While the Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust line was bulldozing the NHL in Sidney Crosby’s absence, there was an ongoing debate as to what would happen with the line combinations when Crosby returned to the lineup. Which winger would play with which center, and would the Penguins automatically put Guentzel back on Crosby’s wing? Well, Guentzel’s injury put an abrupt end to that discussion and created an entirely new line combination debate.
As in, what exactly are the lines going to look like without their best winger? We got our first look at that on Tuesday in Crosby’s return against the Minnesota Wild, and the early returns were promising.
The one line that remained untouched was the Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, Zach Aston-Reese line, and they ended up playing more 5-on-5 minutes than any other combination on Tuesday night. I like that trio, and I like that they kept it together.
From there, Crosby centered a new top line between Jared McCann and fan favorite Dominik Simon, while Malkin was between Rust and Dominik Kahun.
While keeping in mind it was against a fading Minnesota team that had to play the entire game with only five defensemen because messed up their lineup card, you have to like what you saw.
First, there was the Malkin and rust duo who teamed up for a brilliant goal in the second period. It was the type of “no no no NO NO! ... YES!” pass from Malkin that was either going to put him on a highlight reel or a blooper reel. In this case, it worked to perfection.
When Guentzel was still in the lineup I figured a good middle ground with the line combinations would be to split the difference: Give Guentzel back to Crosby and keep Rust with Malkin. Both duos seem to have great chemistry together and it gives each center a winger that works with them. So in that sense it seems smart to keep Rust in a spot where he has not only succeeded, but is having the best season of his career.
You also had to have some level of expectation that Simon was going to end up back on Crosby’s wing because ... well ... he loves him and it tends to work.
That left the other spot on each wing.
McCann and Kahun seemed like reasonable candidates, but I was initially skeptical of that because I liked the potential they had as a third-line duo. But the emergence of the Blueger, Tanev, Aston-Reese line kind of took care of that.
McCann on the top line is the interesting one because he has all the tools to make a huge impact next to Crosby. He has the speed and skating ability to keep up, he is a good defensive player, and he has an absolute rocket of a shot that seems like it could do some damage next to a playmaker that is going to draw most of the attention. What’s even crazier is that the wingers on that line (McCann and Simon) teamed up for a beauty of a tic-tac-toe goal in the first period that Crosby was not only not a part of, but he wasn’t even on the ice at that exact moment.
It still would not surprise me at all to see the Penguins be in the market for another winger (Jason Zucker! Chris Kreider!) because, A) they could probably still use one to really balance out the lineup, and B) It would make them that much better, especially when/if Guentzel is able to return for the playoffs. But for right now I want to see how these combinations work.
They had a great start on Tuesday.
The combination gets a little tougher on Thursday.