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The 2 Penguins Who Must Step Forward w/o Hornqvist

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Brandon Tanev, Zach Aston-Reese, Sam Lafferty

The changes to the Pittsburgh Penguins without Patric Hornqvist will be many. From the power-play to the locker room, the Penguins will have a different structure and certainly a different feel next season. Bob Dylan wrote, the times they are a-changing, and there are a few whom the Penguins will task with elevating their game to fill the void left in the wake of the most significant change in a few seasons.

Make no mistake, some Penguins players were devastated by the trade that sent Hornqvist to the Florida Panthers. It was a gut punch to more than a few. But, the Penguins will begin to coalesce into something new. Change mandates such things.

We may have gotten our first glimpse of the new Penguins power-play strategy against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Qualifying Round series. Head coach Mike Sullivan dropped Hornqvist from the top unit and inserted Jason Zucker, instead.

The power-play squandered a half-dozen opportunities and went 1-for-7 with just nine shots on goal. And, the Pittsburgh Penguins failed fire more than one shot in a 92-second five-on-three. The Penguins lost the game in overtime and wrote the series narrative.

“I thought we had opportunities to get to the net, to take away (Carey Price’s) sightlines, and we didn’t do as good of a job at that tonight,” Sullivan said after Game 1.

In the locker room, Hornqvist’s absence will leave an equally large space to fill. Consider Sullivan’s comments in January.

“He’s great for our team. He’s a real positive guy. I don’t think the guy has ever had a bad day in his life,” Sullivan said. “He comes in every day, and he’s got a smile on his face, and he loves to play hockey. We love that about him. His energy on the bench is terrific. He’s one of the most competitive guys that I’ve been around. He means a lot to this team both on the ice and off the ice.”

But the past is gone.

3 Pittsburgh Penguins who must step-up without Hornqvist

1. Kasperi Kapanen

The Penguins spent a pretty penny re-acquiring the 24-year-old who was once their first-round pick (2014). Kapanen is a right-handed shot with some grit to his game, in addition to great speed.

Kapanen is the odds on favorite to join the Penguins power play next season. His speed should provide a boost through the neutral zone, and his agility will be vital in creating movement on the man advantage. He will be fast enough to take away those goalie sightlines and cycle to the circle to use his right-handed shot.

Of course, Kapanen will have to improve his offensive output from last season when he scored just 13 goals. He will have to wear a few sticks in front of the net and possess the desire to take a few more. This season, Kapanen had three power-play assists in limited opportunities.

The net-front battle is not for the faint of heart. The Penguins can’t have captain and All-World center Sidney Crosby taking too much punishment in the low zone.

2. Brandon Tanev

This is the big one. Tanev can fill many vacated roles.

Given the versatility in the Penguins lineup, it’s guesswork what the Penguins bottom-six may look like next season. However, Tanev is the player who possesses the raw energy on and off the ice to charge the Penguins.

Tanev played a significant fourth-line role, which was an opponent shutdown role. The Penguins fourth line was so good that Zach Aston-Reese earned underground Selke Trophy advocates from the analytics crowd.

However, Tanev brought entirely different tangibles and intangibles. His 25 points in 68 games were nothing to sneeze at, but his 244 hits are downright un-Penguins-like and impressive. Tanev reflexively finishes checks and is a thorn in the shoe of opponents’ top lines.

Sullivan could and should grant Tanev an even larger role next season. Just imagine the third-line speed with McCann and Tanev. In the room, Tanev is a guy who Kris Letang loved to tease about having too much energy. Perhaps the Penguins could use a bit more of that, too.

3. The Rest

Shuffling the deck often brings unexpected answers, too. When he regains his health, could Aston-Reese fulfill his potential as a Selke quality forward who also scores 30 (or more) points?

Can Bryan Rust duplicate his 27-goal performance and cement himself in the Penguins top-six, where Hornqvist would occasionally reside?

Can Sam Lafferty breakthrough from depth-forward to lineup mainstay and bring the high-energy game he flashed over several stretches?

Will the Penguins top-six be so good that an average power-play is acceptable?

Sometimes, it does take a village.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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