The Pittsburgh Penguins are finally beginning to resemble the team which began training camp. For most of the first month of the season, the Penguins have been a patchwork unit with experiments and rookies. Things were momentarily worse Saturday night when captain Sidney Crosby appeared to be injured when he was hit in the head by a deflected shot. Crosby returned and the Penguins are set to get Evgeni Malkin and Alex Galchenyuk back, too.
Soon enough the Penguins will be at full strength, at least at forward. Defenseman Brian Dumoulin’s status is still unknown but Juuso Riikola and John Marino had an exciting game Saturday in which they not only did their job but provided offensive pressure, too.
The strong game from the Penguins young defensemen only adds to the decisions the Penguins coaches will need to huddle over.
Sam Lafferty vs. Dominik Kahun?
Where does Lafferty fit? The Pittsburgh Penguins grinding rookie has earned significant ice time. Using ice time as a gauge for usage and thus most likely to be out of the lineup, Lafferty has consistently earned well more ice time than new Penguins forward Dominik Kahun. Lafferty has also well outscored Kahun, despite being deployed in roles with less offensive expectations (read, fourth line duty with less talented players).
Lafferty has six points (3g, 3a) in 10 games and earned an assist on Kahun’s first Penguins goal Saturday. Kahun has only three points including that ice-breaking goal (1g, 2a). The Penguins line configuration and if head coach Mike Sullivan feels he needs a top-nine winger could swing the decision towards the more offensively talented Kahun. If Sullivan chooses toughness, speed and grinding offense for the bottom six, Lafferty should get the nod.
Update: Kahun would need to clear waivers in order to keep Lafferty, which adds an obstacle to keeping Lafferty.
Jack Johnson vs. Juuso Riikola
Johnson played well Saturday beside Kris Letang. Johnson has also been a steady presence beside Marino, too. On the surface, Riikola is a long shot in this hypothetical. Johnson is generally accepted as one of the Penguins best, if not the best penalty killer and is by far the Penguins most physical defenseman. He is also the leading shot blocker, too.
Riikola made a positive impression in his first chance to play defense this season. His speed and jump out of the defensive zone was a tangible asset for the Penguins against Dallas. At 5v5, Riikola made a good case to be in the lineup. However, the Penguins shorthanded needs trump the yet unproven even-strength benefits.
My apologies for the cold water on the fervent anti-Johnson sentiment, but you know, truth and all.
Small side note, Marcus Pettersson will eventually need to improve his play. He has not been as stellar yet this season. Before the season, when PHN asked about defensive pairings, Sullivan called Pettersson one of the Penguins four best defensemen. The Pettersson-Schultz pairing has been very good on half of the ice but not so great on their own side of the red line.
Roster Decision: Ruhwedel?
The Penguins will eventually send down Joseph Blandisi and Adam Johnson. Then comes the decision. The Penguins will need to send one more player to the WBS Penguins. Sullivan will choose between carrying 13 forwards and carrying eight defensemen, which means Lafferty/forward vs. Chad Ruhwedel.
The decision seems like an easy one: Keep Lafferty on the roster and waive Ruhwedel. However, the Penguins have danced around that decision for more than a season. They carried eight defensemen for most of the 2018-19 season. Even when the team sent Ruhwedel to WBS on a conditioning assignment, they recalled Zach Trotman as the eighth defenseman.
The only players would not need to pass through waivers are defenseman John Marino and Lafferty but neither should be going anywhere. The Penguins forwards lineup would receive a greater benefit by keeping Lafferty than the blue line would benefit from serving Chad Ruhwedel another season of press box nachos, and Marino has earned his keep on the ice.
Pittsburgh Penguins Lineup Projection:
In this scenario, Lafferty is the better option for the Penguins bottom line than Kahun. Lafferty is growing into his NHL game, is better able to defend opposing top lines with a gritty presence and has increasingly gone to the front of the net. Kahun isn’t out of the running, though. Now that he finally put ink on the score sheet, perhaps he goes on a run, earns more ice time and affirms his position in the lineup.
But those pesky waivers. Would the Penguins risk losing Kahun to keep Lafferty?
Of course, this is assuming the injury bugs leave the Penguins alone for a while.
Editors Note: The original lines omitted Jared McCann. That has been corrected. And updates have been added. We apologize for the error.