In a perfect world, the Pittsburgh Penguins would have four solid lines. Those lines would never change, and all would develop a telepathic ability to read each other as opponents wept in fear. That’s the goal, anyway. However, in real life, hockey is an aetherial and often unpredictable entity. Real life collides with life goals.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has earned a reputation, mostly in the Penguins fan base, as a coach who too often juggles lines.
“As a coaching staff, we’re always trying to make decisions which are best for the group, (while) understanding chemistry is part of it. There’s always the fundamental discussion of consistency versus trying to affect some change,” Sullivan said. “We have that discussion internally almost daily if we’re going to make those types of changes on the lines.”
Saturday, Sullivan reconfigured the lines and elevated Dominik Simon from the fourth to the first line. Patric Hornqvist went from the first line back to the third line to play beside his new soulmate, Nick Bjugstad. That’s a lot of changes for a team struggling to find itself.
Hornqvist scored a pair of goals, ripped a game-high seven shots, and dished six hits. It was a far cry from his quiet performance Thursday on the Penguins top line with Sidney Crosby.
Great coaches throughout modern hockey history have shuffled, juggled, and used variable lines to create favorable matchups and to break out of a rut. Sometimes there is a science. Sometimes it is a gut feeling. And just like a baseball manager’s bullpen usage, the decisions are endlessly second-guessed. When things are going well, there are no wrong answers, but when things aren’t working, it seems there are no right answers, either.
Thursday, the Penguins top line totaled just one shot. Saturday, with Simon, they sent 10 shots to the net and were responsible for a pair of goals. Evgeni Malkin was injured Saturday night, but even if he doesn’t miss time, the Penguins will soon reconfigure their lines again, unless of course, they win the next 80 games, 7-2.
“I think we’ve had a significant amount of consistency from training camp with a number of different players. There hasn’t been a ton of movement around certain groups or tandems,” Sullivan responded to PHN’s question. “We’re trying to find the right looks, which make us the hardest team to play against.”
“If we’re not having success, we’re going to have that discussion as a coaching staff for what we can do to affect a little bit of change, but consistency and chemistry is always part of that discussion.”
This season, Sullivan has a few new faces to deal into the lineup. Brandon Tanev and Dominik Kahun are not prototypical top-six forwards but can be serviceable in very different ways. They are much like the rest of the Penguins wingers because they could be fourth-liners, or could play in a scoring role.
It’s not like Sullivan is flipping a Hall of Fame right winger to the left side in a crucial playoff series. Instead, he has a stack of interchangeable parts, which will sometimes work, and sometimes not. Part of the Penguins issue is the salary cap life. They’ve not had prospects able to earn spots in the lineup on entry-level salaries, so the team is always rummaging through free agents for parts that fit.
A pure top-six winger costs a lot of money. Buffalo Sabres winger Jeff Skinner had one big season, but before he was a soft 50-point type player. Skinner’s outburst earned him $8 million annually on a long term deal.
So, if Sullivan locked Tanev beside Malkin or Kahun beside Crosby, would that equal greater results? Would putting Simon there every game produce more results? The answer is probably a resounding, “no,” but Sullivan does try to lock tandems together.
“A lot of it depends on how we utilize other guys. If you look at the training camp to this point, we’ve had Sid (Crosby) and Jake (Guentzel) together the whole time. We’ve had Geno [sic] and Galchenyuk together the whole time. We’ve had Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann together the whole time,” Sullivan explained. “We’ve had Teddy Blueger with Zach-Aston Reese together the whole time.”
“So, the only thing that really has moved, we’ve tweaked the right side. With (Bryan Rust) being injured, right now that threw a little bit of a wrench into the decision making.”
Rust also can play top-six minutes or excel in bottom-six minutes. Rust can also play both wings, just in case Sullivan needed a few more options or potential configurations. But none of those players good enough to put into a position and leave them to struggle through the ups and downs of a season. Jake Guentzel is good enough, and he is a near-permanent fixture beside Crosby.
It also appears Galchenyuk will be bound to Malkin. So, does Sullivan really change the lines too much?
“We’ve had a fair amount of consistency through the process. Trying to figure where the best fit is on that right side has been a little bit of a challenge to this point,” concluded Sullivan.
But don’t worry Penguins Twitterverse, Dominik Simon played well Saturday, and there will be ample opportunity to extoll his shortcomings when he is moved up, then down on the Penguins lines.
The consistency is in the tandems, not the trios.