“And when I look at the team in general, I see a lot more depth than we’ve had in the past,” Jim Rutherford said earlier in the month. “That’s something I’m really excited about. This is a deep team.”
Is that a true statement or summer window dressing?
Here’s what the Penguins’ lines were on opening night 2018 vs the Capitals (an 8-7 OT win):
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Patric Hornqvist
Carl Hagelin - Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel
Dominik Simon - Derick Brassard - Bryan Rust
Matt Cullen - Riley Sheahan - Daniel Sprong
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Olli Maatta / Jack Johnson
Jamie Oleksiak / Justin Schultz
Well, it will be certainly different twelve months later for opening night 2019. Six forwards are gone — perhaps seven if Rust is the cap casualty, as are two defensemen.
Is the team truly “deeper” though?
The changes start in earnest with the Evgeni Malkin line. Malkin loses Carl Hagelin (a very effective player who couldn’t score a lot) and Phil Kessel (a player who scored a lot, but also allowed almost as much).
Malkin figures to have Alex Galchenyuk on his one wing, a player similar in metrics to Kessel, but not similar in production. That’s a downgrade. On the other wing, Malkin may have Dominik Kahun, a player somewhat similar to Hagelin, but certainly one not as good without the puck.
By any reasonable estimation, the second line has taken a step back in talent and utility in the last 12 months, possibly a major one.
Dropping Brassard is almost addition by subtraction, he was dreadful in 2018-19. But he wasn’t expected to be this time last year. Most the comments last summer were about getting Brassard on track an having an advantage with three strong centers.
The fourth line is completely rolled over. Sheahan was a vanilla big-body defensive minded player. Not great, but not damaging. Cullen was old and at the end of his time, Sprong was shoe-horned onto the misfit line with two players that didn’t really have the skill-set or mindset to work with.
In that regard, Rutherford is correct that a potential fourth line of Brandon Tanev - Teddy Blueger - Zach Aston-Reese should be a lot more cohesive and better aligned then what Pittsburgh used on opening night 12 months ago (not that Sprong stuck around long anyways). Although, the premium price paid to sign Tanev renders this a costly victory to upgrade the least important line that plays a small part in the overall game for a fairly high salary — and the accompanying opportunity cost to not be able to use that money for other areas stings as well.
Let’s also remember where we were this time last year, big things were expected out of Brassard. The result was disastrous, but that wasn’t the expectation. So it’s not like this time last year Rutherford likely felt any different that his team was very deep and potentially extremely dangerous with Brassard and Rust as a possible great third line. That team (with a better second line than what they have now, as mentioned) really had a lot more potential for firepower and skill.
The other big missing piece is that we still don’t actually know what the Pens’ 2019 opening night roster will be. At least one roster player will need to be moved as a salary cap casualty so that Pittsburgh can re-sign Marcus Pettersson.
As of now it probably should be looking something like:
Guentzel - Crosby - AAAAA
Galchenyuk - Malkin - BBBBB
Simon - Bjugstad - Hornqvist
CCCCC - Teddy Blueger - DDDDD
I’ve listed a few placeholders here that will rotate between: Rust (if he’s still around), Jared McCann, Kahun, Aston-Reese and Tanev. All of these players are versatile enough to flip between lines and roles, and anyone who knows coach Mike Sullivan knows that there will be a lot of flipping the lines around, so there’s no real point in trying to pin down exact three-man lines that won’t be together for very long anyways.
In the end, the Pens depth will be these types of players that determines just how deep this team is. The Pens could have been “deep” last year with a natural second line center in a depth third line role. But they weren’t. So now there is some potential to be effective and have skill scattered through the lineup, but at the cost of losing one of the league’s better wingers in Kessel.
Still, there’s no doubt that Pittsburgh has made some efforts to drop dead weight and/or ineffective players who proved to not help a ton last year (Sheahan, Sprong, Cullen, Brassard), so the hope can be out there at this point that the shuffling and re-tooling of half the forwards over the last year will end up working out positively.
All this is one aspect of the team, the often unsaid point is the defense has yet to address it’s main issue that the Islanders overwhelmed with an aggressive forecheck — a lack of overall puck-moving, skating and positional play by the second and third pairs. That remains unknown how and when the Pens will be able to seek upgrades there, and now thanks to the major July 1 signing of Tanev, they have almost no wiggle room to make any future moves without major salary considerations.
Are the Penguins truly a deeper team now than last year? The proof remains to be seen. If all the pieces come together, their bottom-six could be better than last year. The price paid though was a reduction of skill which also could prove costly. As of now the results of massive changes leave more to the unknown than anything else.