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Early knee-jerk reactions on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ forward lines

There is a lot to like so far and some stuff to still wonder about the Pittsburgh Penguins early line combinations.

Calgary Flames v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Even though it has only been three games of the 2023-24 season we have still seen some interesting developments with the Pittsburgh Penguins early line combinations.

Some that we expected.

Some that we hoped to see.

There are also still some that might be at least a little bit concerning.

Let’s start with the biggest development and the most encouraging. The top-six has been mostly outstanding. The Sidney Crosby line had a tough night against the Chicago Blackhawks in the season opener, but it was pretty clear based on the reputation of that trio it was probably just a small blip on the radar and not anything to be overly concerned about, They responded in a big way the next two games.

Overall, the Penguins have scored 11 goals and all 11 of them have been scored by a member of the top-six.

Crosby. Evgeni Malkin, Reilly Smith and Bryan Rust all have two. Jake Guentzel has one. Even better, they have found a way to score a couple of goals on the power play.

Given the way the Penguins’ roster — and especially the forward group — is constructed, those two lines are going to need to carry a significant portion of the load offensively at both even-strength and on the power play. That is where the Penguins’ offensive strength is, and that is who is going to need to drive the bus for them.

The line that has stood out the most to me offensively so far is actually the second line of Malkin, Smith and Rickard Rakell. They have been pretty consistently dominant through the first three games and have posted some of the best numbers of any trio the Penguins have used.

In the three games they have logged 31:43 of 5-on-5 ice time and outscored their opponents by a 4-0 margin. Along with the big goals edge, they have also significantly carried the play with a better than 50 percent share of total shot attempts and scoring chances, and a 64 percent share of the expected goals. To be fair, most of their minutes have come with heavy offensive zone starts, but that is where their strengths all rest. They are built to score, they are built to play in the offensive zone, and they are feasting on the role they have been given.

On paper Smith seemed like an outstanding replacement for Jason Zucker in every way, from playing style, to production, to salary, and the early returns are extremel promising on the ice. Rakell is the only one that has not yet gotten into the goal-scoring run, but I trust his track record and skill that he will eventually get there and going rolling. Especially if that trio stays together and continues to play the way they have.

If there has been area of concern, it is probably the same area of concern the Penguins have had for the better part of the past year-plus.

It is scoring from the bottom-six.

So far the third-and fourth-lines have combined for exactly zero goals in three games, which will obviously be a problem if that continues.

The Penguins did a lot of work to transform their bottom-six this offseason, but I think there is still some question as to whether or not they put that work into the right areas. It is pretty obvious what the Penguins were looking for in putting this group together — they wanted them to defend better. Pretty much every player they brought in for the third-and fourth-line roles is a strong defender.

Lars Eller. Noel Acciari. Jansen Harkins. Matt Nieto. All of them can defend.

It seemed that the Penguins’ strategy with this roster was to get the bulk of the offense from the top-six and the power play, and then hope the bottom two lines can essentially play to a 0-0 tie every night.

For the most part, that is what they have done.

While the bottom-two lines have not contributed anything to the offense, they have also only been on the ice for exactly one goal against in over 60 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, while mostly doing a good job of suppressing and limiting chances. The fourth line had one really bad shift in Washington where they got pinned deep in their own zone for more than two minutes, but they also had one really strong shift that really helped to swing momentum in the game.

Those two lines have been deployed almost exclusively in defensive situations (less than 25 percent offensive zone starts for both lines) and been exactly what has been expected.

The Penguins can get by with a lack of scoring from that group as long as they do not give up anything. The problem they had a year ago was that along with not scoring they also could not prevent anything from going in their own net.

Even if that continues, there is going to come a point where those lines are going to have to create something. I honestly do like the potential combination of Eller and Drew O’Connor as a foundation for the third line, but Harkins just does not seem to have the offensive skill to contribute much (and his career track record supports that belief). Given the immediate players available on the roster I am not sure there is a great upgrade as pretty much all of the 8-12 forwards are mostly interchangeable with one another. That might still need to be an area that general manager Kyle Dubas explores before the trade deadline later this season.

In the short-term, the Penguins seem to have settled into some early line combinations that are, for the most part, working as planned. It might not be what the lines look like a few months from now, but the early returns are strong and producing results on both the scoreboard and in the standings.

[Data In This Post Via Natural Stat Trick]