The past few games have given us a glimpse of what the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins might look like with a fully healthy roster. And while there are still some issues that keep popping up (Patrick Hornqvist is now out) things look dramatically better than they did just a couple of weeks ago.
The return of Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad not only means players the Penguins were expected to count on this season are back, it means the lineup as a whole becomes more balanced, deeper, and more well-rounded. Players that were playing a little out of their element get dropped down into a more suitable role, everyone plays where they are supposed to play, and suddenly the lineup looks like one that has some potential to make a lot of noise this season.
One of the most positive development has been the emergence of what looks to be a really promising shut down line made up of Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, and Zach-Aston Reese. We are not yet working with a huge sampling of ice-time yet, but the early returns on this trio have been nothing short of fantastic.
First, some numbers...
So far they have played 105 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together and demonstrated an ability to play some truly lock-down minutes.
When they are on the ice together they are allowing just 40.6 shot attempts per 60 minutes (an insanely low number), they have allowed only two goals against, they are dominating high-danger scoring chances and shot attempts, and they have done all of that without the luxury of getting a lot offensive zone face-offs (of the 114 face-offs they have been on the ice for, only 24 have been in the offensive zone).
Perhaps their biggest test came on Saturday when they had an opportunity to play significant minutes against Edmonton’s dominant duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. No line played against McDavid and Draisaitl more. They not only passed the test, they completely and utterly dominated it.
That trio played six head-to-head minutes against McDavid and Draisaitl during 5-on-5 play and held an 8-1 edge in total shot attempts, a 4-1 edge in scoring chances, and a 3-0 edge in high-danger scoring chances. It is a small sampling, yes, and it was a game the Penguins ultimate dropped in overtime (with Draisaitl scoring in the 3-on-3) but this line’s ability to shut down what is currently the best offensive duo in the league played a huge role in the Penguins being able to control the game for 60 minutes and get a point in the standings.
It is no small accomplishment, and it is a very encouraging sign for what this group might be capable of.
When you look at the Penguins’ line combinations it would be easy to identify this group as the fourth line (mainly because the Penguins themselves list this as the fourth line) but there is nothing about their recent play or usage that suggests the coaching staff actually views them that way.
Over the past five games the only trio of players that have played more minutes together during 5-on-5 play has been the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel-Dominik Simon line.
Now, there are some variables at play with that. Malkin has been back for one game, and you have to imagine his line will take on more minutes.
Special teams minutes can impact other line combinations and even-strength ice time.
But the reality is Mike Sullivan has leaned on this line heavily in what has been one of the team’s best stretches of the season.
At times this year I’ve been a little down on Aston-Reese. I still think the Tanev contract is a significant long-term risk, but am really coming around on the player and am willing to concede my initial thoughts on him were wrong. But for whatever individual flaws each player may have they have meshed together into what looks like a useful, effective line. Based on what they have shown so far it could be the ideal fourth line if they can continue to build on it and maintain this early success. None of the three may be perfect on their own, but when you put them together they just ... work.
That is really all you want from a line. Any line.
Just like the Crosby-Guentzel-Simon line, there is zero reason to break this trio up anytime soon no matter what happens around them.