On Wednesday Evgeni Malkin joined his teammates in full capacity for practice in a contact jersey, and working with the top power play. Malkin himself has been eyeing a return for Saturday’s game against the Oilers from his “soft tissue” leg injury, and all signs are pointing to that being the case that the Pens will be adding the former MVP and scoring champion back to their lineup.
Let’s not get it twisted, that’s a wonderful thing! Malkin makes the Pens deeper and more dangerous when he’s playing. But it does present an interesting issue for the Penguins as they build their lineup and roster. For the first time they’re healthy. In fact, perhaps too healthy.
Saturday’s game against Edmonton will be No. 14 on the season, but will be the first one that Pittsburgh has had their entire roster available being as Bryan Rust got hurt in preseason, and then Malkin and Nick Bjugstad went down in the second game of the season. Rust and Bjugstad have recently returned and with Malkin’s appearance too the team will finally have all options on the table.
Which means some decisions. It probably can’t be under-played how much the team enjoyed the speed and energy Sam Lafferty brought to the table as an early season call-up. But Lafferty was a healthy scratch last game when Alex Galchenyuk was able to return from a eight-game absence and only figures to be the 14th forward now, and may be assigned to the AHL to get under the 23-man roster limit. Just 12 play. It’s a numbers game for him. That’s a nice depth piece to have in the back pocket in the event of future injuries and now the team can be a little more assured of what they have at the minor league level.
Beyond that, lineup questions persist too. Namely — which player sits in the press box to make way for Malkin?
Jared McCann might be the key to the puzzle. McCann was mostly used as a winger upon his acquisition from Florida in the 2018-19 season. He was pressed into center duty due to Malkin and Bjugstad going down. McCann has played very well at center, and could be shifting the focus towards staying there. If the team elects to keep McCann at center; joined with Malkin, Bjugstad and Sidney Crosby then suddenly it appears the numbers break unfavorably for Teddy Blueger. Which would be through no fault of his own, as Blueger has been very solid this season as well.
Going purely off merit, it might make sense in a very narrow view to favor Blueger over Bjugstad at the moment. Bjugstad hasn’t been very visible in his return to the lineup. But benching him is short-sighted and works against longer goals. Bjugstad is only now returning from injury and needs to play back into form and shape and the team will be counting on him down the line as a key depth player, which he has the talent to provide for them.
If the answer instead is to go with the initial plan at center: with Crosby, Malkin, Bjugstad and Blueger down the middle and shift McCann back to wing, now that position becomes too crowded.
A couple of weeks ago the answer was coming into focus that one, if not both, of Dominik Kahun or Zach Aston-Reese could be easily benched. But neither seems a scratch candidate at this point; Kahun played a great game against Philadelphia scoring three points, that’s not exactly a situation to put him in a suit next game. Kahun has been finding a groove and has earned a spot next game, without question. Similarly, Aston-Reese also scored a goal last time out, and is a part of the team’s penalty kill rotation. He’s playing strongly enough to stay in the lineup without much second thought as well.
NHL hockey, much like life, is all about timing, and right now Kahun and Aston-Reese have made a lot out of their opportunities in recent games.
The other candidates to bench might start with the other bottom-six wingers, but they are Rust (who has two points in his last two games) and Brandon Tanev, who has brought a ton of speed and energy and clearly isn’t getting scratched anytime soon. Or is it the shifting McCann who gets a night off — perhaps in order to get a break from whatever nagging injury he recently was fighting through.
Obviously Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Dominik Simon on the dominant first line aren’t going anywhere. Galchenyuk is just working back in and getting his spidey-senses back, it wouldn’t make a ton of sense to not play him either. That leaves Patric Hornqvist as the only forward we haven’t named, it doesn’t feel like he has much to worry about either.
But....Still, something will have to give and at this rate someone is going to have to be scratched to make way for Malkin.
The extreme point may be a trade, but at the same time, which player goes out the door? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to deal right now for the Pens.
This is a good problem to have, and with the way injuries have gone this year, that might solve the problem on its own if/when the next player gets hurt. But for now, coach Mike Sullivan has a tough question to solve when he’s got to write his lineup down for next game. One forward, who doesn’t deserve it based on his play, will be watching next game from the press box.
There’s no real good option, but if you had to, which player would you make a healthy scratch on Saturday?
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