Surprisingly, the Pittsburgh Penguins will be returning every single forward who played significant time in the playoffs in their run to the Stanley Cup. This is an extremely rare occurrence. For example, the 2010 Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks lost forwards Dustin Byfuglien, Colin Fraser, Kris Versteeg, and Andrew Ladd in the offseason. The 2011 Bruins lost Blake Wheeler, Michael Ryder, and Mark Recchi. The 2013 Blackhawks lost Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik, and Viktor Stalberg.
They lost nobody. At least nobody who would have started the season in the NHL with a significant impact. Most of the forwards the Penguins lost in the offseason were depth AHL forwards.
For the start of the season, despite some experimenting that will likely occur in preseason, I would think that the Penguins forward lineup will remain the exact same as it did for game 6 when they lifted the Stanley Cup in San Jose. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it:
Sheary – Crosby – Hornqvist
Kunitz – Malkin – Rust
Hagelin – Bonino – Kessel
Kuhnhackl – Cullen – Fehr
(Sundqvist – Wilson)
First, I will say that although I love the HBK line, and I cannot deny the chemistry that these guys have, I would not be surprised if Sullivan tried out Hagelin and/or Kessel on the 2nd or 1st line.
Hear me out.
I really like Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary. That being said, I do not view either of these guys as top 6 forwards. I see them as terrific 3rd line guys. In addition, at this point in his career, I feel like Kunitz is no longer a top 6 guy. He is, again, a 3rd line player at best. So would you rather play 2 top 6 players, Hagelin and Kessel, in a 3rd line role simply for chemistry’s sake, when 3 of your 4 wingers in the top 6 really aren’t “top 6” guys?
I don’t know. I am not necessarily saying I am for this idea, but it is something to ponder, and something that I am sure will be on Sullivan’s mind early on.
All of that being said, let’s break down this likely starting lineup line by line, and player by player.
Line 1: Sheary – Crosby – Hornqvist
I believe this line will, and can be, extremely effective. Crosby has the speed of Sheary on his left, as well as the tenacity of Hornqvist on his right. I think Sheary could put up around 10-15 goals and 35-40 points if he stays relatively healthy, especially if he plays with Sid. Hornqvist, who put up a 22-29-51 stat line last year in 82 regular season games, will likely produce a similar output. That said, I think Hornqvist can put up 25 goals and 60 points this coming year, because of the man in the center. Sidney Crosby will be the Sidney Crosby of old. I think he eclipses 100 points this year, or at least comes close, if he stays relatively healthy. Look for that Art Ross trophy to be returning to Sid’s trophy case by the end of the year.
Line 2: Kunitz – Malkin – Rust
Call me crazy, but I think Bryan Rust can be a 20+ goal scorer in this league. He is fast, has a quick release, and if he continues to play with Malkin, will definitely get his opportunities. I know that he was the king of missed opportunities often times last year, but James Neal was the same way when the Penguins first acquired him, and he followed the rough start to his Penguins career by netting 40+ goals the following season. No, Bryan Rust is not James Neal, but I believe that if he continues to get high danger scoring chances, pucks will start going in. I think Rust nets about 15-20 goals and puts up around 40 points. Kunitz surprisingly had 40 points in 80 games last year during the regular season, which for his age is not half bad. That being said, I think he declines slightly. Kunitz’s physicality is a huge part of this line’s success, but I think he scores around 15 goals and 35-40 points. I think Malkin will see an increase in production this year as well. I have read a good bit this offseason regarding Malkin’s offseason training, and he seems ready to play. I think he produces around a point per game if he stays healthy. Chalk up about 35 goals and 75-85 points for Geno.
Line 3 – Hagelin – Bonino – Kessel
Phil, Haggy, and Bones, the HBK line! There is no doubt this line found some chemistry late in the season with Malkin’s injury. Hagelin went from struggling in Anaheim to producing 27 points in 37 regular season games with the Pens. Kessel struggled early on in the season, but started to catch his stride once the HBK line formed. And how about Bonino? I forgot he existed before the HBK line was born, and he became such a crucial part of the Penguins Stanley Cup run. If this line remains intact, it is without a doubt the most dangerous 3rd line in hockey. Teams like to play their top defensive pairs against Sid and Geno, but it’s hard to ignore this line! I can see Hagelin scoring 15-20 goals and tacking up about 45 points, Bonino scoring 10-15 goals with about 40 points, and Kessel scoring around 30 goals with about 65-70 points if they all remained relatively healthy. Keep in mind Kessel will see plenty of time on the power play, and his playmaking abilities are definitely overlooked. We all know Phil Kessel the American sniper, but the man can pass pretty well too.
Line 4 – Kuhnhackl – Cullen – Fehr
This is a solid fourth line if you ask me. All of these players are sound defensively, kill penalties, and 2 are centers in Cullen and Fehr. In addition, this line can chip in offensively here and there. Matt Cullen was debatably the bargain of the year last year, putting up a 16-16-32 stat line in 82 games as a 39-year-old fourth line center. Cullen’s production will drop, no doubt, but his strong faceoff ability and leadership will absolutely help this team. I still believe Cullen can put up around 10 goals and 25 points. Kuhnhackl is a great fourth line guy, and I absolutely love the way he plays. He has a quick release and scored on a ton of one-timers set up mostly by Cullen. I think Kuhnhackl has a similar stat line as Cullen will this year. Eric Fehr finishes off the fourth line. Fehr is a big body who protects the puck beautifully and is willing to sacrifice his body on the PK. I think Fehr’s offensive output will be slightly less than that of Cullen and Kuhnhackl, but not by much. His value to the team lies elsewhere.
Extras – Sundqvist – Wilson
Remember Scott Wilson? He actually played on the first line with Sidney Crosby for while and performed well, but then suffered a season-ending injury. Wilson will absolutely be seen in the NHL this year, but I think he starts on the bench to begin the season. As for Sundqvist, he unfortunately was demoted due to the fact that Cullen resigned with the Penguins for one more year. Sundqvist has fourth line potential, and will most definitely take over this roll next year. That being said, he will also start as an extra, but you can bet he will be the first off the bench if any centers get injured.
Here is a summary of my approximate goal, assist, and point projections for all 1st-4th line players (These projections are all presuming that these players stay relatively healthy and play almost every game).
Player G A P
Sidney Crosby 35 63 98
Evgeni Malkin 39 37 78
Phil Kessel 29 37 66
Patric Hornqvist 24 34 58
Carl Hagelin 17 25 42
Nick Bonino 13 28 41
Bryan Rust 17 21 38
Chris Kunitz 15 23 38
Conor Sheary 12 24 36
Matt Cullen 12 13 25
Tom Kuhnhackl 10 9 19
Eric Fehr 8 10 18
Call me crazy, but I think the Penguins have the forward depth and skill to make another run for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Can they do it?! Only time will tell.