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Big Deal, Little Deal, No Deal: Ranking the recent Penguins lineups choices

The Penguins have had a lot of interesting and somewhat surprising lineup decisions lately. Which ones are big deals? Which might mean a little bit, and which are not that important?

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Vegas Golden Knights v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

This weekend over Friday and Sunday games, the Pittsburgh Penguins had two of their more notable lineups for games. They broke the mold of their typical predictability by calling up and playing Valterri Puustinen from the AHL without so much as an NHL practice. And then sent him down just as quickly the next day. Radim Zohorna appeared in his first NHL game in a month. Brian Dumoulin got sick and recovered. Brock McGinn was injured and will be out for a while. Marcus Pettersson was a healthy scratch for the first time as a Penguin, Dominik Simon was left in the press box all weekend. There was a lot going on.

Sorting through the mayhem, which of these happenings is a big deal, a little deal or not much of an issue moving forward.

No Deal

—Brock McGinn injury

It sucks for him personally to be out week-to-week. McGinn was spotted in the background of the team’s Friday victory video wearing a splint/cast on his wrist/forearm area after being injured during the game against Vegas. But he will heal and McGinn hasn’t been making a huge impact, he only has scored one goal and two assists in the last 18 games.

It also helps the Pens have Brian Boyle to put in McGinn’s spot to kill penalties and play next to Teddy Blueger and Zach-Aston Reese. Boyle has three points (1G+2A) in the last two games and will do what he’s done all year to be a reliable player. When McGinn’s healthy, which presumably will be before playoffs, he will be back in his spot and everything will move on just the same.

Little Deal

—Mark Friedman playing over Marcus Pettersson

After yesterday’s game, coach Mike Sullivan confirmed Pettersson was a healthy scratch and Friedman “deserved to play based on performance”. Friedman only played 14:33 against Carolina, the Pens don’t ask a lot out of their third pair but the coaches are clearly liking what Friedman is bringing to the table. His energy, skating and drawing two penalties against the ‘Canes are standing out in a positive way. Sullivan called the defensive lineup a “tough decision” that will be made on a game-by-game basis, it will be interesting to see just how fluid the lineup will be and when Pettersson draws back into the game.

—Dominik Simon on the outside, young players in

The internet always makes too much of Simon one way or another, but there’s a little something to Pittsburgh bringing up Puustinen on Friday and then Zohorna on Sunday to play and sit the veteran in Simon. And for good reason, Simon is a known quality that doesn’t hurt a team, but doesn’t add very much with the puck either. It’s nice to see younger players get a chance to see what the Pens have there. Surely Simon will be back at some point, but ideally he shouldn’t be in the lineup for the playoffs. There’s no need to have him play literally every game either. If the Pens want to keep it going, Drew O’Connor has six points (3G+3A) in six AHL games this month and presumably could have something to offer.

—The second line finding life with Evan Rodrigues

Evan Rodrigues got bumped up to Evgeni Malkin’s line and responded with two points (1G+1A) in the two weekend games. The goal was an empty netter, but in Rodrigues’ slump, “how” isn’t as important as “how many”. And he was very close to another goal on Sunday with a wraparound attempt. Danton Heinen also scored a goal against Carolina.

Malkin hasn’t gotten on the scoresheet now in four games, but the points should be coming soon with the strong and engaged form he has shown. The eventual return of Jason Zucker is still a major key to this line in the long-term, but for now Heinen-Malkin-Rodrigues has been showing signs of life and that’s a major plus for the Penguins right now.

Big Deal

—Top pair Mike Matheson

With Dumoulin unavailable for Friday, the Pens had to scramble their pairs and bring Matheson back from the IR and dumped him right on the top pair with Kris Letang. Matheson scored a goal on a Sidney Crosby assist against Vegas, and even when Dumoulin’s health returned it was still Matheson playing with Letang. It’s notable anytime Sullivan willingly splits Dumoulin/Letang.

In theory, if Matheson can remain on the top pair, Pittsburgh now has an upgrade second pair with Dumoulin and John Marino offering a lot more balance to the team’s top-four.

—Kasperi Kapanen on the yo-yo

Sullivan finally pulled the plug on Kapanen on Friday. After literally months of in-game benchings the team scratched the talented but struggling winger. It was a one game message, as the Pens went right back and played Kapanen on Sunday against Carolina. He drew some moderate praise from the coach, but he also played just 10:41 (11th out of the 12 forwards in the lineup).

Pierre LeBrun from The Athletic wrote yesterday, “the Penguins are making calls looking for a scoring winger who, in a perfect world, is not a rental”. That jives with Ron Hextall’s recent comments, it appears the Pens will be looking to add a winger. Kapanen is supposed to be that scoring winger, but he hasn’t scored in 18 games. If there’s a trade to be made, if only for salary purposes, the obvious candidate to be shipped out is Kapanen.

With a benching, and the trade deadline a week away, the clock is ticking loudly on Kapanen at this point. Even if he is not traded, is there a spot for him in the lineup down the stretch? Right now the Pens look locked in with:

Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
?? - Evgeni Malkin - ??
?? - Jeff Carter - ??
Zach Aston-Reese - Teddy Blueger - Brock McGinn

The returning Zucker figures to be on the left side, likely with Malkin. Heinen will be on the left on which ever LW spot Zucker isn’t. Rodrigues is in the mix, with Kapanen or a trade add as the final piece. The drama and swings of Kapanen’s season are reaching a breaking point.