At some point here in the near future the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to play a hockey game again. When they do it seems likely that Evgeni Malkin will be making his 2021-22 season debut. Along with him Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust will be back in the lineup at some point as well. Ideally, we might actually get to see the Penguins’ lineup as Ron Hextall and Brian Burke intended it to look.
We also know that when those players return it is likely that somebody else will be going out of the lineup because, well, that is just how these things seem to work in the NHL and with this team.
Still, let us pretend for a second that Malkin, Guentzel, and Rust return and nobody else gets injured and we actually get to see the full lineup together at the same time. At that point what should the lines look like? Or what is the ideal set of line combinations?
Think am confident in saying that when that happens these 12 forwards are the Penguins’ best and will be the players we are choosing from: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Jeff Carter, Kasperi Kapanen, Jason Zucker, Evan Rodrigues, Danton Heinen, Zach Aston-Reese, Brock McGinn, and Teddy Blueger.
We also know a few other things that are probably a given.
Sidney Crosby will play alongside Jake Guentzel.
Evgeni Malkin will center the second line.
Brock McGinn, Zach Aston-Reese, and Teddy Blueger will be the fourth line.
That leaves us with something that looks like this to start....
Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-????
Zach Aston-Reese-Teddy Blueger-Brock McGinn
The most obvious candidate for that open winger spot next to Crosby and Guentzel is Bryan Rust. That trio has historically played very well together, and Rust has been a great fit on pretty much any line he has played on.
Since the start of the 2020-21 season that trio has outscored teams by a 37-25 margin during 5-on-5 play and held a fairly sizable edge in total shot attempts, expected goal differential, and scoring chance differential.
The fourth line of Aston-Reese-Blueger-McGinn has also been extremely productive this season, while Aston-Reese and Blueger have consistently played well together dating back to the start of the 2019-20 season. There is no reason to separate them.
That leaves the middle six and the second and third lines.
It seems obvious that Jeff Carter is going to center the third line because, well, that is what he was acquired to do, and it is almost certainly what we are going to see.
But let me throw a wildcard idea at you here.
What if for the third line the Penguins let Evan Rodrigues center it between Kasperi Kapanen and Jason Zucker. The goal here should be to maximize everybody’s production, and nothing has maximized the production of Kapanen and Zucker more than playing next to Rodrigues this season.
It is an admittedly small sample size, but that trio has played 102 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together this season and been absolutely dominant. They have outscored teams by a 7-0 margin and held a commanding edge in total shot attempts, expected goal differential, and scoring chance differential. Kapanen and Zucker have not come close to matching their output with anybody else. We have also seen over the past two years that Zucker and Malkin do not really work, and while Kapanen had success next to Malkin a year ago he was just as good away from him as well.
Now, if you did go with that trio as your third line that means Carter plays the wing on the second line next to Malkin and Danton Heinen, and I am not sure how I feel about that. I actually like the idea of Heinen getting a chance next to Malkin on the second line because he has absolutely earned it so far this season. But that leaves an open spot next to him. Kapanen, Zucker, and Rodrigues would all be options there, or perhaps even Rust if you kept Rodrigues on the top line next to Crosby and Guentzel.
The Penguins are not likely to try this combination and are almost certainly going to go with Crosby, Malkin, Carter, Blueger down the middle and fill in the wingers as they see fit around that.
Given the success of the first, third, and fourth line combinations shown above I would be willing to try that.
What would you like to see? Post your line combinations in the comments.
[All data in this post via Natural Stat Trick]