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Who will join Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel on the Penguins’ top line?

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Will it be Rust? Hornqvist? Simon? McCann? Could it even possibly end up being Dominik Kahun?

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With training camp kicking off today as the unofficial start of the 2019-20 NHL season, all eyes are going to be what line pairings and combinations head coach Mike Sullivan and Co. immediately cook up once all the boys are back together on Pittsburgh ice. With the departure of Phil Kessel to Arizona, there is possibly even more interest on who will be playing on what line and with which teammates than ever before.

Even though there are a handful of other story lines grabbing the attention of Penguins hockey fans anxiously chomping at the bit for the season to finally begin, one of the biggest anecdotes is who exactly is going to serve as the winger—not named Jake Guentzel—to serve on Sidney Crosby’s other flank?

The prime candidates that instantly come to mind are Bryan Rust, Jared McCann, and Dominik Simon, as all three players have spent a ton of minutes with the Captain over the past few seasons and experienced a decent amount of success in that role. There’s also the chance that Patric Hornqvist sneaks his way back into the spotlight, but with his recent performance taking a hit probably thanks in part to his many head injuries, there are doubts surrounding the Swede’s ability to bounce back as effectively as he has in years past. There’s even the possibility of newcomer Dominik Kahun blossoming with the top line.

Each of them brings their own set of skills that have the chance to complement both Crosby’s and Guentzel’s offensive abilities and not be a defensive liability on the other end of the rink.

Bryan Rust

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What He Brings to the Table

Rust had a very odd, up-and-down season in 2018-19. His rough start was highlighted by his lack of production, in which he only tallied five points (one goal, four assists) in October and November combined. This fact forced his normally excellent advanced metrics to, for the first time ever, dip below the 50 percentile. The snake bitten streak through 30-plus contests became almost comical, until a huge point-scoring burst in December shot Rust into a scoring streak that stayed white-hot for a nice little chunk of time. Even though he cooled off as the season came to a halting stop in the first round of the playoffs, and even though he suffered an ill-timed injury, Rust’s even-strength production was easily his best attribute last season, as the ever-elusive 5-on-5 goals seemed to conveniently avoid the Penguins at all costs.

His speed is also a massive advantage, and Crosby hasn’t been shy about expressing his appreciation of that in Rust’s toolbox. Taking advantage of the opponent on the forecheck with two big scorers like Crosby and Guentzel is definitely a huge contributing factor to deciding to deploy Rust on the top line.

The Numbers

via Natural Stat Trick

Conveniently enough, Rust’s numbers experienced a huge spike playing alongside Crosby and Guentzel on the top line, but as soon as he was lined up elsewhere, his statistics took a dip. In fact, when you factor in TOI, Rust didn’t click with any of his other teammates as well as he did with these two, making a strong case for Sullivan to ultimately place him there.

Prediction

Rust is a prime candidate for the vacant winger spot with Crosby and Guentzel, his statistics and metrics sparkle when paired with both of them, and his speed is another cog in his case. Crosby is also vocal about liking to play with Rust as well, and given what we know about Crosby’s influence on coaching decisions, that may play as a huge advantage. The only potential blip in the system would be Rust going quiet the same way he did in the beginning of last season, and Sullivan’s hand ultimately being forced to replace him with a player who is actually producing. All signs are pointing to Rust being a perfect fit, but hockey is a fickle game, and a random strike of bad luck can hit at any moment and change everything.

Jared McCann

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

What He Brings to the Table

McCann was a breath of fresh air for the Penguins after they finally dumped off Derick Brassard’s (who’s apparently an Islander now) empty husk, and it showed straight after the trade was finalized with the Florida Panthers. Now, with McCann’s honeymoon period officially over, the talented forward's ceiling is going to be put to the test. He has great goal-scoring touch, stick-handles well, can turn on the jets with ease, and is defensively responsible — all things you want in a top-line winger. His lack of even-strength scoring was a bit suspect, as many of his goals came with the opponent’s goaltender pulled, but his skill set is rich with potential.

What better way is there to investigate how well he fared with Crosby and Guentzel last season than by using statistical evidence from last season?

The Numbers

via Natural Stat Trick

From our 2018-19 season review of McCann, we concluded that, according to Natural Stat Trick, when he was on the ice with Crosby and Guentzel, he posted a Corsi For percentage of 53.3 and 51.4 respectively. When this trio made up the Penguins’ top line late in the season, they produced commanding possession numbers together, as depicted above.

