There is no greater X-factor for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins this postseason than the play of their two goalies, Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. That is not exactly a secret, either. We all know the Penguins will only go as far as those two are capable of taking them. But while they are the biggest X-factor at play, they are not the only one.
Right behind them on the intrigue scale is the newly formed third line of Jared McCann, Patrick Marleau, and Patric Hornqvist.
On paper, there is a lot to like about this trio. But what makes the line so intriguing is that it is the one forward line that still presents a lot of unanswered questions as to how it will work.
We know the top two lines — centered by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — are going to provide the potential for a ton of offense and game-changing performances, especially with Jake Guentzel back in the lineup.
We also know the fourth line — consisting of Teddy Blueger, Brandon Tanev, and Zach Aston-Reese — is going to be a buzzsaw defensively based on what we have seen it from this season.
The only one we are not really sure about is this newly formed third line, mostly because they have just not spent any real time playing alongside each other and we do not know how exactly they will fit. Or if they will fit.
McCann is one of the Penguins’ most versatile players, possessing the ability to be either a top-line winger next to Sidney Crosby, or center his own line to help spread out the team’s depth. Given his age, upside, talent, and production he is one of the most cap-friendly players on the roster. He has already scored at a 20-goal, 50-point pace for this season and has been a great addition since joining the team from the Florida Panthers a year ago. There is a LOT to like about him.
Just about the only question regarding him right now — and it is a big one — is the fact he is riding a 22-game goal-less drought and is going to be asked to take on a pretty important role when the season resumes as the center of the third line.
This is not a throwaway spot. The third line is going to have to provide offense at some point because even though the top two lines are going to be constant threats, they are not going to score goals every night. Each of the three Stanley Cup winning teams in the Crosby-Malkin era have had a dominant third line that could pick up that slack when the top two lines get stopped for a couple of games.
Alongside McCann you have Marleau and Hornqvist on the wings providing their own sets of questions.
It is easy to forget that Marleau is actually a member of the Penguins because he only played a handful of games with the team before the season got stopped more than four months ago. He can still skate, but he is one of the oldest players in the league and is probably not going to carry a line anymore. There is definitely still something there with him, but how much — and in what capacity — remains to be seen.
Hornqvist is one of the Penguins’ heart-and-soul players and you KNOW the type of effort you are going to get from him on a nightly basis. No matter the score, no matter the situation, he is going to play 110 miles per hour and frustrate the hell out of whatever team the Penguins are playing.
But his season has also been a little bizarre in my view. Overall, you can not really quibble with the production. He is providing the same level of offense you expect him to provide, and the effort is always there. But there have been times where the eye test has not always been pretty. Granted, Hornqvist’s game could never be described as “pretty,” but sometimes this season he has looked like a player whose style of play might be starting to catch up with him just a little bit.
Each player on their own has value and can be an important contributor in some capacity. The question is whether or not they will mesh together into a unit that works. Right now they just seem to be a line that was pieced together because there was nowhere else for them to go. It is almost as if it is a line of the forward leftovers once the other lines were assembled.
There is no reason to break up the fourth line and the way it has played, while the return of Guentzel, arrival of Jason Zucker and Conor Sheary, and presence of Bryan Rust has completely filled up the top-six.
Outside of injury to another player elsewhere in the lineup, just about the only things that I can see shaking things up dramatically is either this line falling completely flat and forcing Mike Sullivan’s hand, or if someone like Sheary just does not work out alongside Crosby and Guentzel. That would then bump Marleau or Hornqvist up top, Sheary down a couple of spots, or out of the lineup entirely and create an opening for someone like Evan Rodrigues or Sam Lafferty.
In the end, I think this line has the potential to work because all three players are good players in their own right. You always want to bet on good players being able to work. Sometimes, though, it does not. We will have to see how this one ends up going.