Projecting the Pittsburgh Penguins lines is now, unfortunately, easier without Nick Bjugstad, who had spinal surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota on Tuesday. We won’t know if Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan would have put Jared McCann in the middle or Bjugstad on the third line.
There are more battles and decisions ahead for Sullivan, but now those decisions shift to finding the player who has his legs or rhythm beside the established players.
Always keep in mind Sullivan likes to build pairs and shuffle the third member. So, Conor Sheary may appear on the top line, but will not last if he isn’t on top of his game. We expect Sullivan to pair Jake Guentzel with Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust to Evgeni Malkin in the NHL playoffs.
Sullivan kept the fourth line together for most of the season, so that seems to have some permanence. The rest may be fluid.
The biggest battle remaining will be if Evan Rodrigues can force his way into the Penguins lineup. The forward whom the Penguins acquired with Conor Sheary from Buffalo at the NHL trade deadline has only 10 points (6g, 4a) in 45 games this season. He has just one goal in seven games with the Penguins and served as a healthy scratch against the Washington Capitals on March 7.
Rodrigues played very well in the two games following the press box experience. He scored his first Penguins goal in the final game before the NHL season pause. The righty could slot on Crosby’s right wing or down the lineup if Sullivan elevates Patric Hornqvist or Bryan Rust.
Sheary has the weakest foothold in the lineup. Should he or the Penguins top line not look cohesive, he could be the first (and quickest) change.
Sam Lafferty nor Anthony Angello will supplant any of the Penguins top four centers, but Lafferty will be the first out of the press box if the Penguins need to replace a left winger.
As part of the NHL playoffs and return to play plan, the league expanded rosters to 28 skaters. None of the projected Penguins “Black Aces” including Adam Johnson or Phil Varone are immediate threats to crack the Penguins lines. Still, if the Penguins do suffer an injury or multiple injuries, perhaps 2019 first round pick Sam Poulin could jump into the lineup if the Penguins need to fill a “skill” role.
If the Penguins select Poulin for the expanded roster, his Phase 3 training camp performance will dictate his position. It is far from a guarantee that he receives the call.
The Penguins do not have any battles on the blue line. Spare defensemen Juuso Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel are comfortable as the Penguins seventh and eighth defensemen.
Pittsburgh Penguins Lines
Guentzel – Crosby – Sheary
Zucker – Malkin – Rust
Marleau – McCann – Hornqvist
Aston-Reese — Blueger — Tanev
Penguins Defense Pairs and Goalie
Dumoulin – Letang
Pettersson – Marino
Johnson – Schultz
Muray is the unquestioned starter as the NHL begins preparations to move to Phase 2 sometime next week. We’re in uncharted territory in the NHL playoffs Return to Play Plan, so no one is quite sure how it will affect goalies. Murray has struggled with health and consistency in the first half of each of the past three seasons.
In January, the Penguins coaches privately laid out the goalie rotation with Murray scheduled for the big games. However, coaches were quick to caution both goalies that the situation would change based on performance.