As the NHL makes plans to figure out the form and format of how exactly they will try to pull off bringing the league back during a pandemic, the fun never ends with dreaming up lines. The Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves in unusual and uncharted territory with having a ton of good forward options to use.
Since the stoppage, we know Dominik Simon is out after shoulder surgery, but the good news is that Jake Guentzel will be able to return to the lineup after missing all of calendar 2020 with a shoulder injury of his own. Center Nick Bjugstad should also be available. After the trade deadline, the Pens brought in Patrick Marleau, Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues which makes the end result 16 NHL caliber forwards for just 12 spots in the playing lineup.
The possibilities are endless, here’s our stab at it.
Line one: Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Conor Sheary
It’s Sid, and the kids. Riding together again in the year 2020. One of the biggest questions about the re-start is where will Guentzel be, he’s succeeded with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but coach Mike Sullivan has recently stated his preference that it will be Crosby.
From there, right side options are on the table. Why not give the first crack to Sheary? He scored 53 points in 61 games in 2016-17, mostly with Crosby, and that familiarity and success is a lot to look past.
Sheary would certainly have a short leash and nothing is set in stone or static forever. If he fails to produce points he’ll be replaced, and likely pretty quickly given Sullivan’s track record of swapping forwards around. But Guentzel+Crosby is a great place to start for the line.
Second line: Jason Zucker - Evgeni Malkin - Bryan Rust
Guentzel with Crosby makes the second line a pretty easy fit. Bump Jason Zucker over with the high-flying duo of Malkin and Bryan Rust, and boom, that works.
Given that Zucker scored 12 points (6G+6A) in his first 15 games against the Pens and Rust was enjoying a career season of 56 points in 55 games (27G+26A), that really gives Malkin his best pair of scoring wingers in a long, long time. That’s some great scoring depth for the team to lean on.
Third line: Jared McCann - Nick Bjugstad - Patric Hornqvist
This was the team’s preferred third line all the way back in training camp and now it figures to finally get a chance to see what they can do. It was a pretty good possession line down the stretch in 2019, and that will be on display here as a line that can chew up some time and make life tough for the opposition.
There’s some general consternation and unease about Bjugstad, and for good reason since he’s been mostly injured in his stint as a Penguin, and then largely unproductive even when healthy. Duly noted. But Bjugstad is also 6’6 and you can’t teach that. He also gives a right handed faceoff option, which the team otherwise doesn’t have and is a good situational boost. And he’s not old, and his NHL career resume in Florida shows he can score a bit and ought to be good enough overall to fit in a lineup. The good thing about an unprecedented three month season stoppage is that it’s a clean slate and fresh start. Bjugstad has contributed next to nothing in 2019-20, and on that basis doesn’t deserve a spot in the lineup. However, a forward-looking projection of his size, RH shot and overall ability suggests he shouldn’t be cast aside simply because of a dreadful few months from October-March.
Fourth line: Zach Aston-Reese - Teddy Blueger - Brandon Tanev
The buzzsaw. Even though lower line players are mostly replaceable figures in a lineup, this group has shown they excel together and limit almost all opposition shots and chances against them. The tenant of a great fourth line is one that doesn’t give up anything, and can chip in some offense, and that’s what the Pens have here. That they can start a lot in the defensive zone and still drive solid results only enhances what they bring to the table.
Extras: Patrick Marleau, Evan Rodrigues, Sam Lafferty, Anthony Angello
It’s tough to leave Marleau on the shelf. It’s a fair notion to believe the Pens didn’t trade for Marleau to have him sit, but it’s just as fair to point out the Pens also didn’t think they would have Guentzel back for the start of the playoffs. Had Kris Letang’s neck healed in 2017, Ron Hainsey wouldn’t have played first pair minutes either. Thus Marleau, who ended the season playing a top-six role, finds himself in a pinch with the presumed return of Guentzel. Plans change as the circumstances do. Looking down the left side, it’s tough to put Marleau in.
That said, this game one lineup sure won’t be the one that goes the distance, it never is. It’s very possible that Pittsburgh will have Marleau playing more games than he sits. Kinda a super-sub like a Petr Sykora type from years past. Bjugstad and Sheary seem to be the ones most at-risk to not live up to their placements, and also injuries happen as we all know.
How would you like to see the lines run when the games start back up?