The Pittsburgh Penguins have always had a first line that was set in stone: Sidney Crosby and his two wingers, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. This trio had been together for years, with great success, especially in the regular season. On March 21, 2022, Anaheim Ducks forward Rickard Rakell was traded to the Penguins, and starting from that very date, there has been a debate in the Penguins community. Should Rust or Rakell be the staple on one of the best first lines in the league? Here’s a look at which decision makes the most sense for the team.
Sidney Crosby and His Right Wing Production
Since the 2021-22 season, Crosby has developed great chemistry with Rust. They have played 62 games together for a Corsi-for Percentage (CF%) of 52.28 (642 shot attempts for and 586 shot attempts against) at 5v5. During the 597 minutes that they have played together, the Penguins have scored 27 goals and given up 21 with them on the ice at 5v5. Of course, as long as they are generating more chances and goals than the opposition, it is generally a good idea to keep them together. Lastly, these two have generated 139 high-danger shot attempts and allowed 132 high-danger shot attempts together since the beginning of the 2021-22 season.
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Once Rakell arrived, he was put on Crosby’s wing for 27 games, and they have a 54.28 CF% (222 shot attempts for and 187 shot attempts against) at 5v5. The shocking numbers lie in the goal differential. In 194 minutes of ice time together, Crosby and Rakell have scored a whopping 20 goals while limiting their opponent to three. They also have 57 high-danger shot attempts while giving up only 27. Rakell has been a huge positive for the top line and the Pens this season. It seems Crosby also approves of his new winger.
Evgeni Malkin’s Right-Wing Production
Surprisingly, Evgeni Malkin has played 47 games with Rust by his side for a total of 193 minutes at 5v5. According to Moneypuck.com, Zucker-Malkin-Rust was the best line in the NHL at generating chances via expected goals for the first two weeks of this season. Since the start of the 2021-22 NHL season, Rust and Malkin have a 56.88 CF% (219 shot attempts for and 166 shot attempts against.) They have scored 14 goals at 5v5 and only let up 10, which is a goals-for percentage (GF%) of 58.3% – this statistic is calculated by taking the number of goals scored (14) and dividing it by the total number of goals (24) to see what percentage of goals are scored by a specific team. The shocking part is that Rust has performed better with Malkin than he has with Crosby according to these advanced metrics.
Of all the line pairings, the most confusing is with Rakell and Malkin. They are the only duo with a CF% under 50, meaning that they have given up more shot attempts than they have taken (140 to 135). Not only is this the case for Corsi, but it is also an issue in terms of goals scored at 5v5. In the 140 minutes (23 games) they have played together at 5v5, they have only scored five goals while giving up 10. In other words, Rakell and Malkin simply don’t mesh together. Rakell has only been on the ice for five goals against in 274 minutes without Malkin by his side. When you compare this to the 10 against when they are together, it makes you realize who should be paired with Crosby.
Rust vs Rakell: Verdict
Malkin is a fantastic player who will be in the Hall of Fame one day. That being said, after analyzing his linemates, he should stay far away from Rakell. At the same time, Rust has better numbers across the board with Malkin than he does with Crosby. The fact that we are not expected to see these pairings in some of the upcoming games is a head-scratcher. There have been rumors that Crosby and Malkin like to decide who they play with, which could have something to do with the changes. However, the Penguins should keep their best and most consistent lines together, especially if they want to end their five-game losing streak.
Jake Decker has recently graduated with a Master’s in Sports Management from Florida Atlantic University. As an avid fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Analytics, he will be writing for the Pittsburgh Penguins and combining those Analytics into his pieces to give a unique perspective on lines, players, and trades. With a well known Twitter account within this Penguins community, he has worked hard to gain a strong following. Currently, Jake works with Sportradar and the Florida Panthers as a Data Journalist, in which he attends home games and tracks statistics that occur throughout the game such as goals, shots, penalties, puck location, and other interesting metrics.