When Mike Johnston was first hired as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins last June, he talked about the team’s strength being down the middle and how their puck-possession system would be centered (no pun intended) around that.
But with all of the injuries/illnesses the Penguins dealt with during the first half of the year, Johnston wasn’t able to use that three-center model as much as he would have liked.
Instead, he played Evgeni Malkin on the left wing with both Sidney Crosby and Brandon Sutter for stretches to create more offense, something the coaching staff felt the team needed with their lack of depth.
The acquisition of David Perron from Edmonton last week addressed that issue and has allowed the Penguins to return Malkin to his natural position.
“(Perron is) a proven 20-plus goal scorer in the league, so that’s positive, especially when we have (Patric) Hornqvist, (Pascal) Dupuis and (Blake) Comeau out of the lineup,” Johnston said. “That was important because now we can balance out our centers. We can run with the three centers as we wanted to. We don’t have to double up on a line.
“I think everybody knows that ideally, we’d like to have those three centers. Whenever we can run with the three centers and with (Marcel Goc), he’s such a valuable guy in behind that, then that’s our strength. And we have to play to our strength.”
Before skating alongside Crosby for a couple of games, Malkin had spent the most time on Sutter’s left wing.
“It was good,” Sutter said of centering a player of Malkin’s caliber, adding with a smile, “It was different than guys I’ve ever played with, that’s for sure. He’s obviously very talented, he always wants the puck so when you don’t get it to him, he gets a little bit frustrated. But he just wants the puck; wants to make plays and you definitely spend a fun amount of time in the offensive zone. So it was pretty fun playing with him.
“But now we’re back to ‘Sid,’ ‘Geno’ and myself and it’s good,” Sutter continued. “We all play quite a bit of minutes; we just kind of spread it out pretty equal.”
Now that those three are back in the middle, the next step is finding them consistent combinations on their wings. As Penguins are still without Dupuis, Hornqvist and Comeau – all players who were thriving in top-six roles before getting sidelined due to injuries – the coaches have been mixing and matching their linemates game-to-game to see if they can find something that works.
“They’re obviously trying to find different chemistry with different guys,” Sutter said. “I’m sure they had a plan at the start of the year of who they wanted to play with whom, but injuries and whatnot really affect that. That’s just normal, that’s just part of the game. Injuries happen every year, so unfortunately we’ve had a tough string of it here. But I think it’s an opportunity for certain guys to play with guys they’re not used to playing with, and hopefully find some good clicks here and there.”
It’s somewhat of an adjustment for Crosby and Malkin, who hadn’t dealt with this much inconsistency before. Before last season, Chris Kunitz and Dupuis were mainstays on Crosby’s wings, while Malkin played all of last year with Jussi Jokinen and James Neal.
“I think that everyone knows their role, so I think that you just have to go out there and play your game regardless of who it’s with,” said Crosby, who’s played the last few games with Perron and Steve Downie. “Obviously, depending on the line you’re with, you may play in different situations or the minutes might change a little bit. But I think other than that, everyone’s role is pretty constant. So I think just understanding that and just trying to find out little things you can about the guy you’re playing with, but for the most part, just play your own game.”
Malkin’s had the most changes when it comes to linemates. In the Penguins’ last game on Wednesday against Boston, he skated with Nick Spaling and Beau Bennett. The game before that, he was with Spaling and Bryan Rust, and the game before THAT, Malkin played with Rust and Andrew Ebbett.
Malkin admitted to being nervous entering each game with new wingers and said “it’s tough to change every game with a new linemate,” but it certainly doesn’t look that way on the ice. He’s had the Midas touch lately when it comes to setting his wingers up.
“I thought Geno’s been good in the last several games, but he’s been pretty consistent the whole year whether he’s playing wing or center,” Johnston said. “He’s got a great work ethic, and when he’s got the puck he usually makes good things happen. I didn’t think he was forcing plays as much as he was for a while there lately. I thought he’s been making good decisions, protecting the puck when he needs to.”
Sutter’s more used to having revolving doors on his wings, as we’ve lost track of how many different guys he’s played with the last couple of seasons.
“There’ll still be a lot more combinations, I’m sure,” Sutter laughed. “So with injuries, you never know what’s going to happen. I’ve had a chance to play with a few different guys. We’ve had a few different centermen, too, so it’s been a lot of different looks but it’s always kind of nice to change things up a little bit too.”