The Pittsburgh Penguins are actually, finally, maybe, possibly, sort of all-the-way healthy this season for the first time since the beginning of their final preseason game in September. For the calendar month of October, the Penguins were without multiple NHL regulars. Saturday, Evgeni Malkin will most likely return to the lineup and the Penguins will be whole but that means head coach Mike Sullivan must make a tough decision to scratch a healthy player.
Dominik Kahun fresh from a three-point game against Philadelphia Tuesday night appears to be the odd-man-out.
Kahun, 24, rotated through the Penguins line rushes Friday at practice. It’s entirely possible, the Penguins will give Jared McCann some rest as the center has not looked to be fully healthy since being forced to miss two of three games last week, but Kahun sharing time with McCann likely means press box nachos for the first-year Penguins winger.
“We’ve felt he’s been around it for a few games,” said head coach Mike Sullivan in praise of Kahun last Saturday after the winger scored his first Penguins goal.
Indeed, Kahun has elevated his play over the last few games. However, he was largely invisible before that. Kahun has frequently had the lowest ice time of forwards not on an emergency recall, and played fewer minutes than Sam Lafferty. Despite playing well last Saturday and again Tuesday, Kahun didn’t even reach nine minutes of ice time.
The Penguins acquired Kahun for Olli Maatta this summer. Until his three-point outburst, Kahun had only three points in his first 12 games. Kahun didn’t get to play with Sidney Crosby but his production didn’t warrant it.
Sullivan is making the right call. The Penguins want to play fast, heavy and aggressive. Kahun can play fast and sprinkle some offensive talent or creativity into the lineup, but he’s not going to work the corners (wait, let me rephrase that) or battle on the wall. It’s a balancing act for Sullivan, who may create a rotation of players to sit.
If Sullivan feels he needs more offensive skill in his lineup, Kahun could be inserted and a player such as Zach Aston-Reese or Teddy Blueger could get a seat. But that fourth line–ZAR-Blueger-Tanev looks like a beast-in-waiting. It will be hard to play against, able to defend opponent’s top lines which will give Sidney Crosby some breathing room, and the line will be able to outskate most while also physically punishing its opponents.
If the fans allow Sullivan to make the move.
It seems the Pittsburgh Penguins fan base needs a villain. Jack Johnson is playing well with John Marino, Dominik Simon has looked strong this season, and Sullivan did well to create a workable lineup from spare parts and Sam Lafferty. Geez, can’t an angry fan who mimics hockey knowledge through repetitious and relentless social media criticism catch a break?
Enter Zach Aston-Reese.
Whew, for a second fans were without someone to pile-on. The heavy Penguins winger has only five points (3g, 2a) in 13 games this season. He had a rough night against Winnipeg early in the season in which his turnover at the blue line changed the game. That night, he also missed a couple of glorious scoring chances.
Aston-Reese also kills penalties, plays the hard aggressive game the Penguins want, and is an emerging player. We don’t actually know how good Aston-Reese can be, yet. He appeared to begin to scratch the surface last season before a broken hand then a lower body injury derailed him.
Aston-Reese might have 15-goal, 35-point potential even on the fourth line. Moreso if he played with Malkin as he did for a few weeks last season.
Dominik Simon beat Kahun for the skilled forward without great numbers position in the Pittsburgh Penguins line up. Aston-Reese is a different kind of player entirely. If Sullivan scratches Kahun, it will be the right call today.