No matter how the Penguins setup their first two lines, the one thing certain is that they’re absolutely stacked. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin down the middle, Jake Guentzel returns to join Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust. The sixth spot can be up for debate and is likely to be the rotational player, but any supporting option there can be a passenger with that type of power.
The real intrigue for Pittsburgh begins with the third line. And the key player there is Jared McCann.
McCann even took a spot working with the team’s top power play group today in day three of camp.
Penguins working the power play today.— Seth Rorabaugh (@SethRorabaugh) July 15, 2020
PP1: Crosby, Guentzel, Letang, Malkin, McCann
(McCann is working the left wall and net front)
PP2: Marino, Marleau, Rust, Schultz, Zucker.
Patric Hornqvist’s name remains conspicuous in its absence, as the Swedish forward has remained away from the team, likely apart of the nine players being held aside after a secondary brush with COVID.
Josh Yohe from The Athletic had a nice piece with some thoughts from Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan (who called center McCann’s natural position)
“I went into the (stoppage) knowing I hadn’t scored in a while,” McCann said. “But I went home, shot some pucks and just kind of hit reset. I’m not the type of guy to kind of dwell on something like that.”
There have been two versions of McCann during his time with the Penguins. The previous 22 games saw him struggle and look unsure of himself, his defensive game slipping a hair when his offense went dry.
“That happens,” Rutherford said. “It’s not uncommon, especially for a young player.”
Yep, there’s that nasty streak. McCann didn’t score a goal from January 14th against Minnesota until the league stoppage.
Luckily, the stoppage does provide a clean slate. The Pens’ Stanley Cup recent runs have featured marquee performances and huge moments from their third line centers (Jordan Staal in 2009, Nick Bonino in 2016 and again in 2017, and even Matt Cullen in 2016 once Bonino was hurt). When Pittsburgh lost to Washington in 2018, it was Lars Eller who was the notable third line center.
A third line this summer will likely be built around McCann and Patric Hornqvist. In 247 5v5 minutes together this season, the two showed some promise generating 57.1% of the scoring chances and carrying a positive xGF while slightly outscoring the opposition.
One issue though is Hornqvist’s absence. The team now has less than 10 days of this short training camp before departing for Toronto. An old pro like Hornqvist should be able to be up and running by the play-in start of August 1st.
The other part of the line, as of now anyways, is Patrick Marleau. While Marleau has retained some of his wheels, his defensive numbers have diminished greatly with age. But, like seen with Cullen, good older players can elevate for that one last run.
The Pens also had a great story about McCann and Marleau crossing paths before McCann made it to the NHL.
McCann: "I remember I met Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Patty signed a puck for me. I actually have it. My parents are moving, so they found the puck and my Dad has been sending me photos of it."— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) July 14, 2020
McCann has gotten a kick working with Marleau:
“He can do everything for us,” McCann said. “Score goals, play well defensively, penalty kill, power play. He’s a big body.” Of the potential line with Marleau and Hornqvist, he added, “We look at ourselves as game-changers. We feel like we have something that a lot of teams don’t.”
While declining to commit to any specific line combinations at this early date, Coach Mike Sullivan said, “I think they could potentially be a really important line for us. They’re three really good players. They all bring something a little different to the table. If we so choose to put those three guys together, they’re a line that could help us at both ends of the rink.”
The novelty aside, the line will be a key factor for Pittsburgh if the restart gets off the ground. McCann will be needed as more of an impact player than he was down the stretch in 2020 and he’ll likely be placed in a spot where he will have the opportunity to make the most of it.