The emergency recall rules and obvious player comparisons will make Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford’s job easy tomorrow. If Bryan Rust or Nick Bjugstad are able to play, by NHL rules the Penguins must return one of their emergency call-ups to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL. If both Rust and Bjugstad are able to play, then two of the call-ups which have inhabited the Penguins fourth line will get the ticket back to northeastern PA.
Those are the easy decisions.
If Rust returns Saturday, Adam Johnson will likely be the first to go because he is a winger. If Bjugstad returns, the Penguins will give Blandisi the thank you for your service TED talk.
Johnson has played seven games and has two points (1g, 1a). His speed has been disruptive, and the Penguins fourth line has acquitted itself quite well. Blandisi has also played seven games and has the game stat line, one goal, and one assist.
What follows gets more complicated.
Evgeni Malkin and Alex Galchenyuk have reportedly begun to skate hard during their personal workouts. Each is expected back within a couple of weeks, but of course, hockey teams loathe official statements or prognoses because they believe opponents will test the injured parts with extra-legal hits. When one or both of those players return to the Penguins lineup, the tough decisions begin.
The Penguins over-stocked their blue line when Rust was initially injured. Instead of a forward, they recalled John Marino. Rust’s injury allowed them the cap space to do so. Rookie Sam Lafferty was the first emergency call up after Malkin and Bjugstad were injured in the second game of the season.
By rule, Lafferty must be returned to WBS when the Penguins reach 12 healthy forwards, but how long will that demotion last? Minutes?
Lafferty has become a part of the Penguins lineup. He is a regular penalty killer and has chipped in five points (3g, 2a) in nine games. More telling, he is averaging nearly 14 minutes of ice time.
By comparison, Dominik Kahun has a pair of assists and is averaging a full minute less than Lafferty. The Penguins could easily keep Lafferty by easing the logjam on their blue line unless, of course, the Penguins want to make Juuso Riikola the super-sub as both a defenseman and a forward.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have already made interesting lineup decisions this season. After Marino’s emergence, Riikola is the eighth defenseman and a natural left side defender. However, when top left-sider Brian Dumoulin was injured, Riikola did not take one of those spots. Instead, the Penguins have flipped top defenseman Kris Letang to the left side and paired him with Marino on the right.
The coach’s film may show something different, but these eyes have seen a lot of straying, positional confusion, and slower breakouts on the Penguins defensive pairing most relied upon for offensive help. The Penguins have contorted their blue line structure to keep Marino in the lineup, which is a pretty good indication that Marino will stay when everything else returns to normal.
As an additional price, they were also forced to pair defensemen with similar games: Jack Johnson with Erik Gudbranson
Blue Line Confusion
If Marino stays in the lineup, that means the Johnson-Gudbranson rotation, which was in effect before Dumoulin’s injury, will return. The early results of that were uneven, at best. Johnson and Marino played well, but Gudbranson was not comfortable on the left side of Marino, and it showed.
At 5v5, Gudbranson-Marino had a whopping 28% Corsi rating.
Ready for the shocker? Of the three pairings, Gudbranson-Marino, Johnson-Marino, and Johnson-Gudbranson guess which pairing had the best Corsi percentage and most scoring chances?
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, of course, it’s Johnson-Gudbranson. The pair posted a 50% rate and were on the ice for 22 scoring chances-for, but only 16 against. The derided pair played about 58 minutes together, which is the same amount of ice time for Johnson-Marino.
Marino without either Johnson or Gudbranson has a 57% Corsi rating in 58 minutes, but has less scoring chances and has been on the ice for more goals against than for.
For the second consecutive season, it appears the Pittsburgh Penguins blue line configuration will be about pounding square pegs in round holes.
The choice is Gudbranson or Marino as the third pair, right side defenseman with Johnson. Perhaps that would be the more stable rotation–Gudbranson/Marino. By the numbers and by the eyes, the better pairings were Johnson-Marino and Johnson-Gudbranson.
Though Riikola didn’t get a shot, either.
If it seems convoluted, that is because the situation is messy. It won’t be a matter of the Pittsburgh Penguins keeping the 12 best forwards and six best defensemen. Salaries, chemistry, and overall team results will factor into the decisions, and each decision affects the next.
As a fourth line, it’s hard not to be tantalized by what Aston-Reese, Blueger, and Lafferty could do. Each brings a gritty element. Blueger and Lafferty could create a fast, intense forecheck. The Penguins have occasionally deployed that line with good results. Their shot attempts outpaced opponents in nine minutes of ice time.
The sacrifice is coming. Without a trade, the Penguins must demote two players when Malkin and Galchenyuk return. Marino and Lafferty have made the decisions difficult, and to keep one or both, a player on an NHL contract will need to go.
The reality is the Penguins don’t have any forwards who would clear waivers. So, Lafferty is probably the odd-man-out if only because of asset management.
Professional press box inhabitant Chad Ruhwedel could be sent to WBS to clear space for Marino and Ruhwedel would likely clear, but the Penguins declined that option a few weeks ago when they demoted Marino instead.
Keeping Marino doesn’t seem to be a difficult decision, but the Penguins could have a couple of NHL contracts buried in Wilkes-Barre soon. Unless, of course, they finally make that trade.