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Penguins

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan hones craft of line-building

Jonathan Bombulie
| Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, 6:53 p.m.
Penguins assistant coach Mark Recchi talks with head coach Mike Sullivan on the bench during the  Sabres game  in the second period Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 at PPG Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins assistant coach Mark Recchi talks with head coach Mike Sullivan on the bench during the Sabres game in the second period Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017 at PPG Arena.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan talks with the first power play before a penalty against the Sabres in the second period Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan talks with the first power play before a penalty against the Sabres in the second period Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins' Jake Guentzel brings the puck up the ice in front of the Bruins' Sean Kuraly during the first period Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, in Boston.
The Penguins' Jake Guentzel brings the puck up the ice in front of the Bruins' Sean Kuraly during the first period Friday, Nov. 24, 2017, in Boston.

When an injury to Evgeni Malkin forced Penguins coach Mike Sullivan to juggle his line combinations last month, he first tried Jake Guentzel at center between Bryan Rust and Phil Kessel. After that experiment lasted one game, he went with Riley Sheahan centering Guentzel and Kessel.

Before a game against Philadelphia, he explained why he decided on that trio.

“Well, I think it was more about putting Jake in the best position to do what he does,” Sullivan began, kicking off a soliloquy that lasted 58 seconds and included 126 more words.

The gist was the switch would free Guentzel from two-way responsibilities and play to Sheahan's strengths as the defensive conscience of the line.

Whatever his reasoning, it was clear that Sullivan and the coaching staff had thought long and hard about the personnel grouping before bringing it to the ice.

That's not unusual. NHL coaches are known to spend many of their waking hours drawing up imaginary lines and defense pairs, scrawling them on the back pages of in-flight magazines and bar napkins all over the continent.

“It's part of our job,” Sullivan said. “We all do it.”

Columbus coach John Tortorella, Sullivan's longtime friend and colleague, thinks they're more or less wasting their time.

“It's a bunch of (B.S.),” he said recently in classic Tortorella fashion. “I get a kick out of us as coaches. We talk about this, that, the other thing. This is what I'm looking for. It's a bunch of (B.S.). We try things. If it works, it works.”

Tortorella is hardly alone in that opinion. There are plenty in hockey circles who feel that, despite the best-laid plans of coaches, trial and error is the only proven way to form line combinations.

Some in the Penguins locker room feel that way.

“Some guys work well together, and some guys don't,” Rust said. “You can have one of the best passers in the game with one of the best finishers, and if they don't mesh, they don't mesh. I'm on the side of if guys play well together, they play well together.”

There are opposing viewpoints, too, of course.

Analytics fans would prefer combinations be determined by math, and with detailed stats available at the click of a mouse, they probably have a point.

Want to know which Penguins trio has produced the most shots per minute this season? It's Guentzel, Malkin and Kessel. Want to know which line combination has allowed the fewest goals? It's Sidney Crosby centering Guentzel and Rust. It would be foolish to ignore those facts.

Traditionalists take a slightly different tact. They look at constructing lines like putting together a puzzle. Which skill sets fit the best together? The perfect trio, for instance, probably would have a passer, a shooter and someone to do the dirty work in the corners.

Sullivan prefers to use a combination of all of the above.

First and foremost, he's a puzzle-piece guy, as his discussion of the Guentzel-Sheahan-Kessel line proves.

He's never been known to turn his nose up at analytics either, though, so that obviously influences his judgment.

Ultimately, it's often just a gut feeling.

“It's not a science. It's a little bit of an art,” Sullivan said. “There's human nature involved. Sometimes human nature is unpredictable. For example, you can have a line together that may be dynamic for a period of time, and then all of a sudden, it doesn't work. Is there an explanation for that? I think the explanation is it's human nature.

“That's why I think coaches are always tinkering with their combinations to try to take advantage of the moment and where players are at a particular point in time. That's the art of coaching, as opposed to the science.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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