Mike Sullivan won’t have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin to start the 2021-22 season. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but fortunately (or...probably unfortunately is a better word), this is not new ground for the Penguins. The team has had to make do without one or both of their best centers for way more than they would have liked to over the years due to various injuries and maladies.
Coach Mike Sullivan gave some insight to The Athletic’s “Hockey Show” podcast last week, and though he was talking at first about the US Olympic team that he will coach this winter, a lot of the following comments can easily applied and moved over to how he will have to manage in Pittsburgh early this season:
one of the most important jobs of the head coach, regardless of what team you’re coaching, is to steer the identity of the group, shape the identity of the group. What’s our competitive advantage? What are we good at? How do we play to our strengths? Implement a game plan that allows us to do that, and then cast players in certain roles that help them understand what the expectation is, so that they know what they can hang their hat on. This is my contribution to helping this team. That’s not to say that we’re gonna pigeonhole guys in certain spots, and that they can’t grow into something bigger or better, right? But it is important that players understand why they’re on the roster. What their strength is. What they’re bringing to the table. What their contribution is to helping the team win.
And we talk about that in Pittsburgh all the time. I have those conversations with our players daily. And sometimes players need to be reminded of those core competencies, and why they’re on the roster. I really think that’s one of my most important jobs as a head coach. And then, there’s a player’s responsibility to embrace that. They need to embrace that challenge. They need to be accepting of roles. They need to get excited about it.
The Penguins, long known and regarded as an offensive-minded team, are going to have to form a scrappy mentality to start this season. Over the past 15 years, Pittsburgh has typically had a skill advantage on paper over most of their opponents. That won’t be the case now, but the team will have to opportunistically scrape to find a way to do as much as they can without the stars.
The Pens will hit the ice on Wednesday and have a full training camp to instill what Sullivan wants to see out of them, and also try out as many combinations as he would like. Here’s some we would like:
Jason Zucker - Jeff Carter - Kasperi Kapanen
—Carter and Kapanen only played 34 minutes together and during that very brief stretch the Pens scored four goals and only allowed one. There’s a lot of unsustainability there, but that’s also not the real point. Their skills fit well together. Zucker has the speed to compliment and is good along the boards. This is a well-rounded line. The famous HBK line was born out of a Malkin injury, this one isn’t as flashy or successful yet, but really all the pieces are in place for longer-term success. It’s positioned as the de facto “top line” because it’s the best all-around and complete line the Pens could make right now with an eye towards balancing the team.
Jake Guentzel - Evan Rodrigues - Bryan Rust
—Jake Guentzel, can you as a winger carry a line? In this look, we would find out. Rodrigues isn’t a long-term NHL center, but ideally if Crosby misses the minimum of his six week window, that only means Rodrigues holding this spot for four games. The question is, can Rodrigues actually do anything with the opportunity — last year Rodrigues was with Guentzel+Crosby for the first six games of the season. He scored one goal, and had zero assists, with only six shots on goal. This is the biggest stretch to the roster to assume or hope Rodrigues (who has been effective and successful from a lower line role) can actually step up and produce in a key spot. The odds of it working aren’t great, but again, ideally it’s only a temporary patch. Guentzel and Rust are going to play about 20 minutes, so don’t get too twisted about being “second liners”, they’re still the two most important and probably best forwards on the team.
Zach Aston-Reese - Teddy Blueger - Brock McGinn
—Meet the new buzzsaw, same as the old buzzsaw? McGinn has been a player to handle very tough competition, and has performed well in the role. Aston-Reese has tremendous defensive micro-stats. Blueger is the best two-way center on the team that has consistently shown growth and improvement. This line should really be playing other team’s top lines as much as Sullivan can get the matchup, given the Pens’ increased emphasis on playing tighter games.
Filip Hallander - Brian Boyle - Danton Heinen
—At the surface, this is a weird fourth line. But it’s also a potential sign about how the future is now. All three have been acquired by Ron Hextall, as he starts to put his stamp and his influence on the Pens starts to take shape. And look, with health, Hextall inherited a great and skilled top-six group of forwards. Somewhat quietly, what he has done is make a few subtle moves to build a new fourth line that could emerge over a batch of candidates from the old regime, that also still could step up and earn their spots, being as Boyle is on a tryout and Hallander has no NHL experience and needs to prove it.
Another common thread is that these three are responsible two-way players, which will be critical. This assumes Boyle has something in the tank, but he’s had a long layoff and should be able to contribute at least at the start of the season. With 87+71 out, the Pens pretty much need and will be begging for Boyle to make the club.
Hallander could be the surprise of the camp, he’s a very effective player who is probably more reliable away from the puck than most of the competition (Sam Lafferty, Radim Zohorna, Drew O’Connor, Anthony Angello). Heinen is a fairly forgotten player, but one who can be tough to play against and a player who used to have some scoring touch.
Sullivan could obviously stack the deck with Guentzel and Carter, at the expense of balance. If nothing else, that makes for a natural and smart-sounding adjustment in games if the team falls behind.
What lines do you hope shake out in camp? How can Mike Sullivan best build a not-so-great hand to start the season without his star centers?