Mark Madden: Penguins 4th line shows value during stretch of injuries |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Penguins 4th line shows value during stretch of injuries

Mark Madden
The Penguins fourth line of Brandon Tanev (center), Teddy Blueger (right) and Zach Aston-Reese (second from right) has played together most of the season.

Mid-decade, the New York Islanders’ forward unit of Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin was dubbed the “best fourth line in hockey” — even though it often played more than their third line. Better to be a great fourth line than an OK third line.

But that line was undeniably effective. It wore you down. It’s still good now.

The Penguins have withstood a plethora of injuries up front. Now, Sidney Crosby reportedly faces surgery for a sports hernia and could be out four to six weeks. Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust have missed significant stretches.

Coach Mike Sullivan has had to shuffle his lineup accordingly. But he nonetheless has kept together a fourth line of Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev. That trio’s energy and persistence have been valuable weapons.

Is it the new “best fourth line hockey?”

Or could Tanev’s assets be better deployed?

Tanev’s ice time (14 minutes, 35 seconds per game) is ninth among Penguins forwards. That figure is boosted by Tanev ranking second in penalty-kill time (1:44 per game).

Tanev signed a six-year deal worth $21 million this past off-season. Is using him on the fourth line reaping enough value for money?

There’s no criticizing Tanev’s play. He’s never going to fill the net. But he may be the NHL’s fastest skater. He is physical and relentless. General manager Jim Rutherford wanted to make the Penguins harder to play against. That’s Tanev’s specialty.

In training camp, Tanev saw time at wing with both Crosby and Malkin. That evoked memories of Chris Kunitz skating with Crosby, and Carl Hagelin with Malkin. Tanev would provide speed to either center, and assume much physicality.

Would Tanev be better used thusly? Would that do more to justify his ticket? That’s somewhat moot with Crosby out. Rust currently fills that role on Malkin’s line, and is doing it well: Five goals in seven games.

Line combinations are liquid. Sullivan mostly deals in duos. But right now, he seems committed to using Aston-Reese, Blueger and Tanev together, often matching that line against the opposition’s better players.

Don’t sleep on Aston-Reese. He can struggle in front of the goal, but his physicality is consistent and methodical: He has 34 hits, third on the Penguins. (Tanev is No. 1 with an improbable 54.) Aston-Reese ranked fourth in hits last year (138) despite playing just 43 games. He makes the Penguins harder to play against.

So does Blueger. His speed and energy combine with that of Tanev and Jared McCann to give the team the same feel it had in 2016 and ’17, when those qualities provided a needed shot in the arm via a series of call-ups from the Penguins’ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton affiliate. There might not be a Jake Guentzel among those three, but resetting that vibe seems significant.

If there’s one criticism of Sullivan to date, it’s not using McCann enough. McCann is versatile, a catalyst, and has 11 points in 16 games, fourth-highest on the team. But he ranks 11th in ice time among forwards (13:59).

Sullivan has done well to mostly roll four lines, though. Every forward is averaging better than 12 minutes. That goes a long way over 82 games.

If Crosby goes under the knife now — which makes more sense than playing hurt, aggravating the injury and needing surgery later in the season — the Penguins will get by. Just as they have survived 47 man-games lost up front en route to their current 10-6-2 mark. Injuries don’t make the Penguins flinch. Never have.

Dominik Simon even has 10 points in 18 games. That won’t challenge for the scoring title. But at least he’s not exclusively analytics.

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