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Mark Madden: Advice for stabilizing Penguins’ lines |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Advice for stabilizing Penguins’ lines

Mark Madden
Penguins’ Derick Brassard (19) celebrates his empty-net goal with Evgeni Malkin (71) as Detroit Red Wings’ Niklas Kronwall (55) skates back to the bench during the third period in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. The Penguins won 5-2.

For linemates, it’s all about fit.

Skating on Sidney Crosby’s line seems like it should be easy. It’s not. It’s like having another coach, except this coach has more power than the real coach. Do what’s specified, and learn to love (tolerate) reviewing every shift on an iPad.

That’s why Jake Guentzel got a five-year, $30 million contract extension — a bit of a bargain for the Penguins, it should be noted.

Compare Guentzel’s pact to what William Nylander got in Toronto: Six years, $45 million. Nylander, 22, has 48 goals in 194 NHL games. Guentzel, 24, has 53 in 159 (and 23 goals in 37 playoff games).

Guentzel netted four times in a playoff contest against Philadelphia last spring. That’s enough to merit a statue, never mind a big payday.

Guentzel is an excellent fit with Crosby. Numbers, eye test — it all computes. Guentzel is a coach’s kid, and it shows.

Bryan Rust hasn’t scored in two games. By his recent standard, that’s a slump. Rust had eight goals in his previous six games. Crosby likes Rust’s speed.

That’s one line accounted for.

The fourth line is composed of leftovers and penalty-killers. Every fourth line is.

So let’s rejoin the never-ending debate, already in progress:

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said he’d prefer to see Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on different lines. Coach Mike Sullivan usually agrees.

It’s easy to be a sucker for those heady days of the “HBK” Line in 2016. They sold T-shirts and everything. (Shawn Michaels never saw a dime.)

It’s also easy to ignore the fluky nature of that line’s playoff explosion.

Nick Bonino (the “B,” you may recall) averaged .75 points per game in those ’16 playoffs. Since signing a four-year, $16.4 million contract in 2017, Bonino has averaged .36 points per game for Nashville.

Good for Bonino. He sold a lot more than just T-shirts.

Third lines rarely produce like that. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying to duplicate what “HBK” did.

The alternative is Malkin and Kessel on the same line. That combination helped win a Cup in ’17. But it didn’t sell T-shirts.

Malkin is struggling mightily, with one even-strength goal since Oct. 30. He’s pressing, trying to stickhandle his way out of his slump. That’s ill-advised.

But Malkin’s problems are nothing to worry about. We’ve seen this movie before, and it always has a happy ending. (Happier, anyway.) Malkin works it out.

Kessel hadn’t scored in four games before netting two beauties in Thursday’s 5-2 home win over Detroit.

Kessel would prefer to skate on Malkin’s line. Malkin has no clear preference. When it comes to linemates, Malkin is the least picky of the Penguins’ stars.

The wild card is Derick Brassard.

Brassard has mostly been rotten since Rutherford acquired him from Ottawa last Feb. 23. Brassard has six goals and five assists in 28 games this season, and too often looks lethargic and unmotivated.

But not when he skates on Crosby’s wing, and not in that win over Detroit.

Brassard not only registered a pulse Thursday, he registered two goals and worked well centering Kessel and Tanner Pearson. For one of the few times since he pulled on a black and gold sweater, Brassard looked like the player Rutherford thought he traded for.

If Brassard proves capable of providing service for Kessel, the dream of ’16 lives on.

If not, trade Brassard and reunite Malkin and Kessel. It’s that simple. Riley Sheahan isn’t the answer. If he is, don’t ask the question.

The Penguins take a four-game winning streak on their three-game road trip. They occupy a playoff berth four points clear of the pursuing pack. They are five points behind Metropolitan Division leader Washington and three points behind second-place Columbus. The situation is stabilizing.

As frustrating as much of the season so far has been for Penguins fans, just accept this is a team of proven champions that knows how to win, and when to start doing it.

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

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