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Best Pittsburgh Penguins lines broken out by role

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A talent of collection like no other highlights our listing of the best 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th lines in franchise history

2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In quarantine times, we’re all scraping the memory banks and archives for fun prompts and doing what we can. So here’s an idea: what are the best lines in Pittsburgh Penguins history?

For fun in this exercise we’ll use them as they roll out. Which means you can’t build Evgeni Malkin into a third line, because he never played on a team in that role. I guess you’ll see how it goes along, but the thought process is being use lines as they were used on their respective teams and patch it together. The Pens have had such a great history, we’ll build two teams. To make it better, we’ll go with no repeats allowed. Once you use a player, he’s out. Let’s give it a go

Team 1

First line: Kevin Stevens - Mario Lemieux - Rick Tocchet (1992-93)

Pittsburgh Penguins v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

This is just pure size, power, skill and muscle. The trio combined for a whopping 380 points in 1992-93. They scored 69 goals (Lemieux), 55 (Stevens), and 48 (Tocchet). Mario put up 160 points to win the scoring title. Tocchet and Stevens totaled a combined 429 penalty minutes, truly putting the “power” into power forward, with the line averaging being a bit over 6’2 and 215 pounds. Oh yeah, and Mario was fighting through cancer this year, but not even that could slow him down.

The Pens have had some really great first lines over the years, and there’s no real wrong answer here, but you can’t beat this one.

Second line: Martin Straka - Robert Lang - Alexei Kovalev (2000-01)

Alexei Kovalev and Matrin Straka skate on the ice

The vaunted KLS line had a year to remember in 2000-01. Alexei Kovalev and Marty Straka finished tied for fourth in the entire league in scoring with 95 points (44G+51A for AK27, 27G+68A for Straka). Their center in Robert Lang wasn’t too far behind ranking 20th in NHL in scoring with 32G+48A.

This was a high-water mark for the Pens with their European influence of speed and immense skill. They could play keep-away, work the puck with beautiful passes and incredible offensive ability and then eventually finish it off. How rare is it an entire SECOND line finishes in the top 20 in scoring? With two in the top five? And behind Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr this was a true second line. Incredible stuff.

Third line: Carl Hagelin - Nick Bonino - Phil Kessel (2015-16)

NHL: MAY 30 Stanley Cup Final - Game 1 - Sharks at Penguins

The HBK line. We all know it and remember it fondly. One thing perhaps forgotten is just how reinvigorated and successful this period was for Carl Hagelin. After a mid-season trade to save him from a tough situation in Anaheim, Hagelin put up 27 points (10G+27A) in 37 regular season games, then lit up the playoffs with 16 points (6G+10A) in 24 games. That’s 43 points in 61 games, which would be by far the best output and production he has ever had in the NHL.

Phil Kessel was no slouch himself, though ironically it was the worst regular season output of his four season Penguin career with 59 points. All of that was forgotten after a 22 point in 24 playoff game effort helped fuel the Pens to the Stanley Cup.

Nick Bonino was also never better than in those 2016 playoffs, recording 18 points (4G+14A) in 24 games. And though he didn’t score a lot of goals, he sure was always in the right place and able to knock in big goals when it counted most. Just a magical performance from three players that clicked, and just a cheat code to technically be a “third line” that got rolled out after Crosby and Malkin took their shifts.

Fourth line: Zach Aston-Reese - Teddy Blueger - Brandon Tanev (2019-20)

Pittsburgh Penguins v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

This is a bit of a recency effect, but certainly a reasonable pick considering the defense effects that all had this year — particularly on defense.

Zach Aston-Reese, by the metrics, should be in the rightful mix for consideration of the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward. He won’t really get votes since that’s not the way voters vote, but ZAR had the best xGA among forwards in the league, was seventh in Corsi events Against/60 and second in Shots Allowed/60. Tanev wasn’t far behind being ranked fourth in the NHL in xGA/60 and 11th in CA/60. Blueger was no slouch himself, and the line was performing excellently back in January when Gretz took a peak at them.

Considering their impressive zone starts being shoveled a ton of defensive assignments, it makes it all the more admirable that this trio could work from being downhill and prevent chances and goals against, and actually start tilting the ice back to the Pens’ advantage with their tenacity, smarts and all-around play. Truly a buzzsaw! And, especially with the rest of this team, you’re going to need some penalty killers and two-way players, and all three of these guys have demonstrated they can do that as well.

