Sooner or later, the Pittsburgh Penguins will begin training camp. Waiting for the official announcement is a lot like driving through Duquense on your way to Kennywood; every stoplight and every delay elicits a groan but only grows the anticipation. Soon the hockey theme park will be open.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins’ two biggest rides, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are shut down for repair. Sorry folks, the moose out front should have told you.
As Penguins GM Ron Hextall put a positive spin on the situation–it opens opportunities for some players who wouldn’t otherwise get a shot. It’s also like asking the 1992 Penguins to win without Mario Lemieux or Ron Francis. The Oilers to win without Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
“I think we’ve got some guys from within that we’re excited about. I think a guy like (Radim) Zohorna who showed what he showed last year and Evan Rodrigues has got a high skill level,” Hextall said. “Obviously, a guy like Teddy Blueger is going to get a little more. And we need Jeff Carter to play well. But this is going to be a group effort to kind of make up for the deficit that we have here.”=
I don’t think Penguins fans are kidding themselves with Zohorna and Rodrigues slotting in as the third or fourth-line centers. It’s going to be a straight uphill climb with every clink and rattle of the Thunderbolt chains causing more worry.
If recent history is any indication, the Penguins’ injury issues will not stop with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, either. No, if history is any guide, the Penguins are in for a few more rude surprises and players on the training table.
Over the past five seasons, the Penguins have led or been among the league leaders in man-games lost. Losing 250 games in a season is what’s expected in that Noah’s Ark funhouse of the Penguins locker room.
“When you have the number of points of the lineup that we’re going to have with Geno and Sid, you need to tighten things up. And obviously, defense and goaltending will have to be tight,” Hextall said last week. “But also upfront, we need you guys to step up offensively and do a good job for us. And we’ve got a lot of proven players up there…So we have enough talent to hold the fort until Sid gets back and then when Geno gets back.”
We’re guessing a bit. Something tells us that the training camp lines and preseason lines won’t be regular season lines. Head coach Mike Sullivan likes to put pairs together, then try out a third member on the line. For example, when Daniel Sprong played with Sidney Crosby in training camp, fans went crazy–the good crazy, not the bad crazy–but it was simply a Sullivan test to see what the kid had and was in no way meant to be permanent.
Such tests won’t be as common in this coming training camp because, of course, there won’t be a Crosby or Malkin to test the kids’ mettle.
Pittsburgh Penguins Lines w/o Crosby & Malkin
Brock McGinn-Evan Rodrigues-Danton Heinen
And there it is. Radim Zohorna has a chance to grab a spot on the fourth line, though his game is probably a bit soft for that spot. Drew O’Connor and Anthony Angello will also be in contention for a wing on the bottom trio, but Dominik Simon is the most experienced and successful of the crew who will hit training camp.
He can even flip to center if absolutely needed.
The third-line players above had only 22 goals last season, as McGinn scored eight and Rodrigues and Heinen scored seven. The fourth line is a bit dreadful when looking at 2020-21 stats. The fourth line has nine goals from Zach Aston-Reese, but none from possible fourth line center Michael Chaput or Simon, and two from Zohorna.
Boyle didn’t play last season and technically isn’t on the roster until he earns a contract from his camp PTO.
The Penguins are in a bind. We like out-of-the-box thinking, and Vegas Golden Knights center Nolan Patrick, whom Hextall drafted in Philadelphia, is still an unsigned RFA. But barring something incredibly unexpected, the Penguins will need to dig in the trenches for points early in the season.
While history shows the Penguins’ inability to stay healthy, it also shows an extraordinary resilience despite the most lineup-crippling injuries.
But those lines may be a bridge too far, even for five games.