Coming out of the Olympic break, the Pittsburgh Penguins are going to have lineup deliberations.
Expected to have 13 healthy forwards and seven able-bodied defensemen, somebody is inevitably going to be benched.
Here’s a look at the potential fillers:
- Craig Adams
- Beau Bennett
- Chris Connor
- Sidney Crosby
- Tanner Glass
- Jussi Jokinen
- Chuck Kobasew
- Chris Kunitz
- Evgeni Malkin
- James Neal
- Taylor Pyatt
- Brandon Sutter
- Joe Vitale
- Robert Bortuzzo
- Deryk Engelland
- Olli Maatta
- Paul Martin
- Matt Niskanen
- Brooks Oprik
- Rob Scuderi
And let’s not forget the possibilities of both Brian Gibbons and Jayson Megna being recalled following the layoff.
With that being the active roster, I fully anticipate Connor returning to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, getting the team down to 12 forwards. Although that’s the exact amount you need to fill the lines, Kobasew and Pyatt haven’t wowed me enough, begging the question of if they’re truly reliable? Kobasew was healthy-scratched more often than not leading up to the break, and Pyatt is skating to a plus-7 rating – which is the second-lowest on the team.
If you were to choose between the two, Pyatt holds the edge, simply because of his size. Despite having some stocky skaters, Pittsburgh as a whole aren’t a very big team, and Pyatt certainly brings that. Kobasew has been a disappointment, and it’s a little surprising, considering how well he played in the offseason to earn a contract.
If you want my opinion, I vote for Gibbons and Megna to take those final two spots. Both of them have provided that extra explosion, and a play-as-if-it’s-your-last-game urgency. That added desperation in their games’ will come in handy for Pittsburgh’s postseason hopes, and have proven to be viable offensive threats – something that’s needed in the Pens’ secondary scoring.
As for where they would play, both would be great on the third-line with Sutter. When all combined together, they sort of, in a way, remind of the old Matt Cooke-Jordan Staal-Tyler Kennedy line. Sutter is the tall body Staal was, Gibbons, although nowhere close to in-your-face as Cooke was, resembles his game, and Megna is that speedy right-handed shot Kennedy brought.
Mesh those three players together and you’ll almost instantly witness formidable chemistry. All of them are young, have similar hockey characteristics, and could provide that offensive punch the third-line has been missing. But that’s just my opinion.
The defensive pairings are all-but definitive, except for the last tandem. Of course, Kris Letang could ultimately be reinserted, but there’s a strong outside chance he won’t. Strokes are no joke. And although I’m confident Letang will get through this, it’s hard to believe he’ll suit up again this season. If he does, great. It would be comforting to know he’s retained his long-term health, which is what’s most important. However, moving forward, Pittsburgh has to prepare as if he won’t return.
With that being said, we can assume the top-two pairings are Maatta-Niskanen and Martin-Orpik. We know Scuderi will be in there, what we don’t know is who’ll be his partner. Both Bortuzzo and Engelland have played exceptional for Pittsburgh. Plus, they each administer the size aspect, deliver brutal hits and supply a steady forecheck.
Healthy-scratched sporadically throughout the season, Bortuzzo played in the final five games before break and logged heavy minutes. Engelland, whose played in eight more contests than Bortuzzo, has been the more flexible option – given his time at the forward position. This is a hard decision, because each of them are similar players, and have contributed effectively all season long.
I could honestly see both splitting time at that final defensive slot. For the regular-season they will definitely be sharing time, but in the postseason, my feeling is Engelland’s starting first. Should he fail to establish himself, Bortuzzo will then get a turn. I expect Bylsma to go back-and-forth until he finds the more effective defensemen. However, as I referenced before, both of them have been great.
After Letang’s six-week timetable is up, who knows, they could both be the odd-men out if he’s able to go. We don’t know the specific details regarding Letang’s situation, other than he’s believed to be on blood thinners – according to head coach Dan Bylsma. And even when his timetable is up, there’s no guarantee he’ll be ready to start practicing, given the uncertainty surrounding his ailment.
Should he be ruled out for the postseason, this is how the lines should look, in my opinion:
This, of course, is all hypothetical. There’s no confirmation Gibbons or Megna will be on the roster, and Letang hasn’t officially been ruled out.
The trade deadline is also upon us. So, some pieces could be shipped off, and some could be added.
Should Pittsburgh stand pat at the deadline, those are the lines that I’d like to see. They’re not official, just a plausible collective.