Mike Sullivan experimenting with different line combinations in Penguins training camp
Sixteen days before the Penguins open the regular season, winger Bryan Rust doesn't know where his number will appear on the lineup card or who his linemates will be when the St. Louis Blues come to town Oct. 4.
He's not exactly biting his fingernails to the nubs about it.
“I think it's fun,” Rust said after practice Monday morning. “For me, I still play the same game. Still go north-south, still play hard, still get in on the forecheck. Just maybe a little tweak here or there when I'm playing with certain guys.”
Rust is hardly alone in his lineup uncertainty.
Through the first four days of training camp, coach Mike Sullivan has put together two pairs of forwards that likely will stay together for the long haul. There's Evgeni Malkin with Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby with Jake Guentzel.
“It's nice to get those combinations,” Crosby said. “Usually when the combinations stay the same, that means you're winning games. Hopefully that's the case. It's just a matter of whoever you're with for the short period of time before the season starts, generating as much chemistry as you can.”
Beyond the top two pairs, though, it's been a game of 52-pickup.
For example, the first 10 minutes of Monday's intrasquad scrimmage were dominated by a line of Gage Quinney, a 21-year-old center who was a point-per-game performer for the Wheeling Nailers last season, Thomas Di Pauli, a promising 23-year-old left wing who missed most of last year in the AHL because of injuries, and heavyweight right wing Ryan Reaves.
There are several good reasons for the bingo-hopper approach Sullivan has taken so far.
For one, winger Patric Hornqvist, who will play a prominent role among the top nine forwards, is out with a hand injury. For another, there remains uncertainty about a third-line center spot that could be filled via trade at a moment's notice.
The most important reason, though, is that the first week of training camp is a perfect time to experiment with all sorts of combinations. That way, when injuries strike at midseason and the lineup is thrown into chaos, players might have some experience with the new linemates fate gives them.
“For a guy like myself, I gotta try to build chemistry with almost everyone,” said Rust, who has been skating with Conor Sheary and rookie center Adam Johnson. “It's trying to learn the new guys' games and also trying to stay in touch with the guys I already know. Try to see which guys I can mesh with and which things I can do better when I play with certain guys.”
If Sullivan needs any help constructing more permanent lines as camp rolls on, he might consider asking Rust for advice. Because he has played all up and down the lineup in his two previous seasons with the Penguins, he has a good idea of what it takes to click with the team's regular centermen.
Rust on playing with Crosby: “With Sid, he likes to give you that little pass and play the give-and-go game. Try to get up and down the ice.”
On playing with Malkin: “It's similar to Sid, but it's more about trying to give him space. Geno likes to make plays in space. It's work hard, go to the net and give him space.”
On playing with potential third-line center Carter Rowney: “Work hard. Little bit more blue collar. A little bit more grind in the corners. Try to be a three-man unit all over the ice and use that to our advantage.”