Among the questions the Pittsburgh Penguins have had this season one of the most significant has been what to do with the linemates for Evgeni Malkin.
They were able to address it in a meaningful way at the trade deadline with the addition of Rickard Rakell from the Anaheim Ducks, and so far they have clicked well together. But it still leaves that other wing spot on that line open. The assumption was that Jason Zucker would fill that spot, and when he briefly returned for one game, he did. And that line looked great for the five minutes it actually got to play together. Then Zucker got hurt again when he was awkwardly cross-checked from behind into the boards and went out with an unspecified injury. We still do not know what his timeframe is.
In Zucker’s absence since then the Penguins have been trying Jeff Carter in that spot and the results have not been great.
That trio has spent 30 minutes together and posted objectively the worst numbers of any trio they have used during this stretch.
They have been outscored 0-2, while all of their underlying numbers are in the tank. Their shot attempt share, scoring chance share, high-danger scoring chance share, and expected goal share are all under 40 percent. That is all bad.
Beyond that, Malkin and Carter have not produced well together at all this season regardless of who the third linemate has been (outscored 2-5, and while the underlying numbers are better, they are still worse than Malkin’s overall numbers for the season). It is a problem.
So what are the solutions?
Option 1: Hope Jason Zucker’s injury is not serious and he is able to return in short order. His offensive production may not be what many have wanted to see this season but he has the best top-six pedigree of any potential option at this point without disrupting other, more productive lines. You are basically taking advantage of the cushion you have in the standings and a locked in playoff spot to just buy some time.
Option 2: Drop Bryan Rust back down to the Malkin and Rakell line.
The problem: You break up the Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Rust line and create another opening there. That opening would probably be filled by Evan Rodrigues.
The problem with that: Rodrigues did not play well in that spot, and the Penguins also seem to have found something with Teddy Blueger and Kasperi Kapanen with Rodrigues. That trio has been great in its early minutes together, posting dominant shot and scoring chance numbers while not giving up a goal. They also scored a goal on Tuesday night. It also continues what has been a two-year long trend of Kapanen and Rodrigues playing extremely well together.
Now you are breaking up two potentially good lines and weakening them to improve one line. This is not a great idea.
Option 3: Keep the current Crosby (Guentzel and Rust) and Blueger (Kapanen and Rodrigues) lines as they are and try Danton Heinen alongside Malkin and Rakell.
The problem: Danton Heinen is clearly losing the confidence of the coaching staff and is only playing about five minute per game. He is looking like an odd man out when (if?) Zucker and Brock McGinn return.
The best option remains, in my view, the first option. That all depends on Zucker’s injury and time frame. Guentzel-Crosby-Rust, Zucker-Malkin-Rakell, Kapanen-Carter-Rodrigues, Boyle-Blueger-McGinn/Zohorna/Heinen/O’Connor (ha, yeah right) is probably the idea lineup when everybody is healthy.
They just have to get there.