Maybe, possibly, at some point, the Pittsburgh Penguins might have a full boat and a healthy roster. In the first 35 games of the season, the Penguins played two periods with anything resembling a healthy roster. Space around the trainer’s table was standing room only. But the cavalry is coming.
Sidney Crosby has been skating and could return soon after the holiday break, if not Friday in Nashville. Patric Hornqvist and Nick Bjugstad have also been skating. Justin Schultz is out week-to-week but is prognosis is not dire. He too could return before early January.
Without Crosby, the Penguins persevered with an 11-5-3 record, including their four-game win streak which Vancouver ended on Saturday night.
Of course, projecting the Penguins healthy lineup is a dangerous business. As the Penguins are set to get significant players back, the current healthy crop should watch their back. The hockey gods have an evil sense of humor.
However, with Crosby and this version of engaged, determined Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins will suddenly vault into Eastern Conference power. The goaltending is another strength as Tristan Jarry leads the NHL in save percentage (.939), goals against average (1.86), and is T-1 with three shutouts.
The difficult and perhaps temporary decisions regarding Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad will shape the Penguins lines. There is also the matter of who gets custody of Jake Guentzel (Yay, two Christmases!).
Bryan Rust will not continue on his point-per-game pace, but his chemistry with Malkin and Guentzel has been spectacular, too. Rust has 25 points (13g, 12a) in 22 games. Malkin has 31 points (9g, 22a) in just 23 games.
As always, head coach Mike Sullivan will mix and match lines on a revolving basis as players ebb and flow. The lines and depth chart also do not assume any trades, which may or may not happen.
Pittsburgh Penguins Lines:
Healthy scratch: Alex Galchenyuk. Returned to AHL: Sam Lafferty, Joseph Blandisi
Reasons: The Simon-Bjugstad-Hornqvist line was spectacular last season. It sputtered in limited action this season, but now we know Bjugstad was dealing with a serious injury.
After a great start to the season, Dominik Simon has gone ice cold. We’re talking Planet Hoth cold (real Star Wars reference).
From this seat, it is tough to break up Malkin-Guentzel. As Sullivan juggles lines, look for Rust to play with Crosby and Hornqvist to play with Malkin. Also, Galchenyuk will get a last chance, too. He could draw in for Simon beside Bjugstad.
Pivotal Decision: Could McCann stay at center? Sullivan’s comments on Friday night were insightful. He said center is McCann’s natural position but also acknowledged McCann is an offensive threat on the wing.
“What we like about Jared on the wing are his speed and his scoring ability,” Sullivan said. “He’s got a pretty good straight-ahead game. He can take defensemen wide. He can get separation. And, when he gets that separation, he can finish.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins defense will need help as Brian Dumoulin will not return until mid-February. The Penguins will have an abundance of right-handed defensemen and we could see more of the righty-righty Kris Letang-John Marino pairing, which isn’t necessarily best for players or team but becomes a necessary evil.
Perhaps Juuso Riikola will get a sweater as a third pairing left-side defenseman to play with Marino, but Riikola was unsteady on Saturday night and coaches seem to prefer four righties with Chad Ruhwedel over Riikola.
So, have at it! The comments are open below. Project the Penguins lineup when they get healthy in the coming weeks.