The Pittsburgh Penguins have had their share of problems over the past two years, and forward depth has been at the top of that list.
Scoring depth at the NHL level. The organizational depth to overcome injuries. Just having enough good forwards to build a consistently quality hockey team.
They also have limited resources and ability when it comes to fixing that at this point in the season. Salary cap space is tight (mostly due to their own decisions) and they do not have a lot of trade assets. Most of the NHL players have major contracts that will be difficult to move or have no-trade clauses, and they do not have many prospects that will be attractive as trade bait.
Any improvements will need to come from within, and might need to involve some pleasant and unexpected surprises.
That brings us to the recent emergence of Valtteri Puustinen.
Monday’s game against the Minnesota Wild was Puustinen’s fifth game with the Penguins this season, and it was easily his best.
He was on the ice for all four Penguins goals, including two on the power play, while he also recorded a pair of assists. The first, setting up Reilly Smith’s first period goal, involved him aggressively getting in on the forecheck and forcing a turnover that set up Smith for the goal. On his second assist, he broke in on an odd-man rush and did an expert job in freezing Wild goalie Filip Gustavsson by faking a shot and then setting up Evgeni Malkin for a lay-up goal into the vacated net.
They were both outstanding plays and give him four total assists on the season.
It is also worth pointing out that his placement on the top power play unit has also coincided with that group’s recent resurgence.
He has been on the ice for eight Penguins goals (all situations) over the past five games, the second highest total on the team during that stretch (Malkin has been on the ice for nine goals). That includes five of the team’s six power play goals during that stretch, including both power play goals on Monday.
Overall he has been one of the most effective forwards on the team over the past week. It could not have come at a better time for the Penguins as they have desperately needed a boost to their lineup, and especially their offense. Especially with Bryan Rust out of the lineup for the foreseeable future.
Rust’s absence is going to give Puustinen a decent look in some big minutes and a real shot to earn a consistent spot in the NHL. A seventh-round draft pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, Puustinen has been one of the best goal-scorers in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton over the past three years and eclipsed the 20-goal mark in each of the past two seasons and was on pace to do it again this season.
While he has yet to score a goal at the NHL level, he has been one of the Penguins’ top forwards in terms of expected goals (both in terms of on-ice numbers and individual numbers) and has played a huge role in the team’s offense.
At this point it is still an extremely small sample size, but it is at the very least really encouraging. The ideal outcome here is that while Rust is sidelined Puustinen continues to produce and make a positive impacts and shows that he can be an NHL player. It would be the exact type of development they need to improve the roster. If Puustinen does show that he can stick in the NHL it would not only given them a temporary solution in the top-six until Rust returns, it would also give them an additional depth option for after he does return.
At the moment the Penguins have him playing alongside Malkin and Smith and that trio has outscored teams by a 3-1 margin during 5-on-5 play with a 55 percent expected goal share. His presence on that line has brought a much-needed spark to the second line.
The ideal outcome here might be Puustinen showing that he can hang with that line which could give the Penguins some line flexibility when Rust returns. That would give them the option of potentially dropping Rust to the third line and having him help carry that line with Lars Eller and Drew O’Connor. They could put Rust back up on the first line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel and drop Rakell down to the third line and have him help carry that group. It would allow them to spread out some of the scoring options, potentially create three scoring lines and help get the depth back closer to a level where it needs to be.
Obviously there are lot of ifs there, with the biggest one being Puustinen proving that this start is sustainable, but you have to like the way he has played so far. Back in 2016 the Penguins got a boost with players like Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl coming up from Wilkes-Barre and making a bigger impact than anybody could have reasonably expected. It would be nice to see something like that happen again with Puustinen.