In the Yahtzee cup of line Penguins line combinations, everything else has been tried. It’s time to see if Phil Kessel is the missing piece on Sidney Crosby’s line.
Injuries and ineffectiveness have made the wings on Crosby’s line like a revolving door of frustration. It is becoming visible on Crosby’s face. Conor Sheary is the most recent recipient of the golden ticket but his game quickly regressed, and the Oompa-Loompas are about to mark his exit. Sheary has been benched in the last two games and otherwise been a non-factor.
Fourth line center Riley Sheahan has been shuffled through the lineup, as well. Sheahan played left wing on Derick Brassard’s line but was not productive. In Sheary’s benching, Penguins coaches elevated Sheahan Crosby’s right wing, but that combination didn’t produce a spark, either. Sheahan is a perfect fourth line center, but not a winger.
Crosby has 10 points in his last 11 games, six even strength points (3g, 3a) and four power-play points (1g, 3a). On paper, it looks good. But on the ice, Crosby’s line has not been able to put the opponents on their heels or control play like a line anchored by an all-time great should do.
In fact, statistics mean little when analyzing Crosby and linemates because Crosby is so talented. Even poor linemates have solid Corsi numbers, and Crosby will find a way to hit the scoresheet. To steal a quote from head coach Mike Sullivan, “don’t be fooled by the score.”
Sid and the Kids, part II has not been a box office success. Sheary has found pine time, and Jake Guentzel has not been good enough, either. Guentzel scored his last goal 10 games ago, on Feb. 23. Guentzel has only five points in that span.
The Penguins need someone, anyone, to play the puck from the wall and feed Crosby offensive opportunities. Someone to join the rush and pressure opposing defenses. Someone to create space and finish the glorious chances Crosby can provide.
It’s not Sheary, Patric Hornqvist, or Riley Sheahan. Kessel excels at all of the above.
It’s Time to Try Kessel, Again.
Kessel played on Crosby’s right flank during his first days in Pittsburgh. It didn’t work. The pair had no chemistry, but that was during the days of Mike Johnston’s 1-3-1 system which slowed the play.
Kessel is no longer the one-dimensional shooter who came from Toronto, either. This season, his playmaking game has been exceptional, and his ability to finish will never be questioned. Someone must jumpstart Crosby’s line, and Kessel is a perfect choice.
The main argument against Kessel is one of “balance.” The coaches like separating Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kessel to create three lines capable of offensive pressure. However, that thinking predates Derick Brassard’s arrival.
Brassard is an offensively capable center who scored 60, and 58 points with the New York Rangers before being dealt to Ottawa. A third line center who can score at the same pace as opposing top line centers IS “balance.”
In the past couple games, Brassard and Bryan Rust developed an immediate rapport. Brassard and Kessel…not so much.
And, before you ask, no Daniel Sprong is not the answer. He is playing poorly in Wilkes Barre and had points( 1g, 2a) in only one of his eight NHL games this season.
Sullivan may continue to go with near constant line shuffling, trying to find sparks and play to defensive matchups. Or, Sullivan can drop a fast skating, playmaking sniper beside Sidney Crosby and see what happens.
The Penguins will be better off leaving Rust with Brassard and not elevating him back to Crosby’s line. That leaves Kessel as the only option and the best option.