Barring a major catastrophe between now and 3pm on Saturday afternoon, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino will return to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup.
The return of Malkin is a godsend for the Pens; especially on the power play. Their lack of scoring has been well-documented and inserting Geno back into the lineup should only help.
Bonino’s return however, will raise some interesting questions for Penguins’ management and the coaching staff.
What will make these questions especially tough to answer is the fact that this coming Monday is the annual trade deadline for the NHL.
Malkin will resume his regular role centering the second line (most likely with wingers Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin). That part is not up for debate.
Who the Penguins should sit, scratch, or send down to make room for Bonino (or if they should even dress Bonino at all) is the million-dollar question.
Sundqvist Sent Down
Yesterday afternoon Penguins’ GM Jim Rutherford began answering some of these questions by sending center Oskar Sundqvist back the AHL.
Malkin and Bonino are both centers. So this move – while I whole-heartedly disagree with it (how Kevin Porter has maintained a roster spot all season long is beyond me) – was expected.
By all accounts the Pens’ brass was more than satisfied with Sundqvist’s stint at the top level:
He played in ten games and was a minus-2, but that just doesn’t do him justice.
Sundqvist was a possession machine in the offensive zone, cycling the puck masterfully with fellow call-up Tom Kuhnhackl. Rutherford and company were most impressed however, by his work in the defensive zone.
Bonino on the Third Line (for now)
With Malkin slotting back into his regular position, Matt Cullen will presumably slide down back to centering the fourth line. Which leaves the third line for Bonino.
Until he was injured, Bonino manned the third line center job for most of the season; with the likes of Beau Bennett and Eric Fehr (both of whom are currently injured themselves) on his wings. Current call-ups Connor Sheary and Bryan Rust also spent time playing next to Bonino.
For Saturday’s tilt against the Winnipeg Jets, it’s anyone’s guess as to who head coach Mike Sullivan will have skating alongside Bonino. It will be any two of Sheary, Rust, Kuhnhackl, Scott Wilson or Kevin Porter.
The Penguins were forced to recall a seventh defenseman after Ben Lovejoy sustained a long-term lower-body injury against the Tampa Bay Lightning this past Saturday afternoon. That recall was journeyman Steve Oleksy.
Along with Sundqvist, Oleksy was sent back to Wilkes Barre/Scranton yesterday. This is a bit peculiar because the Penguins typically carry seven defensemen. What this could mean is that one of the forwards will be scratched instead of the usual seventh D-man.
Porter is a natural center and hasn’t done much of anything this season. He has just three assists in 38 games played so far. He does kill penalties however, but for a fourth-line center he really hasn’t shown much in any of the three zones on the ice. He would seem to be the most likely choice for a healthy scratch.
That means the most likely line combinations will look something like this:
Teams can carry a total of 23 players on the NHL roster; three of those being healthy scratches or non-injured reserve injuries (like Malkin). The Penguins currently have 21 players on the NHL roster after the send-downs of Sundqvist and Oleksy. Eventually they will want to carry that seventh defenseman and make him a healthy scratch. Which begs the question: will another forward will be sent down?
Of the forwards currently on the roster, only Sheary, Rust, Wilson, Kuhnhackl and Porter have options to be sent back to Wilkes Barre/Scranton. Porter has been on the NHL roster all season long, despite being a healthy scratch in 21 of the team’s 59 games thus far. He, once again, would be the most logical choice.
The only reason I can think of for Porter being on the roster and not sent back to the AHL is this: the organization doest feel that any more “seasoning” in the minors will do Porter’s game any good. He is what he is at this point.
But then again he’s been on the roster all season long; at times playing ahead of guys like Sheary and Rust. Considering the way that those two (Sheary and Rust) have played in recent weeks, it’s just one of the questions looming for Pens management.
The Trade Deadline
One other factor to consider is the trade deadline. Rutherford has his sights set on a left-wing and one more defenseman. Adding one of each to the roster will force either a healthy scratch or a send-down.
Kuhnhackl has proven himself to be a legit bottom-6 type of player. Relentless on the forecheck and backcheck, a monster along the boards and cycling the puck; with decent speed to boot.
Sheary, Wilson, and Rust have all proven themselves as valuable assets and seem ready for full-time roles in the NHL. Come next Monday, at least one of these guys figures to be back in the AHL.
The common thinking here is that this is a good problem to have. It certainly is.
Hopefully the Penguins have a good (the right) solution.
Thanks as always for reading. Please feel free to comment below, and follow me @TorraoOnPucks