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The battle for the Penguins’ fourth line will be one of the top training camp stories

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With much decided already, there could be a wide open competition for the Penguins at training camp

New Jersey Devils v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

As a veteran team intending to contend, the Penguins don’t usually leave much to chance or up for grabs when their season begins. Most of the roster is known and roles are already slotted and configured before training camp begins.

To a large degree, this is the case for Pittsburgh again at the start of 2021-22. But as summer’s unrelenting heat continues, a look ahead to fall feels pretty good at this point.

Up front with the forward group, there could actually be some drama and some battles for the Pens in camp.

With Evgeni Malkin believed expected to be unavailable for the start of the season after a June knee surgery, the Pens still have Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter and Teddy Blueger down the middle as surefire top three line players. On the left wing Jake Guentzel and Jason Zucker should occupy the positions on the scoring lines, and on the right side Bryan Rust and Kasperi Kapanen are primed for big seasons.

That’s seven spots at the top of the roster all spoken for. We know Zach Aston-Reese will be in the lineup, as will new additions of Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen. That makes for 10 of the 12 opening night forward spots.

The battle for those other two places is where the fun starts.

To see who might be best used where, we have to understand a few concepts. The first will be how will lines and roles go? Right now it is very clear who the top six healthy forwards are for scoring line roles (Guentzel-Crosby-Rust, Zucker-Carter-Kapanen, probably in that alignment barring some change ups).

If coach Mike Sullivan wants, he could try to go all Dr. Frankenstein and make a Buzzsaw 2.0 line with Aston-Reese, Blueger and a new winger to replace Brandon Tanev. This looks like a good place for McGinn, who has driven solid defensive results (while against a strong quality of competition) from his days in Carolina.

This potential ZAR-Blueger-McGinn line makes in theory for a good matchup or defensive minded checking third line that can go against any line on the competition.

That would also leave Heinen with two open spots to fill, if the lineup breaks in this manner. Heinen is listed as a left wing by the team.

Pittsburgh has no shortage of players who could be considered candidates right now.

Center

The Pens would need a short-term center if/when Malkin is to miss games. They don’t have a lot of great options to choose from. Michael Chaput, 28, was signed as a free agent this summer. Chaput is a center, but split time from the taxi squad and roster last year on not-so-mighty Arizona, appearing in only 13 games. Chaput has six career NHL goals in 182 games. Despite playing in 56 total games since the start of the 2017-18 season, Chaput’s goals are kaput. (Zero). He would just be a warm body at the NHL level.

Another option, if Pittsburgh wants to get creative, is youngster Drew O’Connor. O’Connor. 23, played ten games in the NHL last season for the Pens, and entirely as a winger. But when he was assigned to Wilkes-Barre for the conclusion of last season, he spent time playing center. And by all accounts, it was a success with O’Connor putting up 19 points (7G+12A) in 20 AHL games last season.

You can pencil O’Connor in for now, but he would have to show a lot in training camp that he is capable of playing center at the NHL level. Given his play in the show last season, he wasn’t that much of an impact player on the wing..

This could be one area where a veteran on a tryout (PTO) makes sense. Tyler Bozak, Travis Zajac and Artem Anisimov are still all out there in this regard as options for a tryout, if not just signing outright to a one year deal for around league minimum.

Right wing

On the other flank, the Pens have a lot of more known options. Both Sam Lafferty and Anthony Angello are on one-way contracts, meaning they get paid an NHL salary even if they’re in the AHL. It seems unlikely there is enough roster room for both of their services to be needed (barring more injuries).

Both Lafferty and Angello have hung around the fringes of the roster for a while now, both showing a bit in flashes. Angello offers good size at 6’5, 210 and is physical. He hasn’t done a ton in his NHL cameos (3G+2A in 27 games) and would that really change with another look? At 25 and going into his fourth pro season, he probably is what he is at this point.

Lafferty is a player who was one of the bigger disappointments in 2020-21. He scored 6G and 13 points in the NHL in 50 games in 2019-20, masking some possession difficulties (to put it nicely) to go with his exceptional speed and acceleration. Unfortunately the offense dried up with no goals and six points in 34 games in 2020-21, and mental mistakes in the defensive zone made Lafferty beyond an after-thought when the Pens got healthier.

On the flip side of the coin from Lafferty is Radim Zohorna. In some ways, Zohorna may be the best of Angello and Lafferty as one player. He’s got the size element at 6’6, 220 pounds. He also showed out in limited looks with 2G+2A in the NHL in just eight games last season. Zohorna also has the versatility to play all over the ice, though he hasn’t been a center much in the North American pro ranks. He only did play 20 total games in the AHL+NHL last season, so there’s still a bit more of the unknown with Zohorna as far as how consistent he may or may not be over a long haul.

If the Pens decide to flip Heinen to right wing, that could open up more options too for Filip Hallander and Samuel Poulin — two youngsters who are expected to be LW only options at this point. Hallander is older and has experience playing against grown men in the pros in Sweden, he should be closer to making the jump. But neither have played pro in the NHL/AHL systems, so there is much to be proven, and still a lot of time for both to develop,

Combinations

How this line will shake out depends on the future performances, which are unknown. Players will have to earn their spots, but let’s list some possible line combinations, from most fun/exciting to least. These aren’t all the possible options, but probably the most likely situations that could realistically play out.

  • Hallander - Bozak/Zajac- Heinen
  • Hallander - O’Connor - Heinen
  • Heinen - O’Connor - Zohorna
  • Heinen - O’Connor - Angello
  • Heinen - Chaput - Lafferty
  • Heinen - Chaput - Angello
  • Lafferty - Chaput - Angello (probably the worst of all worlds)

If a veteran PTO still has something left in the tank, that is the best case scenario if Pittsburgh brings one in, and he can actually help.

Anything with O’Connor would be conducive to creating a better line than one involving Chaput, but that already assumes that O’Connor makes what could be a big jump to show he is capable of filling the spot. Chaput will make Pens’ fans yearn for the days of Zach Sill or other subpar replacement level players who barely have a pulse from years gone by.

The other best case scenario — which is actually a plausible one — is that Hallander shows a nose for the net and that he is advanced enough to be well above the all-around games of some of his competitors. GM Ron Hextall has already stated the team is hoping Hallander pushes for a spot in Pittsburgh right away. But will he right away? If he can do that, it opens up a higher offensive ceiling than what the Lafferty’s and Angello’s are likely to contribute.

Either way, for once, the Pens have a whole line that could go any number of directions. It could be a very low-end group of mostly replacement level (or worse) players. It could have some young players who are stepping up. It could be a last best chance for other mid-range players to take the next step.

But no matter what it ends up as, it will be a lot of fun to watch unfold and the ups and downs of performances as players work every day to see who can slot in where for opening night in October.

Update: Oh yeah, Evan Rodrigues exists, forgot about that for a second. He’ll definitely be in the mix too, which makes it that much tougher for the O’Connor/Lafferty/Angelo/Zohorna level of players to find a spot in the lineup. So this might be 1300 words boiled down to say, sign a veteran center, slap him in with Heinen and Rodrigues, and the fourth line is complete after all.