The Pittsburgh Penguins have been riddled with injuries to their forwards this season. Since preseason started, Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk and Bryan Rust have all missed significant time with various injuries. Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist have been banged up but have been lucky to avoid time on injured reserve.
But with Malkin expected to return Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers after being activated on Nov. 1, that leaves 13 healthy forwards for the Penguins. With all of their defensemen healthy, only 12 forwards can dress. Promising forward Sam Lafferty was sent back to the AHL Thursday so that Malkin would have a place on the 23-man roster. Head coach Mike Sullivan is going to have to make a tough decision on who to scratch and play on a nightly basis.
Top Line Will Remain the Same
Jake Guentzel and Dominik Simon have created a dynamic partnership with Crosby over the last few years and they are scoring at a very high rate when together this season. Over the last five games, they have combined to score 15 points and have set the tone for the rest of the team. The emergence of Simon finally able to put the puck in the net has been a welcome sight for the Penguins.
While guys like Rust and Jared McCann have played with Crosby and Guentzel in the past, Sullivan is and should remain committed to this trio. Guentzel is the first forward that has been with Crosby consistently for more than two consecutive seasons. Simon has gotten his chances in the past and now that he is finally pulling his weight in goals and assists, this line won’t be changing.
Jared McCann Is the Key
When the Penguins initially acquired McCann from the Florida Panthers, some thought he was just a piece thrown in on top of Bjugstad. Since his arrival in Pittsburgh, he has proven he is anything but an afterthought and has produced more than expected. With the ability to play both on the wing and at center, where Sullivan decides to play McCann will have a trickle down effect on the rest of the team.
Playing mostly wing last season, McCann played with different centers but found a home next to Crosby for a majority of the time. He was scoring goals and some thought he was the missing piece to the first line. He cooled off to end the season and it became clear that he wasn’t going to be on that top line. On opening night this season, he lined up on the third line at left wing next to Bjugstad and Hornqvist.
Injuries quickly became a problem at the center position and McCann was asked to be the second line center from the second game until Bjugstad returned Tuesday night against the Flyers. He performed well in that role winning just under 50% of his faceoffs, a good percentage considering he had prepared to play winger all offseason. He proved he can be a capable center at the NHL level.
But where will Sullivan play him? Will it be at the center position on the fourth line or on the wing as part of the third or fourth line? Could he be a surprise scratch with how well the other wingers have been playing? What happens with McCann will have an immediate impact on who is watching the game from the press box.
Is Teddy Blueger the Odd-Man Out?
It seems fairly simple. Teddy Blueger has played almost exclusively as a center since his call up last season for the Penguins and has quickly become a fan favorite. He is a gritty guy, willing to mix it up with just about anyone, is good on the penalty kill and played well in the absence of Malkin and Bjugstad. The problem for Blueger is that if Sullivan chooses to go with McCann as a center, he looks to be the odd man out.
With McCann due for a raise at the end of the season, the Penguins seem committed to playing him, as they should. Blueger though has made the most of his minutes this season and this would be no fault of his own. With five points and averaging over three more minutes per game than last season, he has carved out a nice role for himself this season. If Blueger is the odd man out to start, it will not last long. He is a proven fourth-line center and will eventually come back into the fold.
Bjugstad is trying to prove he is the third line center the Penguins have been searching for since trading away Jordan Staal back in 2012. While the points haven’t been there for someone who also gets time on the second power play, he has been consistent since joining the Penguins. His positioning is excellent and he rarely makes a mistake that leads to an odd-man rush or leaves a man wide open. While the chances are very slim, Bjugstad could be scratched if his form dips to a point where a game or two off would help him refocus.
What Winger Is Scratched?
If McCann is deployed on the wing as many expect, the situation is a little less clear on who is the odd man out. As stated above, the first line isn’t breaking up anytime soon. They are safe. Malkin is safe. He is a future Hall of Famer and even though he is just coming back from injury, he is still one of the best players on the team. Everyone else could, in theory, be scratched. Even if its just a game or two if Sullivan decides to play the matchup or just give a guy a game off.
That being said, the guys that seem the safest are Hornqvist, Galchenyuk and Brandon Tanev. Hornqvist is currently on pace for a 63-point season and looks rejuvenated after taking time to let his body fully heal this offseason. Galchenyuk was acquired in the Phil Kessel trade and even though he has been hurt all season, he figures to be an important piece on that second line and the power play. Newly acquired Tanev has impressed since signing this offseason with the Penguins. He has started scoring goals and along with drawing penalties left and right, is a key player on the penalty kill. While these three can’t be considered 100% safe, they are as close to safe as it comes.
One player with a slight chance of being scratched is Rust. Returning from injury against the Flyers on Tuesday, he is an important piece for the Penguins. He is a key penalty killer and has the ability to play with any center. He has experience with Crosby, Malkin and Bjugstad. This versatility is something Sullivan loves and should keep Rust in the lineup on a nightly basis, as long as he remains healthy.
Kahun or Aston-Reese?
The two most likely players that could be scratched is Dominik Kahun or Zach Aston-Reese. Kahun was acquired this past offseason in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks. He has started this season slower than people expected. After not lasting long on Crosby’s line in the preseason, he has bounced around the other three lines through the first 13 games. He scored his first goal as a Penguin against the Dallas Stars and followed that up with a goal and two assists two days later against the Flyers.
Could the last two games be a sign of things to come for Kahun? It is possible. His ice time the last two games though has dipped below nine minutes and that is a worrying sign. The Penguins are high on the young winger and four points in the last two games could be what keeps him on the ice instead of the press box.
The other forward who could be scratched is Aston-Reese. With just five points to start the season to Kahun’s six, it could be easy to say that he will be the odd man out. However, Aston-Reese is relied upon on the penalty kill as well as seeing limited action on the power play, albeit due to the previously mentioned injuries. While his point total is not where some think it should be, his strong play has spoken for itself been this season. He is averaging just under 15 minutes a night and Sullivan seems intent on using the New York native. He seems destined to be on the fourth line as he has carved out a nice role next to Blueger.
A Potential Trade?
After the Penguins traded away Erik Gudbranson, they currently have just under $3 million in cap space. Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has never been shy about wanting to add quality players via trade and they now have the cap space to do so. Could they trade a winger in order to strengthen their defense? Both Rust and Bjugstad were subject to possible trades this past offseason as part of a deal that included Jack Johnson.
Former fourth-round pick Sam Lafferty’s play while on emergency recall this season has given the Penguins the ability to look at trading one of their forwards. In his 10 games before being sent back down to the AHL, he contributed three goals and three assists and averaged 13:27 of ice time per game. He has proven he has what it takes to be a role player at the NHL level and if the Penguins do move on from one of their forwards, he would be the first name called back to the team.
Ultimately, having 13 forwards that are all NHL caliber is not a bad thing. You could make an argument that all of them deserve to dress for every game. The Penguins have shown no indication that only dressing five defensemen is even an option. Looking at the practice lines from their practice on Nov. 1, it appears that Kahun is going to be the odd man out. McCann will be the third line left winger and Aston-Reese will be on the fourth line. It is unfortunate because it appears Kahun has finally found his feet with the team. Time will tell how Sullivan decides to manage this team. There are certainly worse dilemmas to have than having to decide which quality NHL forward is a healthy scratch.