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Looking Ahead to Penguins in July: Big Decisions, Real Chances

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NHL Return Pittsburgh Penguins Evgeni Malkin

A few months will make a massive difference for the Pittsburgh Penguins, assuming the injury bug which chewed at their roster all season is sated by the global pandemic and finally leaves the team alone. At least for a little while. If the unofficial players’ proposal to relaunch the NHL season in July takes hold, the Penguins will be in a significantly better spot than when the NHL paused the season due to our shared archnemesis, coronavirus.

There was much consternation internally and externally about the Penguins pre-pause struggles. The six-game losing streak and eight losses in 10 games indeed vexed head coach Mike Sullivan. The simple plays and successes the Penguins enjoyed for months were replaced by haphazard scattershot hockey with occasional bursts of structure and form. The Penguins play more closely resembled the scribbles of Jackson Pollock than a well-crafted Da Vinci masterpiece.

After much deliberation and being shut-in like Nicholson at the Overlook (Shining reference), we may conclude the Pittsburgh Penguins were tired. They were mentally and physically exhausted. The Penguins spent inordinate amounts of energy to replace their fallen comrades. They had to play at level 10 through November and December when most teams were getting to level five.

The level of intensity which the Penguins carried through the soft-underbelly of the regular season was draining. The Penguins figuratively took a breath not because Sidney Crosby returned, but because Crosby returned and he could pick up part of the pressure which they didn’t realize they were carrying…until they did.

Things snowballed out of control. One mistake wasn’t correct, but instead begot two mistakes, which multiplied like a virus. Justin Schultz whispering at his locker stall, still stands out as a “this team is in trouble,” moment.

In July, everything resets. The Penguins mental state—their outlook, and most importantly, their injury bug status.

Enter Jake Guentzel.

Guentzel may not be ready by early July, but he could be. He will certainly be ready by August (if) the NHL playoffs begin then. The Penguins fates and fortunes will dramatically improve with Jason Zucker, Jake Guentzel, Jared McCann, and Zach Aston-Reese on the left side, and Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad and Teddy Blueger down the middle.

The Penguins just might be at full force. Zucker with Crosby and Guentzel with Malkin? Or, would we see Zucker-Malkin-Rust, Guentzel-Crosby-Anyone?

LW: A+

Right wing remains the issue with the Penguins as Dominik Simon, Bryan Rust, Brandon Tanev, and Patric Hornqvist are the top four wingers. Somewhere in the mix are Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues, who played increasingly well before the virus shutdown.

Cynically, Sheary’s performance has made more fans realize Simon’s value. In reality, the production of the line with either Sheary or Simon will be similar. Perhaps Sheary will rediscover his dynamic scoring touch of 2016-17, but that seems unlikely after three very similar seasons with sub-40 point-production.

Rust is the Penguins scoring right winger, and if you had told me that one year ago, my reaction would be much different than it is today.

Simon-Bjugstad-Hornqvist was a dominant line last season, but Bjugstad has been healthy for about 10 minutes this season. However, Jared McCann is floating through the lineup, and coaches may opt for him with Bjugstad and Hornqvist.

RW: C-

The Pittsburgh Penguins defensive corps is set. After a few weeks of watching Jack Johnson playing with Kris Letang, it was a crystal clear example of Dumoulin’s worth. Dumoulin can read Letang, is swift enough to get the spots to cover, and strong enough to defend his net.

Why Sullivan and Jacques Martin didn’t try Marcus Pettersson with Letang is a mystery, but I digress.

Pettersson and John Marino form a competent second pairing. Another potential benefit to the Penguins is Marino won’t hit the rookie wall. He should come back fresh, and we should continue to see the rookie revelation.

Johnson and Schultz should be a solid third pairing. Schultz was scuffling for a while, and his confidence dropped through the floor. A three-month break could only help him.

Defense: B

The Penguins are set in goal. If Matt Murray can’t handle it, Tristan Jarry can. You can debate that one all day, and we probably will before this pandemic induced cabin fever subsides. I’ll bring nunchucks and snacks that day.

Decisions, Decisions

The Penguins coaches will have a few lineup decisions. First, what to do with Jared McCann? Everyone was excited by his offensive explosion last season. He was more dynamic than at any point in his career. However, this season McCann has been vanilla. He’s fast. He’s aggressive. But he hasn’t been very productive.

If Simon isn’t on the top line with Crosby and Guentzel/Zucker, then Simon’s track record with Hornqvist and Bjugstad should give him a spot there.

Also, Zach Aston-Reese should return with Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev. In his absence, the Penguins grind line wasn’t the same. Aston-Reese may not be equal to McCann with footspeed or potential, but ZAR’s presence on that line made it go.

So, where does McCann fit? He’ll probably take the left wing on the third line. Probably.

Evan Rodrigues is another player who should be in the lineup but may find himself in the press box. Rodrigues scored only one point in his first seven games as a Penguin, but his play began to turn heads. His speed and tenacity are the qualities the Penguins desire. His size, however, lumps him in with the Penguins crew of Smurf wingers.

It wouldn’t be out of line to see if Rodrigues can play beside Crosby.

My Lines:

Instead of giving you the Penguins projected lines, for debate sake, here are my lines:

Zucker-Crosby-Sheary

Guentzel-Malkin-Rust

Simon-Bjugstad-Hornqvist

ZAR-Blueger-Tanev

Originally, I put Guentzel back with Crosby, but the Guetnzel-Malkin line was so ridiculously dominant that I chose to go back to it. Sullivan teased reporters that he had indeed made a decision where Guentzel would play when Crosby returned from injury but declined to share it. Doh.

In my lineup, Rodrigues and McCann are two superior players who could wind up in the press box, in a totally unfair move based on line-chemistry.

Cup Chances:

Rested, refreshed, and healthy. I’ve seen a lot of good things from this Pittsburgh Penguins crew. More good things than I expected. Guentzel and Malkin were unstoppable. Rust filled the net with them, too.

Zucker and Crosby continued to improve, as the Penguins coaches stayed in Zucker’s ear, “Skate!”

I think Bjugstad is a legit 3C option if he can get healthy, which three months off should do. And it’s hard not to recognize the exemplary work of the Penguins fourth line this season.

The doubts which recently popped up should pass. The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t in the Boston Bruins league, and they’ll be an underdog with a good chance against the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning. The Penguins will have a shot. After the break, I’d return them to the fourth-best team in the East,

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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