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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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Steve
Steve
5 months ago

What happens when Rodrigues and McCann are healthy?

Tony
Tony
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve

I was just going to say that, Steve. It appears Dan forgot that we still have McCann and Rodrigues under contract.

Steve
Steve
5 months ago
Reply to  Dan Kingerski

But that shuffles the order, right? Assuming Kapanen rights the ship, he stays in the top six. Sure seems like Blueger, Aston-Reese, and Tanev are claiming the third line. Wouldn’t that make McCann a trade chip potentially to address the 4th line? Or does McCann slot in alongside Blueger and Tanev and push Aston-Reese down?

Bill Maloni
Bill Maloni
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve

Lafferty has to play on any fourth line!

Steve
Steve
5 months ago
Reply to  Bill Maloni

I’d be okay with that. But there appears to be some logjams developing. Have to wonder if McCann ends up being the odd man out if everyone is healthy. Unless they can get someone like Haula to remake the third line and push the Blueger back down. Honestly, that could help them roll four lines as the Blueger line has earned their ice.

Stephen Powanda
Stephen Powanda
5 months ago

GM HEXTALL needs to get a 4th line sooner rather than later. We need some size and physicality for that 4th line. O’Conner needs to go to WBS and Jankowski just needs to go.

Ether
Ether
5 months ago

Pump your brakes buddy! Jank makes only 700,000 and can be a depth center if injuries pile up and this is the Penguins after all. Seems we have a 4th line already they just play as a 3rd line. The real problem is a potent 3rd line with offensive threat–maybe Evan and Jared can help but more likely they end up slotting in where injuries happen–you know that again. Where have we heard that before? Since HBK disbanded it seems

Eric
Eric
5 months ago

Ya hold on. We don’t need larger slower players. Remember Ryan Reaves. We just more physical bottom 6 that have the ability to separate man from puck better!

Dean
Dean
5 months ago

The Blueger line is the “fourth line”. He needs to fix the 3rd line. We need a 3rd line center and a RW. If they play Rodriquez there just fooling themselves. McCann is the only player we have for a true 3rd line. The last to cups we won was because we had a 3rd line that could score.

Ether
Ether
5 months ago
Reply to  Dean

Sorry man wrote the above reply before reading yours–seems I stole some material.

Stephen Powanda
Stephen Powanda
5 months ago
Reply to  Dean

Ether and Dean we need size and physicality for a 4th line. We have enough ice capades players. We need a fourth line like the Isles have or something like it!

Stephen Powanda
Stephen Powanda
5 months ago

You pin your hopes on Evan and Jared what have they done lately. They are mediocre at best. Jankowski is cheap but he brings you nothing that what cheap does!

Dave Davies
Dave Davies
5 months ago
Reply to  Dean

You’re right. Watch how this team plays against Washington, they skate rings around them because they’re big and slow. They need more guys in the Tanev mold that are fast, but still have a bit of jam to their game. You don’t want to try and completely change the DNA of the team to try and keep up with the Joneses, you may as well blow it up now and start the rebuild.

Eric
Eric
5 months ago

A good start to making the 3rd line better?? More production from the second line!! If the second line would provide more points maybe we can play with the lead more often, and have the concentrate on defensive responsibilities, and have then not concerned with point production.

Glenn
Glenn
5 months ago

I was perusing the web over the weekend at possible trade options. Please don’t skin me alive here, but I thought this would be pretty good.

  1. Petterson to Calgary for Sam Bennett (he’s got jam, can score, good skater, fights)
  2. Sceviour and pick/prospect to Vancouver for Jake Virtanin (he’s got size, jam, good skater, fights, used to score)
  3. 3rd Line becomes – McCann, Bennett, Virtanin
  4. Taxi line becomes – Jankowski, Lafferty, Rodrigues (need your depth still)
Steve
Steve
5 months ago
Reply to  Glenn

I would hate to see them deal Pettersson, though you do need to give something to get something. I don’t think Sceviour has much trade value, honestly. But he can’t regularly crack the Pens’ current 4th line, so not sure what his trade value would be.

If they are looking for size on the 4th line, why not give Angello a chance? Putting him with Lafferty and Jankowski at least adds some size and physicality.

Glenn
Glenn
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve

I was thinking of still trying to build a legitimate 3rd line. I like the Blueger line, but it really is a very good 4th line. They just don’t score enough to be a 3rd. And with Malkin struggling, an improved 3rd line is even more important.

From what I read (Spector’s Hockey site), Vancouver wasn’t looking for much. I’d give Sceviour to offset some salary. The pick/prospect would be the primary piece.

I like Pettersson too, but you’re right. Gotta give to get. Bennett centering Virtanin and McCann could be awesome. And they are all around 24 yrs old.

Steve
Steve
5 months ago
Reply to  Glenn

Also, a hang up could be trading for Bennett to center a third line. Isn’t that exactly what he doesn’t want to do in Calgary?

Glenn
Glenn
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve

Yes, that’s a very good point. They would have to chat with him to avoid another Brassard disaster.

Frank
Frank
5 months ago

No one is going to quarrel that the current 4th line is well below what should be expected. I think the return of McCann and Rodriguez will change that and the current front office may want to wait that out to see how it plays out. But I have a suspicion that it has to be determined . . . first . .. how good or bad the team is. Just because they win or lose three games should not be the trigger. If they settle in as a borderline playoff team then I am thinking building a 4th line… Read more »

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