Losers of now nine of the last ten games, everyone wants to know what is next for the Pittsburgh Penguins. But if general manager Jim Rutherford goes through on his words to the PG’s Jason Mackey, like the Shawshank Redemption salvation may have to come from within.
'As we speak now, the guys we have now are going to have to figure out a way to get out of this.' ... GMJR on his (changing) trade strategy, the Penguins' perceived lack of speed, Daniel Sprong's usage and more: https://t.co/HIBdkSuUWy— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) November 20, 2018
Is there anything to build upon?
Pearson fitting in
You could forgive Tanner Pearson for looking a little lost in his early games in Pittsburgh. After all, he played his first game a day after being traded, with no more than a morning skate to get used to his new team, coaches and linemates.
Pearson was looking great last night, his third game as a Penguin. He scored his first goal since last March. He also recorded an assist. He had 4 shots on goal and was credited with 6 hits, each a personal high in recent memory, as was his 16:31 played.
Pearson’s size, frame, shot - all a bit reminiscent of another Evgeni Malkin winger in James Neal. Neal once scored 40 with Malkin, and while Pearson probably won’t do that, but Pearson’s one 5v5 goal and one primary assist matched Carl Hagelin’s season output in Pittsburgh. So yeah, that’s a big upgrade in ability and one that should benefit the Penguins for the rest of the season.
Brassard is back
After coming back from a lower body injury, Derick Brassard was moving pretty fast to exploit a bad Buffalo line change and turn it into a breakaway goal of sorts last night.
That’s the type of skill, explosion and finishing ability that Brassard offers that the other lower line centers (Riley Sheahan, Derek Grant, Matt Cullen) just don’t in 2018.
That’s why the Penguins traded a first round pick for Brassard. He’s got to give more of that, but with 14 points (5 goals + 9 assists) in 24 career regular season games in Pittsburgh he’s pretty much solid there. Just has to play more.
One very interesting item is the Jake Guentzel - Brassard - Patric Hornqvist line.
They were noticeable in the offensive zone all night long. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Pens had 19 total 5-on-5 scoring chances last game. Guentzel was on ice for 10 of them, Brassars 8 and Hornqvist 7.
The Pens were credited with 11 high danger scoring chances on the night - Guentzel was on there for 6 of them, Brassard and Hornqvist 4 a piece.
It seemed like Guntzel (who scored a goal and had a team-high 6 shots on goal) could have easily had a hat trick if not for some great saves against.
Sid coming back?
Sidney Crosby will be back soon to fortify the lineup as well. Since Pearson - Malkin - Phil Kessel is working and Guentzel - Brassard - Hornqvist has done well, if the Pens consider keeping those lines together (at least for now) then it really gets interesting.
In such a scenario, Dominik Simon is a no-brainer to be on Crosby’s line as the two play very well together in controlling puck possession and generating a high goals for rate for Pittsburgh.
On the other wing though, there’s two options.
The first, safe play would be Bryan Rust. Rust was poor last night with just a 20.0% Corsi For%. He’s got one goal on the season. It hasn’t gone well, but he’s generally trusted for his skating ability, experience and two-way play. What better way to get the season on track than play with Crosby, right?
But the other option would be a higher risk and reward in Daniel Sprong. Once about left for gone after four healthy scratches, Sprong has played the last two games, and is starting to show a bit of flashes. Sprong generated two scoring chances for in just 8:48 last night. He’s starting to shoot the puck a bit more than before he got banished as a scratch.
Do Mike Sullivan and the Pens dare give him a shot with Sid? What could it hurt? Realistically, Sprong’s not going to be playing 15+ even strength minutes anytime soon, but that’s a situation where Rust could rotate in (especially for defensive zone starts).
It might not happen, but with the skilled wingers playing well with Malkin and Brassard right now, there could be no better chance or open opportunity where it makes sense to try it.
“Every game is important,” Sullivan said after last night. “Every point is important. We’re scratching and clawing for every point that we can. We’re aware of it. We have a proud group. We’re getting better in a lot of areas, but we’re not getting results. We have some areas that we need to clean up.”
The internet’s full of ideas to clean up things defensively and hope for better goaltending, but the Penguins always have been and always will be an offensive-minded team. How their top forwards perform (including guys like Malkin and Kessel stopping to make bad turnovers) will likely dictate when they get back to their winning ways.
Pearson and Brassard have added a bit to the mix. If Crosby can return, they may get find more of what they’re looking for at the game’s end.