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Talking myself into Brandon Tanev’s role with the Penguins

Can he really work as a second-line player?

NHL: SEP 22 Preseason - Penguins at Red Wings Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The free agent signing of Brandon Tanev certainly sparked a range of emotions among the Pittsburgh Penguins’ fanbase and media, with most of it falling on the negative side. I was among that group. My initial criticism of the signing wasn’t necessarily about Tanev the player (I think he is a useful player that can provide something to the bottom six — he is fast, he can defend. He is not like the last former Jets forward the Penguins signed in free agency). It was about the contract, and how it is kind of foolish for a team with cap issues to dedicate six years and $3.5 million to a player that is probably best served as a bottom-line player.

Then training camp began and Tanev found himself on a line next to Evgeni Malkin and the team’s other big offseason addition, Alex Galchenyuk.

I don’t know if this is just training camp tinkering, or something the Penguins are actually going to try, but my initial reaction to this was ... why?

But the more I thought about it, the more I can maybe see where the Penguins are coming from with that combination.

First, Malkin has succeeded with a wide range of wingers throughout his career that all play a different style of game. It really has not matter who he plays next to, he is going to produce and the people next to him are going to produce. So while Tanev might not be the ideal winger, I don’t think it is going to drag Malkin down too much if it doesn’t initially work out as planned.

Here is where I find the potential intrigue and am willing to at least give it a chance: When you listen to the Penguins talk about Tanev it almost sounds like they are describing a Carl Hagelin type player. Fast, disruptive, good defensively. What grabs my attention about that is the most successful set of wingers that Malkin had on his side a year ago were Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin.

Hagelin may have been frustrating due to his inability to finish, but you can’t ignore the results of the line when they were on the ice. They were great. The Penguins dominated possession, they outscored their opponents, and it was a point in the season where Malkin played his best hockey (I wrote about Hagelin’s impact on every line he played on early last season). That is worth something. And when you have two players like Malkin and Kessel on a line together, you are going to need a steady, responsible defensive presence somewhere on the ice. Hagelin provided that.

Fast forward to this preseason, and who is expected to be Malkin’s primary sidekick? It is Galchenyuk, who is probably best described as a poor-man’s Kessel. He has talent, he is offensive minded, he can score, but he is probably not going to do much else. They are going to need someone to do the “everything else.” I could see them thinking that Tanev could be that player.

It is not like the Penguins are overflowing with top-six wing options at the moment. Guentzel is locked in next to Crosby, Galchenyuk is the other side of Malkin’s line, and then there is not much else to get terribly excited about.

There should be real concern about Patric Hornqvist. Dominik Kahun seems like more of an ideal third-line winger. Dominik Simon is a useful, if also frustrating, player but who knows what his role is going to be. You never know what version of Bryan Rust you are going to get.

I did not really notice Tanev much on Thursday night against Columbus, but he did make this nice pass to Brian Dumoulin over the weekend.

Now, I do still have some concerns about this.

For one, I don’t know that Tanev is as good as Hagelin. Tanev had a career-year offensively a year ago for the Jets, but he has never been a player that drives possession (Hagelin does) and it was the first time in his NHL career he topped 20 points in a season. He turns 28 years old in December. Not a great profile for a potential second-line player.

It also makes you wonder why they didn’t just keep Hagelin. The sequence of transactions that resulted in them going from Hagelin on Malkin’s wing at the start of the 2018-19 season to potentially starting the season with a similar player (and potentially lesser, and more expensive player) on his wing at the start of this season illustrates the kind of haphazard approach to the roster construction that has been taking place the past couple of years.

Then there is the contract. Signing non-stars that do not profile as scorers to long-term contracts is something that almost never works out, and almost always results in you paying something to make the player go away (retained salary, buyout, giving up an asset to entice a team to take the contract, etc.).

So while I still have some doubts that this is going to work out the way the Penguins hope, I am at least going to keep an open mind that they can potentially find a use for him. At the very least, it is easier to hide a forward than it is to hide, say, a free agent defender that did not work out. Putting him on the second line may not seem ideal, but I can at least see the logic behind it and see an argument for it finding success.

Let’s see how it goes.