As the NHL and NHLPA careen towards finally settling on an NHL return to play scenario, the Pittsburgh Penguins injury woes continued. The team was not only hard hit during the season, but they were also the hardest hit through the first 50 games. No team lost a more significant portion of their lineup than the Penguins, until injury bugs migrated west on I-70 and invaded Columbus. Settling the Penguins lines was never an option.
But now, it is.
In fact, settling the Penguins lines will be an imperative for head coach Mike Sullivan as the Penguin chase yet another Stanley Cup in the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era.
Only the Chicago Blackhawks core has as many championships as the Penguins in this era.
One injury which figured to hobble the Penguins was one to Jake Guentzel, who suffered a serious shoulder injury and surgery at the end of December. Guentzel was to be out 4-6 months, which would have presumably forced him to miss the NHL playoffs, as well as the rest of the regular season.
That was, of course, before COVID-19 wrecked the world and paused every extraneous activity known to daily life. June will be six months, and both Mike Sullivan and Jim Rutherford have publicly stated optimism that Guentzel will be available for a July NHL return and chase for the Stanley Cup.
But the hockey gods have given and taken away as versatile winger Dominik Simon has been lost to shoulder surgery, which occurred on April 29. He was injured on Feb. 29. Based on the timeline, it appears his rehab required surgery but elective surgeries were not available in Allegheny County until some COVID-19 restrictions were eased in later April.
Simon has shown an ability to add offense to the Penguins lower lines and even raise Sidney Crosby’s offensive totals, even as those numbers don’t translate to Simon.
Otherwise, the Penguins are healthy, at least until I wrote that sentence.
Pittsburgh Penguins Lines
*You’ll notice we didn’t include Nick Bjugstad. While PHN favors Bjugstad in the middle of the third line with Hornqvist, we’re not sure the coaches share our opinion. They get the only say.
One battle to watch is on the left wing. Will 40-year-old Patrick Marleau be able to get up to speed fast enough? It’s been a long layoff and 40-year-old bodies don’t respond as quickly as 25-year-olds. If Marleau is slow to get up to speed, that could open the door for Bjugstad as McCann slides to LW.
*Evan Rodrigues was acquired with Conor Sheary at the trade deadline. The winger presents an interesting mix of speed and tenacity which could fit well with the Penguins. Unfortunately, his “tryout” in the Penguins lineup was cut short by the virus. He was scratched but returned with a vengeance in early March. Rodrigues scored two goals in the first game after being scratched.
Don’t discount Rodrigues, 26, leapfrogging Sheary, who showed little in his Pittsburgh return. With Guentzel’s offensive finish on the top line, the Penguins coaches could toy with a puck retriever with a little finish and a little bite like Rodrigues.
*Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz will be a solid third pairing, though coaches have the option of putting Marino with Johnson, too. However, Marino showed himself to be the Penguins second-best right-side defender this season.
No, Juuso Riikola won’t supplant Johnson. Nor should he.
*Murray will be the playoff goalie. There isn’t much use debating it. The only thing which will change that fact is Murray, himself. If he is slow to get in a rhythm, or not at peak performance and Jarry is able to reach a higher level, then Jarry will get a shot.
We’ve reported Sullivan already had that chat with the goalies, and there is little reason the thinking would change during the pause.