All of the puzzle pieces are present. The Pittsburgh Penguins have versatile wingers, a glut of centers who can play the middle or left wing, but only a few set combinations. The coming training camp battles will decide who plays right wing for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and maybe Derick Brassard. The winners of the battles will get the prime spots and could put up huge stats. The others may see reduced ice time and fewer chances.
Like a game of Perfection, Penguins coaches have a limited time to figure out where each piece fits. And they may have to start over every 60 seconds.
(Apologies to our younger readers. Us older folks used to play board games like Perfection at home, unironically because we had nothing better to do. Fortnite was 30 years away from being released).
Crosby’s Right Wing
Jake Guentzel figures to have a lock on Crosby’s left wing, but the right side is a mystery. Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Dominik Simon or Daniel Sprong will have their chance. It’s a safe bet through line juggling, Hornqvist will see some time beside Crosby. However, for Simon or Sprong, the opportunity to get top line minutes could make a career. It certainly would make a season.
Likewise, the right-wing fit for Crosby could add or subtract significant sums from Crosby’s season total. No pressure, right?
Simon may get the job by default. He is a shifty, intelligent player with a knack for putting himself in the right position at the right time. But, Penguins fans haven’t yet forgiven him for not finishing nearly enough of those chances last season. Hockey people likely saw the glass half-full with Simon and award points for being in those right spots. If coaches tap Simon as the top line RW, 20 goals and 50 points are not only possible, they’ll be required.
Bryan Rust is likely needed elsewhere in the lineup to maintain balance but based on Brassard’s left-wing experiment or Sullivan’s desire to get maximum production from the top line, he could stick on the first unit.
Sprong has a lot to prove. Look for him to get a big workload this preseason so the Penguins have a better idea of where he fits. He scored only two points in eight games beside Crosby last winter and was scoreless in seven of eight games.
Betting Favorite: Simon
Malkin’s Right Wing
Balance. Mike Sullivan and his assistant coaches prize lineup balance. That’s one reason why Phil Kessel and Malkin were separated. The other reason was the combo did not make either player better, nor did it make the team better. They yielded more goals than they scored. Word around the organization was the coaches just didn’t like the pair together.
Hornqvist excelled on that line with Malkin and left wing Carl Hagelin. Rust also helped drive dominant numbers when dropped on that right side. Sprong is a darkhorse for the spot if he has a good camp. With Hagelin on the left, the Malkin unit has a greater ability to accept a one-dimensional offensive player like Sprong or Kessel than does the Crosby line. A real long shot is a large net-front player like Jimmy Hayes, who is on a two-way contract.
The view from these cheap seats is that Hagelin-Malkin-Hornqvist line is too perfect to disband. Sullivan said on numerous occasions last season, that line “has everything” from speed to grit and scoring.
Betting Favorite: Hornqvist
Update: For what its worth, Malkin is centering Rust and Kessel to begin training camp. –DK
Third Line Right Wing
This where the puzzle gets tricky. Is Derick Brassard the third line center or will be a left wing? Will Riley Sheahan elevate to third line center despite not driving much offense from the spot last season?
Kessel is the overwhelming favorite to land on the third line, so the lineup is balanced. The Penguins don’t stack the top-six and leave the bottom-six to flounder. Given the Penguins depth, they could see offense from all four lines this season, which would be light years ahead of last season when their fourth line put up single-digit point totals.
Brassard is a natural playmaker and on paper should be an ideal fit with Kessel. However, Brassard’s desire to get more ice time could lead him away from the pivot spot (but where?). Sheahan was the only full-time center with whom Kessel didn’t have net negative results, last season. Sheahan and Kessel scored and allowed 15 goals but created more scoring chances and high danger chances than opponents. With Kessel, Sheahan could provide enough offense to survive as the third line center, assuming Kessel is OK with the arrangement. Otherwise, the role falls to one of Rust, Sprong or Simon.
Kessel could score 30 goals playing with Brassard and on the Penguins top power-play unit.
The third line is also where Sprong could fit with a solid camp. The Penguins third line would have defensively responsible players and less responsibility which would allow Sprong to grow into the NHL game if Kessel is deployed with Malkin.
Betting Favorite: Kessel. Long Shot Bet: Sprong
Fourth Line Right Wing
The fourth line center could be one of several worthy candidates, Sheahan, Matt Cullen or Derek Grant. All three have the experience and ability to anchor the line, provide offense and a sound defensive game.
Assuming it’s Cullen or Sheahan, Grant is on the left wing which leaves a right side spot for a young player who can contribute offensively while learning the game. Simon, if he doesn’t draw in on the top line is a strong possibility. Sprong is another possibility if he doesn’t have a glowing camp. And here is where Zach Aston-Reese could make the team.
However, Hayes could be a force to be reckoned with, as well. Hayes, 28, is a large winger at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds. If Sprong doesn’t have a camp worthy of an NHL sweater, Hayes could pop into the lineup. In 334 career games, Hayes has 54 goals and 55 assists, spread between time with Chicago, Florida, Boston, and New Jersey. Hayes has exceeded 100 hits three times in his career.
If the Penguins were not overflowing, Hayes would be the favorite for the spot. However, he will need to score a decisive victory in camp to get the spot. The same is true of Aston-Reese.
Sprong could net 10 goals in the limited fourth-line time while playing with the experienced leader Cullen.
Betting Favorite: Sprong. Co-Favorite: Hayes