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Penguins Lines Will Keep Changing, Sullivan Explains the Madness



Mike Sullivan: Photo by Michael Miller
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. Photo by Michael Miller

Brandon Tanev skated beside Sidney Crosby Friday at Pittsburgh Penguins practice. Tanev previously skated with Evgeni Malkin and Alex Galchenyuk while Dominik Kahun skated with Crosby. The season has not yet begun, and Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan is tinkering with the mix-and-match Penguins lines.

You don’t have to agree with the decisions. Heck, even the coaches sometimes don’t like their trios. But believe it or not, there is an explainable and logical method to the madness.¬†Sullivan and the Penguins coaches build lines based on combinations; twos not threes. We’ve discussed that, but Sullivan put it all in context Friday.

“It’s not a secret, we try to start with tandems,” Sulivan began. “Usually, there is a pretty consistent element with two guys on a line. We might move that odd guy around our top players based on what their needs are,” Sullivan began. “(It is) based on how guys are playing, but also who our opponents are. We try to take a look at all of those things.”

OK, with Sullivan it’s more than the occasional swap. Last season, five players got significant time as the third wheel with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. It would have been six, but Derick Brassard was injured during his much-awaited tryout in November.

Otherwise, Dominik Simon, Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist, Phil Kessel, and Jared McCann slotted on the first line. In the salary cap era, teams are not able to afford a plethora of All-Stars. So, Sullivan chooses the game-to-game approach. Often the Penguins even make changes within the game. One very successful head coach named Scotty Bowman had a similar philosophy, but he never worked under salary cap constraints.

What works for the Penguins lines on Tuesday may not work on Saturday. Players who click this week might be a hot mess by Sunday, but with some time apart, the spark returns. Then it fades again. It is the mystical, unexplainable part of hockey.

If you can explain why, there are 32 NHL teams which have a job opening.

“Some of the players we’ve added to our team, Dominik Kahun being one, he’s a guy we can move all around the lineup,” Sullivan said. “But we can do the same thing with Brandon Tanev, with Rusty [sic], or Dominik Simon, or some of these other guys as well.”

The variables are ever-changing. Who is playing well? Who has their legs? Which player changes the dynamic of a line to best combat the opponent’s scheme? Crosby went through five or six linemates. Last season, Evgeni Malkin sometimes had even more as the coaches tried to spark the frustrated Russian dynamo.

The opponents do play a role when the Penguins set their lines.

“If we want speed, we can go to the speed guys. If we want skill and playmaking ability, we can go to a player like Dominik Kahun or Dom Simon,” Sullivan explained. “I think we have versatility with the group of people that we have here right now. I think that is going to make us a whole lot more difficult to play against.”

Cut to the chase, there isn’t a benefit for a coach waiting for a line to figure it out when the coach has other options and time apart may cure the ills. The Penguins lines will be the most versatile lineup they have ever had. It is certainly the most flexible lineup I’ve ever seen. And so the Penguins coaches will mix-and-match their lines using all of those criteria and probably a few gut feelings mixed in as well.

Some you’ll like. Some you won’t. The coaches will go through the same. But for everyone who asks why the Sullivan swaps, juggles and shuffles the lines, there is the answer.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now Editor-in-Chief, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight, NHL Home Ice. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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2 years ago

I wish they practiced more and had less games in the pre-season.

2 years ago

Dejavu– that worked so well last year! Right.
Sid and Geno appear to do much better when there is consistency in their line-up. Just look at their best years and check out who played L/R wing—it was the same players. They seemed to have a great sense of each other on the ice. Last year is a perfect example of flipping lines constantly—-even our marquee players looked like they were lost at times.

Derrick Stewart
Derrick Stewart
2 years ago

It makes sense but it seems very subjective. If this tandem philosophy becomes an increasing trend among coaching staffs, I wonder how many trio lines could have had a great stretch but we’ll never know because the plug was pulled too soon.

Do you think this is a by-product of all the analytics in the game? If so, it’s going to be interesting to see how the game further evolves once all this player/puck tracking data becomes intelligible.

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