As of now, on the precipice of training camp, the Pittsburgh Penguins look like a very deep and healthy team as they begin to prepare for the 2018-19 season.
No matter how they shake out, up the middle at center, this team is loaded. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan, Matt Cullen and Derek Grant are all natural centers, and that’s six forwards alone in a group of usually 13.
On the right wing, they’re just as loaded with Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust and Daniel Sprong all as natural RWs, though Rust may shift over to the left side.
The left side, however, isn’t exactly a strong side, but with Jake Guentzel, Carl Hagelin, Dominik Simon and Zach Aston-Reese (and maybe Rust or even Brassard switching over), there’s enough talent to go around here too.
That’s 14 solid names, and we haven’t mentioned Jimmy Hayes, a 28-year-old free agent signing who (save a three-game AHL conditioning stint last year) has been a full-time NHLer since 2014.
The Penguins have a lot of flexibility to try different ideas and no shortage of bodies and skill-sets to do so.
This means there’s a lot more that’s still up in the air and to be determined in training camp than what might be apparent upon first blush.
Of course, the constants are known, and it’s probably 85-percent set in stone if you’ve been paying attention. Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby will lead the first line, but they need a right winger, and familiar face Conor Sheary is gone. Will Hornqvist slot in here? What about Rust? Or will a youngster like Simon or Sprong get a crack at it? That’s the first big question to be answered.
Then the second line has a question that perhaps holds the key to the entire Penguins lineup. Will the coaching staff elect to play Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel together? Surely at times they will be on the same line, but by playoff time the old “three line” strategy of 87, 71 and 81 manning different lines figures to be in effect, which means some calibrating of that alignment makes sense too.
If Kessel is on the “third” line, who will his center be? Derick Brassard makes sense for offensive reasons, but Riley Sheahan provides that line with more defensive conscience. In the latter scenario, an unknown is created with Brassard having to shift to the wing — something that the player and coaching staff have not yet discussed.
Then the fourth line is basically an open book of possibilities limited only by imagination and what direction the team wants to go. Want a bigger “crash and bang/defensive” type line of Aston-Reese, Cullen, and Grant? It’s available. Want to slot offensive players in limited looks to earn bigger opportunities? Here’s Simon, Cullen, and Sprong. Or if Brassard is a center, which figures to be a large portion of the season, you could run a group like Cullen, Sheahan, Sprong or Aston-Reese. Either way, Cullen is probably a constant; the team didn’t bring him back to not play him. Other than that, there are any number of possibilities between Sheahan, Grant, Simon, Sprong, and Aston-Reese to potentially join him there.
There’s also salary cap considerations to keep in mind too. If the Penguins keep the 13 forwards that they should be expected to based on role, contract, and waiver-status, the two odd men out from the pure numbers would seem to be Aston-Reese (the lone player who doesn’t need to clear waivers to be assigned to the AHL) and Hayes (more of a depth signing). However, a very strong performance by either might bump someone else into a trade/waive situation. While Aston-Reese has shown he is capable of having something to offer at the NHL level, his contract (plus relatively high $925,000 cap hit compared to those in the mix) could mean $1.6 million in opening day cap space for Pittsburgh. That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
Or, one injury could derail everything and send this post to the proverbial internet trash heap. The good news in that case is that the Penguins are deep just about everywhere but the left wing. If there’s an injury, Mike Sullivan has the ability to slot pieces into positions where they won’t be out of their element. Brassard’s a capable top-six center. Sheahan was serviceable on the third line last year. There are four solid ring wing options. Plus with guys like Grant and Hayes, there’s more than 13 forwards deep to be somewhat comfortable with if pushed into lineup roles.
Just about anything is possible right now, which is sort of the beauty of being one week out from training camp. This is the calm before the storm, and it’s not going to last forever, but right now the 2018-19 Penguins can be the best part of each of our imaginations.
Feel free to give up some of your favored combinations you’d like to see the Pens try out next week. Do you have anything fresh and interesting to consider? Toss it in the comments.