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Penguins

Mark Madden: Mike Sullivan likes balanced lines, but it might not work for these Penguins

| Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, 6:33 p.m.
Jake Guentzel has exceled when playing on a line with Sidney Crosby.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Jake Guentzel has exceled when playing on a line with Sidney Crosby.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan won Stanley Cups in each of the past two seasons. It's clear which of his championship teams Sullivan prefers.

His 2015-16 squad had amazing balance up front thanks to the phenomenon of the “HBK” line: Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. Ostensibly the Penguins' third line, its members combined for 20 goals in 24 playoff games. Sold a lot of T-shirts, too.

Sullivan wants to replicate that balance now. It begins with putting his star forwards on different lines: Kessel, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

But does Sullivan have enough complementary personnel?

The “H” in “HBK” is still a Penguin. But Hagelin isn't the same player.

Hagelin isn't in a slump. Hagelin has stopped scoring. He has just two goals and four assists in 43 games and hasn't netted in 16 games.

Hagelin and Patric Hornqvist were centered by Malkin when the Penguins edged Boston, 6-5, in overtime Sunday. Hagelin's speed and forecheck duly noted, is there a logical reason for a winger with two goals to skate with Malkin, one of hockey's best offensive talents and playmakers?

Hornqvist's physicality helps. He's no great fit for Malkin, who so frequently attacks off the rush. But Hornqvist is a legit top-six winger.

Malkin scored twice Sunday. But his first goal was set up by Crosby on the power play, his second by Kessel to end three-on-three OT.

Crosby toiled between two rookies, Daniel Sprong and Dominik Simon.

Sprong, a second-round pick in the 2015 draft, is a finisher of pedigree: 18 goals in 29 games with the Penguins' Wilkes-Barre/Scranton affiliate this season and 117 goals in 199 Major Junior games.

It's easy to see Sprong and Crosby clicking, like when Crosby assisted both of Sprong's goals in a 4-0 win at the New York Islanders on Friday.

Sprong surely isn't afraid to pull the trigger: Witness 18 shots in five games since being summoned to the Penguins.

Simon is a ham-and-egger. Crosby should accelerate Sprong's progress. But Simon figures to be a minimal part of the mix.

Jake Guentzel would be a terrific winger for Crosby and Sprong. But lack of a legit third-line center has combined with Sullivan's desire for scoring balance to stick Guentzel at center between Kessel and Conor Sheary.

That line has talent. But it has no physicality. It isn't at all difficult to play against, unlike a traditional third line.

The lineup discussed has produced 10 goals in the last two games. That includes six five-on-five tallies, valuable currency with the Penguins these days. Crosby, who had been struggling, erupted for seven points in those two games, and that counts more than anything.

The Penguins power play has kept the team's collective head above water to date, converting a league-best 26.6 percent of the time.

Sullivan's quest for balance is understandable.

“We like the balance, especially when we have our top players on the three different lines,” Sullivan said. “It makes us harder to play against.”

That's true. In the current incarnation, at least one of the Penguins' top three lines gets a favorable matchup most shifts. Opposing strategy gets spread thin.

But two of those top three lines have a gratuitous weak link. Bryan Rust and Carter Rowney solve little when they return from injury. Guentzel seems a stop-gap in the middle and is most effective on Crosby's flank.

So unless GM Jim Rutherford makes a trade that doesn't seem to be out there, Sullivan likely will have to revisit last year's model, which often put Malkin with Kessel, Crosby with Guentzel and iced a weaker bottom six.

That team won a Stanley Cup, too.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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