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Setting up the Penguins’ top six next year will be fun

Looking ahead to next year’s potential line combinations for the Pittsburgh Penguins

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Montreal Canadiens v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

Coach Mike Sullivan chatted virtually with the media on Wednesday, mainly to discuss the hiring of his new assistant coaches. The conversation also turned to next year’s lines, and the one known big addition in Kasperi Kapanen.

“This is a guy that could fit in and really help us be a better team,” Sullivan said. “As far as where we could play him, I would foresee him playing in the top six. When we can surround Sid and Geno with some speed and some finish, that helps those guys.

“I think stylistically, I think he’ll fit in really well with our guys. He brings a ton of speed. He’s a real competitive player. He has some finishing ability. He’s a good penalty killer. He’s a right-handed shot, which we don’t have a lot of.”

There’s not a lot to summer coach speak, and this all would be very much expected. After all, general manager Jim Rutherford paid a handsome price for Kapanen in a trade and already declared the rationale as being the Penguins thinking that they had added a young, fast top-six winger. (Even if, somewhat troublingly, Kapanen fell out of favor with Toronto).

But if Kapanen falters again in the coming years, it won’t be for a lack of an opportunity to play in a big role or with talented players.

The Penguins are facing a summer that is certain to be full of player changes and lots of roster movement, but as of now they have all the pieces in place for their top six forward group. That’s a pretty good place to be, especially with the skill we’re talking below.

It’s a well-balanced group. Two fast right-handed shot right wingers (Kapanen and Bryan Rust) to compliment two left-handed left wingers (Jake Guentzel and Jason Zucker). Oh yeah, and throw in two generationally talented centers (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) to round it out. Finding enough and lasting quality wingers for No. 87 and No. 71 has been a decade’s long issue for the Pens over the years. The recent additions of Zucker and Kapanen, coming at the cost mainly of Pittsburgh’s 2020 and 2021 first round picks, with their contract situation at least gives the team locked up skill for the next two-three seasons.

Hopefully there won’t be much in the way of injury woes, because the pieces are all pretty much ready made. Their could be occasional rotation to see players like Patric Hornqvist or Dominik Simon take the odd shift with skilled players, or the centers double shifting down to play more with others, but generally speaking the manager has given the coach the necessary ingredients all in place.

But the twist coming will be in just how Sullivan wants to put them together.

Last year, his basic building blocks were Guentzel+Crosby and Malkin+Rust. When those players were all healthy at the same time (and all four had stretches of injuries), they played together. Guentzel and Crosby especially is seen by coaches and others within the organization as the golden goose and duo to not break up.

Line one: Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust

To me, this is the way. Guentzel and Crosby won’t be separated if both are healthy, that’s just not how the team works, and it shouldn’t be. It’s always going to cater to Crosby, and Guentzel+Crosby are like peanut butter and jelly, they don’t need to be messed with.

Rust is the natural right winger for the style Crosby plays. Kapanen is not known as a player who excels in a cycle-type of down-low offense that grinds opponents down. Kapanen is best in transition, on the rush, using his speed to get into open ice. That makes him more of a Malkin fit.

Crosby, as a compliment, has long been basically a glorified skilled grinder. It’s why the most iconic wingers of his career have been Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. Both of them were excellent on the forecheck, willing and able to jump into the corners and grind it out, and had some under-rated in-zone passing and ability to get to the net and clean up the mess. All of that fits really well with the hard-working mentality that Rust has shown over the years.

Guentzel-Crosby-Rust has long been a familiar line, including for much of the 2017 Stanley Cup run. From the 2016-17 through 2018-19 regular season, the trio played a total over 735 minutes together, carrying a 54.3 Corsi For%, and 53.5% in the scoring chance and high danger scoring chance, per Natural Stat Trick. They didn’t even shoot all that well together (8.18%) in the era before Rust’s offensive game truly blossomed and in the one season where Crosby was snakebit at 5v5 and didn’t shoot well. Still, on ice results was 36 goals for to just 20 goals against (64.3%), outperforming a still impressive xGF of 55.3%, because smart and skilled players like Guentzel and Crosby can outscore and outperform the expectations of an NHL player.

Line two: Jason Zucker - Evgeni Malkin - Kasperi Kapanen

For once, the “new guys” end up with Malkin. Zucker+Malkin had a really good process in the play-in series against Montreal in a small but still 52 minute sample (58.8% Corsi For%, 63.94% xGF%, 61.7% Scoring Chance%, 64.7% HD Scoring chance%). The only thing they didn’t do was score a goal while both on the ice. Then again, they didn’t allow one either.

Zucker is somewhat Guentzel like in his ability to handle the puck, finish chances and has some great speed. Zucker, unlike Alex Galchenyuk, doesn’t tend to drift to the middle of the ice, he’ll drive to the net to create more space for Malkin, and Zucker will get down low in the corners and fight for pucks. He’s a natural and perfect skilled offensive winger with a 30 goal season under his belt and has been wonderfully productive in his brief time so far in Pittsburgh.

Kapanen is the x-factor here. He has the speed element that has meshed well with Malkin (think: Carl Hagelin and even Phil Kessel’s skating ability, though that isn’t to say Kapanen has the star qualities and ability to match Kessel).

And despite the flaws pointed out by the media as Kapanen was out the door in Toronto (which again, as we saw with Kessel isn’t always as damning criticism as it may seem), Kapanen actually does have a history of performing well with a star center. Kapanen played 591 minutes with Auston Matthews at 5v5 in the 2018-19 season. The duo crushed it, putting up a 52.2% Corsi%, a 55.1 Goals For%, and a 53.5% HD scoring chance%.

Kapanen was extremely productive playing with Matthews in 2018-19, scoring 11 goals and adding 12 assists at 5v5 with the star center on the ice with him. That translates to a Points/60 of 2.3. That would put Kapanen scoring at a rate similar that Rust (2.54 P/60) did last season, and even better than Zucker in his small 15 game sample with Pittsburgh (2.17 5v5 P/60).

In the end, nothing is set in stone when it comes to lines. The Pens can and surely will flip the top talent around to find the right mix. The above feels like a good starting point, but as it usually goes, where they end up might be different.

The Pens have spent a lot of future assets to add Zucker and Kapanen to the mix with homegrown options like Guentzel and Rust and the end result is shaping up to be the most well-rounded and highest total skill options that Malkin and Crosby have really ever had to work with. Figure out the rest of the roster of supporting players, and the Pens might just find a way to prop up that window a little longer.