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A return to health will leave critical lineup decisions for the Penguins

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As players start to get healthy, the Penguins will have roster choices to make as the playoffs near.

NHL: Preseason-Carolina Hurricanes at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins have played well in March, and they’ve done so while missing some key players. Kris Letang was out a while, returned for two games, and then left again. Josh Yohe at The Athletic did say yesterday “there isn’t a sense around the team that Letang’s playoff availability will be in doubt,” so for what it’s worth it seems he will be back sooner than later.

The same can be said for Evgeni Malkin, who has been out since getting cross-checked in the midsection on March 16, but has been skating and will likely be back sooner than later.

Olli Maatta, absent since February 11, is likely on a track back as soon as the Penguins’ next game Friday night against Nashville.

The one real unknown at this point appears to be Zach Aston-Reese, who hasn’t played since March 10. Coach Mike Sullivan was quick to say “no” when asked if it was a season-ending injury a couple weeks ago, but he did mention it would be longer term. Unlike Malkin and Maatta, there have been no mentions of ZAR on the comeback trail just yet.

So now the question shifts towards if the Pens get healthy, what gives from their lines? Added opportunity has meant good contributions from players like Teddy Blueger, Jared McCann, and Marcus Pettersson — all in perhaps bigger roles than they would have found themselves had Pittsburgh enjoyed full health down the stretch.

The ideal:

Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust

Jared McCann - Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel

Dominik Simon - Nick Bjugstad - Patric Hornqvist

Teddy Blueger - Matt Cullen - Garrett Wilson

Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang

Olli Maatta / Justin Schultz

Marcus Pettersson / Erik Gudbranson

What you’re probably going to get:

Similar forward groups (though if Aston-Reese is healthy, he’s probably taking Blueger’s spot in the lineup) and Jack Johnson in the mix somewhere.

There seems to be a false narrative floating around that the Johnson-Schultz pair is doing well. It’s not. The duo has a 45.39 Corsi percent together, and while they’ve been on ice for 13 5-on-5 Goals For to just nine 5-on-5 Goals Against, these results are masking the process of 47 percent Scoring Chance For percentage and covered up by a goaltending .949 save percentage.

Maatta and Schultz last season had a Corsi nearly breaking even (49.9 percent) and still managed the Goals For advantages (23-16) while being less reliant on goaltending.

It would be bold to scratch Johnson — who has played every game of the season so far — but by every metric he’s the worst defenseman on the team, and one that consistently drags down whatever teammates have the misfortune of playing with him. Pettersson has played well enough to stay in the lineup. Maatta offers more puckmoving and his PK stats are as good if not better than Johnson. May it finally be time? (Don’t hold your breath).

The forward spot is fascinating too for what decision the coach will make if Aston-Reese can return. Cullen isn’t going anywhere; he was brought back to Pittsburgh for this time of year. The coaching staff has also been huge fans of Wilson, who doesn’t score a lot but does suppress scoring chances against pretty admirably and shoulders a heavy burden of defensive zone draws.

Then there’s Blueger, who has six points (three goals, three assists) in the last nine games, including four points in the last five games where he has had to fill in for Malkin on the second line. There’s no way Blueger stays in a top-six role for long, but he’s demonstrated some aptitude on the penalty kill as well. It definitely stands out to have three short-handed points this season, considering he only has 10 on the year in the NHL.

Is there a place for Blueger over Wilson on the playoff playing lineup? If the team’s looking for more skill on the fourth line, perhaps so (think: Carolina as an opponent). If they want size and forechecking to combat a “heavy” opponent (like NYI, Washington), it’s probably Wilson. At least the options are on the table now with some depth, it’s just a matter of which direction Sullivan wants to go.

And options are really the best thing to have at this point. No matter the personnel battles and decisions, having everyone available this time of year certainly is better than a full trainer’s room watching key players get treatment. The Pens should be returning to health (knock on all available pieces of wood) in the next few days and week or so, as they start ramping up for the playoffs and get some happy returns.