Team 2

(Keep in mind the self-proposed limit of not repeating players)

First line: Chris Kunitz - Sidney Crosby - Pascal Dupuis (2012-13)

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

A broken jaw for Sidney Crosby stopped this line in their tracks, but for the first 36 games (three quarters of the lockout-shortened season) they were just unstoppable. They were so good, Dan Bylsma was reluctant to put a hall of famer in Jarome Iginla with Crosby because of how well Dupuis was playing. Seven years later in hindsight, that sounds unbelievable and foolish, but it was a fair play.

Dupuis put up 38 points (20G+18A) in 48 games and was such a menance on the forecheck and the perfect chemistry fit of speed and reliability for Crosby. A total known factor. Kunitz would put up more points in full seasons, but this was the only season he was above a point-per-game with 52 (22G+30A) in 48 games, to finish the short year tied for seventh in scoring. Crosby racked up 48 points in the first 36 games and was well on his way to a scoring title and MVP campaign until his ill-fated injury.

These two wingers fed off Crosby and knew when and where to be in the right spots at the right moments. Beyond just that, they were producing points. That mix grew a bit stale as they aged out of their primes, but in this moment it was a tremendous line.

Second line: Ruslan Fedotenko - Evgeni Malkin - Petr Sykora / Max Talbot (2008-09)

Stanley Cup Finals - Pittsburgh Penguins v Detroit Red Wings - Game Seven Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

This line is about Evgeni Malkin. He won the Art Ross and Conn Smythe trophies this year, despite not a tremendous amount of skill on his line. Malkin was so dominant, it didn’t matter, he could change the game in a single shift. He put the team on his back in the Eastern Conference Finals and made a very difficult task look impossibly easy.

Sykora faded a bit and the most timely of stars emerged in Max Talbot. And with 13 points in 24 playoff games, Talbot was right in the neighborhood with first line wingers Kuintz (14 points) and Bill Guerin (14) that postseason, with as many goals (8) as both of them combined. Fedotenko also chipped in 14 points and seven goals that playoff run.

But, make no mistake about it, this line is put on the map by a peak 22-year old Malkin who was the best player in the world in 2009. You could probably make a case to sub in the 2011-12 Malkin + James Neal line that had a 50 and 40 goal scorer on it, but for balance’s sake, Malkin’s top line has to be that time where lighting was in the bottle with Fedotenko AND Talbot, aside from just having one better winger.

Third line: Matt Cooke - Jordan Staal - Tyler Kennedy (pretty much any year)

Stanley Cup Finals - Detroit Red Wings v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Six Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

This trio can’t be denied or ignored either for their contributions over the years. Matt Cooke has his checkered past of crossing the line, but still was a very effective grinding winger when he was staying in the lines. Tyler Kennedy added speed, energy and a knack for scoring big goals.

And, as usual, in Pens’ history, the strength down the middle is just undeniable. Jordan Staal wasn’t typically a gaudy player, but always lived in the 50 point range, despite his role. He could be counted on to play in any situation with his size, skating and hockey IQ. From about 2008-12 he was the best third line center in the league, by a pretty sizeable margin. That creates matchup problems and the ability to use him to check against other team’s top players, or feast on their weaker ones. And this line pretty much did that consistently and was a big part of why the Pens won so many games in this era.

Fourth line: Tom Kuhnhackl - Matt Cullen - Bryan Rust (2015-16)

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Rangers

This line had some sneakiness to it. Tom Kuhnhackl, in particular, was a lot better than his general reputation putting up 20 points in 66 total games in 2015-16. For a fourth liner, that’s impressive. Matt Cullen was 38 years old, but still put up 32 points (16G+16A) and had his wheels on him all over the ice. With all the off-ice chemistry and intangibles to help steady to squad with his experience and personality. Bryan Rust was another call-up that helped turn the tide and push the Pens over the edge and back into championship territory, and really started to show signs of the future chipping in six goals in the playoffs (after only scoring four in 41 regular season games).

So there it is. The Pens best lines. Tough to leave Jaromir Jagr out of this whole exercise, but that kind of speaks to the majority of his Pittsburgh career, Jagr was surrounded by players like Jan Hrdina and Kip Miller for a large portion of his time with the Pens, but still a beast. Hard to leave off that Francis-Lemieux-Jagr line in ‘96, but that’s the embarrassment of riches this team has had over the years. Who are some of your favorite lines in Pens’ history?