Penguins leaning on young wingers for playoff push |
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Jonathan Bombulie

Veterans Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist are in scoring slumps. Bryan Rust is injured. Carl Hagelin and his replacement, Tanner Pearson, have been traded away.

On the wings, as they battle in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race, the Pittsburgh Penguins have placed their fate in the hands of a handful of players under age 25.

Jake Guentzel, Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Simon and Teddy Blueger were born within three months of each other in the late summer and early fall of 1994. Jared McCann came along a little less than two years later.

The Penguins will need contributions from all of them, whether large or small, to be serious contenders for a championship in 2019.

Guentzel already is contributing at an extraordinarily high level. This season, among NHL wingers under 25, only Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat (37) has more goals than Guentzel (34).

“What he did is pretty crazy, the way he came into the league and the way his playoffs have gone,” Aston-Reese said.

Guentzel is a rare breed, of course. Most young wingers have to work at becoming consistent offensive contributors.

Among the Penguins under that umbrella, McCann is probably the furthest along.

McCann was a junior hockey scoring star, but he was cast in a bottom-six center role during most of his first three NHL seasons in Vancouver and Florida. He’s now starting to flourish as a top-six winger with the Penguins. He’s got five goals in his last seven games.

“Coming from the OHL, I was always the power-play guy,” McCann said. “I’ve had to learn a different role and become a different player. Obviously, that’s going to take time. I feel like I’m becoming more of an all-around player. I’m ready to be put in any situation. It’s good.”

Simon’s case is the most confounding. Teammates rave about his skill level and work ethic, but it hasn’t translated on the stat sheet. Simon has no goals and five assists in his last 18 games.

“Put a lot of pucks on the net, for sure. That’s where it starts,” Simon said, outlining his plan to snap out of his drought. “Simplify your game, then you can build up on it. I feel pretty good right now. Let’s see how it goes.”

As the 2017 NCAA scoring champ, Aston-Reese has the pedigree to produce in the NHL. His career total of 12 goals in 59 games in the league indicates his arrow is pointing in the right direction.

Injuries have stunted his growth, however. For instance, he left Sunday night’s 4-2 Penguins win over Boston with a lower-body injury and his status is uncertain heading into a matchup with the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night.

After Aston-Reese left, Blueger moved up into his spot on the second line. Blueger was considered a defensive center as he made his way up the prospect ladder, but a crafty style of play and three goals in his first eight NHL games have given rise to the idea that he might be able to score at the game’s highest level.

To coach Mike Sullivan, the fact all five young wingers are at different stages in their development curve as scorers is instructive. The coach believes consistent scoring at the NHL level is a skill a young player can hone and improve upon.

“Some nights, you have your legs and you feel great. Other nights, maybe you don’t have your legs and you’ve got to manage your game,” Sullivan said. “How do you play an efficient, smart game so that you still have the ability to have a positive influence to help your team win?

“Those are things, the only way you can learn those is through experience, by being part of those situations and then watching guys like (Sidney) Crosby and some of our other veteran guys that understand it. I just think that’s part of the learning process for all young players.”

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