Last season, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan and assistant coach Mark Recchi had their hands full. For much of the season, the Penguins were historically bad at 5v5, and the coaches juggled lines with the aplomb of a veteran street performer tossing chainsaws and bowling balls. In the experimentation, the Penguins hit on a couple of combinations which worked. In fairness, what began to work in January and February was double shifting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to eat up the dead space from the Penguins third and fourth lines.
This season, Sullivan will again juggle lines. And he will again have his hands full, but this time his job will be finding matching combos among talented centers in their natural spots and wingers able to score.
What a difference a year makes. Unlike last season, the Penguins now have three centers capable of driving high-end offense. Before being smothered with defensive responsibility in Ottawa, Derick Brassard was a 60-point pivot. And fourth-line center Riley Sheahan is defensively responsible and occasionally chips in offensively.
PHN has already taken a stab at the line combinations. Read it here.
Sullivan’s great challenge this year will not be cobbling together a balanced lineup using forced combinations, as they did against the Washington Capitals in Round Two when seemingly no line was safe.
Instead, his challenge will be finding the best lines with centers who can play center or wing, wingers who can play both sides and talented wingers who can be streaky. The Penguins even have three centers who can shift to left wing if needed, Riley Sheahan, Matt Cullen and potentially Brassard. It won’t be easy, but this year Sullivan has options.
On any given night, the Rubix Cube could change and force the Sullivan and crew to begin flipping and flopping players again.
If Jake Guentzel is scuffling on the top line beside Sidney Crosby, the coaches will have the option of dropping him to the third line with Brassard and elevating a player like Bryan Rust. Or Dominik Simon, if he isn’t already on the right side of the top line. Or if Simon is scuffling on the right side of the top line, he can be dropped to the fourth line, and a player like Bryan Rust can be elevated if he isn’t already on the left side.
Rust’s and Simon’s versatility will be a plus for the Penguins. It’s like playing five-card stud with two wildcards.
Add Zach Aston-Reese to the mix of players who could skate on all four lines.
That versatility will open opportunities in the Penguins top-9; opportunities for Daniel Sprong to play a scoring role. The chance for Sprong to claim a top line role or even a third line spot could be crucial as he doesn’t have the skill-set for consistent fourth line duty.
Rust and Aston-Reese are not naturally top line players, the jury is still out of Simon, but their ability to fill-in should mean a few less gray hairs for the Penguins coaches.
Where the Penguins options could deny opportunity is on the fourth line. Mike Sullivan will have no shortage of candidates to fill those three spots. Riley Sheahan likely centers the line, but Cullen and Grant are also centers. All three fourth line center candidates can play left wing, but so far none has played the right side, which means one likely sits.
There also young players vying for a spot with the Penguins such as Aston-Reese and Sprong who figure into the fourth line RW mix. That a lot of players for only three sweaters. Not to mention the list of prospects who are gunning for a spot, such as Jordy Bellerive, Thomas Di-Pauli, Linus Ohlund, and any surprise candidates who take camp by storm.
It may take a while. Months. Sullivan has an abundance of players to fill out the best and a balanced Penguins lineup. Unfortunately, the answers may change from game to game, and even shift to shift. But this year, Sullivan has options.