In recent matches and days, there have been plenty of examples of Mike Sullivan circling gigs and focusing on playing players he is comfortable with and trusts. Brian Rust made some waves when he was Played over 26 minutes In the Winter Classic. Sidney Crosby has He averaged 22:38 per game In the last four games (none of which have gone into overtime), it’s just under the 23:03 that Jake Guentzel has been in there. Even Evgeni Malkin, who is sometimes used lightly with age, has played more than the averages last season by more than 20 minutes per game in this stretch.
The Penguins broke their losing streak against the Arizona Coyotes last night, and dramatically rode their top six forwards to get there. That’s the equal total ice time in the first 50:58 of the game – this specific time was significant due to it being the moment Jason Zucker extended Pittsburgh’s lead to two goals.
Guentzel (11:06) – Crosby (12:19) – Rust (9:46)
Zucker (10:59) – Malkin (9:25) – Raquel (10:21)
Henin (7:06) – Carter (6:48) – Kapanen (7:48)
O’Connor (7:12) – Blueger (8:09) – McGinn (7:20)
In essence and by use, the Penguins have two lines that play like fourth lines at this point (Blueger’s relatively high position is more of a fault than an advantage, being bombed as well and pinned to his defensive end and unable to get off the ice). While last night’s game hit a lot of energy playing time, when equal strength courses were going, it was very common to see first and second lines double shifted, practically only using Carter’s or Blueger’s lines on short stretches when there was no other alternative.
On the one hand, this twist and turn is the result of the necessary acknowledgment and downplay of Sullivan’s role that Jeff Carter is not the Jeff Carter of 2021 that can handle a heavy load. In late December, Sullivan told AT&T Sportsnet that the changes would come down six based on performance. Looking at the trends of Ice time since that point, it becomes clear that these changes have mostly centered on undoing Carter’s playing time.
However, on the other hand, less for Carter means that more weight and responsibility should go to other players. Sullivan’s response to this was to shift almost all of it to the higher lines in order to make up for it, since Sullivan doesn’t trust or care to play anyone else to pick up the slack either.
Sullivan’s answer to the problem of “hey, everyone on my third and fourth lines is either inconsistent, fades out completely due to stretching, or underperforms has no positive effect” was to tap Crosby and Malkin on the shoulder more and send them out to make up for it. It’s hard to really blame Sullivan for that. There isn’t much alternative on his end when he’s trying to win games and keep the team in the playoff race.
These past games should be a loud and clear message for General Manager Ron Heckstall. Obviously, you can’t keep playing five of your top six strikers for more than 20 minutes a night and expect to hold out for another half of the season. Getting injured forwards Ryan Powelling and Josh Archibald back would be nice, but it wouldn’t move the needle.
The Penguins broke their losing streak, but their team is not in a healthy position right now. It wasn’t a while ago, and Very weak bottom lines And Comprehensive list building It was a major issue. Under the constraints of the salary cap (of his own design), Hextall faces a very difficult task to improve the team.
But this does not mean that it is impossible or that it cannot be done.
Some of the moves could be internal: Danton Heinen hasn’t scored in 28 matches and is having a poor season. Penguins don’t have to marry Heinen in order to give him up and lose his hat. Valtteri Puustinen and Alex Nylander have been igniting it recently in the AHL and either of them could bring youth and skill to the NHL roster, if Heinen is anointed for one. This step will not solve all problems with the pens in any way, but it may be one step towards doing so.
On the trade side, Carter holds all cards with no full move and no trade clause, and he likely won’t be a short-term candidate to go anywhere. Regardless, the pens may have options to try and move Kabanen or fullback Brian Dumoulin to free up some space and open up room to help fix the bottom six.
At one point recently, Sullivan has made a defensive line made up of McGinn, Plowger and Carter on the wing. This might be one idea worth returning to. If so, it opens another line. Can it be stored with a commercial supplement? And maybe a young player or two like Puustinen or Nylander or Drew O’Connor?
A few changes like that, and what is suddenly an old and unreliable supporting cast is at least different enough to have some new faces and players in different roles. This could enable Sullivan to play more, and help manage the minutes of star players who likely wouldn’t be pushed into the ground at the moment to make the best use of them later in the season.
No matter how Hextall did it, the messages from the bench became very clear. The Penguins need to freshen up and get some new items in their down lines in order to stay competitive and help their team. How Hextall handles that via trades or concessions and callbacks is up to him, but this growing issue is one that the Penguin general must address and address sooner rather than later.