Shuffling of Penguins’ top lines expected in immediate future
TORONTO — Evgeni Malkin finally is getting his wish.
The center practiced on a line with right wing Patric Hornqvist on Thursday in Toronto, and the duo apparently will skate together Friday against the Maple Leafs.
When the Penguins traded right wing James Neal to Nashville in June for Hornqvist and and fellow winger Nick Spaling, it was widely assumed Malkin would play with Hornqvist.
Even Malkin expected that.
“At the start of the season, I thought I’d play with (Hornqvist), too,” Malkin said. “But coach (Mike Johnston) had a different view.”
Center Sidney Crosby immediately clicked on a line with left wing Chris Kunitz and Hornqvist. The trio has produced 12 even-strength goals in 14 regular-season games.
Malkin, meanwhile, has scored just once at even strength this season while centering a line with left wing Pascal Dupuis and right wing Blake Comeau.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Malkin said. “We played together a little bit in the last game (a 5-0 loss to the Rangers), but it was tough to tell.”
Malkin will play on the second line with Hornqvist and Spaling.
Crosby will center Kunitz and Dupuis, a reliable line for the Penguins that has been one of the NHL’s best during the past three seasons.
Malkin, who missed the preseason with an unknown ailment, insisted he wasn’t upset with the coaching decision to play Crosby and Hornqvist together.
“If he says play center, I will play center,” Malkin said. “If he says I play wing, I will play wing.”
After starting the season on center Brandon Sutter’s right wing, Malkin has played exclusively at center since Oct. 23 in Detroit.
He described Hornqvist and Spaling as “two really good players” and said he looks forward to the change.
So, too, is Dupuis.
Although Dupuis has been effective at both ends this season, he has produced only two even-strength goals and hasn’t displayed much chemistry with Malkin.
Crosby, Kunitz and Dupuis have enjoyed chemistry for years. Dupuis looks forward to the possibility of playing with his former linemates.
“Hopefully, we will (play together),” Dupuis said. “These are players I’m familiar with. I’ve played with Sid more (than Malkin), so I’m comfortable with him.”
Johnston said he wants the Penguins to add to their scoring depth at even strength.
“I wanted to take a look at a few different combinations today,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate with the health of our lineup. You need the flexibility in your lineup as everybody knows.”
When the Penguins acquired Hornqvist, the original plan was for him to play with Malkin. Three years ago, the Penguins traded for Neal with the intent of making him Crosby’s longtime right wing.
However, with Crosby out of the lineup during the beginning of the 2011-12 season, Malkin and Neal developed immediate chemistry and were not separated until Neal’s trade.
Now Malkin has a chance with a new linemate, the guy he was supposed to play with all along.
Hornqvist is a straight-line, shoot-first player. Spaling believes the combination will work.
“He’s a pretty easy guy to play with,” Spaling said of Hornqvist. “You know where he’s going to be.”
Another preseason plan — Sutter playing with Beau Bennett on the third line — also appears in the works.
“We all need to be better, to shoot more,” Dupuis said. “We’ll see how it goes.”