far there’s been almost no change for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin overall. Malkin took 13.6 faceoffs/game last year (846 in 62 games). This year at 68 in 5 he’s at...exactly 13.6 per game, identical to last season amazingly enough.

Similarly, Crosby’s burden for totals haven’t changed yet much either. He was at 23.3 faceoffs last year and with 120 through the first 5 games that’s an even 24.0 so far this season.

The Pens have had 312 total faceoffs, so Crosby’s clicking in with 38.5% of the team’s total. This is as to be expected from last year.

Carter Rowney (51.9% on 52) and especially Gregg McKegg (52.8% on 72 draws) are doing very well so far in this aspect of the game.

#4 Per Josh Yohe At The Athletic, after last night’s loss, since “October of 2016 the Penguins are now just 2-6-4 in the second half of back-to-back games on the road. Malkin has played in 10 of those games, registering only one goal and four points in those contests.”F

This is problematic since the Pens still have 17 total more back-to-backs to go this season, all of which involve travel in some form. They have 19 of ‘em total this season, the most in the NHL. How to handle this challenge will be very interesting for Mike Sullivan.

NHL coaches are loathe to switch a lineup after a win, but on a b-2-b situation where it’s acknowledged it’s tough for teams to get ready for the first period (TB had 16 shots in the first last night), why leave guys like Scott Wilson AND Josh Archibald in the press box two nights in a row? Especially when they basically bench Ryan Reaves after a minor penalty early in the game, that doesn’t help things. And what’s Reaves’ use to play in a b-2-b against a skilled team who has no fighters nor really any dirty players? It’s clear Sullivan sees Reaves as an every night player for him, even if he’s not going to play him all that much (just 6:05 per game through 5 games so far).

With now 218 games (and counting) from Oct 2015-present, the Pens have a lot of miles on them. Especially with that terrible b-2-b record, they may need to think outside of the box to try and improve performance by using as much of their lineup as possible. Clearly they’re not going to do anything crazy like scratch a superstar or shuffle every line on the team, but if a team admits they’re tired and don’t start well early in games for b-2-b’s (like Evgeni Malkin did last night), it only makes sense to use all the legs possible, like they could have for Wilson and Archibald last night who aren’t dramatically worse than other 4th liners.

#5 Finally as a parting thought, did you see by the end of the game last night the Minnesota Wild had only 8 healthy forwards left? And due to salary cap issues and injuries they may not be able to field a full compliment of forwards for a while? Seems like the Pens were often in that boat, so let’s count blessings for now that the injuries are minimal and also the team is in as good of a position relative to the salary cap at the beginning of a season probably since 2007.

Even with having a 23rd player on the roster right now, the Pens have $2.1 million in cap space according to CapFriendly and if they bank it all season, that adds up to being able to add a salary (salaries!?) of $9.3 million at the trading deadline through how the NHL calculates the salary cap and proration of player contracts. Just something to keep in mind as the early dog days of the start of the season roll on.