Throughout his illustrious NHL career, Sidney Crosby has gone through dozens of wingers from Colby Armstrong to Chris Kunitz to Patric Hornqvist. However, few have had stronger chemistry with him than his current linemate, Jake Guentzel. The 24-year-old notched 40 goals last season while spending roughly 85 percent of his even-strength time alongside Crosby.
Head coach Mike Sullivan can pair those two on the top line and set it in stone, but who will be opposite Guentzel on the other wing? A myriad of injuries seems to have relegated Hornqvist to a bottom-six role while some additions over the last calendar year have bolstered the team’s forward depth. There are several strong, young candidates but which one fits best?
One of the Penguins’ newest forward acquisitions, Dominik Kahun came over from the Chicago Blackhawks this offseason in the Olli Maatta trade. He quietly scored 13 goals in his rookie campaign and spent over 37 percent of his even-strength time on a line with Jonathan Toews. However, without Toews by his side, the 24-year-old noticed a drop in his Corsi percentage by nearly three full points.
Kahun fits the same mold that many of Crosby’s linemates have over the past couple of seasons: quick and undersized with a bit of a goal-scoring touch. He won’t provide much more than what Dominik Simon did for this line last season except a bit more offense and risk-taking. The 5-foot-11 winger’s value will be pretty dependent on his situation and would have a much greater impact if he slots into the top line.
During the 2018-19 regular season, a line comprised of Crosby, Guentzel, and Bryan Rust accounted for over 35 percent of Crosby’s even-strength time and over 48 percent of Rust’s. While the trio found some success — 52 percent Corsi rating and a 66.7 goals-for percentage — only four of Rust’s 18 goals on the season were assisted by Sidney Crosby. He’s not dependent on a star center; Rust has registered a 51.5 Corsi percentage over the last two seasons without Malkin or Crosby on the ice.
The 27-year-old winger is versatile enough to play nearly anywhere in the lineup and he’ll likely bounce around between different lines again in 2019-20. While Rust will certainly get some time with the top line one way or another, he may be better suited on a middle-six line next to Evgeni Malkin or Nick Bjugstad, especially with his penalty-killing experience. On top of that, it’s entirely possible that Rust gets traded in the near future to fix the Penguins’ cap space troubles.
Analytically speaking, Simon may be the best option for the Penguins’ top line. While skating with Crosby and Guentzel, the trio produced a terrific 61.4 Corsi percentage and 66.7 goals-for percentage. Still, the 2015 fifth-round pick scored just eight goals and 28 assists last season and often seems to slow the game down in the offensive zone which isn’t always the Penguins’ style.
Simon’s boost to possession metrics is a great trait, but a player as well-rounded as Crosby will almost undoubtedly have positive advanced numbers. Using him in a bottom-six role would allow the team’s other lines to stay effective while Crosby and Malkin’s lines take a quick breather. Sullivan will certainly move Simon around, including to the top line, but his ability to create some offense and play a two-way game could better suit him in a lesser role.
One of the Penguins’ best trades over the last year was acquiring Bjugstad and Jared McCann from the Florida Panthers in February. The two combined for 20 goals and 31 points in 64 games with Pittsburgh, including goals from McCann. The 23-year-old moved all around the lineup after his acquisition but his biggest role was lining up with Crosby and Guentzel for over 31 percent of his even-strength time.
The versatile trio recorded a 54.3 Corsi percentage and 58.3 goals-for percentage. Any line with Crosby is a near-guarantee to post strong advanced metrics but McCann adds an extra offensive element; he finishes well and can drive offense a bit on his own. The 6-foot-1 winger is also one of the team’s most reliable penalty killers. He should get time on the top line but his flexibility will allow the Penguins to move him around.
The Penguins have a handful of good options to place next to Crosby and Guentzel and whoever they choose will obviously see a boost in personal production. Rust and McCann are so versatile that, while they’ll likely see some time on the top line, the two will move around the lineup in different roles. Kahun would see the biggest jump in his numbers and Simon would be the best analytical choice, even if that trio doesn’t always pass the eye test. Expect the coaching staff to do plenty of tinkering early in the season to see how things mesh together.