If you remember the 2015-16 Stanley Cup run for the Pittsburgh Penguins you know how significant the HBK line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel was that season. They were dominant. They scored big goals. They became a third scoring line that made the Penguins absolutely impossible to match up against.
Each of the Penguins’ three Stanley Cup winning teams (and four Stanley Cup Finals teams) during the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era all had that sort of dominant third line.
The 2009 team had the Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke, and Tyler Kennedy line.
The 2016 and 2017 teams had HBK.
Could the Penguins have stumbled upon something with the Jeff Carter, Jared McCann, and Jason Zucker line?
It is still very early, and at this point they have only played four games together, but the early returns from that trio are incredibly promising. And just like the HBK line, it is a line that has been pieced together as the team deals with an injury to Evgeni Malkin.
The HBK line probably never would have become a thing had it not been for Malkin missing time and having Bonino slide into that spot. They played so well together and were so impressive that it was basically impossible for coach Mike Sullivan to break them up. Had Malkin, Brandon Tanev, and Kasperi Kapanen all not been injured at the time of the Carter acquisition there is a good chance that Carter, Zucker, McCann line never gets pieced together as a temporary second line.
Now that it has, it looks like a line that has the potential to stay together for a while.
Through their first four games together that trio has carried the play by a significant margin, dominating the shot attempt and scoring chance categories while also contributing four goals together. That includes two goals in Tuesday’s wild 7-6 win over the New Jersey Devils.
McCann has simply been one of the biggest positive developments on the roster this season and has emerged as a major contributor, scoring at a 30-goal and 60-point pace per 82 games.
Zucker has been up-and-down and has some room to improve, but he is still a very good player that can make a big impact.
Carter has simply been a great fit in the middle to bring everything together. He scored his first goal with the Penguins on Tuesday, but has been a constant playmaker offensively since joining the roster.
What makes that trio so valuable is not just the fact they seem to work well together. It is the way it balances out the rest of the lineup.
You already have a top line with Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust that is one of the best lines in hockey. It is dominant, and it has been outstanding this season. When Malklin and Kapanen return you have the foundation of a second line that might actually end up having Tanev on it as the third member, an idea that I do not hate. Tanev not only has the speed to keep pace with Malkin and Kapanen, he also brings a defensive element that line would absolutely need.
It then allows you to use a fourth line of Teddy Blueger, Zach Aston-Reese, and, presumably, Evan Rodrigues who has been really good this season.
If you can piece together that lineup, as well as keep everyone somewhat healthy, that should give you the deepest roster you have had sine the 2017 Stanley Cup team. Maybe even a little deeper. The Penguins are already outscoring teams by a plus-nine margin this season during 5-on-5 play when neither Crosby or Malkin is on the ice. That is one of the best marks they have had in those minutes in years (going back to the 2015-16 Stanley Cup winning season) and helps showcase just how much depth they have had.