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Analysis: Breakdown of Pens lineup

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pens' 23-man roster is locked in for the start of the season - which begins Thursday night against Washington at PPG Paints Arena. With the season on the precipice, here is a line-by-line and pair-by-pair breakdown of Pittsburgh's opening night lineup. 

FORWARD UNIT

The Pens boast a spoil of riches up front, particularly down the middle. An NHL team is only as good as its center depth, and the Pens have the best talent at center in the entire league. The club is currently carrying six centers on the roster, and five will likely be in the lineup on opening night. 

Pittsburgh also boasts a talented group of wingers. One aspect of the wings that really sticks out is speed. They all love to play fast and a few of the wingers are among the swiftest in the league. 

Guentzel-Crosby-Hornqvist

This line dominated the 2018 playoffs. Jake Guentzel (10 goals, 21 points), Sidney Crosby (nine goals, 21 points) and Patric Hornqvist (five goals, 11 points) finished first, second and third, respectively, in team scoring. 

Each player fills a particular role on the line. Crosby is the engine that drives the unit. He and Guentzel are on the same wavelength in terms of hockey IQ. Few players can think the game at the level of those two, and it shows in their ability to read-and-react off of each other. They are both a step ahead of the play.

Hornqvist is the bulldozer of the line. He's going to play physical, battle on the boards for pucks and stake out real estate in the blue paint. He's a pest to deal with, and tends to cause havoc for opponents. Hornqvist will create the space for Guentzel and Crosby to do their thing. 

Hagelin-Malkin-Kessel

Just like the top line, this line also played together last season a lot, so they have a strong understanding of how each other likes to play. At times the unit played flawlessly and dominated games. At other times, the trio looked out of sync. The team is hoping for more of the former than the latter this season. 

Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel are straight blazers. Their speed must be respected by opposing teams. Hagelin's speed is so unearthly that his mere presence can change the entire dynamic of a game. He will open up lanes and holes for his teammates. 

Evgeni Malkin is a dynamic and generational talent, who can set up plays and finish them. Kessel has the best snap shot on the roster, but is an underrated playmaker himself. At times they can defer the puck too much to each other, but when their plays work it's breathtaking. 

Simon-Brassard-Rust

The threesome of Dominik Simon, Derick Brassard and Bryan Rust have been arguably the team's best line throughout the preseason. The blend of the three will lead to a strong forecheck. You can expect these three guys to be in the offensive zone a lot. 

Brassard appears to be fully healed from a lower-body injury that plagued him during the 2018 playoffs and forced him into a diminished role. Brassard scored two goals and three points in the club's final preseason game in Columbus. A healthy Brassard will give the Pens their best three-center model since Crosby-Malkin-Staal. 

Rust is a speedster that plays a north-south game. And Brassard has the ability to find him streaking, which led to two breakaway opportunities in the final preseason contest. Simon is stiff on the puck and strong along the wall. He can make plays in tight situations and is tenacious in puck pursuit. 

Cullen-Sheahan-Sprong

It's hard to argue for a better fourth line in the NHL than Matt Cullen, Riley Sheahan and Daniel Sprong. 

Sheahan would be a third-line center on most teams in the league, and a second-liner on a few others. Cullen will provide the veteran presence and experience. Having two centers on the fourth line provides flexibility in terms of faceoffs and defensive responsibilities. Both Sheahan and Cullen are great in the defensive zone. 

Sprong is a world-class talent that could eventually work his way up the lineup into a top-wing role. However, Sprong still has a lot to work on in his defensive game. There is a lot of benefit to Sprong starting on the fourth line. He can watch two of the better defensive players in the NHL - Sheahan and Cullen - and work on the small details. Sheahan and Cullen will mold Sprong's defensive abilities. Then Sprong will be ready for an even bigger role on the squad. 

DEFENSIVE UNIT

The Pens have incredible depth on the back end thanks to the additions of Jack Johnson and Juuso Riikola. 

General manager Jim Rutherford has said many times that he prefers a defensive pair with one stay-at-home defenseman and one skilled, puck-moving defenseman. Pittsburgh has that in the current setup.

Amazingly there is little drop off from the team's top defensive pair to its third pair. Which means the club will have the luxury of evenly distributing minutes and keeping their blueliners fresh throughout the season. 

Dumoulin-Letang

Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang will no doubt be the team's top unit. They'll hop over the boards at every opportunity and log a majority of the ice time. Though the Pens don't try to match lines, they do like to get Dumoulin-Letang on the ice against the opposing team's big guns as often as possible. 

Dumoulin is the Pens' most consistent defender. He's reliable, steady and always makes the right play. Dumoulin isn't flashy or dynamic, but he is solid - as solid as it gets. 

The biggest question surrounding Letang every year is his health. He played in 79 games last season following offseason neck surgery. It was a remarkable feat for Letang, but even he admitted that he wasn't quite himself due to the injury. Now Letang has had a full offseason to recover and looks ready to reclaim his spot as one of the NHL's best players on the blue line. 

Maatta-Johnson

Johnson was the Pens' big free agent acquisition. There's a lot to like about his game. Johnson is a hybrid. He's huge, strong as an ox, will clear the crease and block a lot of shots. What's amazing is that as big as Johnson is, he's still a remarkably swift skater and playmaker. With the tutelage of assistant coach Sergei Gonchar, Johnson should really excel in the Pens' system. 

Olli Maatta is the grizzled "young" veteran. Maatta played in five NHL seasons and won two Stanley Cups before his 24th birthday. He's still very young and has a lot of room to grow, but his experience is invaluable. 

Oleksiak-Schultz

Justin Schultz's skillset is well known. He has an excellent breakout pass, good vision and a bomb of a shot. He will also see time on the team's power-play units as the quarterback, a role that suits him perfectly. Schultz plays his best hockey in the 18- to 21-minute range. If the Pens can do an even distribution of minutes it will benefit everyone. 

Jamie Oleksiak is the muscle in the lineup. At 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, Oleksiak is hands down the biggest and strongest player on the team. He will deliver some jarring hits and is willing to drop the gloves. Oleksiak's presence alone could be a deterrent to any questionable conduct from opponents. 

DEPTH

Derek Grant will be the team's 13th forward. He's another versatile player, a natural center that can also play wing. If needed, Grant could easily slide into any line at any of the three positions. 

Riikola was the breakout star of training camp. The 24-year-old Fin can do it all. On the defensive side he is strong positionally, has a good stick and can even be physical. On the other end, Riikola has a strong shot and a great ability to get the puck on net through traffic. He's also an excellent passer. Riikola won't do any one thing that blows you away, but he is a total package. 

Chad Ruhwedel flew under the radar, but don't count him out. He's been a very serviceable defenseman for the Pens over the past two seasons. Ruhwedel went through long stretches of being a healthy scratch, but was able to jump right into the lineup without missing a beat. That's a rare find, and the Pens are lucky to have Ruhwedel. 

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