Mike Sullivan made some interesting comments today after the Penguins morning skate about his line decisions for the team. With Evgeni Malkin and Jason Zucker on the IR, the Pens top six talent has been decimated at the moment.
To a lesser extent, the loss of Teddy Blueger compounds the situation to create another key hole in the lineup. That extends doubly so for the center position with Malkin also out. Brandon Tanev as one of the team’s leading goal scorers is also a meaningful loss of talent and depth from the lineup.
All of this has add up to several replacement level players, and really only a few reliable offensive options remaining as available players.
Coach Sullivan: "...But having said that, it’s certainly not off the table. We’ll make those decisions accordingly. But we have some ideas in mind on how we can tweak the lines to try to create more balance. We’ll see where it goes."— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) March 24, 2021
Sullivan hasn’t yet altered his talented top line, and based on configurations he has prepared to play the Sabres tonight again with his best three forwards together on the top line.
With all the talent on the sidelines, it’s no surprise that Pittsburgh has struggled offensively lately. The Pens have scored 2, 3 and 1 goal(s) in the three games without Malkin.
These goals have come from: Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel (power play), Zach Aston-Reese, Rust, Guentzel, and Sidney Crosby.
The Pens’ high power top line needs to power them, and they have been visible with four goals in the last three games, along with another power play goal. But the other three lines have combined for just the one Aston-Reese goal. The defensemen have also not added any goals.
To that end, should Sullivan consider splitting up his top line?
Sure, anything and everything should be on the table in order to form the best lineup possible in the current situation.
The real question, which Sullivan touched on in his answer, is will splitting up his top line result in the team performing better than it would otherwise?
That’s the much trickier question, and probably based more on a hunch or even a hope rather than having much evidence to support it.
As mentioned here just yesterday, the Guentzel-Crosby-Rust line has been one of the NHL’s top lines. They are elite offensively and their defensive metrics are also off-the-charts good.
There’s good reason to not want to alter that, and “spreading the wealth” is no guarantee of working out, while it also will surely negatively effect the results of the top line.
Yet, when the lines look like this and the bottom-nine forwards aren’t generating a lot, it’s a question that still requires a lot of soul searching by the coach.
Pens switched up their forward lines a bit...— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) March 23, 2021
Zohorna mixed in on the fourth line.
Sullivan did make a tweak from the last game, he bumped Aston-Reese up a line to play with better offensive players in Jared McCann and Kasperi Kapanen.
The other issue for the Pens splitting up their top line is the positional aspects. Sullivan has been loathe to ever break Guentzel-Crosby apart when he can help it, and looking at the left wings now, who would play on the Crosby line? There are no natural fits or good options there.
If Sullivan flips, say, Rust and Kapanen on the right side, does a Aston-Reese-McCann-Rust line really perform that much better than with Kapanen there?
The Pens’ best swing player for this type of situation is McCann. He is a natural center, but at this point is considered more effective as a winger. Again, the injuries and positional aspect robs Pittsburgh of this option — they just need McCann as a center at this point and can’t cobble up a good center ice roster without him right now.
If the situation was dire and scoring droughts continue, perhaps Sullivan would go a more drastic route. Rust has played in the past on his off-wing, and a Rust-Crosby-Kapanen line followed by a Guentzel-McCann-Evan Rodrigues second line might be the most even split of talent available to create the most skilled and balanced version of two lines.
The good news though, is help could be coming. Tanev skated this morning, and while he won’t play tonight, is day-to-day. That injury has meant missing 7-9 days this season, which could open a window for Tanev as soon as this weekend if his recovery follows a similar path.
Tanev is a winger who can offer some top six capability from either side, but usually the left. This would open up more options, especially for a Tanev-McCann-Kapanen second line, which played well in a brief spurt in between Malkin’s injury and Tanev’s.
With the results of the last three games, the Pens need to find a way to generate more offense from sources beyond their first line. Many of the lower line pieces are not going to be able to be counted on for offense.
In a perfect world, Sullivan would no doubt like to make sure his top line stayed in tact, Tanev returns soon to bolster the second line and maybe the defense can help pitch in a bit to find ways to pull out games until Malkin and/or Zucker can return in order to boost the team.
The other area that needs to improve is the power play. While the star players have been great at even strength, situationally they’ll need to produce and generate goals on the man advantage. Only one PPG in three games hurts the Pens, and in what was an overtime loss on Sunday for the Pens, it their 0/2 power play had scored a goal that OTL may well have turned into a win.
For now, it looks like Sullivan won’t be making drastic changes to his top line, but this situation will need to be monitored. If the Pens continue to struggle to generate offense in the upcoming games, he might not have a choice and have to make a move that he would rather not in splitting his top three forwards in an attempt to create more balance among his lines.