Let us assume Montreal Canadiens left wing Max Pacioretty will wind up in a city without three rivers (and a hidden fourth), a city which doesn’t put french fries on salads (why don’t they?!) or plays in front of a fan base which doesn’t wear team representative t-shirts every day on vacation. Let’s assume the Penguins stand pat and enter the 2018-19 season, as-is, without Pacioretty, Jeff Skinner, or another left wing.
How will the lines take shape? The Godfather of Pittsburgh sports talk radio, Stan Savran, quipped yesterday on ESPN Radio 970, “we’ll debate the lines up until the puck drop of the first game, then eight seconds later, Mike Sullivan will change them.” The line brought a good chuckle and a bit of thinking.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan will have a goodly number of talented pieces and several versatile pieces. In that combination of talent will be endless line combinations. Much like 2017-18, when Penguins coaches dealt with scuffling forwards such as Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel, Penguins fans could see infinite line shuffling until the Penguins bench bosses find something they like.
One player who could change everything is Daniel Sprong. Sprong could be the bubble forward who gets a healthy dose of press box nachos, or he could be on the right side of Sidney Crosby. Or, he could be anything in between. Sprong will decide for the Penguins based on his level of readiness.
So, in a purely fun, perhaps futile, and absolutely set-in-stone exercise, let’s look at the potential 2018-19 Penguins line combinations.
Last season, Jake Guentzel had a mediocre regular season and a fantastic playoff run. The 2013 third-round pick was shuffled around the Penguins lineup because he was not producing and was pressed into third line center duty. Guentzel rallied to score 48 points (22g, 26a) but it wasn’t a great regular season. “Jake-n-Bake” (his Twitter handle), will have to hit the ground running this season or he will force Sullivan to find a new left wing for Sidney Crosby.
With the pair of scorers on the left and in the middle, they will need puck retrieval and speed. Enter Bryan Rust. However, Rust could also be quickly shuffled away as the Penguins needs down the lineup change. Dominik Simon could be elevated to take the right wing spot, too.
The Penguins top line is high stakes hockey. Not only must wingers keep up with Crosby, but the unit also draws heavy defensive assignments. It isn’t for the faint-hearted or soft.
Swedish Fish Vodka
The Penguins best unit of the second half of 2017-18 was unquestionably this line. Call it what you will because no nickname stuck. Malkin and the Swedes. Swede Emotion. You can also call the line ruthlessly effective. It nearly carried Malkin to a scoring title and a Hart Trophy nomination.
Lock it in. Leave it. It’s the perfect combination of all phases of the game, and the players compliment each other well.
The Brass Band
It doesn’t matter if Phil Kessel indeed wants to play with Malkin. Hornqvist is a better fit with Malkin and Kessel may find that he loves playing with Brassard, who is a natural playmaker and speedy center. Kessel did pretty well with Tyler Bozak in Toronto, and Kessel could do very well with Brassard. Playing in the Brass Band may not be the pocket aces Kessel wants, but with a little work, he could draw a straight on the river.
Dominik Simon earned groans from the Penguins faithful for his lack of finish beside Crosby, but he generated opportunities and plays with the type of speed the Penguins prefer.
Aston-Reese could be asked to flip to the left side for this line, too. His speed doesn’t match Brassard and Kessel, but his physicality would add a much needed ingredient.
This line has real offensive potential.
Daniel Sprong is the wild card. He could impress in training camp and be catapulted to the top line or be relegated to the press box because he’s too much of a liability. General Manager Jim Rutherford said he expects Sprong to be part of the lineup, and some have taken that sentiment to mean he will be on the ice, but read closer and it simply means Rutherford hopes Sprong is ready.
“Dad”, Matt Cullen, could be the perfect teacher for Sprong. At 42-years-old, Cullen doesn’t need the extra strain of playing center, but can still skate well and could create offense with Sprong.
Sheahan is the mismatch here. His conservative defensive style and his off-the-glass offense won’t drive the play, but with Sprong, someone will need to mind the store.
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