When the NHL schedule came out it looked like the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to be in for a tough start. Opening the season without their two best players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and then having to start on the road on a tough Florida trip against two top quality teams, then opening at home against a Chicago team that at least looked improved on paper (spoiler alert: It is not improved, but that is not important right now) looked like a real challenge.
Add in Jake Guentzel’s absence for the season opener, and then losing Bryan Rust in the middle of those three games, and it could have easily been a rough start.
Instead, the Penguins enter the week with a 2-0-1 record having accumulated five out of a possible six points in the standings (and it probably should have been all six points) while scoring 15 goals in those three games.
There are a lot of reasons for that fast start, but one of the biggest has been the play of the new makeshift top line that features Jeff Carter and free agent acquisition Danton Heinen.
The biggest thing that has stood out over the first three games is that Heinen can not stop scoring goals, scoring three goals in as many games and making a noticeable impact on most shifts. He is an intriguing player because the Penguins signed him for nothing, he is still at a “prime year” age, and he has a track record of producing at a top-six level before. He has been a steady 15-goal per 82-game player, but saw his assist numbers plummet during his time in Anaheim. Given the lack of talent on that team during his time there, it is at least understandable.
Obviously we are dealing with a small sample size here of just three games, but you have to like the early returns of Heinen and Carter together because this could be a duo that sticks for a long time this season.
A quick look at the early numbers.
With Carter and Heinen on the ice together during 5-on-5 play (more than 34 minutes so far this season) the Penguins are...
- Winning the shot attempt column 28-23
- Winning the scoring chance column 16-9
- Winning the expected goal column 1.28 to 0.51
- Winning the high-danger scoring chance column 6-1
- Winning the goal column 3-1
Yes, small sample size. Yes, they have been given heavy offensive zone start numbers. But the results still matter, and they are encouraging.
What makes them so encouraging to me is this could be the start of your potential third line later in the season.
At some point Sidney Crosby is going to be back (hopefully soon).
Then Evgeni Malkin is going to be back.
Bryan Rust is going to be back.
Eventually your top-six is going to be set with your usual top-six players and you are going to have to piece a competent bottom-six to help complement them. Carter provided that from the minute he was acquired a year ago and formed a great chemistry with Jared McCann, helping to create a line that was one of the Penguins’ best in the stretch run of the regular season and the playoffs.
When McCann was traded to Toronto during the offseason ahead of the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft, it seemed like the Penguins were losing a big part of that scoring depth and it created some questions as to how they would replace it.
The common denominator here, though, seems to be Carter. He seems to have found the fountain of youth in Pittsburgh and is showing he can still carry a line on his own. It is a very encouraging — and important — development for a team that still has championship goals.
Protecting him in the expansion draft was a pretty polarizing decision, but even if the chances of Seattle taking him were low (I tend to think they were higher than most people let on) he was always going to be an important player from the very beginning until Malkin returned. Then also an important player to give them a strong third scoring line. It seems like they might have something here based on the start of the season.