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GM Ron Hextall’s Urgent Challenge is to Upgrade Penguins Fourth Line

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Pittsburgh Penguins trade, Mark Jankowski, Teddy Blueger

Mark Jankowski and the Pittsburgh Penguins fourth line did not play more than a few seconds in the final 10 minutes of the Penguins 3-2 win over the New York Islanders on Saturday night. The fourth-liners played less than three minutes in the final two periods on Thursday in the comfortable 4-1 win.

GM Ron Hextall has work to do, and it should be the top of the Penguins trade wish list.

The Penguins cannot roll four lines with players head coach Mike Sullivan trusts to be defensively responsible. And, the Penguins fourth line also lacks grit, jam, or straight-up physicality.

The four players who inhabit the bottom Penguins line have a combined 63 hits. Jankowski (15), Drew O’Connor (5), Sam Lafferty (27), and Colton Sceviour have fewer dished hits combined than Brandon Tanev (77).

“We would like them to be a line that brings a lot of energy to the game for us,” Sullivan said on Saturday night. “We want them to be a line that can help us gain momentum by establishing a forecheck (and) bring a physical dimension to it.”

Strikes one, two, and three.

Penguins Trade for Physicality?

The New York Islanders were not happy with Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson after last Thursday’s game in which he caught their star center Mathew Barzal with a dangerous hit near the boards. New York coach Barry Trotz neared the borderline, as did center Brock Nelson, of threatening retribution against Matheson.

“Just score on the power play” is a pithy phrase much like “sticks and stones…” that holds less value than being able to push back.

What if New York decided to take liberties? What if New York committed to playing overly physical? Who among the Penguins would stand up for his teammates? Who could lower the temperature, if necessary?

Brian Burke President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke certainly understands.

Speaking on 93-7 the Fan after taking the job with the Penguins, Burke observed the last few Stanley Cup winners could play physical and hinted the Penguins would evaluate

“Pittsburgh is the last team to win with a small, fast team,” Burke said on Feb. 12. “The last three cup winners are big and play long pants hockey.”

And that’s why Hextall has work to do on the Penguins trade needs.

Penguins Roster Flexibility

Fortunately for the Penguins, the four players on the line are not well-paid or on long contracts, which would inhibit any Penguins’ trade efforts. Sam Lafferty and Mark Jankowski make $750,000 and $700,000, respectively. Lafferty’s contract runs through next season. Jankowski will be a UFA after this season.

O’Connor is on his entry-level contract and can be sent to the taxi squad or the AHL without passing through waivers. Sceviour is the highest paid of the group at $1.2 million, but his contract also expires after this season.

In other words, the Penguins don’t have any onerous investments in the fourth line. None of the players are without skill or value, but the line combinations have been disappointing.

“(We want) a line that is trustworthy and reliable defensively,” Sullivan said. “And then has the ability to chip in offensively on occasion.”

The Penguins Stanley Cup teams referenced by Burke and recent iterations had a fourth line anchored by Matt Cullen, then Teddy Blueger. Cullen was able to chip in more than 30 points, while the Blueger line was a shutdown line last season.

The current scramble of fourth-line players has zero goals-for and three goals-against.  Jankowski had a strong start this season, but that was as the third line center with different linemates, and his production faded before Sullivan flipped the Blueger-Tanev combo to the third line.

All of the advanced stats from Penguins line combos come from the line tool at NaturalStatTrick.com. In addition to being outscored, the highest Corsi among the combinations is only 43%. Most combos of the fourth line are in the 30s.

And that’s why Sullivan puts the fourth line hasn’t earned much ice time, even when needed.

“Ideally, we’d like our fourth line to have guys who can fill certain roles, like playing on the penalty kill and things of that nature that give us the ability to share the workload and spread minutes out,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s going to be important moving forward … the ability to engage the fourth line more than I have to this point is going to be an important aspect.”

Only Jankowski is a regular penalty killer.

At even strength, if Sullivan doesn’t trust the line, it doesn’t matter how many games in how few days await the Penguins. The Penguins coach will not roll lines in which he lacks faith.

Recent scouts who have been scheduled to observe or who have observed Penguins games on the four-game homestand include Anaheim, Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Detroit, but no AGMS or executives attended.

Adding to Sullivan’s short bench struggles is Evgeni Malkin, who played sparingly in the latter half of the third period on Saturday. The Penguins were forced to roll with a heavy diet of Sidney Crosby and Teddy Blueger, who filled most of the last 12 minutes of the third period.

As Malkin adds points to the scoreboard, the fourth line remains both off the scoresheet and off the ice.

And that is Hextall’s pressing fix is the Penguins’ urgent need.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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