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Penguins’ top line is legit just the way it is

There is no reason to even think about separating Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Dominik Simon.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a tough stretch for the “Why is Dominik Simon on the top line?” crowd, especially after the (wrongly) criticized top line was one of the driving forces in a complete systematic dismantling of the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

By now you probably already know my stance on the Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Simon trio (I not only approve of it, I think it is their best option), and now that the line is really starting to produce results I am going to continue to beat this into the ground and take my position one step further — doing anything to split it up would be completely nonsensical and something that would be worthy of criticism.

I hear the issues.

Simon does not score enough goals.

He does not convert on enough chances.

You have to produce if you play on the top line next to Sidney Crosby.

So on, and so on, and so on.

The thing is, he kind of is scoring enough. And so is the line. And so is everyone that matters.

With three points on Thursday Simon is now up to nine points in 13 games which is a 57-point pace over 82 games, while he has at least one point in seven of his past 10 games since being moved to that spot.

So this sent me down a rabbit hole of past Sidney Crosby line combinations and production to see how this stacks up and how it all works.

Let me start with this, and I don’t care if it sounds harsh, but Penguins fans and Pittsburgh hockey fans in general are spoiled. Not only in terms of team recent success, but in the individual talent you have had the opportunity to watch up close every single night. Over the past 30 years (pretty much consecutively) you have had the luxury of watching four of the 10 best offensive players of that era, and that doesn’t even include the other fringe Hall of Fame talents that have come through Pittsburgh (Alex Kovalev and Phil Kessel specifically). When you watch a team that is defined by high-scoring and Hall of Famers it skews your perception of what a top-line player is. The reality is that majority of top-line players in the NHL are going to be 50-60 point players. That is what they produce. The players that go above and beyond that are the elites of the elites, and there are only a handful of teams in the league that are lucky enough to have THREE of those players all on their top line (Boston, Tampa Bay, Colorado are among the exceptions).

The key is whether or not the line produces. This line produces. A lot. And it produces at a rate that is among the best line combinations that Crosby has ever played alongside.

I went through the Natural Stat Trick line tool and looked at the most common line combinations the Penguins have used for Crosby dating back to the 2009-10 season. I tried to limit it to line combinations that played at least 100 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time together each each and simply looked at how many goals they scored per 60 minutes.

This is not over advanced. This is not anything deeply analytical. This is simply looking at how often the puck went in the net, which is the ultimate goal of every line. Here are those line combinations ranked in order of goals scored per 60 minutes. There are 22 of them. Look where the two years of Crosby-Guentzel-Simon sit.

Honest question for those of you still on the other side of the fence with this line: What more do you want? What more are you looking for? What is the problem?

If the issue is Simon himself does not score enough goals, have you ever taken a serious look back at what some of Crosby’s more regular linemates have produced?

Chris Kunitz was a mainstay on his wing for the better part of his time in Pittsburgh and had two seasons where he topped 0.75 points per game (a 60-point pace over 82 games).

In Bill Guerin’s only full season on Crosby’s wing he finished with 45 points.

Dupuis topped 40 points in Pittsburgh ONE TIME, and it came during the 2011-12 season when he barely spent anytime on Crosby’s line (mainly because Crosby only played 22 games).

Even more talented players like Phil Kessel and David Perron just never really fully clicked in that spot.

Also keep in mind a lot those players were playing next to Crosby when he was at the height of his powers as an offensive force. If you want to argue he is a better all-around player today you would be well within your rights to do that, but Sidney Crosby 2008-2014 was a special kind of dominant.

The thing about using the individual production of a player to justify their spot on a line is that there are only so many points to go around. Every time a goal is scored at 5-on-5 there are going to be at least two players on the ice that will not get a point, even if they all touched the puck on the shift or sequence that resulted in the goal, or if they made a play to help create the goal.

With this trio you know Crosby is going to be the main play and point driver because, well, he is Sidney Crosby. He is going to score his share, and he is going to set up his teammates. The teammate that usually gets set up is going to be Guentzel because he is the best pure goal-scorer on the team (and is on his way to being the best regular linemate Crosby has ever had) and the player you want taking the shots.

But just because Crosby and Guentzel are doing most of the scoring themselves does not mean Simon is not contributing something to the equation. Because he is, and we get a sense of that because Crosby and Guentzel have scored goals at a significantly higher rate over the past two years with him on the line than anyone else, whether that “anyone else” is Patric Hornqvist, or Bryan Rust, or Jared McCann, or some other random player.

This combines the past two years plus the first month of this season, which is probably even more relevant than the analysis above because it takes into account Crosby at his current level and the other potential candidates for that line.

I mean, come on. We are talking more than one more full goal (or more) per 60 minutes. That is not some minor, small difference.

Simon’s role on this line strikes me as the same dynamic we saw when Carl Hagelin played next to Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel (a line that was awesome, by the way). Hagelin himself didn’t score anything, and he usually frustrated fans because he would create a breakaway and then miss on it, or fail to finish a prime scoring chance because he had no hands. But he did all of the little shit along the walls, and in the neutral zone, and away from the puck to help win back possession so that Malkin and Kessel could score. It was not a coincidence that the Malkin-Kessel duo saw their production offensively drop when Hagelin was gone from their line. The same thing applies here.

In the end, if you are still steadfastly against Dominik Simon on the top line you are just willfully ignoring the most basic of facts and logic.

The object of the top line is to score goals. This line has proven over the better part of the past two years that it does that better than any other line combination they have used in that spot.