The Pittsburgh Penguins won two of their first three games to begin the season. After further lineup decimation, including Jeff Carter and Kris Letang, the Penguins exposed the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night, 7-1. Drew O’Connor had two goals. Brian Boyle had a goal and a fight.
The Penguins methodology hasn’t changed from the past seven iterations of head coach Mike Sullivan’s teams, and the Penguins’ ability to win without crucial players remains unchanged. It’s even more impressive doing it without Sidney Crosby AND Evgeni Malkin AND Kris Letang.
And without Jake Guentzel, then without Bryan Rust. That means the Penguins’ third and fourth-best forwards have played only two periods together, too. I’ll let you decide who is the third-best and the fourth-best.
The Penguins’ constant injury issues haven’t changed. Nor has their ability to win under adverse circumstances.
Despite the same storyline, something has changed: The Pittsburgh Penguins suddenly have big players in their lineup. Between Boyle and O’Connor, there is nearly 13 feet of humanity who knows how to use it.
And they have some toughness, but big questions will loom, too.
The Penguins displayed their additional “abilities” later in the third period. Toronto forward Wayne Simmonds needed to save face and roughed up a couple of Penguins before Brian Boyle skated over to draw Simmonds’s attention.
Boyle and Simmonds fought. Benches gave stick taps. Toronto proved they cared. But the Penguins had someone to answer the challenge, no one else targeted the Penguins smaller players, and the matter was settled.
Boyle added that new dimension.
It also doesn’t hurt that he won nine of 11 faceoffs against Toronto, but that’s a more boring subject for a more boring day.
Here’s the Beef
On the eve of training camp, the Penguins were not a big team. They had 6-foot-3 Jeff Carter. Malkin is 6-foot-3. And that was it. Commenters to this website routinely called the Penguins forwards “Smurfs,” and they weren’t entirely wrong.
However, with a sleight of hand and a little bit of luck, Penguins GM Ron Hextall has potentially transformed the Penguins into a big team, for now. Carter. Brian Boyle is 6-foot-6. Drew O’Connor is 6-foot-3.
Both play the game like big men.
Specifically, Boyle and O’Connor tortured the Chicago Blackhawks last Saturday by using their size low in the offensive zone. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, the crew with maligned Dominik Simon had a Corsi hovering around 80%. They created the most scoring chances of any Penguins line (6), the most high-danger chances (4), and didn’t allow a high-danger chance against.
O’Connor had two points, including his first NHL goal. His assist was stealing the puck from Marc-Andre Fleury on the back wall and getting it to the net.
“(Boyle) makes it easy to play with because he’s constantly talking on the ice and on the bench…,” O’Connor said last Saturday night. “He’s so good with protecting the puck and using his size, and I think we kind of can play well together–just getting the pucks down low and kind of using each other like that. So I think it’s been great playing with him.”
Boyle had a good night as a center against Toronto on Saturday. He was an assist away from a Gordie Howe hat trick.
As the third line center, O’Connor had two goals and a few chances for the hat trick.
“(O’Connor’s) learning curve is so steep right now, and we believe he’s only going to get better. He does have a bit of a power forward game in the sense that he skates so well and he’s and he’s strong on the puck,” Mike Sullivan said. “He’s a heavy body so he can hang onto pucks down low. He’s hard to push off the puck and he’s got a real good shot. You know, he’s willing to take pucks to the net.”
The big men are playing big roles.
When together, the O’Connor-Boyle-Simon line is a departure from the Teddy Blueger-led fourth line with Brandon Tanev and Zach Aston-Reese, which used speed to be a tenacious shutdown line. Nonetheless, the Boyle line is working and the Penguins bottom six has been a primary driver.
Big Pittsburgh Penguins Questions:
What happens to Boyle and O’Connor when the Penguins get healthy? O’Connor was the first recall and the first to leave the lineup.
But should he be the one on the bubble?
Afterall, one of Hextall’s and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke’s stated goal was to add size to the lineup. Hextall seemingly whiffed on that agenda item because the Penguins didn’t add any size via trade or free agency all summer.
But Hextall pulled a rabbit out of his hat–Boyle arrived on a PTO just before camp, and O’Connor forced his way into the lineup with a breakout training camp.
The duo gives the Penguins legitimate size.
Soon, Sidney Crosby and Carter will come back to the lineup, which will negate the need for two centers. Evan Rodrigues or Brian Boyle?
Here’s a sentence I didn’t think I would ever type: Drew O’Connor and Evan Rodrigues currently lead the Penguins in scoring.
Eventually, Evgeni Malkin will come back, too, and the top four centers will be Crosby-Malkin-Carter-Blueger, which means no room for Boyle, either.
And the Penguins size goes away, too.
Is that best for the Penguins?
There’s a lot of question marks in this column, so how about huge What-If to ponder:
Sullivan and staff should give serious consideration to moving Malkin to LW beside Jeff Carter or Crosby. Playing on the wing would force Malkin to play without the puck more (which can sometimes be a good thing), but it is also a less taxing position. The Penguins might be able to get the best of Malkin and keep him healthy.
Mario Lemieux made the same move at about the same age.
Without Malkin at center, the Penguins’ current speed game with a heavy dose of simplicity would remain. It would also free up the fourth-line center spot for Boyle.
Such an out-of-the-box move seems unlikely.
Creating Penguins Trade Chips
The Penguins will be about $1.5 million over the salary cap when Malkin returns (assuming the Penguins can’t pull a “Kucherov” and extend his LTIR until the first game of the playoffs).
These are good problems to have, eventually.
Boyle and O’Connor must keep pace, too. The sample size is only five games, but it mirrored what we saw in training camp: defensively responsible forwards who created greasy offensive chances because of their size.
Boyle has been the Penguins’ top penalty killer. Keeping him in the lineup, if the current trajectory continues, should be a goal. Someone able to protect the smaller players when the temperature rises is not a bad thing. Simmonds vs. Boyle was an old-school fight and settled the issue.
Hextall and the Pittsburgh Penguins have a couple of months to figure it out. Letting the players decide is an old coaches’ adage, but it is true.
Youth and energy. Size and desperation. The Penguins surprisingly have those elements in the lineup, and it will be a team effort to keep it.
It’s the toughness and size the Penguins wanted. Now they need to find a way to keep O’Connor and Boyle in the lineup.