It’s a common gripe. Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan sometimes shuffles the Penguins lines like he is playing a game of Perfection and every 30 seconds the grid pops up to scatter his pieces. At least he had that reputation before the injuries removed his options.
But there is a method to the madness.
Recently the Penguins line combos have mostly been static because the Penguins simply don’t have the players to mix-and-match. Every bit of versatility and every bit of depth has been put to work. Beyond trying to find a home for Alex Galchneyuk, the lines have been consistent.
“The players are doing a great job in working hard every day and coming to the rink with the right attitude and right frame of mind to be at their best and challenge one another with the healthy guys we have at our disposal,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “When the puck drops, we’re just trying to stay in the moment as far as not looking ahead beyond any games.”
The players are in the moment and so too are the Penguins coaches. It’s easy to look ahead to the return of Sidney Crosby, wonder what may happen when Nick Bjugstad returns, or how good the team might be with when everyone is healthy.
And it would be easy to look ahead and begin building line combinations based on what will be, but the Penguins have kept the simple mindset.
Last month, PHN asked defenseman Kris Letang if he let his mind drift towards what the team could look like or be like when the IR list wasn’t loaded with talent.
“No, we really try to stay in the moment. I mean, it will be nice but we really don’t,” Letang said.
The Penguins record (26-12-5) and third place in the Metro Division are hard to argue against. Despite playing without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, despite losing their top defenseman, and currently without two of their three best defensemen, and a lineup slammed with injury have continued to win.
Penguins Line Combinations
Eventually, Sullivan will again have depth and options at his disposal. And the line shuffling may begin again, including the Penguins scoring lines which are now led by Evgeni Malkin.
“We’re trying to surround “Geno” with players who can help him be successful and in turn, it helps us be successful,” Sullivan said. “But also we’re trying to create some balance in our lineup, so we have the ability to score goals throughout our lineup.”
Sullivan has brushed aside, sometimes jokingly, what the Penguins lines will look like when Crosby returns. Based on Crosby’s day off on Thursday and lack of a morning skate on Friday, it would seem unlikely Crosby takes a sweater Friday night in Colorado. But soon, the iconic No. 87 will return and there will be more musical chairs to find the right combinations.
Will Jared McCann stay at center when Bjugstad returns? Who will play on Crosby’s wings? One option may be off the table, for now.
“We’ve got a number of different options to move people around. Obviously, we’ve really liked Teddy Blueger’s line (with Brandon Tanev and Zach Aston-Reese),” Sullivan said. “That’s why we’ve kept it together. They’ve got a unique identity on this team, they’re a great checking line.”
“Right now, with Jared McCann, and Patric playing as well as he is, and usually it’s one of the Dominiks (Simon, Kahun) that’s on those lines, that’s a line that has the ability to score.”
And that’s how the Penguins coaches put lines together. Combinations, being in the moment and balance. Sometimes, those ideals conflict and despite their best efforts to keep four steady lines, winning the game they’re in is far more important than worrying about building lines for the future.
Perhaps McCann will team with Crosby and Bjugstad will resume his role in the middle of the Penguins lineup. Perhaps Sullivan will keep Blueger and his wingers together and build from the Blueger line and the Malkin-Bryan Rust combination which has served the Penguins well.
So, if you’ve ever wondered, “why,” the two guiding principles will be building on combinations and the moment. And 26 wins with as much talent out of the lineup as in the lineup is a pretty good result.