Mark Madden: Penguins’ Dominik Simon will force way into lineup |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Penguins’ Dominik Simon will force way into lineup

Mark Madden
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins forward Dominik Simon plays against the Blue Jackets Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins forward Dominik Simon plays against the Blue Jackets Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019 at PPG Paints Arena.

Dominik Simon’s role with this year’s Penguins isn’t yet determined.

But one thing seems certain: Simon will have one.

Last season was the Czech-born winger’s first full NHL campaign. He had eight goals, 20 assists and a plus-8 mark in 71 games. Simon didn’t score in his last 14 games. He had one goal in his last 35 games. His shooting percentage was a meager 6.6.

Those numbers are rotten.

But those also are numbers that don’t seem to count anymore.

Simon is a fancy-stats wonder. When he’s on the ice, the Penguins’ shot rate, scoring-chance rate and goal rate go through the roof. That goes for and against. Metrics suggest he increases the efficiency of every teammate he skates with.

Simon should be in the top six and centered by Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin — as long as you don’t mind he’s almost never going to score.

Simon’s statistics are a remarkable contradiction.

Compounding the situation is the belief in Simon within the Penguins locker room and coaching office is fervent enough to found a religion.

Crosby and Kris Letang speak reverently about Simon’s skill. Coach Mike Sullivan disagreed vehemently when I questioned Simon’s value.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe top-six wingers need to put the puck in the net more than Simon does, especially given the Penguins’ centers. Heck, I think bottom-six wingers should score more than Simon does.

The Penguins aren’t married to analytics. They’re a side dish, not the main course.

If the Penguins put analytics first, Simon would be top six, period — until he didn’t score for two months. Metrics are doubtless used to prop up Simon internally.

Right now, Simon is practicing on the fourth line, splitting shifts at wing with Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Kahun (who has plummeted down the depth chart since starting training camp on Crosby’s wing). Simon also has spent a bit of time at center, reflecting both a good performance at that position for the Czech Republic at last spring’s IIHF World Championships in Slovakia and the Penguins’ zest for shoehorning him into the lineup.

Simon had four goals and eight assists in 10 games for the Czechs. No word on his fancy stats. When you get on the scoresheet a lot, those don’t come up as much.

In other depth-chart news, the Penguins can’t decide whether they want Brandon Tanev to be Chris Kunitz or Carl Hagelin.

Tanev was an effective bottom-six winger at Winnipeg before signing with the Penguins on July 1. But he has skated on Crosby’s line and Malkin’s line at camp, likely an attempt to justify the extravagant investment made (six years, $21 million).

But Tanev is fast and physical, which invokes the Kunitz vibe on Crosby’s line. Tanev is a straight-line player and defensively responsible, which invokes the Hagelin vibe on Malkin’s line. Tanev doesn’t score much: 14 goals last season was his career best.

If the Penguins are determined to use Tanev to go back to the future, Malkin’s line seems a better match. Tanev isn’t productive enough to mimic Kunitz, though his presence would make Crosby work down low more and attack off the rush less. (That’s good.) Tanev also would lessen Crosby’s physical burden below the hash marks.

Whatever is decided will be temporary. Sullivan uses pairs up front, not lines. Crosby and Jake Guentzel will be a pair. So will Malkin and Alex Galchenyuk. The other winger on those lines figures to be a rotating cast.

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