As the Pittsburgh Penguins fans wait with bated breath for the return of Sidney Crosby to the Penguins lineup, the Penguins coaches have plotted his linemates and what the Penguins team will look like in that eventuality. The only thing left is the big reveal.
Based on a lack of options and practice on Saturday in Arizona, the choice is Jared McCann or Dominik Simon.
Will head coach Mike Sullivan’s decision be based on numbers or a gut feeling? Based on past assemblies, Sullivan will begin with the path of least disruption. One change is better than three.
There are two simple moves this time, but the player not chosen for Crosby duty will drop to the fourth line because coaches won’t separate the Kahun, Malkin, Rust line, or the Aston-Reese, Blueger, Tanev line. So, the only other option for McCann or Simon is with some combination of the fourth liners Sam Lafferty, Andrew Aggozino, and Alex Galchenyuk.
One might wonder if McCann’s ability to center and elevate the fourth line may play a role in the decision, too. All stats below are courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com and their Line Tool.
This simple path is to drop Sidney Crosby onto what has been McCann’s line between Simon and Patric Hornqvist. The Simon-Crosby analytics this season are not the jaw-dropping totals which they were last season. In the first 17 games this season, Simon and Crosby had a 56% Corsi, 54% scoring chance rate, and +1 goal differential (11-10).
Without Simon, Crosby had a 53% Corsi and scoring chance rate, though a massive 66% of goals-for.
Last season, the pair were above 60% Corsi, above 62% scoring chance rate, and a 21-12 positive goal differential. Simon made Crosby a full 10% better in nearly every category.
Simon’s struggle to put the puck in the net lowered the scoring percentages, but this season Simon did post nine points (2g, 7a) in the first 13 games. However, Simon has just seven points (2g, 5a) in the last 32 games.
Simon has been ice cold, though Simon’s inclusion on the line with McCann and Hornqvist over the last couple of weeks has coincided with a noticeable uptick in McCann’s production. McCann and Simon have paired for a 60% Corsi and a whopping 66% scoring rate this season.
The argument for Simon: He brings offense, even when he’s not on the scoresheet himself.
The argument against Simon: Seven points in 32 games speaks for itself.
Sullivan could also put Crosby onto what has been McCann’s line with Simon and Hornqvist, but slide McCann to the left-wing. Because of the early-season injury to Evgeni Malkin, McCann and Crosby have only played 88 seconds together this season.
Despite the notoriety, McCann and Crosby were good together last season but not great. When the Penguins shifted McCann to the wing in mid-February, they had a hot start before cooling.
Overall, McCann-Crosby had a 53% Corsi and scoring chance rate, and a slight +1 one-goal differential.
“(Playing with Crosby) made my job a lot easier. It was one of my first times playing wing,” McCann said on Saturday after Crosby’s first full practice. “It was just easy. (Crosby) was always in the right spots defensively and turn that into offense.”
“I feel like when we use our speed, we’re dangerous. I feel like we have similarities. Obviously, I like to shoot the puck a lot, and he does a good job of getting guys the puck.”
Crosby is a pretty good passer, eh?
The argument for McCann: He’s a better finisher than Simon, and his speed could prove to be a great blend with Crosby and Hornqvist.
The argument against McCann: Simon helped Crosby create more offense last season. Simon may otherwise be lost in the shuffle with the fourth line bubble NHL players. With McCann in the middle, he would raise the fourth line’s credibility and allow the Penguins to indeed roll four lines, which would take some pressure off Crosby’s ice-time in the early games.
We will probably see both McCann or Simon on Crosby’s wing during the first few games of Crosby’s return unless the player who gets first dibs starts to fill the net immediately.
You and this writer probably agree that McCann is the better choice and better player, but Simon creates more offense, albeit under the radar and without his name attached to the scoresheet.
For now, the essential story is the date of the return of Sidney Crosby.