We know based on the initial timeline for Sidney Crosby that he has to be getting close to returning to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup. We just do not know exactly when that will return will be.
The other thing we do not know: What his return will mean to the Penguins’ line combinations at forward.
Let’s try to take a look at some of the options.
The Jake Guentzel situation
Crosby and Guentzel has been the go-to duo for the better part of the past four years, and for good reason. They have an obvious chemistry and they dominate when they are on the ice together. Guentzel has been an elite goal-scorer when playing on Crosby’s wing and it stands to reason that when Crosby is back in the lineup he and Guentzel will immediately be reunited.
But it may not be the simple.
With Crosby sidelined the trio of Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, and Guentzel has helped carry the Penguins’ offense and has performed at an exceptionally high level across the board. They have posted dominant goals for, goals against, scoring chance, and expected goals numbers as a trio and are consistently the team’s best line when they are together.
How tempting would it be for coach Mike Sullivan to stick with that trio and try to piece something together around Crosby with the remaining wingers?
It would not be the first time a line came together due to injury, performed well, and stuck together once everyone was healthy (remember, the HBK line happened because of an injury to Malkin with Nick Bonino sliding into that center spot to fill in for him. Instead of putting Malkin back when he was healthy, Sullivan stuck with the new trio and rode it to a Stanley Cup).
The problem with keeping them together is it seriously limits the potential linemate options for Crosby. If you put Crosby back between Guentzel and Rust, then that leaves Malkin in the same situation.
Split the difference
One option that seems reasonable: Guentzel goes back to playing on Crosby’s line while Rust remains next to Malkin.
We know what Crosby and Guentzel are capable of together. But Malkin and Rust as the primary duo on a line of their own is a little bit more of an unknown because they do not have as big of a sampling of ice-time together.
Over the past three years they have spent roughly 300 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together without also having Guentzel with them. Their overall performance has been strong: 53 percent Corsi mark, positive goal differential, great expected goal differential.
(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)
Going with a Crosby-Guentzel, Malkin-Rust duo on the top two lines could work very well as long as you find a third option for each line.
Speaking of which, that brings us to this...
The other wingers
Whether you split Guentzel and Rust and place one of them with Crosby and Malkin, or if you keep them together between one of the superstar centers, the Penguins still need to figure out what to do with two top-six winger spots.
There is always the possibility that Sullivan plays the hits and goes back to the old standby of Crosby, Guentzel, and Dominik Simon (that would get quite a reaction).
Alex Galchenyuk has given us no reason to believe he can fill one of those spots.
Dominik Kahun seems like a reasonable option, and he has certainly earned a spot with one of the top centers and in a top-six role, but do you want to break up him and Jared McCann in what could be a really strong third-line duo? You could potentially have three outstanding center-wing duos down the middle of your lineup if you keep them together.
The other x-factor here is the eventual return of Patric Hornqvist and where he fits in. That is not exactly an easy thing to figure out because the injuries are still a huge factor and his production and play seemed to really slow down even before he went out of the lineup this most recent time.
Do they go back to the preseason look where Brandon Tanev get a look in a top-six role as the new Carl Hagelin type player?
There is also the “player not yet on the roster option.” Given the way the defense has developed this season and become a real strength for the team, it seems possible, if not likely, that general manager Jim Rutherford’s big trade target shifts from the blue line to a top-six winger to play alongside either Crosby or Malkin. Possible rentals could include one of Florida’s Mike Hoffman or Evgenii Dadonov duo, Los Angeles’ Tyler Toffoli, or Chris Kreider if the Penguins and/or Rangers are willing to trade within the division.
Acquiring a player with term might be too costly both against the salary cap and in terms of assets that would need to be traded.
So what are your thoughts here? What sort of line combinations would you like to see when Crosby makes his return at some point here over the next couple of weeks? Leave your suggestions in the comments.