There are more bodies and competent players than the Pittsburgh Penguins have sweaters to give. Saturday, Dominik Kahun was served a dish of press box nachos despite four points in his previous two games, both of which were resounding Penguins wins. And those are the choices head coach Mike Sullivan has decided with the depth and strength of his roster, he doesn’t have “a fourth line,” per se.
Sullivan subtly jabbed back at a question from PHN about what he would ideally like to see from a fourth line.
“If you look at the way our team is constructed, we have a line–and if you want to call Teddy Blueger’s line our fourth line–we have a line there that is hard to play against,” Sullivan said.
The clear inference was to avoid labeling the Penguins players as “fourth-liners,” which can be akin to calling players plumbers, pluggers, or even space fillers. In the salary-cap age, many teams use bubble NHL players to fill those spots. Sullivan first made a point to separate his crew from those clutches.
In fact, the Blueger line played more minutes than the Bjugstad line on Saturday afternoon.
“We’ve got to be better in terms of finishing, but the possession in their end contributes to the momentum and gets everyone feeling good about themselves,” Blueger said of his line’s performance.
Saturday, the Pittsburgh Penguins (not) fourth-liners posted a Corsi and scoring chance ratio above 80%, and they saw significant ice time against the Edmonton second line anchored by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. That is production well above bottom line status. Stats according to NaturalStatTrick.com.
The Penguins had a similar situation in 2016 and 2017 when center Matt Cullen led the Penguins fourth line. They were able to play against the best of the opposition, and Cullen chipped in 30 or more points in his first two seasons with the Penguins before he left to retire (and unretire) in Minnesota.
Blueger is the heir to the bottom line role, but at 24-years-old and just 42 games of NHL experience, Blueger is still growing into the role and may soon elevate beyond the traditional position. In his first 41 games, Blueger had 15 points, which also puts him on the same 30-point pace as Cullen.
“That line brings a lot of speed, that can kill penalties, all three of them,” Sullivan said. “Teddy’s a good faceoff guy. We can play them against the other team’s top players, so it gives a coach a lot options.”
Those options are to crash and bang against fellow grinders and see which line can tilt the ice for their big-time scorers, or ground and pound on the opposing top lines. Sullivan used a healthy mix of both roles for his fourth line with Cullen and Zach Aston-Reese last season. The resulting freedom for Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and winger Jake Guentzel was the opportunity to abuse lower line opponents, which couldn’t keep up.
“We can choose to go power against power if we want, but also if we want to take our top guys out of defensive hard-minute situations, we’ve got a line that we’re comfortable with that we can put in those situations,” Sullivan continued.
The wings beside Blueger are Zach Aston-Reese, who is 6-foot-0, and (conservatively) listed at 204 pounds. Aston-Reese can play a heavy game and has shown an ability to generate offense against top lines. The right side winger with Blueger is Brandon Tanev, whom the Penguins signed on July 1 to a six-year, $21 million contract.
Aston-Reese was given a two-year, $2 million contract while waiting at the arbitration table in August.
As the Pittsburgh Penguins figure out their line configurations, the Sullivan may need to pull the talents from that line to fortify others. Or he can leave it alone as getting one right.