Sam Lafferty seemed to be a forgotten man in the Pittsburgh Penguins hierarchy of players able to fill a bottom-six role. Brian Boyle is a big reason (pun intended) why the Penguins fourth line has been stout, and the penalty kill vastly improved. Dominik Simon is seizing his chance, as is rookie Drew O’Connor.
Even Evan Rodrigues, the current top-line center, is assured of a gig when the Penguins coaches put the healthy-roster names in the Yahtzee cup to create new lines.
They’re all fighting for roster spots, but the number of spots will begin dwindling soon as captain Sidney Crosby returns from his injury rehab, and Bryan Rust does the same. Eventually, the Penguins are rumored to get Evgeni Malkin back, too, but December or seems like a lifetime or a half dozen new injuries away.
Mike Sullivan offered a wry crack when asked about his coming decisions.
“…I’m pretty confident that Sid is going to get a spot back in the lineup if that’s what you’re asking,” Sullivan smirked.
Well, yes, Sidney Crosby probably does deserve a spot in the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup, and he may even earn top-six ice time, eh?
It seems likely that both Crosby and Jeff Carter will return within a week. Carter could play by the weekend as he exits COVID protocol. Crosby looks like a million bucks in practice, and he’s pushing his surgically repaired wrist harder and harder with each practice.
But the Penguins bottom-six is flush with more NHL talent than spots. And not everyone will have a chair when the music stops.
“…Some of these other guys–we’ve got a lot of internal competition because a lot of guys played really well, and that’s a good problem to have as a coach,” Sullivan said. “These guys that we have in the lineup right now are competing hard. We’re putting ourselves in a position to win games. I think we’re a team that’s trying to play collectively…”
Lafferty created a Penguins power play with his gritty play, which bordered on agitator on Tuesday night. Not only did he draw defenseman Ryan McDonagh into a roughing double minor, Lafferty later dropped the gloves with Corey Perry.
“I thought they had the momentum there for the first half of that first period. Sam gets in on the forecheck. He gets a big hit. You know, it kind of got our guys into the hockey game a little bit. So you know that that’s the type of impact that Sam can have,” Sullivan said. “(Lafferty) can really skate. He can get in on the forecheck. He’s a big, strong kid. He’s doing penalty killing for us. You know, he’s getting better in that aspect of the game…”
Lafferty has one assist in three games.
Boyle has been a bedrock fourth-line center. No Penguins line created more high-danger chances than the Boyle-led fourth line with Lafferty and Dominik Simon, and the line allowed zero great chances against, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
Sullivan wasn’t done being uncharacteristically light-hearted on Tuesday night when PHN asked about Brian Boyle, too.
“Brian’s a real good penalty killer. He sees the ice really well. He has great awareness. He’s got a lot of experience and, you know, he’s a giant, and he takes up a lot of space. So that helps…,” Sullivan said.
Yes, being a giant does help.
“..He takes up a lot of space. So that helps. He’s big, he’s got a long reach, and he uses his stick extremely well. The biggest thing with Brian is he has a lot of experience, and he just has good recognition skills. You know, he’s got good awareness away from the puck…you know, he came as advertised…”
Pittsburgh Penguins Depth
Simon has been the Penguins’ mischievous elf playing beside the gargantuan Boyle and similarly tall Drew O’Connor. In six games, Simon has four points (1-3-4) and routinely slips beneath the mass of bodies on the wall to steal the puck and create offensive chances.
Not bad for another player signed before training camp on less than an NHL deal. Simon is on a two-way contract but would need to clear waivers if sent to WBS.
Rodrigues has not previously been more than a bubble NHL player. His stalwart work in the middle will likely earn additional playing time elsewhere in the lineup after Carter and Crosby return.
After a hot start, Danton Heinen has daded in the last couple of games. The free-agent forward signed just a one-year deal worth only $1.1 million, so the Penguins are under no pressure of investment to keep him in the lineup if Sullivan chooses Simon, Rodrigues, or O’Connor.
But Heinen is still tied atop the Penguins scoring chart with five points (3-2-5). He’s a shifty player who can play a stealthy but successful game.
And that’s the shuffle. Six players, eventually three spots. All players are NHL-worthy, and all players are at maximum effort.
But yes, Sidney Crosby will indeed have a sweater when he returns, in case you were wondering.