CRANBERRY — It’s a virtual certainty that the Pittsburgh Penguins will make some changes to their lineup when they visit St. Louis Saturday night.
The real question is, just how many will there be and why are they being made?
Perhaps the reason will be injuries. Top-four defenseman Kris Letang (lower-body) and fourth-line center Noel Acciari (upper-body) did not participate in practice Thursday because their issues were being evaluated, so it would be folly to assume they will be available for the Blues game.
Or maybe it will be performance-related. The Penguins put bottom-six winger Jansen Harkins on waivers Thursday, so it’s possible he will be on another team’s payroll by the time their flight to Missouri lifts off Friday afternoon.
And even if he makes it through unclaimed, the Penguins will have the option of sending him to their farm team in Wilkes-Barre, although they would not be required to do so.
Harkins has been deployed primarily on right wing of the third line, but was moved to the left side on the fourth line for part of the Penguins’ 6-3 loss in Detroit Wednesday and was there again during practice Thursday.
Shedding Harkin’s $850,000 salary-cap hit would allow the Pittsburgh Penguins to recall a forward from Wilkes-Barre, but if Acciari is not healthy enough to dress for the St. Louis game, it’s conceivable that they will have to go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen unless they would waive one of their eight defensemen to clear some cap space.
Regardless of precisely how things play out, coach Mike Sullivan made it clear that he is considering some adjustments to the lineup.
He offered the usual bromide of aiming to assemble the lineup that “gives us the best chance to win” — shouldn’t it be assumed that every team not in the process of tanking is doing that? — but the Penguins’ uneven showings at times during the first four games appear to have spurred him to seriously contemplate some of his personnel options.
“We consider a lot of those things almost daily,” he said. “And we’ll continue to have those discussions.”
It’s not clear whether the P.O Joseph-Chad Ruhwedel defense pairing, which struggled during the game in Detroit, would have remained intact if Letang had been available for practice.
As it is, the changes Thursday involved plugging Ryan Shea into Letang’s usual spot opposite Ryan Graves, and flipping Matt Nieto from left wing on the fourth line onto Harkin’s place on the right side of the No. 3 unit.
Nieto, like most Penguins forwards, is versatile enough to play more than one position, and said switching to the other wing doesn’t present any significant challenges.
“Just a few minor adjustments,” he said. “Breakouts. The way you handle (pucks around the boards) … I’ll be on my forehand playing on the right side, as opposed to on my backhand on the left. Other than that, the way our system is, everyone is pretty interchangeable. The first guy back (into the defensive end) is low. You’re kind of playing all positions throughout a game, anyway.”
Nieto took the positional switch in stride and he, along with his teammates, seem to feel pretty much the same about the way the Pittsburgh Penguins sputtered at times during the first eight days of the season. While they’re not happy about those lapses, they’re not obsessing over them, either.
“I don’t think it’s cause for concern,” Nieto said. “It’s not an effort thing. We’re playing with good intentions. There just are phases where we’re not on the same page, or don’t click. The only time you should be concerned is when the compete level is not there, and that hasn’t been the case.
“We’ve played some good hockey and some hockey that might not be our best, but we’re figuring it out. This group in here really wants to win, so we will figure it out.”