Today at practice, the Penguins lines were basically the same as they have been for the past few games. Sidney Crosby skated between Jake Guentzel and Dominik Simon on the team’s top line, which has also been their recent top-performing line by far in terms of production.
Evgeni Malkin centered Tanner Pearson and Patric Hornqvist on the second line. And Derick Brassard was in between Phil Kessel and Zach Aston-Reese on a third line.
The Brassard/Kessel combination has been used in earnest for a few games, but the results are not encouraging so far.
That’s only a 34 minute sample, so it should be pointed out that results could be drastically different with so much as one good game together. But, at the same times, early returns have not benefited either player. Kessel only has two total shots on goal in the last three games. Brassard has no shots on goal in the last two games.
On top of that, as you can see the Pens are not getting good puck possession in the small time 19+81 have played together, owning just 36.1% of the Corsi events, giving up a huge amount of scoring chances against (10) an getting out-scored by a narrow margin of 2-1.
Brassard also only has one point (a goal on November 19th against Buffalo) in the eight games since he returned to the lineup following an injury. Getting Brassard back on track so far has proven outside of coach Mike Sullivan’s ability, and it clearly is a focus of the team. Fix Brassard, and you’ve fixed the third line. Fix the third line and the team has the secondary scoring it so desperately has been searching for all season long.
But of course in that quest to use Kessel to boost Brassard and the third line, it means there’s an opportunity cost that Kessel won’t be there to play with Evgeni Malkin. That creates a big problem, as that duo has been getting great results so far this year with 16 goals for to just 11 against.
Malkin has seemed to slump a bit too in the past few games, with no points in his last three games and no even strength points in his last six. Usually generational talents don’t go silent forever, but by moving Phil to try and balance the scoring, a new issue may have ben created in weakening the Malkin line.
Obviously Mike Sullivan is searching for balance, depth and secondary scoring. In one perspective, Brassard+Kessel makes good sense because other lower-six wingers are not scoring. Outside of the Pens’ top-six forwards (Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Hornqvist, Guentzel and Simon) no one is really having a good season. Is Brassard going to put up points with guys like Zach Aston-Reese and Bryan Rust? Probably not too many with the way their season’s are going.
But at the same time, Kessel and Brassard haven’t clicked yet. They’ll need to play better together and generate much more in order to continue this experiment. If that duo continues to spin their wheels, Sullivan hopefully should go back to putting Kessel with Malkin to strengthen the 2nd line and seek his fix for the 3rd line elsewhere.
Mike Sullivan has demonstrated patience to keep Kessel and Brassard in place, but it is very clear that future results are going to have to be dramatically better than how they’ve played together to start if they are going to stay on the same line for much longer.