Tuesday night’s victory over the Ottawa Senators may have provided more than the latest example of the Penguins ability to refocus and regroup when things aren’t going their way.
With key players getting healthy, the question of Evgeni Malkin’s reintroduction into the lineup has begun to circulate among Pittsburgh media. And, based on projections that the Penguins organization wants to keep the line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel together, it has begun to draw the attention of more prominent radio media in recent days.
Here is an example by Mark Madden:
I'm told Pens won't break up 87 line or 13 line when Malkin returns. Geno will play on a "third" line.
— Mark Madden (@MarkMaddenX) April 5, 2016
It’s a legitimate discussion point that isn’t as simple to answer as stating “Well Malkin was able to win a Con Smythe trophy next to Ruslan Fedotenko and Max Talbot so it shouldn’t really matter.”
It DOES matter because #71 isn’t 22 years old anymore. And, he’s coming back from an injury rather than riding the wave of a 113 point season that saw him capture his first Art Ross Trophy. It’s a lot to expect him to carry a line through a potential playoff run.
So, I believe there are two parts to this issue that most people within or outside of the organization would acknowledge:
- If the main priority is to keep the Bonino line intact, who is capable and talented enough to log second line minutes with Malkin?
- The success of Crosby’s line suggests that completely breaking it up would be stupid, so who moves in and out if anyone?
More Than Just Speed
Conner Sheary may solve that issue if he can slot onto a line with Sidney Crosby as he did last night for multiple shifts. I say this because Sheary’s skill set fits the required attributes that most people bring up when questioning whether a player can compliment #87, and his speed actually wouldn’t be the determining factor. Although, in all honesty, that does help a great deal.
You see, Sheary isn’t just a speed guy. He has skill and playmaking ability that are easy to notice whether he is dangling between defenders or winning a puck battle along the boards and looking for a trailing teammate coming into the play.
This was on display last night as Sheary’s speed, skill, and determination were emblematic of the Penguins overall play during the past two months. So, assuming the high stick he took requires more stitches than time off the ice to recuperate from, does he provide part of the answer to the recent question that has been brought up in the media as of late?
I say it does. And, if the Penguin’s organization agrees, that gives the team the ability to shift Kunitz onto Malkin’s wing and give #71 a linemate he is familiar with. At that point they simply need to decide who plays right wing with Malkin if he does get back in time to help the cause.
My vote is for Beau Bennett to be that guy. I’m fairly certain the Pens didn’t sign him this offseason to have him play 7 to 9 minutes a night and let him go at season’s end. He is a skilled winger who simply hasn’t been able to overcome the injury bug in the past. Why not give him a shot with a really talented center to see if he can capitalize on those soft hands he has. They ARE one of the primary reasons the Penguins took him in the first round back in 2010 if my memory serves me. Oh, yea, HE ALSO LED THE ENTIRE BCHL that year with 120 points!
If the Pens would decide to go this route they’d have a top nine of
- Sheary – Crosby – Hornqvist
- Kunitz – Malkin – Bennett
- Hagelin – Bonino – Kessel
And, at that point it honestly shouldn’t matter who the pens put on the fourth line. Although, for the purpose of discussion since we are on the subject, my choices would be:
Kuhnhackl – Cullen – Fehr
Not only because they could continue to be used in a shutdown role, as all of them have been throughout the year, but also because all four lines then have wingers who are playing their natural side. In addition, the forth/shutdown line would have two players who can play center. This is a big deal when it comes to faceoffs, especially in the defensive zone
Once Bryan Rust gets healthy the Pens have more options. But, as of right now there has been no update on his injury.
So, Sheary’s presence in potential top 6 role could help sort out the line combinations and afford Malkin some decent wingers who have the talent to make use of second line minutes.
First, Malkin has to get healthy. Let’s hope that comes to fruition sooner rather than later.