Penguins Preseason Defined By Injuries & Line Combos

The 2019 preseason is officially in the books and the Pittsburgh Penguins will begin their quest for a sixth Stanley Cup on Oct. 3 at home against the Buffalo Sabres. The preseason showed various line combinations, a goaltender controversy, potential trades and unfortunate injuries. After a 2-1-3 record, the Penguins are ready for regular season hockey.

Goalie Surprise

When the team signed goaltender Casey DeSmith to a three-year extension in January 2019, it seemed a forgone conclusion that he would be the backup for the next few seasons. With a modest $1.25 million average annual value, it was a great deal for one of the top backup goalies in the NHL. Tristan Jarry, a second-round pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, seemed destined to be traded in order to clear the way for promising young goaltenders Emil Larmi and Alex D’Orio to be the Wilkes-Barre Scranton (WB/S) Penguins’ tandem in the AHL.

Tristan Jarry Penguins
Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins, January 2, 2018. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Whether it was solely to relieve cap space or his play in the preseason or both, Jarry won the backup job for the Penguins. With a cap hit of $675,000, the Penguins are saving just over $400,000 on salary and are now cap compliant. This move sent shock-waves through the fanbase because the very likable DeSmith was exposed to waivers and could have been claimed by any other team. He cleared waivers and will begin the season in WB/S.

Injuries to Crosby, Rust, and Galchenyuk

The last thing anyone wants to see in the preseason are injuries. The first NHL level player to get hurt was newly acquired Alex Galchenyuk. He suffered a “lower body injury” and hasn’t skated since Sep. 25; and he has missed crucial time to build chemistry with Evgeni Malkin, his presumed linemate. Head coach Mike Sullivan is optimistic that he will play on opening night, but he must practice the day before to have a chance.

Arizona Coyotes Alex Galchenyuk
Former Arizona Coyote Alex Galchenyuk could miss opening night. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Ross D. Franklin)

Sidney Crosby’s minutes were managed this preseason, for good reason. Entering his 15th season, it’s smart to save miles on the legs. Unfortunately, he suffered a lower body injury after blocking a shot in their final preseason game, just 24 hours after his jersey was retired by the QMJHL. Crosby has skated a few times and his status for opening night is trending in the right direction. If he can’t suit up, Jared McCann is expected to fill in for him. The injury does not appear serious; a sigh of relief for the Penguins.

Sidney Crosby, Vince Dunn
Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The final injury for the Penguins this preseason was to winger Bryan Rust. He also sustained an injury blocking a shot in the final preseason game on Saturday. Unlike Crosby who was listed as day-to-day, Rust will take time to recover from a hand injury. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said that he expects Rust to go on long term injured reserve, meaning he will not be able to play in the first 10 games of the season. While it’s disappointing to lose a player like Rust, the Penguins have good depth on the wings and have players who can fill his role seamlessly.

Up Against the Salary Cap

When defenseman Marcus Pettersson signed a very team-friendly one-year deal for $874,125, the Penguins were over the salary cap of $81.5 million by just over $300,000. They had until Oct. 1 to be cap compliant and it was expected they would achieve this by trading a player or two. The name that kept coming up was Jack Johnson, who was subject to trade speculation all offseason, including a potential deal with the Minnesota Wild that involved Phil Kessel. Bryan Rust and Nick Bjugstad were mentioned as part of a potential package for a team to absorb Johnson’s contract.

Jack Johnson #73 of the Pittsburgh Penguins
CHICAGO, IL – DECEMBER 12: Jack Johnson #73 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and John Hayden #40 of the Chicago Blackhawks battle for the puck in the second period at the United Center on December 12, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Penguins took a different approach; they waived DeSmith and placed defenseman Zach Trotman on LTIR. As of this writing, the Penguins have just under $70,000 in cap space. That number will jump when Rust is also placed on LTIR in the coming days. A trade could still happen, but it appears Rutherford is content with the lineup he has.

Line Combinations

A big talking point heading into the season are the team’s line combinations. Certain pairings are pretty much set: Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin will be the top defensive pair, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad and Teddy Blueger will be the centers and Matt Murray is going to remain the starting goaltender. Sullivan tried out different line combinations through the preseason in hopes of finding something that works.

All preseason, newly acquired wingers Dominik Kahun and Brandon Tanev were on the top line with Crosby and Guentzel. Maybe this was to see what they can bring to the table or maybe Sullivan was trying something out, but both had shining moments. The top line is still in question.

Patric Hornqvist Penguins
Patric Hornqvist, Pittsburgh Penguins, January 2, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In their first practice session of the regular season, it was veteran Patric Hornqvist who was paired with the duo. It’s a bit of a surprise, but Hornqvist has played with the pair before and heading into the first game of the season, familiarity is crucial. Assuming Galchenyuk can play Thursday night, he and Tanev will be on either side of Malkin.

Evgeni Malkin
NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 02: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck against Neal Pionk #44 of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on January 2, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

With Hornqvist (presumably) moving to the top line, Kahun and McCann will likely be on either side of Bjugstad. This could be the Penguins’ version of the “energy line”: two young wingers with speed and determination and a savvy veteran who is good at both ends of the ice. Look for this line to be a spark plug. Finally, without Rust, Zach Aston-Reese, Blueger, and Dominik Simon will be the fourth line. Aston-Reese and Blueger both impressed last season in limited minutes while Simon did not. This is a big season for Simon, who must prove he can find the net or he will be a healthy scratch once everyone is healthy.

Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Kesler Pittsburgh Penguins' Zach Aston-Reese
Anaheim Ducks’ Ryan Kesler and Pittsburgh Penguins’ Zach Aston-Reese (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang are the top defensive pairing. It is a bit of a mystery after that. Penguins fans want to see Pettersson and Schultz play together but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Pettersson will likely be paired with Erik Gudbranson. The two worked well together last season, albeit in a limited and very protected role. If the Penguins can get solid production defensively from this line and Pettersson can produce some offense, this pairing will be a pleasant surprise.

Kris Letang - Penguins
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins, Apr. 18, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The final pairing looks to be Justin Schultz and Jack Johnson. Schultz had a great preseason. He was active in the offensive zone and defensively sound. His puck movement has also improved and he looks poised for a rebound season in a contract year. Unfortunately, being paired with Johnson was his demise last season and it looks like they will be reunited to start the year. Schultz was significantly worse when he was paired with Johnson.

Justin Schultz Penguins
Justin Schultz, Pittsburgh Penguins, January 2, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With newly acquired John Marino having a particularly strong camp along with Jusso Riikola, poor performances from Johnson right out of the gate will likely put him in the press box. Even though Marino was sent down, he could be recalled once is Rust officially placed on LTIR. Ultimately, the Penguins need to figure out how to form their defense without Johnson in the lineup. Whether he sits in the press box or is traded, he brings down anyone he’s partnered with.

Penguins Expectations

When the regular season begins, the forwards will still be shuffled around. If you have watched more than five Penguins games, odds are, the forward lines were different in at least threeof them. Pairing Schultz and Pettersson is also expected at some point. Both had particularly strong preseasons playing together. Malkin looks more fit and in better shape than last season, so a bounce-back season is expected. The team is capable of making a Cup run if they figure out what works early on and play.

The season is finally here. The Islanders sweep is in the past and expectations are as high as ever. Let’s go.