Prediction

It’s likely that McCann doesn’t end up earning the top stop even with all the prior success in that role, and it isn’t because he isn’t talented, it’s because of something even more arbitrary — he’s a left-handed shot. If he were to be inserted on the first line with Crosby, Guentzel would then have to be moved to the other wing and play on his off-hand. With how electric Crosby and Guentzel are together when it comes to scoring goals, this might be too big of a risk to take. If it ain’t broke... etc. etc. He’ll probably fit in better on Evgeni Malkin’s line, once they establish what winger will take over for Kessel.

Dominik Simon

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What He Brings to the Table

Even though Simon is known infamously by the fan base for never being able to finish or tally points, he showcases unreal possession numbers every season and ensures that when he’s out on the ice, his team is constantly working the puck in their own zone. Sullivan appreciates Simon’s ability to always drive possession and keep the puck out of the hands of the opposition, and it’s the main reason he was deployed on the top line with Crosby and Guentzel in 2018-19. We also saw Simon have roaring success playing with Hornqvist and Nick Bjugstad for the same reasons towards the end of the regular season — this trio dominated possession and it eventually starting leading to goals. Even when they weren’t scoring, they were still incredibly effective through the neutral zone.

It seems to be a good idea to give Crosby, a generational superstar, the puck as often as you can, and Simon does that on a regular basis.

The Numbers

via Natural Stat Trick

The coaching staff clearly has a love for Simon, and his advanced metrics sing a complementary tune to that while playing alongside Crosby and Guentzel. A 61.44 Corsi For percentage is stellar, and it’s just a testament to his ability to drive possession.

via CJ Turtoro’s Player Comparison Tool

Simon’s ability to control the neutral zone is also exceptional, but once again, if he isn’t scoring points, he’ll never be a darling of the fan base (and even some of the media).

Prediction

Because Simon hasn’t quite yet proved that he can actually score goals and finish opportunities (unless he’s suited up in Czech colors in international play), I doubt we’ll see him suddenly do so in 2019-20. Chances are, if he’s slotted on the first line with Crosby and Guentzel to start the season, there will be unrelenting outcry and complaining from the fans that will only be boosted by the fact that he won’t score a ton of points in Penguins’ first 10 or so games. That isn’t his style, and it isn’t how he helps the team, but that won’t matter. As long as his possession numbers stay lofty, he’ll be worth it to place on the top line. But the second they start sinking, Sullivan will give him the hook.

Patric Hornqvist

NHL: Dallas Stars at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What He Brings to the Table

Hornqvist is a battler, he wins pucks off the board, he aggressive in the slot, his net-front presence is suffocating, but his recent regression has been on the Penguins’ radar for the past year. The amount of blows to the head that ended up as concussions has been plaguing him, and he doesn’t seem to be the same player he was back in the Penguins’ back-to-back Cup runs. Going months and months without scoring a point in any capacity last season is also a potential product of his concussion history, and it begs the question of whether or not he can handle top line minutes and the pressure of performing in that role. Hornqvist is a natural complement to Crosby though, as we’ve seen in the past, and that will be taken into consideration when the line combinations are being formulated and tweaked.

The Numbers

via Natural Stat Trick

This group’s advanced metrics are pretty solid as a trio, despite the lack of time played together. Hornqvist is a nice battering ram for Crosby and Guentzel’s creativity to flourish.

Prediction

Bets are on Hornqvist saddling on Malkin’s right flank to start the season. Someone has to take over for Kessel, and he might be the right man for the job. Hornqvist isn’t afraid to throw his body around either, and that will likely complement Malkin’s play in each zone as well. There’s a chance he could see top line minutes, but it seems there might be better options for Sullivan.

Dominik Kahun

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What He Brings to the Table

Kahun is easily the most interesting dark horse/wildcard option out of the entire group. His experience with playing with talented teammates back in Chicago with the Blackhawks last season bodes well for him as Sullivan mulls over his options, so playing with a superstar like Crosby shouldn’t come with too many nerves. He was also started with Crosby and Guentzel on the right wing once training camp commenced this morning, and maybe a fresh new-look is exactly what Sullivan is going for.

Poll

Who should play on the top line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel?

This poll is closed

  • 33%
    Bryan Rust
    (296 votes)
  • 16%
    Jared McCann
    (145 votes)
  • 8%
    Dominik Simon
    (72 votes)
  • 5%
    Patric Hornqvist
    (49 votes)
  • 34%
    Dominik Kahun
    (306 votes)
  • 1%
    Other (Comment Below)
    (15 votes)
883 votes total Vote Now