It’s always hard to take the spotlight from Sidney Crosby. But, on the night “Sid the Kid” moved into second place on the all-time Pittsburgh Penguins points list (ahead of Jaromir Jagr), it was a different “kid” turning heads.
For the third straight game, 23-year-old Dominik Simon tallied a point, but Thursday was, by far, his best outing in his early NHL career. Simon scored twice, the first of which on a pass from Crosby, on three shots. He now has a point in three straight games skating alongside the best player in the world.
The 23-year-old has played a mere 21 games in his NHL career, but heading into the All-Star break, it’s hard not to feel as though the Penguins have found the next successful “kid” to play on the top line.
Coach Mike Sullivan has made it a habit of placing young, inexperienced wings next to Crosby. While that goes against conventionally hockey wisdom, it’s worked to perfection over the last two seasons. As the best players usually do, Crosby elevates the play of anyone on the ice with him.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the young wings don’t require an adjustment period. Actually, playing with Crosby can even be a burden for inexperienced skaters.
“Any time a young player plays with Sid, there’s a tendency to want to get Sid the puck all the time. We always talk to those guys about playing their game. And Sid will adapt to them,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after Thursday’s 6-3 victory. “We try to encourage them to listen to their hockey sense. If their hockey sense is telling them to shoot the puck, they should shoot the puck. Not try to get it to Sid.”
Crosby’s held the “best player in the world” title for years, but his mystique, and the mystique surrounding the Penguins have grown to massive proportions as back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. Even Jake Guentzel, a player who scored twice in the first NHL period he ever played, shared that idea in his Players’ Tribune piece last year.
Sullivan is no stranger to those feelings either.
“I also think when a player gets called up for the first time, there’s a little bit of a ‘wow’ factor. After that experience is over, players tend to settle in, and the wow factor isn’t so much there anymore with their second or third or fourth call-up.”
Indeed, Simon is on his fourth call-up. He played three games in 2015-16 and then two in 2016-17. Simon received his first call-up in December of this season but was sent back to the AHL for a handful of games around New Years. The fourth call-up, though, could be his last.
Since returning to the team on Jan. 4, Simon has four goals and seven points in nine games. After not scoring in the first 10 NHL games this season, he has four goals in the past six contests.
Again, it’s a small sample size, but the most exciting part about Simon’s last few games has been his wickedly deceptive wrist shot. He beat Cam Ward with one Tuesday and then twice sniped the puck past Devan Dubnyk on Thursday. With all due respect to Guentzel, Sheary, and Rust, they don’t have a wrist shot like this kid does.
Admittedly, the emergence of Simon doesn’t solve all of Pittsburgh’s problems. While the Penguins scored six times Thursday, all six goals came with the top two lines were on the ice or during a power play. Pittsburgh still needs more consistent scoring from its bottom-six.
But if Simon nails down a top-six role, that means Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel can stay on the third line, effectively making the Penguins three-lines deep again. Conor Sheary, who has played opposite Simon on Crosby’s other wing the last few games, is percolating, and Carl Hagelin — on the second line with Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist — broke his goalless streak Thursday.
This lineup would also allow Bryan Rust, who has been a successful first and second-line wing for long stretches, to play a fourth-line role.
It’s hard to say a 23-year-old kid with fewer than 25 games of NHL experience is the missing piece for a team with superstar talent up and down the roster. But then again, this is the Penguins.
Just like Sheary and Rust in 2016, and then Guentzel in 2017, could Simon be the X-factor that turns the Penguins back into a very dangerous team? It’s safe to say Sullivan plans to find out.