At the Pittsburgh Penguins Fan Fest on Sunday, Coach Mike Sullivan explained his mindset for the Penguins’ upcoming season, which could be summed up in one simple phrase: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Sullivan discussed the depth that was so formidable last year, helping the Penguins through all four rounds of the Stanley Cup finals to their eventual win in San Jose. He praised the Penguins’ speed and skill, sounding confident in his team and his players. When asked what the Penguins’ biggest obstacles to overcome would be in the upcoming season, Sullivan responded by saying whatever they were, the Penguins would have to deal with them by not listening to outside predictions and instead looking at this as a brand new season.
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Of course, by this time Sullivan knew something that the crowd, bedecked in C’s and 87’s, did not; Sidney Crosby sat out Saturday’s preseason game against the Blue Jackets not because of a healthy scratch but because on Friday he’d suffered an injury during practice that would be diagnosed as a concussion.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) October 10, 2016
Pittsburgh’s Least Favorite “What-if”
With the official diagnosis released to the public, the Penguins’ upcoming season is immediately faced with a certain level of uncertainty; fans don’t know when Crosby will be returning to the lineup. What does this mean for the Penguins?
The answer is a lot; that much was made clear in Sullivan’s talk to fans on Sunday. He spoke at great length about the power in the Penguin’s line depth, the three lines being Crosby and Hornqvist in the first, Malkin in the second, and the much discussed HBK line of Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel in the third. The HBK line was formed when Malkin was injured last spring and Bonino was moved up to take his place. It was a smarter move than Sullivan could have ever anticipated; the line clicked and ended up generating a whopping 56 points in the playoffs. Sullivan talked about the fortunate discovery of this formidable third line at the Fan Fest; “Sometimes as a coaching staff,” he told the crowd, “you get lucky, because you stumble on things out of necessity.”
And so this line filled out the Penguins’ lineup, with young players rotating through the spots left open beside Crosby and Malkin. It was key to the Penguins’ 2016 playoffs identity. “What it did for us was made our team much more difficult to play against; it presented a lot of matchup challenges,” said Sullivan.
The Lineup Without Crosby
Crosby being out with an injury hurts the team even beyond the loss of their captain and fan favorite; his absence upsets the three-line system that gave the Penguins their depth.
The reason teams had trouble matching up with the Penguins was because many of them couldn’t muster up three strong lines to challenge all three of the Penguins’. Crosby is the anchor of the Penguins’ first line; without him, the Penguins are left with only two lines that are top-notch, and it’s unclear whether any other player on the roster is strong enough to anchor a top line like Crosby does.
Penguins fans will undoubtedly hope Crosby returns as soon as possible because no fan likes seeing their captain stuck in the Press Box, but they should hope for his return for another reason as well; without Crosby, the Penguins will see serious issues with their depth that may lead to an early season line shake-up. The Penguins need to be able to generate three seriously formidable lines to stay on top of the league.
Here's your photo proof that Sidney Crosby is back on the ice. pic.twitter.com/CDRbEWkfzo
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) October 11, 2016
A Possible Return for the Captain
Although no potential timeline for Crosby’s return has been released, Crosby seems fairly optimistic about his condition. He attended a Penguins’ Stanley Cup ring ceremony on Monday, and skated in practice on Tuesday. In a post-practice interview on Tuesday, Crosby told interviewers that he was already feeling better than he had Saturday. Penguins fans can only hope this bodes well for their captain as they wait for more information on when he will be healthy enough to play as their first game fast approaches this Thursday against the Capitals.
Julia Stumbaugh is a student at the College of William & Mary.