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Third line once again a big question for Penguins

Can they find the right mix to complement their top two lines?

New York Rangers v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

There are a lot of factors that will determine how far the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins are able to go and what they are able to accomplish.

The big ones at the top of the list include...

  • Evgeni Malkin being Evgeni Malkin
  • Finding a taker for Jack Johnson
  • Alex Galchenyuk and Dominik Kahun being to replace the offense that was traded to Arizona
  • Matt Murray, Kris Letang, and Sidney Crosby staying healthy
  • And ... being able to piece together a competent third line.

For right now I want to focus on that latter point because it is a pretty vital part of a championship team, and it is something that has been a constant struggle over the past two seasons.

As long as the Penguins have their core players (Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Murray, Jake Guentzel) they are going to be able to put a competitive team on the ice. That has always been the case in the Crosby-Malkin era, and until their careers truly begin to wind down and they cease to be productive that is going to continue to be the case. But there is a big difference between “competitive” team and “championship” team, and that difference always comes down to the players around the core.

If you look at the four Stanley Cup Final teams (including the three Stanley Cup winners) they have all had a dominant third line that could carry play when it was on the ice and offer offensive support for the top two lines. Over an 82-game season, and especially in a best-of-seven series, there are going to be times where your top stars are going to go cold and struggle to score. When that happens you need another line that can take over.

When the Penguins have had that, whether it was the Jordan Staal-Matt Cooke-Tyler Kennedy line in 2009, or the HBK line in 2016, they have been nearly unbeatable.

When they have not had that (pretty much every year in between Jordan Staal and Nick Bonino ... and every year after Nick Bonino) they have felt like they are miles away from a championship, even with a team full of All-Stars at the top of the lineup.

This has been an especially frustrating problem over the past two years because the team sunk so many resources into trying to fix it with the Derick Brassard trade with Ottawa, ultimately resulting in another blockbuster that brought Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann to the Penguins last season.

That brings us to the potential makeup of this year’s third line.

The Penguins used an intriguing combination in their preseason finale against the Buffalo Sabres when Nick Bjugstad centered a line between Jared McCann and Patric Hornqvist.

I don’t hate that trio as a third line, and quite honestly, it is probably the best one they have run out there since the 2016 Stanley Cup Final against San Jose when the HBK line was dominating the league and one of the best third lines they could piece together with this year’s roster.

McCann and Bjugstad spent a little time together a year ago (in both Florida and Pittsburgh) and produced good results, driving possession and chances and scoring some goals. I don’t know what happened to Hornqvist in the second half of last season (Not healthy? Bad luck? His career beginning to go over the cliff? All of the above?) but I want to believe he still has something left in the tank, not only because the Penguins need him to be good, but because they don’t need another bad contract to drain their salary cap.

But will that be the line when the season begins?

For one, the return of Galchenyuk to the lineup is going to bump somebody down to the bottom six (Brandon Tanev? Dominik Kahun? Bryan Rust?).

There is also the (admittedly slim) possibility that Bjugstad himself could be traded in a cap-clearing move. Unless they get a great return, though, I am not a huge fan of that option because I don’t know that there is a better third-line center option on the roster McCann could play center, but that’s a big role and I kind of like him on the wing. Dominik Simon spent a lot of time this camp and preseason playing center after a strong showing at the World Championships, but that doesn’t seem like a legitimate option for the third line on a Stanley Cup contender.

Given that lack of options, Bjugstad seems locked into that third line role. It’s just a matter of who they piece in around him and I can’t imagine a better set of options than the McCann-Hornqvist duo they used on Saturday.

McCann brings goal-scoring potential to that group, and Hornqvist can still do a lot of dirty work and digging along the walls and in front of the net. And for as bad as he looked in the second half of last season, I have to imagine there is a shooting percentage spike coming his way because even he is not that low of a shooter.

I don’t know if that is going to be the line at the start of the season, but I’d like to see get a chance because I don’t know that they are going to find a better trio that can carry that line.

What do you think, Penguins fans?

What is your ideal set of line combinations for the start of the season and do they finally have a solution to that third line spot?