In recent games and days there have been plenty of examples of Mike Sullivan circling the wagons and focusing on playing the players he is comfortable with and trusts. Bryan Rust made some waves when he played over 26 minutes in the Winter Classic. Sidney Crosby has averaged 22:38 per game in the last four games (none of which went to overtime), which is slightly less than than 23:03 that Jake Guentzel has been out there. Even Evgeni Malkin, sometimes lightly used as he ages, has been played more than recent season averages with over 20 minutes per game in this stretch.
The Penguins broke their losing streak against the Arizona Coyotes last night, and they heavily rode their top-six forwards to get there. Here’s the total even strength ice time in the first 50:58 of the game — that specific time being significant due to it being the moment that Jason Zucker extended Pittsburgh’s lead to two goals.
Guentzel (11:06) - Crosby (12:19) - Rust (9:46)
Zucker (10:59) - Malkin (9:25) - Rakell (10:21)
Heinen (7:06) - Carter (6:48) - Kapanen (7:48)
O’Connor (7:12) - Blueger (8:09) - McGinn (7:20)
In essence and by usage, the Penguins have two lines they play like fourth lines at this point (Blueger’s relatively high TOI is more of a bug than a feature, being as he was shelled and pinned in his defensive end and unable to get off the ice). While last night’s game was influenced by significant power play time, when the even strength rotations were going it was very common to see the first and second lines double shifted, practically only using the Carter or Blueger lines in short stretches when there was no other alternative.
On one hand, this development and shift is a result of a necessary recognition and reduction in role by Sullivan that Jeff Carter isn’t the Jeff Carter of 2021 who can handle a heavy load. In late December, Sullivan told the AT&T Sportsnet television broadcast changes would be coming to the bottom-six based on performance. Given ice time trends since that point it has become more clear those changes have centered mostly around pulling back on Carter’s playing time.
However and on the other hand, less for Carter means more weight and responsibility has to go to other players. Sullivan’s answer to that has been to shift almost all of it to the top lines in order to make up for this, because Sullivan isn’t trusting or interested in playing anyone else to pick up the slack either.
Sullivan’s answer to the problem of “hey, almost everyone on my third and fourth lines are either inconsistent, vanish completely for stretches, or poor performers that make no positive impact” has been to tap Crosby and Malkin on the shoulder more and send them out to make up for it. It’s tough to fault Sullivan for that, really. There’s not much alternative on his end when he’s trying to win games and keep the team in the playoff race.
These previous games should be a loud and clear message to general manager Ron Hextall. Obviously, you can’t keep playing five of the top-six forwards 20+ minutes a night and expect to hold up for another half of a season. The return of injured forwards Ryan Poehling and Josh Archibald will be nice, but aren’t going to move the needle.
The Penguins have broken their losing streak, but their team isn’t in a healthy spot right now. It hasn’t been for a while, and the very weak lower lines and overall roster construction has been a major issue. Under tight salary cap constraints (of his own design), Hextall has an extremely difficult job to improve the team.
But that doesn’t mean it is impossible or can’t be done.
Some steps can be internal: Danton Heinen hasn’t scored a goal in 28 games and is having an abysmal season. The Penguins don’t need to be married to Heinen in order to waive him and lose his cap hit. Valtteri Puustinen and Alex Nylander have been lighting it up lately in the AHL and either could bring an injection of youth and skill to the NHL roster, should Heinen be cleared up for one of them. This one move wouldn’t solve all the Pens’ problems by any stretch of the imagination, but could be one step towards doing so.
On the trade front, Carter holds all the cards with a full no movement and no trade clause and is likely not a short-term candidate to go anywhere. That aside, the Pens might have options to try and move Kapanen or defender Brian Dumoulin to clear some space and open room to help fixing the bottom-six.
At one point recently, Sullivan made a defensive line of McGinn, Blueger and Carter on the wing. That could be one idea worth going back towards. If so, it opens up one more line. Can it be stocked with a trade addition? And maybe a young player or two like Puustinen, Nylander or Drew O’Connor?
A few changes like that, and what has suddenly been a stale and unreliable supporting cast is at least different enough to have some new faces and players in different roles. That might just enable Sullivan to play them more, and help manage the minutes of the star players who for best use later in the season probably shouldn’t be driven into the ground right now.
No matter how Hextall goes about it, the messaging from the bench is becoming very clear. The Penguins need to be freshened up and get some new elements on their lower lines in order to stay competitive and help their team. How Hextall goes about it via trades or waivers and recalls is up to him, but this growing issue is one that the Penguins’ GM must address, and address sooner than later.