With a couple days between Pittsburgh Penguins games, perhaps it’s time to have a little fun looking ahead at a situation that could unfold around New Year’s – will winger Jake Guentzel remain with center Evgeni Malkin or pop back onto center Sidney Crosby’s flank?
Will Crosby and Malkin stage some sort of competition – card game, video game, thumb wrestling? – with the high stakes being the services of the skilled winger?
Will Crosby’s feelings get hurt if Guentzel stays on Malkin’s line?
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Guentzel said with a grin Sunday after the Penguins practiced at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “Both are really good players, so whoever you’re playing with you’re getting one of the best in the world.”
Crosby and Guentzel have been practically tied at the hip the past couple seasons as linemates, staying together even at times the coaches go through rounds of line shuffling, and with good reason. They are uber productive together. Last season, for instance, Guentzel scored 40 goals and Crosby led the team with 100 points.
Crosby and Guentzel have been durable the past couple seasons, but now Crosby is expected to be out another five weeks or so after having core muscle surgery Nov. 14.
When Crosby first left the lineup, and before it was known he would be out longer term, the Penguins simply plugged his spot, namely with Jared McCann.
But the coaches rethought things when Crosby opted for the surgery and center Nick Bjugstad also needed surgery. They retooled and loaded up on a new top line – Guentzel, Malkin and Bryan Rust.
In five games together, Guentzel (three goals, three assists), Malkin (two goals, five assists) and Rust (three goals, three assist) have combined for 19 points.
Not that anyone is starting to stay, “Sidney who?”
And this is not to dismiss Rust’s presence on the line.
“Rusty plays well. He supports us and scores goals,” Malkin said.
But like a lot of coaches, Mike Sullivan makes finding effective pairs of forwards, rather than trios, a priority.
Malkin was due for a new linemate or two when it became obvious that struggling winger Alex Galchenyuk was not developing an on-ice bond with Malkin in his first season with the Penguins, and the timing worked with Crosby and Bjugstad out.
Rust, with his speed, versatility and hot start to the season, could benefit any line – and has over the past few seasons. He began the season out because of a broken hand but has been gangbusters, with nine goals, 13 points in 12 games since making his delayed season debut.
Rust could even be a top-rate consolation prize for Crosby should the Penguins elect to keep Guentzel alongside Malkin when Crosby returns.
It might be early to wonder whether Malkin and Guentzel could be effective long-term, but the initial results are hard to ignore. Even Sullivan – after Rust and Malkin set up Guentzel for a breakaway goal Friday that proved to be the winner in a 4-1 game against New Jersey – proclaimed that the new top line has “chemistry.”
Of course, the decision of how to deploy Guenztel once Crosby returns is up to the coaches, but there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun guessing.
“It’s hard to say right now. When Sid is back, we have no idea,” Malkin said. “I hope we play well, and when Sid gets back he’ll probably play with ‘Guentz.’ They (have) played a long time. Their chemistry is perfect.”
Not 90 seconds later, though, Malkin mused about Guentzel remaining on his line.
“We hope we play at the same level a long time,” Malkin said of the new top line. “When Sid is back, maybe we’ll play (with) the same line.”
Who wouldn’t want to play with someone who scored 40 goals last season and so far this season leads the Penguins in goals with 11 and points with 20 going into Monday’s game against Calgary at PPG Paints Arena?
“Yeah, for sure,” Malkin said.
Guentzel feels the same about Crosby and Malkin. Who wouldn’t want to play with either when each has his name on the NHL Hart (MVP) and Art Ross (scoring title) trophies?
“It’s been different,” Guentzel allowed about playing with a different center, even one as talented as Malkin. “You play with Sid that long. And then he goes down, so you’ve just got to find new chemistry quick, and it’s been good so far. ‘Geno’ makes it pretty easy. He’s such a skilled player, so you just try to get him the puck and try and get open. They’re both so gifted with their passing. So not much changes on my end.”
But will things change back or remain as they are?
“We’ll see how it plays out, see what happens,” Guentzel said.